Monday, August 27, 2012

Some Beers to Try

This isn't a list of "the best" beers. Just some beers you may or may not know about, and which I happen to be particularly fond of right now.

König Pilsener (German Pilsener 4.9%) should be bought only in cans, not in bottles. Cans are good now. They don't affect flavor. And they block light and other environmental nasties which harm most beers - especially delicate Pilseners, which are extra light and subtle. So König Pilsener offers a rare unblemished taste of excellent classic German Pilsener. And you can buy a four pack of tall 500 ml cans for under $6, which is considerably cheaper than Pabst Blue Ribbon. I don't understand it. But I like it.

I always have a bunch of these in my fridge. It's my house beer. I rejoice in the opportunity to drink German Pilsener in the wrong hemisphere and still have it taste just the way it should really taste, with all subtleties intact. Plus: cheap!

Before I found König Pilsener, my two house beers were:

Victory "Prima Pils" (German Pilsener 5.3%), is a very good German Pilsener made here in Pennsylviania. It comes only in bottles, so be sure not to buy ones sitting in light (in grocery displays, always reach back to grab a bottle from the middle of the pack (this is the way to buy all beer), or, even better, try to snatch bottles from a sealed case.


Victory "HopDevil Ale" (American IPA 6.7%) is a good choice when you crave a nice bracing hit of bitter hops but are looking for drinkability above all (plus easy availability and low price).

Boulevard Brewing "Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale", 8%) from Missouri, is something you don't see everyday: a refreshing Belgian-style beer. Belgians aim for art with their beers, which makes most of them ill-suited to more casual consumption.

If I lived in Massachusettes (the nearest authorized state; it's not available in New York yet, though I hear Whole Foods may be working on it), and if money were no object (this isn't cheap beer), I'd make Tank 7 my house beer.

Buy it in regular-sized bottles, not the 22 ouncers; the larger ones are more for shared special occasions, but the smalls better suit the beer's casual spirit.

Uinta "Dubhe Imperial Black IPA" (American Black Ale 9.2%).
Uinta is a new-ish brewery from Utah that's just begun large-scale distribution. Darker, stronger beers are their specialty, and their Black IPA is one of the best examples of the style, which is dark as stout, but less creamy and chocolatey. It's hopped like an IPA, but be careful, as this is an extra strong IPA ("Imperial") at 9.2%.

Weihenstephaner "Vitus" (Weizenbock 7.7%) is the wheat beer for people who don't like wheat beers. Not terribly clovey/banana-y. Unlike most wheat beers, this one's got backbone. And it's way stronger than it tastes, so take care. It's full of rich German brewing character. I consider this one of the most under-recognized, under-appreciated beers currently available.
Weihenstephaner "Korbinian" (Doppelbock 7.4%), also from Weihenstephaner. Doppelbocks are concentrated, strong, sweet-ish, toffee-like affairs, and this is no exception. But the big difference here (aside from the mere 7.4% strength, very low for a doppelbock) is the finish, which is curiously, magically dry. This makes it very drinkable - and "drinkable" is definitely not a descriptor you'd apply to other dopplebocks.

De Ranke "Guldenberg" (Tripel, 8.5%).
I've been seriously considering selling off all my possessions, buying an RV, and driving around to bars tapping kegs of Guldenberg. Sightings are rare, so it would be much more involved than simply hopping between, say, Grateful Dead shows.

Describe it? Are you serious? How would one describe "love" to someone who's never experienced it?
De Ranke "XX Bitter" (Belgian IPA, 6.2%) is De Ranke's second best beer, and more widely known. As with Guldenberg, there's so much personality here that it's hard to pin down a description, or even a stylistic label. It's a sudsy world unto itself, mashing up (pun intended) flavor signatures from multiple beer styles. At least nominally, it's another Belgian IPA (i.e. Belgian ale zinged up with hops - in this case, grassy/British ones). It's quite bitter, in keeping with its name, but it's the furthest thing from some of the more astringent, tongue-scraping hoppy beers you may have experienced. You've just got to try it.

By the way, both XX Bitter and Guldenberg are good (though expensive) in bottles, too. But better on tap. Or [tears of imagined joy] cask.

Green Flash "Le Freak" (Belgian IPA, 9.2%) is a household name among beer geeks, because it was the first American beer in a style that's become an instant, much-imitated classic: Belgian IPA. Belgian IPAs are a hybrid, joining the full-bodied yeast and malting of Belgian ales with bitter, aromatic American hops.

Le Freak is yet another beer that's stronger than it tastes, and it's expensive (usually over $10 for a 22 oz bottle). But if you like complex flavors exquisitely balanced to the point where nothing sticks out and the elegant whole is far greater than the parts, this one's for you.

Sierra Nevada "Ruthless Rye" (American IPA, 6.6%) is not the best rye beer, but it's definitely the most widely-distributed. You can find this practically everywhere...and it's quite good.

Founders "Red's Rye" (Rye Beer, 6.6%) is a better rye beer, but hard to find.

Also great from Founders: KBS (Kentucky Breakfast Stout) (American Double / Imperial Stout 11.2%), Super strong (really for winter), and....

CBS (Canadian Breakfast Stout) (American Double / Imperial Stout 10.6%)
Powerful, jam-packed with flavor.

Thornbridge used to be my favorite British Brewer. Their ales are lovingly made, with the cheeky twist of New Zealand hops in the mix. New Zealand hops are eccentric, with wild, tropical flavors recalling things like mango and passionfruit. Thornbridge is still quite good (if you can find it), but not quite as good since the original brewer quit and went to work for...

Buxton Brewery in Bakewell, England.

How good is Buxton's beer? I spent a king's ransom to attend a hyper high-end beer tasting this summer where a stupefying quantity of the world's best beers were not only present, but poured by their actual brewers, all of whom had flown in specially. I should have been making rounds, tasting as much as possible. But I spent over an hour filling and refilling my tasting glass at the Buxton booth. I lacked for nothing.

Their beer is consistently great across the entire range. And, like Thornbridge (and unusual for Brits), they taste fully dimensional and alive even in bottles.

I don't believe Buxton's available in the US yet, but watch for it.

Finally, an enigma.

Courage "Russian Imperial Stout" (Russian Imperial Stout 10%), first brewed in the 18th century, is one of the most-loved classic beers of all time. It's always been brewed infrequently, and people have swooned over it when it's appeared, cellaring cases for years or decades, and spurring brisk trade on eBay. When Courage stopped making the beer in 1993, people wept (well, I did, anyway).

This stuff is huge, tangy, frothy, creamy, deep, luscious, spicy, fruity, chocolatey/coffee. I once forced a wine expert friend (who frequently poured '29 Bordeaux and '59 Vintage Port for friends, and insisted he had no taste for beer) to taste it, and he went cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs, ecstatically kissing the cheek of everyone in the room. It's that good.

When Courage stopped brewing it, and rebuffed inquiries about its future, one importer went to the length of cloning the recipe and selling it under a new brand. It wasn't as good, though. Nothing is as good.

And now, guess what? It's back! And it's still great (and will be even greater after a few years in a cool, dark cellar)! Yet I've not heard a word about it. No excitement whatsoever. Just me! I don't get it....

A few web resources:

Beer Advocate offers good (but extremely geeky) beer reviews

Beer Menus tells you where to find a given beer (in stores or bars), and offers current beer lists from bars. Not all data is reliably fresh, though, so be sure to check dates. And they only cover a few geographic areas.

The New York City Beer Guide is the grandaddy of beer web sites, predating Chowhound by two full years.


vhliv said...

There have been several good German canned beers appearing recently. A few months ago Bitburger was showing up 500 ml 4 packs, and is also to be bought if seen, and right now my local grocery store is carrying DAB (Dortmunder Aktien Bräurerei) 500 ml 6 packs for $7.99.

Jim Leff said...

Both are good beers. But try them side-by-side with Konig, and see what you think!

vhliv said...

Jim, when I see König I'll buy it and give it a try. Bitburger was beer I settled on during my Junior year abroad way back, so when i'm not going to judge. My point was just to note that you can get some high quality German beers at quite competitive prices. Its not just St. Pauli Girl and Becks anymore.

Jim Leff said...

...or even Spaten and Hacker Pschorr!

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