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Monday, October 29, 2012

Back Forty Bock By New Glarus Brewing Co.

  • Style:  Wisconsin Block 
  • ABV:  5.5%
  • Season: Autumn
  • Ease to locate: New Glarus Brewing only distributes in Wisconsin.  But their website does have a handy beer finder
  • Color: Dark brown with hints of red
  • Head:  Moderate (one finger)
  • Aroma: Bready yeast & dark fruit
  • Mouthfeel: Smooth & dry
  • Finish: Moderate to almost long
  • Food friendly: Hearty Fall food, like Kielbasas with German Potatoes or Rueben sandwiches    
New Glarus Brewing Co. and I suffer a long distance relationship.  And like most long distance couples, one person always seems to do the bulk of the traveling.  Since the brewery doesn't distribute outside of Wisconsin (no matter how many threatening pleading love letters I may send) this die hard Bears fan is usually forced to make the  occasional drive northwards in order to get my fix.  More likely, I may try to convince someone else into making the trip instead (I mean, it is Packer territory, people.)  Of course, the mere fact that I can't just pop down to my local liquor store to procure a beer makes their bottles seem all that more enticing.  The heart always wants what it has to cross state lines for, I guess.  As fate would have it, my boss' good friend journeys up to the wilds of Wisconsin frequently and smuggles me back a six pack every so often.  Which is NOT a bride to always put his calls through no matter what my boss may think (OK, yeah, it probably is.  My boss pays me in money, but his buddy pays me in BEER.  I can always get a second job.)

Last week my connection passed me a six pack of the Back Forty Bock.  It was my first time trying New Glarus' version of a bock, or as they like to call it, a Wisconsin Bock.  Bocks are strong lagers.  A lager is created by fermenting and conditioning the beer at very cold temperatures, as opposed to an ale which is created at higher temperatures.  They're mainly German in origin and were once the main nutritional  supply for monks during periods of fasting.  I'm sensing some sort of Lenten loophole here that they didn't mention to me at Catholic school.

The Back Forty Bock poured a striking dark brown liquid, shimmering with highlights of garnet.  It reminded me of an expensive newly stained piece of mahogany.  There was a low to moderate head (maybe about one finger's worth) that sunk down pretty quickly to a shallow layer of foam for the rest of the pint.  It produced pretty lacing on the side of the glass that slid into the beer almost immediately.  The head had the homey aroma of bready yeast and dark, dark fruit.  A bit sweet smelling, but all in all, it gave a very appealing first impression.  But after all the foreplay, the initial taste was rather disappointing.  I could distinguish the toasty malt right away.  It possessed some molasses notes and an ever so slight almond flavor.  I had no clue where the dark fruit flavors fled to, because I couldn't detect any at all.  Honestly?  Nothing really stood out to me taste-wise.  It was, after a few studied sips, just alright.  As the beer sat, it did warm up with a spicy note, and maybe a bit of earthiness, which did add some much needed character.  It was a smooth, uncomplex, easy to drink beer.  I noticed an abundance of effervescence that suprised me, but I grew to sort of enjoy the bubbly, dry mouthfeel.  The finish stayed with me longer than I expected for such an uncomplex beer.  A bit of a prolonged goodbye if you will.

With the easy going taste, I think Back Forty could benefit from a more flavorful food pairing.  Spicy German sausage and vinegary sauerkraut spring immediately to mind.  Cold cuts like pastrami and corned beef also would be perfect with this beer.  Pick up some strong German mustard (such as Lakeside's Hot German Dusseldorf Mustard , which is also a Wisconsin only product that I pick up when traveling north) to spread on the rye bread.  A less obvious idea might be to serve the beer with a lentil curry,  thick with onion, garlic and ginger flavors.  All in all, yeah, I'd be happy to drink this Wisconsin Bock again on a crisp Fall evening.  I just wouldn't travel into Packer territory to do it.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Old Brown Dog Ale by Smuttynose Brewery

Image borrowed from
  • Style: American Brown Ale
  • ABV: 6.7%
  • Season: All Year Round
  • Ease to locate: Large liquor stores around the country  (Binny's sells it for $9.99 a six pack)
  • Color: Gorgeous reddish brown.  Cloudy when served too cold.
  • Head: Medium, but sticks around.  Aromatic.
  • Aroma: Opens as it warms.  Initial notes of caramel and malt heat up to the scents of fig and roasted nuts
  • Mouthfeel: Medium.  More lush than most brown ales.
  • Finish: Medium.  Fruity hops on the finish. 
  • Food friendly: Homey, rustic food.  Serve with braised or roasted meats and vegetables.  
I make it a point to take a trip at least once a year.  Twice even, if I can find enough change under the cushions (and they don't necessarily have to be on my couch.  You've been warned.)  Now, I'm not a sit on the beach sort of girl, so most of my vacations center around destinations lush with history instead of mai tais.  And as luck would have it, these same places usually also showcase amazing local food and drink options.  I recently returned from a trip to Boston where I made it a point to try a different local craft beer each night.  I'm just zany like that.

We were pretty tired from travel our first night, so we ate at a small seafood restaurant right around the corner from our hotel.  Let's just say that I was a bit more (WIDE) awake after I realized that the place charged $30 for a simple lobster roll.  For that price, I'd like to think that my lobster had at least graduated from  Harvard before being boiled.  I honestly had no idea what to drink with a thirty dollar hot dog bun stuffed with a bit of lobster meat.  My server suggested Smuttynose Brewery's  Old Brown Dog Ale.  Smuttynose is a well known New Hampshire brewery and their Old Brown Dog is regarded as one of the best American Brown Ales produced today.   I, of course, didn't know that then.  I just thought "Smuttynose?  Is this some sort of porn influenced beer line?  The Cinamax after Dark of breweries?"  (Smuttynose is actually an island off the coasts of New Hampshire and Maine, so mind = gutter for me apparently.)  Brown Ales emigrated from England in the late 1700's along with roast mutton and buckle shoes.    And just like cars and Big Gulps, New England soon decided that bigger is better.  American Brown ales are usually stronger than their English or German counterparts and much hoppier.  Old Brown Dog is no exception.

The Old Brown Dog Ale had a deep, reddish brown color that just screamed Autumn to me.  The head on the pour was a bit heavy, but sunk down nicely after a minute.  It left a soft, almond colored foam resting on top that lingered even after a few sips.  The initial smell of malt was quickly replaced by the aroma of fresh caramel and whiffs of vanilla.  Honestly, this was exactly how I imagined that a public house in Revolutionary times would smell.  And so much more romantic than I assume the real scent of BO and rotting food. (That lovely image was brought to you courtesy of the subway ride I took later on the trip.)  There was a back note of fruity hops as I drank, which added an enjoyably refreshing quality to the swallow.  As the beer warmed, the flavors became more pronounced.  Midway through my Ivy League educated crustacean in a ball park bun, I could taste the sweetness of figs, the sharpness of roasted nuts and a spiciness that wasn't really there during the first few sips.  I love it when your beer opens like a great wine.  It makes for a ginormously more interesting brew.  It was an incredibly smooth beer as well.  Medium bodied with a semi lush mouthfeel.  It was as if a porter and an ale had a baby and named it Old Brown Dog (of course that's pretty cruel parenting, like calling your newborn Enoch or Bertha.) 

While it's sold as a year round beer, I think that it's especially satisfying for the Autumn months.  I certainly plan on purchasing a few bottles to enjoy while the leaves are still falling.  Drink it with a rustic pot roast or homemade chicken pot pie fresh from the oven.  And, as I'm sure my crimson lobster friend said as he was being lowered into that scalding pot of water, "Hurray pro bonus imbibo!"

Of course a  Harvard lobster would speak in Latin.  Pretentious snob. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Charles Smith Wines

From time to time I'd like to introduce you to new wineries to try.  Sometimes you get to your local liquor store all ready to purchase a specific bottle of your favorite Pinot Noir only to discover that some guy in a "Drink Up, Bitchez" t-shirt has just emptied the shelf of it (at least he has amazing taste in wine, right?  And if he actually left the house wearing that shirt, you can assume that he's probably single and needs the wine more than you do anyway.)   That's when it's good to have knowledge of a few no fail wineries to fall back on.  My go-to winery is out of Walla Walla, Washington and run by the ex-road manager of various European 80's rock bands.   He's got wild hair, dresses in ripped black jeans and just has bad ass written all over him.  So of course when Charles Smith gave up the music biz, he became a self taught winemaker.  I mean, managing a Danish rock band and creating a highly drinkable Syrah.  Obviously similar career aspirations.   I assume that when Justin Beiber finally hits puberty, his manager will follow the same path, right?

Charles "Bad Ass" Smith

Charles Smith Wines reflect his brand's personal motto "It's just wine.  Drink it."  They are as unpretentious as their iconic  black & white block letter labels.  In fact, it's those easily identifiable labels that make it so simple to find a bottle on a crowded store shelf.  

He owns the umbrella label of K Vintners which puts out not only the affordable Charles Smith Wines, but also the  more pricey K label.  I've tried a few of the K label wines at tastings and they are truly wonderful wines.  Well balanced, true flavors and single vineyard bottlings (this means that the grapes were harvested from the same vineyard.  It's an important quality point which often leads to a high price tag.)  They range in price between $45 -$140.  The above bottle is his Cougar Hills Syrah.  The 2009 retails for about $45.00 a bottle.  Wine Spectator gave it 94 points with the tasting notes of "Rich, complex, powerful and compelling, densely packed with ripe blackberry, black cherry, licorice and tar flavors that keep pumping through the rock-solid finish." .   If I could afford to drink this on a regular basis, I certainly would (and if you happen to be able to afford it, then invite me over for dinner.  I'll bring desert.)

What I can afford is his less expensive Charles Smith Wines.  They also have the bold black & white labels, but sport cool varietal names.  Velvet Devil Merlot.    Kung Fu Riesling.  Boom Boom Syrah.  You can tell right off the bat that these wine will be fun.  I mean who doesn't want to ask a guest at a dinner party if they'd like a little more Boom Boom in their glass?

The Velvet Devil Merlot $12.00

Kung Fu Girl Riesling $12.00
Boom Boom Syrah $15.00

The one I keep stocked in my wine cooler is Kung Fu Girl.  I tend to recommend this wine more than any other wine I know.  I come from a rather close family who all live within ten minutes of each other.  Luckily for me, both of my brothers married wonderful women.  I'd probably drink a lot more at family gatherings if they didn't.  (Good for the blog.  Not so much for my liver.)   I'll usually crack open a bottle when we all get together (so we're talking holidays like birthdays, anniversaries, any weekend day ending in a "Y".)  One SIL likes very sweet wine while the other prefers some dryness.  I personally love that mouth pucker you get from wine that's as dry as the Sahara Desert.  The one and only bottle that all three of us can agree on is Kung Fu Girl.  It's not cloyingly sweet and has just enough dryness to pair well with most spicy food.  Think Asian or Mexican dishes.  If you're meeting friends at a BYOB restaurant and have absolutely no idea what to bring that will suit everyone's taste, this is bottle to grab. 

Hopefully none of your dinner companions will be wearing a "Drink Up Bitchez" t-shirt.  If one is and she's single, I may know a guy who's perfect for her.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Domaine DuPage by Two Brothers Brewing Co.

  • Style:                French Country Style Ale
  • ABV:                5.9%
  • Season:             All year round
  • Ease to locate:  Medium.  In Illinois, liquor (think Binnys or Cardinal) & grocery (think Jewel or Domincks) stores.  It does export to other states.  Check their website for locations.
  • Color:                An exceptionally pretty copper amber color.  Lightly cloudy.
  • Head:                Medium
  • Aroma:             Toast & Nutty
  • Mouth feel:        Soft yet lingering lightly in the mouth
  • Finish:               Decent.  The hop flavor kicks in on the back note, which stays slightly on the tongue.
  •  Food friendly:    Hell yes!  Everything from grilled vegetables to chicken to white non-fatty fish, to pizza. 

To get the ball rolling, I decided to begin with my absolute favorite local craft beer, Two Brothers Brewing Co.'s Domaine DuPage  Why?  Because I've yet to meet anyone who hasn't taken a long pull of this amber gold and not exclaim "Man, this is good!  What is it?  Am I allowed to drink this fancy beer from the bottle?"  Yes, yes you are, my beer coozie companion.  It's what I reach for when some poor misguided soul asks me for a Bud Light or Miller.  I like to covertly add a few bottles of Domaine DuPage to the beer cooler at someone's party and just watch people discover this wonderful drink.  Two Brothers Brewing Co. is a brewery located in Warrenville, IL (about a 45 minute drive from Chicago.  )  They make a wide variety of beer, including special seasonal and limited release brews. Yet I always go back to this French Style Country Ale. French Country Ales (AKA Biere de Garde if you want to get all bilingual on me) are known for their copper coloring, moderate body and toasted maltiness.  Domaine DuPage is a wonderful example of everything that is right with this under produced varietal. 

You initially taste a lightly sweet caramel flavor that is quickly followed by a toasted nuttiness (think Grape Nuts.)  I don't notice any of the vanilla flavoring that seems to overtake most caramel notes in some domestic ales.  I also get a very, very slight nod of almonds notes.  The back note leads into the bitter hops that refreshes your palate more efficiently than a beer flavored Tic Tac (I know, now you all want a beer flavor Tic Tac.  Some day, my friends.  Some day.)    There's a dry, earthy bite to the last taste that makes you want to take a second sip.  And a third.

There's just enough foam on the pour to give you an enticing aroma of toasted homemade bread.  The head lightly laces the glass on a swirl.  It reminds me of the way the first winter snow might frost a window pane.   Ales usually are not known for their clarity, yet this beer hits the balance note here too.  I'm not one to enjoy watching bits & pieces of god knows what float around in my beer.  The light sediment here works with the coloring, giving it a welcome cloudiness that helps to deepen the copper color (and most likely enhances the mouth feel as well.)

In a nutshell, this is a wonderfully balanced beer.  I drink it all four seasons, which makes it a staple in my beer fridge.  Like most well balanced drinks, it's exceptionally food friendly.  I like to think of it as the Sauvignon Blanc of craft beers.  Stay away from very spicy food or fatty meats.  There's not enough acid or heartiness here to cut through too much fat.  Instead, serve it with pizza & wings on game day.  Pan sautee a piece of white fish in a little olive oil and drizzle with fresh pesto.  Grill a chicken.   Maybe make it a beer can chicken.  After all you've got to use that Bud that your best friend's husband brought some how.  And pour him a glass while you're at it.  Maybe next time he'll bring you some Domaine DuPage instead. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Through the teeth, past the gums....

Through the teeth.  Past the gums.  Look out stomach, here it comes!

That's my dad's go-to toast for anything mildly alcoholic.  Or carbonated.  Or just wet.  He usually follows it up with an enthusiastic "Mmmm.  That goooood booze."  Yes, my father is one ink color shy of being a Bugs Bunny cartoon.  But since this blog is going to be all about the Mmmmm-ness of good booze, it seems like an appropriate way to begin.

My goal is to introduce you to amazing craft beers and interesting wines, both local to the Chicago area and from around the world.  I'm hoping to help you navigate the sometimes overwhelming world of not just drinking something, but drinking something wonderful.   I know what it's like to walk into a liquor store and spend twenty minutes staring desperately at a wall of bottles, only to walk out with something random because I liked the label.  And let me tell you, labels rarely taste as good as quality alcohol (I'm looking at you, Yellow Tail.)  There was a time when trying to figure out what drink to serve with dinner was enough to make me wish for the 21st Amendment to be reinstated for at least one more night.  I also used to be that girl who all bartenders hate.  You know, the one who would take forever to figure out what she wanted only to finally just get a cranberry and vodka.  Again.  (At least I've always been a great tipper.) 

And then I discovered that there is a whole wide world of  alcohol out there beyond anything that has "Bud" or "Two Buck Chuck" in the title. And suddenly the gates of heaven opened up.  Angels with mugs of Left Hand Milk Stout and cherubs with wine glasses of  2009 Altos Los Hormias Malbec greeted me.  OK, maybe I just got a subscription to Food & Wine instead, but you get the picture.  I started educating myself by reading about beer & wine.  I began to check out tasting events.  And I asked questions of anyone who would talk to me.  And some who really didn't want to talk, but eventually gave in anyway.

Wine, beer and spirits should be fun.  They should be adventurous.  And most of all, they should be tasty.  And remember, I drink so you can drink better.