In Beer, Summer Better Than Others

Question: is there a better way to take in new surroundings than by sitting on a porch on a warm summer night, leaning back in a lawn chair, and popping open a local beer?

Actually, there very well may be – let’s be serious.  Still, the beauty of the aforementioned scenario is once you’re in it, you could care less about anything else.  I had the pleasure a couple times recently, with beers from upstate New York as well as from around the country.  Some were better than others, but as you could imagine, it’s hard to be a total miss under such perfect conditions.

Deceptively simple

Let’s start with the standout: Mow Master Pale Ale from Ellicottville Brewing Company.  I’d never heard of Ellicottville before and wasn’t really expecting much.  Mow Master?  I figured on a pretty binary profile: yellow and fizzy.  Not the case.  The best way I could describe this beer is like Dale’s Pale Ale, lightened up for summer consumption.  It’s got nice full hoppiness with no astringency, a little bit bigger of a body than you’d expect, and mouthfeel that’s more fluffy than fizzy.  Honestly, if I were actually riding a lawn mower on a hot summer day I’d probably reach for something crisper.  But for a relaxing summer night, it’s dead on.

pretty weak

As far as the brewery, it’s in the town of Ellicottville (from the website: “sometimes referred to as ‘the Aspen of the East’”), 3 hours due west of Ithaca.  It seems to be a pretty small-scale operation: just a brewpub that was opened 15 years ago and another that opened recently.  Still, the little brewery’s had some serious success, racking up 3 International World Beer Championship awards.  Now, on the bottle (in the finest print you could imagine) it says EBC is part of the much bigger Southern Tier Brewery.  I’m not sure to what capacity that relationship exists, but even though I’m a big Southern Tier fan, I’d like to believe little EBC is chugging away pretty independently.  From the web presence, it’s a moderately safe bet.

Moving on, these past weeks also saw a couple variations on a familiar theme: the orange and spice summer brew.  The first took an all-American approach: Buffalo Bill’s Orange Blossom Cream Ale.  First of all, between the name and bottle, this beer’s marketing is a slam-dunk.  Unfortunately, success sort of ends there.  I’ve never had a beer that so closely mimicked orange soda: super thin, super fizzy, super orangey.  To its credit, the flavor was a little more Aranciata than Sunkist, but still pretty weak for the category.

Cerveza Belga!

Next up was the Belgian take… actually, the Mexi-Belgian take: Breckenridge Brewery’s Agave Wheat.  This unfiltered Witbier hybrid was definitely in the Blue Moon camp.  Where it stood out was a body just a little bit fuller than the Orange Blossom and a refreshing tartness (almost approaching lambic-sour) that other wheat beers definitely lack.  Still, the flavor was pretty shallow and the experience didn’t go much beyond: “Mmm… orange!”.

I’ve had better stuff, for sure.  But again – sitting on a porch (or, perhaps, a lawn mower), it doesn’t take much for a beer to be transformative.  Do my standards drop in the summertime?  I don’t know, maybe.  I see it more like… on nights like these, it’s hard to get me down.

Liquor Before Beer…

Finger Lakes Distilling

Yesterday was a good day – my first tasting trip into the beautiful hills of the Fingerlakes.  The area’s known for its wine, but my crew went straight for the hard stuff at Fingerlakes Distilling.  The place is unique in that, while other distilleries focus on one specific type of alcohol,  they pump out a huge range of products.  Vodka, gin, a bunch of whiskeys, brandies, liqueurs – even grappa (they’ve gotta do something with all the grapes out front).

gotta try this

Still, the variety would be meaningless if it didn’t taste good… and it tasted great.  The two standouts were the gin (the best I’ve ever had.  Seriously)  and the cherry liqueur.  Straight up, if you like gin and live in New York go to the liquor store and find Seneca Drums.  Last year it was named Best NY Spirit at the NY Wine & Food Classic and I’m not at all surprised – it’s bright and really flavorful.  Think Hendrix but more citrusy and smoother.  Great taste.

The cherry liquor was the standout in a line of fruit liquors (we tried the cassis and blueberry, too).  While the others were really sweet and dark, this was sharp and tangy.  Not intentionally sour – more like the tart sweetness of a fresh cherry pie.  Super super good.

To make the experience that much more memorable, as we started the tasting, a huge thunderstorm erupted and the power went out.  We pretty quickly learned electricity isn’t needed to enjoy good alcohol.  In fact, it’s probably an impediment.

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The Beer List: Nice Weather, Better Beer

Last week’s Flight Night at the Cloverleaf was a pretty cosmic experience.  The days leading up to it had been sort of gross – rainy and cold – but things were clearing up and, by Thursday, the forecast looked fantastic.  Likewise, in my own little brewniverse, the week had started out dull with a couple rye beers that were probably past their prime.  Luckily once I hit the Leaf, the beer finally started to mimic the weather.

This week I was copilot with my friend, Emily.  The genius of our “flight plan” was to start with the Spring beers (pungent, flowery, flavorful) and move on to summer (a lot brighter and lighter).  Check out the progression below, with what little notes I managed to scribble onto my bar napkin:  Continue reading

NY’s First Homegrown Beer…TODAY!

VanGlad with his homegrown hops. Photo credit: Donna Wessel, NYTimes

If you’re anywhere near Union Square today, drop by the farmers’ market and pick up a 6-pack of Ma-Pale, the first beer made entirely from ingredients grown in New York. It’s brewed by Mark VanGlad of Tundra Brewery. Apparently, VanGlad’s used to slinging goods at the farmer’s market – he grew up working his family’s maple syrup stand. Now, 25 years old, he’s decided to put his own spin on the family business, following his love for homebrew. Step 1: grow barley and hops on the family farm. Step 2: rig up a makeshift brewery out of a couple old milk tanks. Step 3: have your girlfriend design the logo. Step 4: share your gift with the world.

Driven or not, VanGlad wouldn’t have been able to sell his farm-to-bottle beer at the market if not for some very timely legislation. For the first time in 2009, the state allowed small-scale breweries like Tundra, which would otherwise have no means of distribution, to sell their stuff at farmers’ markets and local fairs. It’s a total Giamatti (read: win win*) – not only does it give boutique operations the freedom to grow at their own pace, it lets the consumer in on some otherwise inaccessible brews.

I’m stuck in Jersey today, so I’m hoping Mark’s going to be back next week with his stuff. But seriously, for anyone within reach, grab one.

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* This will catch on. Trust me.

The Beer List: English Pale Ales

It’s been a while.  Too long, I know.  In these weeks leading up to the start of Cornell, I’ve been trying to immerse myself with as many food facts and philosophies and I possibly can.  I figure the more complete my foundation, the more informed my path will be while in Ithaca.  Of course, the result of this inundation has been a mental flooding of sorts, and trust me, nothing grows on soggy ground.  But while I let everything soak in for a couple more days, I figure there’s one topic that I can still definitely address: Beer.

I recently took on a string of English Pale Ales.  With the weather warming up I was in the mood for something crisp and light, but not quite with the summery connotations of a pilsner or wheat beer.  In one way, I got what I was looking for with the English Pale Ales – they were bubbly and moderately light.  What I hadn’t realized was how broad a category EPA was and how little I knew about them in general.  Continue reading

The Beer List: Lagunitas and the Funk of Dogtown

Lagunitas is one funky brewery.  Let me prove it.

Magee dropping some education.

Exhibit A: Tony Magee, the brewery’s founder, dropped out of college to play guitar in a traveling reggae band.  Music is still central to Magee (who plays blues guitar at bars around the San Fran area) and his brewery (which, for a tap room, has a really impressive live music calendar).   On top of the propensity for performances, the brewery began releasing a series of limited edition beers marking the 40th anniversary of each Frank Zappa album.  Funky.  Continue reading