The Great Beer Region Experiment Part 2: Kosher New York

The Back Story:

The Saratoga Race Course is the lifeblood of the Saratoga area

Funny story… I was actually in Saratoga Springs, home of today’s featured brewing company, Shmaltz, just a few weeks ago, and I had no clue that a brewery even existed in that city. I was much more focused on the foodie aspect of the trip, experiencing the fantastic cuisine in restaurants that sprung up around the horse-racing industry.

If you consider the alcohol-related industry, beer brewing doesn’t rate terribly high on the list of attractions. The Finger Lakes dominate discussion of New York, which makes sense considering New York is one of the “big four” states in the wine industry. A New York Riesling holds much more sway over the average consumer than a New York beer…

Which is really not fair at all. New York has a thriving craft beer industry; it’s just that these beers fail to find their way to most of the beer drinkers in America. In fact, some of the best Belgian-style ales I’ve had come from the area. There are some recognizable brewers in the area, Ommegang, Brooklyn, Adirondack, but I’ve yet to see close to 95% of them in any specialty beer shops in the South. Only the biggest will make it out alive, which is a shame, because the general rule of craft beer is the bigger they come, the harder they fall. And thus, we come to Shmaltz’s He’Brew Messiah Bold.

You know how Hollywood summer blockbusters go, right? High expectations, budgets bigger than the GDP of a Caribbean island nation, big names attached, movie posters everywhere, and more TV face time than all your state senators combined, all are symptoms of an overhyped movie that ends up being entirely forgettable. We fall for it every time, of course, hearing the goofy one-liners recited by everyone a month before the movie comes out, memorizing the best scenes of the movie compressed into a 30 second assault on the senses.

Such is the fate of He’Brew, which has a clever name, marketing scheme, and label, all things that immediately contribute to my wariness of a brand. I only decided to try it nearly a year after I’d first encountered it on store shelves. One thing I didn’t know until I actively set out to try this beer was that the beer is certified Kosher. Though this doesn’t particularly matter to me, not being of the Jewish faith, it is an interesting aspect that, quite frankly, I never considered applying to beer.

The Results:

He'Brew Messiah Bold Bottle and Pour ReviewThe appearance of the beer is very dark, almost black at first glance, but it has a very pure red translucency. Very brilliant color, and head retention is respectably long. Carbonation is very fine and calm.

The nose of the beer is surprisingly fruity with notes of a jam-like cherry, chocolate, coconut, and hops.

The mouthfeel of the beer is very smooth, somewhat full, and it coats the mouth rather decently. The carbonation is aggressive as it hits the tongue, but it’s not unpleasant, suiting the fullness very well.

The flavor of the beer is slightly strong with notes of carmel, hops, grass, and mocha. It has a very pleasant bitterness that persists through a finish of strong coffee. The finish, unfortunately, doesn’t want to stick around. It’s gone faster than (insert Randal-Graves-style Jewish joke here, then censor it).

This is a fairly strong beer that demands a more hefty meal: steak, pork, something marinated and savory. Anything less would crumble under the brunt of this beer’s flavors.

For the Casual Drinker:

The nose will definitely through you off, leading you to believe it might be lighter than its color would suggest. Make no mistake, this beer has the characteristics of a typical brown ale, which might be a bit unsavory for someone used to lighter beers. For someone used to the brown ale style, this might be a little lighter than you’re expecting. I wouldn’t say it’s terrible… just unimpressive.

The Conclusion:

It’s not quite at the level that you’d expect from a craft beer at this price point. It’s still a pleasant, agreeable brown ale that should at least demonstrate that the phrase “kosher beer” isn’t quite as scary as it would seem. 5/10

In Case You Missed It:

Beer: He’Brew Messiah Bold

Producer: Shmaltz Brewing Company

Region: Saratoga Springs, New York

Vintage: n/a

Alcohol: 5.6%

pH: unknown

Price: $1.60 per 12 oz bottle

Purchased at: Total Wine

The Great U.S. Beer Region Experiment Part 1: Vietnam

We will be visiting 5 regions, 4 of which are in the US, to find out what exactly is going on outside the normal beer world. I’ll also try to give a little bit of background and history for each region and style in the back story.

The lineup for the week is as follows:

  • Today: Hue Beer (Hue City, Vietnam)
  • Tuesday: Kosher He’Brew Messiah Bold (Saratoga Springs, New York)
  • Wednesday: Great Divide IPA (Boulder, Colorado)
  • Thursday: Highland IPA (North Carolina)
  • Friday: Thomas Creek Deep Water Dopplebock Lager (South Carolina)

As for today, let’s check out Vietnam before we dive into the U.S. beer extravaganza…

Hue Beer BottleThe Back Story:

The beer industry in Vietnam is rather different from that of the U.S. While the vast majority of the beer consumed in the U.S. is from macrobrews in North America and Europe, leaving craft beer to a much smaller market share, Vietnam’s beer industry is centered around local microbrews. There are around 300 microbreweries crafting a local specialty called Bia Hoi, or “fresh beer,” sold by the barrel to cafés and restaurants without preservatives, intended to be consumed the same day they are packaged.

Aside from that, there are a few major producers of bottled beer, one of which is the Hue Brewery. Partially owned by Carlsberg, the Danish brewing company and the 4th largest in the world, the Hue Brewery is basically a large-scale, single-beer producer, though they’ll also occasionally indulge in seasonal fare. That single beer, creatively named Hue Beer, is a pale lager, a similar style to the Budweisers and Millers of the world.

The Results:

Hue Beer PourThe appearance of the beer is a light golden yellow, rather dull, with head retention of only a few seconds. The carbonation is coarse and aggressive, and the foam has a soapy, filmy quality.

The nose of the beer is rather plain, though a bit heftier than a standard lager, with notes of acrylic paint, grass, walnut and green apples.

The mouthfeel of the beer is sharp, though a bit thin, and it fails to reach the mouth in any way. Once it hits the tongue, it dissipates. Pretty much everywhere but the tongue, the feel is fleeting.

The flavor of the beer is not quite as plain or as weak as the nose would suggest, though it’s still a pale lager (read:: comparable to Pilsner). Green apples, straw, and a very light floral, perfumey note as it approaches the finish. The finish itself is mealy, grassy, and bitter, a bit longer than expected but not nearly satisfying enough for a craft-priced beer.

This would be a beer that you’d use to cool down your mouth after a spicy barbecue or hot-wing-style meal… the alcohol barely comes through and is more cooling than warming. I would also give it the okay to sip in warmer weather, so long as it stays ice cold. This beer doesn’t develop in the glass; rather, it begins diminishing immediately, and the flavor becomes unpleasant once it strays from refrigeration temperature.

For the Casual Drinker:

There’s really not much to say here… if you’re a fan of American-style lager, you’ll probably like this beer. Pair it with a barbecue-style meal, something spicy, or anything that you’ll be grilling or eating outside, really. The real question is are you willing to shell out around $2 per bottle for it (that’s about the same price as a Dogfish Head, Clipper City, or a Bell’s craft beer).

The Conclusion:

To be honest, I was expecting something a bit more exotic than the typical American lager experience, especially at that price. I suppose if you want to experience an Eastern beer, you could shell out for it, but I’d just as soon sip on 3 Budweisers at that price. 2/10

In Case You Missed It:

Beer: Hue Beer

Producer: Hue Brewery, LTD

Region: Vietnam

Vintage: n/a

Alcohol: 5.0%

pH: unknown

Price: $2 per 12 oz bottle

Color me Converted: Norwegian Sour Ale

So, I have to say that, in my rather limited experience with sour ales, I’ve found the results to be especially satisfying. These beers are a very specific kind of brew that generally follows a set formula:

-fermented with an organism other than traditional yeast

-a blend of older, oak-aged beer with a younger specimen to combine aged sourness with young sweetness

-red or brown coloring from specialty malts

-strong fruity and floral aromas and flavors that overwhelm the beer’s natural hoppiness

Now, by and large, sour ales are considered a Belgian specialty. I for one had always invested in Belgian sours and Flemish reds. I have one more with intent to review in the fridge right now, actually.

The real story, though, is, on a whim, while I was placing an order at Bruisin Ales, I swapped out a duplicate Flemish red for a Norwegian sour as recommended by their proprietor. How was it? I’m not even going to tease. I loved it, and here’s a massive shot of it so you can see what I got. Haandbakk by Haand Bryggeriet. An Oud Bruin (Flanders brown) ale. Delicious vitals after the jump.

The Results:

The appearance of the beer is very appealing. It has a deep reddish brown color but a pure translucency. There’s very little cloudiness, which lends it a bright red luminosity in the light. The head retention is decent, but it’s not enough to let the beer truly develop in the glass. Once it’s there, the aromas will begin escaping, so you better enjoy it quickly.

The nose of the beer is almost purely sour fruit, with green apple and sour cherry. There’s almost no beer smell to it. The unusual preparation lends it an almost dusty, earthy aroma.

The mouth feel of the beer matches the flavor profile very well. It’s actively acidic and carbonated, accenting the sourness while adding structure to the perceived sweetness.

The flavor of the beer is very brisk and very sour. It has hints of herbs and grass, though it’s largely a fruit affair. Apple, cherry candy, almost like a Jolly Rancher. The hops come through on the finish with a hint of dark chocolate. The alcohol, at 8%, is nonexistent on the flavor.

For the Casual Drinker:

This doesn’t even remotely approach the typical flavor of a beer. The response I got from someone not expecting a sour ale said quite plainly that it smelled rotten. The fruits are pungent and, quite frankly, a trifle dusty, overwhelming a surprised palate. You have to go into this expecting anything but a typical beer.

The Conclusion:

Want a unique experience? This certainly qualifies. It’s a bit expensive at $11 for just over a pint, making it on par with those $40 to $50 bottles of juice you always bypass at the wine shop. Special occasion beer? Absolutely, but I recommend getting a bottle to try before you stock the fridge for New Years. 8/10

In Case You Missed It:

Beer: Haandbakk

Producer: Haand Bryggeriet

Region: Norway

Vintage: 2008

Alcohol: 8%

Price: $11 / 16.9 oz

Yeti Espresso, an Oak-Aged Gem from Colorado

The Back Story:

It’s a funny thing about wine regions. People are very, very protective of where their favorite wines come from. Wine regions have spawned organizations, bloggers, books, arguments, articles, and carefully delineated wine sections.

But what about beer?

Trappist beers: Belgian beer brewed directly by or under the supervision of Trappist monks only (from crossroadsmag.eu)

I’ve had a Belgian Twitterer(er?) quickly and sharply correct me when I incorrectly referred to a Canadian ale as a Belgian ale instead of “Belgian-style.” Can you imagine a Kentucky resident knocking someone down a peg for referring to a Heineken as an “American beer”?

I’ve been told that Colorado is the capital of American craft beer (a claim I wouldn’t necessarily dispute, either). Considering the staggeringly good beer coming from that state, it’s a rightful argument.

Oktoberfest is a now-worldwide celebration inspired by Bavaria and its many, many fine beers. Without the German pride and enthusiasm combined with quality food and brews, this innocuous seasonal festival would never have reached global obsession.

Basically, the short answer is yes, beer regions have their supporters as well. Because beer is so much less dependent on terroir and because beer (generally) takes a lot less time to craft and perfect, regions matter much less than the process and the quality of ingredients. This doesn’t negate the fact, though, that hops are like grapes in that they have ideal climates and harvest times. It’s just that there are so many more ingredients involved in the process that the gains are diminished.

The perception of region is more dependent on the fact that certain places attract certain brewers and breweries, and that tradition dictates product moreso than terroir. Belgian-style ales can be brewed anywhere on the planet, but the best still arguably come from Belgium. The monasteries that made the Trappist and Abbey styles famous still hold the mystique and guard the secrets that keep their product in higher esteem than the non-so-designated outsiders.

Because the New World is so, well, new, we don’t really have respected beer regions yet. Americans celebrate their Budweiser and Miller beers, and Pabst Blue Ribbon is only somewhat ironically consumed by hipsters. When Belgians bought Anheuser-Busch, swill-drinking Americans acted as though the world were ending. Since the buyout, A-B has produced two astoundingly not terrible beers: the American Ale and Golden Wheat. Lo and behold, the noise machines wound down, and the world moved on. To relate, a similar reaction would be to Americans protesting a Bordeaux chateau purchasing Franzia and developing premium wines that don’t taste like the underside of a shower drain. There shouldn’t be a down-side, but we just largely didn’t know better.

I don’t think we have too much longer to wait on this. We’re developing regional craft beers that are gaining steam. Dogfish Head in Delaware, Abita in Louisiana, Bell’s in Michigan, these are all attracting like-minded, experimental brewers who are slowly bringing recognition to their respective regions. Because of the absence of tradition in any of these regions, they are free to create whatever beers strike their fancy. There is one state, though, that I believe is ahead on many fronts.

The state that produces Coors Light.

Allow me to present exhibit A for the case of Colorado as the first great beer region of the United States: Great Divide‘s Espresso Oak Aged Yeti. Aged with oak chips and infused with coffee, this beer showcases the innovation of American brewers.

The Results:

The appearance of the beer is deep, dark, opaque, almost entirely black. It pours like a cup of strong coffee. The head is thick and espresso-colored and retains for over a minute.

The nose of the beer is of a dark roast coffee combined with notes of almond and vanilla. There’s no mistaking the added coffee in this beer.

The mouth feel of the beer is wonderfully active and hefty with a very thick smoothness. The carbonation is more aggressive than I anticipated. It’s bright and sharp.

The flavor of the beer is, as you might expect, primarily coffee-forward with a hint of vanilla. The hoppiness comes through after the initial coffee flavors fade, contributing a bitter orange zest. The finish is a blend of dark chocolate and espresso, and it tastes almost exactly like the sediment at the bottom of a mocha latte. You’re basically approaching a wine level as far as alcohol is concerned, at 9.5%, and it’s hardly detectable. It does for beer what alcohol should always do for beer: stay out of the way of the flavor while providing the structure.

For the Casual Drinker:

The color alone should suggest that this isn’t going to be a light affair. The coffee flavor, though, makes it drink much more smoothly than a black stout would. As much as I mention coffee in the descriptors, it’s actually fairly light, at least lighter than a cup of coffee would be. If you’re looking for a food pairing, you’re going to want to look on the hearty side. Savory dishes like pork or chicken with spices and gravy, or spicy, bright foods.

The Conclusion:

Phenomenal. Of the higher end craft beers I’ve had, this one is right up there. For $11.00 per half-liter, it’s not cheap, but let’s face it: you’re willing to spend $20 on 750 ml of wine, why not invest in a properly brewed craft beer? 8/10

In Case You Missed It:

Beer: Espresso Oak-Aged Yeti

Producer: Great Divide

Region: Colorado, US

Vintage: n/a

Alcohol: 9.5%

Price: $11 / 500 ml

Wailua Wheat Ale: A Sign of Summer

The Back Story:

Everyone has their own triggers to make them officially recognize when winter ends and spring begins. Maybe it’s the first Sweet William planted in April, gambling against the chance of a late-season frost. Maybe it’s the first time you look outside before work and trade in your khakis for a pair of shorts, even if it’s not quite casual Friday.

Maybe it’s simply the first time you break a sweat while walking around outside and have those first pinings for sand and surf.

Regardless, as seasons change, so do tastes. We spend less time in front of fires, whether real or simulated, with our GSM blends and Chardonnays, and migrate to the porches, pouring Pinot Noirs and Gewurztraminers. Whatever habits we happily indulge in during the winter months are slowly replaced by equally enjoyable and possibly ill-advised vices inspired by the warmer months.

For me, my wine drinking habits are the first to change. I always go through a period of three to four weeks where I just have no compulsion to put red wine to my lips. It literally takes several bottles of even the most disappointing white wine before I want to see a Carignan or Merlot placed before me. All the meanwhile, I’ll happily toss back the most opaque, dark-as-night black ales and mocha stouts. At some point, probably the first time I attempt to engage in an athletic activity while sipping on said beers, I’ll have a change of heart (and stomach) for some lighter fare.

Enter Wailua Wheat. Brewed and bottled in the heart of Hawai’i Island’s Kailua by the Kona Brewing Company, this beer pulls off a feat that few alcoholic beverages achieve. Let’s face it: if you made a Venn Diagram of delicious beers versus refreshing beers, it would look something like this:

Venn diagram of beer

If you’re looking for a beer that strikes a nice balance between being drinkable and being drinkable when you’re actually thirsty, your options are fairly limited. Do I think Wailua Wheat fits the bill? You already know the answer to that question.

The Results:

Wailua Wheat Ale PourThe appearance of the beer is rather pale and golden, similar to a Belgian-style ale, but with a very strong orange cloudiness that becomes apparent as light refracts through. Head retention is fairly minimal, especially for a wheat beer.

The nose of the beer is a sweet and very ripe citrus, reminiscent of its passion fruit along with a note of sours and a malted, nutty scent consistent with American lagers.

The mouth feel of the beer is extremely dry and crisp, not at all full, and it doesn’t coat the mouth like a more substantial beer. Its carbonation is fairly light but still active. It hits the tongue with a very active, citrusy acidity.

The flavor of the wine is not nearly as fruity as you’d expect. There’s a distinct passion fruit, but it doesn’t overwhelm the flavors of the beer. It conveys the flavor and sweetness without being syrupy. The beer itself has a flavor of almonds and puffed wheat cereal (think Super Golden Crisp). The taste is rather understated, almost powdery, very delicate. It’s on the cusp of being too thin. As soon as it starts warming up, the flavors dissipate, and it starts tasting more like a typical wheat ale. This beer is best by far at around 40 degrees.

For the Casual Drinker:

This is a very friendly beer to approach, especially if you’re used to the typical American lager. It’s got a simple flavor, not at all overwhelming, and the passion fruit flavor comes through just enough to give you a taste of complexity. To me, this beer just seems like it would be at home with beads of condensation running down it. Hot and humid would only make this beer taste better. Drink it cold, and don’t dilly-dally!

The Conclusion:

For 8 bucks a six-pack, you’re not priced out of enjoying a delicious and refreshing summer ale. 6/10

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