BEER REVIEW: Beer that tastes like beer

BEER REVIEW • BY BILL BROWN & ALAN PEEL

The Voice sent two self-styled beer experts to the Takoma Foundation Beerfest. Bill Brown has been following the micro-brew, or craft-brew movement from the beginning, back to the English Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) that preceded it. Alan Peel is an accomplished home-brewer who lived in England for two years and is a card-carrying member of CAMRA. Both live in Takoma Park.

The Beerfest brought a dozen local breweries to Takoma. A lot of their beers can be found in local bars or direct from the breweries. But, seldom are they all found in one spot.

It was a beer-taster’s playground, despite the pouring rain.

The beers:

Alan’s favorite in the dark-beer category was the Oyster Stout from Fordham. This was “brewed with oysters,” which I found a bit off-putting until I learned it was oyster SHELL, not bi-valves, in the recipe. Alan said the Star Hill Stout was good, but for overall depth, the Oyster Stout won hands down.

“Stout” used to be short for “stout porter,” and modern porters are often fairly heavy in alcohol. Now a “stout” generally means a beer with thicker mouthfeel and Alan said the Oyster Stout met this criterion beautifully.

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Photo by Eric Bond

I don’t usually go for dark beers, but I’m willing to drink it for journalism. My favorite dark was the Growler’s Brew Pub porter. Porters usually taste like watery stout, but this one held it’s own. It was more like a “junior stout” with just the right amount of “roasty” flavor. Fortunately they didn’t go for the gimmicky coffee and chocolate flavors that brewers have lately been pumping into stout. Star Hill’s stout was one of those] It had actual chocolate in it. Curiously, it tasted more like coffee than chocolate. It made for an interesting first sip, but a full glass of it would become annoying. If you want coffee, there are plenty of diners and coffee-shops.

Alan makes both coffeeish and chocolatish dark beers, so he didn’t mind quite as much. He points out they can (and should?) be made with roasted malt balance, not actual coffee or chocolate added!

IPAs

In the India Pale Ale (IPA) category Alan said The Rock Bottom from Bethesda was squarely representative, but hoppier than he personally likes. I agreed with Alan’s assessment – very drinkable, but a bit hopper than I like, also. I should say I’m a fan of subtle hopping – and subtle is getting harder to find these days. Today’s American pale ales taste like the IPA’s of a decade ago. Today’s IPAs taste like hop soup.

Some people love that, of course, and yet there’s a charming belief that excessive hops consumption (with their estrogen-mimicking compounds) lead to, uh, an excess of breast tissue in drinkers of all genders. The excessive calories may or may not have something to do with that, too.

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Growlers Brew Pub’s offerings. Photo by Eric Bond

My favorite IPA was the New Belgium Ranger IPA. It did not quite reach my ideal, I’m afraid. I like an IPA that leaves the strongest hop flavor for the aftertaste – and I prefer that aftertaste to be floral, something to savor. These IPA’s left a bitter aftertaste that was more unpleasant than savory.

Alan explains that hops added early in the beer making process add the bitterness; later in the process, they add the floral or citrus notes. The original intent of IPAs in the 19th century was to preserve them with the bitter compounds in hops so they could be shipped from England to India. Older European strains of hops were (and still are) relatively low on acid, i.e. bitter taste, high on floral aroma. These are called “noble” hops. Newer strains, especially American ones developed in the last decade or two, are more acidic/bitter. I like to call them “ignoble” hops.

Pale ale and “session-beer”

In the pale ales, Alan said the DC Brau Public Pale was by far the best. I managed to miss the DC Brau at the fest, but I’ve enjoyed their Public Pale at other venues. My favorite pale was the “Collaborative Ale,” served by Rock Bottom, but concocted in collaboration with other local brewmasters for a recent DC Beer Festival.

The Collaborative was what they called an English summer ale, following the UK trend to brew light-bodied “session-beers.” A session-beer, so called because one can drink several in drinking “session” without getting hammered, has low alcoholic content, but tastes good. I’ve been advocating this concept since the ’80s. But, as as one of the servers vastly understated, “The American public’s looking for something a little heavier, usually.”

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Star Hill Brewery’s tent. Photo by Eric Bond

Alan was not a fan of the Collaboration Ale. He found it blander than he likes – judging it almost lager-like. The server, a knowledgable fellow whose name I won’t mention so he doesn’t get in trouble, said it is a challenge to the brewer’s art to brew a low-alcoholic beer with full body and taste. Perhaps this is why we don’t see many good session beers in the US – our brewers don’t have the chops. And unfortunately, US drinkers prefer a good buzz to good flavor.

Pilsner and Oktoberfest

District ChopHouse had a Pilsner, a Czech-style light lager. The definitive pilsner – Pilsner Urquell – has a fresh aroma, a hint of hops, and no aftertaste. American brewers seem to view this perfect configuration as “needing more hops.” I have yet to find an American pilsner that does not suffer from this. District ChopHouse even touts it’s pils as “uber hopped,” as though that were a good thing instead of totally missing the point. Traditional Czech pilsner it is not. Maybe it’s a German thing.

The ChopHouse’s OktoberFest was a different matter. They held back the hops this time, emphasizing a sweetish malty taste. Franklin’s (as in Franklin’s Restaurant, Brewery and General Store in Hyattsville) also offered a worthy Oktoberfest.

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Lovely Hops, photo by Bill Brown.

There were number of beers we didn’t care for because of the “additives” such as pumpkin or pecans. Alan is more forgiving then I am for such things as citrus and pepper – as offered by 3 Star Brewers, the brewery most local to Takoma Park. Not I.

Personally, I like to quote an ode to beer written by a late, great friend, “Fruits and nuts and spices queer, have no place in honest beer*” My worry is that the trend to add bizarre flavors is taking good beer down the same road Starbucks took good coffee. The road ends at Cinnamon-Hazelnut-Mocha Iced-Beeruccinos.

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Photo by Eric Bond

*from the song “Beer That Tastes Like Beer” by Nick Robertshaw

 

About the Author

Bill Brown
Bill Brown moved to Takoma Park in 1982. He has been involved in journalism in one way or another since he co-published an underground high-school newspaper in the late 1960s.