Sunday, September 26, 2010

My Favorite Beers

I subscribe to that school of thought that argues that there is no such thing as "best", at least in the sense of a specific product being the "best" of its type. To the degree that there is any such thing as "best",  it exists as a ordinal category, as in, "Old Woodchuck and Very Special Fitzboggin are among the best Bourbons."

At the core of this argument is the premise that all such evaluations are subjective, and based on parameters that will vary from person to person. In whiskey, some people like them really old, but others will dislike the intense wood character of something that's been in a barrel for 25 years. The two will thus never agree on the "best" Single Malt Scotch.

So rather than present a list of what I consider to be the "best" beers, it's better to describe them as my favorites, and to mention some of the subjective factors that influence my choices. Some of these factors, in fact, have nothing to do with the gustatory qualities of the beer itself.

One is what I call the bother factor. For example, two of the most impressive beers I've ever had are Orval Trappist Ale and Trappistes Rochefort 10, both from Belgium. Both are unfiltered and have a lot of sediment (they're not just cloudy; they have crud in them). After bringing them home, you have to let them sit undisturbed for a day or two, then carefully decant them into a glass, taking care to cease pouring as soon as you see solid stuff reaching the top of the bottle. Sometimes (okay, most of the time) this is just too much bother.

Another factor is availability. Any beer I have to drive to Wisconsin to get is never going to be a favorite, nor is one which is only seasonably available. For example, I like Deschutes "Red Chair NWPA" more than Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, but the former is only available from January through April. If it's September and I'm in the mood for a Pale Ale, only the ones I can actually get are contenders for "favorite".

Lastly there's an affordability factor. A favorite beer is one which I can afford to buy a sixpack and share with friends. The aforementined Trappistes Rochefort is $7.50 for an 11.2 oz bottle, which works out to $45 for a six pack. For that amount of money I can buy a four sixpack assortment of the following:

Victory Prima Pils
Type: Pilsener style lager
Traditional ales are made using top-acting warm fermenting yeasts, but in the early 1800s German brewers started using bottom-acting cool fermenting yeasts to produce lager beers, which are lighter bodied and crisper than traditional ales. In the city of Pilsen (located today in the Czech Republic) a style of lager was produced which used Saaz Noble hops, and beers made in that style are known as Pilseners (also spelled Pilsner). For years my favorite was Pilsner Urquell (which is, in fact, made in Pilsen), but after trying the Victory product all I can say is "buy American!" Prima Pils is a beautiful yellow-gold, with aromas of grass, citrus and floral hops, with sweet malt joining these on the palate. Right now the only place in town that sells it is Corvallis Brewing Supply; price is $11.10 per sixpack.

UPDATE (July 9, 2012): Sadly, this is no longer carried by the distributor here in the Pac NW. I wish I'd known that when I was California last month, I would have brought back a case.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
Type: Pale Ale
It's been called "a classic among American beers" and is certainly the standard setter for pale ales, which is pretty impressive for something produced in this volume and having near universal availability. Golden orange color, with aromas of grain, yeast, hops and citrus, crisp and tangy on the palate with a clean, dry finish, this is a reliable "go to" pale ale. It's available year round and frequently priced below $7 per six pack at your friendly neighborhood grocery store. Kathy likes to mix it with Deschutes "Obsidian" Stout for a "black and tan".

Stone IPA
Type: India Pale Ale
My favorite style of beer, IPAs were invented by the English but brought to perfection by American craft brewers. These are hoppier than Pale Ales, and there are a lot of good ones available, many of which have fans who wouldn't hesitate for a moment to tell me that the Stone Brewing product is not as good as their favorite (Ninkasi "Total Domination" being one and Dogfish Head "60 Minute" being another). Nonetheless, for me this one has a slight edge. An intensely hoppy nose, with hints of grapefruit, is followed by a perfect balance of bitter hops and sweet malts on the palate. The 22oz bottles are widely available, and you can can get 12oz sixpacks ($11) at University Market at 1149 Van Buren and at Market of Choice. NOTE:  Stone's "Ruination" double IPA offers nearly identical aromas and flavors and is only slightly stronger (7.7% ABV versus 6.9%) and is not worth the extra expense, in my opinion.

Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye
Type: Specialty Ale
Although classifies this as an IPA and as an Imperial/Double IPA, I think the brewery's own designation ("Specialty Ale") is more accurate. To me, it's not hoppy enough to be an IPA (although it is hoppy), and the addition of rye to the mostly malted barley mash adds a flavor element that an IPA lacks. Deep red in color, with complex aromas and flavors of hops, citrus, rye and malt, it makes me think of toasted rye bread with a thin spread of grapefruit marmalade. It's my favorite American beer, and worth the $5+ asked for a 22oz bottle. Available at University Market, Market of Choice and Corvallis Brewing Supply.

Ayinger Celebrator
Type: Doppelbock
Bock beers are lagers, and are traditionally made in the winter or early spring. The Ayinger is an exception, being made and imported year around. For reasons lost in the mists of antiquity bock beers usually have a picture of a goat on the label, so doppel (double) bocks often have two (my sentimental favorite, Leinenkugels "Big Butt", depicts two mountain goats charging one another). The Ayinger is one of the best of its type. Dark brown in color, with scents of malt and molasses pushing aside those of the hops, it's a smooth, rich, almost creamy beer. Sold in fourpacks for about $10, you can find it at Corvallis Brewing Supply, Market of Choice and University Market.

Deschutes Obsidian
Type: Stout
Guinness popularized stouts, which are dark ales made with heavily roasted malt, but try this one and you'll never go back to the Irish product (the sold-in-USA version of which is actually brewed in Canada). The Deschutes product is a classic example of its type, with distinctive chocolate and coffee aromas and flavors and a super-smooth presence on the palate. It's a little hoppier than its stablemate, the likewise excellent Black Butte porter, and for that reason I prefer the stout. Available almost everwhere, and frequently on sale for less than $6 per sixpack.

Piraat Ale
Type: Belgian Double IPA
The Belgians make IPA mostly for export (the locals find them too hoppy), and they make them strong (the Piraat is 10.5% ABV). I discovered this one quite by accident some years ago when I was buying beer for our annual Pirate Theme Halloween Party. Upon trying it I thought hey, this is really good. It's got that fruity thing going that many dark Belgians have, but without the pesky sediment. Being an IPA, it's got a lot of hops, but the bitterness is balanced out by the sweet malt and the fruit element. A rich, smooth character make it dangerously approachable (don't forget about the 10.5% alcohol content!). The funky old label (with the pirate) is being replaced by a less entertaining one, but fortunately the contents are unchanged. Look for it at Corvallis Brewing Supply. It's not cheap, costing $5 for a 11.2oz bottle and $10 for a 22oz, but it's just the thing for getting into a pirate state of mind. ARRR!!!!

Leinenkugel's Classic Amber
Type: Amber Lager
No, not a great beer. In fact, according to most of the hop-heads on and, not even a "very good" beer. Mild hop and caramel aromas and flavors make it a decent quaff, and for me, that's good enough. Leinie's is the brand that is interwoven into memories of time spent at my grandparent's cottage on Popple Lake, ten miles north of Chippewa Falls, the town where the brewery is located. We'd fish in the morning, clean 'em, have lunch, spend the afternoon playing horseshoes or just sitting, looking out at the lake. The blue water and sky, the scent of spruce and fir trees, a cold bottle of Leinie's in my hand. It will always have a place in my heart, and thus a place in my refrigerator as well. You can find it at Albertson's on Kings, for about $8 per sixpack.

UPDATE (July 9 2012): The Corvallis Albertson's no longer consistently carries the Classic Amber, but usually has some variety of Leine's, typically a seasonal offering. At present it's the Summer Shandy.

As my grandpa would say, Skol! 

Saturday, September 25, 2010

del Alma

Last night (September 24, 2010) saw the "soft" opening of del Alma, the successor to Loca Luna. With the departure of Adam Kekahuna, the restaurant has acquired a new chef, Mitchel Rosenbaum, formerly of La Mesa Grill in Las Vegas.

The cuisine is now a more traditional Latin one, which is probably for the best; I suspect that Kekahuna's "Pacific Rim/Latin Fusion" style was just a little too "out there" for Corvallis.

The wine list offers a good selection of whites, most moderately priced. The selection of reds may be a bit too heavy with Oregon Pinot Noir and is deficient in moderately priced Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet/Merlot blends. From Washington's Columbia Valley there is Little Bear Creek's Cabernet/Merlot blend for $32, but the other four wines of this type range in price from $63 to $96. There are plenty of good lower priced Cabernets out there, such as 2007 Louis Martini Sonoma County, 2006 Robert Mondavi Estate, and 2006 BV Rutherford, and with three beef and one lamb entree on the menu, the folks at del Alma should consider adding these or comparable wines.

We selected a moderately priced ($28) Tempranillo, the 2000 Anciano. This was a bright, fruity wine with more body than a Pinot Noir, and it worked well with our entrees (beef and lamb), though a Cabernet would have been better.

After being seated, we were brought bread with three dipping sauces. The bread, baked on the premises, was excellent, crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside. The three dips were a olives/mushroom chutney sort of thing, a puree of yellow bell pepper and garlic, and a seasoned bean puree. All were good.

Appetizers are found under the Tapas section of the menu. I ordered the Dungeness Crab, Shrimp, and Spinach Empanada ($8; see photo above). My first bite was of the Empanada alone and the pastry seemed a little dry, but I discovered that adding a bit of the salsa to the fork resulted in a perfect balance, with a delightful combination of flavors. Kathy ordered the Florres Relleno de la Calabaza ($10), this being a fried squash blossom stuffed with Dungeness crab, peppers and cheese. This was likewise excellent.

The menu lists three salads and two soups. We didn't try any of these; perhaps on a future visit.

The entrees range in price from $16 to $29. There is only one vegetarian item, the El Bosque, a mushroom ragout, and the restaurant should consider adding at least one more so that vegetarian customers don't have to order the same thing every time.

Kathy's entree was the Borrego Borracho "Drunken Lamb" ($24), this being a braised shank served with tequila soaked apricots and vanilla whipped sweet potatoes. The apricots turned out to be few and far between, too few for the "drunken" description to apply to the entire dish, and the lamb was served medium rather than the medium-rare that Kathy had ordered. Nevertheless it was tender and flavorful, and the potatoes were creamy and subtly flavored.

I ordered the Beef Short Ribs ($24; see photo). These were excellent, moist and tender, with a distinctive "roast beef" flavor, but something went wrong with the accompanying wild mushroom tamale, because the contents were dry, powdery and unpalatable. Fortunately Kathy's serving of potatoes was a generous one and I took a small helping of those.

For dessert Kathy ordered the Classic Flan ($8), which was supposed to be served with almond cookies and whipped cream but instead came with slices of papaya. Nonetheless, it was very good. I had the cheesecake ($8), which was perfect in texture and flavor.

Except for the powdery mushrooms in the tamale and, on Kathy's entree, the scarcity of drunken apricots and the slightly overcooked meat, (all of which can hopefully be chalked up to opening night issues), it was an excellent meal. Del Alma is off to a good start, and will hopefully only get better.

Del Alama Website

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Corvallis Brewpubs - Conclusions

Having visited and reviewed all four brewpubs here in Corvallis, I think I've reached some conclusions about their respective strengths and weaknesses. Here they are:

Old World Deli/Oregon Trail Brewing
Ambience: Acceptable, but the industrial chic motif is just too weird
Service: Non-existent
Food: Acceptable
Premise-brewed beer: Acceptable

McMennamins on Monroe
Ambience: Very good, striking interior and surprisingly quiet even when at/near capacity
Service: Good
Food: Not Acceptable
Premise-brewed beer: Acceptable

Block 15
Ambience: Good when at half-capacity, TOO LOUD when full
Service: Good
Food: Good
Premise-brewed beer: Very Good to Excellent

Flat Tail Brewing
Ambience: Good when at half-capacity, a bit loud when full (also the music can be turned up too high)
Service: Good
Food: Good
Premise-brewed beer: Acceptable

It doesn't take a statistical analysis to determine that Block 15 is the winner here, and it's certainly my personal choice. I just wish they could do something about the sound level.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Flat Tail Brewing

Our series of Corvallis brewpub reviews completes with this one for Flat Tail Brewing. Located on First Street at the old Fox and Firkin location, the interior has been considerably spruced up since its F & F days (the bathrooms are much nicer). The walls are painted a muted blue and the wainscoting dark reddish-brown, an interior that, on its own, would seen more appropriate to a more formal restaurant. The large number of historical OSU sports photographs and flat panel televisions thus seem an afterthought, a sports bar overlay onto a room that was meant to be something else.

The interior is acoustically live, and when the place is at (or near) capacity it can be loud. Most of our visits have been when it’s not full, and then it’s fairly pleasant. During our most recent visit (late August of 2010) the music was too loud, but the weather was nice so we sat outside (one can only hope that management would have respected a request to turn down the volume had we decided to stay inside).

We’ve always been pleased with the service, although I’ve heard some negative reports from others. On our most recent visit our server was reasonably attentive and prompt.

We’ve also been happy with the food there. On a previous visit I’d had the St. Louis style “Brew BQ” ribs. These are good, but not impressive to someone raised in the Deep South (and no better than the ribs at the Corvallis Ruby Tuesday). The burgers are good too. On our most recent visit our party of five ordered just appetizers. The fried oysters were excellent, and the fried onion rings and “Brew Skins” (fried potato skins with shredded beef and sour cream) were both good. The Hummus Plate featured fresh veggies and tasty flatbread. Overall, I’d say the quality of the food is a half-step ahead of Block 15.

The same cannot be said of the beer brewed on the premises. Eight different varieties are available, ranging from a Pilsner to a Stout. You can try all eight with a sampler “paddle”, but be forewarned that if the bartender is sloppy with this, then many of the small glasses will be sitting in a pool of beer, and you’re going to drip a lot of that onto your lap. The beers themselves are competent, but neither complex nor compelling, and many have a slightly sour character that is likely due to the strain of yeast used for their brewing.

Also available are “Guest Tap” beers from other producers, these being Calapooia, Oregon Trail, Oakshire and Ninkasi. I’ve only tried a couple from the first (which were okay but not memorable), am not impressed by any from the second except for the Ginseng Porter, have tried none from the third, but have been impressed with everything I’ve tried from Ninkasi. The next time I’m at Flat Tail I expect I’ll order that, assuming it’s available.

If Flat Tail wants to be the preeminent Corvallis brewpub they need to improve their beers and provide some sound absorbing techniques in the dining area (and turn down the music, please).

Flat Tail website.