Turning that Frown Upside-Down

SweetTarts.  Never liked ’em.  During my formative years, I learned, within seconds, that the ‘sour’ profile just didn’t turn the wheels for me.  After basketball practice at the old CYC, you’d find the candy-machines nudged up against the wall as you descended the gym.  A nickel could get you a handful of those SweetTarts, but I always chalked that up as a complete waste of 5 cents.

Fast-forward to the present-day.  And I’d have to say that I feel pretty much the same.  The ‘sour’ is still a bit dour for me when it comes to Farmhouse ales.  They were the rage (and perhaps still are) several years ago.  You couldn’t turn sideways in a beer-shop without your pelvis knocking over a 22-ounce bottle of one.  Or ten.

So I commend the fine folks in Downingtown, PA for tricking the hell out of me.  Nicely played.  When I spotted Helios Ale from Victory Brewing on the top shelf of a Primos Deli cooler, it simply looked….happy….to be there.  And the description on the back seemed lengthy, and average.  I started to read it, but immediately got caught up in conversation with Paula, so I skipped the rest of the words and skipped on up to the register.

I congratulated myself on the $3.99 sticker.  But when I arrived at home and actually perused the entire description, visions of SweetTarts thumped in my head.  Damn.  ‘Farmhouse’.

But I was singing its praises last night on the front deck.  Wow.

IMG_0038Victory claims it as a ‘Belgian Farmhouse Ale’, of the 7.5% variety.  It’s also, as I understand it, a sort of a ‘replacement’ beer for their previously-known V-Saison.  A video on their site explains the alteration, but I still don’t completely understand it.  Unless, of course, by intoning ‘making Helios Ale more approachable’ they also mean pleading with former SweetTarts-haters like me to give it a second try.  If so, then that video should probably get an Oscar.

Helios Ale pours orange and hazy, a sort of Sunkist-bottle-conditioned thickness.  Head-retention is solid and attractive.  I happily allowed it to get comfy with a near-windless evening. (the Indians were playing the A’s, and the label’s hues somehow reminded me of the visiting team’s uniforms.  Coincidence?)

The up-front sour-esque squelch is tempered by really extravagant hop-balance.  I mean, delightfully-so!  I sense black pepper overtones, and maybe some grass. (or it could be that Coop, down the street, is sending clippings into the air and messing with my mind.  If so, he needs to stop.  I need clarity…and ‘quiet’, since it is past 8 o’clock in the evening!)

Frankly, I think Victory designed this beer for me.  The sour tentacles don’t reach out as far as other Farmhouse ales, and the remaining space is remarkably balanced with assorted Czech and British hops.  It has tart-ness, but not of the lip-puckering variety.  And, really, none of the overly cloying acid burn that causes you (or, me, at least) to squint and whistle.

I believe this Belgian Farmhouse Ale might be able to dislodge a few of those damaging SweetTarts memories after all.

The folks from Philly have done it again.  Helios Ale is a winner.  And, coincidentally, so was the Tribe.  Sour: it’s not just for SweetTarts anymore.

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Death by Rosemary

20130422_113405It happened at Washington Street Bistro, not too terribly far from Severance Hall on the east side of Cleveland, where we would see a performance from Garrison Keillor, later in the evening.

The chicken.  There was something on this chicken.  Had the haute University Circle crowd not objected, I would have picked up my empty plate with both hands and lapped any molecules of flavor that still existed on the china.  It was that good.

It was the chilly, windy evening when I fell in love with rosemary.

Now, much to Donna’s displeasure, I put it on everything.  I put in salads.  On hamburgers.  I marinate the salmon with it.  Hell, I even toss a handful in my scrambled eggs.  So, naturally, my fascination with this garden-heroin was more than enough to make me grab a bottle of Saison du Buff, a Dogfish Head beer that I’d yet to try.

But, as I found out, it wasn’t just a Dogfish Head invention.  And it wasn’t just a collaborative beer.  The recipe for Saison du Buff was brewed at Stone Brewing in San Diego and at Victory Brewing in eastern Pennsylvania.  My version was Sam Calagione’s and Dogfish Head’s concoction.

“Donna,” I announced, running into the living room, “I know how much you like me using a certain herb in everything, so I want you to taste this beer and tell me what you find.”

Asking Donna to taste beer is akin to her asking me which I like better: Cornell, or Cinnabar.  Hey, to me, it’s all red, so a part of me understands.  “Tastes like beer,” she replied, almost instantly.

Saison du Buff does taste like beer.  But on further inspection…..from both of us…..something happened.  She took another sip, which I completely enjoyed seeing but which is completely out of character for her.  “There’s something there.  It’s light, but I like it.  I could sip that.”

I knew that with an ale brewed with rosemary, along with parsley, sage, and thyme, something botanical was bound to occur.  I caught wisps of grass, certainly, but it was fresh and not at all noxious, as is sometimes the case when I mow the lawn in the Spring and double-over in respiratory failure.  Like yesterday.

Clove.  Juniper.  A speckle of fruit.  And an ever-so-brief pinch of….Glade Mist?  Hmmm.  But what all of these plant properties possessed was an ‘accelerator’.  It’s like once each gulp ceased, this enormous rush of mild tart-explosion commenced.  A sort of pleasurable heat that seared, and then vanished.

Donna didn’t take a third sip.  Which was also fine with me.  Saison is not even remotely my go-to style, but Saison du Buff made me want to look for both the Stone and the Victory varieties.  Or, as Sam Calagione suggests, mix ’em all together.  Will do.  As soon as I’m done licking the inside of this glass.

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What’s That Over in the Corner?

Some people in our neighborhood still have Christmas decorations littering their yards and front down-spouts.  I can’t complain, or make fun of them, since we do, as well.

It’s a slim, faux Christmas tree that sits in a metal stand on the front porch.  It came with lights already attached to it.  We bought it last Christmas, and just never put it away.  “I like to see the twinkle from where I sit,” said Donna.  She said this at about this same time last year, as I was organizing some things in the basement.  And for some reason, we just never put it away.

Aside from the fact that it easily blows over during a wind-storm, I’m happy about that IMG_4033decision.  Yes, it, too, makes us look like our house celebrates its West Virginia-roots, like many former Mountaineers in this neighborhood. (do West Virginians really leave their Christmas decorations up all year?  I’d have to ask my parents, specifically, since they’re natives.)  But I’ve grown to enjoy it.  A little piece of the Christmas spirit ’24/7/365′ can’t be bad.  Neither can a post-Christmas miracle: the availability of a 6-pack of Great Lakes Christmas Ale.

Too many people, at both Holiday get-togethers and in a few of the free beer publications here, have philosophized this past year about exactly why Christmas Ale is do damned popular.  I won’t do that here.  The only logical conclusion I can come to is that there’s a secret, un-explained, ingredient that strangles the central-nervous system in such a way that explicitly tells the taste buds that what they’re drinking is the perfect compliment to everything the Christmas Season stands for, both secular and theological.

Is it so implausible?  I’ve seen the most wretched of Bud Lite devotees light up, well, like a Christmas tree, when they see a 6-pack of those famous red ornaments in the green train-car.  I mean, a loud, hyper-reaction, one you’d never expect from someone who absorbs swill on a daily basis: “You have fucking Christmas Ale?!”

In the middle of a February sleet-storm, I found mine last Friday at Primos Deli.  There it sat, next to the other Great Lakes Brewing products, where it normally sits from the end of November until whenever the lovely Paula shakes her head while taking customers’ orders, tragically announcing, ‘Nope, you guys.  No more Christmas Ale!”

But there it was!  Sitting in a corner, partially hidden from the rest of civilization.  I grabbed hold of it the way an addict might latch on to several kilos of cocaine found in a park under a bench, slinking gingerly towards an exit.  On the way to the checkout, Paula gave me my customary hug, and while still embraced, we mumbled, together, “Found the Christmas Ale!”

‘Gifts’ were not plentiful this year.  And on that frigid evening, I wasn’t going to look a gift-horse in the mouth.  Donna was in Florida staring at palm trees, so I was determined to sit in my chair and stare at our little Christmas tree, swaying on the front porch.

Christmas Ale tastes different to me each and every time.  The core of its essence is predictable, but the edges dance in varied patterns after each swallow.  Sometimes the nutmeg over-powers; sometimes the orange.  But perhaps ‘over-powers’ is not the right verbiage.  Each of the spices that dart about have their ‘moment in the glass’.  That night, I detected ginger and clove to have top billing.  But, like our little tree on the porch, my final verdict wavered.  Perhaps the orange-hue that looked so inviting prompted my now-dethroned central nervous system to lean in favor of coriander.  And something else I couldn’t put my tongue on.

And here’s the thing (and most people, including my father, agree…although he’ll never use these words): Christmas Ale gift-wraps and delivers the most soothing, delightful glow. Not to descend into the depths of the swill-heads, but It’s just a fantastic buzz!  And I don’t think I’m incorrect about this: just a couple are enough to keep the Holiday Haters at bay and the Yuletide jing-a-ling reverberating, even through an arctic February evening.

I’m sure there are those who could concoct a doctoral dissertation on the seemingly bizarre fixation that this area has with its favorite Holiday libation.  And there are tons of them available here.  And in the true spirit of objectivity, some of those offerings bump the green car right off the track!  Great Divide’s Hibernation Ale is just a sumptuous behemothIMG_4029 of a beer.  And I don’t know that any holiday beer comes close to the gargantuan, spice-profiles of Hoppin Frog’s Frosted Frog.  But those, now, are a memory, similar to cleaning up the kitchen after Thanksgiving dinner, or shopping on Black Friday.

Call it what you like, but somewhere between Primos Deli and the scrawny Christmas tree dancing in the wind on my front-porch, the spirit of Kris Kringle made something turn up that was totally unexpected.  And I wasn’t going to argue.

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In Praise of the Voluptuous

They sat in the back of the St. Thomas Aquinas high school lunchroom.  It’s where the misfits sat.  The ones who weren’t football players.  Or cheerleaders.  Most of them were not regarded for their academic prowess, either.  They were in school because they had to be there.  They wore the required ‘uniform’, which consisted of double-knit slacks and corresponding double-knit shirt, similar to the ones John Travolta’s friends wore in AquinasSaturday Night Fever.  But none of them would be caught dead owning a copy of the movie’s soundtrack.  Not if they wanted to live.

I was one of these misfits.  We looked at the clock a great deal, waiting for the end of the school-day.  We argued about which of Ted Nugent’s albums had better guitar-solos: Cat Scratch Fever or Free for All.  We traded secrets about rolling the perfect joint.  And we salivated over women.  It’s all we could do, really, since none of us had any legitimate hope of ever landing one.

While leaned up against the back wall pontificating in no uncertain terms about what we’d do if we ever were with a cheerleader, I knew early on that my tastes were different.  It’s not that I didn’t appreciate a svelte, athletic build on a nubile Roman Catholic vixen.  But my radar had a tendency to bend towards a woman who was more statuesque, in a Renaissance sort of way.  I liked more natural girth.  I liked Sandy Shoup.

IMG_3999She crossed my mind the other evening as I gave breathing room to a bottle of Fort Collins Brewery’s Doppel Bock.  I was bemused, naturally.  What on earth could the style’s long-time symbolic connection with a goat have anything at all to do with that curvaceous, buxom image that, even after 35 years, still haunts me?

Hops.

Everyone loves ’em.  Lots of them.  The more, the merrier.  Hell, I love them.  But, like a parade of aesthetically-pleasing, artistically-pure majorettes gliding us past us in the Aquinas lunchroom, my mind drifts towards the academic.  Yes, they’re beautiful.  And I wouldn’t turn down an evening with one (or two!), sitting on the veranda of a villa in Marina San Gregorio, gazing at the Mediterranean.

But the sanguine complexion of Doppel Bock, glaring at me through my glass, reminded me why I enjoy this style so much.  And why, at least on that day in the lunchroom, I kept my opinions to myself.

The alchemists at The Fort Collins Brewery claim that Doppel Bock is ‘doubled smoked’.  No arguments here.  Overtly noxious rauchbiers are generally verboten to my palate, but the smoke, ‘double’ or not, seems perfectly blended into this recipe’s DNA.   There’s the anticipated sweetness that’s expected with this style, but less pronounced, allowing the alcohol sear to show through.

Like Sandy Shoup, this beer is far from petite.  Large bones that hold well-constructed flavors.  It’s a beverage that holds its own, that has held its own, without bending to a blitzkrieg of Cascade or Simcoe petals.  Like humming “Layla” or “Roundabout” in the back of the lunch-room, it’s indeed a classic.

This is by no means an indictment of humulus lupulus.  Far from it.  After having the distinct honor to finally sample Pliny the Elder, I’m in awe of the majesty.  But, depending on the mood, ‘so much’ can sometimes be ‘too much’.  As we continue our IBU-fixation, I’m reminded of the immortal words of fellow misfit Scott Kunkel, as he fired off one of many diatribes about his beloved sensimilla: “You can only get so high.”

So, I give praise to hops.  I laud them.  And tomorrow night, I may imbibe with a beverage that has lots of them.  But tonight, while the popular Centennial, Challenger, and Chinook get all the spicy, hot love, I’m settling in with antiquity.  Like the quintessential woman of substance and style, Doppel Bock moves me.  And this time I’m not afraid to say it.  While an evening on the veranda sounds awfully appealing, I know who I’m going home with.

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The Triumph of Imperialism

IMG_3980 It arrived in a fairly nondescript brown box, as you might expect with an item that falls into the category of ‘contraband’.  Luckily, due to insanely effective packaging by the sender, the contents remained safe and secure.  I had only seen the red circle on top of the olive label on the Russian River website, so to retrieve it from its bubble-wrap cocoon and actually hold it while standing in my kitchen was, to be honest, groin-tingling.

Pliny the Elder is as about as revered a Double IPA as is available.  Except, of course, it’s not available here; hence, the covert package.  And I needed a Double IPA.  Maybe even two of them.  My beloved Fighting Irish had been bitch-slapped by the newest collegiate dynasty, so I was hurting.

Pliny pours a retina-scorching hazy orange hue, with a semi-creamy head and decent retention.  I got a blast of the Simcoe hops right out of the gate.  Nice intro, since Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian and writer, actually penned some early thoughts on lupus salictarius, or hops.  The Amarillo variety, and several others as well, filled up my living room.  Even my dogs began twitching their nostrils.  Carbonation was pristine, as swaths of grapefruit and lemon-lime residue fluttered on the back of my tongue. IMG_3981

“If you must, sit on eggs. Not Pliny,” reads the label.  Yep, Pliny the Elder is not a cellar-dweller.  This one was bottled on ’12/27’, so it was as fresh as the flurries that were falling outside.  The 8% tsunami of alcohol rushes in at exactly the right time (seeing as how Notre Dame fumbled on the 4 yard-line!),  reminding me after each luscious mouthfeel what a truly special DIPA this really is.

Minimalist, plain-brown postal boxes: they’re not just for porn anymore!  But, alas, my ubiquitous parcel had another bottle in it, as well.  We’ve been getting some of San Diego’s Green Flash Brewing products in our backyard, but Palate Wrecker was an Imperial IPA that I hadn’t tasted before.  And while Brian Kelly’s boys easily played the part of the vanquished on the big screen, Palate Wrecker gets all up in your grill in a hurry.  It‘s a 9.5% monster that simply obliterates from the outset, with a big, massive hop structure and meticulously-balanced citrus notes.  Green Flash boasts that “sparged hopped wort” is the secret.  I suppose it’s sort of like hearing a quarterback call a “26-slant-dive-option-right-loop-curl” in the huddle; I’m not sure what it means, but it must work when the ref’s arms go up in the air.  Unfortunately, on television, it wasn’t of the ‘Touchdown Jesus’-variety.  Palate Wrecker, though, made my taste-buds, well, erect.

IMG_3983But even though my effectiveness as a Catholic practitioner is dubious at best, I did offer supplication: a quick prayer of hope that there’s an Irish ‘return to glory’ during my lifetime, and a trinity of ‘thanks’: to the sender of this package, and to a couple of remarkable, stupendous beers.

Comfortably Numb

Cleveland sports fans enjoy covering themselves in misery.  I should know.  I’m one of them.  The failures lie before us like a giant pool of liquid, and though we hold our nose when we jump in, it’s familiar territory.  We always tend to gravitate towards the same murky water.  Rolling around in it.  Bathing in it.  Swallowing it.

We haven’t had a championship of any kind since 1964.  That’s a long time ago.  And the Screen shot 2012-12-18 at 12.29.35 PMhaunting, along with the realization that we mark our memories in terms of decades and not years, continually rears its ugly head.  And it’s only exacerbated by the Holidays.  At this time of year, the good teams go to the playoffs.  Cleveland sports fans look at the future draft.

This sledge-hammer to the head is generally dulled by libations.  Good to know that The Mad Elf Ale from Troegs Brewing Company is there to provide a Yuletide pat on the shoulder.  And a blitzkrieg to the palate.

As if the 11% assault wasn’t enough, its contents are thickened with the addition of honey and cherries.  We should celebrate such viscosity.  If only the Browns defense weren’t so porous against the Broncos during that last march down the field by John Elway.  Perhaps we wouldn’t be held captive by ‘The Drive’.

The Mad Elf Ale pours burgundy, like the cherries that inhabit it.  I knew immediately as it fluttered past my nostrils that I was in for at least a momentary disabling of the half-century of sports anguish.  In my chalice, its color reminded me a bit of the Cavs traveling-uniforms, in all their wine-ry and finery.  A half-second of blinding flashbacks of Jordan’s flick-of-the-wrist over Craig Ehlo danced in my skull as ‘The Shot’ hit the re-wind button, again.  But the senses can bow to the present quite quickly, providing the right medicine does its job.

I cup my hands around my glass.  I taste molasses.  Brown sugar.  Licorice.  There’s hop-bitterness, but it’s subdued.  Similar to the way a Charles Nagy might lock down a potent Yankees offense on a chilly October evening.  Not with over-whelming power, but with finesse.  Not showing your cards.  Keep ’em guessing.  But eventually the heat has to come.

And does it ever.  The Mad Elf Ale has blistering stuff.  It’s a carbonated bourbon that’s buttery and warming, oozing chocolate notes and a touch of candy-cane.  A banana-bread-y back-bite twinkles on the sides of the tongue.  It’s similar to the pitcher who doesn’t want to come out, and who tells his manager, “I’m hurting, but it’s a good hurt.”  This is a mesmerizing beer.

We feast on ‘what might have been’.  We’re good at it.  In fact, we count on it.  But with the post-season being a Christmas wish-list, a bare cupboard of talent up at the arena, and low expectations in the Spring, the Holidays can seem downright deplorable.  Good thing Troegs is able to pop a gift under the tree.  Un-wrap it slowly, though.  And enjoy.  As my mother used to say as we descended to the living room in our Indians pajamas, “It’s all there is this year.”

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That Which Gives Us Sustenance

I don’t know what I’ve done.  They won’t tell me.

All I know is that I’m facing a firing squad.  Seven men with really long rifles.  Gruff, muscular men, who, for some reason, are wearing handkerchiefs around their faces, to disguise themselves.  Really?  You’re going to end my life right here, and you worried that I’m going to know your identity?

The leader, a bit shorter than the rest of them, makes sure that my shackles are tight.  He hasn’t shaved in several days, and he smells of gunpowder and musty cardboard.  And cheap beer.

“What does it feel like,” he whispers to me, “to know that you have only mere seconds left to live?  Hmm?”

His putrid pilsner-breath makes me feel courageous.  “What does it feel like for you to know that you have shitty taste in beer?”

He snorts out loud in laughter, while several of his henchmen join him.  He walks around in a semi-circle, laughing, looking at the members of the firing squad and pointing at me.  “You have balls, you know?  I admire your bravery.”  And then he gets almost nose-to-nose with me.  “And what would you have as your last beer?  Hmm?”

I let out a brief exhalation of air from my nose.  “Something that you wouldn’t have the common human decency to appreciate,” I reply.  “A beer that’s almost as dark as your soul.  That has more integrity in it’s hop-profile than you have in your whole short, pathetic, rotting corpse.”

His eyes dart up and down, bouncing from my eyes to my mouth, and back up again.  “And what is this special brew that I and my men are so incapable of appreciating?  Hmm?”

I paused briefly, but quickly became thirsty just saying the words. “Arcadia Loch Down Scotch Ale.”

All of them exploded in laughter.  The one responsible for orchestrating my demise laughed the loudest, almost doubling-over.  “A product from a Michigan brewery is the one you’d choose to partake in as your final beer?  I find that intriguing.”

I saw no ‘Ohio State’ cap on his head, so his problem with the beer’s state-of-origin eluded me.  Nevertheless, I knew that I wouldn’t have the time to explain to him the sweet, caramel-tinged burn, the gooey alcohol-laden kiss that drenches each luscious swallow, or the ensuing glow that propels you to simply want to take another.  A man like this doesn’t smell a beer, so he would miss the bread-like, earthy aromas, slightly dipped in burlap, that would release into the air.  Could my life be spared by pontificating on ‘good head-retention’ and superior ‘lacing’?  Not with this beer.  But it didn’t need it.  Never would.  But I was willing to try what was at my disposal.

“You have a great deal more time than I have –”

“Yes, I do,” he interrupted.

I continued.  “So what if we try something.  And it should only take a few seconds.  Let’s open a bottle of Arcadia Loch Down Scotch Ale.  Pour a sample for you and your gun-toting friends.  If it agrees with you, then let me go.  And if not, then fire away.”

He crossed his arms and stared at me.  “Your life, contingent on the taste of one Scotch ale?”

I answered quickly.  ‘No, not just any Scotch ale.  One of the finest Scotch ales you’ll ever have.  And if you’re truly the purveyor of ‘appreciation’ that you say you are, then you’ll take me up on my offer.”  I paused.  “After all, all you have is ‘time’, right?”

He stared through me.  I instantly prepared myself for him to raise a pistol at my forehead and squeeze the trigger.  But he merely stared.  And then he spoke, loudly.  “Get the bottle!’

One of his soldiers placed his rifle on the ground and left, and seconds later returned with a perspiring container.  The blue label gave me a momentary surge of tranquility.  “Too bad it can’t warm up a bit,” I said, upon seeing the bottle.

The leader again exploded in laughter.  “You’ve been given too much time as it is, my friend.”

He took the butt-end of his pistol and snapped it upwards, against the cap.  It broke off quickly with a tiny pssst.  Motioning one of the other soldiers, several tin cups appeared, and he emptied the contents into each of them, saving a morsel in the bottom of the bottle. He then looked in my direction, raised the bottle towards me, and smiled.

“To life!” he screamed.  The other men did the same.  And then they drank.

I stood there, as the wind and the sand blew across my face, powerless to stop it.  It stung.  As did my wrists and arms, which had been bound for sometime.  I was tired.  But the pain and the fatigue that gripped me, that had held me hostage, dissolved into the background.  It wasn’t bullets that ripped into my chest and skull that forced my current world into the next, but the clink of a bottle against the stones on the ground.  An empty bottle.

And the wave of a hand.  A directive, distinct and unwavering, one that is usually obeyed by men, those who comply with a captor who announces in a firm and steady voice, “Release him.”

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