Beer Notebook: 2SP’s Wawa Winter Reserve Coffee Stout

In terms of true confessions, this one doesn’t have much significance beyond the Philadelphia area: I’ve never had a Wawa coffee.

Oh, sure, I’ve been in many a Wawa, which is still the source for some of the freshest TastyKake products around, but it’s not an integral part of my life here, if only because parking at or near any Wawa in the city proper, any time of day, is as rare as a sports championship in this town. Still, my neophyte Wawa ways aside, I couldn’t help picking up a four pack of Winter Reserve Coffee Stout, a collaboration between nearby Delaware County brewers 2SP Brewing and Wawa, utilizing Wawa’s signature seasonal coffee bean blend.

Though technically an oatmeal stout, this deep mahogany beer feels more like a porter in terms of viscosity, with a strong initial foam head that dissipates quickly and with little lace. The taste arrives as aggressively coffee forward, reminiscent of a pot of morning coffee steeped to just this side of bitter, with a hint of chocolate thrown into the mix. It’s an easily drinkable beer, hiding its modest 6.5% ABV behind a dense flavor and a slightly sweet aftertaste. Winter Reserve Coffee Stout is a coffee lover’s beer, no mistake, and it’s easy to forget you’re actually drinking a beer rather than a coffee beverage of some sort.

It’s a shame this is a season-limited beer that probably won’t get wide distribution, because it’s a refreshing take on that old standby, the oatmeal stout. The collaboration between 2SP and Wawa also opened my eyes to the rest of 2SP’s beer lineup; given the huge number of choices on the shelf of the local beer distributor, it’s hard for an independent brewer to get noticed, but 2SP has managed to stand out with this beer. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for their products the next time I’m beer shopping.

Beer Notebook: A Dutch Trio

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

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

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

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 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 server 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

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.