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Monday, November 25, 2013

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday of the year.  Yes, of course, I love the sparkling lights and candy cane lanes of Christmas.  And yeah, I may be over twelve, but I still look forward to blowing out those candles on my birthday apple pie (What?  Like that doesn't sound utterly amazing once you think about it.)  But Thanksgiving will always hold a special place in my heart as a perfect sort of holiday.  It seems to me that every other day of the year we obsess over the things we want, the things we don't have and the thing we long for.  Thanksgiving is the one day that we set aside to show our gratitude for everything that we already possess in our insanely frantic, more is better, I need the latest version of last year's model, lives.  I'm thankful for so many things in my life.  Family.  Friends.  A good job and a warm home.  Oh, and Chicago's local craft beer scene.  Possibly not even in that order all the time.   So in the spirit of the Holiday of Much Gratitude, I'm sharing with you all the top five things about Chicago's craft beer scene that make me brim with thanks.

The new guys on the scene 

Above are only a few of the one zillion (or at least it feels like that) new breweries that have opened in the Chicago area lately.  At times they remind me of a gaggle of teenage girls at a mall.  It's difficult to keep up with all of them, let alone remember their names.  Ale Syndicate. SlapShot Brewing.  18th Streeet Brewery.  I could go on.  And yes, some are producing better beer than others.  But that's exactly what I find so exciting our Chicago craft explosion.   The new guys arrive on the scene with all of the adrenaline and passion of a second hand suit wearing, mom's Volvo driving teenager, hoping to impress his prom date with his knowledge of The Walking Dead..  For every three mediocre beers,  I discover that one  special, sparkly gem that knocks it out of the park.   Who knows which one will still be wowing me next year on this very day?  Or which one will be nothing more than a distant memory of a beer that could have been?  Only time will tell.  But half the fun is in the journey.  And I happen to like The Walking Dead.

The Old Crew

These are the breweries that have survived their first few years of business and have carved out their place in the Windy City's craft world.  They're the twenty-somethings still eager to take the world by storm, but experienced enough to know that a balanced book and a  niche in the market means a full night's sleep for a weary brewer.   And well rested brewers make happy, hoppy and, above all, interesting beer.  These breweries are my go-to guys in a well stocked bottle shop or local craft bar.  Each has a unique take on the scene and yet, every once in a while, they are able to suprise me with their ingenuity and creativity.   Spiteful Brewing's  Messenger IPA was a well balanced hop fest of juicy, tropical, malty goodness and my favorite beer from this brewery to date (here's a link to my review.  You know, if you somehow missed it the first time around.)    Begyle Brewing is my family's "house beer."  My brothers like them  My cousins like them.  Even my eighty year old mother likes them (she's a Belgian fiend so I'm always happy to keep her lubricated with something a bit more local.)  You will always find a bomber or two in any of our fridges at any time.  Unless we get together and drink them all.  Which happens rather often, now that I think about it.  And by now, I assume that you all know how I feel about Pipeworks Brewing. Every time I think I have them pegged (they are the Unicorn IIPA kings.  No, they are the Jones Dog milk stout champs.  No, they are the peppery saison saviors of the world.  Jeeze Louise, what the hell are you guys brewing now???)  While I sometimes worry that the brewers at Pipeworks aren't eating properly (I mean, Pastrami on Rye ale?  Have you had your cholesterol checked recently?), I am confident enough in their whacked out abilities to always given them the benefit of the doubt.  That's a trust that was earned.

In House Brewpubs

Not every great Chicago beer is bottled.  And thank goodness for that or else we'd all just day drink alone in our own backyards every weekend.  Places like Haymarket, Atlas and my latest favorite, DryHop, give all of us a reason to throw on our "outside jeans" and mingle with fellow beer geeks who aren't on FaceBook and Twitter. Plus these brewpubs have food!  That I don't have to cook!   And not just burgers or pizza, mind you.  Food that you wouldn't mind ordering in font of your foodie geek friend (as you superiorly direct them away from their regular bottle of PBR and onto something a bit more, how shall I say, non douchey?)    I'm especially thankful for the small pours at Haymarket and low ABV stouts at DryHop.  Small pours on just about everything means that I can sample more delicious beers and make fewer tough menu decisions.  And low ABV stouts are the perfect answer to what to drink on a Summer's night.  Or Fall afternoon.  Or with a plate of poutine.  Because what exactly I should drink with my poutine has been a thorn in my side for simply ages.

Local Bottle Shops

It's nice to go where everybody knows your name.  It's even nicer to go where they know your name as well as your favorite brewery.  Sure, you can hit up the big liquor stores or a well stocked supermarket like Whole Foods for the latest releases.  But isn't part of the craft beer scene supporting the little guy?  And if the little guy knows his/her stuff backwards, forwards and upside down, all the better.   In large liquor stores, you might get lucky and happen into a conversation with an employee with craft knowledge.  Or you might get some jamoke who was hired last week because it just didn't work out for him at True Value.  At a small, well edited local shop, I can pretty much guarantee you that you'll find a plethora of people who not only can talk beer with you, but are more than eager to do so.   The places listed above are my local stores, with Fischman Liquors being my home away from home.  I'm sure that each of you have your own local haunts.  It's important to support our favorite small bottle shops for the same reasons it's important to support our local breweries.  They're the people who make sure that you get amazing beer.

The Original Gangstas 

In the beginning, there were the Originals.  And they were good.  It's not easy being the first of anything.  You not only have to pave the way for the people behind you, you have to stay relevant so that you don't get left behind as those in the back rise.  Half Acre, Revolution, Metropolitan and yes, even Goose Island (or at least certain aspects of Goose Island) are the Chicago Originals.  They were brewing craft beer here in the City of Big Shoulder before most people who now drink craft could even legally buy it.  Or in some cases, spell it.  And today, they are all still going strong.  I attended  an amazing beer fest recently, the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers (a wonderfully magical fest where unicorns and buffalo pranced with rattle snakes while the sailors gave warnings and all the winos were Krispy.)  It was a night of countless barrel aged wonders as far as the eye could see.  In all honestly, it was a bit overwhelming as I checked out the list of offerings.  So I took every opportunity I could to ask any brewer I could find what they were most excited to try that night.  And without question, their answers included the words Revolution, Half Acre, Metropolitan (one of the only lagers offered that night) and the gorgeous sisters from Goose Island.  When brewers speak, I listen.  It's only polite.

So this Thursday, as you and your's are gathered around the table, try to remember that this is the one day we set aside to remember just how freaking good we all have it every other day of the year.  There are people who haven't a warm bed to sleep in, a job to pay their bills and a friend to tell their troubles to.  And most importantly, there are places that have no local craft beer to drink.  Remember that as you hoist your pints of Local Hero and snifters of Lolita this holiday season.  And give thanks for the good people of Chicago who made it all possible.  

Monday, November 18, 2013

Three Floyds Brewing's Moloko Milk Stout

  • Style: Milk Stout
  • ABV: 8.00%
  • Season: Fall (late August release, but I still see plenty around for sale)
  • Ease to locate: Most craft & liqor stores with a decent beer section in Chicagoland.   Here's the beer menu link. FFF is transitioning distributors, but it shouldn't effect their beers already on the shelves.  Of course you can always take a trip to Munster, IN and visit the FFF Brewpub.  Don't feel the need to dress up either.
  • Color: Dark, black brown, solid looking liquid.
  • Head: 1 1/2 finger brown beige head with lots of spotty lacing ringing the glass.
  • Aroma: Sweet lactose milk sugar and  chocolate with softer notes of roasted coffee beans and malts with a hint of vanilla.
  • Mouthfeel: Full body with creamy coat.  Almost velvety.  Nice bite from carbonation to keep it in check.
  • Finish: Long.  Slides from sweet to lightly bitter back to sweet.  Chocolate note on end.
  • Food friendly?:  Like most milk stouts, it will pair very well with deserts.  I love milk stouts with berry and nut forward dishes,  as well as with pastries, such as pound cake.

Apple User's link: A Clockwork Orange in 30 Seconds

                                                                                 This would have been helpful when I was 18.  As it is, I'm still mildly disturbed.

Back in the day, I was an eager, bright eye and bushy tailed Cinema student at USC.  Who are we kidding?  Back in the day I was a pale skinned, all black wearing, film geek who was paying an insane amount of tuition to watch movies every day  in LA.  But I loved it.  Every class had the potential to introduce a new and exciting world to my formerly somewhat sheltered Catholic school girl life. I was also, for a very brief time, the Saturday night film go-to girl in my group of friends.  I say for a very brief time because one Friday night I dragged my group to a late night showing of Stanley Kubrick's classic A Clockwork Orange.  I'll admit now that I had absolutely no freaking idea what the movie was actually about.  I vaguely thought it had something to do with the youth rebellion in swinging London town.  And a very smug idiot that I worked with encouraged me bring my Rom-Com loving friends with a very helpful piece of advice: "They'll love it.  It's better than Dirty Dancing."  The snickering that followed his advice should have clued me in.  In any case, after that night, my friends never let me choose another film for us.  Worse, it took me three years before I could enjoy Gene Kelly in "Singing in the Rain" again.
It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.
In the film, a Moloko is a drink made with LSD laced milk.  The characters, prone to ultra violence due to their repressive upbringing (basically, think bored suburban kids who aren't lactose intolerant) drink it at misogynistic milk bars (are their any other kind?)  When I first picked up the bottle of Three Floyd's Moloko Milk Stout, I didn't get the connection.  But I felt slightly uncomfortable by the image on the label without being able to quite put my finger on exactly why.  It hit me about 3/4's through my glass.  But by that time it was too late.  I had been "drooged"
Welly, welly, welly, welly, welly, welly, well.
To what do I owe the extreme pleasure of this surprising visit?
My Moloko Milk Stout poured a solid dark brown/black liquid.  A foamy dark beige one and a half finger head formed on the surface.  Shallow bits of spotty lacing crept up the sides of the pint glass.  It certainly looked like a well crafted milk stout.  It smelled like one as well.  I found lots of milk chocolate and sweet milk sugar scents drifting up from the beer.  A bit of toasty malts and roasted coffee beans roughed up the sweetness. The barest hint of vanilla was detectable as well.  At only 30 IBUs, I didn't expect to easily find a identifiable hop profile (I have no idea what hops were used in this stout, but my best guess is that FFF went the traditional rout and brewed with Fuggle hops.)  The taste mirrored the nose very well.  Plenty of sweetness from chocolate and lactose sugar, but without a smidgen of the cloying element that you sometime find in other milk stouts.  The roasted malt and coffee notes were slightly more prominent on the tongue than on the nose, which gave the swallow a welcome complexity.  I could taste some earthy, almost truffle like bitterness on the back of the swallow that just complemented the sweetness perfectly. The mouthfeel was full bodied and creamy.  There was an almost velvety element to it. The abundant carbonation saved it from becoming too heavy and lent the feel a bit of a bite.  A long finish rounded out the drink, sliding effortlessly from milk sweetness to the earthy bitterness back to a chocolatey end.
Goodness is something to be chosen. When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man.
Milk stouts in general are difficult to pair with savory dishes.  Like many others, I prefer to drink them on their own or with a light desert.  Try Moloko Milk Stout with a Caramel Pecan Pie this Thanksgiving.  Or serve a bowl of  Raspberry Trifle alongside a glass of it the day after (the desert has raspberries in it.  That makes it perfectly acceptable to eat the day after the big feast.  It's almost healthy, if you squint a bit.)  I can't help but think that if that little droog Alex and his buddies had been able to drink this Moloko instead of the hyped up dairy version, all that nasty wasty ultra violence could have been avoided.  Who is going to get angry while sipping a delicious pint of chocolatey milk stout goodness?  Sadly, I also did not have access to Three Flyod's version when I was at USC.  And as for the idiot co-worker who advised me to take my Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan obsessed friends to see this particular Kubrick masterpiece?  Well, as Anthony Burgess questioned:  “Is it better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him?”

 Yeah.  I totally slugged him the next morning.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Russian River Brewery's Damnation

  • Style: Belgian Strong Pale Ale
  • ABV: 7.75%
  • Season: Year Round
  • Ease to locate:  Depends.  Do you live in California?  Do you know some one who lives in California?  Do you feel lucky?  Russian River only distributes their extremely limited quantities to parts of California and a few select places in Oregon, Colorado and Philadelphia. Here's their list of distributors
  • Color: A hazy, golden lemon color.  Gorgeous.
  • Head: One & a half finger pure white head that settled after a few minutes.  Lovely lacing coating the sides of the glass.
  • Aroma: Amazing scents of Belgian yeast, pear, a bit of citrus, some sweetness from caramel malts.  There was a bit of peppery spice there too.
  • Mouthfeel: Dry with enough effervesce to keep the overall swallow easy.
  • Finish: Medium with a hoppy, peppery tail.
  • Food friendly?: Yes.  Since it's a strong pale ale, keep the flavors simple and fresh.  Try a roasted pork dish or get adventurous with some game, like a roasted rabbit.  I'm having a difficult time thinking of a good cheese to pair it with though.  If anyone has suggestions, feel free to add them in the comments below.

My out of state beers often depend on the kindness of strangers.  OK, not completely strangers.  More often I rely on friends, family and co-workers who are silly enough to tell me when and where they are going on vacations.  Both my brother and a co-worker took trips to sunny California this Autumn (separate trips. Because otherwise that would be both weird and strangely envious).  Normally I'd just wish them well, maybe reminisce about my good old collage days a bit and pretty much forget that they're gone until they return with a tan and a snow globe.  But this year I had just two words for  both of them.  Two simple words that I may have repeated obsessively until they heard them in their sleep.   Russian River.

Apple user link: Vinnie Cilurzo, the godfather of DIPAS
                                                  I'm strangely happy that RRB & Lagunitas swapped beer handles back and forth at some point.  In my head, Vinnie & Sam have a standing lunch/man spa day every third Tursday. 

Russian River Brewing Co. is a surprisingly small, cult (not the kind that makes you wear coveralls and white sneakers while drinking Kool Aid.  I'm talking the kind of cult that might, say, gather for an evening's entertainment consisting of marathon viewings of all four seasons of BSG.  Of course those in that cult would know what BSG stood for too)  brewery located in Santa Rosa, California.  The area is better known for their vineyards and wineries than hop fields and brew pubs.  Russian River is the exception to that rule.  The brewery itself was originally owned by Korbel Champagne Cellars, but sold the brewery off to the current owners (one who was the brewmaster under Korbel's ownership) in 2003.  A few small moves later, Vinnie & Natalie Cilurzo found themselves brewing some of the most famous and exclusive beers in the United States.   Way before it was the trendy thing to do, Vinnie Cilurzo took advantage of the Northern California wine culture.  He began to experiment with fermenting his beers by utilizing the rich excess of wine barrels at his disposal (thankfully for beer lovers everywhere he didn't work at the pickle capital of the world.)    Their first beer, Pliny the Elder, resulted from one of these experimentations while he was still working for Korbel and later became Russian River's flagship beer.  It's also considered to be one of the first DIPA's on the market.  The man is a hero.

Damnation is a Belgian inspired strong pale ale that is refermented in the bottle.  This bottle conditioning fermentation results in a gorgeously hazy cloud of golden lemon liquid when poured into a glass.  As you can tell from the photo above, this is one of those beers that I just had to share (As soon as I popped the cork, the family entourage started milling about.)  A fluffy, very solid pure white head formed that reminded me of whipped egg whites.  Even in my tasting glass, the lacing produced was amazing.  Splotches of delicate foam clung tightly, coating all sides of the glass.  There was no mistaking this ale as being Belgian inspired.  Strong scents of banana ester layered with fruit notes, such as pear and apple, mixed with slightly sweet caramel malt.  There was a clean citrus hit on the nose as well.  Under it all., a spicy pepper aroma lingered in the background, like some exotic wallflower.  Between the prettiness in the glass and the head swimming scents wafting up from the ale, I was already in love.  And I only fell deeper after tasting this liquid gold.    I could taste the fruitiness of the yeast easily, lots of controlled banana, apple and pear notes.  The citrus from the nose emerged as a brightness, counteracting the sweet malty flavors.  The spicy pepper note of Nobel Hops gave the finish a bit of a kick.  Over all, this was just an amazingly delicious beer.  The mouthfeel was well carbonated with a medium feel on the tongue and a dry, refreshing crispness.  As I mentioned before, the finish was moderate and extraordinary well balanced, with the spicy Nobel Hop note trailing as I swallowed. 

I would serve this strong pale ale with a roasted pork dish, rich with fruit flavors.  Try it with Pork Tenderloin with Sauteed Apples for dinner one night.  Or if you're feeling a little adventurous, Strong pale Ales pair wonderfully with many game dishes.  If you live somewhere with access to fresh rabbit, prepare a Baked Rabbit with Apples  some chilly Autumn night. The caramelized fruitiness and savory herb forward flavors of either recipe will compliment Damnation perfectly.  And remember to make enough food for two if you do.  Because when you have a beer, a CULT beer, that is this fraking good, you are pretty much required to share.  I usually get off of work around five.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Revolution Brewing's Red Skull Imperial Red Ale

  • Style: Imperial Red Ale
  • ABV: 8.30%
  • Season: Fall
  • Ease to locate: Sold where ever Revolution bombers are stocked.  Revolution distributes to a good portion of IL and some parts of OH.  Here's their beer finder
  • Color: Clear amber with reddish copper tints.  
  • Head: Solid light beige 1 & 1/2 finger foam.  Decent patches of lacing clung to the pint
  • Aroma: Grapefruit, lemon zest, a bit of pine.  Some sweetness from caramel malts. 
  • Mouthfeel:  Medium with the expected slickness of an imperial.  OK amount of carbonation  
  • Finish: Moderate with no trace of heat from the alcohol.  Lots of residual hops on the tail (pine & citrus)
  • Food friendly:  Not really.  Imperials can be tricky.  I'd keep it simple with a juicy cheese burger or a homemade bowl of chili.  Serve it with sharp cheese, like extra sharp cheddar. 

Apple users' YouTube link: Nick Cave can pretty much make anything creepier 

                                                                                            Great.  Now I want chocolate chip cookies.  And beer.

I have seen the future and it is malty.  A new grocery store moved down the street from me about a year ago.  The area it now occupies had been vacant for quite a few years, teasing us with the promise of early morning donut runs and late night milk sprints (for some reason, we always discover that we are out of milk for the next day after 10PM.  Some day, some one from my family will learn the great art of estimating the level of milk in a near empty container and he/ she will be declared the Chosen One.  And the Cummins' will weep tears of joy.)  I will be the first one to admit, I was a bit trepidatious regarding the increased traffic and non neighborhood clientele that this place might bring to my front door.    I will also be the first to admit that having a place steps from my house where I can buy breakfast cereal, fresh pretzel rolls and hot pressed Cuban sandwiches negates every annoyance in the world.  I mean, this place will even cook your steak for you right there if you ask nicely (possibly if you ask not nicely too, but my first rule of Down the Hatch living is to always be respectful of anyone who handles anything I ingest.)  A nice bonus is that this little slice of heaven has a decently stocked craft beer section.  My only gripe is that they only carry a very small portion of popular local beers.  You want an AntiHero?  Got it.  Daisy Cutter?  Yeppers.  5 Rabbits six pack? You're covered.  Pipeworks?  Begyle?  Lake Effects?  Nanda nunca.  But luckily for me, I was able to pick up a bomber of Revolution's answer to a mid Autumn seasonal beer without even breaking a sweat.

Imperial Red Ales are exactly what they sound like.  A souped up, higher ABV, hopped to the brink version of a classic Red Ale.  And what's most important is that Revolution's version is available now and it's not another Oktober fest or (shudder) pumpkin beer.    My Red Skull Imperial Red Ale poured an amber color with heavy tints of coppery red.  It was clear enough to look straight through. A light beige, a little darker than off white, one and a half finger head formed.  The foam was solidly packed and resulted in small patches of lace clinging to the sides of the pint.  It wasn't spectacular lacing by any means, but decent enough for a red ale.  The nose was rather delicious, however.  I could immediately smell loads of sweet caramel malts, bitter grapefruit,  citrusy lemon zest and a bit of refreshing pine.  The taste followed suit, with grapefruit and pine being tempered by the malt flavors.  In fact, I found a lot more of the pine notes in the taste than on the nose.  As the beer warmed, the hop flavors began to meld and it became harder to differentiate between them.  As the ale warmed, the sweetness from the malts became more dominate, making the beer feel better balanced than at first sip.  There was a sort of slickness to the moderate mouthfeeel, not syrupy like other imperials that I've tried, but heavier than your average red ale.    I wasn't overwhelmed by the amount of carbonation.  It was there, but I didn't feel like it really benefited the beer one way or the other.  The finish was medium in length with lots of pine and grapefruit notes on the tail.  I didn't notice any heat from the alcohol, but with a relatively low (for an imperial ale) ABV, I wasn't really expecting any harshness.  

I'd pair Revolution's Red Skull with a really juicy cheeseburger with applewood bacon, letting the sweetness of the malts and the bitterness of the hops temper the burger's smoky, meaty profile.  The recipe linked here uses a smidge of cayenne pepper and curry powder.  Any more spice would not compliment the beer at all.   I can also see serving this imperial red ale with a steaming bowl of mild three bean beef chili as long as you keep those spices under control.  Of course, you can always crack open a bomber of Red Skull and worry about dinner later.  Better yet, grab a bottle to share and hope that some one else worries about dinner for you.