I believe that all experience is ultimately subjective. I assert that the similarity in experiences between people is the product of like similarity in their minds, bodies and environment. But much as two people can experience a sense of communion through simultaneous experience or realization, two people may also come to significant conflict, or misunderstanding, as a byproduct of radically different subjective viewpoints. This, I feel, is entirely possible without the moralistic right and wrong even entering into the equation. In order for morality to become involved, some rubric must be applied, such as that of ethics or egalitarianism, and it is when the rubric accords more with one subjective ideology than another that serious issues can arise. So it is with alcoholic beverages. I am forced to acknowledge that everyone is entitled to their subjective valuation of this beer over that. Clearly no objective standard can exist for something completely based in sense perception. So, in order for me to assert the superiority of my beliefs in any way, I must ascribe to some dogma or discourse that may be unfairly biased and ultimately non-representative of reality. Yet, what better place for such a wanton elevation of one's opinions than one's own website? Yeah, exactly.
With that out of the way, I present my demi-comprehensive guide to micro brew, designed to introduce a passion for tasting good beer without all the elitism. *wink wink*
Section 1: How to Taste Beer, an FAQ4U
Q: Is the approach to tasting beer the same as with wine, or different?
A: I think the answer to this question is highly variable depending on the person, but generally there are a few similarities and a few key differences when comparing beer to wine. First off, the method of pulling air through the liquid as it rests on your tongue still works, but sometimes to a lesser degree due to the carbon dioxide and generally cooler temperature of beer, compared with wine. Nonetheless, it's still very important to taste with the entire palate, as certain flavors will elicit a response from taste buds located on different parts of your tongue. You will very rarely see beer drinkers sloshing their beverage around within the glass, but you will see many folks gaping at the color and opacity of the drink, sometimes even holding it up against a bright light. I find that smell is of even greater importance with beer than with wine. A high quality beer can have a profoundly complex aroma so always start with a sniff or two. The last note that I will mention is that there is a greater variety in viscosity and liquid consistency with beer than with wine, so learning to discern the mouthfeel of a hefeweizen from that of an imperial stout adds another dimension that many enjoy.
Q: Are there any special things to look for when presented with a full glass of specialty brew?
A: Of course! I always start by reading the beer's description when provided by the brewery. For me, it's important that the beer deliver on the qualities advertised, otherwise the brewers have misrepresented themselves or have accidentally deviated from their intention. Beyond this, a complex beer will ask more of the taster, and thus it's important to clear one's palate before tasting, to examine the color and opacity of the beer, to begin with the nose, to taste with the entire palate, and commonly to drink more in quantity so that the beer has a chance to 'influence' you over the course of a session. It's not uncommon for an extremely good glass of beer to seem muddled or overwrought at first, only to win you over just before the glass is emptied. Finally, I find it helpful to approach each variety of beer with a differentiated set of expectations and critiques. I would never directly compare a pilsner to a porter, except to perhaps say that I generally prefer the latter. Instead, when I drink a pilsner, I relate it to my other experiences with pilsners so that I can be excited about a good pilsner experience even if it doesn't compare to the ESB that I just finished.
Q: What's the best attitude to have when approaching beer of a variety I am extensively familiar with?
A: This is a difficult question that requires more of a change in mindset than anything technical. With beers, as with anything, there are fads and cultural trends that emphasize some varieties over others. Right now it seems that IPA's are the most popular variant in the world of microbrews. Given that the 'ideal' IPA has traditionally been simply the hoppiest imaginable, we've seen a proliferation of companies branding their beers with funny adjectives to describe the amount of hops. 'Ridiculously Hoppy', 'An irresponsible amount of hops', and 'Hop Czar' all come to mind. So how does one distinguish between beers that are ultimately trying to achieve a similar goal without getting into inane specifics, like IBU's and such? My solution is to expect the 'ideal' while still leaving room for surprise. When tasting an IPA, expect a clean hoppy bitterness, but don't force that to be the only acceptable thing to find. Allow for variation, maybe not in that base hoppiness, but at least in the accoutrements. Investigate the nose, the accompanying flavors, the finish, the smoothness, every dimension of the beer, looking for something interesting, something to differentiate the beer from its cousins. For example, I was very surprised this winter when I first tasted the standard 'Pale Ale' from Southern Tier Brewing in New York. Usually normal Pales are considered weaker or less complex than their brethren ales, but I found Southern Tier's Pale to be the most remarkable beer in their offering. Why was this? You'll have to find out for yourself.
Q: If I want to get an overview of an entire brewery's selection, how can I do so without getting smashed?
A: This one is pretty easy, at least at most breweries. Simply go with a friend (or friends), order their tasting tray (if they have one), and share each of the tasters between two people. Usually you will receive 2-3 oz glasses of each beer which split between two people isn't too much. The best way to do this is to ask for a glass of water and an extra tasting glass and regular glass. Before each beer, pour a bit of water into the extra tasting glass, swish it around, and discard into the empty glass. Then, split the beer-to-be-tasted half and half with the extra tasting glass and enjoy. Keep in mind, however, that such a limited quantity will not give you much time to adjust to the beer. This is typically not a problem with simpler beers, but be careful judging belgians, strong ales, or dark beer on just a shot's worth. If the brewery does not offer a tasting course, then your best bet would be to ask your bartender for his or her opinion on how to get an overview of their offering. They'll know better than me!
Q: How can I remain even-tempered and impartial after I've already tipped a few?
A: You can't, really. If you taste something later in the evening that really 'blows your mind,' your best bet is to come back to it sober to re-evaluate before hyping it up to others. In my experience my ability to critique beers with equanimity decreases exponentially after about the third or fourth beer. I'm a lightweight, though.
Q: Can I evaluate a brewery based on bottles alone, without visiting their tasting room?
A: My initial response is no. I think for a fair valuation a visit to ground zero is necessary. That being said, there's nothing wrong with developing an opinion of a certain brewery's exports, just keep an open mind about what they may be offering elsewhere. It would be imprudent to denounce a friend's hometown brewery based on a few bottled samples.
Section 2: The Guide
Brewery (click for website) Location (click for map) Grade Favorite Beer(s) Notes Portland, OR A+ Bourbonic Plague, Vlad the Imp-Aler, Sang Noir Easily the best brewery I've ever visited. A one-of-a-kind brewery specializing in sour beers. No other brewery puts in as much effort or delivers on their promises like Cascade. Portland, OR A Six I first learned about Upright at the Portland Farmer's Market, where they provided samples of their four year-round beers: four, five, six and seven. Their tasting room is basically a behind-the-scenes brewery experience in itself, and their prices are unbeatable. My roommate bought a keg of the six, a dark rye beer, and put it on tap in his kegerator. It's one of the most complex, savory beers you will find. Upright doesn't produce many beers at a time, but what they offer will be solid, you can count on that. Chicago, IL A The General Bourbon Imperial Porter, Iron Fist Pale Ale My sister and I lucked into finding this place when we were in town for Pitchfork 2011. I honestly think this might be the best bar in Chicago, not just the best brewery. The place is sleek and elegant yet earthy and comfortable. The beer is absolutely incredible, with every single offering well above average. This place could even teach the Portland establishments a thing or two. Bend, OR A- Hop Henge, Aphrodite Their bottled exports, available in stores throughout the west coast, are decent at best. Their tasting room-only brews are top notch! Deschutes is not afraid to try any style of beer, and they commonly have over 20 varieties on tap at a given time. Sometimes their specialty brews go a bit off track, however (e.g., Giraffe on Ice Skates, Black Butte XXII). They have recently opened a tap room in Portland. Hood River, OR A- Black Gold, Bump in the Night Another two-faced brewery that bottles and exports beer of middling quality while serving delicious and complex varieties at their home base. Absolutely blown away by the 2011 Black Gold when I visited. None of their specialty brews were weak. Portland, OR A- Lavender Fudge Dessert Stout, Hoppy Amber Jared and I visited Breakside after reading some glowing reviews of their experimental cocktail beers on an online blog. I'm always a big fan of creativity in brewing and Breakside delivers here. Also, their standard beers are very very high quality, so I expected the experimental ones to kick them up into solid A territory. Unfortunately they were a bit hit-and-miss, but very unique nonetheless. Madison, WI B+ Ambergeddon, Madtown Nutbrown Madison was in desperate need of a good brewery when I lived there from 2004 to 2006. Apparently just after I left, the Ale Asylum was founded in July 2006, and this need was quenched. They don't mess around with their tasting tray either, offering 5oz of ten different beers, featuring several strong ales. I found their lighter beers to be more refined, and was blown away by the nose on the ambergeddon. Although both of my favorites can be found around town in bottles, the real deal at the brewery was significantly better. I also have to give them props for using the Diablo font on their website :-) Bend, OR B+ Bourbon Chocolate Stout A lesser-known companion to Deschutes and just around the corner in Bend, Silver Moon is very unassuming until you get a tasting tray. Although their offering is smaller, their beers go toe-to-toe with their bigger rival. I would say Silver Moon is more consistent, if a bit less adventurous. Newport, OR (B+)* John John Juniper, XS Imperial YSB, Hazelnut Brown Nectar Frankly, when I think of Rogue, I think of beer that is overpriced and overwrought. They seem to want to do absolutely everything, to prove to the world that they're unequivocally the best brewery ever. Now, they do produce some incredible brews, and you may find things at Rogue that you can't find elsewhere, but ultimately, I think they've overextended themselves, and perhaps a reality check is in order. My rating is tentative because I haven't been to their tasting room enough times to try all 30+ beers they have on tap. I must admit I'm excited to return... Livingston, MT B Belgian White, Toad Back Bock, Smooth Sailing Cream Ale I dropped into Livingston to pick up a motorcycle and ended up having a great time there. My host, Jon Reddington, was mainly responsible for this, but Neptune's played a big part too. I was blown away by the quality, variety, and price of the beer at this small place. The massive aquarium behind the bar was a neat touch too. Their grade would have been higher if their IPA and darker beers had been more rich and complex, but overall this place hits the spot. Portland, OR B C-Note IPA, LSD Lompoc is located about ten blocks from where I'm currently staying, so I've been there a few times already. Their C-Note is one of the best IPA's anywhere and they have been known to craft an alarmingly good small-batch specialty brew from time to time. Otherwise, their standard fare is exactly that. Portland, OR B Crosstown Pale Ale
Deluxe Organic Ale
My climbing partner Scott and his wife April invited me to join them at this brewery, their favorite in Portland. The outdoor terrace where we sat was beautiful and provided nice views of East Portland. The beer itself was solid, especially their ales, which had great noses. The stout was also very good. I also appreciated their ethic of sustainability and organic sourcing. That being said I felt the beer itself was middle-of-the-pack for Portland. Nothing spectacular, but everything was done well. Bend, OR (B)* NW Red, Pray for Snow 10 Barrel is a newcomer onto the Bend brewing scene. I loved the layout of their brewery, with the outdoor fire-pit being my definite go-to spot to sit and sip. The given rating is only tentative, since they were out of two of the more delicious-sounding beers when I visited, and I was also about five drinks in at that point too! I think this brewery has nowhere to go but up... Hood River, OR B- Devil's Kriek, Hop Lava A smallish brewery tucked away in the cozy town of Hood River, Double Mountain's brews were solid, but a bit disappointing. I felt as if many of their mid to upper-level beers did not deliver as advertised and lacked the depth and dimension I expected. They rotate their offering regularly, however, so I look forward to stopping by once again for a re-evaluation. Portland, OR B- King Kitty Red, Two Dogs IPA Jared and I stopped into Coalition after having a tasting at Migration one night. We were a bit disappointed with the former brewery, and were hoping to get a better experience at Coalition. Fortunately, Coalition's beers were a step up, but they were not terribly remarkable. I felt particularly let down that the 'Loving Cup Maple Porter,' which sounds so good, turned out to be a rather straightforward porter. Madison, WI C+ Specialty Brews The Dane may be the best brewery in Madison, but unfortunately that's not saying too much [*Check that, see Ale Asylum above]. I've spent countless nights there nonetheless, and I love the atmosphere of their downtown location. From time to time they'll have a limited run of a specialty beer, and historically these have been very good. At one time, their limited-release Bourbon-Aged Porter was my FBOAT (favorite beer of-all-time). South Lake Tahoe, CA C+ Bad Ass Ale The Brewery at Lake Tahoe is not trying to be the best brewery in the world. They're trying to be the a great brewery for visitors to this small resort town, and in that aim they succeed. Their brews are crafty and interesting, and although there aren't many of them, a few might surprise you. Stevenson, WA C+ Homo Erectus Imperial IPA We were excited about Walking Man after reading their beer list from their website. Unfortunately almost none of the specialty beers listed there were on tap. Among their standard fare were no real standouts, but most of the pale ales were pretty solid. Portland, OR C+ Force O' Nature Lucky Labradore is another Portland brewery that would probably dominate the beer scene of any other city, but doesn't stand out much here. I felt their beers were lacking in aroma, and several of the stronger ones were quite thin on flavor, once again allowing the flavor of alcohol to poke through. The flavors also seemed off in their Cascade IPA, Ludwig Alt and a couple other strong ales. On the bright side, the Copperopolis and Scotch Ale were quite good, and the Force of Nature was very remarkable. They also gave us slices of gourmet pizza for $1 each at the end of the night. Munchies! Portland, OR C MPA Jared and I stopped into Migration with high expectations. The place had a really nice outdoor seating area and the bar was clean and well designed. We obtained a full set of tasters comprising about seven beers. Only one of the varieties, a supposed Belgian, fell outside of the standard fare. In the end, none of the beers had any aroma, and while most of them were crisp and clean, they left almost no lasting impression on either of us. Portland, OR C Cream of the Crop Amnesia is a smallish brewing company that operates a pub in the Mississippi area of East Portland. Their generous outdoor seating makes it a good summer spot, although the quality of their beer is unremarkable. Jared and I stopped by one evening after they hosted a 'Single Hop Beer Festival'. We tasted all seven of their beers, including two seasonals which had been their entries in the fest. One of them, the Cream of the Crop, was the best Cream Ale I've ever had, and was thoroughly smooth, silky and drinkable. One of their IPA's was nice for its floral character, but both IPAs were not nearly hoppy enough for my tastes. The porter was decent. White Salmon, WA C Bro Brah Bitter ESB Everybody's Brewing is a nice place tucked into the small town of White Salmon. The decor was classy and the food looked amazing but unfortunately the beer was mediocre. The flavors were simply not there and most of the beers were noseless. Nevertheless, this was the worst that could be said about any of them, and many people don't mind a smooth, tasteless beer. Portland, OR C Hop Czar Double IPA BridgePort is Portland's second largest craft brewery, next to Widmer. Jared and I had relatively low expectations for our visit, and unfortunately those expectations were confirmed. Their selection is essentially fixed, with an offering of eight beers, one of which is a rotating seasonal. The tasting started well with their smooth lighter Pales, but we found their darker and stronger beers to be too thin, which allowed the taste of alcohol to come through. The seasonal scotch brown ale, cafe negro and kingpin double red were all very weak in my opinion. Chicago, IL (C)* N/A Goose Island patronized the Pitchfork Music Festival for many years and my first experiences with their beer was at the festival. Those experiences were not so good. One year we went to the brewpub in Wrigleyville and tried several offerings, none of which were remarkable, hence the C grade. Nonetheless, I feel Goose Island is due for a reval since they've come out with a 13.5% bourbon stout and a trio of supposedly fine belgians since I was there. Middleton, WI C- Autumnal Fire Capital Brewery was my first 'bad' microbrew. Even living in Madison, where there's not much better, I was acutely aware that most of their offering was subpar. The one great thing about Capital Brewery is their biergarten, and the Autumnal Fire ain't bad, either. Manchester, CT D The "Belgian" When I visited Connecticut for my sister's graduation, I noticed this brewery near our hotel. It was originally a John Harvard's, and in fact still had the John Harvard's sign on the building. I'm not sure whether the brews were still the same, only rebadged, but it wouldn't surprise me. Anyway, avoid this place like the plague, or visit if you're interested in discovering what bad beer tastes like. There was some kind of Belgian on the menu that had a strangely pleasing sour character to it, but I feel that was more of a fluke, and certainly not characteristic of the genre. Hartford, CT F Naughty Nurse Amber Another 'brewery' that I visited while in CT for Katie's graduation. The food at this place was absolutely amazing, and we ended up having a great time by drinking a great guest tap, the Long Trail Centennial Red Ale. This place, however, only had two beers on tap (it appears their maximum is three, despite the website) and from the flavor of them it was clear that the 'brewery' moniker is just a marketing ploy. If I were to grade the whole experience at this place, it would have been a B+ or A-, again because of good food, guest taps, and ambiance, but unfortunately, those things can't help you on this page. City, State Rating Favorite Beer(s) Notes
My 5 FBOATs (My 5 Favorite Beers Of All Time)
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