Friday, September 24, 2010

The Top 5 Beers You Can Find in a Place Like Costa Rica, Not Counting Homebrew.

This might be useful for those who live here or come to visit. (A lot of people come to visit.) It also might be mildly interesting to anyone who likes hypotheticals. If I were stuck there, what would I drink?

Let me know if you're surprised at what's available here. I know I have been. Keep in mind that only a very tiny sliver of the population drinks any of these beers. Most of that tiny sliver, I'd wager, corresponds to a small percentage of expats. Nearly everyone else is brand-loyal to a product of Florida Ice and Farm, a.k.a. Cerveceria Costa Rica. That means Imperial, Pilsen, Bavaria, Rock Ice, and even Heineken.

My Top 5:

5. Duvel. One of the most overrated beers in history is still pretty good. Physically gorgeous and packed with flavor. Sadly the flavor often becomes downright unpleasant halfway through the glass. Too much alcohol heat to be really drinkable, IMO. But some people go for that. Usual supermarket price: $4.50 for 33 cl.

4. Paulaner Hefeweizen. Just edges out Paulaner Munchner Hell for its surprising compatibility with local food. Think banana-and-clove aroma with fried plantains and gallo pinto with sour cream. Yum. Also works just fine in hot weather. Price: $5 for 50 cl.

3. Samuel Adams Boston Lager. American geeks who turn down their noses at this modern classic need to spend a few weeks in the tropics and then taste it again. It has plenty of character and yet is light enough for the climate. Bonus points for being below 5% abv. Price: $4.50 for 12 oz.

2. North Coast Acme Pale Ale. Only found at the Fresh Market chain, as far as I know. Previously it also carried Red Seal Ale, Scrimshaw Lager, and Pranqster Belgian Ale, but I haven't seen them there lately. Haven't seen Old Rasputin yet, unfortunately. These are the only genuine American craft beers I've seen in Costa Rica (unless you count Sam). Price $4.50 for 12 oz.

1. Guinness Foreign Extra. The most flavorful beer in the Caribbean is likewise in Costa Rica. Just drinkable enough to be dangerous at 7.5% abv. Really nice with parrillada, or anything with grill marks. As far as I'm concerned it has nothing to do with that creamy, gorgeous, bland stuff that comes from the nitro taps. Which are impossible to find here anyway. Price: $3.50 for 12 oz.

Pictured: a friend's homebrew, an extract recipe from a ready-made kit, that I'd place above any of these five.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Here's to Workhorse Beers and Workhorse Breweries.

Highway 100 shoots straight west from Interstate 44, after you've driven southwest from St. Louis for about half an hour. Heading west, if you keep an eye on the northern hills, you might catch a glimpse of a nondescript warehouse. You might even spot some wooden barrels sitting on the dock.

That would the technical home of the Augusta Brewing Company, in Labadie, Missouri. That would be the same Augusta that just won a gold medal for its highly drinkable Hyde Park Stout at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. As far as I know this is the first really national splash made by this small rural brewery, the sort of workhorse that's been toiling away for its local customers in relative obscurity for years.

That nondescript warehouse brewery in Labadie is not really open to visitors; it's just where the work gets done. Augusta's spiritual home is in, well, Augusta--across the Missouri River and another 30 minutes' drive--at the brewery's popular and pastoral beer garden. Owners Jeri and Terry Heisler bought the brewery and beer garden in 2008. They also built the scenic John G's Bier Deck in Washington, Mo., as a showcase for theirs and other locally made craft brews.

Incidentally, thanks to the three-tier system, the Heislers pay a distributor to carry their own beer for them from their own brewery to their own Bier Deck and Beer Garden. "We have to sell our beer and buy it back," Terry Heisler told me when I visited. "The state laws are set up for the wineries and not the breweries." On the other hand, he added that he's glad he doesn't have to buy trucks, hire drivers, and do all those other things that distributors do for them. Augusta can focus on making and serving good beer.

The guy making that beer--and the one who deserves most of the credit for that GABF gold--is head brewer Shawn Herrin. He's there in the photo, on the left, next to Terry Heisler on the right. Up yonder there is 21-year-old assistant brewer Kate Crombie, doing all the hard work with the shovel.

Herrin also is overseeing a relatively new barrel-aging program. When I visited there was some Tripel and the Hyde Park Stout maturing in Chambourcin wine barrels from the nearby Blumenhof winery. Meanwhile, this is an area that grows a lot of corn, soybeans and pigs. You want to talk about farmhouse brewing? It might be in a warehouse, but Augusta is using some old dairy tanks as fermenters. "I've had people tell us that our Belgian-style beers taste more Belgian than others," Herrin said. "I think it might be because of the antiquated setup."

Business is still growing locally for Augusta. In particular, the wineries that dot the Missouri River valley are selling many of Augusta's 750 ml Belgian-style bottles. Heisler said they're still adding accounts "because people want to go local. ... Now people are going to the microbreweries again. Everybody wants to feel special, and I don't blame them."

But now for the team at Augusta--one of hundreds of neighborhood micros out there--it's their turn to feel special. Congratulations to Augusta Brewing and all the other GABF winners.

Friday, September 17, 2010

File This One Under Random Regional Beer Fests that Would Be Really Cool to Attend.

Everyone should have a folder with that title. Anyway, the Augusta Bottoms Beer Festival is on October 2 in eastern Missouri.

The brewery lineup is a murderer's row of up-and-comers in the St. Louis area and surrounding hinterlands, where craft beer culture has been gaining traction after the sale of Anheuser-Busch. Nevermind the presence of A-B Michelob on the list. Pay more attention to those whose names you don't know. Yet.

Among those you've never heard of, yet, make a note of 2nd Shift. The New Haven-based micro is not officially open for business, but it will be soon. Brewer Steve Crider is making beers that--I suspect--will hit the sweet spot of aficionados.

I was lucky enough to visit his brewery, about 60 miles west-by-southwest of St. Louis, back in early August. A lot of things there impressed me--including a golf-cart ride to a field full of towering hop trellises, and the brewery's location amid a private, re-created Old West town complete with saloon--but what impressed me most was the beer. Among other things he is making some dryish, well-attenuated, hoppy pale ales that are very difficult to stop drinking.

Crider's immediate plan is to distribute kegs to some places in St. Louis. Once people start tasting his beers, I think, his reputation is going to fly farther abroad. That's the age we live in. When people find beers that combine big flavor and great drinkability with technical skill, it's hard to keep it a secret.

Crider has the tools. He's one to watch. The really nice problem we have is that there are a lot of ones to watch these days... and there are a lot of random regional festivals at which you can find them.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Very Good Beer Guide to... Latvia.

Atis Rektins is modest enough to avoid putting his name on a book, and then to question why I would even want to mention the book in the first place.

Have a look yourself at the Beer Guide Latvia. See why I wanted to mention it. You are looking at 79 pages of love. As in labor of. The PDF file is free for anyone to download.

"I love good beer," Rektins writes, "however, I have noticed a complete absence of a detailed and up-to-date source of information regarding Latvian beers and breweries in English. I feel quite disappointed when I see tourists buying beers with the most colourful labels and presumably thinking that these would be the best representatives of the Latvian brewing tradition."

See? He wrote this book for you. It's all here: The breweries and the beers. Historical context. Basic Latvian phrases and beer words. The annual national beer holiday (June 25). And useful honesty about his country's own beers.

"It should also be mentioned in the beginning that it would be impossible to judge the current selection of Latvian beer entirely by the same standards as American or British craft beers," he writes. "Unfortunately many of the Latvian brews still have a long way to go. This is accompanied by almost extreme reluctance from the side of Latvian breweries to try brewing anything else than standard European pale and dark lagers."

But it's not all doom and gloom. Far from it. A handful of smaller breweries started springing up in the 1990s. Some of the aforementioned lagers border on the exceptional. And, most of encouraging of all, there are other people like Atis devoted to the beer scene, looking abroad, and thinking, "Why not here?"

I'm coming around to the idea that every country or major city needs its own beer guide, even if it's only a few pages. And you know where it's needed most? I'll give you a hint. It's not the U.K. It's neither Belgium nor Germany. It's not the Czech Republic or the U.S.A.

It's the frontier.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

One Hundred Casks of Future Joy.

I got this photo yesterday from my friend Yvan De Baets, half of the genius behind Brasserie de la Senne. (He is also half of the genius behind Around Brussels in 80 Beers, thus two halves make him a complete genius.)

Here we see a crack squad of elite brewers, also including Jean Van Roy from Cantillon and Bernard Leboucq from Senne, pretending like they are not extremely busy after the arrival of 100 wine casks from Burgundy and Côte du Rhone. Eighty of them are destined for Cantillon lambic. The other 20 are for Yvan and Bernard's lambic-ale blends and other experiments in mixed fermentation. All will be kept for now in the Senne brewhouse in Molenbeek, where this photo was taken.

Past Senne blends, frustratingly rare, have included Crianza and Saison de la Senne. Bottles of Crianza are virtually impossible to find these days. If you know someone with a bottle in their cellar, be very friendly to them. Meanwhile you're slightly more likely to find the more recent Saison--especially if you walk into Moeder Lambic with a budget for that sort of thing.

However they will theoretically be less rare within the next year or two. That's because the Brasserie de la Senne is, finally, just about ready to open. True. Yvan tells me they are on target to start brewing in late September. Which means October is far more likely.

More to come.

From left to right: Dominique Thelen and Jean Van Roy of Cantillon, and Bernard Leboucq and Yvan De Baets of Brasserie de la Senne. And lots of barrels.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

There Is Craft Beer in Costa Rica Again.

Trying to get caught up on the local scene after our long U.S. tour. I'm learning that things have been happening. The context: For most of this year there were absolutely zero craft breweries operating in Costa Rica. Zilch. Nada. That has thankfully changed.

First: The Malpais-based nanobrewery La Perra Hermosa--that's right, "Beautiful Bitch"--is up and running. A couple of local restaurants have its beers on draft. Brewer-proprietor Ryan Ackerman tells me: "Things are evolving and it's nice to have a whole town pulling for us." There are three beers: Blonde, Brown and MPA--Malpais Pale Ale.

I'll have more details on where to find those beers soon. Pack your surfboard because you'll have to go to Malpais to get them. But not right now. It's raining.

Second: The K&S Cerveceria, which closed in November 2009, is reportedly under new ownership in Cartago. No word yet on when we'll see its beers or if the beers themselves will change.

Also hunting for the latest on Volcano Brew up near Tilaran. And I have a lead on yet another potential brewery in the San José area. Not sure if there's anything to it. I'll let you know.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Our Man in Amsterdam.

There's a new weapon in the growing Cogan & Mater arsenal: Around Amsterdam in 80 Beers. This one's written by Tim Skelton. I don't really know Mr. Skelton, yet. I haven't seen the book. But there is virtually zero chance that the book is anything but clever and useful. (See: Around Bruges, Brussels and London.)

Most of the you know the format, but I'm going to re-hash it for the rest of the class: Eighty of the very best places to drink real beer in Amsterdam. A featured beer for each spot. That's it. Simple and elegant and damned handy. Just the thing to pull out after excusing yourself from a companion who wants to spend hours browsing the tulip market.

I know about seven really excellent places to drink beer in Amsterdam. Can't wait to learn about 73 more. More than half the fun is in flipping through, fantasizing and planning another Amsterdam trip that may or may not ever come.

And congrats to Tim Skelton. I've got a very clear idea of the effort it takes to make a book like this. A hell of a lot of fun, and a hell of a lot of work.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Invite a New Kid to Sit at Your Lunch Table.

I bumped into Sam Eslinger last week at the Harvest organic food store in Winston, Oregon. It might have been chance, but Harvest--among its other strengths--has the best beer fridge in that little town and is the only homebrew shop. Thus it is part of the Beer World, and we all know the Beer World is disproportionately small.

As it happens, Sam is one of the new kids in school, trying to make friends. Friends who buy beer. You see, Sam recently started up a real honest-to-goodness one-barrel nanobrewery. That was his word for it. I told him one definition floating around for nanobrewery is one whose production is so small that it's not possible to make a living off it. The look on his face told me what he thought of that definition. "No day job," he said. "This is it."

His brewing resume includes work at the B.J.'s brewpub chain and, more recently, Lost Coast. He said he felt the need to grow and do his own thing. "I just got tired of brewing for bosses. ... It's like being a really good chef and cooking at Applebee's."

With apologies to Applebee's, I suspect Sam may be a very good chef.

A few places in the Winston-Roseburg area are selling his Draper Brewing beers, made in nearby Tenmile. I got to taste a few of them at Harvest--a cream ale, an IPA, and a chocolate stout. Hard to evaluate fully on a few ounces each, but I'll say that all were well above average. Dryish and well attenuated. Plenty of character. Drinkable. And those are always the main items on my checklist.

It occurs to me that an independent craft brewer--especially a nanobrewer--needs more than a good set of chops to make it. He or she also needs some luck. Marketing. Distribution. Hype.

In short: Lots of new friends. Everyone, meet Sam. Don't worry. He's cool.

This post is my contribution to the Session. Go read more.