Three Quaffers from Wisconsin

When I think of Wisconsin, I think of cheese and beer. I like cheese and beer, which is probably why I spent last week in Wisconsin.

The cheese was varied and for the most part lovely — especially the super-secret truffled buratta from BelGioioso! — as was the beer. The difference is that I’m here to tell you about beer, not cheese.

One I found quite enjoyably gulpable was Wisco Disco from Stillmank Beer, presently brewed under contract in Milwaukee but soon to be a Green Bay native son. Rich gold in colour, this ale might have been called a pale ale in the early 1990s, as opposed to simply a “Wisconsin ale” today, with a biscuity, off-dry aroma and a flavour that begins slightly malty-sweet but gradually turns leafy, tannic and ever so slightly citrusy in its hoppiness. The finish is bone dry and mildly bitter, making this a solid ale that is properly packaged in pint cans for simple enjoyment.

Also building a new brewery is Green Bay’s Titletown Brewing, and when they finish it I hope that they will brew some more of their Randy’s Pale Ale, a tribute beer to a now-departed local homebrewer that would do any brewer proud. The nose has a light but complex fruitiness while the body is wonderfully balanced with apricot and berry fruit, biscuity malt and a long, dry and thoroughly quenching finish. This is a pale ale for pure enjoyment.

And finally, on my return home I found a pair of bottles of Yokel, a straight-from-the-conditioning-tank lager from New Glarus that with one sniff sent me to a Munich biergarten. Floral, lightly sweet, softly yeasty and fresh as a spring lawn, this might err a bit too strongly on the grainy side for some, but with its gently sweet body that segues from notes of fresh hay and light caramel to a dry finish that sucks in your gums and cheeks ever so slightly, I think this is a beauty that lives up well to its “every guy” image.

Looking Back Post #2: My Favourite Beer Place of 2011

I did a fair bit of travelling in 2011, some 50,000+ air miles according to my mileage club statements, and I visited a good number of bars, brewpubs, breweries, distilleries, festivals and other sundry drinks destinations. But as I reflect on the year past, one spot stands out as the single most extraordinary beer locale of my 2011.

It is the Buena Birra Social Club in Buenos Aires.

I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a good many speakeasy-style cocktail bars over the past few years, but Buena Birra is the only speakeasy-style brewpub I’ve been to, or even heard of. The method of getting there is simple compared to the false walls and unusual entrances that mark such cocktail bars: You go on the website and make a booking, at which time they’ll tell you where it is. Then, if you’re like me and the Brazilians with whom I made a visit in May, you pile in a cab and wind up on what looks to be a residential street in front of a nondescript and very locked gate.

Fortunately, as we stared at each other blankly, someone from within the house spied us and came out to let us in, where we found a house that has been converted to a main floor bar and what I assume to be an upper loft living area. And in the garden shed out back? You guessed it! A mini brewing system.

The beer was good, sometimes quite good, but it was the whole experience that ranks the Buena Birra Social Club so highly in my mind. Great place, great people, wonderful concept, and a definite destination for anyone in or near Buenos Aires, Argentina!


Gift Idea #4: Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest

One more book, folks, and it’s a good one!

I’ve been friends with Lisa Morrison, author of Craft Beers of the Pacific Northwest, for many years and have been anxiously awaiting her literary debut for most of that time. Thankfully she doesn’t disappoint. CBPN, as we will henceforth refer to this paperback, is an engaging trip from south Oregon through Washington state and across the border into British Columbia. It’s a beery wonderland and Morrison is a most adept guide.

Much like Max Bahnson’s Prague guide, which you might also like to get, Morrison’s…okay, I’m going to get all unjournalistic here and call her Lisa…Lisa’s approach is to put together pub crawls, within cities, between towns and along highways and coastlines. It’s the way most serious beer travellers plan their trips and makes sense in the vast majority of instances. (In BC, Lisa somehow manages to include Surrey’s Central City Brewing in a Sea-to-Sky Highway crawl, which any Vancouverite will tell you is more than a bit of a stretch.) The maps could sometimes be better, but that’s at best a quibble.

The real allure of this book, though, is Lisa’s voice, which is less guidebook-y and more let’s-go-drinking-together. Like Max’s book — which, again, you really should also get — it makes the reading pleasurable and thirsty work, drawing the reader to the locations in question like a moth to the proverbial flame.

The one thing I don’t like about CBPN is the colour scheme, which sees the sidebar brewery profiles and feature pieces, as well as the maps, illustrated in a yellowish-green that is none too easy on the eyes. But like the garish shirt your beer hunting buddy insists on sporting, it is a small price to pay for such good advice and company.

Biersch & Bottom Join Forces

As recently as this past weekend I was talking about the Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom brewpub chains, how they have been successful in combining at least decent, sometimes very good beer with above average cuisine in an attractive environment. No, they’re not representative of the best in brewpubs, but they are safe and sure bets for a tasty lunch and a pretty good pint.

And now they are one.

In a deal that had been rumoured for a little while, Centerbridge Capital announced that the company has purchased both brands, including Rock Bottom’s Old Chicago chain, and will combine them into CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries Inc. The combined company will boast almost 200 owned and franchised restaurants.

(As usual, Jay Brooks beat me to the punch on this story, so you can check out his blog for all the details of the deal.)

This is, to me, a pivotal deal because of the way each of these companies pushed the “brewery restaurant” concept over the usual “brewpub” designation, taking exquisite care in offering inventive, upscale casual fare over the normal brewpub regime of deep-fried and grilled. In this fashion, they elevated the dining with beer experience to something beyond the burger and nachos level. (Not that there’s anything wrong with burgers and nachos – I enjoy both greatly – but bar food is not what I want to eat every day and both Rock Bottom and Gordon Biersch offer attractive alternatives.)

Together, I think we can expect these operations to continue to expand the reach of craft beer, furthering the notion of combining fine beer with equally fine food. At least, that’s what they’ll do if they’re smart about it.

At the Kulturbrauerei Heidelberg

I’ve been through a bunch of brewery tour, more than most people have had hot lunches, as my wife loves to say. Yet even by such standards, today’s experience stands as one of the best.

It was not that the Kulturbrauerei Heidelberg is unique or emblematic of a specific style, as is Cantillon, for example, or that the beers were unique in some respect or other. But the combination of an enthusiastic young brewer named Bernd Paschke, a most atmospheric beer hall, the region’s soft and wonderfully flavourful water and the engaging history of the city of Heidelberg made for a remarkably memorable afternoon.

As for the beers, well, they are well worth a detour, especially when coupled with the high ceilings and semi-Teutonic ambiance of the beer hall – think a German hunting club crossed with the nicest urban beer hall you’ve ever experienced. The Weisse is a textbook case of how to have the front end speak of fruit and the finish be all about the spice, with nary a jarring note or overt shift between the two, while the unconventionally bottom-fermented and seasonal Porter is a mix of slightly sharp roasty and mocha notes leading to a softly spicy finish. (Paschke, as well as a number of my fellow beer travellers, felt this was a seasonal worth the late fall overnight stay in Heidelberg. I couldn’t disagree with them.)

Before I get to the beer that captured my palate, however, I must type a few words about the Kulturbraurei Heidelberg itself. Suffice to say, if you are ever in the area and have the opportunity to visit, plan for not a quick come-and-go sampling or a fast lunch, but an afternoon or evening. Paschke’s tour is as engaging as he is honestly enthusiastic, and the over an hour we spent in the brewery was more than worth the 7.50 euros charged. Then you get to the beer hall itself, as enticing and hospitable as you might ever hope to find in Germany. Taken together, it’s a very attractive mix.

Then there is the unfiltered helles, a beer they call Kräusen. Cloudy gold with the aroma of a fresh grain field touched with a light alfalfa-like hop scent, it offers a lovely balance of delicately sweet malt and ever-so-faintly metallic hop, ending in a quenching and just off-dry finish. In short, it’s the perfect session beer to sip and savour in a warm and welcoming beer hall while the rain pours down outside, which is exactly what I did, although not for nearly long enough.

American Craft Beer Week

I’m giving over my lone comment on the current American Craft Beer Week to Smuttynose Brewing’s Peter Egelston, who noted the following in his monthly newsletter:


My sister Janet and I opened our first brewpub, the Northampton Brewery, in the summer of 1987, nearly 23 years ago. Back then, what we now call “craft beer” seemed like a very strange idea indeed, given the very non-craft-like state of the American beer industry. Today, on the first day of 2010’s American Craft Beer Week, it is interesting to pause for a moment to reflect on the sorry state of American beer in those days, and the amazing array of outstanding, truly handcrafted beers we’re able to enjoy today. Please, sometime this week, raise a glass of fine American craft beer to the brewers who made it, and then raise a glass to yourself, for keeping the faith and supporting those brewers.

Peter Egelston

And that’s what it’s all about: not jingoistic “isn’t American craft beer just the friggin’ best?!” or anything like that, but rather ’nuff respect and appreciation to the men and women out there who took an entrepreneurial flier all for the love of good beer. And to the rest of us for being smart enough to catch on.

Elysian Fields, Seattle, Pt. II

Yesterday I told you about what I think Elysian Fields is doing well on the beer side. Today, we look at their food.

All too often, I find, going to a place for good beer means also being confronted with a menu filled with burgers, wings, nachos and fries. Not that there is anything wrong with that…occasionally. But when you visit beer bars and brewpubs as much as I do, you begin to crave even a modicum of invention in the food selection.

Which is why Elysian Fields is such a breath of fresh air. We started with the white bean Bruschetta, Seasonal Cured Meat selection and the Cheese Plate, the last of which included the delicious Cashel Blue as well as a very nice Petite Basque. For our mains, we had Ragu Bolognese, Bangers and Mash and a Kasu-marinated Tofu Salad. And guess what? It was all good, and there was nary a deep-fried element in the lot!

It doesn’t take much to bring in some good charcuterie and cheeses, or whip up a decent Bolognese sauce and marinate some tofu. And if you want a burger or chicken club, they are there, as well. It’s called variety, and it’s something that I believe most customers will appreciate.

Because after all, man cannot live on burgers and nachos alone.