June 11, 2017 0 comments

I decided it was time to jot down some quick notes on the continuing popularity of the Summit Brewpath – a local brewery trail and passport program developed by the local Convention & Visitors Bureau. Similar to popular programs run in other cities, the program lets beer lovers get a passport at 14 participating breweries in Summit, Medina, Portage and Stark counties, then collect stamps when they visit and have a beer. Once their passport is filled with brewery stamps, they can get a free “I completed the Summit Brew Path” T-shirt, and are also eligible for an entry to win a grand-prize overnight stay in Akron.

To say this was a great idea for local beer lovers and brewers is perhaps the understatement of the year. Initially, 5,000 passports were printed; when 4,000 went out the door out in the first two days of the promotion, another 5,000 were ordered. By the end of April, the bureau had been forced to order an additional 10,000 passports due to the incredible demand.

It’s a fun idea, and participating brewers have reported that about half of their customers are coming in to get their books stamped. Each book provides a short intro to each of the 14 participating breweries and a space for their unique ink stamp. A few other regional breweries are also profiled in the book, which look similar to a travel passport. The 14 participating breweries include Aqueduct, BrickOven Brew Pub, Hoppin’ Frog, Ohio, R. Shea, Thirsty Dog and Two Monks in Akron; HiHO in Cuyahoga Falls; Mucky Duck in Green, Canton in Canton; Royal Docks and Scenic in Jackson Township; MadCap in Kent; and Wadsworth in Wadsworth.

Akron continues to add new breweries on a regular basis, as the local beer business finally seems to be hitting its stride and gaining a higher profile. Clearly, the Summit Brewpath program has been a big boost to business—even presenting a challenge to some of the smallest brewers, who have sold out of some beers on busy weekends when lots of people show up to get stamped. Nevertheless, if you’re selling beer, that might be a good problem to have.

The passport program has also had a great social impact as well, as visitors from different cities and neighborhoods compare their stamps, talk about their visits and the beers they’ve tried. It’s an idea that’s been working well in Columbus, where the Ale Trail is in its 3rd year; in 2017, it expects to have 38 stops and print between 35-40,000 passports. For Akron, at one-fourth the population size, to have a program almost half as large, is a pretty good start. Cincinnati recently announced plans to develop an Ale Trail of their own, and the Ohio Craft Brewers Association launched a statewide digital trail for smart phones called Ohio on Tap in May.
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May 21, 2017 0 comments

In fact, most of the beer—or lager—as they would call it, is served perfectly cold. In this case, however, we’re talking about ale. And while English ale is not served warm, it would better be described as cool.

Of course, none of this came as a surprise to me during our recent trip to London. True English ales, hand-pumped out of a cask, are at their best when they are just slightly cool, so that more of their flavor has a chance to show through. This is especially true of the low-alcohol (around 4% abv) session ales, which are very light indeed. Served ice cold, they would clearly suffer as a result, and no doubt display all the character of a Coors Light.

Another note is that these ales, when pulled from a cask, are not nearly as carbonated as you might expect, especially if you enjoy English ales out of a bottle here at home. While not completely flat, the character is more like a bottle of beer you attempted to re-cap and put back in the fridge to drink the next day; there’s something there, but not like when you first opened it.

I will get into a little more detail in some follow-up posts regarding some specific ales and experiences—the pubs were mostly all delightful and the ales very good. We had a wonderful visit to the Windsor & Eaton Brewery after a visit to the castle and the staff were so entertaining and gracious as we sampled a variety of their tasty offerings. We did a lot of walking, which left me quite thirsty—as a result, when we reached a pub for a break, I often had a cold lager to start and followed up with ales afterwards.

As I expected, the long reach of American Craft Beer is making itself known in the UK; besides the ubiquitous BrewDog offerings, a few of the newer craft brewers were beginning to fall under the spell of “more hops, please” – and are also using some US variety hops. I can only hope this phenomenon is held in check, as I’d hate to muddy the traditional character of true English ales as a result of this bitter trend.

All in all, however - a great trip and a memorable experience.
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September 21, 2016 0 comments
Summer or Fall, any time is a great time for beer.
It's been a little while since I posted so I thought I’d share some thoughts about a few of the brews I’ve enjoyed recently…

Hoppin’ Frog | Can Fred Karm even make a bad beer? I don’t think so. My only issue with Fred’s treats is that I just can’t drink a lot of them; the rich flavors are so intense, the alcohol is up there, and the cost—well, let’s just say they are not cheap—but they are worth the price. During the summer I often enjoy lighter stuff like his Turbo Shandy, and his light/dark berry brews. My wife, who is a habitual Miller Lite drinker, has definitely taken a shine to Outta Kilter and Karminator. I guess it’s never too late to change your beer habits. On our most recent visit, I tried one of his concoctions with Peanut Butter, Chocolate/Coffee and it was truly a new experience. Perfectly balanced, the PB came through clearly but did not overwhelm the overall taste profile. I look forward to trying it again. I also had a pint of the Oktoberfest, which was just being rolled out on the Saturday afternoon we visited. It was very solid, with a distinct character; at first I thought the hop bitterness was slightly higher than the style demanded, but after a few more sips I came around to the notion that it was pretty spot on.

I cornered Fred across the room where he was spinning some records and asked him for some suggestions for something I could store in our basement. I built a wine/beer storage cellar under the stairway—most of it is against the solid concrete outer wall, and the temperature stays fairly cool and steady throughout the season. We settled on a BORIS the Crusher Oatmeal Stout and a Silk Porter as a good place to start; Fred said they should do well for at least 9 months, maybe more. I doubt if they will make it past the holidays.

Sweetwater Hop Hash | I keep trying to give IPAs a fair shake, but I keep coming back to the realization that this is not the way beers were intended to taste. My best friend has this stuff from time-to-time; I thought their standard IPA wasn’t bad (the bitterness was light, and dissipated quickly off the tip of the tongue) and I do like their Blue, but the Hop Hash just solidified my overall preference not to drink beers with “hop” in the name. If you like this stuff, it’s not bad.

Gervasi Vinyards Farmhouse Ale | This popular winery is a great place to visit, but go for the wine, not the beer. I tried the Farmhouse Ale (bottled) but it turned out to be a pretty standard, hoppy IPA with no unique or notable characteristics. I was expecting something more interesting, and maybe a little “rougher around the edges” taste-wise. The ale is contract brewed for Gervasi by Thirsty Dog in Akron, who generally makes excellent beers. This one, maybe not so much. I switched to Peroni for my second beer.

Short’s Soft Parade | This is a high gravity brew that’s loaded with four different kinds of berries. While it does exhibit definite fruitiness, the malt also manages to balance out the tartness and makes for a very smooth sipper with just enough of a note of alcohol to remind you that it’s 9% ABV. That’s not a lot, but it means you can’t knock back two or three of these like you could a more typical “berry beer.” A substantial and memorable ale, I was glad to find that this top Michigan brewer was now available in Northeast Ohio. It’s brewed in Bellaire, just a little north of Traverse City—if you ever have a chance, be sure to visit. You may never come back.

Stiegl Lager | I had enjoyed this beer before going to Germany last May, but when we took a day trip to Salzburg, Austria, the Stiegl Brewery immediately made it on the “must see” list, and we enjoyed both their brewing museum tour and a fine dinner in their central courtyard/bier garten, which was crowded and fun. We sampled several of their beers, all of which were excellent, but I keep coming back to their standard lager, which has become one of my go-to German styles. I also enjoyed a 6-pack of their Grapefruit Radler this summer, which is great for sitting in the hot sun by the pool. Or in the pool.
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August 10, 2016 0 comments
I generally brew my beer in the Fall; something about the season always feels right, and the thought of entering the Holiday Season with some special beers on hand makes a lot of sense to me. Fall being harvest time also seems appropriate, especially when considering complimentary flavors that might be added. Note—that does not include pumpkin.
My brew tools are pretty rudimentary and common to most home brewers:  a 6-gallon clear fermenter, brew pots, plastic pails for bottling and secondary fermentation, large bottles, small bottles, an ancient capper—you name it. All this and a handful of books on brewing plus a great local supply shop, The Grape & Granary, provide me with just about everything I need.

Once in a while, however, I come across something new that piques my interest, and so it was with the BrewDemon 2.5-gallon Conical Fermenter. Till now, I’ve always brewed in 5-gallon batches, but I was attracted to the idea of brewing smaller batches, which would allow for a little more frequent experimentation with recipes and new styles. I ordered mine from Amazon with some birthday gift money as well as some spare airlocks and a BrewDemon kit to make one 2.5-gallon batch of Brown Ale, which remains my go-to drink of choice.

For whatever reason, I’ve preferred the beers I’ve made with extract over the last batch I made from a kit that included dry malts and steeped grains. The latter, while good, had more of the roasted malt taste that I associate with American Brown Ales, rather than the sweet, caramel-malt “fruitiness” that typifies good English Brown Ales. My goal with the first batch here is to try and replicate my past efforts, which normally result in a fresh, rich and sessionable Brown Ale, similar to Newcastle, but better. Currently, I’m considering what modest additions I might add to this kit to ensure just a little more body and taste.

I’ll let you know how this works out. I’m also looking at what comes next—I am thinking about some type of rich Harvest Ale, a Holiday Porter, and at least one or two other styles that I can store long term. Over the last winter, I completed building a wine/beer storage cellar under the basement stairs, and it’s been waiting for some occupants. Time to get to work!
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May 20, 2016 0 comments
I’ve been grousing about the infestation of IPAs into American Beer Culture for some time now, as well as the fact that so many US craft brewers seem to have no clue in how to use them correctly. This attitude was strengthened even more after a recent trip to Germany, Switzerland, Alsace and Austria—where I was actually able to enjoy a number of different beers. While they varied quite a bit in their color, taste and strength, they all seemed to have one thing in common—they were largely formulated with varying combinations of beer’s four main ingredients: Water, Malt, Hops and Yeast.

I’ve often been of a mind that most US craft brewers should first dedicate themselves to learning how to make a solid, well-balanced beer with just these four ingredients before jumping into trendy stuff like pumpkin ales, sours, hop-bombs, chocolate or peanut-butter ales, or any other exotic style. There are a very few US craft brewers who can successfully pull this wizardry off (my local brewery, Hoppin’ Frog, comes to mind) but the truth is, this “everything and the kitchen sink” approach can offer plenty of style and little substance. It also offers some brewers with limited skill a convenient place to hide—behind a truckload of ingredients that can camouflage an otherwise less-than-stellar brew.

After being reminded of what simple, fresh and delicious beer tastes like, it’s easy to get tired of so-called “experts” telling me that I just don’t “get” the appeal of hops, or have “too weak a palate” to appreciate all these bold, bitter hop flavors. What a load of bullshit.

“You need to train your palate to appreciate these bitter hop flavors.” More bullshit. I suppose I could slip a dab of poop into my ham sandwich every once in a while and build up a tolerance. What does that prove other than I have developed a taste for shit?

First of all, I’ve been drinking beer long before some of these morons were even born; and most of it was good beer, not just the swill that the macro-brewers have been foisting upon us for the last 65 years. It’s true that for much of that period, imports were the best and most popular route to quality beer, at least until the late 1970’s and early 80’s. At that time, microbreweries were just beginning to appear and some of the larger brewers responded to the rise of imports by rolling out premium lines and bringing back some old brew house recipes that offered more flavor. And back then, most imports were really imported—not brewed in the US under contract. I believe I developed a fairly sophisticated palate over 40+ years of beer drinking, and while my taste buds and sniffer might not be as good as they used to be, I’d like to think I know what beer is supposed to taste like.

And I’ll be damned if you try to convince me that it’s supposed to taste like turpentine. Or Pine Sol.

Unfortunately, we have a whole generation of beer drinkers who have been marketing-brainwashed into thinking that this is exactly how good beer is supposed to taste; utterly convinced that these “bold” flavors have been missing from beer for generations. Of course the convincing has been done by some craft brewers who have built a reputation on hop-bombing the Western Hemisphere, and US hop-growers who only want to expand the market for their goods.

Now the usual response to my view is always – “Well, if you don’t like it, just don’t drink it.” And that sounds reasonable, until you realize that the tidal wave of IPAs has pushed a vast number of great alternatives off the store shelves. It’s getting harder to obtain beers I actually like. The local super-grocers offer dozens and dozens of IPAs in their cooler, both in 6-packs and in single bottle (“build your own 6-pack”) selections. But where before I could choose from among 10 or 15 English ales, or 18 different German beers, or a few dozen other imports, or some reliable, high-quality domestic beers, now I can only find a handful (cold) and maybe a few more (warm) on the store shelf.

Yes, there are a number of US Craft Beer offerings that are not IPAs, it is true; but the simple fact is—I don’t trust a lot of these brews to deliver on their promises. Many are not “true to style”. Many are still over-hopped, as brewers end up massaging their entire brewery lineup to cater to the “hop-forward” tastes of today. I’d be happy to give some a test shot, but I’m not going to buy a $12 6-pack to experiment—or give away later.

Other bozos will try and make some technical argument that bitterness is not always associated with hops. They add fragrance and aroma, too. Yes, I know that. And I will respond by simply stating that, while yes—a beer with extra hops does not always have a bitter taste, the other side of the coin is simply this: almost every beer that tastes too bitter is the result of being over-hopped.

Or the result of using the wrong hops. I really do think a lot of craft brewers are using hop varieties for taste that should only be used for aroma. For example, let me be clear in stating that while Pine-like flavors may lend a nice aroma, they have absolutely no place in beer taste.

Have you ever had smoked meat or fish? Have you ever wondered why expert barbeque masters only use hard woods like oak, hickory, mesquite or cherry on their fires? Did you notice that they never use pine wood? The reason is simple: pine leaves a sharp, resinous and wholly unpleasant taste in the mouth that ruins food. No grillmaster with a brain uses it. Why would you want to put that taste in your mouth via beer?

Again, we see generations of simple knowledge and proven experience go by the wayside, as idiots try to convince us that this is actually a good taste for beer to have. I’ll be honest and also admit that I have found few American hop varieties that I appreciate as much as traditional, noble hop European varieties. I’m sure there are some good ones, but it’s hard to judge when they are being used by the boxcar load.

Do I sound grouchy? Good. Then you’re catching on.

Just as lame arguments break on the rocks of four decades of beer drinking experience, the same can be said for trendy brewing approaches that go against the grain of several hundred years of beer brewing tradition. Just how bitter can a beer be, anyway—before it becomes palate-tiring, overwhelming and undrinkable?

Ever had a real, traditional English IPA? Bass dropped the “India” from its “Pale Ale” some years ago, but the taste hasn’t changed all that much over the years; this style was never intended to be as bitter as the stuff that has been pushed on us today in the US. Ever had an English “bitter”? Try a Fullers ESB. The bitterness is subtle; it embellishes the taste and balances the malt. It doesn’t overwhelm it. Same with a genuine Pilsner, which has slightly more bitterness than a typical Lager.

Hey, if you wanna drink this bitter swill—go ahead. Pay $12 a 6-pack or $8 a pint and support the Hipster Brewmaster & Organic Hop-Grower’s Retirement Fund. Of course IPAs are selling so well, but what do you expect when (aside from Macro-Brew) that’s mostly what you find on today's store shelf? It’s a self-fulfilling cycle—and a cycle that’s making it harder to obtain truly good, honest beers that have been enjoyed for decades.

For the craft brewers who are focusing on innovative, well-balanced stouts, tasty porters and drinkable ales that people can actually enjoy, my hat is off to you. Continue to innovate, and please resist the urge to obscure the tastes you’ve worked hard to develop by wrapping them in an overly-bitter hop shroud. Hopefully this hop madness will wear off, the pendulum will swing in the other direction and more brewers will come to their senses—not to mention beer drinkers who haven’t had enough experience to know any better.

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August 6, 2015 0 comments
Last Saturday I had the great pleasure of hosting a couple of my old college pals for a relaxing day on the Portage Lakes—a chain of several inland lakes just a mile or so south of Akron. One of my friends is a younger brother to the Conways of Great Lakes Brewing Co. fame, so it was no surprise that he showed up at my house with a cooler filled with 12 bottles of their new Sharpshooter Session Wheat IPA.

While that was indeed a wonderful gesture, I explained to him that the Portage Lakes, being state-owned lakes, do not allow alcohol on board any vessels. At all.

My friend, who primarily boats on Lake Erie, was unaware of this, since on the Great Lakes, it is ok to have and consume alcoholic beverages on board (except if you’re the captain and operating the boat – your BAL must not exceed the legal limit).

That noted, the three of us left the cooler at my backyard Tiki bar and headed off to The Lakes, where we scored our pontoon and set off to check out the various restaurants and watering holes that can be found there. The weather was beautiful; mid-80’s, a mild breeze and total sunshine—in other words, perfect boating weather.

I won’t get into all the details of our trip; as captain of the boat, I was obviously designated as the responsible party in terms of consumption, which was very limited. However, a couple of beer highlights did include a sample of the previously-mentioned GLBC’s new Sharpshooter Session Wheat IPA as well as the delicious Founders Brewing Rubaeus Raspberry Ale.

The Sharpshooter was a pleasant surprise; I’ve always made it clear I’m not a fan of many IPA’s—most American versions are too bitter for my taste. Wheat beers are also not on my regular list…while some are refreshing, others are a little too highly spiced, or have a shade too much clove flavor for my taste. The GLBC product was bright and well-balanced; clearly a wheat ale, but not overly-hopped, as there was little if any residual bitterness. At a shade over 4% ABV, it qualifies (in America) as a Session ale. Just a touch of citrus fruitiness made it quite refreshing, and I was intrigued by the Jarrylo hops—a dwarf hop variety with which I was not previously familiar. I wouldn’t mind home brewing with those.

The other beer I particularly enjoyed was the Founders Rubeaus. I had first sampled this a couple of weeks prior during a brief stop at The Highland Tavern and enjoyed it immensely. I enjoyed it even more sitting at On Tap (formerly The Harbor Inn) on West Reservoir, which was packed with happy people enjoying the sunshine.

Normally, I like my berry-beers on the mild side, with just enough berry flavor to offer some character and extra refreshment. The Rubaeus goes all-in, however—exploding in your mouth with a generous sweet-and-tart fresh raspberry taste and a clean, dry finish. The aroma is deliciously fruity, as you might expect, and the color is a brilliant red. If I hadn’t been captain of the boat, I would have enjoyed more than one.

We were able to stop at a couple of other spots as well, such as The Upper Deck and The Nauti Vine (which makes its own beer) – so my friends had ample opportunity to see (and taste) what The Portage Lakes has to offer. There are some other fun places out here too, like Dusty’s Landing, Dietz's Landing and Howie’s on the Lake, which we did not have time to visit.

Overall, this is a great summertime spot to go, whether by sea or by land. My friends, who hail from the Cleveland area, had never been here before, and they thought the atmosphere similar to the (old) Cleveland Flats or even Put-in-Bay (though not quite as rowdy; the crowd here skews a little older).

Most of the places here have a beer selection to fit any taste—but you have to keep in mind the waters are patrolled, so boat captains must be responsible and operate safely. The lakes and the connecting channels can get crowded on warm summer weekends, so it’s important for you or someone in your group to be operating the boat with a clear head. That said, you must check this area out.
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