Monday, December 21, 2009

Soaking up some local love

There were plenty of reasons to celebrate at Trappeze Pub tonight. First, the local craft beer institution turned 2 years old today. While more and more bars in Athens are offering craft beers and microbrews, none match the combination of selection and beer knowledge offered by Trappeze. In addition, local brewery Terrapin Beer Co. was on site for the debut of its new Belgian style imperial stout, Dark Side. While there was quite a crowd on hand, I managed to squeeze up to the bar and began the night.

First up was a cask featuring a dry-hopped version of Terrapin's Rye Pale Ale. Thanks to my neighbor at the bar, Mr. William Orten Carlton ("Ort" is an Athens bar staple, early cultivator of the Athens music scene, and featured writer for Athens' Flagpole Magazine), who politely yielded in ordering his second serving of the hoppy rye concoction, I was able to get a pint of the cask ale (although, it wasn't without much perseverence and a careful tipping of the cask by bartender Kathleen. Ort was rewarded for his sacrifice by receiving the last pint out of the cask, and we dove in together. The beer was amber in color and very murky, undoubtedly due to the yeast and hops residing in the bottom of the cask. An off-white head about a finger's width tall lasted only long enough for me to first observe it, and then fell, leaving little lacing in the glass. Upon first taste, the familiar sharpened sweetness of the original Rye Pale Ale stood strong, but gave way to a nice fresh and preserved hop flavor, reminiscent of white grapefruit. My attempts to pin down exactly what variety of hops were used (per my tongue and the Terrapin crew) were to no avail. I was offered a guess, however educated or uneducated it may have been, by a Terrapin staffer of Cascade. I also overheard more than once around the bar that the hops had been grown in-house, although I was never able to confirm it with anyone. Whatever the variety be, I think the dry-hopped Rye was not just an interesting variation on one of Terrapin's flagship brews, but an elevation of the original Rye itself. I was impressed with just how well the sharpness of the rye and the fresh hops complemented one another, and would definitely love to see an encore of this beer. Many might have been turned off by the glass I ended up enjoying. The yeasty, hoppy beer in my turtle pint glass probably wasn't the same as the first pint enjoyed from the cask, but why should it be? Drinking a cask ale is an experience. From the tapping, to the interesting and creative small-batch variations, to the often short window of time it's available, a cask ale is just as much about everything happening around the cask as what's in it. I found nothing unpleasant about the pulpy matter in my glass. If anything, I enjoyed the even closer connection I was offered to the hops that went into the beer.

I finished the Rye as I spoke with Ort about past and planned field trips to breweries and craft beer-loving towns (look out Asheville, my list of places to visit within a weekend just doubled). Next I ordered my primary intention for tonight's visit: Terrapin Side Project No. 9 The Dark Side, a Belgian Style Imperial Stout. Dark Side unsurprisingly pours a deep brown, and provided a quickly retreating tan head (exhibiting more French than Belgian tendencies). Dark, roasted malts combine with almost bittersweet chocolate hints to provide a robust yet smooth taste, further complemented by a velvety mouthfeel which reminded me of dark chocolate even more. Upon dissection, hops are certainly present, but don't at all try to stand in the way of the emphasis on the malt characteristics. This is a heavy stout, and would serve well as a winter warmer, so I really appreciate the timing of its release. Overall, this is another solid entry in Spike's Side Project series. That said, I can't say I'm running out first thing in the morning to pick up a bottle of the new stuff. I thoroughly enjoyed Dark Side and as hard as it is to set my local-brew bias aside, I don't find this beer incredibly new and unique in light of Wake 'n' Bake Coffee Oatmeal Stout and Depth Charge Espresso Milk Stout, a collaboration between the Athens boys and Left Hand Brewery. Sure it doesn't have all the same notes and nuances the other more similar stouts contain, but I just get much of the same feeling about them all. On its own, the Dark Side is a very well-built stout, but considering the repertoire of Terrapin's beers, it just doesn't stand out from the other dark, roasted, chocolate, and  sometimes coffee combinations.

With two beers down and the crowd at Trappeze beginning to thin, I was able to actually grab a stool and speak with Kathleen (who was recently featured in an article spotlighting the bar in Athens Food & Culture Magazine...and I promise I'm done with the local media plugs, however both I've mentioned are awesome reads and free if you're ever in Athens to pick one up). Needing something to bring me back from the Dark Side, I ordered a refreshing old standby: Bell's Two-Hearted Ale. The keg had just recently gone down, however. It seems I have a knack for wanting the one thing of which a bar has just run out, but I've learned that it usually means I should just try for a completely different style. If I wasn't going to come full-circle with my hop-bursted Bell's, then I might as well stick with a winter warmer. As Kathleen listed some of the newer arrivals, the Mikkeller Christmas Porter jumped out. Mikkeller has just recently come up on my radar, and since then I haven't stopped hearing about it. A Danish brewer more than a brewery, Mikkeller operates out of the facilities of various other breweries, traveling around Europe and the United States and creating some highly acclaimed beers in the process. I recently acquired a trio of Mikkeller single hop IPAs that I am waiting to try as long as hopefully learn more closely the characteristics of each hop variety (perhaps knowledge that would have been useful during my first beer). After all that I'd heard, my third beer became an easy decision. The "Christmas porter" turned out to be Mikkeller To From (or From To, according to some labels on previous years' bottles, which include blanks right on the label making it an easy and obvious beer to give for Christmas). So how was my first taste of Mikkeller beer? Let me just say those Cascade, Warrior, and Simcoe bottles sitting at home have a lot to live up to now. A deep, nearly burnt flavor (think the fine line between creme brulee and charred creme) first hit my tongue and gradually faded away without a detectable hop note. The absence of a heavy, lingering dark malt aftertaste almost begged me to take another sip to remember what it tasted like. As I got further into the porter, I was able to detect different, yet subtle flavor notes, although identifying them wasn't so easy. Cinnamon and what I might best describe as pine became more noticeable as I continued to drink. The mouthfeel was light for such a dark and complex porter, which I could certainly appreciate as my second dark beer in a row. I was surprised to find that the alcohol content topped out at 8%, however, a little lower than what I had anticipated while tasting it. This is a great Christmas beer and served well as my introduction to Mikkeller beers.

I had another great night at Trappeze with an excellent group of beers and beer-loving people. Congratulations to Trappeze on a wonderful two years, and to Terrapin for yet another Side Project release!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Home(brew) is where the heart is...

     Within a month of my 21st birthday, only several weeks of craft beer consumption under my belt and still quite limited in my knowledge of the brewing process, I had already decided that I wanted to homebrew my own batch of the beverage with which I was now fascinated. About four months later, I got my first chance. After discussing homebrewing avidly with my friends, one of them, Tim, received a brewing starter kit for his birthday and enlisted the help of a few of us to help him. Soon, we went back to Athens' local Blockader Homebrew Supply to get the ingredients for our first beer. After consulting the staff, it was decided that a brown ale would be a good candidate for our first homebrew, as it was comprised of a relatively short list of ingredients and was also pretty forgiving of rookie mistakes made while monitoring fermentation.

The next night, on November 5, six of us gathered in a basement to lose our homebrew virginity. We used a partial mash recipe, something I was quite happy about. While I knew it'd be best to not dive into making the most complicated beer possible, I just didn't think my enthusiasm for finally making a homebrew would be quenched with an all-extract kit. I regret one thing about our first brew: in our beer infancy, I didn't ask, nor would I probably have comprehended, what grains and hop varieties we were supplied with at Blockader. Nonetheless, we eagerly began and prepped all of the equipment. While steeping the grains and adding the malt syrup, and probably to the dismay of many fellow homebrewers, we shared several bottles of wine. Hey, we didn't have any beer yet...what were we supposed to do? Finally we added hop pellets during the boil as instructed, first a bittering dose and then a late aroma addition, something I haven't seen in many other brown ale recipes. Once the boil was finished, we waited for the wort to cool...and we continued to wait, maybe having another bottle or two of red. The expense of a wort chiller suddenly seemed reasonable. It was a late night, but we had completed brewing, and were one step closer to enjoying our own beer.

After two weeks of fermenting, a few of us enjoyed another night of camaraderie while bottling. Our entire brewing experience was about friendship, so we decided to bottle in bombers that would allow us to share our beer with each other and with new friends. The ale bottle-conditioned for another two weeks, and was then ready to enjoy...well almost. While the finished beer still hadn't been tasted and there was no guarantee it would even be palatable, we wanted to make sure it looked good. Several witty names generated and discovered already existing later, it was decided that the name First Time Brown Ale would adorn the bombers. We made labels and had them applied, most without wrinkles, just in time for First Time's debut. The beer was finally unveiled, exactly one month later, at a Christmas party attended by all six original brewers. So how was it?

First Time Brown Ale poured a deep brown, still barely transparent when held up to light, with a thick, light tan head about two fingers in height. The head retention was impressive, already instilling me with a sense of pride before I had even tasted it. The aroma was dominated by dark, chocolaty notes with no detectable hops. When sipped, rich malts first hit my tongue, giving way to a lingering nutty mocha flavor, kept in check ever so slightly by a faint hop bitterness. After tasting it, and with what I now know about different grains, I would guess that the specialty grains we added were biscuit and chocolate malt. The nutty flavor was not as strong as beers dubbed "nut brown" ales, but reminded me a little of hazelnuts. The bite of carbonation was a little strong at first, but seemed more pleasant and subdued when the beer reached a more appropriate serving temperature for brown ale around 45° F. Perhaps only because I was a little skeptical of its flavor initially, the malt syrup seemed to remain an obvious part of the finished product. This might, at least in part however, just be me negatively attributing the heavier body and mouthfeel of the dark malts on the back of my tongue to the dark malt syrup. Overall, our first homebrew was a great success.

After only my first taste, my mind was soaring way past this first base beer, dreaming of chocolate, peppers, fruits, and all kinds of other adjuncts. First Time Brown Ale is an easily enjoyed, very drinkable beer, although I doubt anyone has enjoyed it quite as much as the six of us who created it. The few critiques that emerged from evaluating First Time offer places to focus on improvement during our next brew. With our first step complete, I eagerly look forward to our progress down the road to becoming homebrew pros...or amateurs...on the road to becoming great homebrewers.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I'm right-handed, but...

I can definitely live with these two Left Hands. Two new Left Hand brews have made their way to Athens, and I've got the word on both of them...and the word is good.

The first one I picked up is Left Hand's new seasonal, Fade to Black. First, let me say that you should realize this beer is a one time deal. The actual recipe will change each winter, yet the name and bottle, much like the song, remain the same. I found the Colorado brewery's newest creation, which as a warning will replace their Snowbound Ale for all you fans, in a beautiful black and white 6-pack at Five Points Bottle Shop. This foreign export stout pours as dark as I'd expect, but the head leaves a little bit to be desired. Any qualms I had with the appearance were forgotten when I dove in...or faded out if we want to extend this metaphor. This isn't your typical winter seasonal. This stout produces hints of licorice and dark molasses, providing a much enjoyed escape from the sometimes monotnonous pumpkin ales followed by spiced winter warmers. I found this stout a little watery compared to other offerings within the same style, but the flavor really made the consistency and mouthfeel more than forgivable. After all, the experience isn't unpleasant in any way, just a little different than what the powers-that-be say it should be. That said, Fade to Black is a seasonal and an ever changing one-time release for a good reason. This deep, dark seductive brew is like a good booty call: something I can thoroughly enjoy and then not revisit for a while without any major reperscussuions.

Up next was the most recent release from Left Hand's Big Mo' series, an Oak-Aged Widdershins Barleywine. I grabbed this limited edition treat at Trappeze Pub in downtown Athens after a long day of work. It seems I've found yet another beer that's oak-aged to perfection. I've previously declared, and even voted so, that Sweetwater's Donkey Punch Barleywine was my favorite of the category. The local boys at Sweetwater still have a place in my heart with their scandolously named barleywine, but I have to give credit to this well-aged creation from the guys in Longmont. This is the first oaked barleywine I've tasted, and I really appreciate what the aging does for this style. Barleywines are something I drink eagerly, but slowly and cautiously. At times, the sweet maltiness derived from the style's namesake grain is almost too much for me. The oak in which this brew was aged both tames and accentuates the sweetness of the barleywine, much like a fine...ahem, wine. At the same time, the sweetness cuts the oak quality which, in my opinion, can easily overwhelm the rest of a beer's flavor. The careful balance of oak and malt make Widdershins Barleywine incredibly drinkable, despite it's 10% ABV.

Overall, both beers were quite enjoyable and very appropriate seasonal offerings. While Widdershins is not a one shot deal, it's oaked form along with the foreign stout edition of Fade to Black won't be around long. So as the weather becomes a little chilly, enjoy all of your favorite holiday spiced winter seasonals along with a few new ones, but should you grow a bit weary of the sameness, reach no further than your Left Hand.

Friday, November 20, 2009

It's Friday...come on, get hoppy!

It's one of those in-between autumn days. Even the trees outside Trappeze Pub aren't sure whether they should let go of their leaves yet. I find myself wanting to dive into recently tapped dark winter warmers, but still clinging to the lighter amber and golden fall seasonals. I think I better ease myself into the cold winter, even if we don't see freezing temperatures in Georgia until February.

I start out with a Laughing Skull Amber Ale from our close neighbor Atlanta Brewing Company. I was already enjoying the resilient head, but this light and clear beer is smooth, full-bodied, and everything an amber ale should be. It reminded me that an amber ale doesn't have to be the diluted cousin of other beers. That alone would make it a standout in the category for me, but the twist at the end is M. Night Shyamalan-esque. This amber ale finishes with a strong, hoppy presence that nicely balances out the smooth malty flavors. The quite noticeable, yet still reserved hops on the end transitioned beautifully into my next brew.

Up next was a slightly stronger New Belgium Hoptober. The boys from Colorado have really grown their brewery in the last decade, and with the popularity of Fat Tire, their distribution in Georgia has greatly expanded. Along with their flagship staples, the Southeast appears to be guzzling down their seasonal offerings. Along with a more pronounced hoppiness, this golden brings a slight increase from 5 to 6% ABV. This golden ale was pretty well balanced with a nice caramel malt flavor, and a slightly increased hop presence. The color was still a nice gold, and the head was nice and pronounced, leaving medium lacing. As an added bonus, I even got to keep my New Belgium glass.

As Hoptober ended, I eyed a rare offering from Athens' own Terrapin Beer Company: an oak-aged version of last year's Big Hoppy Monster, an imperial red ale. I've tried many oak-aged beers, saddened that the oak quality of many of them overwhelmed their other notes, but this batch I found the oaky aroma and flavor to both subdue and complement the hoppiness of Big Hoppy Monster quite well. The guys at Trappeze pulled this at just the right time, as the oak notes know their place but also do their job in accentuating the hoppy finish of this beast. The Oaked Big Hoppy Monster is a great booty call: a beer that I enjoy immensely for a pint and don't want to revisit for another week or longer. This more mature version of the imperial red Monster is the cougar of the Terrapin lineup, one to be approached cautiously but bragged about to all your friends after having it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hoppy birthday!: Terrapin gives birth to a new IPA

It's been a little while since the last...ahem, first update. The academic world has demanded much of me in the past couple weeks. The beer's been pouring the entire time nonetheless, so there's much to tell.

First, Classic City Craft has a Twitter page. This will allow me to include more frequent updates on-the-go. For those of you not interested in diving into the Twitter world, CCC's Twitter updates can be viewed in the sidebar of this blog (yeah, that's it right over there).

On October 28, Terrapin Beer Co. held its third Wednesday night brewery tour, and its first tour featuring a new year-round IPA called Hopsecutioner. The crowd was a bit slim, but I was told that the Wednesday night tour is beginning to grow. For those of you who have never been to Terrapin, I urge you to take a visit. The small, cozy brewery seems like everything a craft brewery should be, and the staff made the tour anything but boring, even for those not interested in the actual brewing process. The tour offered visitors some of the first tastes of Hopsecutioner IPA (the very first sips were taken at a Terrapin/Left Hand beer dinner earlier in the week). So how was it? In the midst of the other offerings on tap: Pumpkinfest, Depth Charge, Big Hoppy Monster, and all of the Terrapin regulars, Hopsecutioner earned 5 of my 8 tickets. The new year-round IPA was pulled off  the line for the tour, so it lacked all of the carbonation that will be present in the finished product. The product I sampled was good, but I hope the last bit of carbonation added before bottling will provide a little extra bite that I look for in an IPA. At around 7.0% ABV, it is on par with most other American IPAs. Overall, I found Hopsecutioner to be a clean, refreshing, and very drinkable version of an IPA, lacking such a commonly overwhelming hoppiness that I feel polarizes most people's opinions on the style. This new addition may not please traditionalists who look for an extremely hoppy, authentic IPA, but like many of Terrapin's other beers, it is well balanced yet tame enough to appeal to a wide range of beer drinkers. Hopsecutioner seems like a welcome addition to Terrapin's lineup, staying consistent with the overall tone of drinkability while filling a much needed niche in the ever-expanding collection of beers from the Athens brewery.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Why another beer blog?

After deciding to start up my own blog focusing on craft beer, I faced an important question: does the Internet really need one more blog about beer? Let me give you a little background, and then we'll get back to the question. First, I'm a 21-year-old (new, or relatively new, to beer) student (in debt) in the bustling college town of Athens, Georgia. So, what could I possibly contribute to the online beer world in the midst of numerous craft brewing websites with professional staffs and superior resources? There's an important voice missing in all of this talk about the rapidly-expanding craft beer industry: the young craft beer drinker. As a new consumer in the beer world, I am faced with more choices than any American 21-year-old in the past was ever offered. The old stereotype of college kids knocking back the cheapest, most watery beer known to man is starting to fade away. On any given weekend, my fraternity's own recycling bin holds a decent portion of the Great American Beer Festival's lineup. Even college students, like myself, have realized what beer can be and are excitedly exploring the new directions in which it's been taken. Alright, so I'm 20 years younger than most beer journalists, but what could I know about this national movement living in a little town about an hour and a half east of Atlanta? Not only did I become legal in a great time for craft beer, but I live in a city that is truly embracing the craft beer movement. Athens, Georgia may be recognized nationally as the home of the University of Georgia Bulldogs and R.E.M., but it is also gaining notoriety as the home of the Terrapin Beer Company. Downtown Athens is host to a bevy of bars (I lose count around 90), a handful of which have chosen to focus on providing the best craft beers from around the country and world.  I aim not to challenge any national websites or columns devoted to craft beer, but to join them and gladly fill a niche. With Classic City Craft, I hope to bring a young and fresh perspective of new and innovative takes on an ancient drink and to highlight some of the best brews and spots to enjoy them in the Classic City of Athens, Georgia.