Total Pageviews

Monday, November 17, 2014

All Aboard for Uppsala!

I love to travel. I admit it, I have the travel bug. To get out, take in all that the world has to offer - the good, the bad, the ugly - I just absorb it, feeling relieved, satisfied and rejuvenated. Man, it just feels good and you are ready to take on the world and that is where I was, drinking it all in. And before you ask, it was a total of three trips - one in the US, one to Sweden and one to France. Each different, with a different goal and delivered in a different way and we are going to take them each in their own way.  But we are not going to take them in order, that would be predictable, so we are going to start with Sweden.

Sweden holds a special place for me. Its an ancestral homeland (one among many), the birthplace of my ex-wife Kristina, its the birthplace of my eldest son, Oscar, and its country of my youngest son's citizenship. (Hello, Marcus!) I spent two years trapsing around the Swedish countryside, seeing all that it and its neighbors (Norway, Denmark, Finland, and by extension, Iceland) have to offer. Its like a second home, though I can't say I have ever mastered the language!

Stockholm is my city, but Uppsala is a close second. Uppsala is, first and foremost, a Swedish university town. If it exists in a Swedish university, it exists at Uppsala  and so I had a pretty good feeling we would end up with some good beer. We were not far off - but not in the way I would have expected.

In preparing for the trip, I did a little research to prepare for the adventure. I figured with a population of young, boisterous college students, Uppsala would be host to a few really good craft breweries.  I may even have a shot at interviewing one of the brewers.  I was ready!

When I got there, Kristina suggested that I should hit Systembolegat. Systembolegat (also known as Systemic) is the one and only national liquor store. The grocery stores has Level I and Level II beer, but if you want to have some really good wine, distilled spirits or beer, you have to go to Systemic. So, it was off to the store early in the trip with Oscar and we picked out a few bottles that we felt represented the breadth of Swedish brewing or were just fun on appearance. One even came in a plastic bottle, so I knew we were ready for anything.

After a week of taking Oscar and Marcus around to their activities, (they should have listed a prescribed alcohol intake level, but such was not the case) I was ready to engage the targets of my research.

First on the list was Pistonhead Kustom Lager, produced by Brutal Brewing (4.9% ABV and 33 IBU). It was the initial brew to be tested and it fit the Swedish model. Slightly better than average, but only in the hops used. Mariestad Export by Spendrup Brewing (5.3% ABV) was up next and it lived up to expectation - absolutely nothing. They used to advertise this beer as the spirit of summer but really is horrible fizzy water with a mild taste.

The next evening, though, was a positive turn. My brother in law had read my initial reviews and had suggested I try beers by the Nils Oscar Brewery, notably the Hop Yard and the Belgo Pale Ale. Kristina had read the article too and had gone to Systemic earlier in the day and we split them both. Hop Yard (7.3% ABV) and Belgo Pale Ale (4.4%) rescued a faltering Swedish beer entry. The Hop Yard was a good, solid improvement in the area of hops with lots of flavor.  A good sign was that Kristina liked it, as she is very good on hoppy beer. It reminded her of Dogfish Head 60 Minute and I would say that would be right. The Belgo Pale Ale was more to my speed, less hops, and more carefully brewed taste. The last one we tried that night was a Pistonhead Flat Tire (4.5% ABV, 26 IBU) and that one proved again that the pretty cans (Pistonhead does have nice cans - no pun intended) contain really mediocre beer.

Sunday afternoon and evening were pretty busy.  Dinner with friends is always a big production in Sweden, though the Swedes take it in stride. One the beer menu, I had listed Dead Pony Pale Ale by BrewDog (3.8% ABV and 25 IBU). I know that beer in the can is supposed to be better than beer in the bottle and Dead Pony Pale Ale proved this in spades. It is BETTER, but when compared to the average beer, but not to good beer. The real star here was Nebuchadnezzar by Omnipollo (8.5% ABV and 100 IBU).  This beer just knocked you off of your feet - good brewing and a strong flavor - and asked for more. It was probably the strongest beer I tried all week. The title of this beer is not apparent for someone looking for it - it is hidden on the backside with the ingredients - and the front is a reminiscent flag.

Monday was one of those days that you expect will go one way and end up going completely the other way. I though I would be able to go to the craft breweries, but that just was not in the cards for that day or any day for that matter. When your bank is trying to retrieve its card and does so rather unexpectedly, it kind puts a crimp in your spending habits, and that is what happened to me. So I needed to reassess my purchasing power and the way I spent my money.  However, I still had several bottles and a can of beer and so it was not a total loss. I had a Bombol Bee 17 by Carlsberg Sverige (4.7% ABV and 33 IBU) which turned out to be an excellent beer. Normally Carlsberg Sverige are kind of flat, but this Bombol Bee 17 was really good.  It was also served in a plastic bottle, the only one I encountered, ad I assume it was for serving at a stadium. The Carlsberg Sverige brewery returned to form with the next beer, Carnegie Porter (5.5%) (5.5% ABV and 40 IBU) which was sort of flat and lacking in flavor. It was interesting that this one was in a glass bottle and it suffered from the ills that impact all of the other glass bottled fair, but not the plastic bottle. Got to be something with their machines.  The last one for the evening was the Kung by Abro Bryggeri (5.2% ABV). I knew this one was going to be bad, oh so bad, but I did not realize how bad it really was. It scored one and one half stars and that was being charitable, but it is a big seller, mostly because it is 5.2% ABV and that is plenty to get a lot of people a little bit tipsy.

Finally, its Tuesday, I am going to go out and discover the Uppsala craft beer scene - lots of producers and lots of places serving up unique and intriguing servings. I would take the craft breweries, absorb what they had to offer and then I would venture to the restaurants and those places specializing serving the craft breweries. So out comes the iPhone and I pull up the map showing the all the places serving craft beer. My heart begins to flutter and then ... one.  Uppsala has a lot of things that a university town has - including the university - but it does not have a large craft brewery industry. It has one. One. So, I look up restaurants - it has five. OK, its not strong, but hey, five is better than none, so I plan to go to the one craft brewery and the five restaurants and that should cover me. I am off for what turns out to be a short trip.

I started out searching for craft breweries and my sole target was Slottkallens, Slottkallens is well established and has been around for a while according to my sister-in-law, Helene.  It was not an inviting place, simply because of where it is located. As a matter of fact, I missed it the first time I set out looking for it. It is the one food/beverage ventures that is wedged among several auto body shops.  It also did not have a tasting area or a craft brewing room that I could see. With my time limited, I decided to find some of the restaurants, but they also were few and far between over in the center of town. With about an hour to do everything, you can imagine how much I got done, so I returned with some great pictures, but nothing more.

By the time I arrived home, we had about an hour and a half before the next dinner party, so I made a little time for a Kaltenberg Organic by Konig Ludwig Schlossbrauerei Kaltenberg (4.7% ABV). This was an impressive beer, both because it was an organic and because it was a new brew. Four and a half stars and it was worth every one of them.  This must have been the night for impressive beers because next came the Orange Crush by Amager Bryghus (5% ABV). This was done in cooperation with รง in the US and it had a really interesting taste of oranges. Subtle, this just slips the taste of oranges everywhere, but it does so without being too obvious. We even got a a note from the brewer, which is not that frequent.

The last night for sampling beers was a kind of a let down because Kristina was not there, but I had plenty of help in the form of our two boys. The first sample of beer was a Rokporter by Nils Oscar (5.9% ABV) and it earned a smokey flavored four and a half stars.  It was smooth and thick, but not so much that it interfered with drinking. The two that followed it were kind of disappointing. The first was a Thurbo Stout by Oppigards Bryggeri  (8.7% ABV) which started off well but quickly tailed off. I thought it was me, as I often have problems with even dark beers after a smokey porter, but I could not stop it. The last beer was a Sam Adams Black Lager (4.9% ABV). Now black lagers as I have learned are more black by color than by definiton, so I had hoped that would counter the porter, but it had the opposite effect. The porter pointed to the weaknesses of the black lager rather than the strengths of the porter. I gave both three stars, but the the black lager's three stars are more charitable. (I normally give Sam Adams a higher numbers of stars, but not this time.)

So there you have it, my drinking adventures in Uppsala. Next time, I may do a couple of days in Stockholm to compare to two experiences, but Systemic gave me a good experience of what drinking beer in Sweden is like. It certainly varies with the beer and the breweries. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

A Grey Cloud with Silver Lining - The Adroit Theory Brewing Company

Nothing is ever easy.  Nothing at all.  With all of the fantastic flavors within the Fifty States, we also have to put up the blanket of mediocre taste. Sometimes that mediocre taste is closer to home than we would like to admit; DC, Maryland and Virginia are no exception.  But melancholy taste, does, occasional, turn out to have a silver lining.

I had been working for a while on a three part series on a group of breweries in Prince William and Fauquier Counties - Heritage Brewing Company, Bad Wolf Brewery and Old Bust Head Brewing Company. This is a group of breweries I had heard a few good things about and decided to investigate them more fully during DC's Craft Beer Week.

Old Bust Head Brewing Company leads the group - modern, comfortable, relaxing - on an easy stretch to kick off a late afternoon or early evening after a long day.  Its layout is evenly divided between an ample tasting and dining area and a brewing room. It probably seats 50-75 people and is rather full on a Friday and Saturday nights. The tasting room is also supported by an exterior seating area, which gives its an additional 20 seats. The brewery is in the rest of the developed space but it appears to be rather substantial, given the number of beers on tap. The total number of taps is roughly 10 beer with samplers of four.  However, as I discovered, the beer is rather the downfall. It is OK, but nothing really sets it apart. I had sampled the English Pale Ale, the Wildcat, the Old Jail Pumpkin Ale, and Old Imperial Gold Cup and found them good but ultimately wanting.  Nothing really set these beer apart, not even themselves, and that becomes a common theme among these breweries.

Heritage Brewery Company is next up. Great effort here on all front, especially recycling, but again, the beer is short. From the counters to the beer lights, to the water recycling used to bring life to the beer, this operation has all the hallmarks of an operation that will, in my opinion, be the one who makes their mark in the craft beer world. The real question is though, can this life be carried over to the actual brewing of the beer or will it fall short.  After an 8 sample run through of beer (7 regular serving and 1 barrel aged) , which in retrospect is probably a bit much, I was undecided about the quality of the beer.  The beer was just not that good and that is sad for a beer that is run through a fairly complex fermentation process. The barrel aged as great, but I have come to expect that.  The rest were just kind of OK. Not bad, but OK.  (When I got to try them in the context of the Virginia Craft Brewers a week later, the barrel aged was again the acceptable one and the others seemed worse, not better.) So again, great place, nice surrounding, just OK beer.

Bad Wolf Brewing Company gets a pass in this round because I did not go there.

For the most part, they are just OK.  They have the IDEA of what they want to be and the beer they wish to serve, but their idea and its realization are on two different levels. The Old Bust Head Brewing Company has a very good understanding of what they will need to do both in terms of their tasting room and the amount of beer they will need to make available, but it is really a question of whether they have put the two together. They understand what a brewery is and what a brewery can become but they have not really put the two together.  They have a nice seating area, but when it comes down to it, their beer is just not living up to their potential. The Heritage Brewing Company is taking things just a little bit slower, and I would say more judicious, but they need to focus on the beer itself and getting it knocked into shape. Its just rather bland and one or two above average brews but that is not enough in the growing marketplace that both brewers find themselves. They lack the overall outstanding character of a true standout place.

You don't need to be big or have nice seating as much as you need good beer, a wide range of good taste and different flavors of beer. That is one advantage that brew pubs and importers of good beer, such as Churchkey and Meridian Pint, have and that is they can switch up their brews when things change. The Old Bust Head Brewing Company and Heritage Brewing Company can sell their beer now, but what will it be in a year or two?

So, when I opened the email on Friday morning, I noticed a piece from a friend who wanted to know whether I was planning to do an article on breweries as there was one appearing courtesy of the Washington Post.  I clipped on the link and I was floored: here were the three breweries I was planning to do:  Old Bust Head Brewing Company, Heritage Brewing Company and Bad Wolf Brewing Company.  I quickly skimmed to article and did not know what I wanted to do. I put the paper down and went about my chores for the day. But I didn't stop thinking about it - how do I step up to the Washington Post and their Weekend Session review of the three breweries..

The next day I was finishing up some chores and heading out from the Springfield Town Center when it hit me - I could do breweries from the northern part of my search area and work my way down to the south.  Abandon the two breweries was a lot of work, but I needed to get out from this Washington Post story. I knew of one brewery that I had heard some really good things about, so I raced home, gathered my camera and laptop, and set off to find Purcellville, VA.

The Adroit Theory Brewing Company has the rich flavor of beer which is the hallmark of a fine establishment.  Wind blowing, I found it in a office park and ventured in. I immediately recognized this place for what it was - an oasis. The seating area was full, not plush and I sauntered up to the bar.  The place was bubbling with excitement for a Saturday night and this energy never went away. I stayed there for 3 hours, marveling at the excitement and the "move them in, move them out" traffic that ensued. After finding a seat, I ordered a Zero - a coffee flavored IPA, and engaged with service staff and the people. Yes, the people responded to my question just like I was anybody. At Heritage Brewing Company, I was occupied by the sales manager and Old Bust Head Brewing Company it was less than that. People were friendly, engaging, and talkative. The place took on a light and airy environment. This is what I had been searching for so long.

After my Zero, I ordered a group of four samples, 3 oz each, of the samples still left on the menu. The El Dorado, the Squash Blossom, the Experimental - Lavender and the Legion - Red Wine Barrel Aged Belgian Stout were what was on the menu and provided the breadth of the experience the brewery sought on its audience. They were delicious, each being a unique take on what the brewer saw as a different take on the environment. The El Dorado was the most straight-laced single malt to date. The Squash Blossom  was exactly the opposite, bold and fruity but not dominantly so. The last two, the Experimental - Lavender and the Legion provided the most fuel for debate. The Experimental - Lavender will creep up on you, slowly winding around your taste buds with ever more lavender flavor until with it finally disappeared. The Legion, which you could have with a steak, assaulted your taste buds, ending with a red wine flavored charge. Three layers of taste, each different, and each necessary. I was so impressed with the Legion that I actually brought a bottle home and I am saving it for a special occasion.

This was it,  I had found my perfect little brewery.  The Adroit Theory Brewing Company made me stand up and take count of me as a beer drinker.  It was not sensing little differences in the brews, such as Old Bust Head Brewing Company and Heritage Brewing Company were forcing us to go through with the promise of something big at the end, it was forcing me, no, luring me, to take that adventure with each change of the glass. This is what makes drinking beer great, never knowing what is in the next swig, assured it is great, but never tied to it.  Adventure is just another glass away and the Adroit Theory Brewing Company will take you there.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Back from the Wild Side With A Bit of Gusto

Well, suffice it to say, it has been a long time in coming. In May, 2013, I said that we would be coming to you once a month.  Then in June, I thought, well, maybe we would be there once every two months, and before you know it, its May, 2014 and I haven't delivered a thing.  Lots going on in my life, some of it going well, some of it not so well, but all of it contributing to the greater good. Now its October 15, 2014, things have settled down and its time to put my stake in the ground. Let's party!

I haven't been delinquent in my follow up, but it certainly hasn't been for a lack of follow-up! There has certainly been quite a bit in the beer world to take stock. The work week has extended itself to where there are more weekend festivals than the average guy can accommodate - and that is good! The number of breweries has exploded in the National Capital Area and more are set up to move onto the scene and that is good as well. Not to mention the microbrewery and home brewery efforts of many of you and the world of variety that has introduced. The future seems bright and its not about to dull anytime soon. This is all good.

What I have been keeping up with is my account on Untappd, the iOS beer app available on the iPhone. As of today, I have 886 distinct beers and 188 total badges attributed to me.  Its pretty good, if I do say so myself. Its been fun to do and I think my experiences over the last few weeks have really improved with the entries. Of course, my feedback from my followers is what really tempers that, but I know some of you are followers of that blog as well.

So with all of that evidence of a brewing culture gurgling up to the top, I have jumped back into the fray with gusto. Hang on, its going to be a wild ride.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Long Side of Forever: Waiting to Depart Portland

Getting on the plane in Portland in order to get to Denver via Chicago and we have wait out a series of storms. It's always the way of dealing with the Midwest, but it does not make it any less frustrating. All we can do is wait and run, wait and run.