The Beer That Started It All

Susan and I had relatively little experience with alcohol when we met eachother.  She turned me on to making cocktails, since it was a way to show affection and that I was interested in her.  We both enjoyed wine of all kinds and Guinness, but didn’t enjoy many beers or spirits.  We certainly had no experience with cider or mead.

On our first trip to Oz, we did our Waterfalls and Wineries tour,Alcohol Tourism Cascade Building the start of Alcohol Tourism.  On that same trip, we tried all the local beer offerings and found one quite to our liking- Cascade.  Cascade was made locally in Hobart, from water coming from Mount Wellington.  It was a clear, light-ish lager, but with much more flavour and depth than one experiences in American light lager (Bud, Coors, etc.).  We drank a lot of Cascade on that trip.  When we visited the Cascade visitors center, they offered beer brewing kits.  They didn’t even sell Cascade off the island, much less overseas.  I thought, “Aha!  A way to enjoy awesome Cascade back home?!  Sold!”  I bought the beer making kit and brought it home.

The local brewing store, Blockader Homebrew, had all the equipment I needed ready to go.  The proprietor suggested I try another kit before the Cascade kit, just to get the process down a bit.  I took his suggestion and brewed my first batch, splattering bleach all over the kitchen in my process of sanitation.  The beer turned out pretty well, all told, so I fired up the Cascade.

This turned out less well.  I suspect that the can was quite old, and I’m sure shipping it hadn’t helped its temperament.  I dumped most of the batch as undrinkable, but by now I was hooked.  The process was fun.  I got to clean stuff.  I like cleaning.  For the next few years I did a lot of homebrewing and Susan and I did a lot of beer tasting.  Our evolving knowledge encouraged us to do our first real Alcohol Tour- a trip to Colorado where we hit dozens of brewpubs and tried more than 130 different beers!  Since then we’ve continued to expand our palate and explore more types of alcohol and visit more locales than ever before.

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Vertical Beer Tasting

Most people don’t realize you can cellar beer similar to how you cellar wine.  It undergoes similar chemical processes- notablyUinta Vintages oxidation.  The spice and hops in beer fades with time, and the flavours usually become more blended and complex.  Beers come out in vintages, just like wine, although they’re rarely labelled as such.  Although most mega beer companies (Bud, Miller, etc.) strive for consistency year after year, smaller operations may adjust their recipe based on their own evolution, availability of ingredients, etc.  These small changes can contribute to changes in batches and certainly changes in vintages.

We have been hoarding beer in the basement for five years.  High gravity beers age better than regular gravity beers, so they’re all over 8% ABV.  We tried to collect beers which come out consistently- Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch and Weyerbacher’s Fifteen were the most successful on this score.  A few we had only two years’ worth.  After collecting for five years, we decided to open them up with some beer-loving friends.

Vertical Beer ListWe had a total of fifteen different beers of at least two vintages, and a few with four vintages.  It turned out to be more alcohol than anticipated.  We didn’t meet our goal of finishing it all- only about a third was done in by us and our nine friends.  The conclusion for most was that the older beers were nice if you appreciate smooth flavour, and the newer beers were better if you wanted distinct flavour.
Hoarding beer is a great hobby, but ultimately too much for us to keep track of.  If you haven’t tried it, we’d strongly encourage you to collect for a vertical tasting of your own.  It was a singularly remarkable experience.

Friendly Alcohol Establishment Owners

“So, where are you guys from?” asked by the brewer at Sunken City, a usual opening line.  “What brings you here?” often follows.  After we briefly explain alcohol tourism, the proprietor perks up.  “Do you guys have a blog?”

Sunken City Alcohol Tourism

Sunken City’s Beer Lineup

One of the best things about alcohol tourism is the opportunity to meet other people who are interested in what we’re interested in.  This is particularly true of the owner/brewer/vintner/etc. of the establishment.  We can talk beer or wine or mead all day long with another interested party.  One of the most interesting chats we had was with Roanoke Railhouse Brewing’s owner.

Most craft brewery owners and brewers come into the profession by way of brewing.  They did homebrewing, or did it professionally elsewhere before opening their own brewery, etc.  Railhouse Brewing’s owner was a marketing guy.  He told us the story of how he decided to open a brewery.  He was getting his tires changed and walked into the large back space of the tire company.  It had high ceilings, drains in the floor, commercial gas and electric, and he said this space needed a brewery.

His take on making beer is also unique.  He approaches it from the marketing end- what do people want to drink?  He shared an anecdote of when they did focus groups.  They gave everyone 8 beers, asked them to rate them 1-5, and also asked what their favourite domestic and imported beers are.  The focus group participants consistently claimed their favourite beers were ones like Dos Equis and Budweiser, but then rated those beers (when blinded to what beer they were drinking) consistently low.

Roanoke Railhouse Alcohol TourismAs a consequence, Railhouse makes some excellent beer.  Their IPA was one of the best we had on the trip- great malt backbone, a little fruitiness, and a mild bitterness which didn’t linger.  The owner shared that they aim to have a clean finish on all their beers.  Their stout, dunkel, and Belgian pale were all remarkably well crafted to the style as well as being extremely approachable and flavourful.  It is a combination that’s difficult to get, and Railway hit it on the head.

Next time you go to a winery or brewery, chat with the people there.  You never know what you’ll learn, or who you’ll meet.

WTF Dogfish Head?

Alcohol Tourism Dogfish Head SculptureThere wasn’t much on the path from Connecticut to Delaware.  We specifically went out of our way to hit Dogfish Head Brewery.  Two tolls over $13 each, crazy beach traffic on Memorial Day weekend, and interstate the whole way challenged us, but we persevered.  Susan loves the idea of Dogfish Head, and especially loves one of their beers, Namaste.  I have a hard time with Dogfish Head because, like Ben and Jerry’s, I don’t do well with individualistic descriptions in lieu of styles.  Their beers are very much hit and miss for me.

The brewery is tucked away behind a large new residential development, right across the street from some duplexes.  A terrific wrought iron treehouse sculpture highlighted the front area.  Numerous 20-somethings populated the front lawn, playing cornhole and bocce.  A free tour and up to four tastings was a great deal.

Dogfish Head takes great pride in their motto, “Off-centered ales for off-centered people.”  They use compostable cups and seem keen in sustainability.  They clearly seem oriented towards the hippies of the world.  Or, maybe, the hipsters.

We bellied up to the bar.  We obviously appreciate beer people talking beer with each other, but we do feel that should take back seat to actually serving beer.  The bar was busy, but we still waited a long time, due largely to the bartender talking beer with patrons who’d already been served.

As Susan was ordering our first flight, I went to check out the food situation at the food truck.  The website seems to imply there is a restaurant at the brewery, but the website is referring to their brewpub, not the production brewery.

I discovered the food truck serves bratwurst, and clam chowder with pork.  Oh, and pickles.  So, essentially, nothing a vegetarian could eat.  At a cool, edgy brewery apparently geared towards the fringe elements.  This was also at 2pm, with both of us looking forward to lunch.  No food for vegetarians or pescetarians at Dogfish Head.  WTF, Dogfish Head?

The Growler Fill Line

Our plan was simple.  At each brewery or brewpub we liked, we would get a growler fill, which wouldGrowler Fill Line sustain us until we got to more delicious beer.  Repeat for the duration of the trip.  Some days we knew we wouldn’t like any beer, so we would have reserves in the form of the growlers.  The plan worked perfectly through North Carolina, into Virginia, and even for our first step in Vermont.  After that, it all went wrong.

The Vermont Pub is Vermont’s oldest craft brewery.  Founded by beer legend Greg Noonan in 1989, the Pub is right in the middle of downtown Burlington.  Their lineup featured over 10 beers, most of them amazing.  The Pub earned one of our very few 5/5 scores for beer.  We asked about growler fills and they confirmed they do them.  We were excited to get some of their great beer for the road.  The next morning, we showed up to fill our growlers, and they claimed they only filled their own growlers.  We were shocked and dismayed.  What could possibly be the reason for this?  They just missed out on selling beer!

As we came to discover, New Hampshire and Maine both have laws which prohibit breweries and brewpubs from filling growlers that do not have their name on it.  The Maine law reads, in part, “Malt liquor must be dispensed in bottles provided by and with labels unique to the brewery…”  You would think they could just print a label and stick it on the growler.  Rock Art in Vermont- another fabulous Rock Art Flightbeer find- did just that.  Vermont obviously had no laws about this- since we got two locales to fill our existing growlers in the state (Madison Brewing and Rock Art Brewing)- so we couldn’t figure out why so many of the breweries rejected our existing growlers.  It may be spillover from the other New England states.  I’d hate to think it’s an attempt to get more money out of people.  If so, that attempt backfired badly with us.  Not only did we not buy their growler, but we didn’t buy their beer, which is ostensibly the product they are selling.

The growler fill rules in New England are disappointing.  We visited a few tiny mom-and-pop type operations where we just couldn’t take their beer away because they only did kegs and filled their own growlers.  After that, we were looking forward to getting out of New England, just so we could start getting our growlers filled for the journey home!

Gross Guinness?

Our gateway beer wasn’t Coors Light, or Budweiser, or Natty Light, or even <shiver> Milwaukee’s Best.  Our gateway beer- beer that got both of us to accept that beer is a reasonable thing to drink- was Guinness.Alcohol Tourism - Belgium Pub

It took a long time for me to get around to Guinness.  My friends told me it was like drinking a whole meal, was dense, and was far too intense to have as a starter beer.  Instead, I was plied with light American lagers, which, even then, I realized were unacceptable.  It took my first trip to Ireland, where you drink Guinness or get looked at askance, to experience and enjoy it.  Susan’s first experience with Guinness was as a completely alcohol-naive 19 year old on a college trip to Ireland.  She found it enjoyable, but had no real basis for comparison.  After these first Irish experiences, Guinness in America tasted funny to us both.  Maybe it was the psychological component- it MUST taste better in its homeland, even though it’s the same beer.Alcohol Tourism - Gate

Guinness is not near to a full meal.  It is in fact low cal, at 125 calories- less than Budweiser or Coors.  A stout, by definition, includes roasted barley, which provides a pleasant ‘burnt’ or ‘roasted’ flavour.  Guinness has a characteristic tang on the finish, originally from mixing some of the previous batch with the next batch.  Guinness is brewed in 50 locations around the world, although Guinness Draught enjoyed in the US is brewed in Ireland.  Guinness in Australia is not.

Perched comfortably at the bar of the Grosvenor Hotel in Perth in 2004, I eyed my first pint of Guinness in Oz.  It was black and had a perfect head on it.  The bartender jauntily added an impression of a clover into the head.  The Guinness website claims that experts have blind tasted Guinness from around the world and found it to be indistinguishable.  Maybe that’s true.  I expected Guinness in Oz to taste like Guinness back home.  I was destined to be disappointed.Alcohol Tourism - Guinness and Bulmers

Guinness in Australia is brewed in Australia, purportedly using the same process and ingredients as that brewed in Ireland.  We are here to tell you, it is not.  The light acidity is absent, and there’s a flat, oxidized quality to it.  The body is not as light in mouthfeel and the finish is more burnt.  It all adds up to a disappointing pint of a beer for a beer which we both fondly recall as our gateway beer, and still have a keg of in our house for ‘regular’ beer enjoyment.  Try it for yourself, and share your experiences with us!