Slow Motion Neighborhood Pub Crawl

March is birthday month chez Dr. Dave, since three of the four of us have our birthdays in the span of less than two weeks, which has meant a couple of fun dinners out. In addition, son G and I spent a weekend home alone (Dr. Mrs. Dr. Dave and son S having skipped town for better weather and a family wedding in Arizona) which left me in a non-cooking frame of mind. Yet another celebration was with colleagues who were more than ready for the start of spring break. Each of these occasions took me to a neighborhood establishment with a pleasantly surprising beer selection, so join me on a tour of three establishments along the north-south axis of my neighborhood.

Two birthday dinners were celebrated at our new local franchise of  Flatbread Pizza.  They are in the shadow of our local Ivy League university in a prime location that had lain dormant for years after a popular Cal-Ital restaurant unexpectedly closed its doors.  Flatbread Pizza specializes in “natural” and locally sourced ingredients, with lots of vegetarian selections and organic ingredients.  They also give back to the community by donating a portion of every Tuesday’s proceeds to local non-profit organizations, so we are happy to support them.  The beer selection reflects the bias toward organic and local ingredients, so during the first visit on a quiet Sunday night I tried the Peak Organic (from Portland, ME) IPA.IMG_0232 (The Wolaver’s label on the glass in the photo is a decoy, though that organic beer from VT is also on the menu at Flatbread.)  This was a nice crisp IPA that went nicely with our pesto, tomato, and fresh mozzarella pizza.

On our return visit (a much busier Saturday), I went really local with Pawtucket-based Foolproof Brewing Company’s “Backyahd” IPA.  (Obviously pronounced with a southern New England urban accent.)  Foolproof has been in operation for a few years, and one of their selling points is their use of cans rather than bottles.  (I still prefer bottles, but maybe that’s just bad memories of canned beer from my younger days clouding my judgment.) IMG_0234This was a draft beer–the decoy in this photo is the bottle from son G’s root beer–so no bottle vs. can issues, but I wasn’t as impressed as I had been with the Peak Organic.  Even so, it was a fun evening and the pizza was particularly interesting–the red cubes on the bottom pizza are beets, and the pizza also featured feta cheese and tiny sprouts of arugula (if I understood the server correctly).

Traveling a few blocks north, I joined several colleagues on the Friday before spring break at Tortilla Flats.  As you would expect for a Mexican-themed bar and restaurant, the primary focus is on margaritas and other tequila-based cocktails and the secondary focus is on Mexican beers such as Corona and Pacifica.  That said, even though spring is theoretically on its way, the weather here isn’t yet inviting me to enjoy anything that would be served with a lime.  Fortunately, the draft selections included some choices that I thought better suited the weather here and I ended up settling on Sierra Nevada’s Ruthless Rye, an early spring seasonal offering.  I’m continuing to try and figure out exactly what rye does for the flavor of a beer–the Sierra Nevada website suggests black pepper and similar spices–but regardless of the particulars, this was a nice beer for a cold but sunny late winter afternoon.

Another mile to the north, the final stop on this tour is Hope Street Pizza and Family Restaurant.  Although you can’t tell from the outside, this is really more of a Greek restaurant of a type I’ve encountered in other corners of the world: paper placemats printed with ads for other local businesses, lots of traditional Greek food, plus pizza, pasta, and other Italian standards.  Not elegant, not a lot of ambience, but also not expensive, so you get what you pay for.  Son G and I opted for pizza with sausage and peppers, and I was pleasantly surprised by a nicely varied beer selection, from which I chose the Heavy Seas Loose Cannon IPA3.  Heavy Seas is from Baltimore and their distinguishing features include a pirate/nautical theme to their labeling along with lots of big flavors.  I also feel like I get hints of their pushing a slightly higher than usual alcohol content, but maybe that’s just me? Loose Cannon is their flagship triple-hopped IPA which is pretty widely available and usually shows up in their “Sunken Sampler” mix packs.

I seem to be getting fixated on IPA’s lately, though the current batch of beers in the house has more of an emphasis on winter beers.  I’m curious about how my preferences might change as the weather warms up and the selection in the stores shifts to summery beers.  For now, these four bring the count here at the blog to 37, and spring break should leave me time for another entry in the not-too-distant future.  Cheers!

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Mass Market or Craft Brew?

This question comes up because the beer selection at home for the last couple of weeks has been the Sam Adams Spring Brews mix pack.  Sam Adams (or the Boston Beer Company) is an interesting case because they are a national brand with a slice of the overall market big enough that, while you might be able to see it on a pie chart, is dwarfed by the truly large breweries like Anheuser-Busch and Molson Coors (each of which owns a few boutique labels and shares distributors with and/or owns a stake in still other small breweries).  On the other hand, Sam Adams is at least three times larger than the #2 volume U.S. craft brewer (Sierra Nevada) and is roughly 20 times larger than what the industry defines as a microbrewery.  (The scientist in me wants to rank them as a millibrewery, and I suppose that would put home brewers somewhere on the scale of nano- or picobrewery.)  I have heard that some beer aficionados consider Sam Adams to have outgrown the category of craft brewery or dismiss them as just another large brewery.  My take, however, is that they fill an interesting niche in the beer universe by being an accessible entry point leading from the black and white Kansas of traditional American lagers into the glorious Technicolor® Oz of the current craft beer landscape.

Some fact and figures to support this picture.  Total U.S. beer consumption in 2012 was around 200 million barrels.  Nearly half of that was from Anheuser-Busch, including 19% under the Bud Light label alone.  Other single labels with a sizable market share include Coors Light (9%), Budweiser (8%), Miller Lite (7%), Natural Light (4%), and Corona (3%–that’s an awful lot of limes!)  All craft beers together account for around 13 million barrels or 6.5%, and Boston Beer Company produces nearly a quarter of that total at something just shy of 3 million barrels, which if it were all under a single label would be getting close to the market share of Corona.

Part of what keeps Sam Adams in the craft brew category, despite their size, is that they were at the forefront of the craft brew movement and clearly remain committed to producing a high quality product.  The fact that their beers are widely available is a nice plus–I can almost always count on a restaurant with draft beer having Sam Adams, often either the lager or the ale plus the current seasonal selection.  The other piece is that they take pride in producing a wide variety of beers, some year-round and some seasonal, some meant to appeal to a wide audience and some clearly intended for a tiny niche (or for people like me who are actively seeking out a little variety).  As a result, I pick up one of their mix packs fairly frequently in search of something a little different or just to have a selection of beers in the house to choose from depending on my mood (and maybe what’s on the menu for dinner).

The spring mix pack had six beers, a couple of which were new to me.  The Boston Lager is their widely distributed flagship beer, a nicely flavorful version of a standard American lager.  It seems to me that this is the beer that ought to persuade a Bud Light drinker that beer can be more than a slightly bitter, yellow-colored solution of ethanol and water, and as such I think it serves a useful function, even if it’s merely as a first step into the world of craft beers.   IMG_0229The Irish Red Ale is a pretty obvious nod to St. Patrick’s Day and was probably the least memorable beer in this group.  (Maybe part of what bothers people about Sam Adams is their Madison Avenue approach to marketing–the attitude being that anybody who needs to advertise that much must not have a product good enough to sell itself.  I’m not sure I agree completely, but I can see the point.)  The Maple Pecan Porter was pleasant, though probably still not a beer I would seek out if it weren’t part of a mix pack like this one.  IMG_0228Escape Route is an unfiltered Kölsch which was nice and crisp and one of my favorites from this batch.  Cold Snap is also unfiltered and has the same spice and citrus influences as Blue Moon, but either I’m getting to like these better as I try more of them or this is a better rendition of that style than some of the others I’ve tried. IMG_0227Finally, the Whitewater IPA is part of what they call their “Hopology” series (sometimes you can find a mix pack that features nothing but these beers) and they describe it as a fusion of a Belgian white and an American IPA–I would also consider this one a winner with the solid pine note from the hops that I usually enjoy.

These six now bring the total for the year to 33 and we’re barely into March.  New beers will probably accumulate more slowly for awhile, since during today’s shopping trip economy won out over variety, but I’ll save that story for the next post.  (And maybe there will be enough dinners out to add some interest on top of what’s in the house.)  Cheers!

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A Tale of Three Cities

So my plan was to focus this post on the idea of eating and drinking locally, but I got side-tracked a bit and the “local” connections maybe aren’t as strong as I originally thought, due at least in part to a faulty memory.  Even so, there’s a local angle on two of the breweries that I’ll discuss here, and each one has a clear association with a locale, so that constitutes a theme for a blog post.

The faulty memory has to do with a business trip to Portland, ME, a few years back.  I remembered having lunch at a local brew pub that also marketed beer regionally, but I must have mis-remembered the name, so that when I picked up a mix pack of Geary’s last month, I thought I would be revisiting that brew pub experience. Some research, however, reveals that I am probably remembering Gritty McDuff’s (since Geary’s doesn’t seem to operate a pub in downtown Portland and Gritty does), spoiling that angle of the story.

That said, the beer from Geary’s was generally quite enjoyable, with four different styles in the mix pack: their flagship pale ale, a winter ale, a London porter, and a brew they call Hampshire Special Ale.  IMG_0224The winter ale was probably my favorite with a nice amount of maltiness.  My impressions of the Hampshire Special Ale were inconsistent–it seemed to go best with a spicier meal and I don’t think I would enjoy it much on its own.  The porter was pretty standard and flavorful, but I am coming to realize that among the dark beer styles there is something that leads me to consistently prefer stouts over porters–I feel like I’m expecting more body than I actually get in most of the porters which seem almost watery by comparison.  There wasn’t anything particularly memorable about the pale ale, either positive or negative, which I suppose means I won’t be searching it out, but might give it a try again in the future.

City number two in this itinerary is Brooklyn, with two entries from Brooklyn Brewery.  One of those is their Black Chocolate Stout, a seasonal offering that comes in a four-pack which immediately broadcasts the impression that this is supposed to be something special.  IMG_0222Just to be clear, when a beer is identified with the word “chocolate” there isn’t any actual chocolate present,  but a flavor reminiscent of chocolate is imparted by darkly roasting the grain.  The dominant flavor note I got from this beer actually reminded me most strongly of blackstrap molasses rather than chocolate, but it’s definitely in that bittersweet sector of the flavor palette, and this beer also definitely falls in the category of beers that are worth enjoying on a winter evening.

The other Brooklyn beer that I re-visited this month was one of their “big bottles” known as Brooklyn Local #1.  I first came across this beer with my friend Philip at the beer festival downtown a couple of years ago, and we both agreed it was one of the highlights of the day.  This beer is a Belgian style Golden Ale that is bottle-fermented, so it comes with a champagne-style cork and is best enjoyed with friends at a single sitting–it’s a lot of beer for one person to finish unless you’ve got a quiet evening at home without any plans.  For me it was an evening spent in the condo where I was packing up some of my mom’s belongings as she relocated to a smaller assisted living apartment not far from where I grew up outside Cleveland, Ohio.

Which brings me to the third city on this itinerary, and the one that truly does reflect my desire to seek out local color. Great Lakes Brewing Company is headquartered in Cleveland, and they are among the top twenty or so craft breweries in terms of volume in the country.  As a Cleveland native, even though I haven’t lived there for more than 30 years, I love the playful names they have given to several of their year-round offerings that fully own some of the unique facets of Cleveland history.  As someone who grew up when Cleveland was something of a national joke, I especially enjoy the somewhat perverse pride they take in naming their American Pale Ale “Burning River” after one of the most infamous events in Cleveland history when the Cuyahoga River was so badly polluted that it actually did catch fire and draw the nation’s attention to issues of water pollution in 1969. IMG_0221(You can read more about the facts and fiction of the Cuyahoga River fire courtesy of the Cleveland Historical Society–it wasn’t as bad as it was made out by the media and Cleveland got a bad rap.)  I shared a six-pack with my brother and sister-in-law over pizza in my mom’s new apartment after we got her somewhat settled and moved most of her belongings out of the apartment and onto a truck on their way to storage–there’s a bit of a story there but I’ll save it since it’s not really related to beer.  On my way home from Cleveland, curiously enough I came across another Great Lakes beer in the Philadelphia airport.  Since I was still in a Cleveland mood, I chose the Commodore Perry IPA to accompany my Philly cheese steak.  (I did say this post was about eating and drinking locally, and you can’t get much more local than a Philly cheese steak in Philadelphia.)  Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry was a naval officer whose most famous actions were in the Battle of Lake Erie during the war of 1812.  His dispatch to General William Henry Harrison “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” is a famous piece of American folklore, and Perry is memorialized with a monument well-known to many Ohio residents on South Bass Island (roughly between Toledo and Cleveland).  (As an interesting side note, I learned that Perry was born in South Kingstown in my current home state of Rhode Island.)  Unfortunately, Great Lakes doesn’t distribute their beer to New England, as I enjoyed both beers and feel like Great Lakes definitely deserves their status among the larger craft brewers in the country.  On my next trip back, I’m looking forward to trying some of their other brews (and sharing the Cleveland history that their names celebrate).

This entry adds eight new beers to the total, getting the tally up to 27 with a few more to write about when I can next find the time.  Hope that there are some interesting beers in your neighborhood.  Cheers!

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