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Notes from the road: Minnesota, Chicago, Baltimore, New York

Last two weeks October, 1998

Minnesota

Outstanding beers, as usual, at the Minnesota Brewfest, at the Sherlock's Home pub, in Minnetonka. My fellow judges, both engineers by profession, were Ron Wolfgram, of St Paul, Minn, and star home-brewer Carl Eidbo, from Fargo, North Dakota. After tasting four out of the 14 category winners, I knew it would be very difficult to pick a best of show. A tawny, malty Mild, with a balance of fruity dryness in the finish, was an excellent example of this English style. A beautifully bright Pilsner had an aroma that pleased judge Ron; a malt background that reminded me of the best Czech examples; and a "real dry Saaz-hop finish" that impressed Carl. A German-style wheat was fruity, lemony, even limey. An American Pale Ale was smooth and dry to the point that Ron thought its hop character "over the top." Later on, all three of us were impressed by a Belgian Tripel. "How much alcohol can you pack in without it jumping out?" asked Carl, rhetorically. In the end, we chose the Pilsner, which turned out to have been made by Arlin Karger, of Moorehead, Minn. He told me that he had matured the beer in his freezer at 34F since January. "What's you day job?" I asked him. "I just retired," he said. "From what?" He was reluctant to elaborate, but eventually conceded that he had worked for the IRS.

Also visited the newish Town Hall brewpub, at Seven Corners, Minneapolis. This pub, with a long, mirrored, back-bar and tin ceiling, is in a 1906 trolley station. More recently, the building had been a theater. It is in the alternative theater district, on the West Bank of the Mississippi, near the University of Minnesota. My favorite beer was the Bitter, which combined a smooth maltiness, orangey fruitiness and hoppy dryness; well-balanced but bitter enough to justify its stylistic description.

Chicago

Who would have imagined a few years ago that 120 naturally-conditioned ales could be found in the U.S. let alone under one roof? That was the tally at the Real Ale Festival, run in a suburb of Chicago by beer-writer Ray Daniels (author of "Designing Great Beers"). Best of Fest awards were given in four categories, among which I judged two. Best among the cask-conditioned dark styles was a firm, smooth, oily, smoky brew that was in due course revealed as an old favorite of mine. I did not recognise it during the blind judging, but it was Dogfish Head Chicory Stout, from Rehoboth Beach, Del.

Appraising cask Barley Wines, I was stunned by the hop aroma, superb clarity, fresh maltiness, smooth body and peppery warmth of a brew that was later unveiled as the much-garlanded Bearded Pat's, from the Bluegrass Brewing Co., of Louisville, Ky. This, too, won a Best of Fest award as well as the gold medal in its category. The spicy, minty, very hoppy, leafy, earthy Barley Wine that took Silver turned out to be from Three Floyds, of Hammond, Ind. The creamy, fruity, clean Barley Wine for the silver was from Carvers Bakery and Brewery, of Durango, Colo.

During the Festival, another Chicago writer, Marty Nachel ("Beer for Dummies") organised a competition for products created at Brew-on-Premise outlets. I judged with historian Randy Mosher ("Brewers' Companion") and Alan Dikty, whose company designs breweries. Our Best of Show went to a dryish, well-balanced Honey Lager, both drinkable and warming, made by Garin Wright at The Brew Keeper, Bedford Heights, Ohio.

Did my own private tasting at the Beverage Testing Institute. Highlights: from Hopcats brewpub, the anis-tinged Half Wit Ale; from the Weeghman Park brewpub (handy for the Cubs), the flowery, crisp, Flying Hop IPA inspired by the famous British ale Worthington White Shield; from the Wild Onion brewery, Paddy Pale Ale, with a tangerine-like hop fruitiness and a nutty malt character; from Two Brothers (a micro run by Jason and Jim Ebel) the wittily-named Ebelweisse, with suggestions of vanilla and lemon sherbert; from O'Grady's, a honeyish Grand Cru that reminded me of Krupnik vodka.

Visited the Founder's Hill brewpub, in the suburban "village" of Downer's Grove. It is a big, galleried, modern pub - also noted for live blues, featuring major Chicago artists. Among the eleven beers I tasted, I especially liked the creamy, whiskyish, Strong Ale, at 8.5 per cent alcohol by volume. A spiced Christmas version was even better. I tasted the 1997 edition, which had developed a winey character over its restrained spiciness.

Baltimore

Spoke at a beer dinner at the Sisson's brewpub, opposite Cross Street Market. I have enjoyed my occasional visits this indoor food market, noted for the local crab cakes, and love the cosy pub. Founder Hugh Sisson, who left the business to run the Clipper City micro, attended the dinner. My appetite was aroused by a cask-conditioned IPA: beautifully balanced beer, with a rounded, firm maltiness asserting itself before the earthy hop flavors come surging through the bitter finish. The official aperitif was the brewpub's lightly dry Marble Pils. The dry and rooty Edgar Allan Porter was served with grilled oysers; a nutty Oktoberfest with corn chowder; the softy malty Brown Ale with a duck salad; the robustly fruity Amber Ale with seared beef; and a spicy Dunkle Weiss with ginger ice-cream as dessert.

New York

The Austrian company that supplied the brewing equipment for Zip City has now acquired this pub and revived it, under the name The Tap Room. It looks much the same as before, the fake half-timbering has been added to the decor. That should knock 'em dead in Gotham City. The Pils is as firm, dry, and hoppy as ever: very good. I also enjoyed a banana-ish Weizenbock. The other beers tasted as though they had been hanging around too long. The Tap Room is at 3 W 18th St, just off 5th Ave, in the Flatiron District of Manhattan.

If brewpubs are to succeed, beer has to be the hero. This is more obvious at the Heartland brewpubs, also in Manhattan. The original, in Union Square, has now been joined by a second, one block west of Radio City. The new pub is the building of stockbrokers Paine Webber, opposite Time-Life, on 51st St at 6th Ave. The darkwood booths are painted with the names of grains used in brewing. All the beers are pretty good, but none is outstanding. If I were obliged to judge, I would edge the refreshingly hoppy Indiana Pale Ale ahead of the malty but rounded Red Rooster.

The New York launch of my book "Ultimate Beer" was held at one of my favorite pubs, The Gingerman (a bit roomier than other well-liked spots such as d.b.a. or The Blind Tiger). In the scrum, it was hard to concentrate on another launch at the same location. The import company B. United unveiled a range of British cask-conditioned ales. The first was Bluebird Bitter, this year's Best of Show at the Great British Beer Festival. This beer comes from the tiny Black Bull brewpub, at Coniston, in the Lake District of northwest England, and I was astonished to see it in the heart of Manhattan. Even more surprising was the way its flavors stood up to the journey. Like most everyday British Bitters, it is a subtle, even delicate, ale. In the blindfold judging at the Great British Beer Festival the panel unanimously chose this beer. I noted that it was clean, perfumy (lemons?), and very refreshing, with a late, more-ish, dryness. One of the judges, David Gouldney, from Britain's biggest brewing company, Scottish Courage, was particularly complimentary. "I would be proud to brew a beer like this," he commented.


Published: OCT 28, 1998
In: Beer Hunter Online

Brew Travel - Beer Event Reviews

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