Beer Roundup #2: Three from New Glarus

Food and Drink

beer black top

THREE FROM NEW GLARUS

Just a word about the scale of my ratings.  I use the weighted average scoring system developed by Beer Advocate, http://beeradvocate.com/help/index?topic=reviewing_beers . Also, here’s how I translate my numeric ratings into actionable intelligence.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average (many better beers out there, won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best

I come to the New Glarus party a bit late. All this time I’ve labored under the misconception that New Glarus is a one trick pony, albeit the best in the country at their single trick (fruit beers). All this time I’ve pooh-poohed the several NG non-fruit beers that I tried early on, Spotted Cow, Fat Squirrel, Two Women Lager, Staghorn Oktoberfest. I’ve heard people defend these four beers as “true to style”, or that New Glarus has developed a following of both beer geeks and mainstreamers alike, and that that is no mean feat. And sure, their “Thumbprint” small-batch series has produced some very serious one-off brews (Anniversary Strong Ale; a very good barley wine).

Not until last month, at the urging of a friend whose beer vision I trust, did I come to these three NG brews below, all astonishing in their intense, complex flavor (i.e., without merely dry-hopping our heads off), and, what I find most impressive, doing so at low alcohol (just 5% – 5.3% abv in Moon Man and Stone Soup).

Black Top IBA, New Glarus Brewing
Rating:  4.34/5

Pours brown-tinged black from a bottle into a tasting snifter, with a khaki finger of head. Aleutian islands of lace stick permanently to the glass.

Surprise: an aroma of summer citrus fills the nose. With IBA (imperial black ale) in its name, the near-opaque abyss had me expecting roastiness. But there’s none, zero. No malt or grain or bread in the aroma at all. Maybe the slightest vague caro-syrup sweetness. The aroma is basically American IPA.

Flavor in the mouth is a shock of sweetness on the front of the tongue–the khaki froth itself is candy-sweet. Then of course the flavors of American IPA slide in and take hold with assertive hops. The profile fades into a molasses back-end. It’s all perfect, balanced, hop bitterness and bready sweetness.

This beer has cracked my top-five non-big-beer beers of all time.
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UPDATE: I’m revising my review after having tried another stellar IBA, Radio Free IBA, by Lake Louie Brewing. I totally loved Black Top when by itself. But next to Radio Free IBA, my malt-lover preferences assert themselves, and I have to downgrade Black Top from 4.58 to 4.34.

Also, Black Top seems to fight with a lot of different foods.

Still, amazingly flavorful, while remaining eminently refreshing.

Moon Man APA, New Glarus Brewing
Rating:  4.26/5

I’m totally amazed at this. Incredibly refreshing, yet with massive flavor for an American Pale Ale. It goes with more food than most beers, so bring it to a dinner party with confidence.

A beautiful pour into a goblet, an orangish-straw color with an amber refracting clarity, and, most of all, lacing with real stick-to-it-iveness.

Intensely pleasing aroma of grapes, honey, bread, et al.

Flavor in the mouth is kind of all over the place, but in the best way. There’s tropical fruit, sweet muffin, and bright-mild floral bitterness. Then more sweetness in the throat, Florida orange, ripe tomato, and faint shades of white gumball.

This has nearly cracked my Top 5 non-big-beers of all time, including Hitachino Nest While Ale, Saison de Lente, New Belgium La Folie, Rodenbach Grand Cru, and Monks Cafe Flemish Sour.

Update:
I don’t know what’s up with my taste buds, but I’ve got to downgrade this beer from 4.43 to 4.26. It’s still an exceptional small beer. But now that I’ve had the greatness of NG Stone Soup (see below), Moon Man pales somewhat.

Stone Soup, Belgian Pale Ale, New Glarus brewing
Rating:  4.44/5

Pours a viscous gold, with a huge fluffy white head that goes nowhere.

Sweet honey and malt in the aroma, with banana and pear.

First, two sweetnesses greet the tongue, honey and banana taffy.  The significant carbonation keeps it well away from cloying territory (unlike other lesser BPA’s, like Leffe Blonde, or Petrus Blond).  There’s then a flash of mild hop bitterness, white pepper, and lemon zest.

Incredibly crisp and light, while impressing with full-ish flavor. At first, because I’m more used to bigger Belgians (dubbels, tripels, and quads), I experience a confusing lack of body and phenols.  Once Im over that confusion, I like this a lot, the way I like Fatty Boombalatty, by Furthermore Brewing

Overall, this is the closest to the real deal that an American Belgian-style “single” can be, as opposed to weaker pretenders, like New Belgium 1554, or, egads, Blue Moon Abbey.  It also goes with most any foods.  This will hold a regular place in my fridge.

Beer Roundup #1: THREE RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUTS

Food and Drink

beer expedition landscape

THREE RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUTS

Just a word about the scale of my ratings.  I use the weighted average scoring system developed by Beer Advocate, http://beeradvocate.com/help/index?topic=reviewing_beers . Also, here’s how I translate my numeric ratings into actionable intelligence.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

1 = horrible
2 = bad
3 = average (many better beers out there, won’t buy this again)
4 = very good
4.5 = great
5 = rare best

Bells Expedition Stout

Rating:  4.49/5

look: 4.25 | smell: 4 | taste: 4.5 | feel: 5 | overall: 4.75

I seriously have to upgrade my previous 3.75 rating from last summer. Perhaps that bottle at the Come Back In (Madison) last June was oxidized. Even more likely, I simply drank it too cold, without a glass, and distracted by the Come Back’s legendary karaoke scene. Whatever the case, the specimen I’m now this moment holding in my hand is fabulous.

A fairly aggressive pour into a tulip glass gives a small head, w/ almost no lacing, the slippery solvent alcohol refracting on the glass.

The aroma is still remarkably tame, though subtly rich with burnt coffee, uncooked pasta,  maybe caramel, and faint woody alcohol.  And a bit of leather (but in a good way; I normally detest leather in beer).  There’s undoubtedly a quiet majesty, here, just a bit too quiet.

The flavor in the mouth, wow, now that’s a different story.  Incredibly complex. It oscillates between many different dyads of bitter and sweet:  burnt toast and milk chocolate, anise and  toffee, honey-baked ham and oatmeal-raisin. Wait, that last pair are both sweet. Plus an alcohol heat and an odd salt that help give shape to the mouth-expanding sweetness profile.

A fullish-bodied, slick-viscous texture, like warm maple syrup. Yet that syrup is leavened by a moderate carbonation, even as the pour in this tulip glass has risen to room temperature.

Update: several hours later, I’m getting more aroma, now, from the mouth of the empty bottle. Orange peel, black pepper, black cherry juice, unripe tomato, and dopplebock malt.

Founders Imperial Stout

Rating:  5/5

look: 5 | smell: 5 | taste: 5 | feel: 5 | overall: 5

This one has tipped the scales. It’s cracked my Top-5 list of all-time favorites, of all beer styles.

I should make special note, though, this beer has the unfair advantage of aging.  I somehow found this four-pack at a nearby bottle shop this week.  That means it must be 10 months old; the Founder’s release schedule for “Imperial Stout” is January. How this sat on a Madison store shelf in plain view for nearly a year is beyond me.  Elite beers don’t last long in this town.

One of the blackest beers I’ve seen all year (cf. Dark Horse Reserve Special Black). A chocolate meringue-like brown head chokes the neck of my tulip glass and leaves lacing plastered on the glass.

Dark chocolate and burnt coffee rise in the nose, first. Then a cascade of stone fruit, especially overripe cherry and prune.  Boozy vapor cuts what might have been cloyingly sweet.  There’s also a nice dark bread aroma.

I just the other day had their Founders Porter on tap, and I’m now struck by the same particular roasted coffee flavor in the mouth, here. Except this of course comes with an undergirding of overripe cherry and dried fig to replace the bright/tart hop bitterness of the porter. The massive, corn-syrupy fruit-cake and pecan flavors remind me of Southern Tier Mokha, another of my favorite double stouts. The alcohol politely makes itself known on the backend.

I’m cognizant of the mellowing effect the ten months worth of aging has imparted to this beer.  I had this on tap last spring during Mad Craft Beer Week and, sure, I was impressed, but this, this has rocked my world.

Narwhal, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

Rating:  4.26/5

look: 4.5 | smell: 3.75 | taste: 4.25 | feel: 4.75 | overall: 4.5

From a 12 oz. bottle into a tulip glass.  Black.  Oily.  Chewy brown head whose lacing slides off the glass via some obvious alcohol solvency.

Boozy aroma, w/ coffee, barely detectable chocolate.  Nice, but fairly simplistic.

Booze first on the tongue.  Then tart stone fruit, cherry, prune, or is it black plum? Cocoa’s next, along with bitter molasses reduction. Then more booze, which is an issue.

Thick, oily, despite the significant carbonation.

Very much like Old Rasputin, which isn’t my favorite RIS. I like them sweeter than this and with less alcoholic heat. The simplistic aroma is the weak spot, here. And one wishes there were more chocolate and/or vanilla involved. It’s still quite good.  And at this price point ($8.99/4-pack), I’ll drink this regularly.

How Madison Healed an Ailing Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurship, Health

awesome pup(photo credit needed)

Madison has made me whole again.  A phoenix rising from the ashes?  Check.  And not a moment too soon.

I was recovering from a serious loss:  grieving the death of my first beloved small business to the cancer of the Great Recession. Obstructing the grieving process was the insane work schedule of my new small business, a nighthawk radiology service.  Nighthawk radiology is third-shift work, 7 PM to 7 AM, seven days on and seven days off.  Each night my two-man team would process (receive, read, and report on) the ER imaging of 130 patients per night from nine regional hospitals.  Then we’d sleep the day long, eat “breakfast” at 5 PM, and do it all over again.  Needless to say, the intensity and Sysiphian nature of my work week allowed for little reflection or meditation.

But at the end of workday seven, I would fly from Houston to Madison to spend my off-week with my wife, who had just gone back to school for graduate studies in public health at UW Madison.  I was greeted each week by the magical sight of Tenney Park (below; photo credit needed), which is essentially the gateway to Madison coming from the airport.

Tenney Park

We lived in UW married student housing, called Eagle Heights.  Each Monday morning I would have the cab stop short of the complex and let me off at the bottom of the hill for a nice stroll up the bike path (below).
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Eagle Heights was a throwback to mid-century institutional community design, with 1200 units housing over 3000 people essentially off in the woods.  It was separated from the main UW campus by a mile-and-a-half of the lake shore, which insulated us from the famously hard-partying undergrads.

It was a quiet hideaway, shaded in summer by 150-foot white pines and old oaks of ten-foot girth.  Summer mornings could get a bit rowdy, as hundreds of the children of grad students ran wild in this bubble of safety and open space.  Summers in Eagle Heights demonstrate the occupation of little kids to be the playtime mimicry of working adults.

eagle heights sandbox

The adults spent a lot of time in the dirt, as well:  Eagle Heights has the largest community garden in the United States (below).
frautschi pointjpg

Our two-bedroom unit was “cozy.” We had brought our king size platform bed with us from Houston, and we were lucky to assemble it with the bedroom door open because, once the platform was screwed together, it blocked the door. Tiny, yes, but the 650 square-feet of space had been laid out so well that we had all we needed.

That tiny apartment, with its single entrance and instantly surveyable floorspace, both swaddled me in warmth and encouraged me to spend time outdoors (which I took to include all the quality beer bars in the area). For us coming from a 3000 ft.² house in Houston, Eagle Heights living forced us to pare back. It was a cleansing consolidation, sorting and culling the piles of material possessions one collects over the years. I was astonished to find myself able to let go, even of items from my childhood that had an irrational hold on me, like this model ship which found a very good home in the bedroom of one of our favorite neighbors (below).
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I feel the emblematic patterns of Middle Life–moving out of state, changing careers, gaining weight, losing hair. Yet I feel it’s in Middle Life that one can make certain choices one couldn’t have made years ago. I feel I’ve traded an old sailing vessel that wasn’t doing me any good for a new one. (Have I mentioned I’ve joined the sailing club?)

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Joining the UW Hoofers sailing club  is something I never would’ve done before.  My pre-Madison worldview was that of consumer first.  And what do good consumers do when they want to go sailing?  They buy a boat of their own.  That probably explains why I’d never chosen to sail:  the concept of owning a boat, and a trailer with which to tow it, and rented storage, all presented a barrier to my entering the world of sailing.  The UW Hoofers Sailing Club leverages the resources of the community to provide the boats and infrastructure and volunteer efforts for maintenance.  For a modest $295/year, I can sail any of the 100+ boats (from dinghies to sloops, on up to six different keel boats), windsurfers, and even snow kites in winter.  Perhaps best of all is unlimited instruction at no extra cost, which is how I learned to sail.

terrace

Speaking of winter, I ride my bike year-round.

ebike snow

In fact, when my wife and I moved to Madison, we sold our cars and left them behind in Texas.  Madison is compact enough, we can go nearly everywhere we want on our bikes.  When we do need to go farther, the Metro bus system is superb, with seemingly more lines than one could ever need.  Also nice, there’s no bus stigma.  To see the bus carrying individuals of many different income levels is to see a city that confronts its traffic problem as adults:  rather than ever-widening streets at the expense of all else, the city actually restricts traffic in various ways, chiefly by restricting parking.  Instead of encouraging more cars into the city center, the city provides great public transit and some of North America’s most admired cycling and pedestrian byways.  The true economic elite in this town still of course drive luxury cars to work every morning.  But if they work in the city center, they park at a premium.  Everyone else enjoys free (with any current student ID) or cheap and highly efficient trips by bus, bike, or on foot.  I recently took the heavily used route #70 nine miles to the west side during rush hour, which took twenty-five minutes.  That same trip on a woefully under-funded bus system in Houston used to take me a punishing 45 minutes each way to and from the college campus where I taught.

Rather than prioritize the individual in his or her own car, Madison coaxes individuals out onto the streets, preserving great public spaces for more people to enjoy.  The site of its lively sidewalk culture and busy bicycle commuter paths could be mistaken for one of the nation’s great cityscapes, like Portland or Seattle or Berkeley.  Madison is a small, compact place.  Competing interests collide.  Hard choices must be made.  It’s clear the city is making many of them well.

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There is also Community Car, a car sharing club that rivals the amazing value of the Sailing Club.

CommunityCar logoFor a one time $35 sign up fee, we joined the club and can reserve any of the Priuses, pickup trucks, Honda Fits and Civics, five of them kept in various spots within a mile of our apartment.  The cars are fully insured and fully fueled at no extra cost, save for the hourly fee, which is only $7.50/hour or the $3.75/hour Night Owl rate after 11 PM.  Mileage only costs extra beyond 150 miles in a day.  My wife and I rent Community Car to the tune of $20/month on average. The service hits that sweet spot that’s  triangulated between the bus, the bike, and walking.  The car isn’t the symbol of American individualist freedom for nothing; it can be a real advantage to have a car for certain scenarios.  But not owning a car–not shouldering the financial costs (depreciation, fuel, interest on financing, insurance, sales tax, maintenance, repair; Consumer Reports estimates such costs for a Mini Cooper to be $5,800/year!) or the costs in lost time (dealing with maintenance or breakdowns or flats or dead batteries, researching the purchase, researching the maintenance/repair providers)–now, that’s a freedom in and of itself.  The catchphrase in the Community Car logo is “Own less.  Live more.”  I get that now.

This post is getting way too long.  Besides, by now one can see what I’m getting at about Madison.  Madison has shown us a paradox:  the riches of living modestly but deeply and without fear, in a place that values community.  In this town I feel awake again.  Again?  Or is it really for the first time, ever?