The inaugural Baltimore Beer Week came to a close this past weekend. Some of you, I know, will wonder, “It did? When did it start?” And you won’t be out of line for thinking like that.
I haven’t seen any official attendance numbers yet, so it’s hard to know if the turnout was strong or whether there will be a second week for “celebrating all things beer.” I hope so, but I wouldn’t bet your pub-crawling Snuggie on it. Few people I know had heard of the event and even fewer went out in search of it.
According to those I’ve spoken to who did participate, mostly merchants and die-hard merry-makers, all considered the comprehensive 10-day activity a success. (Only beer-makers, who are always taking liberties with additives, would tack on three extra days and still call it a “week.”)
A few folks, including yours truly, thought the organizers could have done a better job of publicizing the goings-on and explaining what was happening and why. For instance, several people asked me, “Why Baltimore?” Now, I have a cursory knowledge of Mobtown’s history as a “beer town,” and can point out the requisite landmarks and lore, both the obvious (why Mr. Boh’s head rests on Brewer’s Hill, for instance, or why Maryland’s called “the land of pleasant living”) and the obscure (the location of the family-run Gunther Brewery and who was served the city’s first post-Prohibition beer). But it would have been useful to have a few tools at my disposal, like this informative article (though slightly outdated), which I found buried on the organizers’ Web site, to help me make the case.
Still, there were so many events and related happenings — more than 370, by some accounts, spread over 60-plus venues, ranging from large-scale celebrations to multi-course beer-based dinners at area restaurants to free tastings at bars and liquor stores — it would have been nearly impossible to create a sense of cohesiveness. So, I suspect, the organizers did what they could to make Baltimore Beer Week known to those who wanted to hear about it and partake.
I wish I could have attended more events (excuses abound involving time, space, continuums, etc.), but I did make it to several crowded tastings and accomplished my goal of trying something new at each — several somethings, in fact. And this week I offer my thoughts on some of these novelties (below), in a convenient seven-pack, for those who either didn’t know or couldn’t go. (“Really, a ‘seven-pack’?” I know, but I figure it goes along with a 10-day week.) For lack of a better term, I’ll call this inaugural list, “Seven Beers I’ve Never Tried Before, Really Enjoyed, and Can’t Wait to Have Again Soon.” Enjoy!
Southern Hemisphere Harvest Ale, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. This brewery continues to amaze me. Their signature pale ale is a staple in my house, but it, a porter and a Christmas ale were pretty much all I could find by them for years. Now it seems like every time I go to my favorite beer store, there’s some new (and always delicious) Sierra Nevadan on the shelf. According to the Chico, Calif.-based brewery, the key to the “fresh hop” character of this limited release ale, which comes in a husky, 24 oz. bottle, is the use of “wet” hops, or hops that are shipped (from New Zealand!) the day they are harvested and, thus, not dried before being added to the brew kettle. This technique reportedly takes advantage of the flower’s flavorful oils and resins while at their peak. The result is a robust, aromatic blend of malty sweetness and a citrusy, slightly sour bitterness that’s mouthwatering — if only because it dries up all the liquids on the tongue and requires resalivation. Scrumptious! I’d recommend pairing this with some zesty, cheesy nachos.
Roxy Rolles, Magic Hat Brewing Co. Here’s a case where, as a consumer, I respect what the company does but I don’t like what they make. Quite often I find that this Vermont-based brewery’s beers, though highly creative and illustrative of the term “craft,” don’t mix well in my palate — their popular #9 is perhaps the worst offender: it drinks like bottled potpourri to me. Which is why I was so surprised by this delicious seasonal red ale. It’s the rare occasion where uniqueness can set the example for the crowd. Fully expecting to sip and set it down, I thoroughly enjoyed the hearty balance between fruity sweetness and earthy bitterness. It’s become my #1 alternative to the ubiquitous yet often ill-conceived autumn ales and lagers. You should roll with it, too, especially with a grilled hot dog in hand.
Cali – Belgique IPA, Stone Brewing Co. When I saw this strange elixir listed at one tasting, I had to ask (as the label predicts I would), “What exactly is that?” Turns out, the name refers to a California-style IPA that’s brewed with a Belgian yeast (Belgique is French for “Belgium,” naturellement). I’ve had a few Belgian-IPA combos before (including an amazing homebrew), but this one was different, and not just because it was an IPA-Belgian (vive la difference). Sure, it showed a richer, more coppery color and tamer effervescence than previous pours, but the main difference here is hops bitterness, something American beers have in heavy doses these days, especially the IPAs. This can be a godsend or a curse. Luckily here, as with most Stone products, it’s the former, and it’s fantastique! There’s just enough pungent, piny aroma and tangy-as-a-grapefruit flavors to remind you of its origins and not too much that it overpowers the sharp, spicy, biscuit-like Belgian influence. I liked it so much, I took home a bottle and enjoyed it with leftover orange chicken and fried rice. Tres bien, dude!
Raging Bitch, Flying Dog Brewery. One of the advantages of attending tastings, especially during a “celebration,” is occasionally lucking into beers that aren’t on the market yet. Such was the case with this puppy, which we lapped (in generous dollops) straight from the keg. Billed as a Belgian-style IPA, I thought the brew was a bit too hoppy and feisty and lacked (or, likely, muzzled) the telltale delicate spice and breadiness of that breed (see above, for comparison). Nonetheless, it was tasty, strong (8% alcohol), and very drinkable. Since it’s not even a newborn, I don’t know too much more about Raging Bitch, which is being brewed to celebrate the Frederick, Md.-based brewery’s 20th anniversary (you can read a little more about it here). But when it’s unleashed next year, I plan to fetch one.
Biere de Mars, Brewery Ommegang. This beer proved to be the most unique among all that I tasted, though it didn’t appear so at first. It’s a Belgian-style amber that pours out in a traditional orange hue, with a cascade that’s typically cloudy, frothy, and very aromatic. Lots of spice and citrus scents abound, as well. So what. But the taste is anything but blah — in fact, it was so very tart, dry and, well, funky that I thought I’d gotten the wrong glassful. Turns out the key ingredient that makes this a stellar ale is something I’ve never encountered (and can barely pronounce): Brettanomyces bruxellensis, or “Brett,” a wild yeast used in secondary fermentation. This late-stage infusion apparently imparts a fruity, peppery, musty bite that, like a dry Chardonnay, kick-starts your thirst. For Thanksgiving I like to serve this beer’s cousin, the biere de garde, which has an herbal, savory quality that ideally matches the big meal. This year, though, I think I’ll swap out a few bottles for a beer that I hope my table-mates will agree is “out of this world.”
Double India Pale Ale, Stoudt’s Brewing Co. I’ve enjoyed Stoudt’s beers for years, especially their Scarlett Lady ESB and the patriotically-outfitted American Pale Ale, which I’ve written about as a selection for the 4th. But I’ve never ventured beyond their Flag Ship beers. So I took the Beer Week tasting as an opportunity to go beyond the pale, as it were, and try something that’s “bigger” than me: the “strongest” member of the Big Beer line. What I learned is that, when handled properly, the familiar can become quite unusual. For instance, the typical hazy golden color is deceiving — at 10% alcohol, this is no “light” beer. And the customary Cascade hops fragrance, which is coy and subtle in the Pale Ale, adopts a potent, eye-watering, in-your-face stance here — literally, if you drink from a big glass. But the effects of the hops and malt “generosity” is more pleasurable than powerful, which may be the best way to describe this glass-bound colossus. I liked it so much, the next night I brought a six-pack to a dinner party at a friend’s house. It proved to be a big hit with the glazed pan-roasted pork loin.
Oak Aged Unearthly, Southern Tier Brewing Co. The gentleman at the tasting who poured this dark amber-colored ale into my glass used terms like “vigorously hopped” and “aggressive” and “divine liquid” to describe this new-to-me brew. And, I have to admit, he wasn’t exaggerating. This unique Imperial IPA proved to be one of the strongest, hopped-up sweet beers I’ve ever had — and I’m not exaggerating. The mixture of several kinds of malted grains, including red wheat, and the use of at least four different hop varieties produces an explosive combination of resiny, citrusy aromas and strong yet balanced caramel and toffee flavors. Add to that a vanilla-like nuttiness derived from aging in oak (rum?) barrels and you’ve got a beer that smells like an IPA, tastes like a bockbier, and kicks like a mule (11% alcohol). Buy it in a 22 oz. bottle and share it with a friend over grilled burgers with bleu cheese and onions. Now that’s an earthly delight.
So, there you have it, a selection of new beers in honor of a special week that wasn’t — in more ways than one. I hope it’s just me and there were hundreds of Bawlmer beer-drinkers who flocked to and frolicked in the series of festivities that opened with a bang — literally, by none other than bar-b-q legend Boog Powell, swinging the “Star-Spangled Banger” to tap a ceremonial keg in front of a sold-out crowd. But, from where I was seated, there seemed to be much more froth than fizz.
As always, tell us what you think. Did you partake in any Beer Week activities? If so, which ones were the beery best? Are there other new beers that you tasted this week and want others to discover? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
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