You Gotta Get a Gimmick

My title comes from a song written for the musical Gypsy, in which a trio of experienced burlesque dancers are advising a young woman trying to break into the business after flaming out as a child star in vaudeville.  The point of the song is that it’s not enough just to be attractive (since all the girls are attractive)–in order to make a name for herself, a dancer has to do something a little different from all the other dancers.  (In the show, one dancer affects a particularly classy air, one carries a trumpet, and one adorns her costume with electric lights.)

What I’m thinking is that beer is another product that can be tough to differentiate, especially with the proliferation of craft brews on the market today.  Beer is, after all, a pretty limited product.  If you go with the strict German beer purity law (the Reinheitsgebot, which dates from 1487), then the only ingredients should be barley, hops and water.  (No mention of yeast, which is necessary for fermentation and could be considered a fourth ingredient.)  The restriction to barley as a grain was to keep wheat and rye affordable for baking bread, while the hops were to prevent the use of other, less savory, preservatives.

Other countries (notably Belgium) didn’t stick to such strict limitations, and contemporary brewers use a variety of grains and feel free to experiment with fruit extracts and spices, among other exotic ingredients.  Even so, experts (such as Greg Engert, who was recently featured on the NPR foodie  program Splendid Table) can identify a limited number of flavor groups for beer, which means that, just like our aspiring dancer, if you are an aspiring craft brewer then you need a gimmick in order to garner some attention and make yourself stick out from the dozens of other beers in the cooler at the neighborhood liquor store.

I remember sneering a couple of years ago when one of the mass market lagers started promoting a specially-shaped bottle that would pour faster and smoother, thinking “Well, they can’t sell based on what’s in the bottle, so I guess they’re selling based on the shape of the bottle.”  Similarly, Bud Light is currently hawking “aluminum bottles” as a way to use packaging rather than the actual product to maintain their market share.  On the other hand, I’m not sure that I could reliably pick out one of my favorite beers (say Sierra Nevada Celebration) in a blind tasting, so maybe I’m just going with the label and would be just as happy with one of a dozen other highly hopped beers.

So, in the category of gimmicks, this post brings you some beers from the Flying Dog brewery which boasts not one but two interesting aspects to their packaging and marketing efforts.  The first is their penchant for colorful (and sometimes off-color), frequently dog-themed names for their beers: “Raging Bitch,” “In-Heat Wheat,” and the flagship “Doggie Style” pale ale (pictured at right) IMG_0244best fit this template.  The second gimmick is to link their reputation to famed gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, a neighbor when the brewery first got started in Colorado (they are now headquartered in Frederick, MD). This effort extends to their label artwork, created by Ralph Steadman who provided illustrations for many of Thompson’s works, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and whose style is easily identifiable and easy to connect with Thompson.

There were four beers in this mix pack.  IMG_0239My least favorable impression was the beer named “Pearl Necklace,” so-called because oysters from the Rappahannock River are one of the ingredients.  I don’t know if just the idea was off-putting (I’m not a big oyster fan) or if there was actually something that the oysters contributed to the flavor, but this one ranks near the bottom in terms of all the stouts I can remember trying.  The Snake Dog IPA was also not particularly distinctive and probably not a beer I would seek out on its own.  I suppose it’s possible that I’ve tried enough IPA’s that they no longer make much of an impression–the next mix pack will test that assumption since it contains four different styles of IPA from the same brewery. IMG_0249 (For the foodies out there, the main dish on this plate is a baked sweet potato, topped with a warm black bean and tomato salsa. Hopefully the days when we want to warm the kitchen by running the oven for well over an hour will be gone soon.)

Speaking of weather, maybe it’s the change in seasons that’s affecting my palate, because the two lighter beers in this mix pack were the definite winners.  One was the aforementioned pale ale, which had a nice clean finish and a good balance of malt and hops.  (It doesn’t look lighter in the pictures, but my impression is definitely that the pale ale wasn’t trying to impress me, so maybe lighter in some abstract sense rather than in terms of actual color or body of the beer.)  My favorite from this group, however, was the UnderDog Atlantic Lager.  IMG_0247It had a nice, citrusy tang, and was pleasantly fizzy.  I can see it being even more enjoyable as the weather gets warmer–definitely worth seeking out in the future.

Another brewery with a gimmicky approach to its labeling that I’ve been coming across lately is Two Roads from Connecticut.  I’ve previously mentioned their “Route of all Evil” which fits the road-related theme of many of their beer names.  At a recent dinner out with friends (you can see the menu for vegetarian restaurant The Grange in the photo)IMG_0248 , I tried their imperial stout which goes by the name “Igor’s Dream” in honor of local helicopter icon Igor Sikorsky.  This was an intensely colored stout, poured so that the head wasn’t excessive, and the flavor was not overpowered by either a garlicky pureed soup or the Korean barbecue sauce on my tempeh tacos.  It is listed as seasonal, so it may not be available much longer this spring. The other Two Roads beer was their Workers Comp saison. a year-round offering that some friends brought to share at Easter dinner.  This is the second saison I’ve been exposed to in the last month, and maybe the combination of knowing what to expect and  the relaxing environment of sitting with a pleasantly full stomach on a deck overlooking Narragansett Bay on a sunny and not-too-chilly afternoon allowed me to appreciate the sour flavor profile of this beer more than I might have otherwise.

If Dogfish Head Brewery has a gimmick, it’s in their willingness to experiment.  I learned about this first-hand during a brewery tour when we spent a semester near their headquarters in Delaware while Dr. Mrs. Dr. Dave was on sabbatical, and there was also an lengthy piece in the New Yorker about them a few years back. Their 60 Minute IPA was a breakthrough of sorts in the heavily hopped IPA world, but having tried it at a couple of restaurants in the last couple of weeks, it’s no longer the standout that it was when it first hit the market.  It’s also possible that the draft version doesn’t come across the same way that it does from the bottle, especially since the drafts I tried were probably not as cold as it would be coming from my fridge.  My final beer for this report was another Easter dinner brew provided by friends, which was the Sierra Nevada porter.  As usual, I like just about everything from Sierra Nevada, and this porter had more body than some that I’ve tried, but with the warmer weather I may have to wait a while before continuing those comparisons.

Adding eight more new beers gets the tally up to 53, so more than halfway to a century.  Next up, as noted above, will be several IPAs (plus whatever I might come across in my travels away from home), and then maybe it will be time to start seriously seeking out some summery brews, along with the changeover from scotch to gin and tonic as the cocktail of choice.  Cheers!


The Fun of Dinner Parties

When I started this blog, I noted that one of my issues is the near-paralysis I sometimes feel when facing the myriad choices in the stores where I typically shop for beer, torn between the desire to try something new and the fear of picking something I end up not enjoying. Thus it’s a bit of a relief when there’s an occasion where someone else has limited my choices, whether it’s the menu at a restaurant, having dinner at a friend’s, or sharing what someone brings to our house if we are hosting.

During one recent dinner out (at Luxe Burger Bar downtown), I was inspired to try the most interestingly named beer on the menu, which was from Two Roads Brewery (in Stratford, CT) and went by the name Route of all Evil. This was a tasty black ale that impressed me enough that I brought it as a contribution for dinner at a friend’s house a week or so later, and I will be keeping my eyes out for some of their other beers in the months ahead.

Dinner with beer buddy Philip for a boys’ movie night with my two offspring plus another mutual friend and his same-aged son presented the opportunity to rummage through Philip’s refrigerator and to offload one of my other bargain finds, the Winter Porter from Newport Storm. I didn’t exactly dislike this beer, but both times I tried it I noticed later in the evening a vague allergic reaction that made me suspicious. (I’ve had the same thing happen with other odd random foods, the most notable of which is key lime pie which I had twice in Florida several years ago and have scrupulously avoided ever since.) In Philip’s fridge I found a selection of beers from Cisco Brewery on Nantucket. I have a memory of trying several of their beers when they did a tasting at one of my local stores (a regular Friday event that I can rarely attend due to parental chauffeur duties) and not being particularly impressed, so tonight I went with an atypical choice for me and had the Grey Lady unfiltered wheat ale. Still not my first choice, but a nice accompaniment to wings before dinner and chicken stew as the main course.

IMG_0235After dinner, we opened a big bottle of a seasonal offering from Lagunitas (Petaluma, CA) that they call Hairy Eyeball and bill as something to look forward to after a night of over-indulgence; there’s even a little story printed in very small type on the side of the bottle (which you may be able to resolve if you zoom in on the photo at right)IMG_0236 about waking up to the supposedly comforting sight of the dregs of a bottle of Hairy Eyeball on the morning after the night before. The brewery doesn’t give much of a detailed description but this seemed to me like a Belgian-style strong ale with a lot of both malt and hops.



When we hosted a church-sponsored dinner party a week or so later, one of the younger guests brought a couple of beers to share as an alternative to the red wine that seems to be the most popular dinner beverage among our circle of friends and acquaintances these days. One was the Sam Adams Rebel IPA that I tried back in January. IMG_0242This doesn’t count as a new beer, but the leftovers have been enjoyable (tonight’s pictured dinner was a spicy Turkish spinach and lentil soup), and the opportunity to linger over the beer and ponder its flavor profile allowed me to clearly identify the grapefruit flavor on the citrusy end of this heavily-hopped West Coast style IPA. The other beer our guest brought was a big bottle from local brewery Foolproof called La Ferme Urbaine (The Urban Farm, a pretty ironic name since their hometown of Pawtucket is often considered to be the birthplace of industrialization in New England and hasn’t seen much farmland for well over a century). The big bottle turned out to be just the right size for my souvenir British pint glass from a beer festival I attended during my teacher exchange in London back in 2002-03. IMG_0237(A British pint is 20 fluid ounces, so it’s nearly twice the size of a standard 12 oz US serving–I have one slightly anxious memory of coming home from the pub after choir practice one night and reflecting about the fact that I had consumed two British pints and was driving on the “wrong” (left) side of the road.) As for the beer, it is a farmhouse style saison with a mix of grains that (according to their web site) includes wheat, rye, oats, and spelt(!?)–maybe not my choice, but the advantage of letting someone else choose is that it’s a low risk way that I can try something and see whether I like it or not.

So these choices, mostly courtesy of friends and acquaintances, add five new beers to the tally for the year, giving a current total of 45. Next post will be a reflection on how different breweries choose to distinguish themselves, highlighting a current example in the fridge. Cheers!


Bargain Hunting

There’s more than a grain of truth to the complaint of having “champagne tastes but a beer budget.” On a dollars-per-drink basis, even a pretty good beer is a relative bargain when compared with other alcoholic beverages. This is especially true if you work with realistic serving sizes as opposed to a “standard drink” which is defined on the basis of total alcohol content.

For example, a 750 mL bottle of scotch contains around 16 standard drinks of 1.5 oz (45 mL), so a nice 12-year-old single malt comes in at somewhere around $3 for a standard drink, but a realistic serving is more like twice that (a “double” as they used to say in the movies) which means more like $6 per serving. (I’m thinking about what it costs at home–the markup in a bar or restaurant is often 100% or more.) A 1.75 L bottle of decent gin or vodka is almost 40 standard drinks, which brings us down to about $1 per standard drink or $2 for a nice-sized martini, not counting the vermouth and the olives. Wine can, of course, be outrageously expensive, but at the typical price point chez Dr. Dave of $8-12 per bottle, each of the five standard drinks in a bottle of wine is around $2 – $2.50. Three servings per bottle is more realistic, which gets up to around $3-4 per serving.

Based on this analysis, it’s easy to see that good beer is a pretty good deal, especially when you consider that a “standard drink”–one 12 oz bottle or can–is also a realistic serving. Mass market American lagers can be found on sale for around $0.75 per 12 oz can, but even a lot of craft brews come in at around $1.50 or so per 12 oz bottle ($9 for a six-pack; a little cheaper if you buy a twelve pack for around $14-16).

Even so, I was pleasantly surprised on a shopping trip last month at one of my preferred liquor stores to find a display of several craft beers at the front of the store that were discounted to $3 for a six-pack or $6 for a twelve pack, bringing the price per bottle down to a rock-bottom $0.50. That was a price too good to pass up, so I picked out a few brews to try.

The biggest experiment in the group was the Casco Bay IPA, from Portland, ME, since I didn’t know anything about this brewery. This was a pretty standard American IPA, not a standout among the others I’ve tried but perfectly serviceable and not over the top in terms of the amount of hops.

IMG_0240The second beer from this expedition was the Long Trail Hibernator, an unfiltered Scottish ale that is sold as a winter seasonal offering. Long Trail is from Vermont and is named after the hiking trail that extends the entire north-south length of the state of Vermont, overlapping in places with the Appalachian Trail. (Dr. Mrs. Dr. Dave and I hiked a small section of the trail to the summit of Mt. Abraham back in our younger days.) Part of their marketing strategy is to cultivate an outdoorsy rural/wilderness appeal in their naming and packaging–this one has a drawing of a cartoon bear sitting in an easy chair with his feet propped up in front of a roaring fire. My impressions of this beer were inconsistent–tonight I was catching a funny aftertaste when I first tasted it, though that became less obvious when I started eating tonight’s dinner of creamy chicken stew over brown rice and I didn’t remember that from previous tastings.

My final bargain find was from Magic Hat Brewery (also from Vermont). Magic Hat is notable for its sense of whimsy, demonstrated by a penchant for slightly offbeat ingredients, short pithy aphorisms printed on the inside of the bottle caps, and cryptic names which don’t always give an indication of the style of beer. IMG_0233My selection was the Heart of Darkness, which the brewery describes as a “diabolically delicious stout.” This wasn’t a particularly “creamy” stout, but it had an intense black color and generally pleasing malt flavors with a noticeably smoky note to the finish. Since I had a lot of this, I also donated one bottle to the liquid for a hearty crock-pot stew of chicken thighs, carrots, peas, onions and mushrooms (plus just a little bacon for extra flavor). Beer in the food in addition to beer with the food is a great combination!

My three bargain brews bring the blog count up to 40 for the year. Upcoming posts will discuss the virtues of letting somebody else make beer choices and explore a couple more variety packs, including another brewery with a distinctive branding approach. Cheers!