Trappist Westvleteren 12: The Holy Grail?

The decisions that lead us to determine what things we love in this life are (a lot them anyway) swimming in bias.  A book recommended by a good friend, or reliably tasteful media source? Yeah, I’ll buy it because I trust. A new Wilco record that I know I’ll love before it’s even released?  My own stupid (but correct!) bias.

But how do you taste and fairly evaluate a beer that many have asserted is the best beer in whole stupid world?  How do you tell your brain to not lend any credence to the beer’s assumed greatness simply because of its world-class rep?  Conversely, any beer that heralded is definitely not gonna live up to the hype, so how do you not dock points simply because it doesn’t taste otherworldly?  What if it just tastes like a good beer?

These are the dilemmas that come with drinking the Trappist Westvleteren 12.

The Westy 12 had all the OG hype that you’d now find swirling around a beer like Pliny the Younger. Similar to that out-of-print record I don’t give a shit about until I learn it’s out-of-print, the Westy 12, a Belgian quad, is not available at your liquor store or mine so that (artificially?) drives the demand.  It’s made by Trappist monks at the Saint Sixtus Abbey in, you guessed it, (West) Vleteren, Belgium. This is not a beer that gets pumped out to anything resembling mass production. They make enough to keep the monastery open and running and that’s it. You have to get it in person, or pay a criminal amount online ($150 + shipping for a 6-pack anyone?) and then hope it all shows up in one piece.  You also have to hope what you find online is not fake Westy like reported here or maybe here.  It’s less shopping for beer and more like collecting rare stamps.

I didn’t have to drop a bunch of Bitcoin buying bottles on the dark web or take out a second on the house to put a few in the fridge.  I got mine from my little brother who was living in Germany while working for the US Air Force. He’d successfully mailed two bottles my way in 2016, and when he and the wife and fam moved home to the US this year, they brought a few more back with them (at about 20 for a 6-pack at the Abbey, btw).  Fortunately, a couple of those bottles found their way to my home.

You wanna talk hype?  Dig this bottle. Paired with the proper Westy glassware, it looks like something the grail knights from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade should be protecting.

“You chose… wisely.”

No label.  Just a dark, chocolate-colored bottle with “TRAPPISTEN BIER” worked into the neck of the glass.

The cap is gold, features the logo, identifies the beer as 10.2%  and lists a stamped-on “best before” date. The Westy I’m about to drink was bottled on 27 Oct, 2016 and is “best before” the same date, 2019.  Today will do just fine.

Descriptions of the beer online read like letters to the editor in the back pages of Thanksgiving Food Porn magazine (which probably exists).  A sampling:

Aroma of fresh bread, raisins, hints of clove and allspice.”

“…flavors of brown sugar, dates, figs, caramel, chocolate, and spice.”

“Rich aroma with dark fruit, nutty malts, mild caramel/toffee, light Belgian yeast and a light herbal spice.”

Makes you wanna #GravyBoatAndChill no?

The internet and the hype machine have informed me that this beer is wonderful and I love it.  If I’d paid $150 for a 6-pack, I’d likely force my brain to only accept that it was great, maybe for no other reason than to justify the financial drop.  

A quick aside – I once had a chance to drink Pliny the Younger. I was in San Diego county and a friend who worked at a brewery told me a place in town had a keg.  We called and they confirmed they did have it. $14 for a 6-ounce pour, and there was already a 45-minute line out the door. How do you properly appreciate that? How do you not make up your mind that it’s the best thing ever, or it’s totally overblown? 

Back to the present.  This Westy poured beautifully and looks like a thing you want to brag to all your friends about (me, right now).  Without going full beer-nerd, I fully back the deep fruit notes described by the thanksgiving food porn guys. And while a decent comp, in my opinion, is the St. Bernardus 12, this particular Westy 12 is way boozier.  Hype or no, this beer, with all its dark, bursting fruit is phenomenal. A richer, fuller-bodied beer would be hard to find on any continent.

If you’ve got a trip to Belgium coming up, then definitely go to this place (duh).  If it tastes this good in my living room, I can only imagine how much better it would be in the monastery with all the vibes set to “Optimal”.  If Belgium’s not in the immediate future, but you can find the beer and the price is whatever “fair” is to you, then I still highly recommend it.  Otherwise, get that St. Bernardus 12 at the liquor store and enjoy a different delicious beer instead. 

Proost!

One final note – It’s advisable to not search electronic bay dot com for rare and/or out-of print vinyl after drinking rare and/or out-of-print 10% beers.  Your Chase card (and maybe your significant other) will likely hate you for it. 

I mean, just because no one else has a thing, does it make that thing any better?

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Review: The Hops Spot

There two kinds of people in the world.  There are those who eat poutine, and those who do not.

(Author’s note: there are actually several other kinds of people in the world.)

What’s poutine, you say?  I’ll pretend you’re asking me that, semi-imaginary reader, strictly for purposes of moving this write up along, and not out of ignorance.

Poutine is a dish of french fries, mixed with cheese curds (known in some parts as “squeaky cheese”), and then topped with gravy.  The same kind of gravy you’d normally be ladling over stuffing and mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving, that is to say.

It looks like this, in its simplest and most delightful form.

Poutine!

Now, you might think that a person would have to travel to the great white north, AKA Canada (sometimes affectionately known as “America’s Hat” or “America Jr.”) to find a proper plate of poutine.

But if you thought that, you’d be wrong, and, possibly, oblivious.  I can forgive you.  Let’s not let it ruin this fantastic thing that we have going here.

No, the dish of poutine pictured above was served up right here in one of Syracuse’s newest eateries, The HopsSpot.

I visited this place with a few buddies recently and had me a big ol plate of poutine.  I washed it down with a couple of delightful beers from their excellent beer list, in another installment of my running “two beers, one lunch” motif.

The beer list can be found on their web site and when dining there in person, on paper menus (they run 4+ pages long), with over 40 choices of draft and can/bottle beer to choose from.

I started my day with a Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale.

Hair of the dog, ayuk nyuk

Those who’ve read this blog before will know that I have a penchant for a brown ale.  They speak to me, in fact, I can think of very few brown ales that I have not enjoyed.

There’s something comforting about them, smooth and inviting, like wearing my granddad’s sweater.  Except, in this case, I’m stuffing that sweater into a pint glass and then wrapping it around some poutine that’s landed in my gut.

This particular brown ale (6.5% ABV, 29.5 IBU) is particularly tasty.  The web site doesn’t provide the usual floral descriptions, or mention hints of any particular flavors, so I will describe it as being the resultant product of a love affair between a Canadian lumberjack and an Egyptian belly dancer, sprinkled liberally with pixie dust and magic brown slurpiness.

I moved on from the Dog to an IPA, this time going with the Troegs Independent Perpetual IPA (7.5% ABV, 85 IBU).  I do pick my drinks out often based on the “maximum punch” process, preferring higher ABV choices to lower ones and 16 oz. servings to the 10 oz “specialty” sizes.  So this bad boy fit the bill on both counts.

This IPA, ITBMCBB*, “emerges rife with sticky citrus rind, pine balm and tropical fruit.”  Now, pine balm would be a hard flavor to identify on my best days.  I have pine trees growing behind my house, though I’ve never balmed them or sought balm from them.

Nor can I claim to taste tropical fruit, or sticky citrus rind.

That doesn’t mean that it’s not still a fine, fine choice.  It’s hoppy, sure, but in a fun, delightful way, like when the neighbor’s kid gets too many pixie sticks in him and starts hopping up and down the street like he’s on a pogo.  You don’t care, it’s someone else’s child, let him get all hopped up.

The Hops Spot has a menu full of good looking choices – burgers, salads, and several other varieties of poutine, all of which I hope to sample in the upcoming weeks and months.   Not to mention another 38 or so beers, most of which are new to me (though I was pleased to see them carrying choices from the Buried Acorn on their list, among others).

For those not local to Syracuse, go out and find yourself some equivalent poutinerie (yes, that’s a real word, it’s on the Hops Spot web site after all) and dig in to this northern delicacy.

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Review: Boulevard Brewing Company Jam Band Berry Ale

It’s back for another go at one of Syracuse’s finest lunch spots, to sit down and have a meal and a cold libation.

That place being the Dinosaur Bar-b-que.

As a regular diner at this establishment, I can tell you that you can’t really go wrong on the lunch ordering.  On my most recent visit I partook of a cheeseburger and fries, pretty standard fare, but I can tell you that their brisket and pulled pork sandwiches are also top drawer.   I’m not much of a wings or ribs guy but those are also well spoken of.

And what do all of these things have in common?  Savory barbecue flavoring?  The ability to make the middle of your body look like a bean bag chair?  Yes, that too.  But that’s not what I’m going for here.

They all go down delightfully with a pint of ale.

This is the Barley Prose blog, after all, not an ode to bean bags.

On to the beer.

This beautiful reddish concoction, pictured above, is one of the regular beers served on tap at the Dino.

It is the Jam Band Berry Ale, made by Boulevard Brewing.  Sold nationally but based out of Kansas City, MO.  I have a friend who goes way back on this beer, her being from Kansas, and I saw her slurping one down as we tailgated before a concert this past summer at the Lakeview Amphitheater and made a mental note to go try one.

I am also partial to the fruity beers, having reviewed a delightful guava gose, among others.

So, on to this one (IBU 6, ABV 5.9%).  For the record, ITBMCBB*, this beer is marketed as featuring  “…blueberry, raspberry and tart cherry play in perfect harmony to create a slightly tart ale that sings with ripe, bursting fruit flavor. Aromas of dark berries, citrus and melon open the show, bridging to zippy fruit flavors that meld into an easy-drinking summer beer worthy of an encore.”

And doesn’t that sound nice?  I personally missed the comedic duo of Cirtus and Melon, and their stylings, but, you know what?  I have the palate of a barely evolved chimp.

I happened to drink one of these with my burger and fries just the other day, served up by one of the Dino’s very lovely servers.  She brought me a beer, so, of course, I love her!

And, boy oh boy, what a treat of a beer this is.  Tart, and sweet, and fruity, but, unmistakably still a beer.  Sweet, and delightful.  Goes with all kinds of things.  It’s like if an ice cold beer made love to a peanut butter sandwich, and birthed a 16 oz love baby into a pint glass and found a buxom Asian gal to bring it to me in a bar-b-cue joint.

I see from public web sites that these bad boys go for a very affordable $10.99 for a 12 pack of 12 oz cans.  That’s a solid price point.

I’ll be back to the Dino, of course, and this one now goes into my regular rotation, along with the similarly sweet and delicious Juicy Haze IPA also served on tap there.

Check out Boulevard Brewing Company on Twitter, and Instagram, and probably Facebook (I don’t roll with the Face.)

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Four Silly Beer Pictures

Beer names get sillier and sillier, so why not take silly pictures to accompany them?

photo by Ceetar
For the Birds by Brix City Brewing

For The Birds was a hazy American Pale Ale. It was pretty typically fruity, with that hop burn from intense hopping. If hazy is your thing, you’ll like Brix City.

photo by Ceetar
Brain Dance by Nap Time Liquid Creation

Nap Time is a new label, basically a brewer’s label, put out by KUKA/Andean Brewing Company in Blauvelt. This was a tasty one, despite my bad pour. Sticky resiny/dank hops and plenty of flavor. It’s an aptly named brain dance.

photo by Ceetar
Money Mad Fat! Collaboration by Interboro and Barrier

Barrier and Interboro are both Long Island based (okay, Brooklyn and Long Island) breweries that have been making great IPAs. Mad Fat! is Interboro’s series, and Money is Barrier’s. Money is a little more traditional, and Mad Fat! is a little more New England, but they’re both great beers on their own as well.

photo by Ceetar
The Last Bovine by Bolero Snort

Bolero Snort is one of only three breweries in my giant county. (I’m available to help! Let’s get another one going here in Bergen County NJ! GoFundMe!) They’ve been skirting that Cease and Desist line for a while with topical pop culture themed, and cow pun, beers for a few years and will be opening a tap room in 2019. The beers are typically good, though I admit I don’t remember how this one tasted when I had it last Christmas.

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Review: Buried Acorn Brewery

I’m a man with many ideas.  Some of them are more practical than others.

One idea I had recently was a line of greeting cards where every message, happy or sad, was followed by the phrase “ya jackass” or “ya big idiot.”  Because the juxtaposition of emotions is, of course, wildly funny.

“Happy 25th Wedding Anniversary, Ya Jackass!”

“Condolences on your Family’s Loss, Ya Big Idiot.”

I’ll let the reader judge the value inherent in that concept.

Another idea I had was for a brewery to open here in Syracuse where I live, only, instead of being downtown, where parking is at a premium, and requiring more driving time to get to, instead, that brewery would open in the northern suburbs, perhaps even adjacent to one of my regular running routes, and serve up all kinds of delicious local beers.

Well, lo and behold, this second idea has come to pass!  In the form of the brand new Buried Acorn Brewery and tap room.  The tap room features “16 draft lines pouring Barrel-Aged mixed-fermentation sour Ales, classic and long-forgotten Farmhouse styles, as well as some monogamous hopped up offerings.”

Sixteen draft lines.  That’s a respectable set of choices!

Open since July 13th, I meandered down to the new joint after work and after a humid four mile run, thirst buds locked and loaded for a sudsy replenishment.   The initial beers available at the time (a few more have since been added) is shown below.

I decided to start my de-thirsting by ordering a pint of the Oatmeal Stout.  They have both a regular and Nitro-charged version on tap; I went with the regular only because I failed to notice the Nitro until after my order was in.

The bartender was prompt and friendly and, of course, I love her!  She gave me this!  (Reasonably priced $5.50 pints, by the way, not too much of a crotch kick to the wallet…)

I have had a few other oatmeal stouts and they all speak to me.  I’m an oatmeal guy, it’s one of my go to breakfasts, and the mellow sweetness of the other oatmeal stouts I have had (Ommegang’s, for one, and also a cappuccino oatmeal stout by the Blue Moon folks) have all been a treat.

I think of it as a “breakfast beer.”  Not that I’m drinking beer with my breakfast, I mean, I have things to do!  However, on nights where my family and I are having the ever popular “breakfast dinner,” scrambled eggs, pancakes, bacon, etc., then the oatmeal stout is a winning choice.

This particular oatmeal stout (5.5% ABV, 23 IBU) is excellent.  Rich and creamy and cold and frothy.  It also contains, ITBMCBB*, “notes of chocolate and coffee,” though, I mostly just taste the deliciousness.   If it were any more oatmealy, I’d be topping this with maple syrup and a pat of butter.

I then moved on to the Alpha Bender IPA (7.3% ABV, 23 IBU).

It’s a golden, delightful treat, much like a Disney princess’ hair.  This particular IPA is described by the Buried Acorn site itself as being full of  “soft bitterness with ripe tropical fruit on the nose and a crisp dry finish. Crafted with NY State grown hops and barley while employing revolving hop editions from around the world.”  Doesn’t that sound pleasant?

To me, and perhaps this is why I’m not writing copy for breweries full time, the IPA tastes like “what it must taste like if a mythical dragon pee’d a rejuvenative cold mythical magic dragon pee drink into a pint glass.”

The bar is also hosting other local brewery products on some of their 16 taps.

I am likely to try the Critz Farms Pig City Porter on my next visit, as I’ve had that one in cans before but not in draft, and know it to be a treat as well.

The Buried Acorn is also now selling cans of some of their beers, to go, as well as growlers.  I’ve not ever purchased a growler of beer in my life but those branded ones are pretty slick.

The tap room itself is also a very pleasant joint in which to sit down and beer up.  They have bar and table seating, and board games, and the service was prompt despite there being a good sized weekday crowd present.

And the chairs have a delightful “assfeel” to them.

I’m looking forward to returning to the Buried Acorn and sampling some of their newer choices (the Ghoster Blanc and Hot Whip were not ready at the time of my initial visit, but now show on the company’s web site).

These folks also do have an active Facebook page and Instagram account, announcing specials and new offerings.

So, come bury your liver at the Buried Acorn.  I’ll meet you there.

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Come for the Chile, Stay for the Beer

New Mexicans, it can be safely stated, are culinary innovators. The Frito pie*.  The sopapilla. The green chile cheeseburger.  Borne of hunger and New Mexican ingenuity, with local New Mexican chiles chopped by precise New Mexican hands, the green chile cheeseburger is the most famous example of the edible imagination of the people of the 47th state.  Take a thing that is good and make it our own – bigger, bolder, spicier.

The Spanish brought chiles to the Native Pueblo tribes in what would become northern New Mexico in the 1580s.  Being ancestors to future New Mexicans who will want to amplify every last flavor they encounter, the Puebloans gravitated to a particular style of pepper, and modified it to the long, fiery chile pod generations of New Mexicans would masochistically devour, setting fire to our mouths while sweating through our insanely delicious meals.  We’re a little loco like this.

The New Mexico-style IPA follows in this tradition. We were drawn toward classic hop-forward profiles like Bear Republic’s Racer 5 and Green Flash’s West Coast IPA. While we thought the style was great, just like the chiles our forebears fell for in the 1500s, we needed MORE. The west coast IPA is cleaner and lighter by comparison. The Colorado-style (whatever the hell that is) seems something of a hybrid of west coast and New England styles. To drink an IPA in New Mexico, though, is not to drink a crisp or light beer, no. To drink an IPA in New Mexico is to submit your palate to an aggressive, punch-you-in-the-mouth, full-on assault by hops. See? We’re kinda loco.

That brings us to the New Mexico IPA Challenge, the Royal Rumble of IPA elimination tournaments. Preliminary rounds in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos led up to the championship, which was held on Saturday at the gorgeous new Bosque Brewing Co. location in Bernalillo, New Mexico.

the new Bosque North in Bernalillo, NM

The premise of the competition is simple. For 20 bucks, you are handed a tray with a dozen or so clear, plastic cups, each filled with 3-ish ounces of beer. You are also given an (empty) souvenir pint glass. You don’t know what the beers are. Under each cup is a number. Drink the cups of beer. On a piece of paper, write down the number of the beer that was your favorite and give that piece of paper to the bar-keep. They will pour you a pint of beer that corresponds with the number you chose and record your written vote. Drink that pint in your now full souvenir glass. Be happy, because beer. At the end of the day, the votes are tallied and the names of the beers are revealed, and you find out which you voted for, and which you roundly mocked like an arrogant jerk.

15 delicious, anonymous beers

We attended the Albuquerque prelim and final rounds in 2017 (won for the second year in a row by the excellent Boxing Bear Brewing Company and their Bear Knuckle IPA). We went to the first elimination round in Albuquerque this year, where 44 breweries submitted entries for the best IPA in New Mexico. There were, to me, a surprisingly high amount of hazies as the state has been a relatively slow adopter of this trend. Would our hop-heavy palates allow for this softer, fruity invasion?

NMIPAC standings before the final round

The previous 3 rounds whittled the 44 breweries down to a tidy field of 15 deserving finalists. At approximately 3 ounces per cup times 15 entries, plus an additional 16 ounces from the souvenir pint glass, each of us would be “tasting” the equivalent of a Super Big Gulp of boozy suds that day. Pretzels would reset our taste buds between sips. Lyft would cart our drunk arses home.

Aside from straight-up guzzling, there’s really no wrong way to do the blind taste test. I started sequentially, would jot down a few observations, work my way through all 15, and then start again at #1, noting the changes in each as both the temperature outside and the beer got warmer under the hot New Mexico sun.

Like a Joco Pastorius bassline, a few of Albuquerque’s premier beer makers have unmistakable hop profiles. In the elimination round, I knew La Cumbre the second that danky IPA hit my tongue (and also realized I spend way too much time and money drinking La Cumbre). It was the same in the finals with my #6 beer (which I guessed correctly to be Bosque’s bitter Just Bearly IPA) and #10 (AlbuMurky, the New England-style entry by the aforementioned Boxing Bear). I also guessed the Red River Bad Medicine Honey DIPA, but only because of the reddish color and caramelly finish. (We met the brewer later at the event and he described his recipe as the same hops used in Pliny the Elder, plus a ton of local honey. It’s not Pliny at all, but it tasted… unique.)

I liked the hazy #10 on my tray, but leaned more heavily toward the classic, hoppier offerings, deciding ultimately on #5, which was in this reviewer’s humble know-nothing opinion, the most well-balanced IPA on my tray. My brother went #5, too, and my girlfriend went on her own with #11. The votes were tallied and we walked through to the back of the brewery to await the results.

Wandering through Bosque

The announcer, shooting for some dramatic flair, slowly and agonizingly announced the third place winner as AlbuMurky, the hazy brewed by two-time defending champ, Boxing Bear. Another Albuquerque heavy-hitter, Marble Brewery, was announced as the second place finisher (my beloved #5 beer, which would turn out to be their Safeword IPA). Steve Harvey actually got the order wrong as it was Boxing Bear second, Marble third, but that was a small detail. He had one more chance with the winner yet to be announced.

So which storied Albuquerque brewery won the championship? None! It was Blue Corn Brewery out of Santa Fe (#4 on our trays, but apparently #1 in our hearts), the first non-Albuquerque brewery to win the competition since none other than Blue Corn back in 2013.

My girlfriend, to her credit, described the eventual champ as “not bad/top contender/got malty.” I described #4 as “bitter/too skunky,” proving definitively that I know jack shit about this beer-tasting thing. We did make the trip to Santa Fe on Sunday and stopped in Blue Corn to try a pint of the champ (named Gatekeeper IPA), but they didn’t have it on yet. Presumably, it’s a special or one-off recipe, so we’ll have to wait til they make a bigger batch before we can get reacquainted with it.

As for the hop versus hazy debate, Boxing Bear did comment in a classy concession post on Instagram that their hazy was a “risky” move. I can’t disagree too much with that and credit them for trying something different with a three-peat on the line.

The votes at the end of the day did lean heavily toward sledgehammer heavy hops, but like chile peppers, west coast IPAs, and tourists’ stolen cars, maybe the New England-style beer will be the next thing that New Mexico takes and makes her own.

*  the late, great Anthony Bourdain disagrees with the greatness of the Frito Pie

PS – Come visit us in New Mexico and drink our awesome beers!  New Mexico Ale Trail

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