The best beers I had in 2015

25 all-star brews includes sours, barrel-aged beers and more from U.S. and Belgium

By Alan J. Wax

What a year it’s been!

As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time to take stock of what’s gone down my gullet—or the sink drain. To be sure, I sampled and rated hundreds of beers. Many of them were excellent, a great many more bordered on excellence and some less so. There also were a few drain pours.

These were beers I’d sampled at home, at breweries, brew pubs, bars, restaurants and beer festivals. Mea culpa. I failed to take notes on many of the beers sampled at the Great American Beer Festival and at local fests due to the tasting experience, except for a few true standouts.

To my surprise, so many of my top picks for this year were American craft brews, including a couple produced by a brewery owned by AB-InBev (Chicago’s Goose Island and several from breweries in South Florida, where I have a second home and where new breweries seem to open almost monthly and several from Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City. A few Belgian brews also stood out.

Sour beers, of which we’re seeing more and more, are well represented.

RodebbacgOf the hundreds of beers tasted over the past 12 months, I rated only 25 at five stars on Untappd.com (You can follow me there under corkscapsandtaps). A handful of brewers made the list more than once, Here are my picks (listed alphabetically):

2011 Vintage Oak Aged Ale (Barrel No 95) by Belgium’s Brouwerij Rodenbach. Murky brown with a nose that suggests leather oak. On the palate there was a fruit bowl of flavors including dried prunes, raspberries, grapes and cherry along with hints of Brett. Simply amazing stuff.

Barrel-aged Project (Blonde Ale): No. 6 Porto by Belgium’s Brouwerij Hof Ten Dormaal. This deep copper colored brew is part of importer B United International’s ambitious barrel aging project. The nose suggested Port wine nose and its incredibly complex palate weaves notes of bread, honey, plum and oak. It finishes quite tart.

Bourbon County Stout Vanilla Rye (2014) by Goose Island Beer Co., Chicago. Hard to find, but worth the effort to search it out for its silky smoothness and intense vanilla and spice character.

Collaboration No. 3 – Stingo by Boulevard Brewing in collaboration with Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project. A deep copper, traditional English strong ale with a tan head and a nose of roasty grain. Notes of cocoa and toffee and some hints of black pepper accompany its chewy, but silky, texture.

Common Good, a deep brown, American wild ale by Fullsteam Brewing of Durham, North Carolina, It’s brewed with locally sources agricultural products including a corn mash, apples, rye and barley. Just luscious with notes of corns, apples, nutty malt and bready yeast.

Dark Truth Stout, also by Boulevard Brewing. Ebony colored, this double stout is thick and richly flavored with notes of chocolate, caramel and spices.

Halia (2015), also by Goose Island.  A hazy golden brew that erupts with its Brett nose and lots of sharp, lacto tartness and finishes with notes of juicy peaches.

Imperial Stout (2014) by Boulevard Brewing Co., Kansas City, Missouri. Ebony hued with a vanilla nose the notes of whisky from barrel aging are well integrated. A chewy, oily brew, it offers notes of dark molasses and finishes bitter.

Last-Snow-Tap-StickerLast Snow (2015), also by Funky Buddha Brewery. An imperial coconut-coffee porter that shows off an incredible mélange of chocolate and coconut notes and more.

More Moro, a blood orange IPA from Funky Buddha Brewery, is deep gold and offers a huge citrus nose. Juicy orange/citrus flavors cut through hop bitterness. It finishes up spicy dry and orangey. Both delicious and drinkable.

Rye Saison by Wynkoop Brewing Co., Denver, Colorado This reddish brown ale is malty sweet. With notes of yeast, spices snd black pepper. It’s rich and velvety.

Once Upon A Time 1955 Double Brown Ale by the soon to be or, perhaps, now-shuttered quirky Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, of Somerville, Massachusetts. Colored deep mahogany with a dense, foamy head this beer as the Brit’s like to say is quite “moreish,” meaning when you finish one, you’ll want another. Its nose proffers rich notes of malt and cocoa nose. It’s smooth on the palate with notes of bread and caramel malt notes and a pleasant roasty finish. An homage to the beers of Merry Old England.

Parade of Souls Belgian Imperial Stout by Barrel Of Monks Brewing, Boca Raton, Florida. A rich, ebony-hued brew with a nose of chocolate liquor with notes of dried fruits and chocolate and a finish that won’t quit.

Porter by Founders Brewing Co. of Grand Rapids, Michigan. A mouth-filling brew with an opaque deep brown hue and a mocha-colored head, it has a nose of concentrated chocolate with hints of licorice. There’s more chocolate along with roasted grain and sultana raisins on the palate and a finish of bittersweet chocolate.

St. Bretta (Gold Nugget Mandarin) by Denver’s Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project. A cloudy light orange-hued Brett brew with a short head. There’s tart orange on the nose. Ditto for the palate. It finishes dry. It’s lip-smacking delicious.

Saaz Matters by Funky Buddha Brewery, Oakland Park, Florida. There’s an immediate hit to the nose and palate of Saaz hops in this golden brew that danced all over my tongue. Could easy pass for a Czech Pilsner with its balance malt and crispness. Well done.

Timmerman's oude gueuze

Timmerman’s oude gueuze

Stay Puft Marshmallow Porter by J. Wakefield Brewing, of Miami. This was an incredibly rich and delicious sweet stout redolent of creamy vanilla notes and chocolate.

Timmermans Oude Gueuze by Brewery John Martin & Brewery Timmermans of Belgium. A hazy gold brew with a lactic nose, this was a big time pucker, a beer to savor with tart lemony and dry notes that went on forever. This is what a sour beer should be.

Trébuchet Golden Farmhouse Ale by Ladyface Alehouse and Brasserie of Agora Hills, California.  This  golden brew wowed me at GABF with its tart nose and an intense, dry tart hit on the palate accompanied by a tasty Brett character.

 

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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ top Cabs offer reminder of restrained California wines

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates New York State Manager Brian Strauss conducts Stag's Leap Wine Cellars tasting

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates New York State Manager Brian Strauss conducts Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars tasting at Long Island’s Post Wines.

 SLWC wines, especially Cabs, show well at a retail tasting

By Alan J. Wax

I’ve never been a big fan of California wines, but a recent tasting at a shop near my home happily reminded me of the fine wines being produced at Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

I’d sampled the wines of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars from time to time in the past at various large, industry walk-around tasting events, but never before had an opportunity to give them a more contemplative look.

I left the tasting at Post Wines in Syosset, Long Island, quite impressed and quite happy.

The wines were exciting, particularly the reds. The Stag Leap Wine Cellars’ Cabernet Sauvignons showed tannic structure, acidity, and for the most part, restrained fruit, which probably explains my enjoyment.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars has a terrific story. Warren Winiarski, a former college professor, founded the winery in 1972 and in 1979 it gained worldwide acclaim when its second vintage, the 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, bested a group of handpicked Bordeaux wines in a blind tasting by French judges held in Paris during the American bicentennial. The tasting advanced not only the reputation of Stag’s Leap but also those of Napa Valley and California. The tasting became the subject of a 2005 book by George M. Taber, “Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine.” Washington-based Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and Tuscan vintner Piero Antinori, partners in various wine ventures, have owned Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars since 2007.

New ownership brought changes, the tasting group at Post was told by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates New York State Manager Brian Strauss, including replacing vinyl piping with stainless steel and adding air conditioning to the winery’s aging caves, all of which, he said, resulted in better wines, beginning with the 2012 vintage. The partners also brought in a new wine maker in 2013, Marcus Notaro, from the Col Solare winery in Washington, which they jointly own.

We sampled wines from the 2012, 2013 and 2014 vintages starting with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Sauvignon Blanc Aveta 2014 ($22). Straw-hued, with a grassy, herbal nose, there’s grass and grapefruit on the palate with just enough acidity to keep it interesting.

We followed with another white, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Karia Chardonnay 2013 ($28). This straw-hued, creamy Chard offered hints of spice on the nose and pear and vanilla on the palate along with lip-smacking acidity.

Then onto the Cabs, for which Stag’s Leap remains best known. The winery’s top wines and, perhaps most-renown, are its Cask 23 Cabernet blend, which sells for $150— not poured at the recent tasting – and the Fay and S.L.V. bottlings. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ fame is closely linked to its signature estate vineyards, S.L.V. and FAY. The FAY Vineyard was planted in 1961 as the first Cabernet Sauvignon site in the Stags Leap District. The S.L.V. Vineyard was planted in 1970.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 ($55). This deep purple seems the antithesis of its pricier siblings with oak dominating the blackberry and cherry fruit and the finish. Not particularly a favorite at this stage.

Stag’s Leap FAY Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($1205). Deep purple hued with notes of spice and cherries on the nose. It’s quite approachable despite its youth and very fruit forward.

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($120). The final wine of the evening – they saved the best for last. Dark and inky, this was a powerful, full-bodied wine with loads of black fruit and spice notes from nose to palate. I’d love to taste this beauty after a few years of aging.

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Two newcomers to Denver’s bustling beer scene offer unusual brews

Following up on my visit to the Mile High City for GABF

Ratio bar

Ratio’s tasting bar

Spangalang's tasting bar

Spangalang’s tasting bar

By Alan J. Wax

America’s Mile High City is bubbling over in beer.

That’s something a visitor to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver late in September could quickly have discovered. I did.

Some five dozen breweries now produce lagers, ales and stouts within the 155-square-mile confines of Colorado’s capital city, almost half of them opened in the last two years.

During my visit to the GABF, I got to experience some of the city’s bustling beer culture with a visit to two its newest production breweries, Ratio Beerworks and Spangler Brewery, courtesy of the Denver Convention and Visitors Bureau, which arranged a bus tour for a group of beer writers and bloggers. The tour, led by Ed Sealover, a reporter with the Denver Business Journal and author of “Mountain Brews,” didn’t’ travel very far from Downtown.

Ratio logoOur first stop was Ratio in what’s known as the River North, or RINO, neighborhood. Here, Jason zumBrunnen, a former brewer at the city’s pioneering Wynkoop brew pub, has partnered with Zach Lowery and Scott Kaplan to open a music-inspired, 5,500 square-foot brewery (with a 20-barrel system) and taproom in a former distillery. Ratio, which produces beer on a 20-barrel system, traces its roots to its owners’ days in the punk rock music scene of the late 90’s. Their idea was to combine the marketing and business sense they acquired in the music business with their knowledge of brewing,

It appears to be working. The taproom was abuzz with visitors during our beer week tour and the beers I sampled were both unusual and quality brews

Though I only had timet to sample three beers, there were no disappointments.

Wicked Grin was a terrific saison made with plums that had an intense tart character and nice black pepper notes. Hold

Steady with Coffee, a deep brown ale, struck me as something akin to the ice coffees one finds in Southeast Asian restaurants, cold and sweet.

The Knew Gose was a delightful summer quencher with great lime notes.

Spangalang logoOur next stop brought us to another close-to-downtown neighborhood that’s undergoing revitalization, Five Points, which in its heyday was a jazz mecca that rivaled Harlem. Here, we found the Spangalang Brewery, which riffs on Welton Street’s jazz roots. Housed in a former motor vehicle office, the tasting room walls are adorned with framed jazz album covers. Former Great Divide brewers Austin Wiley, Darren Boyd and Taylor Rees produce the beers, made in an adjacent space several feet below ground.

Spangalang, which opened in April, is already a winner; Its Table Beer won GABF gold in the category known as Other Belgian-Style Ale

The brewery takes its name from a jazz term that refers to a cymbal pattern.

Here, I sampled a number of sour and Brettanomyces focused beers and one more mainstream brew

Pure Gold, a sour beer made with tart cherry juice and rose water and 100 percent fermented with Brett. Cloudy gold, I found the Brett character muted and only hints of sour cherries.

Mr. Ra’s Interplanetary Influence, homage, I presume, to jazz composer Sun Ra, another Brett brew that is cloudy gold and, again muted Brett character.

Cucumber Gose, a collaboration brew with the Real Dill pickle company, Fresh cucumber juice and coriander are added post fermentation to this slightly sour, salted wheat beer. An interesting concept, but it was a bit like drinking from a pickle barrel.

Bossman Marzen. Tasted at the advice of a colleague, this amber brew game off notes of fruity malt and caramel on both the nose and the palate. Definitively more pleasing that the sours.

Though GABF won’t be around for almost another year, if you find yourself in Denver before then you’ll be quite pleased with these newcomers—as well as the many other beer makers across the Mile High City.

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Ciders that turned wine writers’ heads

Author's top pick, Christian Drouhin Poire

Author’s top pick, Christian Drouhin Poire

Apple and pear ciders demonstrate at a New  York tasting that they are earning a place at the dining table

By Alan J. Wax

When members of the Wine Media Guild of New York convened recently in the private dining room of Felidia, in Manhattan, there were no elegant Chardonnays to be tasted, no sensual red Burgundies, no coveted First Growth Bordeaux wines and no well-aged Barolos.

No, at this meeting of wine writers, the drink of the moment had nothing to do with grapes. Instead, the scribes sampled a beverage that in recent years has soared in popularity: hard cider. And many of the writers, new to cider, took great pleasure in their discoveries,

Indeed, hard, or alcoholic cider, is among the hottest alcoholic beverage categories in the U.S. The Chicago-based market research firm IRI reported that cider sales soared 75.4 percent over the12 months that ended Nov. 30, 2014 to $366 million, or about 1 percent of the beer market.

Cider, to be sure, is technically a wine, albeit one made from apples, or, in some instances pears and, generally, one of less than 7 percent alcohol by volume. Cider makers typically ferment their fruit juices with natural wild yeasts, yeasts used in winemaking, and occasionally, at least in the U.S., with yeast strains used by Belgian brewers.

In the past, cider was confused with apple wine and was considered a sweet/carbonated drink. Lately, however, there’s been a move to make dry and semi-dry ciders, driven in part by the gluten free movement and the perception that the sweeter taste of cider, with a similar alcohol level to beer, will appeal to women and drinkers seeking novelty. Under U.S. tax regulations, fermented apple and pear drinks may only be labeled cider if they contain less than 7 percent alcohol by volume.

To be sure, cider is not new. It goes back millennia to Roman times. In colonial America it was the beverage of choice until German immigrants brought their beers to our shores, the wine writers learned from event speaker Daniel Pucci, cider sommelier at Wassail, a cider bar and restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Pucci also discussed the cider-making process — and its various styles.

Oliver's Classic Perry, from England

Oliver’s Classic Perry, from England

Cider, like its vinous distant relative, can be produced from one or more varietals and in range of styles, often dependent on the traditions of the region where the cider was made. Ciders at this tasting originated in England; Normandy, France, Basque, France; New York, New England, Virginia and California.

And the distinctions are readily apparent.

In the United States, most ciders are produced from culinary apples— the kind you find at your local supermarket, thus producing beverages that tend to be sweet, though there are exceptions. But in Europe, ciders are produced from fruits grown especially for cider making that tend to more acidic and more tannic and largely inedible. Oh, but do they make great quaffs.

At this tasting we had more than 30 ciders to taste, including a few perries (pear ciders), so many were enjoyable, particularly the pear versions. Confession, I skipped those flavored with spices, flowers and hops and by and large favored the European ciders.

My top picks:

Aaron Burr Cidery Homestead East Branch, from Wurtsboro, New York. Made from foraged wild apples, this light gold rendition was dry, spicy and yeasty.

Bad Seed Cider, from New York’s Hudson Valley. A surprising dry, straw-hued cider with a tart apple character that was crafted from culinary apples. A great companion to food.

Christian Drouhin Poiré, from Normandy.  Drouin is known for its Calvados. Without a doubt, my No, 1 pick of the tasting. Made from pears grown on 200-year-old trees, it has a sensual elegance that starts with delicate pear aromas and continues with a flavorful, soft mineral quality.

Etienne Dupont Bouche Brut, from Normandy. Champagne clear, it starts a bit funky and is dry with bracing acidity from start to finish.

Ettienne DuPont Tripel Cidre, fermented three times

Ettienne DuPont Tripel Cidre, fermented three times

Etienne Dupont Cidre Tripel, from Normandy. Fermented three times with Champagne yeasts, including a dosage, this amber cider is made from bitter apple varieties. It’s dry, savory and has quite a bit tannin that makes it seem a somewhat weighty.

Farnham Hill Semi-Dry, from Lebanon, New Hampshire. Mild gold in appearance, this serious cider burst with red apple and mineral flavors. Not as sweet as its name might suggest,

Oliver’s Classic Perry, from Hereford, England. A fruity, off-dry drink that screams out its pear character.

Titled Shed Ciderworks Graviva from Sonoma, California. There’s a tart green apple character through and through this semi-dry sparkler made largely with Gravenstein apples. There’s also a bit of earthy funk and tannin.

One thing this tasting demonstrated: Cider is earning its place at the table.

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He missed a trip to the GABF, but his beer won gold in Pro-Am competition

The story behind this year’s pro-am winning beer and Long Island home brewer Brian Giebel

Great South Bay Brewery owner Rick Sobotka, Brian Giebel and lead brewer Jon Gomez (photo courtesey Great South Bay Brewery)

Great South Bay Brewery owner Rick Sobotka, home brewer Brian Giebel and GSB lead brewer Jon Gomez  brewing Muscat Love. (photo courtesy Great South Bay Brewery)

By Alan J. Wax

A new job prevented a high school chemistry teacher from Babylon, New York from attending the Great American Beer Festival and its annual awards ceremony. But minutes after the first gold medal was announced for the festival’s Pro-Am competition, Brian Giebel, stopped grading his students’ work to answer his phone.

Pitcher of Muscat Love at GABF's Pro-Am tasting table

Pitcher of Muscat Love at GABF’s Pro-Am tasting table

On the line at 10:15 a.m. Mountain Time was Phil Ebel V, chief operations officer at the Great South Bay Brewery (GSB) of Bay Shore. The reason for the Sept. 26 call: to tell Giebel that the beer he initially entered in a local home brew competition and later brewed at GSB for the Pro-Am competition, Muscat Love, had just been awarded a gold medal, topping 91 other brews that were collaborations between home brewers and commercial breweries.

“I told him we won—he won—the gold medal,” Ebel said. “He asked, ‘Are you kidding?’ ”Just days after the medal ceremony, Ebel recalled, “I was pretty crazy. It’s Its really an incredible feeling to sit down for the awards ceremony and win gold within five minutes of sitting down.”

Ebel and his GSB colleagues had arrived at the ceremony at the Colorado Convention Center hopeful that Muscat Love would have a chance in competition with 90 other brews. “It’s a fantastic beer,” said Ebel. But when the gold was announced, Ebel recalled, “I was speechless. I was over the moon”

GSB also won a gold medal for its Hog Cabin Maple Bacon Porter in the specialty beer category, which had 59 entrants. The 2015 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) competition awarded 275 medals to some of the best commercial breweries in the United States, plus three GABF Pro-Am medals. (You can view the 2015 winners or download a PDF list of the winners.) Presented by the Brewers Association, GABF is the largest commercial beer competition in the world and a symbol of brewing excellence.

Muscat Love labelThe story behind this year’s pro-am gold winner goes back a decade, when Giebel, now 40, started home brewing. Giebel, who now dreams of going pro, produced Muscat Love, a Belgian-style triple that used canned Muscat grape puree instead of candi sugar as a fermentable, on his 10-gallon, garage- housed system. Giebel had intended to use the grape puree in another brew, but decided instead to brew a tripel, because, he said, “I liked that style and that yeast character and thought it would work well with the grapes.” He entered into a competition for members held monthly by Long Island Beer and Malt Enthusiasts, a home brew club. Each monthly winner is brewed on GSB’s 1-barrel pilot system and sold in the brewery’s taproom.

Earlier this year, Ebel, brewery owner Rick Sobotka and Andrew Luberto, a national Beer Judge Certification Program home brew judge, selected Muscat Love from among the club’s half-dozen winners of the past year, including an IPA, a pre-Prohibition-style lager with chilies and a gose, to enter in the Pro-Am.

“We felt Brian’s beer was the best tasting and most complex out of all of them,” Ebel said..

Days after the Sept. 26 award announcement, Giebel, who has a PhD in chemistry, says he’s still stoked about becoming a hero home brewer. “It was a little surreal. I never really thought I had a shot at it.”

And, he adds that winning the Pro-Am, could provide new impetus to his aim to go pro. “This ramps up my interested a hundred fold to get things going.”

 

 

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Beer retailer’s first GABF trip is as much about socializing as it is sampling brews

GABF first-timer David Schultzer schmoozes first, tastes second

The scene at the GABF (photo courtesy American Brewers Association)

The scene at the GABF (photo courtesy American Brewers Association)

GABF_Logo_LRG_V_RGBBy Alan J. Wax

For Dave Schultzer, a New York beer retailer, his first trip to the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver was in a word, “overwhelming.”

Schultzer, who for the past 18 years has operated Bellport Cold Beer and Soda, a beer store with more than a thousand different bottles, in Bellport, Long Island, spent more time during his inaugural Sept. 24 visit to America’s biggest beer talking with the brewery people he’s gotten to know over the years than he did tasting beer.

Schultzer was one of some 60,000 people expected  to descend on GABF this year, the largest three-day crowd in the event’s 33-year history. Tickets, released in July, sold out within an hour.

As he made his way into the sprawling exhibition hall of the Colorado Convention Center, Schultzer took note of the space’s enormity— and the plethora of bearded gents in black shirts, the defacto uniform of many craft brewery workers. “I’ve never been in a beer event anywhere near the size and scale of this thing.”

But Schultzer was unperturbed by what might lay ahead. Over the course of nearly five hours during the first of four GABF sessions, Schultzer crisscrossed the convention center’s exposition hall, the size of 10 football fields, dozens of times. “That’s a massive amount of space to cover,” he noted.

Yet, over five hours he sampled only two dozen brews of the 3,500 available while taking14 selfies with brewing industry folks on his iPhone.

Schultzer and Captaiin Lawrence's Scott Vaccarro.

The reason, he explained, was his need to re-connect with brewery owners that he helped in bringing their products t0 Long Island. He also visited with his friends from Long Island breweries. Among those he connected with were Sam Calagione of Dog Fish Head of Milton, Delaware, Scott Vaccarro of Captain Lawrence Brewing, Jeremy Cowan of Schmaltz Brewing, and Eric Wallace of Left Hand Brewing, of Longmont, Colorado. And he made new friends, too, among them Hugh Lewis of (512) Brewing Co. of Austin, Texas.

Left Hand's Eric Wallace and Schultzerx

Left Hand’s Chris Lennert and Schultzer

 

“That’s the fun of the show for me,” he noted, adding, “There’s so much to see and when you know a lot of people, you allot time for seeing them, but you end up with not a lot of time for yourself.”

As for the beers he sampled, he said, “We started off on a high note with a sample of Goose Island Vanilla Rye Bourbon Stout.” But he also enjoyed, he said, Barrel Licked Boot from Fort Collins Brewery, Barrel-Aged Narwhal from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Udder Love from Beachwood BBQ & Brewing, of Long Beach, California, Peanut Butter Milk Stout from Belching Beaver of Vista, California,

Schultzer said his first GABF experience was fun. “Being around like-minded people who are happy to see you is not a bad way to spend a day.”

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Little-known Lemburger is a big winner for a Finger Lakes wine producer

Lemberger, growing in popularity, garners top honor for Ventosa Vineyards in New York State’s 2015 competition.

By Alan J. Wax

Winner of the 2015 New York Governor's Cup

Winner of the 2015 New York Governor’s Cup

When was the last time you sipped a Lemberger? Likely, not lately.

But that could change as this little-known grape variety, originally from Germany and also grown in other parts of central Europe, finds new popularity.

Lemberger, a hardy, dark-skinned red wine grape that produces full-bodied, fruit-forward, peppery wines, has found a home in parts of Washington State and in New York’s Finger Lakes. Lemberger also is known as Blaufränkisch and several other names as well.

And it was a 2011 Lemberger from Ventosa Vineyards, on the northeast shore of Seneca Lake in Geneva, New York, that recently was crowned the top wine in the annual New York Governor’s Cup competition. This year, the competition’s 30th, attracted 858 entries from throughout the state, including Long Island, Hudson Valley, Finger Lakes, Niagara Escarpment and Lake Erie

You won’t find many Lembergers in your local wine shop. Astor Wines, among the largest wine merchants in New York City, sells but one, from Fox Run Vineyards, also on Seneca Lake. Wine.com lists 14 offerings, mostly from Washington, but all are as sold out. (Channing Daughter’s Winery in Bridgehampton, Long Island, produces a Blaufränkisch.)

In Germany, the Lemberger grape has enjoyed increasing popularity in recent years, according to the Wines of Germany web site, which noted that plantings have grown from about 400-500 hectacres in the 1980s to more than 1,750 hectacres.

Many Finger Lakes wineries produce Lemberger wines, in large measure due to the grape’s winter heartiness. A 1996 study by a group of Northeast researchers, including the well-respected Dr. Joseph A. Fiola of the University of Maryland, reported that vines can be hardy at 0°F to -10°F and that vines have survived temperatures as low as -13° F. Finger Lakes winters can be harsh. This past winter, the mercury dropped to as low as -10°F, which can kill half the buds on a grapevine.

The Ventosa Lambeger 2011 is estate grown — as are all the winery’s wines. But production is small, just 256, 12-bottle cases. The wine, aged in new Hungarian oak barrels, retails for $23.95 at the winery.

Wines at this 10-year-old producer, owned by Lenny and Meg Cecere, are made by Jenna LaVita, who honed her craft working under Peter Bell at Fox Run Vineyards; Eric Shatt, formerly head wine maker and vineyard manager at Ventosa, and Rob Thomas of Shalestone Vineyards.

Grapes for this year’s winning wine were planted in June 2004, after more than half of the vineyard’s red grape vines were destroyed by frost. The vineyard is just 23 acres and produces about 4,200 cases of wine annually, all made without the aid of herbicide sparys. Ventosa also produces Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Sangiovese.  Ventosa is also one of only two New York to grow and produce Tocai Friulano, a white Italian varietal (Millbrook Winery in the Hudson Valley is the other).

Ventosa’s online tasting notes describe its award winner as having “a powerful spicy oak nose, botanical notes of juniper and eucalyptus on the immediate palate. Sharp tannins, under-ripe blackberries, fiery pepper lingering on the finish.”

I can’t say I picked up the pepper, but it is a terrific wine, nonetheless. My notes: Almost inky. Spicy oak nose. Intense brambly character with juicy black fruits and oak notes. I found the tannins to be moderate. Lengthy finish. Enough here to convince me to try other Limburgers.

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Drink a peach: beers with summer fruit

peach-image-free-1The pleasure of summer peaches savored in a glass.

By Alan J. Wax

Now is the time to sip some of summer in a bottle: beer made with peaches, the season’s best fruit.

That’s quite a range of peach beers to choose from, ranging from light,but slightly tart Belgian Lambics to monster strong ales.

Peach beers have long been made in Belgium, but American craft brewers are interpreting the notion of peaches and beers in a wide range of styles, from sweet to sour, from low gravity to high.

To be sure, not every variation works. Peaches typically have both sweetness and a touch of acidity. Some brewers can be right on target, while others make you sit back and scratch your heading wondering, “What was this brewer thinking?”

To me, a good beach beer should taste like fresh peaches, not the syrupy stuff that comes from a can. And you’ve got to taste the peaches. Otherwise, they’re wasted.

Recently, I sampled a number of peach-based beers with a tasting group. I found, without a doubt, that the Belgian’s have this nailed down.

i-lindemans-peche-lambicMy hand’s down favorite was Lindemans Pêche, a peach Lambic from Lindemans Brewery, Vlezenbeek, Flanders, Belgium. Just 2.5 percent ABV, this brew was made with water, barley malt, wheat, peach juice, sugar, natural peach flavor from peaches, hops, stevia and yeast. Charles Finkel, founder of beer importer Merchant du Vin suggested in the early 1980s that Lindeman should produce a peach Lambic.   This golden brew offered a big peach nose that was matched by ripe, peach flavors on the palate with a hint of acidity. I gave it 5*.

Moody Tongue NectarineSliced Nectarine IPA by Moody Tongue Brewing Co., of Chicago is a cloudy, deep golden brew with a huge head, nectarine and hop nose. (Nectarine is a variety of peach). Bitter notes slightly dominate the palate as you might expect in an IPA. It’s an IPA with nuance and a dry finish. 4*

St. Louis Premium Pêche from Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck in Inglemunster, Belgian was a bit of an oddity. Given to me by David Schultzer, owner of Bellport Cold Beer & Soda, this bottle was produced in 2006— nine years ago. Lambics are not really meant to be aged this long and this bottled showed it age. Sherry hued, it totally lacked carbonation. It was sweet and syrupy with a suggestion of peach cider. Still, not the worst of the lot, although far from the best. 3*

label_peach_berliner_weissePeach Berliner Weisse by Perennial Artisan Ales, of St. Louis, Missouri, is a cloudy pale gold brew with only mildly tart with hint of peach. 3*

Peach Grand Cru by Great Divide Brewing Company, Denver, Colorado is a copper-hued brew in the style of a Belgian strong ale. There’s just a hint of peach on nose and great lacing on the glass. There appears to be tons of candi sugar in here, but it struck me as pancake syrup with some alcoholic heat and sweet finish. I wondered, where’s the peach? 2.75*

Festina Pêche from Dogfish Head Brewing, Milton, Delaware, is a 4.5 percent ABV brew in the Berliner Weisse style. Lightly hopped and pale straw in color, the peach, the brewer says, is used to offset the tartness of the style, in the manner that a Berliner would use woodruff of raspberry syrup. It’s soft and mild brew with just a hint of peach. A disappointment. 2*

Son of a Peach by RJ Rockers Brewing Company, Spartanburg, South Carolina,is cloudy gold, unfiltered American wheat ale. There’s a hint of peach on the nose, but the palate suggests bitter peach pits. Real dry finish. 2*

Unity VibrationI wasn’t quote sure what to make of Bourbon Peach American Wild from Unity Vibration Living Kombucha Tea Co. of Ypsilanti, Michigan. This 7 percent ABV brew Is described by its producer as “a whimsical re-imagination of an American wild ale blurs the lines between kombucha tea and Belgian Lambic.” It’s fermented with a kombucha SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, including lactobacillus and Brettanomyces) and aged in oak bourbon casks with peaches. A cloudy, light hay-hued beer, it was tart and dry with the nose and palate of nail polish remover. Downright nasty, to be honest. ½*

Go ahead, sip the orchard-grown essence of the summer, but choose carefully if you want to have pleasant memories of these hazy, lazy days.

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Getting Goosed at a craft beer festival

 A trio of beers from Goose Island prove to be among the best of the fest

Barry McLaughlin (1)

Goose Island rep Barry McLaughlin shows a bottle of Halia

By Alan J. Wax

Time to eat my words after drinking against my principals.

Since AB-InBev’s acquisition of Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co. —and subsequently, Blue Point Brewing on Long Island and Elysian Brewing in Washington—I had made my mind up to pass up on their offerings and not support this industry giant.

I’d been loath to indulge in these AB crafty beers, particularly after the Budweiser commercial launched earlier this year that mocks craft brewers.

That changed today at the North Fork Craft Beer Festival on Long Island’s East End.

As I strolled through a dried patch of grass that was once a fairway at the Calverton Links Golf Club, I came upon the Goose Island Brewery booth staffed by Barry McLaughlin, a friend who is now the brewery’s representative for Long Island.

As it turns out, he was pouring the best beer I tasted at the event and two others that came darn close, all Goose Island products.

McLaughlin, who until recently marketed craft beers for AB distributor Clare Rose, poured me a few ounces of Halia, a sour elixir based on Goose Island’s popular farmhouse ale Sofie. Halia is Sofie aged on whole peaches in neutral wood barrels. It’s name means “remembrance of a loved one” in Hawaiian; Halia was brewed in memory of a friend of one of its brewers who loved peaches. It also sells for nearly $40 for a 765ml bottle.

Wow! What a delight this hazy golden 7.5 percent ABV brew proved to be. Brettanomyces dominated the nose and on the palate I puckered up for a hit of sharp lacto tartness. It’s juicy brew that offers up definite peach character. Not much oak there, but that was just fine. No distraction from the other flavors. 5 stars.

The beer is part of Goose Island’s barrel program, which encompasses thousands of wine and spirits barrels (Bourbon barrels, of course, are used for Goose Island’s much-sought-after Bourbon County Barrel Stout), filled with brew.

Next, McLaughlin poured me Gillian, another brew based on Sofie, but one with honey added. Goose Island’s web site describes it as inspired by an amuse bouche often prepared by the wife of one of its brewers. Gillian also is aged in part in wine barrels and made with Michigan strawberries and Michigan organic honey. This orange-hued beer boasts 9.5 percent ABV. It’s got a honeyed nose, rounded mouth feel and offers up fruity notes leading to a dry, tart finish. 4.5 stars.

Last in the Goose Island line up was the brewer’s 25th anniversary beer, an American wild ale from Goose Island’s Clybourn facility brewed in 2013 and also known as Brettanomite. The 6.3% ABV golden sour ale was tart and flavorful with an in-your-face brett character, it was juicy and a bit cidery. 3.5 stars.

So glad I was willing to keep an open mind about these beers. I’ll be happy to open my fridge door for Goose Island beers like these going forward.

 

 

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Start-up beer exporter shipping East Coast craft beers to the UK

Bringing coals to New Castle? Not exactly, says the founder of newly launched Crafted Exports, which is shipping kegged craft beer to London pubs.

Bartender at London's Hop & Berry pub pours a glass of  American craft beer

Bartender at London’s Hop & Berry pub pours a glass of American craft beer, Haproon UFO

By Alan J. Wax

A Brooklyn, New York, entrepreneur and his partners are attempting to capitalize on surging UK interest in American craft beer with a start-up business that is exporting U.S. craft beers and ciders to England.

Crafted Export's Peter Schneider

Crafted Export’s Peter Schneider

Peter Schneider, a former sales rep for Brooklyn-based Union Beer, and his partners in Crafted Exports Inc.   have sent their first shipment to London, where the beers are being distributed by UK importer Euroboozer Ltd.

Schneider’s partners in Crafted are Qurban Singh Walia, Schneider’s former colleague in a consulting business and an executive at a brewery in India, and Peter McNulty, a manager at a New York City marketing firm and former operations manager at Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewing Co.

Now four years out of George Washington University, where he received a BA in economics, Schneider began formulating plans for the beer export business some 18 months ago.

Craft beer, he said, “has always been an interest of ours. We like the way that craft beer … helps people become more thoughtful about what they’re consuming.”

The company’s initial shipment, which reached pubs last month, included such brands as Harpoon from Boston and Bronx Brewery, Captain Lawrence, Butternuts Beer & Ale, and Doc’s Cider, which are all from New York. “We wanted to bring over beers we liked and were geographically together,” he said, “We wanted to keep a reliable, fresh supply chain. We wanted a portfolio that cut across boundaries a little bit.”

A second shipment already is at sea. “We’ve been getting a lot of great feedback,” Schneider noted.

Crafted Exports' current beer export portfolio

Crafted Exports’ current beer export portfolio

Crafted’s East Coast-oriented portfolio made it possible to ship beers more quickly to the UK, Schneider said. “Our main focus to get beer to the consumer as fast as possible.” That meant, he said, “changing the supply chain. “

Crafted leases 30-gallon steel kegs from a third-party logistical provider, which delivers them to the breweries and then recovers them in the UK, where they are cleaned, refilled with different product and shipped back to the U.S. Crafted buys the beer from each brewery, aggregates the kegs at a New Jersey warehouse before shipping them in temperature-controlled containers to the UK, where importer Euroboozers takes over.

The beers are being poured strictly at bars and restaurants. The brews were launched on July 22 at the Hop & Berry, a pub that hitherto offered only beers brewed in London. Pints of the American beers at the Hop & Berry sell from £5.20 (about $8) to £6 (about $9.35). Other pubs offering the beers include the well-known White Horse at Parson’s Green and the Draft House mini-chain.

The American brewers are excited to enter these new markets, Schneider said, noting that brewers often receive requests to export their products, but ignore them due to logistical issues. Schneider said Crafted’s platform got the brewers’ attention to ship to such markets such as London, which offer new growth.

“For a couple of young enterprising guys it was quite refreshing to see the level of drive and effort they put in prior to pitching their proposal,” said Chuck Williamson, owner/operator at Butternuts in Garrattsville, New York.

As for having his beer in the UK, Williamson said, “I think it is a great thing for Butternuts Beer & Ale. I have for years had requests from UK consumers that have come to New York City and had the Pork Slap in particular and wanted to know if they can get it when they get home.” Williamson said “It was good timing really for me,” he added, noting that he’d talked exporting with other firms, “We will see where the next few years takes us, but I think in general U.S. export of beers, done right, will be a great thing for our industry.”

And while bringing beer to the UK, where in 2014 there were 1,285 breweries—more breweries per person than anywhere in the world, may seem like shipping coals to Newcastle, Schneider says there’s keen interest among British drinkers in American craft beer. “This is an exciting new opportunity.”

Added Euroboozer founder Martyn Railton, who already imports Rogue Ales: “America has some of the most unique craft beers, breweries and beer characters in the world so it’s great to be working with some of the best of them. Our American range has been seeing double digit year-over-year growth and with the trend for American food booming within the pub, restaurant, casual dining, street food and wider foodservice sectors, to use an American saying – I expect all these beers will knock it out of the park!”

The beers being marketed in the UK include:

Harpoon IPA, a 5.9% ABV New England-style brew.

Harpoon UFO, a 4.8% Belgian-style wit.

Bronx Session IPA, a 5.0% ABV brew.

Bronx Rye Pale Ale, a 6.3% brew produced with malted and flaked rye.

Captain Lawrence Freshchester Pale Ale, a 5.5% ABV West Coast-style brew.

Captain Lawrence IPA, a 6.5% brew.

Butternuts Pork Slap Pale Ale, a 4.3% beer brewed with a touch of fresh ginger.

Butternuts Moo Thunder Stout, a 4.9% ABV milk stout that pays tribute to the Butternuts Brewery’s former life as a dairy.

Doc’s Draft Hard Apple Cider, a 5% ABV semi-dry, effervescent cider.

Doc’s Draft Dry Hopped Hard Cider, a 5.5% ABV dry-hopped cider.

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