Archive | July, 2012

Burp Castle. A speak-easy for beer lovers?

26 Jul

So a few years back, Mayor Bloomberg declared July to be “Good Beer Month,” in New York City, due to a campaign from a few specialty craft beer bar owners who wanted to have their devotion to carefully selecting good beers (domestic craft/specialty imported) in their independently run establishments to stand out.  With this decree, all beer bars that fit the specified criteria receive the “Good Beer Seal,” of approval, a red insignia marked with a sea lion holding a beer.  This sea lion obviously has good taste.  Why one month should be devoted to good craft beer I’m not sure, as I devote all months of the year to craft beer, but anyway, it’s a great excuse to plan craft beer-centric events and visit all these good beer bars, even including a few in the outer boroughs!  (Hooray to my home borough of Staten Island finally being included, with not one, but two local favorites!). 

One of the originators of this movement was Jimmy Carbone, owner of Jimmy’s No. 43 in the East Village.  Having never visited until tonight, this place seemed like a legend—a sanctuary of good beer, an untouchable fountain of specialty ales and great ideas (as well as great food).  Needless to say, I was not disappointed.  But right next door lies another “Good Seal” bar, Burp Castle.  Before descending down the stairs of Jimmy’s No. 43, we stopped in for a few beverages at the “Temple of Beer Worship.” 

After my recent visit to Cooperstown and the Ommegang brewery, I seem to be recently bitten by the Belgian beer bug.  While I have always appreciated this diverse style of tripels, dubbels and even quadrupels, and the more recent emerging popularity of Flanders-style Oud Bruins (sours), and wild ales, having never been to Belgium to revel in the first-hand experience, I am limited to what New York has to offer.  And I have to say, that’s quite a lot these days.  While more and more Belgian-themed beer bars seem to be popping up all over this city lately, one of the first, and I would say, well known, is this oddly named testament to good brews. 

I’ve heard a lot of people refer to this joint as a “shush-bar,” like it’s a genre that actually exists.  But I feel like it may be a term intended solely for this place, in that at any time that the noise level rises above a happy medium, the bartender will respond with a gentle “shhhhhhhhhhhh,” very much like your old librarian in grade school.  Now, while at first this may seem be a bit insulting—after all, this is a bar, right?  I can make as much noise as I want!  It’s actually well respected and very much appreciated.  Look, this is not a bar you bring your old frat brothers or sorority sisters from college—there are plenty of places just around the block for that.  This is a place where people bring dates or actually sit and read a book while enjoying a great beer.  The shushing allows the noise level to remain at a low level, and hell, maybe even to enjoy your beer even more.  Needless to say, I didn’t feel like a complete weird-o taking notes while sitting in the quiet atmosphere.        

So whether the genre exists or not or this is just another gimmick or “theme bar,” it really doesn’t matter.  Because people who venture here are usually already aware of the shushing or will find out soon enough, and the beer selection is always pretty decent.  I like to start off my night here (they open weekdays at 5 pm and on the weekends, at 4) and move on from there.  Ideally, it will be a Sunday, Monday, or Wednesday night, when “frites,” from nearby Pomme Frites will be placed at the end of the bar and one can help themselves to a paper plate full with a variety of dipping sauces to add to the double-fried potato deliciousness.  Not only tasty, the Belgian style fries are good for “soaking up” alcohol and allow the endurance for a second or third beer.

This night, several of the beers on tap were ones I’ve tried before (like Southern Tier’s Jah-va Imperial Stout or Ommegang’s Bier D’Hougoumont) so I went for something different yet not overly foreign.  Wandering Star’s Barley Wine, Rude Man, was not my ideal selection, given the high ABV of most Barley Wines, but being a big fan of Wandering Star and with a little coercion from the bartender (“it’s not that strong”), I opted for this selection.   The beer poured a cloudy, reddish-grape color and was served in a wine glass.  It was surprisingly smooth and not overly sweet and fruity, like many barley wines tend to be.  In fact, it had a bit of a roasty, smoky aftertaste.  It also didn’t taste overly alcoholic the way many barley wines do.  I later found out that it has 10.6% ABV—yikes!

When craving a sour beer, the bartender informed me they didn’t currently have one on tap, the closest being the Rodenbach, a famous Belgian beer that is now owned by Palm.  The distinct style is that of a “Flemish Red,” and has a similar tasting profile to an Oud Bruin, but this particular beer is created by blending two-year-old oak-aged beer (25%) with new beer (75%).  Apparently, the late, great Michael Jackson, beer writer/connoisseur called Rodenbach “the most refreshing beer in the world.”       

Another unique beer offered on this past Monday evening was Mikkeller’s Palisades IPA.  Those of you familiar with this Danish company know that they produced 19 IPAS, each one showcasing a single hop, so that one can taste the different aroma and bittering profiles that individual hops add to a beer.   Palisades hops come to us from the Pacific Northwest (Yakima) and are similar to Golding and Willamette.  The Mikkeller series is especially great for homebrewers and avid beer drinkers alike to distinguish different hop profiles, but this beer stands particularly drinkable on its own.  While not bitter, the Palisades is more floral and is a hop used for aroma.     

Burp Castle also had St. Louis Framboise, Maredsous Dubbel, Steen Brugge Tripel, Wurzburger Pilsner, Well’s Banana Bread, and Fuller’s Honey Dew on tap, which I considered to be both an eclectic and well-rounded selection of both authentic Belgian ales and both American and European beers in a variety of styles.

So if you don’t mind getting shushed and appreciate monk humor (the walls are covered with murals depicting hilarious debaucherous scenes involving outlandish monk behavior) and are craving a Belgian brew or perhaps another type of hearty beer, Burp Castle is a great place to visit in the East Village.  Start your night of beer drinking here and then head downstairs next door at Jimmy’s No. 43, another great bar with the “Good Beer Seal” of approval.       

  Burp Castle is located at 41 East 7th St. in the East Village.  Nearest subway is the 6 train at Astor Place.   


Cooperstown Brewing

23 Jul

Just down the road from Ommegang is a brewery that takes Cooperstown’s baseball legend seriously—and uses it to inspire their beers.  Cooperstown Brewery is much smaller than Ommegang, in both scale and production, but plans to expand and grow are in the works due to its recent purchase by Butternuts Brewery owner, Chuck Williamson.

Unfortunately we were unable to visit Butternuts this time around due to poor planning and lack of time (attempting to visit 3 breweries in one day is a quite a feat).  But, I am a big fan of this brewery—its four flagship beers are available in cans locally as well as in 14 other states, and with names like “Porkslap,” with an image of two pigs bouncing bellies, and “Moo Thunder,” a delicious milk stout with a cow on the can, the beers are both sessionable and fun.

While I was familiar with Butternuts because of its wide distribution in New York City (Williamson is Queens native), Cooperstown Brewing was new to me.  That’s because the brewery has remained strictly local all these years, run by a father/son team since 1995—Stan and Brian Hall—until its purchase by Williamson in September of last year.  It’s unfortunate that the beer is not more widely known, because they produce some fine English-style ales, the most popular and widely available being “Old Slugger,” a pale ale.

Finding this little brewery seemed a bit of a challenge, with a small sign indicating its location off the main road in Milford, NY, a quaint town 10 miles south of Cooperstown.  Sprawling hop vines lining the entrance and silhouettes of baseball players indicated our arrival at the brewery.

While the tasting room is open all day, every day (at least in the summer), tours are only offered once daily: at 5 p.m.  Aside from Old Slugger, a malty, caramel-y tasting pale ale that is brewed with four different barley malts and hopped with Mt. Hood, Cascade and Fuggle hops, their five other beers include Nine Man AleBackyard IPA, Pride of Milford, and their Benchwarmer Porter. 

During the tour we learned that all their ales are brewed with their signature Ringwood Yeast, an aggressive top fermenting yeast that imparts all of these British-style ales with a distinctive flavor.  They also use the hops that they grow outside as well as imported hops to add both aroma and bitterness.

The Nine Man Ale is a nice golden ale that was refreshing and light.  A portrait of baseball’s American founding father (debatable and according to legend), Abner Doubleday, adorns the pinstriped label.  Who knew that baseball bats and barley went so well together?

Cooperstown’s Backyard IPA is perfect for a summer barbecue (or baseball game).  Our tour guide, Chelsea, explained that this beer is brewed in a traditional English style of brewing an I.P.A., not like the extremely hoppy American I.P.A.’s we’ve become so accustomed to.  This beer is dry hopped with a “hop-percolator,” filled with locally grown Fuggle hops (grown right outside).

The “Pride of Milford,” is a strong (7.7% ABV), malty ale, reddish in color and rich in flavor, and described as a “specialty ale.”  While the title is a bit ambiguous, the name comes from a unique brewing process in which the beer is fermented at a higher temperature.  Because of this, the ale is higher in alcohol and has a richer, maltier character than the signature pale ale.

Last but not least was the “Benchwarmer Porter,” a great example of a traditionally brewed porter—with chocolate and roasted coffee flavors in abundance.  This one stood out as a favorite for me, especially since I often find porters to be more like a watered-down stout, and I often miss out on how great this style can be when done well.

Currently the brewery also contract brews for other breweries (which is what we witnessed during our visit—the smell of the wort strongly wafting through the air) and hosts a 40- year-old bottling line that was previously owned by Samuel Adams Brewing Company.  The six English-style, baseball-themed ales are available for purchase at the brewery, and all are adorned with baseball bottle caps—a nice touch.

Cooperstown Brewing Company may be only one stop on the six-stop Cooperstown beverage trail (which includes the three breweries, two wineries and a cider mill), but is surely one worth checking out.  The baseball theme ties in with the overall Cooperstown tourist attractions, and the beer is highly quaffable, offering a different beer-drinking experience than the nearby Ommegang.  I expect to see a lot more from this brewery in the future, given the new ownership and opportunity for expansion–with a bottling line, it seems Butternuts can start offering their already popular canned beers in bottles.  Hopefully the already well-known and established Butternuts name can aid in Cooperstown Brewing Company’s own notoriety.

While Cooperstown may be a baseball-lover’s mecca, one can also add beer to that list.  Ahhhhhh–summer really doesn’t get much better than baseball and beer! (Don’t forget the hot dog…)


Oh, Oh, Ommegang!

10 Jul

The city has been sizzling, and I, like many New Yorkers, took last week’s holiday as an opportunity to get out of town!  While one part of this getaway was an obligatory family wedding in my hometown of Rochester, NY, the rest revolved around seeking out great beer in my vast home state of New York.   While I’d love to devote my entire summer to visiting all the great breweries in our lovely state, I don’t have that kind of time or money…yet.  But I did manage to spend a few days in Central New York, staying in a cute little cabin on Otsego Lake right outside of Cooperstown, NY.

While Cooperstown is famous for its baseball hall of fame, a year-round destination for the diehard fans of the bats and the balls, it is also home to a handful of terrific craft breweries, the most well known being Ommegang.  Once a year (this year it’s on August 4th), the Brewery hosts a large festival with beer tasting, food, music, and camping, appropriately named “Belgium comes to Cooperstown.”  Being 2012, this year’s theme is Armageddon, or rather, “the end is beer.”  Unfortunately, the event is sold out (unless you want a Designated Driver ticket, but how fun would that be?).  The 136-acre brewery also hosts several concerts over the summer season, with Death Cab for Cutie, Wilco, and Lyle Lovett all coming up at the end of this month.   So what was visiting this American mecca of Belgian brews like?  Pretty great actually. 

The brewery is located 4 miles south of Cooperstown, and requires a drive down a quaint country road (We’re not in NYC anymore, kids).  Part of this area’s appeal is its rural charm, complete with tractor traffic and dairy farms.  Ommegang’s brew house was actually built on an old hop farm, and fits in well with the countryside’s idyllic setting. 

Tours are offered daily, every hour on weekdays from 11 am to 5 pm, and every half hour on the weekends.  Afterwards follows an optional tasting in a separate area devoted to this experience.  The tour is free; the tasting will cost you $3 a pop and includes a souvenir Ommegang tasting glass. 

The tour is brief (20 minutes or so) and offers guests a history of the brewery (started by a Cooperstown couple who were paying so much to import Belgian-style beers they figured why not brew it themselves) and a walk around the facilities.  Our guide was knowledgeable and informative, and answered our questions without hesitation, discussing their unique brewing process (like how the spices are added) and showed us both the open and closed fermentation tanks, as well as the bottling facility.  Every time I visit a brewery I always like to go on the tour, especially if it’s a brewing day.  Beer making in action is pretty sexy.

For those of you who have never tried Ommegang’s beer, it is readily available on tap in New York City in most good beer bars as well as sold in 755 ml bottles and 12 oz. six-packs in any stores that sell good beer.  The tour concluded in a tasting, where Ommegang’s six year-round brews were poured and discussed. 

First up was the Witte, Ommegang’s wheat beer, and is traditional of the Belgian style.  Witte is Flemish for white.  It is brewed with both coriander and orange peel, and our guide recommended using this beer to try out a few beer cocktails, like a shandy (add lemonade) or a beer-mosa (add orange juice).  If you like wheat beers, this is one to try.

The next beer we tasted was their BPA (Belgian Pale Ale), my personal favorite.  This is Ommegang’s Belgian response to an American IPA, and is dry-hopped with Cascade hops, whose citrus and floral notes are abundant in this beer.  Ommegang recently made this beer a year-round offering, due to its popularity.  I would recommend this to people who maybe aren’t the biggest fans of Belgian-style ales, since it is hoppier than most other offerings. 

Rare Vos was the third beer poured at the tasting, an award-winning Amber Ale.  The brewery calls this beer their most “quaffable,” and it is well balanced, pairing well with all types of food. 

Ommegang’s Saison, Hennepin, has a high ABV for this “farmhouse” style.  At 7.7%, the ginger notes shine through, and after their BPA, is probably my second favorite of their year-round beers.

Their Abbey Ale, a dubbel, was the first beer they brewed, and can only be called “abbey-style,” since it is not brewed by monks.  It is deep burgundy in color and tastes extremely flavorful and complex due to the plethora of spices used to brew this beer including licorice root, star anise, and cumin.

Last but not least is the first beer I ever tried by Ommegang years ago, their 3 Philosophers.  It is a Belgian-style quadruple, and at 9.8% ABV, it packs a punch–definitely a beer to sip slowly, and contemplate over.  So while you’re drinking 3 Philosophers and trying to solve the world’s problems, notice the cherry taste that comes from a unique brewing practice, where Liefmans kriek, an authentic cherry ale from Belgium, is added to this dark ale.   

The café attached to the tasting room and gift shop offers frites (with a selection of yummy aoilis for dipping), moules steamed with their beer, crepes (savory and sweet) and charcuterie and cheese plates, and as well as other Belgian fare.  They also have all Ommegang offerings on tap along with the imported Duvel family of beers.  The brewery’s most recent seasonal offering, the Bier D’Hougoumont, is a biere de garde (garden beer) which has been oak aged.  I’m a fan of Ommegang’s seasonals and specialty brews, and always look forward to trying them out.  Past favorites of mine have included “Aphrodite,” a fruit beer, Chocolate Indulgence, and “Cup O’ Kyndnes,” which was a Belgian-Scotch Ale. 

A visit to Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown makes a nice weekend trip for any New Yorker, but there are other breweries to check out nearby as well.  In my next post, I will share pictures and stories from my visit to “Cooperstown Brewing Company,” a much smaller but still noteworthy beer-maker.