Saturday, January 28, 2012

Alpha Beer Event at Local 22

The latest beer event in my uber-exciting life was last week when I attended the Alpha Beer VII event at Local 22 Bar on Hubbard Street.  Yes, that’s 22 E. Hubbard.  Cool name.  Chicago website has put on a series of these beer tastings designed to educate someone not terribly familiar with microbrews about the styles and flavors of craft beer.   For the event they assembled 26 beers organized alphabetically by either the brewery's or beer's name.   They deserve a hat tip for filling the Q and X slots.  Chef Jill Houk, noted as a home brewer, was the master of ceremonies and broadcasted information about each round of beers.   Here are my thoughts about the event, organized by the beers I tried, ranked worst to first:

 26.   Shock Top

I was stunned to see Shock Top on a craft brew list given its wide availability due to its Budweiser family tree.  In the movie Beer Wars, which you should see, they showed how Anhauser-Busch - I love calling them Bud - would outmuscle microbrewers by putting out a product that was similar to a particular style of a microbrewer's beer, such as a pumpkin beer.  Bud would saturate the market with it and put up all kinds of in-bar or in-store marketing.  The beer was usually bad but that was never the point. The idea was to scare the consumer straight - straight back to Bud products (really, what's wrong with these people not drinking Bud).  They'd try whatever ham water Bud was peddling and it would turn them off to the style, and, therefore, turn them off to the craft brewer's take on the style that was probably pretty good. 

Belgian white Shock Top isn't that bad - it's not good - but it won't remind you too much of the good Belgian whites that are out there, the most widely available being Allagash White.  Shock Top is just a light, watery forgettable take on the style that captures a piece of the market for Bud.  Its presence on the Alpha Beer menu clued you in that this wasn't exactly going to be Dark Lord Day.

25.  Bell's Orsman Ale
24.   Quilmes

Brutal.  That's how I'd describe Bell's Oarsman.  It was like drinking sour Minute Maid lemonade mixed with soap.  The sad part is that they intended it to be this way.  Honestly, this might have been the actual worst beer of the night.  But, come on.   Shock Top?   You don’t get points for trying there.

The Quilmes is down here because it's the one beer I honestly remember nothing about.  My beer list was missing a page and I tried it out of order.  If I recall, it was a lighter lager that was a break from the heavier material before and after it.

This is a good place to add that Local 22 was a poor venue choice for this particular event.  The bar itself is a rather cool, divey hangout with a bit of a South Side edge despite its River North address.  Noise was a major detractor.  It was nearly impossible to hear Houk say her 5 or 6 sentences about each round of beer that they brought to you in tiny cups that looked like the salsa containers at your local taqueria.  Listening to Jill was sort of like this:

“Bell’s Double  .    .     .   lovely   .   .   .  and the best part of it is  .  .  .    and did you know that they use 5 pounds of .   .   . That’s what makes it taste like .  .  . Scooby Doo.” 
What?  She didn’t actually say most of that but you get the idea.  The tables were spread out and could not be moved so that everyone could easily face the speaker.  John Freyer, Sales Agent from Founders, whom I met there as the highlight of my evening, had to travel from table to table to expound on the intricacies of Founders Imperial Stout.  Information flow was pretty fragmented.

The service was a plus.  Our server was polite, prompt, and friendly (we couldn’t hear her either).   One fellow in our group asked her for extra samples of the Founders Imperial Stout and she responded that they had two left.  He said, “we’ll be having those” in a voice that sounded like he was saying “My dear, you’re going to bring those to us and no one else is going to touch them.”  She promptly obliged.  Funny stuff.

23.  Bell's Amber Ale
22.   Goose Island Honker's Ale
21.   Gooose Island IPA
20.   5 Rabbit 5 Lizard
19.   Emmet’s McCarthy Red

Bell’s Amber has had a fall more tragic than Hamlet.  I remember drinking it back in Cincinnati around 10 years ago when it was about my favorite beer. As Bell’s, a legendary brewer, has expanded, so has the amount of water in Bell’s Amber, or so it seems.  Honker’s does not quite seem what it used to be either.  Goose IPA is everywhere in New York.  That beer’s coverage in that market is amazing.

I don’t know what to do yet with 5 Rabbit but they’re an interesting entrant into the market.  All of their beers have a Corona-con-lime based flavor.  5 Lizard is not exactly good but remarkably interesting.  Emmet’s is a suburban brewery.  McCarthy Red has a strong astringency that detracted from the mildly barley-like flavor.  

18.   Argus California Steam
17.   Central Waters Mud Puppy Porter
16.    Metropolitan Iron Works Alt
15.    Emmet’s Victory Pale Ale
14.    Capital U.S. Pale Ale
13.    Zatecky Gus
12.    Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout

I give style points to the Alpha Beer organizers.  That is, I give them credit for providing an extensive range of styles.  Argus is another local whose California Steam beer (shhhh! “Steam” is an Anchor mark) is astringent with a back palate maltiness. It’s much creamier than Local Option’s excellent Dampf Loc.  Mud Puppy Porter is far too thin and fails to deliver the richness I like in a porter.  Plus, it’s not creamy enough to be as satisfying as some of the lighter English style porters out there. 

Metropolitan has a great rep.  They’re said to be super friendly.  Even their beers, all lagers, seem friendly and inviting.  The Ironworks Alt practically glistened on your palate with freshness and carried a touch of fruitiness.  Captial’s Pale Ale trumped Emmet’s Victory Pale Ale in delivering sharp, fresh, hop crispness.  The Zatecky hails from Russia and is a light lager to enjoy in between your Russian imperial stouts.  Quite lively.  You got a lot of smoke on the nose of Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout and its flavor did not betray your senses.  A tinge of astringency was in the finish.

11.   O’Fallon Wheach

I don’t know much about O’Fallon. I know they make a smoked beer I’ve yet to try.  This one resembled apricot/peach juice merged with mellow hops.  Does that sound like a good thing to you?  Um, yeah.  I have this ranked too high.  I need to take its stapler from it and put it in the basement office space. 

10.   Rogue XS Younger’s Special Bitter
9.    New Holland Charkoota Rye
8.    Young’s Double Chocolate Stout

I went through about a year’s long love affair with Rogue Dead Guy Ale.   When I first started drinking it, I was new to hops and this was about the hoppiest beer available.  You didn’t see IPA’s on local tap handles back then.  Now Dead Guy Ale tastes like cleaning products.  Most everything Rogue brews is way over-the-top and out of balance.  I’m not surprised that the Special Bitter has mammoth hops and is excessively sweet.  Only Rogue could make an ESB this insane. 

New Holland’s Charkoota Rye had a nice peaty, smoky flavor in a medium body.  Young’s Double Chocolate Stout was a favorite of mine at The Duke of Perth back in the day and still pleases with a touch of creaminess, housed in a light body that’s typically English. 

7.   Goose Island Juliet

I wonder what will be said of Goose Island in 5 years.  They continue to push the boundaries of their Belgian/traditional European brewing lineup beyond what most others are doing.  This was an especially creamy sour with a deviously infused layer of blackberries that was sharp with bright acidity. It was finished in cabernet barrels.  

6.   Bell’s Double Cream Stout
5.   Two Brothers Northwinds Stout

This was quite a pleasant duo of stouts.   Oops!  Alpha Beer got our first batch of Bell's Double Cream Stout wrong and replaced it just as I was making scathing notes.  It had medium density, a milky finish and a firm hop base.  Northwinds is a big, dry stout with a moderate body solidly grounded in hops with a somewhat barley flavor.

4.   Flossmoor Station Pullman Brown Ale
3.   Revolution Eugene Porter

These two locals delivered the goods.  I don’t see the Pullman Brown often enough.  It is one of the 2 or 3 best brown ales in the country.  The carbonation and robust nutty flavor never let it slip into ho hum brown ale territory.  Revolution’s porter is a beauty on a standard tap as well as a cask pour.  Its mouthfeel is rich and dense and it's free of smoke or sweetness.  Eugene brushes your palate with swaths of coffee, chocolate, and hints of caramel.

2.   Metropolitan Generator

Every beer event has one, and this was our surprise of the night.  I wasn’t sure if Metropolitan was going to expand from their core set of lagers into more adventurous territory, but they have started to do so.  And they have a huge hit with this delicious dopplebock.  It was cloudy and dark amber colored; and with its thick body it brought you nuttiness, some fruit, a yeastiness, a bit of bittering, and a pleasant sweetness.  I hope this hints at greatness to come from this brewer.

1.   Founders Imperial Stout

This was the sixth beer of the night and might as well have been last.  It would have been had they not been constrained by the alphabetizing.  At the point we tried this, my buddy and I agreed that it would be the best beer we would have all night. It was.  That’s no insult to many of the other beers.  This is an elegant beer destined to outclass everything except the elite, hard-to-find, rare, and limited release beers out there.  The nose is roasty, the mouthfeel dense, the body viscous, and the dominant flavors are coffee, nuttiness, dark chocolate, and barley.  I’ve got one waiting in my fridge, so this is goodbye. 

But, before I go, my final thought is that if you are new to craft beer and you want to gain an idea of the various styles of beermaking, this is not a bad event to attend.   It is not worth attending if you have advanced knowledge, are looking for rarities (although the Founders was a score), or you actually want to hear the guest of honor.  If you want to better I.D. what’s on the beer list at DMK without having to ask for samples, this is your event. 

Another Alpha Beer event is scheduled to occur, I believe, in April. 

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