The Session #31: Summer Beers

This month’s Session, Summer Beers is hosted by Peter Estaniel over at the BetterBeerBlog.

This month’s Session, Summer Beers, is a great topic, since I have little interest in jumping on another bandwagon of beer geeks raving about the latest hyper-malty, barrel aged, hop bomb where the brewer actually did throw in the kitchen sink. The lighter beer styles we normally associate with summer require much skill and talent to brew, with no places to hide off flavors. Having had so many great summer beers, it’s hard to pick a favorite. For me, a “favorite beer” is largely determined in the context of which it is consumed, as well as how and where the beer is produced. That’s why my favorite beer this summer is from a brewer you never heard of, and I haven’t even swallowed a drop of it yet. I’ll get to my favorite summer beer at the end of this post, so allow me to celebrate a number of my summer favorites before then.

Favorite Summer Beer with Lime In It
Summer beers with lime in them are typically some hideous product from big industrial breweries that are barely recognizable as beer. That wasn’t the case with Coronado Brewing’s Lime Wit that I enjoyed this summer at my favorite beer bar in San Diego, Downtown Johnny Brown’s. Sour lime dominates the slight yeasty flavors of this Wit beer, and there’s a bitter lime peel finish to it. I’ve enjoyed other wits more than this one, but this unique San Diego-inspired beer deserves a mention.

Favorite Summer Beer to Drink After a Summer Run
It’s only natural to expect the writer of blog called Bay Area Beer Runner to cite a favorite summer beer for drinking after a run. The problem is that during summer, my runs are exclusively in the early morning when the air is coolest, which is when many runners train. Knocking down a couple pints of beer after a morning run before heading off to work is a pretty risky career strategy. Not being a fan of those foul-tasting, over priced sports drinks, I just have water after a run.

Favorite Summer Beer to Witness Another Disappointing Chicago Cubs Baseball Season
I’ve been a Cub fan for thirty years, and each year, the Cubs find a new and creative way to build up expectations and then deflate them over the course of a baseball season. The other constant over that time is that Heileman’s Old Style has been strongly associated with Cubs’ baseball. If you’ve ever had this light lager, you’ll begin to understand why Cub fans have such a high tolerance for pain and misery.

Favorite Summer Beer to Get Ready for The Ohio State University’s Football Season
Keeping on the topic of sports, as a graduate of The Ohio State University, I’ve spent many a summer chatting away with other Buckeye fans in anticipation of the upcoming fall football season. And there’s no better beer for this than Buckeye Beer from Maumee Bay Brewing in Toledo, OH. It’s a beer with a long history that ceased production in 1972, only to be recently revived with a retro-marketing campaign. But it’s no weak, gimmicky pilsner. This refreshing beer’s malt is a little biscuit-like, and the hops crisp and grassy. It’s also good in winter time for Buckeye fans recovering from a crushing Bowl game defeat.

Favorite Summer Beer to Experience a 60’s Flashback
Last month, my girlfriend and I checked out Magnolia Pub and Brewery, merely a block away from the storied Haight-Ashbury intersection in San Francisco. We were both really impressed with their Kalifornia Kolsch. It’s a hazy yellow brew, with a strong peppery flavor and we also noted some notes of lemon. Despite the strong flavors, there was a feathery lightness to it. It’s so good, it actually caused me to admit The Grateful Dead had some redeeming qualities.

Favorite Summer Beer That I Couldn’t Come Up with a Category For, But Wanted to Mention Anyway
I’ve long been a fan of Victory Brewing in Downing, PA, but it’s hard to find their beers in the Bay Area. In San Diego last month, I found Victory Brewing’s Prima Pils on tap. Like any good pilsner, it’s got a crisp grassy hops finish, but I also picked up some savory herbal character with all that hoppy goodness, giving it a rare complexity and dimension for a pilsner.

Before revealing my Favorite Beer of the Summer, I should start by saying why I think running is a great activity and for those of a competitive nature, a great sport. All you need is a good pair of shoes, lace ’em up, and go out the front door. The equipment is very affordable, and the best places to run are public areas available to all. There are road races held all over the United States where for a reasonable fee, anyone can enter to run with the best runners in the nation, or even the world. The stop watch does not discriminate on the basis of race, income, sex, religion, origin, good looks, or anything else.

The same egalitarian qualities that makes running great, makes beer great. It is most commonly consumed in informal public gatherings. Even the finest beers are affordable to most. And with a small investment, anyone can start brewing beer for themselves. That now includes me, as I’ve home brewed up my first batch of beer of what I expect to be the first of many home brews. Perhaps someday, my brewing skills will progress to the point where I’ll compete in home brewing competitions, but for now, I’ll settle for brewing up something that just tastes good.

I didn’t muck around in the kitchen that badly brewing it up, so fingers crossed, it will taste OK. Since it was bottled a week ago and needs two weeks of bottle conditioning, I haven’t even tasted the final product. But sampling the brew as it went into the bottles didn’t reveal any obvious off-flavors, and it tasted like a decent beer to me. Having only the slightest idea of how to brew beer, but with plans to keep at it, I call it Blind Ambition Amber Ale, and it’s my favorite summer beer.

The Session #30 : Raspberry Lambic Gelatin in a Brain Shaped Mold

For this months session, Beer Desserts, David Jensen of Beer47 , asks “What beer desserts have you tried and liked? Disliked? What beer styles work well with dessert and which ones do not? Do you have any beer dessert recipes that you enjoyed and would like to share?”

Back in my beer swilling college days, I had some grasp of the concept of beer and desserts. One evening after knocking back a few cans of Busch beer, I filled a plastic tumbler with a couple more cans of the stuff, and then plopped in a couple scoops of mint chocolate chip ice cream. After showing everyone on my dorm floor this beer float, and taking a few chugs on a couple dares, somehow, this dreadful concoction ended up in an out of the way corner of my dorm room, and was forgotten. When I discovered it a few days later, some sort of mold was growing in it, the ice cream had morphed into sort some of crust, and the whole thing smelled rather nasty. Since my roommate was also a runner, funky smells in our living space were rather common, a likely explanation for why it went undetected for so long.

Twenty some odd years later, the death of my grandmother in early 2007 provided an unlikely catalyst for new experimentation with desserts. After she was buried in Springfield, Illinois, her church provided a potluck lunch for family and friends of the departed, which included a few jello salads. At this difficult time, we all expressed our surprise that this traditional Midwestern comfort food seemed to be, well, quite comforting. We couldn’t quite understand why this culinary relic of the 50’s, with strange combinations like grated carrots mixed into orange jello had this effect on us. Perhaps, like any good comfort food it brought us to a simpler time of our youth.

After the service, Dad brought us to his mother’s apartment, and asked my sister, Leigh, and I to take one thing back home with us. I took Grandma’s Harry Cary beer coaster. Leigh took Grandma’s recipe box sitting on the kitchen counter, with several jello salad recipes inside. My sister mailed me photo copies of all the recipes, and Grandma’s Cherry Cola Jello Salad has become a popular dessert I’ve brought to many gatherings.

Seeing my interest in jello molds, a couple friends of mine gave me a brain shaped gelatin mold as a birthday gift, inspiring me to create a couple original deserts. First, I developed a Red Hot Russian Gelatin Brain, made with vodka and flavored with cayenne and cinnamon. And I put together a kid-friendly Blue Hawaii Jello Brain, using a package of Blueberry Jello, some crushed pineapple, and then my kids garnish it with gummy sharks.

So with this session topic, I decided to find the old brain gelatin mold and work up a new creation. I decided to use Lindemans’ Raspberry Lambic for this mold, thinking its sweet, fruity, and tart flavor combination would work well in gelatin.

I experimented twice with the recipe and technique, and settled on a formula which uses a 750 ml bottle of Lindemans’ Raspberry Lambic, which is about three cups of liquid, and 1/4 cup of water. The Knox gelatin powder directions call for one packet of powder per cup of liquid, but I found this made the mold a little stiff, so I used approximately 2 1/2 packets of powder for the 3 cups of liquid. I heated the 1/4 of water in a sauce pan and dissolved as much of the Knox gelatin as I could into it, about 2 packets worth. The idea here is avoid exposure of the lambic to the heat, which I feared could change its flavor. I had to pour in about a half cup of the lambic to dissolve the remaining powder, and then added the rest of the lambic in, slowly stirring it evenly distribute the gelatin, and then transferred it into the brain mold. The lambic foamed up a bit, so I let the foam subside before putting it into the refrigerator to set.

As for the taste, I found this technique did a good job preserving the lambic flavor in the gelatin. On the first try, I used a full cup of water and three cups of the lambic to dissolve four packets of gelatin, but I found this created a very stiff mold, that had a bit of a “washed out” flavor. Both times, I noticed the lambic gelatin picked up a slightly earthy bitterness, but the second run with less water, this bitterness was a lot less pronounced, and the lambic kept more of its tart, acidic character. Actually, I might add a little lemon juice on the third go around to replace some of lost acidity. I could also cut back on the gelatin powder a bit more.

Of course, since the carbonation and liquid sensation on the tongue is totally lost when the lambic is made into gelatin, the mouth feel and overall taste is unavoidably modified. I found it very instructive to drink the lambic while sampling the lambic gelatin to best understand how this process transforms the overall flavor and sensation of the lambic. I think the final result makes a decent dessert, although I’d recommend adding something like whipped cream, or some sort of chocolate sauce or ice cream, to give the dessert a little depth and contrast. Some sort of mint infusion into the lambic gelatin might also work.

Another beer I thought about using for a gelatin mold was a sweet barleywine like Lagunitas Brown Shugga. Any ideas for beers that might work well in a gelatin mold?

The Session #29: Beer in a Land where the Gun has Long Ruled


(In this month’s Session, Will Travel for Beer, hosted by BeerByBART, we’re asked to either write about beer trip we’ve taken, or beer related things we do when travelling.)

Last March, I went with Linda to visit her home town of Las Cruces, New Mexico for a few days. Las Cruces is not far from the border towns of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. It lies at the northern end of the large Chihuahuan Desert, which extends far south across the border deep into Mexico, and westward into Texas. I had never been to this part of the country before, but was well acquainted with recent news stories about violent drug wars, and gruesome discoveries of mass graves full of victims of these wars.

This is nothing new for this region of the country, which has a rich history of outlaws, marauding bandits, and violent clashes for well over a century. The reason for this perpetual state of violent struggle becomes apparent simply looking over the landscape. There’s almost nothing to fight for. Food, water, and good land are in precious little supply in the high desert. With the vast distances between towns and historically high levels of government corruption, guns were often used to settle disputes and keep order. Dying of natural causes was no small accomplishment in this region, where many died trying to protect what little they had, or were killed in an unsuccessful attempt to steal from someone else. Perhaps the most infamous person in these struggles was Henry McCarty.

Henry McCarty is better known as William Bonney, and even better known as Billy the Kid. He was born in an Irish slum on Manhattan Island, and his somewhat dysfunctional family continued to move westward across the country looking for better places to live until they arrived in New Mexico in 1874 when he was in his early teens. Like many young men in this time and place, he turned to a life of crime, and later joined a gang of horse thieves. Around the age of 20, he was recruited into an armed conflict between rival ranching interests, known as the Lincoln County War. Since McCarty’s side lost, the winners vilified him in sensationalistic stories, describing him as sadistic killer of over twenty innocent victims. From all personal accounts, he was actually quite literate, articulate, highly sociable, and a good dancer, who most historians believe was only responsible for a more modest number of about five killings. To the local Mexican population, he was a folk hero who fought a ranching syndicate which actively kept Mexicans near the bottom of the pecking order, and one of few whites in the region who adapted the language, customs, and dress of the local Mexican population. Eventually captured, Billy the Kid was tried and convicted of murder in a small courthouse in the New Mexico town of Mesilla, which is adjacent to Las Cruces. The court house still stands today, but is now a souvenir shop, where you can buy a postcard, T-shirt, or other trinkets with Billy the Kid’s picture on it.

About a half mile from this courthouse turned souvenir shop is the High Desert Brewery, which Linda and I visited one afternoon. Pulling into the dusty parking lot, full of beat up pick-up trucks parked on the hot asphalt, I was a little leery of what sort of clientele we might find inside. The whole low-slung adobe building looked a bit worse for wear, with the small High Desert Brewing sign a bit faded. Most small brewpubs like this one are full of locals, and I was not sure how well two out-of-towners would be received moseying into some strange brew pub.

Turns out I had nothing to worry about. Like most brewpubs all over the country, everyone was there to relax and have a good time over a good pint of beer. The bartender and a customer were chatting about the news story CNN was reporting on the small TV near the bar. Linda and I took a seat and soon our waitress appeared, who looked and acted more like a librarian than a bar waitress. She told us they don’t offer a tasting flight when we asked for one, so we opted for a “super-sized” tasting flight by sharing a few eight-once glasses of the various house beers.

As one might expect from a desert brewpub, the strongest offerings were of the lighter, thirst quenching beer styles. My favorites were their crisp Bohemian Pilsner, and an excellent Amber Lager, which had a slightly nutty and sweet malt taste and crisp grassy hops finish. All of the beers were on the light tasting side of each particular style, and the hop level was dialed down compared to typical breweries in the western United States. But despite this, the beer seemed flavorful and vibrant, not thin and watery, and I never found any of their offerings worse than “good”. As for the food, let’s just say if you like New Mexico Green Chile’s sprinkled liberally into your bar food, you’re going to be pretty happy here.

One cannot discuss High Desert Brewing without mentioning all the postcards, beer paraphernalia, and other artifacts covering the walls and ceiling. It’s all sent in and donated by various visitors and patrons, and creates a unique and organic connection between the brewpub and its customers. So many places try to manufacture this type of environment, but when you see it here, it’s very genuine. Back by the restrooms is one of the finest collections of Elvis paintings on black velvet you can find West of the Mississippi. It makes waiting your turn a great cultural experience.

The last day, Linda and I went with her parents to White Sands National Monument. On the way there, we drove past White Sands National Missile Range, a US Army base full of people who specialize and train in the art of blowing up things. White Sands National Monument is basically a vast series of white sand dunes composed of powdered gypsum. We took a couple snow disks with us, and sledded down the dunes as if they were hills covered with snow.

Travel gives me the opportunity to discover the history and geography of a place, which is often reflected in its local beer. It’s why I seek out local breweries and brewpubs wherever I travel.

The Erie Canal Trail and Rohrbach’s in Rochester

This months Session is about the furthest distance travelled to a brewery or brewpub and the best beer found there.

Being a salesman for a small electronics company gives me a number of opportunities to explore new places each year. And while sometimes the schedule is too hectic to do much of anything outside of work, I am fortunate to get some good runs in and try out some local beers and beer establishments. The furthest brewery I’ve been to is Rohrbach’s in Rochester, NY, which is 2,750 miles from my home in San Jose, CA.

I usually stay near the airport. Most people don’t realize it, but the Erie Canal runs near the airport, and there’s a nifty running trail on along its banks. The first time I found it, I stumbled upon it by accident in a rather ordinary industrial area. Turning onto the wooded trail was a welcome change of pace from the industrial surrounding. But soon, it seemed like running through a glorified drainage ditch with not a soul around, and just train tracks to keep me company. Another mile or two down the trail, and it empties into a wooded park area, where people were having picnics, generally having a good time, and yes, a few were out on a run. For about an hour or so, I’m part of the community before turning around and heading back on a great run in that started out as a boring trudge.

The Erie Canal was built in the early 1800’s, an audacious plan at the time to connect the Great Lakes to New York City via the Erie Canal and Hudson River. Far from the expensive failure many predicted, it opened up trade in Western New York and helped create the cities of Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester.
So if it weren’t for the Eric Canal, Rohrbach Brewery may never have existed. And wouldn’t you know, John Urlaub, the owner of Rohrbach’s is a runner, too! The brewpub less than a 10 mile drive west of the airport. Like any good brew pub, there’s a neighborhood vibe upon entry. Everyone seems to be from the neighborhood and knows each other, but somehow, you don’t feel like a stranger. I take my seat and once again, for an hour or so, I’m part of the community.

As for the beers, I had a sampler flight, which is what I usually have when at a new brewpub. Rohrbach’s had a number of good to great beers over a range of styles. I always hesitate to pick a “favorite” beer, since I feel that depends a lot on the context the beer is enjoyed in. I really liked the Belgian Blonde, which my old notes say had “caramel malt with some snappy hops”. I also liked their Scotch Ale, which had a “sweet, peat malt taste with some toffee”. But if I had to pick my favorite, it’s their Sam Patch Porter. Porter is one of my favorite styles, and I found this one to have a “strong, bitter, roasted coffee flavor”. These are old notes, and part of this exercise is to either crack open a brew from the brewpub, or crack open something to compare it to. You can’t get Rohrbach’s in San Jose, so it looks like I’m going to find a substitute for Sam Patch Porter. And so to compare the Sam Patch Porter from the brewery I’ve travelled the furthest to visit, I’ll compare it to a brewery close to where I live. And that would be El Toro in Morgan Hill, CA. So it’s off to El Toro with my girlfriend Linda for some of their porter.

Morgan Hill is a small city just south of San Jose, the first place you come to when exiting the San Francisco Bay Area to the south. The place is an airy, two-level pub with a light brown wood interior. Behind the bar is colorful array of about twenty taps offering their very wide varieties of beer. The NHL and NBA playoffs are in full swing on the flat screen TVs scattered about the place. We take a seat, and a young waiter comes over. I ask for the Porter, while Linda is intrigued by the description of their El Canejo IPA, so orders that.

El Toro’s Porter is different than Rorhbach’s . Both have plenty of roasty malt goodness, but El Toro Porter is dominated by bitter chocolate notes with little detectable sweetness, instead of the coffee with some sweetness route of Rohrbach’s. Both are mighty fine porters.

We were also impressed with the El Canejo IPA. It’s highly unique, red IPA with good amount slightly sweet, roasted red malt, and plenty of slightly resinous, astringent hops bitterness. I found it well balanced, and much more so than El Toro’s regular IPA. We order a couple more pints, and looking over the beer list, see plenty others we’d like to try someday.

One of the many great things about beer is that if you go far away or stay close to home, it provides a great opportunity to explore.
(Rohrbach’s logo used with permission.)