Review: Peeper Ale

Today’s been a beer day for me for some reason.  That may be because last night I discovered that Netflix had the cancelled Discover Channel show “Brew Masters” available for streaming.  The show, released in 2010 only had a 6 episode run before being cancelled.  Some say that the show was cancelled because in following around Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head, the network had brought down the sound and the fury of the big brewers.  Regardless of what happened it was a decent show, and I binge watched the whole series today.  That made me thirsty.  Fortunately, stashed away for such a thirst is a bottle of Maine Beer Companies “Peeper Ale” APA, which brings me to today’s post.

This beer came to be in my fridge because my dad had purchased it based on some scuttle-butt about how great it was, and being the generous man he is, he bought it for me.  What first struck me about the bout is the very simple aesthetic.  From Riverhorse’s awesome hippos to the Ralph Steadman work on Flying Dog’s label and beyond it seems that craft beer marketing has brought label art to great new places, and I think that Maine Beer’s understated label for Peeper Ale, clean typography and a little stick frog, is just as striking.  It reminds me of Picasso’s drawing of Don Quixote.  Perhaps I’m going too far into this, but I think the label is a metaphor for what lies behind it: a clean and simple beauty. Peeper pours a hazy lemon yellow with a beautiful head that leaves an equally elegant lacing.  The flavors are crisp and light, a bit of biscuit from the malts and a very balanced hop profile that starts out with a tiny bit of lemon and finishes with a slightly bitter floral taste reminiscent of lavender.   This is a perfect beer for a summer day, or a summer night when the peeper’s it draws its name from chirps out its brief bliss. This is a simple, elegant APA that will wipe the sweat from your brow.  Weighing in at 5.5% this would make a fine session beer to get you through a hot day, if you afford to do that.  Unfortunately, this review probably comes at the wrong time as the brisk winds just blew into New England warning us that winter is coming with a vengeance, and with it the season of porters and stouts, but with the woodstove cranked up I still need refreshment.  So tonight Peeper Ale is my last nod to the mild beginnings of fall, and I couldn’t have picked a finer beer to do it with.

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Cooperstown Chronicles: Brewery Ommegang

If you read my article on James E. Pepper Rye you’ll know that I recently visited Cooperstown, NY to visit my girlfriend at grad school.  We like to go to breweries, because my girlfriend is awesome and likes to drink good beer and eat delicious food with me.  Maybe she’s just humoring me.  Anyways, just outside Cooperstown happens to be Brewery Ommegang—perhaps you’ve seen their beer, it’s omnipresent in bottle shops and even grocery stores in something like 43 states.  If you’ve ever experimented with craft beer it probably began with a bomber of Hennepin or Three Philosophers and led to borderline alcoholism, a beer gut, and the inability to enjoy anything that comes in a red, white and blue can (expect Dale’s Pale Ale).  I’d had several Ommegang offerings in the past and found them very enjoyable, so I was looking forward to this trip.  I’m not going to go too deep into what I drank, what it tasted like and all that jazz—go buy some and try for yourself you budding beer genius.  What this article is all about is the lowdown on what a visit to Ommegang is like.

After a drive through the winding roads of the New York countryside you arrive at Ommegang, driving through an archway declaring the dates of the first Ommegang festival in Belgium, and the opening of Brewery Ommegang.  The parking lot was filled with the interstate license plates of beer pilgrims, and on approaching the pub and shop you see Ommegang’s experimental hop vines growing on the rolling hillsides of their beautiful grounds(apparently the area used to be the American hop hub in the 1800’s before a blight settled in that remains to this day.)  The shop was a buzz of activity as we signed up for the $3 tasting and the free tour, and settled into shopping while we awaited our tasting time.  There was a lot of cool stuff in the shop, from the standard: shirts, limited release beers, and a fantastic glassware selection, to the more creative: beer based cheeses, spreads, and mustards.  I bought a glass, because I love glassware.  The tasting session was great, something like 6 beers were served to us in our little complimentary glasses and there was a spread of pretzels and the aforementioned spreadables for us to snack on as the knowledgeable staff gave us all the stats on the beers we were drinking.  It was a good time, with just the right amount of information to satisfy the geeks and a solid background for the less initiated.  I do have one gripe though: the beer.  The Ommegang that you buy in your bottle shop has been sitting around in a bottle with yeast, what we call bottle conditioning, and that means it’s sitting there getting smoother, more complex, and more delicious.  In the tasting, or at a bar, Ommegang is often in a keg, force carbonated.  I’m not just being a snob here; it was a very noticeable difference, so I recommend seeking Ommegang out in bottles.  Anyways, the tour of the brewery was pretty standard, with some interesting facts about how their relationship with Belgian brewery Duvel blossomed from an initial 40% investment to a friendly full ownership.  By the end of the tour I was quite hungry and of course thirsty, so we proceeded to the eatery.

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Between the two glasses I got there I can hold one 12 oz beer!

The café is a rather unique experience for an American restaurant, with large communal tables that encourage meeting your fellow beer pilgrims as you slowly (or quickly based on Ommegang ABVs) lose any reservations you may have about having dinner with strangers.  The beer menu, as expected, is full of Ommegang’s best: on tap, in the bottle, standards and ultra-special editions all included.  M’lady boldly ordered their excellent “Wild at Heart” ale that happens to be one of those rare offerings.  I had a beer on tap, probably wisely because her bottle cost $25 due to its special status.  The food was also great, as you’d expect from a brewery that has a beer and food pairing section on their website.  They even have Belgian waffles, which I barely resisted ordering for dinner.  Anyways, the café was a great end to a great time at Brewery Ommegang.   The place was basically designed to serve the beer pilgrim, and from what I understand they host tons of great events and concerts to keep the people happy, if the beer isn’t enough for you.  So if you’re one of those people going to Cooperstown for the baseball stuff or the scenery, go to Ommegang, get a good meal and a nice beer. Then stock up on glassware and beer cheeses.

Review: James E. Pepper 1776 Rye

Over the long weekend I paid a visit over to Cooperstown, NY to see my girl and dig the town.  I know what you’re thinking—and I don’t really blame you for it—baseball.  Well in spite of my All-American appetite for liquor, I’m not much of a fan of America’s pastime  I’ll play it, but that’s as far as my interest goes, so I avoided the museum and all that bat and ball capitalism and made my first stop a liquor store.  Actually, two of them.  It was 10 am and the girl was in a meeting, what’s a boy to do?  Anyways, this is where I met the star of this show—James E. Pepper and his 100 proof and thoroughly patriotic 1776 Rye Whiskey.  I may not like baseball much but damn do I love rye.  I’ll admit this bottle reached out to the historian in me with its “aged” label and an evocation of the American Revolution I was only too willing to buy into in a town that once served as a camp for the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign during the war.  So I dropped the hammer at around $27 bucks, and now I imagine you’re wondering—do I regret it?

No, of course not, because money may not always buy happiness but it can always buy tastiness, and friends, James E. Pepper is that.  Apparently the Pepper family started making rye in 1776 and continued doing so until around prohibition, and supposedly this whiskey is the result of the extensive study of studies of the original Pepper Rye.  The odds of me getting my hands on pre-prohibition Pepper are pretty low, so I can only tell you what I taste here.  First off this whiskey is pretty hot, which is no surprise at 100 proof, and fortunately I find it’s that sweet spot of bold heat that doesn’t over-power the underlying flavors.  This is particularly good because there are some great flavors in here.  Of course there’s the obligatory rye spice and, dare I say, pepper—but there’s also some sweet honey that plays in both taste and consistency on my palate.  There’s something else here, something I find a bit unusual…is that peppermint?  Damn, another pepper pun: but there really is some soft and almost refreshing peppermint that lingers oh so sweetly near the end of a good quaff.  This is quite pleasant, easy sippin’ rye, perfect for a crisp autumn day on Lake Otsego reading with a lovely lady at your side.  So, while the history nerd in me may have bought this because of a likely exaggerated history based marketing scheme, the drinker in me has quite enjoyed this reigniting of the Pepper family brand and wishes them many more years of history making hooch.

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Also note: I am drinking this out of an unusual choice of glassware—perhaps that portends a coming article on a visit to Ommegang brewery?

Review: Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon

This is an exciting review for me because Four Roses is new to my region; just hit the shelves of the NH State Liquor Stores this week at about $25 a bottle.  This bottle, however, is not my first.  The summer after I graduated college I was on a road trip from California to New Hampshire with one of my closest comrades, and he had a bottle of Four Roses.  Thing was, he didn’t like it all that much.  At the time I believe he was very accustomed to drinking his bourbon almost exclusively in old-fashioneds or neat, and to him the Four Roses was too hot to be enjoyable for either.  If you’ve read any of these posts you’ll know that I took that as a challenge, and I think I traded for the bottle or something.  I have the vague memory of enjoying the bottle, though I suspect it fell victim to the first round of swigging madness upon a late night / early morning arrival into Lake Tahoe.  Anyways, that was my background for this bottle, and I was quite pleased for a reunion when my dad brought it into the door for ritual sacrifice to the son god.

Perhaps you’re reading this because you want to know what I think about this bourbon, rather than just to listening to my mutterings of blurred memories.  So here it goes.  First of all, I want to take a moment to ruminate on the uniqueness of the process by which Four Roses is made.  Since the brand was revived in the early 2000s Four Roses has made 10 different bourbons, and this small batch (from my understanding) is a mixture of 4 of those bourbons.  So it’s a blend.  I like to think, however, that this isn’t a blend in the way a cheap scotch blend is, but closer to a vintner’s meritage, carefully blended and tasted not to create a more consistent product, but a better, more balanced and complex one.  Now for the product of this process: the first impressions are good, rich color and an even richer nose, sweet and surprisingly light with a soft pear like fruitiness and the ever present vanilla expressions of the bourbon barrel.  Drank neat this bourbon is very mellow and warm to my palate, with a mellow caramel flavor and a great oily mouthfeel that lingers to expose some of the more delicate flavors like the soft spice, and slight blueberry like fruit notes.  While it isn’t hot to me like my friend once thought, it’s certainly pleasantly warm and leaves that warmth all along its path as it goes down to settle in and bring you that lovely buzz.  Overall this is extremely smooth and well balanced bourbon to my tastes, but perhaps this is just this “small batch.”  While I love high rye, spicy, and combative bourbon, this is exceptionally easy drinking and pleasant. But maybe my friend was right way back when and I’ve just driven my palate to the brink.  Regardless, if finances and NH State Liquor Commission stocking permits, I’d love to explore more of the many offering Four Rose has.  Somehow this bourbon has exceeded my foggy memories, and with its mellow warmth it has helped to ease my mind by the warm fire of a fall night, far away from our first excited, chaotic and fateful meeting.Imageon

Review: E&J XO Brandy

I’m pretty sure I’ve loved brandy since my first sip of cognac Courvoisier. There are many reasons I loved cognac. It’s a brown liquor, and brown is my favorite color.  Besides, as Ron Swanson says “Clear liquors are for rich women on diets,” though I do like gin with breakfast personally. Now, I don’t remember when that first sip was, but I do know that I’ve spent a lot of money on cognac since then, and my dad has spent a lot of money on cognac’s sweet cousin of the south, Armagnac—which I promptly drank most of.  I’ve loved every drop, shit’s not cheap though.  Even regular VS Courvoisier, about as cheap as it gets, runs in the mid $20s—that money just goes further on bourbon, so that’s what I drink mostly.  However, while reading an article on another alcohol related webpage (this one) I determined, well, perhaps it’s worth trying American brandy.  After all, there are great California wines and brandy is made from grapes too.  The aforementioned article reviews Paul Masson brandies, and I had one of the one’s they mentioned some time ago.  Apparently my subconscious doesn’t remember that as a tragic experience because when I saw that E&J, a brand not known for great brandy, had an XO at around $14 my brain thought I could make a wonderful article out of this.  I’ll let you read the above article for why you should give American brandy a try.  I’m just going to talk about the stuff in the bottle in front of me because this is a review inspired by a concept piece that’s already been written by a far more respectable spirits journalist.  I’m a young guy who drinks hooch and babbles on a keyboard.

Before I get started here’s a brief primer on the rating system used for brandies, so you know what the hell XO means.  I’m stealing this from Wikipedia, as it appears every other article on the subject did.

  • A.C.: aged two years in wood.
  • V.S.: “Very Special” or 3-Star, aged at least three years in wood.
  • V.S.O.P.: “Very Superior Old Pale” or 5-Star, aged at least five years in wood.
  • X.O.: “Extra Old” aged at least six years in wood.
  • Vintage: Stored in the cask until the time it is bottled with the label showing the vintage date.
  • Hors d’age: These are too old to determine the age, although ten years plus is typical

So you see, XO is the high grade shit.  You’ll recall I bought this XO for $14, and yes, that’s insane.  There’s a reason for that.  This is not the kind of brandy that world conquerors drink by their fire while plotting the exploitation of the proletariat and smoking a Cuban cigar that was custom made for them by an old man they promptly killed.  Actually, it might be, I suspect Karl Rove is a cheap sonuvabitch. So what is this brandy like? First off, it has a sweet and slightly astringent nose that reminds me almost of apple jack, but when you sip it there’s a whole different thing going on.  First things first, props—this is quite complex for something so cheap.  The most dominant flavor is vanilla which arrives in shocking proportions, something I’ve never tasted in a brandy, though it makes sense because XO’s get a lot of barrel time.  Also present are brown sugar (demerara, as the fancy people may say) and shockingly something similar to a little maple syrup.  What’s good is this does taste like brandy, and it is quite smooth—it doesn’t suffer from that bitter burnt note that pretty much all cheap, and even some more expensive, brandies and cognacs can get.  But I suspect that’s because vanilla has a tendency to be pretty smooth.  I’m not being very clear here.  That’s because I’m not sure what my brain is thinking either.  On the one hand it’s nice to drink some brandy, it’s been a while and brandy is oh so pleasant and warm in my brain.  On the other hand, this isn’t the Armagnac of days gone by; it’s $14 dollar brandy.  Then again, it’s fucking $14 dollars—and it tastes reasonably good.  Sure, the barrel sweetness and vanilla seem to be masking some less savory flavors, and even distracting from some of the good distilled grape, but hell $14 dollar brandy.  At that price it’s acceptable to mix it with things.  College kids, go ahead, put sprite or some shit in with it. Me, I suspect this would even make a decent sidecar.  Wait; do I have the ingredients to test that theory? Damn, no lemons.  Anyways, the point remains the same.  You a little bit broke? You have $14, you can get a classic and wonderful bottle of Old Grandad, which is always a great choice–but if you want brandy, it’s $14.  Give E&J a chance, it’ll satisfy that brandy hankerin’ and temporarily cure your sobriety based problems.

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I know haven’t been keeping up the site to my best ability but I’ve got a couple booze articles stewing right now–as in I better get to it before I kill those bottles–and once I get a day off and get to ease my mind into it I’ll get those to you.

In the meantime here is some fantastic footage of Mississippi Fred McDowell playing “Going Down to the River.” It’s visceral, raw blues of the finest form with the vocal delivery of a man possessed and the devil howls from the bowels of his guitar. What possesses Fred? Well of course a woman, and the pain of longing aching desperation that’ll drive a man to madness.