Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Beers from around the U.S., and the world

It’s been far too long since my last potable post, hasn’t it? Let’s take an intermission from the usual heady fare, and consider some heady brews instead. I’ve been to two beer tastings recently. The first was a festival of holiday beers, mostly American, a few months ago; the second was an import tasting, just this past weekend. I’m not going to transcribe all of my “tasting notes” (and yes, I do know how snobby that sounds :), but just hit some of the highlights. Following these selective notes and recommendations, I’ll give you the full list of everything I tried.

The Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock is an exceptional beer, literally the smoothest beer I’ve ever tasted. It has a definite chocolate syrupiness, but it’s not at all overpowering. A wonderful sipping beer. It’s expensive (around $16 per 25oz. bottle), but well worth it.

Gulden Draak Ale is something of a Belgian version of the Sam Adams Chocolate Bock (or vice versa, to be more accurate). It too is delicious, expensive, and sold in a 25oz. bottle. It’s been around quite a bit longer, too. In 1998 the American Tasting Institute selected it as the world’s best-tasting beer, so just think about that if you find yourself with a chance to try it. At 10.5% alcohol by volume, it is also one of the world’s most potent.

The Stone Brewing Stone Smoked Porter was a new experience for me. This is from the same guys who brought us Arrogant Bastard Ale, which you may have come across. The secret ingredient (outlandish though it sounds) is Scottish peat moss, and the porter does indeed have a smoked taste. I imagine it would be fantastic with salmon.

Saint Arnold’s Christmas Ale is very nice, without excessive spiciness. I mention it mainly because it’s brewed here in Texas, but according to German purity laws. Saint Arnold’s has several other nice beers as well. Their limited edition IPA, Elissa (named after the 19th century barque moored in Galveston), is exceptionally good.

It may surprise you, but Wells Banana Bread Beer is not the only (nor even the first) banana bread beer I’ve tried. I had one about a year ago in Vermont. This one comes from England, and it’s both unexpected and delicious. It’s really more like a dessert than a beer (cf. the Sam Adams Chocolate Bock and Gulden Draak). It doesn’t taste precisely like banana bread, but the smell is absolutely dead-on.

Shiner Holiday Cheer may be my favorite flavored beer of all time. The Apricot Ale from Pyramid and the Sam Adams Cherry Wheat are two others I love, but this one, from the little brewery in Shiner, TX, edges them out. If you can find it, you have to try it. It’s made with peaches and pecans.

Chimay is one of only six genuine Trappist beers, and the Chimay Grand Reserve Blue is a very good, and very potent (at 9%), example. It carries a beautiful balance of flowery yeast, bitter hops, and rich malt (the latter, the least). It feels heavy in the mouth, but it’s surprisingly light.

Blanche de Chambly is a French-Canadian beer brewed in the Belgian style. A white beer (like the Belgian Hoegaarden, which I also recommend), it has light, delicious citrus overtones. Wonderfully complex. All three of the Unibroue beers I tried were complex, delicious, and each different from the others. The Blanche de Chambly was my favorite of the group.

Orval is another of the six genuine Trappist beers (the others, in addition to Chimay, are Rochefort, Westmalle, Westvleteren, and Achel). The Orval was hoppier than El-ahrairah, and remarkably bitter, with a tall creamy head. The fellow doing the pouring could have used a lesson or two, though, as he poured most of the flavor into foam.

The San Miguel Lager is notable for one reason only: with it, I added a new country to my “beer travels” — the Philippines. The beer itself, though, was bland and boring. They intended to have the San Miguel Dark, which I probably would have liked better, but I got stuck with a rather too conventional lager instead.

And now, here’s the full list. And remember, lest you think me a total tippler, this was two events, not one — okay, even so, I may be a total tippler. :)

How many of these have any of you tried?

Holiday Brews (21)
Abita Christmas Ale (New Orleans)
Blue Moon Full Moon Winter Ale (Canada)
Boulevard Nutcracker Ale (Kansas City)
Deschutes Jubleale (Bend, OR)
Leinenkugel Fireside Nut Brown Ale (Chippewa Falls, WI)
New Belgium 2° Below (Fort Collins, CO)
Oscar Blues Dales Pale Ale (Lyons, CO)
Pyramid Snow Plow Ale (Seattle)
Rahr Winter Warmer Ale (Fort Worth, TX)
Saint Arnold’s Christmas Ale (Houston)
Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock (Boston)
Samuel Adams Cranberry Lambic (Boston)
Samuel Adams Old Fizzwig (Boston)
Shiner Holiday Cheer (Shiner, TX)
Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale (Chico, CA)
Stone Brewing Stone Smoked Porter (San Diego)
Summit Winter Ale (St. Paul, MN)
Wells Banana Bread (England)
Widmer Brr (Portland, OR)
Woodchuck Limited Cider (Springfield, VT)
Wychwood Bah Humbug Ale (England)

Imports (18)
Ayinger Bräu-Weisse (Germany)
Blanche de Chambly (Canada)
Chimay Grand Reserve Blue (Belgium)
Chimay Red (Belgium)
Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse Spaten (Germany)
Gulden Draak Ale (Belgium)
Hoegaarden (Belgium)
Hofbrau Hefeweizen (Germany)
La Fin du Monde (Canada)
Maudite (Canada)
Orval (Belgium)
Peroni Nastro Azzurro (Italy)
Petrus Gouden Tripel Ale (Belgium)
Pilsner Urquell (Czech Republic)
Piraat Ale (Belgium)
San Miguel Lager (Philippines)
Smithwicks Irish Ale (Ireland)
Spaten Oktoberfest (Germany)


  1. And here I gave up alcohol for Lent! Which makes this post just torture!

  2. so just think how much you'll enjoy this post in another few weeks... and counting... {grin}

  3. Well, Carl, it wouldn’t be suitable for Lent if it were easy, right? :) Lynn’s right: in another few weeks, you could use this post as a shopping list, hahae.

  4. Gary Schmidt3/25/2009 5:59 PM

    Awesome post, Jase. I bet after trying all those beers, somehow the foxes/oxen conundrum didn't seem to matter too much any more. :)

    Here's the beer I've been drinking over the weekend: Maine's Peak Organic Espresso Amber Ale. The combination of hops and espresso is awesome. You really do feel buzzed and hyper at the same time!

  5. Well, I've only had two of the Holidays, but I've had 13 of the imports. Not too bad!


  6. Of these I've only tried two, the Wells Banana Bread beer, which I didn't like at all—tiny hint of banana flavour that clashed with the hops I thought—but I'm told that they changed the recipe a little while ago, so it may be more to my taste now; and the Wychwood Bah Humbug, which I thought (if I'm remembering the right beer) was a good Wychwood ale, straightforward about the punch it was packing and not too complex, but also not so special as some of their other brews (like, almost anything where they pun on `Witch' for some reason).

  7. Gary, thanks! The oxen/foxes comment made me laugh, because I can just hear how that discussion would sound if I were a little bit tipsy. ;)

    Did you get that espresso ale at Whole Foods? I’ve seen it for sale there. Is it really any good? It sounds weird, like caffeinated soap, but I’m game to try it. I just tried Breckenridge Vanilla Porter last night. Very good, not at all sweet, but with a strong real vanilla bean flavor.

  8. Hi, tenthmedieval. I agree about the Wychwood. The Wells I definitely did like, but the banana bread beer from Vermont was even better. I can’t recall at the moment who makes it, but I’ll check my notes when I get a chance. Yes, I have beer notes, and no, they aren’t scrawled on cocktail napkins (er, not usually).

  9. As far as I can tell, I've had the following from the list at some time (though in some cases it's very long ago ...):
    Chimay Grand Reserve Blue (Belgium)
    Chimay Red (Belgium)
    Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse Spaten (Germany)
    Gulden Draak Ale (Belgium)
    Hoegaarden (Belgium)
    Hofbrau Hefeweizen (Germany)
    Orval (Belgium)
    Petrus Gouden Tripel Ale (Belgium)
    Pilsner Urquell (Czech Republic)
    Piraat Ale (Belgium).

    I've also had all five other Trappist ales. Yes, that is seven in total, if you count La Trappe/Koningshoeven; it's no longer 'Authentic Trappist Produce', but still a Trappist ale. Certainly there was no doubt about it being one of the six (that was before Achelse Kluis started brewing) when I first tasted them. I've also been to the abbey of Achelse Kluis itself to sample their produce when they had just started brewing, which I think is now about seven years ago. Personally, I like the most available Trappist Ale (Westmalle) least, and the least available (Westvleteren) best - especially when it's some fifteen years old. St Sixtus Westvleteren (Achelse Kluis is officially called St Benedict's, all the others are 'Our Lady of ...') is only brewed for sale when the monks feel the abbey or its charitable work needs extra income.

    Like Carl I give up alcohol for Lent (and tobacco as well, but that's not worth much - I only smoke about one or two pipes a month otherwise). In some places in Belgium and the Southern provinces of the Netherlands they have a custom of having a small private carnival (and thus a day off from Lent) next to zondag halfvasten - 'sunday half-fast', i.e. Laetare sunday. Not being a carnival type myself, I did not avail myself of this indulgeance, until my students' society started to hold their yearly Cantus, a celebration of song and beer, in Lent. I've not taken part in that for some years, but this year I revived my private 'day off' last saturday (no, that was not next to Laetare sunday, but a week later) when I attended the Hobbit concert by the Tolkien Ensemble in Copenhagen, and went to an after-party with the Tolkien Ensemble and a number of people from several european Tolkien societies (The Tolkien Society only being represented by those people from other countries who are also TS members).

    There were some nice Danish beers available at the pub, of which I had Tuborg Påskebryg, Bornholm Møsk ("very strong", the barkeeper warned me, only to be surprised when I told him Westvleteren Abbot is at least twice as strong), Thy ecological beer, and Ale Nº 16.

    O, and the concert of the Tolkien Ensemble was a great success. First half was a selection of songs and dances from their forthcoming Hobbit musical, still under development, second half was a synopsis of the story of The Lord of the Rings being told to Howard Shore's film music and some of the Tolkien Ensemble's own settings of Tolkien's songs. Christopher Lee exceptionally was present himself to do all the readings, and he expressly welcomed the guests from the different Tolkien societies.
    It was all very good, though I agreed with a comment made by an American lady from the German Tolkien Society that she would have liked to be able to understand more of the words, some of which were drowned out by the orchestral accompanyment.

  10. Thanks for the comments, Harm. I have had three, maybe four, of the genuine Belgian Trappist ales (including Westmalle). I’ve seen that there are also some ales from the Netherlands that label themselves as Trappist. I don’t know anything about them. Representing Denmark, I’ve had only the Carlsberg Elephant commonly available here. I would love to try more someday.

    It sounds like the concert was great fun. I’ve been a fan of the Tolkien Ensemble for several years now. I would love to see them perform live.

  11. Well, the live performance was quite something. I'd seen Caspar Reiff performing before, and also Caspar, Peter Hall and Christopher Lee with a Dutch orchestra at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, but not the whole Ensemble. And the Danish public went all out for them! I'm looking forward to when the Hobbit musical is finished, then we might get them to Amsterdam again, and maybe across the pond to you as well.

    The Dutch ale labeling itself as Trappist, yes, that is the La Trappe from Our Lady of Koningshoeven abbey I was talking about. There was no doubt about that being a genuine Trappist ale, until the abbey went in for a joint venture with a Dutch brewer (not Heineken, but a regional family business) in the '90s. As the rules for 'Authentic Trappist Produce' (a label that had been introduced not long before) state that all the proceeds should go to the abbey, or its or the Trappist order's charitable activities, that was where the trouble started and it was no longer eligible for the label. But the ale is still the same, still brewed at the abbey brewery under the supervision of the monks, so no reason not to consider it Trappist ale. That's just a bit of Belgian chauvinism, if you ask me.

  12. Very interesting. I may have to try it. I’ve seen it for sale locally.

  13. Harm J. Schelhaas6/16/2009 8:14 PM

    An update on the La Trappe situation - there was a documentary on beers, mainly Trappist, on Belgian TV last evening - the La Trappe from Our Lady of Koningshoeven is again fully acceptable as Authentic Trappist Produce. It seems that the contract with regional brewer was changed, already in 2005, in such a way that the beers from the abbey could again qualify for the Authentic Trappist Produce label.