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On-Tap Recap: Beers for the aging former headbanger

I was a metal kid in the late 80’s. Although I liked the music, it was the album art that drew me in. Iron Maiden, Dio, Ozzy, any album with demons or creepy magical glyphs on the cover was fair game for my tape collection when I was about twelve. See, back in the late 80’s before Viggo Mortensen and Peter Dinklage, it was hard out there for fantasy geeks. We didn’t strut proudly down the street shaking our D&D dice in their little bag, shouting about how geeky we were to passersby. Just being seen with a paperback of The Lord of the Rings was enough to get your ass kicked. But wearing a T-shirt or pin with album art from a metal band was, if not exactly “cool”, at least likely to scare people away so they’d leave you alone. It was a subtle way to get your geek on while people around you just assumed you were into something more socially acceptable than fantasy, like consuming heavy drugs or worshipping Satan.

The parental shock value of the album art was a factor as well. As an honor-roll student in the suburbs of a southern American city, there were few ways I could terrify my parents more than by hanging a life-size poster of Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie the Head next to my bed, where it hung for almost ten years. My wife – who has been with me since we were teenagers – still has fond memories of that poster, recalling our first evenings as a couple (studying, always studying) under the leering visage of Eddie in his Somewhere in Time cyborg form. And they say teenage boys know nothing of romance.

Today is the twentieth anniversary of my first date with that wonderful woman I married, so I’m celebrating the past by recapping two beers that I think the twelve-year-old me who bought that poster would be proud of.

Eddie himself stars in my first tasting, snarling at me in 19th-century dragoon uniform from the label of a pint-sized bottle of Trooper by Robinsons Brewery, named for – and featuring the art from the 1983 single release of – the Iron Maiden song “The Trooper”.

trooper

Billed by Robinsons as a hand-crafted real ale “developed” by Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson with “true depth of character”, it sounded about right for my taste. It poured a deep orange-gold with a thicker head than I expected, with the brassy, crackery aroma I love in an English ale. The taste was fine, a little astringent and earthy with a hint of slick, oily mouthfeel like one gets with oats in the grain bill, though I don’t know if there were any in this one. I don’t know about “true depth of character” but it was a pleasant enough pint at a sessiony 4.7% ABV. A friend of mine who is both a homebrewer and an Iron Maiden obsessive described the beer as “not as good as you want it to be”, and that was true. It’s a gimmick, plain and simple, and I bought into it; the beer was pleasant but not as remarkable as the song it’s named for. I could drink it again, but would rather drink my own English-style homebrew … though I will save the bottle.

Drawn in a style reminiscent of a seventeenth-century woodcut, a three-headed demon towers over a burning sea of tortured mortals beneath a ring of runes and glyphs on the label of Blakkr Imperial Black Alea collaborative brew between the self-proclaimed “unholy trinity” of Three Floyds Brewing in Indiana, Surly Brewing in Minnesota, and Real Ale Brewing in Central Texas, brought together by their “love of brewing and love of metal”. The black double IPA is available in 4-packs of – what else? – metal cans. Twelve-year-old me would totally have worn a pin of this label on his jean jacket.

blakkr

How’s the beer? Well, it’s black. With a thick beige head and a citrus aroma that leans towards bitter orange and lime. But it’s surprisingly drinkable for an imperial brew with an ABV of 9%. I don’t find it syrupy at all. There’s a crisp bitterness on the front end from traditional American pale ale hops, though as I empty the glass and my palate becomes fatigued, I notice the hops less and the roastiness of black malts comes to the foreground, like a dessert of dark chocolate cake after a pungent salad. But for all that, the beer isn’t that memorable. It’s tasty, and I would drink it again (good thing since I have three more) but I’m not sure that it lives up to the awesomeness of the label art.

Which means we have a trend here. Wicked art that satisfies your inner twelve-year-old and tie-ins with your favorite metal band are neat, but only get you so far in craft beer. Both beers could have been worse, but could have been better. I’ve learned I’ll buy a beer once on a gimmick, but I won’t rush out and buy it again. And it seems that you can’t judge a beer by its label.

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On-Tap Recap: Ommegang Game of Thrones vs. homebrew

HBO’s Game of Thrones came back with season four last night. Hordes gathered in the homes of HBO subscribers for viewing parties, cosplayers donned their finest, and social media lit up as the geekosphere celebrated the return of a beloved show to weekly television.

Beer geeks had reason to celebrate too, as the show’s return meant the release of the third installment in Brewery Ommegang’s series of Game of Thrones-themed seasonal beers. Dubbed Fire & Blood, the latest release pays homage to House Targaryen – that’s the one with the dragons – with ancho chilis (presumably the fire) in a Belgian-style red ale (the blood).

Ommegang Fire & Blood Red Ale

The color of this beer is absolutely striking. When I hear “red ale” I’m usually imagining some middle-of-the-road amber kind of beer. This one was deep, dark red. Beautiful ruby highlights – impossible to see in the picture above, unfortunately – beckoned me to smell and taste it. This was an exercise in delayed gratification, because the rocky head was so thick and persistent I had to wait several minutes before it subsided enough to drink. So I contented myself with smelling it, taking in the tart lemon freshness and barely detectable hint of chili pepper.

I hate to say it, but I found Fire & Blood drinkable and yet unremarkable. The flavors promised on the label and website – spicy chili, “assertive” hops, dark fruit – just didn’t manifest for me. The chili pepper was detectable only when I looked hard for it. The hop presence was faint and the dark fruit notes were muted by the extreme dryness of the beer.

Not that disappointment came as a surprise. I love everything I’ve ever had with the Ommegang label on it except for the three GoT beers they’ve released. The first – Iron Throne Blonde Ale, released in March 2013 – was decent enough but sort of ruined for me by excessive hype. Take the Black Stout, released last fall, was interesting with its star anise and licorice, but fell short of my expectations. I’m glad Ommegang is making these beers, because anything that promotes awareness of craft beer is good. But I keep hoping that one day they’ll brew one that delivers as intense and memorable an experience as the show itself.

So what’s a Zyme Lord to drink when watching the rest of the new season? Not to worry! I’ve got my own GoT-themed beer on tap: Wit Walker Wight Ale (recipe here).

Wit Walker Wight Ale

This beer that I made primarily to have something sessionable on hand for parties has turned out to be one of my own main pours these days. It’s an enticing cloudy straw color (again the photo above does it little justice) with a thick fizzy white head that dissipates quickly. There’s a faintly footy Belgiany aroma coupled with a hint of clove and spice. When it hits the palate, the blood orange comes out in full force – not overpowering the beer, but providing a backdrop of bitter citrus and zest that bounces effervescently on the tongue. I’ll be glad to finish a keg (or two?) of this beer as the season progresses.

It isn’t often that I face off one of my homebrews with a commercial beer. But when I do, it’s encouraging that my own beer can come out the winner. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ommegang and will continue to support their efforts to bringing beer awareness to GoT fans and vice versa. When the fourth GoT beer comes out this fall, I’ll buy a bomber or two. I’m just that big of a geek – for beer and for the show. But as a backup, it’ll be nice to have my own GoT-themed beer on tap so I can drink the beer I want, when I want. After all, that’s what homebrewing is about.

On-Tap Recap: 24 hours on the West Coast

I took a trip for my day job last week to San Diego, an area known to many as the home of Stone Brewing Company. Stone is of course a force to be reckoned with in craft brewing, and some have called them synonymous with the American IPA style. But before I got deep in pints of the old powerhouse, I celebrated the relative local freshness of some beers from my other favorite West Coast breweries.

The first beer I had after landing was a Firestone Walker 805. These guys aren’t actually located in San Diego; their brewery is in Paso Robles in the Central Coast area of California (which, having lived in Southern California, I can tell you is considered practically a different state). But Firestone Walker is a perennial favorite of mine. I routinely stock several bombers from them in my cellar (their Wookey Jack Black Rye IPA pairs astoundingly well with a coffee-chipotle rubbed steak we cook at chez Zyme Lord twice a month). So I appreciated the chance to drink a Firestone somewhat closer to its home than usual. 805 is a blonde ale – not my favorite style but appropriate before dinner – and it exemplified the style: light, with a hint of noble hop character. The color was darker than I expect from a blonde, but that could have been the fault of dim lighting in the hotel bar where I drank it. The beer was also flat, which I’m sure was the fault of the hotel bar. Unfortunately, the lack of carbonation made the light apple-fruity notes common in blonde ales (and part of why I don’t care for them) ever more apparent. Too bad … but I’ll try it again if I find it on tap at a more trustworthy establishment.

My second beer, also at the hotel bar, was a Fathom India Pale Lager from Ballast Point. This is a San Diego brewery, and if I’d had more time in the city I would have loved to pay them a visit. They produce fine beers from their easy-drinking Sculpin IPA to the South Asian punch-in-the-face Indra Kunindra, and Fathom did not disappoint. I’ve been generally skeptical of this newcomer style called IPL, but Fathom showed me exactly why lager yeast is an exciting addition to a hop-forward beer. The ferment was clean and crisp, allowing the hops to take the stage with no estery fruitiness or sweetness like you may find in even the best made IPAs. I also found the malt profile perfectly calibrated to let the hops and lager crispness shine: there was very little crystal malt if any. Maybe some dextrin or Cara-pils in very slight amounts, but none of the caramel that plagues so many American IPAs (not the best made ones). As for the hops so deftly spotlighted, they exploded with delightful grapefruit and lemon verbena aroma and flavor, a similar profile to my memories of Sculpin. I wondered how similar the worts are for those two beers before yeast is pitched. I won’t say Fathom has made me give up my IPAs for their bottom-fermented cousins, but I am no longer skeptical.

My last beer before leaving San Diego – indeed, from the Stone Brewing Co. brewpub in the airport – was Stone Go-To IPA. A new offering this year in another trendy hop-forward style, the session IPA. I enjoyed it, finding it exactly what it purports to be: a beer with a ton of hop flavor and aroma that you can’t quite pin descriptors on but that you can drink all day. Pleasant, but it didn’t really surprise me. And I’m not sure I’d “go to” this session IPA sooner than another such as Founders All Day IPA. But I’m a fan of the session IPA trend; I prefer session beers and am glad they’re making a comeback. It’s a welcome change from the imperial everythings we’ve been getting so much of on shelves and in gatherings of homebrewers for so long. And at 4.5% ABV, it was perfect to get me in the mood for several hours of red-eye flights back home.

On-Tap Recap: Mardi Gras (“Show us your cans”)

Last week’s On-Tap Recap was postponed due to a family vacation. We took our eleven-month-old to our native New Orleans for his first Mardi Gras. You read that right: a baby at Mardi Gras. If that surprises you, if all you know of Fat Tuesday in New Orleans is what you’ve seen on late-night television, be aware that the booze-soaked, boob-baring buffoonery is generally limited to a downtown district called the French Quarter and primarily attracts tourists. For the locals, Mardi Gras is all about the parades uptown: hours-long processions of colorful floats filled with masked revelers peppered with the best marching bands and the weirdest dance troupes from Louisiana and beyond. Families come in droves with kids, coolers and box after box of Popeyes fried chicken. Beads are thrown, but no one has to debase themselves for them. And while there is lots of drinking, it is as one local friend put it, “A family friendly drunkenness”. It’s no more improper than your average sporting event tailgate party.

Beer is the beverage of choice for most uptown parade-goers (unless you catch the “merry band of hipsters” called Box of Wine, who march carrying the eponymous boxes giving free pours to anyone with a cup) and New Orleans open container laws prohibit glass, so cans are the norm. This gave me an opportunity to catch up on the state of brewing in Louisiana (and beyond) by trying a few canned craft beers that I can’t easily get in Texas. In the interest of curbside refreshment between bouts of scrounging for plastic trinkets thrown from motor vehicles, I gravitated towards pale ales.

Louisiana doesn’t have as extensive a craft beer culture as Texas does, but it’s growing. I’m excited to watch it from afar, since the seeds of my love for craft beer were sown during my formative years in the Crescent City. Fittingly, the control for my taste test was an IPA I know well: Jockamo IPA from Abita Brewing in Abita Springs, Louisiana. This is the brewery that started it all for me; Abita Turbodog and Amber were the first craft brews I ever tasted in the mid-nineties. Today, Abita is the elder statesman of New Orleans craft brewing: ubiquitous and familiar. Extensive and experienced, they brew beer of consistently better quality than any other Louisiana brewery I’ve tried, but their beer isn’t very exciting. They play it safe in recipe creation, offering beers that can be summed up with simple descriptors like “dark” or “bitter” and skewing heavily towards fruit beers – all for the purpose (I believe) of not alienating a market that’s still bi-curious about craft beer. Someone has to do it, and I’m glad they’re taking one for the team by serving as the gateway to craft beer for an entire state. But I haven’t been wowed by them in some time. Jockamo IPA I find very sweet, a bit too raisiny from the interplay of IPA-level hops with too much dark crystal malt (a common flaw in American IPAs, so maybe it’s just me). It’s bitter but has little aroma. It’s not bad, and I can drink a couple at 6.5% ABV, so I’m always happy to find a six-pack of it at Rouses. But it’s not spectacular either.

My second tasting was another 6.5% ABV IPA from relative upstart NOLA Brewing. NOLA seems to be catching on better than any other brewery in the city limits, and that’s great news for anyone who loves New Orleans. The brewers at NOLA seem to have a passion for their craft, offering a varied assortment from a simple blonde ale that I haven’t tried but I’m told is the best in town, to more trendy advanced offerings like a saison and smoked ale. However, I happen to find their output rather inconsistent, and I think their hop-forward offerings skew too much toward inappropriately extreme IBUs in lieu of flavor and aroma. Hopitoulas IPA (named for the notoriously tongue-twisting Tchoupitoulas (“chop-it-TOOL-us”) Street in New Orleans where the brewery is situated) was no different. It was bitter, resiny, and unbalanced. It’s not hard to drink, exactly, but it has little to recommend it over even something as prosaic as Jockamo, unless you want to support smaller breweries. Okay, yeah, I do too. And I will. But I’d feel better if I could find a NOLA Brewing beer I actually love. I’ll keep looking.

The brightest light in my Mardi Gras pale ale flight came unexpectedly from outside the state, from Southern Prohibition Brewing in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Mississippi has until recently been a desert for craft beer, with no packaging brewery operating in the state from Prohibition to 2003 (Lazy Magnolia). But a handful of new breweries across the state and the legalization of homebrewing last year suggest hope is springing for Mississippians. Devil’s Harvest Pale Ale caught me by surprise, coming from a brewery I – shamefully – had never heard of before last week and being so astonishingly freaking good. Bright and light, crisp and clean, with a citrus-pine aroma and a ton of lemony flavor. It was fantastically easy to drink (good thing it’s only 5.8% ABV). Southern Prohibition boasts Munich in its recipe rather than crystal malt, and they have definitely struck gold. I would gladly order Devil’s Harvest in a bar, even over an old favorite like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Again, we gotta support the little guys. But in the case of Southern Prohibition, I have no reservations about doing so. They clearly know what they’re doing, and I can’t wait until I’m back in a place where they’re sold, so I can try their beer again.

On-Tap Recap: Black Sunday

I’ve been doing these On-Tap Recap posts documenting my weekend beer tasting adventures for a few weeks now, and it seems I’ve just been reviewing bottled beers from my home cellar. I haven’t actually posted a review of anything on tap. Guess that’s my bad, but I do have a good excuse. With a small child at home to take care of, I just don’t make it out to the pubs like I used to. For the most part, I drink what I can drink at home.

Luckily for me, my adopted home town of Austin has many pockets of craft brew indoctrination, with more popping up all the time. Craft brew taps are appearing in the unlikeliest places, and so it’s getting easier for even a boring old homebody like me to get a pint. One such unlikely place is the Happy Trails Saloon at the Whole Foods Market a mile from my house. Springing from the floor of the store like an oasis in the desert, halfway between the pizza counter and a refrigerator case stocked with hummus in little plastic tubs, Happy Trails is a bar with about a dozen taps, four devoted to wine and the rest to a rotating selection of craft beers from the likes of local heroes Austin Beerworks, Hops & Grain and Adelbert’s to national favorites like Southern Tier and Ballast Point. Here the weary grocery shopper can take a break with a beer and food from either the Happy Trails pub menu or from any shelf or counter in the store (including the esteemed pizza counter).

This Sunday, halfway through our weekly family grocery trip, we stopped at Happy Trails, bolted the baby’s high chair to a table and let him bat his eyes adorably at Whole Foods employees and customers while he munched finger foods and we relaxed with slices of mushroom pizza and a couple of pints.

First up, a Baltic porter from Hops & Grain’s Greenhouse rotating line of experimental beers. This beer, I was told, was made with Whole Foods’ in-house roasted Allegro coffee. The coffee was noticeable, but mostly a background flavor in a very smooth, smoky black porter. Medium body with a lot of flavor, not too much alcohol, and not syrupy or thick. Great for an afternoon pizza break with the weather outside getting into the 70’s.

Next, a Southern Tier 2XSTOUT. Much as I love (almost) everything I’ve had from Southern Tier, and as fond as I am of milk stout, this one was a little anticlimactic after the Baltic porter. It was smooth and sweet, what I want out of a milk stout, and a good example of the style. But next to something as complex as Baltic porter, a milk stout was like a blunt object, beating me over the head with malt/sweet instead of the nuanced profile of the previous beer.

Really, the true star of this story is not either of the beers I drank, but the location. Good beer and good food right in the middle of a market I visit once or twice a week? That gives me hope that maybe the pub life isn’t behind me after all.

On-Tap Recap: My Beery Valentine

Friday was Valentine’s Day. While couples around the world were struggling through “romantic” evenings out at crowded restaurants with overpriced bottles of red wine or bubbly, Mr. and Mrs. Zyme Lord celebrated ours with a home-cooked meal and a pair of bombers.

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Insert your own Barry White-ish “Awww yeah.”

Dinner was a pair of 12-ounce dry aged New York strip steaks served alongside grilled lobster tails (special thanks to the Texas weather, which warmed up enough on Friday to allow me to grill both the steak and the lobster to perfection in the backyard). We rounded out the meal with oven-roasted fingerling potatoes and grilled broccolini, and a bottle of Boulevard Brewing Company Bourbon Barrel Quad. Based on their year-round Smokestack Series offering The Sixth Glass, the Bourbon Barrel Quad was a strong-but-smooth take on the barrel aged concept, and I liked the result. Unlike so many of the barrel aged stout and porter offerings that pair heavy malt notes with heavy barrel flavors, the quad was a well-balanced canvas for the palette of barrel flavors. Vanilla and toffee notes overlay a cherry tinted beer with pleasantly subdued residual sugars that was neither slick nor thick. There was bourbon booziness there, but nowhere near what I expected from a bottle proclaiming an ABV of 11.8%. And I can’t imagine a better pairing for surf-and-turf, with bourbon and dark crystal malt complementing the lightly-seasoned aged beef, and cherry and toffee accentuating the sweetness of the lobster.

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Boulevard Bourbon Barrel Aged Quad.

For dessert, a few Swiss chocolate truffles found love with a bomber of Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence. Yeah, I know, truffles aren’t a very “beer guy” kind of dessert, but dudes – if we can’t explore our softer sides on Valentine’s Day, when can we? I didn’t really feel self-confident eating dessert from a heart-shaped pink box, but then I never pass up a chance to eat candy. As for the beer, I was cautiously optimistic when I popped the cork. I’ve always been skeptical of so-called “Belgian stouts”, and it seems like chocolate beers are everywhere I look these days … most of them pretty good, but you never know when the trend is going to jump the shark. Fortunately, although Chocolate Indulgence wasn’t the best chocolate beer I’ve had recently, it delivered with Ommegang-worthy uniqueness. Perle hops and Belgian yeast imparted a light, fresh note that lifted the chocolate stout up in a way that would have made it the wrong pairing for a triple chocolate cake, but that worked well with the whole spectrum of European chocolates.

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Ommegang Chocolate Indulgence.

A perfectly romantic evening achieved, and not a wine glass in sight. Thanks to the creativity and passion of modern craft brewers, we live in an age where we can treat ourselves to excellent beer pairings for both our dinner and dessert courses. Now if I can just come up with a homebrew that pairs with conversation hearts …

On-Tap Recap: Two shout-outs to stouts

Monday. It gets a bad rap for bringing to an end all that fun we had for two-sevenths of each week. As though Monday is personally responsible, as though it rose up out of the shadows of the future to personally smother the weekend in the prime of its youth with a lumpy, off-white pillow.

Now I hate the moon’s day as much as the next guy. But I’m changing that starting today by giving myself – and hopefully you – a reason to look forward to Mondays. What is this gift, you ask? Why, nothing less (or more) than the vicarious and voyeuristic thrill of hearing about some beers I drank over the weekend.

Excited yet? I am. Let’s begin.

Sunday was brew day. To get myself going, I started with breakfast at home: scrambled eggs and center-cut bacon cooked perfectly by the gal I love while I made these yeasted brown butter waffles from Bon Appétit magazine. They’re the best waffles I’ve ever eaten, easy to prepare – most of the work is done the night before – and they go great with real maple syrup or mixed-berry compote (for an added brewer’s-breakfast touch, I sometimes have mine with homemade barley malt syrup).

I discovered they also went wonderfully with a Founders Breakfast Stout. I hoarded a few bottles of this October-December seasonal offering, and these were unfortunately the last, but I will be brewing this clone recipe from Brew Your Own in the very near future. There’s just something about this beer I can’t get enough of. Is it the childlike joy of having the flavor and aroma of chocolate on my palate first thing in the morning? The silky smoothness of satisfying oats? Or the skillful use of coffee in exactly the right amount to achieve a perfect balance of bitter with sweet, no mean feat for an ingredient as easy to overdo as coffee? I don’t know, but it’s sublime. At 8.3% ABV, it’s a wake-up of the most pleasant kind. I wouldn’t recommend getting it in your mouth before that first bite of waffle, but I won’t judge you if you do.

After the grain dust had settled on my brew day and my blood orange witbier wort (details to follow later this week) was safely locked away in its fermentation chamber, I went on a mission for Indian take-out: chicken tikka masala and saag aloo. I paired this with a bomber of Ballast Point Indra Kunindra, a 7% ABV India-style export stout with curry, cumin, cayenne, coconut, and kaffir lime leaf (say that list of ingredients five times fast). Ballast Point is a brewery I’m still getting acquainted with, having only had their Sculpin IPA … but Indra Kunindra was such a unique idea I was looking forward to trying it. The curry and kaffir lime came through with a noticeable fresh/tart/hot burst, but the export stout at the beer’s base was just too middle-of-the-road for the aromatics overlying it. It might have worked better as a fuller bodied sweet stout (with more residual sugar to bring out the coconut and lime) or even as a dry stout (with more roast to accentuate the spices). As it was, it just felt dissonant. It didn’t go all that well with the food, either. The spices and aromatics were analogous, but the stout demanded a heartier protein pairing. My favorite Indian spot doesn’t do beef curry, so I’ll stick with IPA for my next take-out.

Sadly, I missed out on the hat trick by not being able to make it up to one of my favorite weekend stout spots: Pinthouse Pizza Craft Brewpub. Late last week they tapped The Big Lebarrelski, a special offering on both nitro and CO2 of their White Russian Imperial Stout (“The Dude” – definitely my favorite stout in Austin) aged in Four Roses Bourbon barrels. Here’s hoping they still have some next weekend. If they do, I’ll tell you all about it next Monday …