Thursday, April 25, 2013

Best of the fest: Untapped's pivotal pours

Image credit:  Paste Magazine, Lakewood Brewing Co., Community Beer Co., Oskar Blues, (512) Brewing Co., Stone Brewing Co.

For reasons we don't need to get into, this past weekend was my first experience of what may become known as the Untapped phenomenon.  Lines were manageable, facilities ample and there was plenty of good beer to be had.  Outside of that, honestly, I didn't pay a lick of attention to the bands or food trucks.  All I cared about was my 24 ounce tasting card.

As such, we'll dispense with any formalities and move right on through to the pivotal pours (IMHO) of Untapped, Spring 2013.

Like shooting fish in a bourbon barrel

Barrel-aged beers were abundant. Yet, for all the talk about "white whale" beers like Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout, Firestone Walker Parabola and Green Flash Silva Stout, it was Oskar Blues Barrel Aged Ten Fidy that had me hooked.  Dark chocolate, roasted coffee, vanilla and a gentle, but prominent barrel character came together seamlessly in this tasteful treatment of the brewery's impy stout staple.

Rare breeds

Among casks and specialty one-offs, Stone's deeply herbal, almost minty 16th Anniversary Ale with Green Tea Leaves was a clear standout.  Another was the (512) Cabernet Tripel.  Going in, considering the full-bodied nature of the wine and the delicate balance of flavors in the base beer, I was expecting a tannic mess.  Thankfully it wasn't that way at all, as the barrel flavors proved to be a near perfect complement to the fruity esters of the Belgian yeast.  As for some others, I had high hopes, but they went up in smoke.

Hops on board

In case you haven't noticed, Mosaic and Citra hop additions are all the rage.  Community's Mosaic IPA was a nice example utilizing the first of the two, but my far and away favorite was Lakewood Till & Toil, which employed both of these hip hop varieties.  Bright grapefruit, along with earthy tropical fruits and a peppery kick from the yeast practically screamed refreshment.  Sometimes I talk about how a beer drinks like the style guidelines, but in this case Till & Toil drinks like the hop flavor profiles.  I wonder if the Hop Growers of America are looking for a spokesbeer?


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The strange case of Shiner Ruby Redbird

Image credit: Spoetzl Brewing Company
If we're being honest, when Shiner Ruby Redbird first arrived on the scene in 2011, this reviewer held the same opinion as others in that it didn't quite live up to expectations. A springtime special delivery from the folks at McGarrah Jessee, though, has provided the impetus for another look. So, why stand in the way of a second chance?

Being two years removed from any experience with this beer, this article began as many do, with a fresh taste and a bit of research. The latter, focused both on prevailing critical and public opinion, has led the mind down a particular path.

Along those lines, one imagines that when the brewers at Shiner discuss their summer seasonal, the dialog has a sort of Tales of Two Cities theme. You know the famous line, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." What other conclusion can be drawn, considering the wide-ranging opinions to be found on any of the popular online rating sites. A five here, a four there, a two, a one, a one-half. What gives? Is this a good beer, or a bad one? As they say, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.

Maybe the problem is that Ruby Redbird tastes more like ginger "ale" than ginger "beer". The mystery of the missing grapefruit no doubt influences that impression, but beyond that the spice is not subtle, the carbonation is lively, and the body is light. Granted, this concoction has a little more kick than Canada Dry, but pour it blindly and see how many people notice a difference.

Taking all that into account, it's hard not to see some level of appeal. It's brisk, with a soda-like body and consistency, and if you like ginger it has it in spades. Judge it as a beer and it's a tough sell, but judge it as a summertime beverage and you might be onto something.

Hey, it's better than a shandy.

*Originally published on

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Lock, stock and a barrel full of hops: Taking on the Imperial Texan

Image credit:  Martin House Brewing Company.

If brand imagery influences the kinds of beer we drink, the Imperial Texan from Martin House should be successful from the start.  It's got an eye-catching label (what with its blazing red color), it's "imperial" (trendy buzz word), and it's Texan (regional references are always a winner).  Oh, and let's not forget about the picture.  If the sight of two Texas cowboys locked in a duel doesn't have you asking the barkeep to "draw" you a pint, I'm not sure what will.  Yes, I know what you're thinking.  Not to worry, the beer is good too.

By now you've probably guessed that the Imperial Texan is an imperial red.  That being said, comparisons to Peticolas' Velvet Hammer are inevitable.  Yet, for all practical purposes these are two completely different beers.  Whereas the Hammer imperializes an American-style red ale by boosting equally the flavor contributions of malt, hops and alcohol, the Texan takes direct aim at the Brewers Association (BA) style guidelines with its across the board hop intensity.  One is balanced, one brazen, and taken together they demonstrate the range of interpretations one might see in a single style.

Looking at the Texan more closely, aromas center on the sharp scent of pine needles, tree sap and fresh herbal tones.  It's hop-forward and assertively bitter, with a moderate caramel maltiness forming the basis of its medium-full body.  Some might like a little more heft in the latter, but go too far and it might start to have an American strong ale-type feel.

Referring back to its title, calling this brew a Texan will elicit certain expectations, but this is a beer that appears to live up to its name.  It's big and brash, and is the latest in a string of local brews that exemplify the willingness of new brewers to come out of the gate swinging.  There is a fun bit of irony, though, in one of the brewery's core values.  Intending to remain "unbound by tradition", they promise to not be "stymied by existing categorical guidelines."  The thing is, judging by the BA definition of an imperial red, the Imperial Texan is about as representative as you can get.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

*Originally published on

Monday, April 15, 2013

Stone set to release 2013 classic and "odd year" IRS

Image credit:  Stone Brewing Company

Stone has announced their 2013 Imperial Russian Stout (IRS), whose release will coincide with the latest entry in their "Odd Beers for Odd Years" series, an espresso-infused version of IRS brewed with locally-sourced coffee beans.

In addition to product information and cellaring advice contained below, visit the IRS website for tasting notes by Brewmaster Mitch Steele, and suggested food pairings by "Dr." Bill Sysak.

Per the official Press Release:

"Stone Imperial Russian Stout is one of the highest rated Stone beers, having earned a 100 overall score on and a 97 “world-class” score on The recipe was created by Stone Co-founder and President Steve Wagner in 2000 and has changed little from the first brew, which utilizes four malt varieties and Warrior hops. The beer pours black with pronounced cocoa and coffee aromas. The chocolate and java notes carry through onto the palate, along with fruitiness and hints of anise. The beer is smooth and finishes with a slightly bitter hoppy taste.

The 2013 Stone ESPRESSO Imperial Russian Stout is an augmented version of Stone Imperial Russian Stout brewed with espresso beans from San Diego’s Ryan Bros. Coffee. Like the classic version, the beer pours black and emits strong coffee and chocolate aromas. Stone Brewmaster Mitch Steele notes, “The addition of espresso beans in the brewhouse and post-fermentation enhances the coffee flavors that are naturally found in the classic version, but also enhance the perception of chocolate. The fruity, yeasty and hoppy flavors found in the classic version are more diminished.” The Ryan Bros. espresso roast is a blend of Indonesian and Central and South American coffee beans roasted and blended together to produce a bold, robust flavor with hints of citrus and berries.

Both beers are ready to enjoy now, but are also ideal for cellaring over the span of several months or several years. Over time, the stout will continue to develop deeper, rounder coffee, chocolate and dark fruit flavors as the hop aroma and bitterness subside."

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Where oh where has my little beer gone?

Image credit: Real Ale Brewing Company

I've decided what, or rather who I'm going to be for Halloween.

Who is Clara Peller, you ask? She's that crotchety old lady who starred in one of Wendy's most memorable advertising campaigns. The only difference is, my tagline won't be "Where's the beef?," it'll be "Where's the beer?"

I made this decision because I seem to be spending a lot of time lately trying to figure out why my beer doesn't taste like beer. Of course, we all know "beer" isn't a flavor, but rather a celebration of it. At least, that's been the company line for craft brewers since the late 1970s. Yet, we seem to be evolving to a place where specialty ingredients are taking hold of the beers we drink. It's gotten to the point where there are times I wonder if I'm drinking beer or bouillabaisse (well, minus the fish).

Let's get one thing straight. I'm all for moving beyond the beer "starter kit" (i.e. barley, hops, water and yeast) to more exotic ingredients. It's only natural to want to push the boundaries of beer as we know it in an effort to create more unique and flavorful brews. Just do it in moderation. Paraphrasing the BJCP style guidelines, specialty ingredients should be harmonious with the beer's other components while not totally overpowering them.

Take, for example, coffee beers. There are some outstanding examples of how beers like this should be brewed: Real Ale Coffee Porter, Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout and Great Divide Espresso Oak Aged Yeti. Each infuses just enough coffee to compliment the roast and dark chocolate flavors contributed by the choice of grain. At the other end of the spectrum are the beers that taste like coffee. Not malt, not hops, just coffee. If I want coffee I know where to go, and it's not to a brewery. While the majority of Americans may live 10 miles from a brewery, virtually everyone lives within 10 seconds of a Starbucks. Go there to get your mug o' Joe to go. Beer shouldn't taste like coffee. Beer should taste like beer.

Or, how about these trending Mexican, Mayan or Mole stouts? Honestly, I've never been more bewildered by a beer style. I say this not because I am put off by the flavor, for the combination of cinnamon, bittersweet cocoa and varying blends of ancho, guajillo or chipotle peppers is bold, slightly aggressive and quite tasty. The problem is, nearly every one of these brews I've tried is so exceptionally light in body it's like drinking spiced water. Is it supposed to drink like a cold version of a hot toddy? Here's an idea, use it as a marinade. That way, you can soak some barley and hops in it and make it into a beer.

Look, there's no harm in raiding the pantry in search of new flavors, but throwing a blanket of spice over a hastily made bed of barley and hops is the first step in making a bad beer. Really, all you have to do is ask yourself one question. Do you want to make beer, or just another beverage? Beer should have balance. Beer should have body. Simply put, beer should be beer.

When to get the "good": Real Ale Coffee Porter and Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout are fall seasonals, while Great Divide Oak Aged Espresso Yeti is a late winter release.

*Originally published on

Best Little Brewfest in Texas coming to Texas Motor Speedway on June 22

Image Credit: Cloud 9 Charities
(click to enlarge)
Event details per an email from the organizers:

The Best Little Brewfest in Texas is a Craft Beer Festival held at the infield garage of Texas Motor Speedway in Ft. Worth - the ideal venue for anyone who loves craft beer.

Our Brewfest exists to provide an opportunity to sample and learn about a variety of craft beer from Texas while making a HUGE impact in our local community supporting [the] Alzheimer’s Association and Teen Suicide Prevention. [Fully] 100% of the proceeds from this event will be donated to these two wonderful organizations.

More than 50 craft breweries from all over Texas will be present with 100+ handcrafted brews to serve thousands of beer lovers at this event. Special releases, firkins, “one-offs” and new seasonal brews will be highlighted.

Our focus is on craft beer and making a difference. There is more than sampling involved. The Best Little Brewfest in Texas features live music, beer-friendly vendors, memorabilia, and an assortment of food for purchase.

The VIP section is limited to 500 guests and includes snacks, premium beer, fast entry, convenient parking and more.

Sponsorships are available and volunteers are needed!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Is bigger really better? How Dallas beers rate

Image credit: Brian Brown (click to enlarge)

In January, American Craft Beer published an article entitled "In Defense of All Craft Beer", written by Dallas correspondent Amber Medin. In it, she discusses the idea that if a brewer tags any given release with words like "imperial" or "barrel-aged", that beer is likely to get better reviews. Reading this, it reminded me of two things.

First, I recalled a conversation I had with a local brewer, who while pouring festival samples noted that requests for the one with "hop" in the name far outweighed those of his other beers. Second, it encouraged me to revisit a side project I had been working on, involving a study of whether or not a correlation exists between a beer's alcohol percentage and its online rating. Curiosity got the best of me, so I decided to compile some data and let the numbers tell the story.

To do this, I took a weighted average of ratings posted on Beer AdvocateRateBeer and Untappd. I stuck to products brewed in the Metroplex, not only to gain insight into the kinds of beers the locals are drinking, but also to see how the "big" versus "little" debate would shake out in a city whose climate lends itself towards more sessionable brews.

Taking the simple case first, fitting a trend line to the raw data shows beers with higher ABV rate as much as a half-point higher on a 5-point scale. Surprised? You shouldn't be, especially in light of what a more detailed analysis tells us in the graphic to the right.

Breaking things down further in terms of style or buzzword (items in quotes), barrel-aged beers tower above the rest, followed closely by stouts and brews that have been imperialized. It's worth noting that stouts are biased upwards by the likes of Deep Ellum Darkest Hour, Lakewood's Temptress (both regular and barrel-aged versions), and Rahr Snowmageddon, all of which also happen to carry the "imperial" designation.

Moving down the list, hop-named brews edge out English/Scottish styles, which get a boost from Rahr Iron Thistle, along with Great Scot!, Wintervention and Royal Scandal from Peticolas. From there, though, things descend more or less according to strength and flavor intensity, with standard pales, lagers and lighter hybrid brews falling in towards the bottom. The only exception being IPAs, which rank a bit lower than you might expect due to prevailing opinions on Stormcloud from Rahr & Sons.

Summarizing these results, the numbers appear to confirm what we've suspected all along. When it comes to the ratings game, the bigger and buzzier the better.

Asking a similar question that Medin poses, should that imply that big beers are the only ones worth drinking? Hardly. It's no secret that beer geeks go for certain kinds of beer, and you could argue that these types of people are more likely to consistently use an online rating system.

That, and there is an undeniably subjective element in all of this. Online commentary suggests many rate strictly based on personal taste and their own expectations, without due diligence as to what the brewer is trying to achieve. Just because a brew isn't to one person's liking, it doesn't mean it's not a good beer and/or doesn't represent a style or the brewer's intentions well.

Food for thought. Cheers!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Why are we here? It's simple really, it's all about the beer

Image credit:  All logos property of their respective brewing companies.

Just a few short months ago, the image above represented the present and the future of the craft beer scene in North Texas.  At the time, the entities Armadillo Ale Works, Independent Ale Works, and the Martin House Brewing Company had yet to become a reality.  Today, though, each has begun brewing operations, with new names having replaced them under the guise of being "in development."  Rabbit Hole, Noble Rey, Wahoo, Social, and Grapevine on Tap are among those who've now joined 903 Brewers and Reunion in paving the way for the next phase of growth in what we once could have never imagined:  a thriving craft beer industry in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.

A side effect this growth is that the amount of news and information associated with area breweries grows greater by the day.  Some of this fits well within the Examiner environment, but some of it does not.  Press releases I receive being a prime example of something that falls into this category.

Given that, developing this site affords me a way to disseminate information that I otherwise wasn't able to.  Things like a list of active breweries, brewpubs and projects in development are more easily managed in this format, and hopefully easier to find since such items will have a direct link installed on the splash page. 

Other than that, I've mostly just decided I need my own little space in the world.  The level of ad intrusion on Examiner is not lost on me, and there may well come a day when I decide it's simply too much to bear.  Should that happen, my pen will need a new pad of paper.  Up to now "Beer in Big D" has been nothing more than a side project, but now it gives me a convenient place to land.

Brian Brown
Plano Craft Beer Examiner