Beer Notebook: A Dutch Trio

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A recent trip to the Netherlands allowed me the opportunity to, well, buy Brooklyn Brewery products on the shelf of a local Amsterdam grocery store. But I didn’t do that. Whenever possible on trips, I try to quaff the local suds, three of which, all India Pale Ales, are presented here.

Jopen's Mooie Nel IPA

Jopen’s Mooie Nel IPA, sitting at an agreeable 6.5% ABV, surprised me with a decent level of hops bitterness (70 IBU) and a very long, and pleasant, finish on the palate. There were hints of floral and citrus flavor, but only hints, and that was just fine.

I like my beer hoppy, and any more citrus would have overwhelmed the beer. The head kept its shape for a while, and on the whole, I enjoyed this beer quite a bit, particularly with the fine Indian food we brought to the hotel room from our Amsterdam stand-by, Koh-i-Noor. Any future trips to the Netherlands will see this beer take a spot in the fridge.

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Beer Notebook: Flying Dog’s Easy IPA

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IPAs are tricky. It’s easy to overload an India Pale Ale with enough hops to sink a clipper bound for Calcutta, and many a microbrewer has inflicted a resinous, piney, viscous liquid on unsuspecting fans of the style. But too much restraint with the hops leaves a confirmed hops-head such as myself wanting more. So when a brewer manages to find that balance, I tend to go back to that IPA over and over.

Easy IPA

But, traditionally, the IPA tends towards the stronger side, and as the calendar turns to summer, a lighter, more sessionable quaff is demanded. Session IPAs have been around for awhile on the American brewing scene, and when my former session IPA standby, 21st Amendment’s Bitter American, ceased production in 2015, replaced by the fine-but-not-amazing Down to Earth, I figured it would just be a matter of time before I found a good replacement. Little did I know it would take about a year.

Finally, I found a very drinkable session IPA, Easy IPA, from a most unlikely source: Frederick, Maryland’s Flying Dog Brewery. I say unlikely because I’ve always found Flying Dog’s beers to be inventive and interesting and usually good for one bottle as an experience. One look at their Dead Rise Summer Ale, with Old Bay seasoning, sort of proves the point. I’ve seldom gone back to a Flying Dog beer after the first bottle.

Easy IPA, on the other hand, does what it says on the tin (and also on the bottle, as it’s available in both formats)—just an easy drinking IPA, with a rush of hops on the palate that quickly fades while retaining an overall pleasant bitterness. Only a subtle floral aroma comes off the head, and it provides a more quenching taste than the usual IPA. The hops are pronounced but non-aggressive in character, clocking in at 50 IBU, making Easy IPA a welcome companion on a summer afternoon. And at 4.7% ABV, it’s a companion you can keep around for a bit. Certainly, Easy IPA stands as the best beer in Flying Dog’s stable.

I’d still choose Bitter American over Easy IPA, but since I can’t anymore, I find that Easy IPA is an, ah, easy choice for my standard session IPA.

Beer Notebook: Oskar Blues' Death by Coconut

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Oskar Blues' Death by CoconutI’m not a huge fan of concept beers, and far less a fan of “stunt” beers—lager with a chili pepper in it, I’m looking at you. Combining lots of ingredients with an eye towards producing a particular flavor usually falls flat with me. Indeed, I’m of the opinion that one of Germany’s greatest contributions to world civilization is the Rheinheitsgebot.

Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for chocolate beers, and Oskar Blues Brewery’s entry in the field, Death by Coconut, manages to draw out a strong yet subtle coconut flavor without overwhelming the palate. It tastes very much like a liquid Mounds bar, and that’s a fine result. The beer hews closely to the porter profile otherwise, with a slightly stronger alcohol content than normal (6.5% ABV) and a fine, lacy head. It drinks smoothly with very little bitterness in the aftertaste.

Sometimes chocolate beers can carry too much sweetness, but Death by Coconut avoids the “desert beer” category with a mellow sweetness and a light, thin mouthfeel. Still, one in a session feels like plenty, unlike, say a Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, which remains the pinnacle of session drinkable chocolate beers.

I secured a four-pack of Death by Coconut in late January, but it is apparently a seasonal beer, so if you see them on the shelf, pick one up before they’re gone. It’s worth seeking out, unlike most concept beers.

Beer Notebook: My First Growler

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Good beer, fresh from the tap, just sings. But short of a slightly expensive renovation job to install a keg stand and tap, getting that just-poured beer requires a trip out, and sometimes you want to sit at home and enjoy a pint. So how to get that fresh beer in a comfortable setting of your own choosing?

Dogfish Head Growler

Enter the growler, an old concept made new again with the rise of microbreweries and their associated brewpubs. At heart, a growler is just a glass jug with a tight-sealing cap, filled with your favorite brew at your friendly local tavern for consumption off-premises, and almost every microbrewery will fill them, in 32 and 64 ounce sizes. Most microbreweries sell their own glass growlers, with brand logo (and the all-important government warning) printed on the glass; further, as long as that warning is on the growler (and if the growler is clean), most will fill other breweries’ growlers as well.

Growlers, at least as shorthand for large containers for beer, have been around a long time. Joseph Mitchell, in his collection Up in the Old Hotel, recounts their use before Prohibition, quoting a butcher preparing for a massive beefsteak feast:

“In the old days they didn’t even use tables and chairs. They sat on beer crates and ate off the tops of beer barrels. You’d be surprised how much fun that was. Somehow it made old men feel young again. And they’d drink beer out of cans, or growlers. Those beefsteaks were run in halls or the cellars or back rooms of big saloons.”

The emphasis seems to be on excess, and yet the modern iteration of the growler centers on freshness and the ability to take that liquid ambrosia home.

I acquired my first growler on a recent trip to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, home of the Dogfish Head Brewpub. In addition to sampling their brewpub-only offerings—Wet Hop After Dark, a fresh hop dark IPA that sadly managed to hide the fresh hop taste, and a very fine cask version of their 75 Minute IPA—I availed myself of their growler selection and went with a classic, the stellar 60 Minute IPA. I didn’t even mind that the waitress who brought me the growler called my 32 ounce version “a cute little baby growler,” as I had acquired what I came for: fresh beer the next day at home.

And it was fresh. The gasket-sealed cap kept the carbonation going, resulting in a near-tap pour with a generous and creamy head. I’m sure purists could taste the difference between my growler beer and beer right out of the tap, but it was more than close enough for me. I had one of my favorite beers, at the peak of freshness, in the comfort of my home.

So long live the growler! I’m lucky enough to live someplace with several microbreweries nearby that fill growlers, and I look forward to walking in there with my Dogfish Head jug asking for a fill.

Beer Notebook: 21st Amendment's Down to Earth

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I feared the worst when 21st Amendment Brewery‘s superlative session Pale Ale, Bitter American, started becoming harder and harder to find on store shelves. Even the specialty shops that pride themselves on deep selections stopped carrying it. And then, I learned the bitter (only slight pun intended) truth. Cancelled. Discontinued. Sent to the big recycling bin in the sky.

21st Amendment's Down to Earth

But you can’t be a modern craft brewery without a session Pale Ale, without that hoppy yet infinitely drinkable beer that you can enjoy over the course of an afternoon or evening of socializing. So, enter Down to Earth, the sequel beer, if you will, to Bitter American.

Down to Earth follows its predecessor with a low alcohol content of 4.4 ABV and a similar bitterness at 42 IBU, but changes style from an American Pale Ale to an India Pale Ale. Neither Bitter American nor Down to Earth could be considered excessively hoppy, so the switch in style manifests mostly in increased floral and citrus notes. There’s still the same easy drinkability and clean finish that makes for a social pint (or a social 12 ounces, I guess, since it’s only available in standard cans), but I don’t find myself as drawn to this version.

Now, I’m a confirmed IPA drinker, an unreformed hophead, even, but I don’t know that the IPA style really works for a session beer. I like to savor an IPA and its complexity, with a higher hop concentration helping to balance the florals. Down to Earth is a good beer, make no mistake, and it’s a great beer to share with friends, but it’s not a great IPA.

With Bitter American, I never questioned what my session ale would be; with Down to Earth, I’m not going to automatically pick it over other session ales. It’ll always be in the running, but like the monkey on the can, I’m going to explore my options.

India Pale Meeples: Brew Crafters (Dice Hate Me Games)

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I jokingly warned everyone at the start of our inaugural playthrough of Brew Crafters (Dice Hate Me Games, 2015), the newly released worker placement Euro about, um, crafting brewskis, that brewing the Pumpkin Ale recipe would result in immediate loss of the game. Because, really, that stuff is awful, an abomination to all right-thinking people. But then, after I had installed hop infusers in my fledgling brewery, to increase the value of ales, and cornered the market on fruit, I realized that brewing Pumpkin Ale was a very winning strategy. So, yes, I brewed a ton of the vile stuff and felt only slight shame. Such are the hard decisions in this quite pleasant game about operating a craft brewery.

Thirsty, thirsty meeples!

Some Euro-style games have themes that only tangentially relate to their mechanics, but Brew Crafters is one of those rare spiels that marries the two quite nicely thanks to the beer recipes at the heart of the gameplay. In the Market Phase, players place workers on spaces providing ingredients (malt, hops, yeast, and specialty fare like fruit and coffee), money, or special workers who alter game rules; these spaces may only be chosen by one player at a time, providing a nice adversarial aspect to the game. Then, the Brewery Phase allows players to conduct brewery research, build brewery components like a brewpub and oak barrel aging racks, and assemble the ingredients into differing types of beer, with each recipe requiring a different combination of ingredients and each being worth a varying amount of reputation. The highest reputation at the end of the game wins.

A close-up of the Chris-Craft Brewery

Gameplay is quick, about half an hour per player. Our four player game ran only slightly over two hours, and that even includes time spent getting real beers from the fridge to complement the beer chits we were brewing. The components are above average for a Euro, with a ton of wooden cubes, a handful of traditional wooden meeples, several sheets of die cut cardboard counters, fifty-odd standard-sized cards, and a two-toned wooden glass of stout as a first-player marker. The box is chock full, well worth the $60 retail price just from a component standpoint alone. Throw in engaging worker placement gameplay on a theme near to my heart, and, well, this one is a keeper. There are multiple paths to victory (one of the players in my session tried to crank out as much of the cheap stuff as possible), and there are over twenty different kinds of beer recipes in the game, so there’s a nice degree of replayability in the box as well.

When I saw the demo copy at Labyrinth Games and Puzzles on Capitol Hill, my Fine Local Game Store, I knew I had to have it. I’d drink a toast to Brew Crafters, but I already have . . .