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Keeping it Local with the CBC

March 8, 2012

What makes a great brewpub? Interesting and innovative beers are an obvious plus. But then there are those subtler aspects that are sometimes overlooked, but which contribute to the culture of craft beer. Community engagement, local and sustainable beer and food, an inviting and original atmosphere. These are the often intangible qualities that distinguish great brewpubs from the pack, and the Cambridge Brewing Company has them in spades.

Founded in 1989 in Kendall Square (where it is still inconspicuously located), the Cambridge Brewing Co. has since become internationally recognized as one of the foremost craft brewers in the U.S., and their reputation for exceptional brews speaks for itself. The CBC has long had a local-only focus, proudly sourcing their food and ingredients locally, and selling their beers exclusively from their Kendall Square location. While their local focus hasn’t changed, the CBC recently came out of its shell (with the help of the Craft Brewers Guild) and have begun distributing some of their “greatest hits” in 22 oz. bottles to stores throughout Massachusetts. Here are a few reasons why that’s a great thing.

The CBC is currently offering two year-round brews as part of their new bomber series: The Audacity of Hops, and Tripel Threat. The Audacity of Hops is a Belgian-style Double IPA at 8% abv, which pairs five hop varieties with spicy Belgian yeast to bridge the gap between old world Belgian beers and modern, hoppy American brews. The generous hops provide some tropical fruit and grapefruit bitterness, which is softened by a hint of Belgian yeast in the background. The CBC’s other year-round offering is their Tripel Threat, a Belgian-style Tripel at 10% abv, which has the distinction of being the first Belgian-style beer ever commercially produced in the U.S.. Like most Tripels, it’s soft, spicy, fruity, and strong, with layers of complexity that get better with every sip. Tripel Threat was initially brewed in 1990 by Head Brewer Darryl Goss, whose vintage motorcycle is immortalized on the label. Darryl has been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and a portion of the proceeds from the sale of Tripel Threat will promote research for a cure.

In addition to these exceptional year-round offerings, the CBC will also be regularly releasing some single-batch brews as well. Back in the fall, they released their Great Pumpkin ale, which is actually one of the first pumpkin beers ever commercially produced in this country (and in my opinion it’s still the best). Two of their currently-available single-batch brews are their Bannatyne’s Scotch Ale (a rich and warming Scotch ale at 9.2%, easily one of my favorite examples of the style) and Sgt. Pepper. I had the chance to try Sgt. Pepper on tap at the brewpub and loved it, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it on our shelves a few weeks later. Sgt. Pepper is a Farmhouse-style ale at 6% abv, brewed with four kinds of peppercorns (which really show up in the flavor), spicy hops, rye malt, and Belgian yeast.

For anyone who’s been to the CBC location in Kendall Square, I don’t really need to explain why it’s exciting that they are finally making their beers more widely available. They’re already a veritable institution in the world of craft brewing, and one of the few places around where you can get a beer tower full of peppercorn beer and a locally-sourced appetizer of poutine (which gets my vote as the best thing to ever come out of Canada). With their focus on local and sustainable beer and food, combined with their long track record for strange and innovative brews, the Cambridge Brewing Company is a hidden gem in Massachusetts, and it’s about time they get the recognition they deserve.


Hidden Gems: Ballast Point Victory At Sea

January 5, 2012

“O Captain! my Captain! Our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring…” -Walt Whitman

I couldn’t pass up a chance to throw in some Whitman. The ship in this poem is supposed to represent America (the “Captain” is Abraham Lincoln), but for the sake of this blog post we can pretend that he was talking about craft beer.

The craft beer movement is a strange and wonderful phenomenon, one that continually defies the odds. Take for example the fact that despite overall beer sales declining this past year, sales of craft beer in particular went up by about 16% according to most sources (CNBC claims 17.5%), with new breweries seeming to open up every day all over the country. Weathering the storms of a shaky economy and other troubles (like the recent ABCC fiasco), craft brewers continue on towards that dream on the horizon, combining the best aspects of small local business and a collaborative, do-it-yourself attitude. Which brings me to the beer in question: Ballast Point’s Victory At Sea.

The first time I tried this, I was floored (not literally, though it does pack a punch). It’s an imperial porter brewed with coffee and vanilla extract for a velvety, just-sweet-enough concoction that will keep you on your toes. It has a great depth of flavor and strength (it weighs in at 10% abv), but is exceptionally well-blended with roasty undertones and coffee bean flavors taking a back seat to rich chocolate and vanilla. The coffee beans come from San Diego-based Caffe Calabria, one of the finest coffee roasters on the West Coast, who advocate sustainable practices and a community-oriented business approach.

In a sea of beers and breweries, integrity and quality will always win out in the end, and Ballast Point is at the top of their game. This is a seasonal brew, which means that it won’t be around for much longer, so grab Victory while you can.

Chocolate Stout Shout-Out

December 18, 2011

When the holiday rush starts to wear me down, all it takes for me to remind myself that I actually love the holiday season is to imagine that I am surrounded by friends and family, lounging next to a toasty fire, and sipping on a tall, frosty glass of Chocolate Stout. The fire warms me from the outside while the stout warms from within; drawing me into is darkly seductive depth. 

While out with some friends at a pub in Cambridge recently I ordered a Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout, a highly sought-after product at the liquor store and a personal favorite of my own for its ability to help take the edge off those dark winter months.  One of my cohorts thought the brew sounded like the perfect choice to finish off the cold night, but was shocked by how thick and intense it was (and by the 10% abv).

If you tuck into this beer expecting a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar in a glass, you’re going to be surprised when you find how wonderfully rich, dark, and exotically luscious it actually is.  This is a beautiful example of an Imperial Stout, a style once brewed exclusively for Catherine the Great, herself; and this beer fit for greatness is a seasonal release from Brooklyn, so give it a try before it’s all gone!

Another knock-out Chocolate is Southern Tier’s Choklat Stout, an Imperial Chocolate Stout which traces its roots to an ancient Mayan beverage of the gods called xocoatl (ch-co-atle).  Available in 22oz bombers and 1/6 kegs upon special request, this gem from western New York is sure to wash away even the worst case of the winter blues.  Weighing in at 10% abv and pouring a deep dark black in the glass, this brew will turn even the most adamant hater of flavored beer into a believer with its rich chocolate and caramel malts.

Afraid of the dark?  If these deep dark stouts are making you shake in your winter boots, never fear! Sam Adams Chocolate Bock is here!  While sadly not available in 6 packs (only available in the winter variety 12 pack), this creamy chocolate charmer is a real delight that appeals to the milk chocolate lover in all of us.  Slightly lighter and sweeter than the stouts, the chocolate bock manages to strike a delicate balance between strength and finesse making it an impeccable wintry nightcap.  And if you’re in the mood to try something really different, check out Sam Adam’s new Chocolate Chili Bock “The Vixen,”  brewed with cinnamon, chilies, and cocoa nibs (available in single pints.)

Chocolate stouts (and bocks!) pair perfectly with a wide variety of deserts including cheesecake, fruit pies and tarts, ice cream, and anything chocolate-based.  Or, try sipping a chocolate brew alongside your favorite strong cheeses and watch it work its magic!

Whether you’re trimming the tree, sitting by a fire waiting for the electricity to kick back on, enjoying desert with loved ones, or just craving a nice refreshing something to sip on, chocolate brews are surprisingly versatile and satisfying.  They have a way of mesmerizing me with their decadence; They found their way into my heart and–if you let them–they could warm your’s this winter, too.

Lagunitas Sucks at Making Mistakes

December 8, 2011

This year, the phrase “happy accident” takes on a whole new meaning. The Lagunitas Brewing Company (Petaluma, CA) has become so popular in recent years that they’ve decided to expand, with plans for a new brewhouse to be set up this coming January. But because of the increase in demand and the time constraints involved with switching gears to brew seasonal releases, they found that they lacked the brewing capacity needed to brew their beloved Brown Shugga (a strong, sweet, and hoppy brew made with lots of brown sugar, obviously). For dashing the hopes and expectations of Brown Shugga fans (myself included), the people at Lagunitas issued the following statement:

“There is nothing cool about screwing up this badly and we know it. Maybe we can sue our own sorry selves. There is no joy in our hearts this holiday and the best we can hope for is a quick and merciful end. F*@& us.”

To make it up to the beer-loving public, they managed to put together a replacement brew this season, called “Lagunitas Sucks” Holiday Ale. Being the forgiving type, I decided to give it a try. At 7.85% abv, it’s extravagantly hoppy, but it steers clear of any bitterness with clean flavors of grapefruit, pineapple, and tropical fruit notes. It’s made with a complex medley of barley, rye, wheat, and oats, all generously dry-hopped for the big aroma and resinous hop flavors. It’s not what you would expect for a holiday beer (which usually lean towards spicy and dark), but as an apology it works wonders. I love Brown Shugga, but this holiday ale more than makes up for not releasing it this year, and the fact that they basically threw it together at the last minute is impressive in itself.

So rather than being disappointed this holiday season, I’m instead reminded why I like Lagunitas in the first place. Their IPA is always a welcome sight on tap, and their limited release offerings like Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ and Lucky 13 are consistently excellent. This new holiday ale is a testament to the success of the Lagunitas Brewing Company in brewing top-notch beers, and it makes me hope that they screw up more often in the future. I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Make Beer Not War

November 11, 2011

Maybe I’m just a sucker for art, but in my eyes the 21st Amendment Brewery can do no wrong. Their boxed-craft-beer-in-a-can approach transcends novelty, it’s just a smart, environmentally friendly way of doing things, and the artwork on their packaging almost overshadows the beer inside (even though the beer is almost always excellent).

Their most recent release, just in time for Veteran’s Day, is their Allies Win the War! Ale, a collaboration between 21st Amendment (based in San Francisco) and Ninkasi Brewing (from Oregon). At 8.5% abv, it’s an amber ale brewed with dates, with hops that provide some orange blossom notes and a mild piney bitterness, which meld with sweet caramel malts and some background dark fruit flavors to give it a slightly creamy mouthfeel. There’s nothing really mind-blowing in terms of flavor, but it’s very balanced and tasty, so much so that you almost don’t realize how strong it is.

The thing that I like most about the 21st Amendment Brewery is that they always produce solid, interesting beers, but they don’t try too hard to push limits. I think that a lot of craft beer lovers are kind of jaded these days, what with all of the specialty beers and limited-release spectacles meant to take beer into strange new places. Craft beer shouldn’t be about shock and awe, it’s about winning hearts and minds. When innovative brewers work together in the name of art and great beer, everybody wins.

Hidden Gems: Ipswich Five Mile Stock Ale

November 7, 2011

If you’re from Massachusetts, there’s a good chance that you’re already familiar with the Ipswich Ale Brewery. Having been founded in 1991, it’s one of the longest-running craft breweries in New England, and their beers have become widely available not only around the North Shore, but also in several states along the east coast. Recently, they released their first in a series of limited-edition brews, with the intention of supporting local agriculture and producing great beers that are unique to the area where it all began. The “Five Mile” series will be composed of beers that get at least 50% of their ingredients from local sources, and which contain at least one ingredient grown within five miles of Ipswich (hence the name). It’s a great idea, and it’s part of what makes craft beer unique and interesting.

Their first limited-edition release, the Five Mile Stock Ale, uses ingredients from several local sources; the Marini Farm in Ipswich, Valley Malt and Czajkomsky Farm in Hadley, and hops from their very own hop yard in Ipswich. At 6.4% abv, it’s on the malty side, but with a nice, fruity hoppiness in the background from being dry-hopped with the locally-grown Cascade hops. Cascade hops tend to add a flowery, citrusy grapefruit flavor, but here it is pleasantly subdued by the malt profile for a mild, easy-drinking beer that tastes like a cross between an IPA and an Oktoberfest-style lager. It’s a beer that manages to strike a good balance while remaining flavorful and original, and it helps to support local farms. I’d call that a win.

All of the beers in the 5 Mile series will be limited-edition, single batch brews, so get them while you can!

Baxter. Ayuh.

October 17, 2011

Maine is well-known for having a lot of things. A lot of moose, certainly. A whole bunch of trees too: despite being the twelfth smallest state, it has more uninhabited forest than any other state except Alaska. But in the midst of all that wilderness is one on the largest and most diverse craft beer scenes in New England, which brings us to the Baxter Brewing Company.

A relative newcomer, the Baxter Brewing Co. started distributing throughout Maine last year, and just recently became available in Massachusetts. The people at Baxter were quick to embrace the craft beer in a can movement, and are currently the only brewery in Maine to distribute their beers exclusively in cans. You might even say they’re a bit fanatical about it; their glassware is also in the shape of a can (I’m not complaining, it’s actually kind of awesome). Cans do have some significant benefits, in that they’re better for the environment (made from recycled aluminum), they preserve beer better (no UV light contamination), and they’re much more practical for the outdoors than glass bottles (because lets face it, if you’re in Maine, there’s a good chance you’re going to be in the woods at some point).

But enough about cans, the beer is what really matters, and Baxter doesn’t disappoint. I recently spent some time up in Maine, and Baxter’s Pamola Xtra Pale Ale was on tap pretty much everywhere, and for good reason. At 4.9% abv, it starts off with some sweet, bready malts, which are backed up by a slight grassiness and some citrusy, bitter hops in the finish. It’s a great session beer, and pairs excellently with food. The name, Pamola, comes from Baxter’s mascot: in local Native American folklore, Pamola was a thunder god with the head of a moose, the body of a man, and the wings and talons of an eagle, who was said to be the guardian of Mount Katahdin (the tallest mountain in Maine, and the endpoint of the Appalachian Trail). Easily one of the best mascots in craft beer, in my humble opinion.

Baxter’s Stowaway IPA is another solid offering, and seems to be wholly different from their Pamola Xtra Pale (which is impressive, because many breweries tend not to stray too far from a specific flavor profile). At 6.9% abv, it pours a burnt, hazy orange, and has a sweet malt backbone that is fleshed out with vibrant hops which produce flavors of tropical fruit, piney resin, and grapefruit, all with a crisp, clean finish. It tastes a lot like a west coast IPA with the touches of tropical fruit and the complex hoppiness, which makes sense because all five hop varieties used in this beer are from the Pacific Northwest.

Canned craft beer is always a welcome sight, and the people at Baxter clearly know what they’re doing when it comes to brewing excellent beers. Coincidentally, the Baxter Brewing Co. is going to be one of the featured breweries during the first annual Maine Beer Week, which is coming up in early November. For a solid week, small craft breweries in Maine will be hosting events and doing tap takeovers at various brewpubs and restaurants around the state. After seeing what Baxter has to offer, I’ll definitely be dodging some moose on the highway to check it out.