Thursday, December 27, 2007

Beers of the Year - 2007

Well it's the time of year where everyone releases their "Best of" year end list. Beer on the Brain is no exception, and I like to think that our list is more valuable then the schlock they're peddling in mainstream press. Hell, you can print this list out, run to the liquor store, and pretty much guarantee yourself a good night; that beats gambling on a critic's movie choice from the Village Voice.

All of these beers have been recommended in some capacity throughout the year, either in seasonal picks, "beer of the week," or "beer of the weekend." So without further ado:

1. Unibroue 16 - Unibroue: Chambly, Quebec

I don't know if it was a new distribution deal, a newfound appreciation for this brewery among the beer elite in Madison, or a set of Canadian blinders I was wearing up until 2007, but to me, 2007 was the year of Unibroue. The "16" is easily one of the best beers I have ever had: rich in that Unibroue house yeast and heavy in alcohol. I look forward to "17" with great anticipation.

Full Review

2. Ambergeddon - Ale Asylum: Madison, WI

"Our amber can beat up your IPA." Such is the brewhouse motto for Ale Asylum's Ambergeddon, and let me assure you, it's true. This perfect balance of malt and hops is a beer lovers dream to which I return over and over. It swells my heart with pride that this unique brew hails from Madison and can compete with the West Coast's best.

Full Review

3. Brother Tim's Tripel Belgian - Lake Louie: Arena, WI

Yet another beer in the Belgian style that is both delicious and not produced in Belgium. Off the beaten path of flavor and geography, Arena's Lake Louie does it right with so many beers on their roster it's hard to single one out. Yet another winner from the great state of Wisconsin.

Full Review

4. Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout - Leinenkugel's: Chippewa Falls, WI
Fine, it's a macro-brew, but at least it's still made by the family, and honestly, it's damn tasty. God bless Miller for supporting Leine's efforts to produce big quality beers that will once again make the Northwoods proud. Speaking of Northwoods, Earth to Leine's, BRING BACK NORTHWOODS LAGER!

Full Review

5. Don de Dieu - Unibroue: Chambly, Quebec

The only brewery to make the list twice, Unibroue is on fire. This one isn't too removed from the "16," which is probably one reason I like it, but it's available in normal bottles and more widely distributed. A fruity strong wheat ale, the "Don" is the don of beer sophistication.

Full Review

6. Samuel Adams Octoberfest- Boston Beer Company: Boston, MA

One of the best in the business, the Boston Beer Company is the national microbrew. Their Octoberfest is uniquely American, and yet still within the bounds of the Oktoberfest style. Any German who doesn't believe that Americans can make a good beer or a good Oktoberfest needs to Halt die Klappe and have a Sam.

Full Review

7. Lefthand Oktoberfest - Lefthand Brewing Company: Longmont, CO

Another American Oktoberfest, this time from yet another part of the country not known for its Germanic heritage. Lefthand makes unique beers, and the Oktoberfest is no exception. Not as clean as the Germans, but complex, flavorful, and delicious.

Full Review

8. Celebration Ale - Sierra Nevada Brewing Company - Chico, CA

The only IPA on the list, this beer perhaps reveals both my bias against rediculous hop bombs, and the strength of the Sierra Nevada stable. A tweak on their common Pale Ale, this seasonal sets a standard for all other IPAs to achieve. A floral aromatic and strong IPA, Sierra strikes again.

Full Review

9. Capital Winter Skal - Capital Brewing - Middleton, WI

Another beer from near Wisconsin's Capitol, Capital's Skal reminds me of a smooth Sam Adams. It's like what Sam Adams winter should taste like, but from a small regional brewer just 5 minutes from my office. The rest of their beer isn't half bad either.

Full Review

10. Chimay Grande Réserve - Chimay, Belgium

This is the only beer from outside of North America to make the list, so take that "old Europe." It's not that the Europeans can't still make good beer, they do, but the Americans are taking their cultural heritage, tweaking it, and coming out with something truly great, which is what they usually do to us. Chimay is a pillar of old world beer, producing 3 quality brews still made by monks, and available all over the world.

Full Review

Honorable mention: Lakefront Holiday Spice, Spaten Oktoberfest, Mojo IPA

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Beer of the Week, Christmas Edition

So the beers I've recommended this winter have been without added spices: more unadorned seasonals really. Well, should you want a festive spiced brew over the holidays, I have found just the one for you.

Coming directly out of Brew City, USA, Lakefront Brewery produces a Holiday Spice Lager brewed with orange zest, cinnamon, and clove. It pours a hazy deep amber with a an off-white head that quickly dissipates. The beer smells like clove, but also raisins and caramel. The honey really comes through on the palette with a maerzen like sweetness surrounded by festive spice.

I generally shy away from overly spiced beers; I dislike Lakefront's Pumpkin, for example, but for some reason this extremely spiced beer seems to work, especially around the holidays. It's definitely going to be polarizing; either you will like it, or you will hate it, but I encourage you to give it a go. Lakefront is an all around excellent brewery, and they win some points for creativity on this beer. If you are ever in Milwaukee, take the tour. It's a cool old warehouse near downtown, and you get a lot of beer and a sweet pint glass.

Merry Christmas to you, from me, and Lakefront Brewery's Holiday Spice Lager.

Links of Interest:

Lakefront Brewery

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Less Filling! Tastes Great?

It only took 30 years to come up with the idea, but Miller recently announced that it would be introducing different varieties of its Lite brand. Tapping into the growing craft beer movement, Miller will test market 3 new beer styles that are lower in calories and carbs than other beers in that style.

Those of us in the Wisconsin market will not be privy to the new Lite wheat, blonde ale, and amber, because clearly, if the state of cheese and brats wants an amber ale, we're going to have an amber ale, calories and carbs be damned. The lone Midwest market to get these new taste sensations is Minneapolis, and they will also be sold in Baltimore, San Diego, and calorie-conscious Charlotte.

I can't slam Miller for this because I haven't had the beers, so I'm giving them the benefit of the extreme doubt. My only thought is: most people who drink Miller Lite don't do so exclusively because of the calorie content, but also because of the style of the beer (pilsner more or less). I think the share of wheat beer drinkers that have desperately been searching for a low-cal option is small, and though I'm sure the desire exists (hell it would be great if every beer was low more beer guts!), I don't think those drinkers are going to switch to Miller's options to save 50 calories if the full taste isn't there as well.

I think that if Miller wants to crack into the craft beer market, it should start making some craft beers. Letting the brewmasters at Leine's run wild with bold selections like the "Big Eddy" series is a good start, but in my amateur opinion they should take the route of Coors and establish totally new craft brands. Blue Moon, anyone? Who knows, maybe now with the infusion of Coors personnel, they will.

Links of Interest:

Full story in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentintel

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What'll ya Have? Drunken Surrealism.

Savvy non-marketer marketer that it is, Pabst commissioned an art contest depicting its hipster-ubiquitous Blue Ribbon brand in painting form.

Now I'm no philistine, and having the visual art and malted beverage worlds collide on the canvas is to me a brilliant idea, but I have to admit that I was a bit put off when I checked out the judges. Perhaps it's because I come from Milwaukee and was drinking Pabst when it was the beer you stole from your dad's schwag stash and not the "vintage ironic t-shirt" equivalent of hipsterdom, but to me it seems that Pabst's blue collar Midwest roots have been coopted in a clumsy exploitative attempt at authenticity by trust-fund graphic designers in Chicago and San Francisco. Maybe's it's the fact that I was drinking Milwaukee's macro-brews with my dad and his bar-league softball factory buddies when I was knee-high that gives me this FUBU-mentality, but let me just put it out there that you're not cool because of the fact that you worship Pabst anymore; that ship has sailed. Why don't you latch on to Hamm's for a while; I'm sure it could use a boost in sales.

Moving on...

Any support of the arts is ok in my book, and the varied pop-art representations of a cultural icon like the PBR can are interesting to say the least. Pabst chose five winners, who each received $1500 and two years worth of PBR, the message from Pabst being, "We want you to keep your starving artist street cred, but we'll at least get ya drunk."

The winners and some honorable mentions are currently on tour, stopping in Milwaukee last night at the Stonefly (formerly Onopa) Brewing Company, before continuing on to 25 other cities.

You can check out some of the winners at, and I have included one special one below. It comes to us courtesy of William Scott of Menominee Falls (a Milwaukee suburb). Mr. Scott was informed about the contest from his loving wife, and had this to say (courtesy of

"I had started experimenting with art after I retired and had both hips and my knee replaced. I had some time on my hands and my mother was something of an amateur artists [sic], so I gave it a try. I had sketched a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and had it on the wall in the basement, alongside my other Pabst memorabilia and neon signs. When I heard about the contest, I put color to my sketch and entered it. I named the painting 'The One and Only' because it's been the only beer for me for 40 years!"

Now that is a man who deserves two years of free PBR.

Links of Interest:

On Milwaukee Magazine

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Beer of the Week

Well we're in the thick of the season now; there's no chance of avoiding it, so might as well throw up your hands and declare it a celebration. Better yet, fill up your mug and call it a celebration!

This BOTW comes to us from one of the patriarch breweries of the American craft beer revolution: Sierra Nevada of Chico, California. Their seasonal ale looks like the Sierra Pale Ale, except with a festive red and white label, and is named Celebration Ale.

It's not really the malty heartiness you get from a lot of winter warmers, nor is it the spiced weirdness you get from other seasonals. Celebration is more like a special IPA. It pours a rich amber color with a minimal head. Like Sierra's Pale Ale, it has a flowery, grapefruit smell, and a bitter hoppy flavor as well. It has a bit of malt balance, but the strong alcohol (6.8%) and the hops whisk away the sweetness for a dry crisp finish. I actually wish they would let the malts come through a little bit more, as they seem prematurely quashed by the hops. You might avoid serving this one too cold so a more balanced flavor can come through.

While to me, this isn't that much of a departure from their IPA and APA, it is a good beer with Sierra's signature style. Celebration is a pleasant diversion from malty and spiced winter beers, so scoop up a 12 pack, deck the halls, and declare it a celebration!

Links of Interest:

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Holy Grail

While distinctive beer styles have had corresponding glassware forever, I don't believe that anyone has created a specific style of glass for a specific brand of beer. Pilsners have their glasses, as do weisses, and now Jim Koch and Sam Adams have raised the bar on craft brew snobbery by commissioning a special glass with which one can enjoy a Sam Adams in a way consistent with the brewers ideal of their beer experience.

I'm not berating Sam Adam's decision, in fact, I'm anxious to give it a whirl. Koch worked with Tiax, a company known for its sensory based approach to food production and alteration; that is, they asked Boston Beer what senses they wanted drinkers to experience and then tested the user experience with glassware for the detection of those senses. I don't see Pabst putting this kind of empirical research behind it's Old Milwaukee or Lone Star brands.

You can get the glasses on Sam Adams' website.

Here, have a look...

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

...And to You, Your Wassail Too

Known in America almost exclusively as an undefined term in a Christmas carol, wassail is in fact a real "thing," a thing in fact, that will get you toasty.

There are some variations within wassail, but they unite on the origin of the term, an Old English toast meaning, "be well." A similar phrase exists in Old Norse.

Wassail, associated with Christmas and New Years as far back as the 1400s, is a punch of sorts, served hot, and to be shared. The wassail would be cooked, served in a huge bowl, someone would pass it to you shouting "waes hael," and you would respond "drinc hael" (drink and be healthy). This is definitely a tradition I could get behind.

Wassail is closely associated with wassailing, where you cook up a batch, get toasty, and go door-to-door sharing the wassail, and singing carols until the occupants give you a drink or some money to go away. Drinking copious amounts of wassail is essential in this practice not for tradition's sake, but rather because it helps loosen up the pipes for belting carols, and also because it makes you forget how damn cold it is walking outside in December.

While most modern variations are some concoction of mulled cider, wassail of yore was more likely made with beer. I don't know about you, but making up a batch of holiday punch, getting buzzed and spreading joy sounds like a good time to me, so allow me to help you should you choose to spread the love and joy.

Epicurious features this recipe for wassail:

10 small apples
10 teaspoons brown sugar
2 bottles dry sherry or dry Madeira
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3 cloves
3 allspice berries
1 inch stick cinnamon
2 cups superfine sugar
1/2 cup water
6 eggs, separated
1 cup brandy

Core the apples and fill each with a teaspoon of brown sugar. Place in a baking pan and cover the bottom with 1/8-inch of water.
Bake in a 350°F oven for 30 minutes or until tender. Combine the sherry or Madeira, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon, sugar and water in a large, heavy saucepan and heat without letting the mixture come to a boil. Leave on very low heat. Beat the egg yolks until light and lemon-colored. Beat the whites until stiff and fold them into the yolks. Strain the wine mixture and add gradually to the eggs, stirring constantly. Add the brandy. Pour into a metal punch bowl, float the apples on top and serve in 8-ounce mugs.

But folks, let's be real with ourselves, this isn't "Sherry on the Brain" (thank god); let's save the sherry wassail for New Englanders. Allow me to suggest this beer based, and more traditional variation of wassail to aid you on your caroling quest:

2 Quarts Lager
5 oz Simple Syrup
3 oz Lemon Juice
1 tsp Nutmeg
1 tsp Freshly Grated Ginger (or ground)
1 Quart Dark Rum (I personally like Meyers. Should you have a death wish try Gosling's Black Seal 151)
Apple & Lemon Slices for Garnish

Combine beer, syrup, lemon juice, nutmeg, and ginger. Heat until hot at medium-high, but don't boil. Cook 8-10 minutes (no boiling!). Add rum and stir it up. Go wassailing.

Love and Joy come to you; please wassail in moderation.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Other Uses for Beer

Now I know what you're thinking: "Other uses for beer?"

While I think that any other purpose beyond drinking is like using gold to pave the streets, apparently there are other uses for beer.

Courtesy of Gomestic.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Beer of the Weekend

I was sick on Friday, so there was no Beer of the Week to be had, but in lieu of that, I have a special BOTWE.

I'm hardly one to recommend a beer from a large macro like SABMiller (now MillerCoors), but Miller's 140 year old, Chippewa Falls, WI based subsidiary Leinenkugel's can squeeze by my normal regulations.

Although Leine's was acquired by Miller in 1988, which was then subsequently added to the SABMiller empire later, Leinenkugel's is the seventh oldest brewery in the country, and is still brewed in Chippewa Falls (and Milwaukee), and still run more or less by the family. Were it not for the infusion of Miller marketing dollars, and the brewery's willingness to innovate, it might have been one of those sad stories of regional breweries I write about in the Pabst Americana Series. As it stands, Leine's is available in 38 states.

I'm not a huge Leine's advocate; in fact, out of their 7 year round brews, I dislike 5 of them, and of their seasonals, "Big Butt," a doppelbock, is the only one to stand out.

The second in the "Big Eddy" series, however, is a standout. So named for the stream that fed the original brew house, Leine's foray into specialty release territory started with the Big Eddy IPA. The second, released within the last month in select markets (Milwaukee, Madison, Detroit), is the Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout.

I talked a little about Imperial Stouts back here, so refresh your memory if need be. This Big Eddy pours like motor oil, with a thick tan head that emerges after you pour, with some remains lingering throughout. True to form, Leine's Russian has a high alcohol content, and three different varieties of hops, both used to preserve this style of beer for its long sea voyage over the Baltic. The alcohol certainly comes through in the nose and on the tongue, giving this brew a big mouthfeel and a dry finish. It smells faintly of bourbon. Although alcoholic, the flavor is dominated by sweet malts, with hints of maple and black cherry. The coffee flavor common in stouts is there, but it's not overpowering.

Leinenkugel's Big Eddy series is a step in the right direction, and the Russian Imperial Stout is a worthy beer. It's not really brewed to be paired with food, so enjoy it on its own, perhaps paired with a cold winter afternoon.

Links of Interest:


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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Drink to Common Sense

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the only time an amendment to the United States Constitution was repealed. The Twenty-first amendment was passed on December 5th, 1933, and repealed the Eighteenth amendment which had forbidden the manufacture, sale, transportaion and importation of "intoxicating beverages."

The brewing industry certainly had a role in spurring along Prohibition. In 1890, beer emerged as the leading intoxicant of choice in the US. Large brewers in Milwaukee and Saint Louis had harnessed the forces of industrialization to build huge brewing empires capable of producing large quantities of beer and distributing it nationally and even internationally. As these brewing titans expanded their reach, they butted heads, and competition grew.

Since at home refridgeration was not available at this time, most drinkers got their buzz at the local tavern. At the time, it made financial sense to have more than one bottle of whiskey on the shelf, but it was harder to keep two different tap beers fresh and flowing. Since the taverns only carried one variety of beer on tap, the solution from the brewers' perspective was to build another tavern. Saloons proliferated, often financed with brewer money, and outfitted with all manner of promotional materials. Some cities became saturated with bars, sometimes four on a corner (us Milwaukeeans can relate), which reduced demand cutting into profits for tavernkeepers. Bar owners often turned to other ways to attract drinkers: salty free lunches on the benign end of the scale, and prositution and cock-fighting on the slightly more risque side.

Taverns became viewed by some citizens as houses of ill-repute and a blight on the neighborhood. Anti-saloon sentiment helped to organize people, fueling the formation of the Anti-Saloon League, who with the Women's Christian Temperence Union, were the prime shakers in the Prohibition movement.

Another mover and shaker of the movement was the Prohibition Party, which oddly enough, still exists today. They seem to have morphed into an extremist mix of Libertarianism and Christian Theocratic rule. They are anti-abortion, anti-drug and alcohol, pro gun, anti-union, and pro gold standard. Ron Paul folks would love them, were it not for the weird religious angle and the battle against alcohol. I've linked their 2004 platform below. In all fairness, not all of their ideas are bad, just most of them.

Since 74 years ago today marks the first full day to legally chug a finely crafted brew, head to your local house of ill-repute and raise your glass to freedom!

The cartoons in this article come courtesy of Ohio State University.

Links of Interest:

Prohibition Party Platform, 2004

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pabst Americana - Lone Star

The next segment of our Pabst Americana series, dealing with the fates of the great regional brews our father's used to drink, takes us to San Antonio, Texas, the birthplace of Lone Star Beer.

While a beer marketed under the name "Lone Star" did not appear until 1940, the original Lone Star Brewery was established by Adolphus Busch (of Anhueser-Busch) in San Antonio in 1884. The brewery quickly outgrew its humble beginnings and commissioned a castle-like structure to be built on Jones Street. The large stone structure finished in 1904 was eventually abandoned and aquired in the 1970s to house the San Antonio Museum of Art. Following a $7.2 million restoration, the museum opened in the former brewery in 1981, and still operates from that location.

Although over fifty breweries once dotted the Texas landscape, only thirteen remained in 1890, and only six, including Lone Star, remained intact up until Prohibition. Once common sense prevailed and Prohibition ended, Lone Star was reincorporated under new owners, and a new brewery was contructed.

In 1940 a new recipe from a Munich native was developed, and was used to create a new beer, marketed under the name "Lone Star." The Lone Star beer was a hit, and by 1965 the brewery was producing in excess of 1 million barrels.

In the 1970's as Bud and Miller were expanding their reach and stepping up the competetion, many regional breweries failed, and many were bought up, consolidated and repackaged. Like Grain Belt, our first Pabst Americana feature, Lone Star was aquired by another regional in the mid-70's, in this case, Olympia Brewing of Washington.

Not long after Olympia's acquisition, Lone Star, again like Grain Belt, was acquired by Heileman Brewing of Wisconsin. As noted in the Grain Belt article, Heileman itself ran into financial difficulties in the 1980's and began to reorganize and sell off its breweries and intellectual properties. Heileman held on to Lone Star, and in 1996 the entire Heileman family of beer was acquired by Stroh's of Detroit for $290 million.

At the time, Stroh's was still trying to recover financially from its purchase of Schlitz, which strapped the company with $500 million in debt. They introduced new products, layed off workers, began exporting, and closed breweries, including the Lone Star Brewery in 1996. While Stroh's had gone to great length's to become financially viable in the 1990's, its exporting and lay-offs could not save it from the pressure of the larger brewers and the expansion of micros. In 1999, Stroh's was broken apart, with some brands aquired by Pabst, including Lone Star, and a few aquired by Miller.

To much fanfare, Pabst announced that it would not only resume brewing Lone Star, but would do so at the Pearl brewing facilities in Texas. Although the Pearl brewery was eventually closed due to its age and a projected cost of renovation, Lone Star is still brewed in Texas and owned by Pabst. Pabst currently contracts with third party breweries to produce Lone Star, including Miller's brewing facilities in Fort Worth (which once used to be Carling facilities).

As far as a success story, Lone Star is somewhere in the middle. It's still around, and it's still brewed in Texas (although not independently), and it tastes ok. It would be nice to see Lone Star reincorporated as an indie regional, but I don't see that happening, as Pabst's decision to sponsor Texas musicians seems to have been a savvy one, once again driving Lone Star's popularity.

Links of Interest:

Lone Star Beer

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Monday, December 3, 2007

Beer of the Weekend

It was a good weekend to stay in here in the Midwest. After having to drink my sorrows away after the Packers lost to the Evil Empire (the Cowboys), and the bilzzard that hit Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, I needed some time to relax in the house.

Our BOTWE was definitely good for the described scenario; we chose Brother Thelonius belgian style dubbel from North Coast Brewing in California.

Brother Thelonius, so named for the legendary jazz musician, definitely comes in on the "big & sweet" side of Belgian brewing, with 9.2% ABV, and abundant sweet malts. It pours a dark reddish-brown color with a minimal head and minimal lacing. It has a dried fruit aroma typical of this style: a very nice nose actually. The mouthfeel is thick, but not as thick as some actual Belgians and has an alcoholic dry finish. It does lack some of the creaminess of the greats in this style, but it is damn good overall.

Congratulations to North Coast Brewing; Brother Thelonius is good company on a cold winter day.

Links of Interest:

North Coast Brewing

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