Let’s Talk HOPS!

HOPS. Small green cones with fragrant oils and acids that come from tall, stringy vines. Part of the cannabis family of plants, but you don’t smoke these guys—no, they end up picked and dried and brewed into your beer. Sometimes, they’re fresh and whole-leaf, like in a dry-hopped rye or pale. Sometimes they’re processed, extracted, frozen, and then reconstituted into an American style pilsner. Any way you look at it, hops have a distinct impact upon the character of your beer. Sometimes overdone, sometimes balanced beautifully, but always present. Hell, without hops you just don’t have beer.

I got the chance to talk about hops with a noted professional brewer—Scott Vaccaro of the Captain Lawrence Brewing Company. As the brewery’s founder and brewmaster, he knows a thing or two about these little green flowers. We got into the nitty-gritty of things: how craft brewers have been approaching hop profiles, the merits of American varieties, how home brewers can learn a lesson from the pros. But first I want to give you a little bit about what I’ve been up to in my own endeavors.

Since roughly May, my hop vines have been plugging away through rain and shine. We planted roughly a dozen rhizomes—small roots with little growths on them—and gave them plenty of water, sunlight, and nutrients. We cleared the area of competing weeds and mulched the ground to keep them away.  We watched them through everything from two weeks of constant rain to daily burning temperatures hovering in the 90s. The bines broke ground and shot right up towards the sun with a pace and vigor I’ve never seen in a plant. Within a few weeks, they were taller than my house and bushy enough as to make the backyard a jungle.

Then something amazing happened: all of a sudden, in random spots along the vines and between the leaves, tiny little flowers began to appear. These flowers budded into hops, and are now doing their damn best to be the freshest, most fragrant kind I’ve ever seen. You just can’t beat homegrown.

Now I am faced with a conundrum: when do I pick? How do I use them? How do I keep from going overboard? How can I tell alpha acid percentages? Should I even worry? Scott did a lot to answer these questions, gave me his professional advice on how to amp-up my home brew, and even talked a little about President Obama…

Interview With Scott Vaccaro of the Captain Lawrence Brewing Company

BierMag: Hi Scott, it’s Matt from biermagazine.com. How are you doing?
SV: Good! It’s pretty busy over here. (Loud, metallic banging sound)

BierMag: We first met at Beer Table over in Brooklyn. Captain Lawrence was having a promotional tasting. I remember we spoke a little bit about hops then, and I’ve got a few questions for you.
SV: Yeah, go ahead what’s up.

BierMag: Well I remember you mentioning something about Captain Lawrence Brewing Co. having planted some hop plants for its own use. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?  Like, how big is your hop yard, or how many plants you have, or what varieties you have?
SV: Alright. Well, at the moment we have two plots, [each] about 75 vines of Cascade, about 25 Nugget, 25 Chinook, I think; so a little over 200 vines. We planted them just this year. They’re up at Blue Hill Stone Barn Center for agriculture, Stone Barn is a restaurant up in Pocantico Hills, and we’re hoping to get a pretty nice crop out of them next year. This year we probably won’t get much out of them.

BierMag: Right, I have a couple plants of my own, and they’re just starting to bud right now, so it’s at that exciting time right now. So I see it’s all American varieties for you guys, probably what you use in your beers.
SV: Absolutely.

BierMag: Cool. Now, it’s one thing to use hops, homegrown or not, as an art form—I remember tasting your IPA, the Captain’s Reserve, was that an IPA or a double?
SV: It’s an imperial or double IPA.

BierMag: Right. I remember that you guys had brought it through to Beer Table. It was about twelve hours old, you said, by the time it got into the keg—
SV: Right out of the [finishing] tank—

Matt's Hop Yard

BierMag: Yeah. I remember that it was super-fresh, super-hoppy. What I noticed was that it was not incredibly bitter, but incredibly smooth, and I think that’s a hard thing to achieve, and I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about using hops as an art form rather than just a blunt object to hit the drinker over the head with.
SV: Well… (laughing) we like to blend varieties. We like to take I guess the better attributes of each variety, and kind of, you know, let them meld together into something more unique and interesting. When you talk about imperial and double IPAs, and hops being a ‘blunt object,’ its typically an issue of bittering level versus residual sugar left over in the beer. We’re still kind of playing around with it three years later, getting what we want it to finally be, but using blends of different varieties and using them together with a darker malt…then you end up with a little more residual sugar left over in the beer, and everything kind of smoothes out a little bit. You get the bitterness in the background, but a little bit of a backbone in the beer. It really does help.

BierMag: I see. How many different varieties do you use, not just in the IPA, but typically in a beer?
SV: It’s different for every one. More in the IPA, two strains in some, six strains in others, it all depends on what we’re going for.

BierMag: Ok. Is that all mostly just trial and error? Different varieties have not only different smells and aromas, but also different alpha acid percentages. Do you know what you’re getting yourself into, switching or substituting a different variety?
SV: Bitterness-wise, it’s pretty easy. Aroma-wise is a little more difficult. So yes, it’s a lot of trial and error. It’s just playing around with it—you have an idea because a lot of the American varieties are very similar, but you still need to experiment.

BierMag: Right. Ok. Now would you say that there are any traditional ‘rules’ you have with your hops? I mean, a brewery like Sam Adams advertises that they use ‘noble’ hops, which are specific European-grown varieties. Do you guys have any go-to dogma when it comes to hop usage?
SV: We use all American hops at this point. We’re not really playing around with any European varieties. We keep it simple, we use what we like, and I really like the bold flavors and aromas of American varieties, so we’re also sticking to what we know.

BierMag: Like a big, citrusy, sometimes piney taste…?
SV: Yeah, absolutely! I mean there’s variation within. Amarillos can be nice and tropical. Chinooks are known for being more grapefruity. Cascades are a little more tangerine. So while they’re all similar, they’re all still different.

BierMag: Very cool. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about other players within the [craft beer] industry who have become ‘all about hops.’ It seems like in America, everyone’s just trying to make an IPA or a beer so hoppy that it will almost melt your teeth when you drink it.
(Scott laughs)

BierMag: I was thinking about, for example, Dogfish Head, as guys who came out onto the scene and pushed the envelope for hops. Do you think that their multiple hop contraptions are innovation, or craziness? Are they warranted in going overboard, do they have some kind of value here, or are they just being kind of kitschy? Not to pick on Dogfish Head, but industry as a general, do we need crazy ideas, or will basic brewing procedures suffice?
SV: I think that innovation is always welcome. It always brings a new twist onto things. Whether or not that twist or innovation is perceivable in the beer itself, or whether it’s just a tool for marketing and promoting, is on the ‘tongue of the drinker.’ Everyone is going to taste things differently, perceive things differently. But without innovation, without new things, we’d be a stale industry, and I don’t think it would be as exciting as it is today. While not every innovation makes a big difference in the flavor of the beer, they’re all still welcome in allowing brewers to push the envelope. You never know until you try.

BierMag: So you think even a quote “bad” flavor would be a welcome advance, even if you just found a new way to create this flavor?
SV: Well I don’t think a “bad” flavor is ever a good thing (laughs), but “bad” to one person may be great to another. Just because you’re using a new method, a new hop, it may be exciting, but it doesn’t necessarily make a positive influence on the beer. The positive changes stick around. Those innovations grow a brand, whereas the gimmicks tend to go away.

BierMag: Okay. Yeah. Now I know that you’re a former home brewer, and I’m a current home brewer—do you have any advice, knowing the professional side of brewing, on how a guy like me can get the most out of his hops and hop profile?
SV: I always find, when I’m drinking homebrew that people bring in to me, telling me ‘it’s a pale,’ or ‘it’s an IPA,’ I always feel like they’re never dry-hopping, or if they are its unperceivable. I always tell home brewers, don’t be afraid to just throw some more hops in the secondary fermenter. They’ll drop out and give you an amazing aroma. Late kettle additions are nice, but on the homebrew level it’s a little tougher to get them to work out with the volume involved. For the home brewer: dry-hop the hell out of the beer if you want a lot of hop character.

BierMag: That’s a good tip. I’ll have to pay attention to it.
SV: Most home brewers are scared to do it, they fear infection or cloudy beer. Just dump ‘em in.

BierMag: Right. Very cool.
SV: And growing your own hops at home, man, use ‘em fresh, don’t dry them out.

BierMag: Yeah, I was planning on a wet-hop ale, ala Sierra Nevada’s.
SV: Absolutely.

BierMag: Ok. So…last question. A little off-topic, but…I really wanted to know how this landed with you: President Obama and two Harvard bigwigs sit down at the White House to talk race relations. And they open up some Bud Lights. So what’s that all about? What does that say? What gives?
SV: (pause) Well, I…I dunno. I have no idea (both laughing). I think its ridiculous, that’s just my personal opinion. I think he’s the president, and a politician first, so what does he drink, the most popular beer that sells more than any in the world. You know, appeal to the masses.

BierMag: So you think that Obama, in quote-unquote ‘real life,’ probably not a Bud Light man?
SV: God, I hope not. (I laugh) They should think before they promote foreign-owned conglomerates. But we continue to make beer, and maybe one day Obama will drink a Captain Lawrence!

BierMag: (laughing) Well there you go, one can only hope. Scott, that’s actually all I’ve got for you. I want to thank for your time and your knowledge.
SV: Ahh…Thank You! I appreciate you giving us a call. Hopefully we see you at another beer event in the future!

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Visit to the West Coast Offense (Part Two)

We had a few beers in us.  The sun was shining along West Cliff Drive, the surfers were floating in the chop, and Northern California had taken on the perfect summer atmosphere. Before we let the buzz wear out, it was off to find the next new pint of Courage nestled in the hills of Santa Cruz.

Brewery Profile: Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing

Now, I again want to emphasize how limited was the scope of my vacation: we just bummed around town for about a week, no formal itinerary, sort of making things up as we went along. I say this because I wish to point out that Santa Cruz is not the Mecca of beer, merely a hidden gem in a culture of fantastic and innovative craft brew. To an outsider, expecting some over-glorified, expensive and vast brewery where the world’s most exemplary ales and lagers are created, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing might not look like much. It’s a small place, for starters. But just walk inside, and you suddenly realize the movement you are a part of.

The brewery itself is a two-part establishment: to the left and up the stairs is a small taproom, with nothing but SCMB offerings on tap; downstairs and to the right is the brewery itself, a room crowded with metal vessels, fermenters, airlocks, lots of bottles and kegs, and of course more taps. As we stepped inside the taproom, I noticed that the décor was nautical, with a life-saver, an old fishing net, and a cool blue color scheme. Inviting, calming, and quiet on a weekday afternoon, the SCMB taproom is one chill place. Pulling up a stool, my first selection was—surprise—their India Pale Ale. It’s not only my favorite style, its something of a yardstick I use to get an instant feel for the merits of the brewery. Hops are tricky, using them is an art, and in a style that showcases a brewer’s knowledge, the IPA can speak volumes. Thankfully, the 78 International Bitterness Units of their IPA were balanced by a substantial malt profile that finished sweet and almost a little biscuity. The aroma and big hop taste were fresh, and true to the style. I enjoyed it immensely.

Jenn went for the porter (it’s kind of her thing) and was presented with the People’s Porter, an American-style porter brewed with a portion of fair-trade coffee. Full body, and notes of chocolate and coffee made this a smooth, well-crafted beer. I tried it, and with some curiosity, immediately revealed us as the out-of-towners we were. Turning to the bartender, I asked, “What’s with the fair trade coffee?”

Her response was that free-trade coffee provided a fair price to growers and to workers in developing nations and areas, and encouraged those growers to have a role in the companies they provided for. So, good karma all around, but then she let me know that in addition to using fair-trade practices, all of the breweries beers were 100% certified organic.

The organic movement is a big part of California psyche and SCMB is definitely and organization that embraces it. (To learn more about organic brewing, click here). It was endearing to see how a small local brewer not only went the distance in creating well-made and tasty beers, but also went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that these beers supported their providers and emphasized their ethics and values. Jenn and I had a few samples of the other offerings (the Devout Stout and Dread Brown Ale notables among these) and asked if we could poke around the brewery itself.

“Go right ahead,” was the answer, “there’s probably someone down there right now cleaning up.” Not “sorry, we only do scheduled tours” or “ok, but don’t touch anything,” it was an open invitation to get to know the brewery itself.  Feeling much like a kid in a candy shop, I grilled the part-time brewer who was there with too many detailed questions. He was a good sport, and never once begrudged our presence in what was essentially his office. The pictures tell the tale of the small size but large character of the company known as Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing.

California Dreamin’

It’s easy to have a blast in California, and everyone from the budding beer novice to the beer-savvy veteran will find something to fit their palate. But you don’t have to make a voyage of thousands of miles to find a taste of the West Coast. Here I give a few examples of a few California breweries readily available at the well-stocked beer vendor near you.

Anchor Brewing Company, San Francisco

Often regarded as a pioneer in the craft brewing scene, Anchor has been around, in one phase or another, since 1896. After early setbacks in 1933 and 1959, Anchor found new life with a young Stanford grad and brewer named Fritz Maytag, who reopened the brewery in 1965. It would not be until the 1980s, decades later, that Anchor really became the San Francisco landmark that it is today. Their icon, without a doubt, is the staple Steam beer, which utilizes steam thermodynamics in the brewing process. To this day, all their beers are handmade.

Stone Brewing Company, Escondido

Though only recently celebrating their 13th anniversary, Stone has been tearing up the scene in Southern California as long as they’ve been around. Head brewmaster Greg Koch is something of a rockstar in the craft brew scene, and the accolades are well deserved. Stone’s philosophy is a pretty consistent middle-finger to the mass producers of bland lager (you know who I’m taking about) but the beer always speaks for itself. As a brewery, they are bold, and never shy away from the highest quality ingredients in insane amounts to produce excellent beers. As quoted directly from their icon, Arrogant Bastard Ale, “you’re not worthy” of appreciating their beers. Hasn’t stopped anyone yet, though.

Bear Republic Brewing Company, Healdsburg

A combination brewpub, restaurant, and microbrewey in Sonoma County, Bear Republic realizes the importance of the home brewing movement. They acknowledge the innovation and fearlessness of beer that is best captured by amateurs in their garages across the nation. Employing traditional methods, such as cask conditioning, they embrace California ethos and ingredients to bring you some really spectacular brews. Their icon, Racer 5 IPA, is a decidedly hoppy and bitter brew that showcases two northern Pacific hop varieties, the Cascade and Columbus hop.

In the end, I feel lucky to have taken on so much fermented liquid goodness in so few days and to do it all without ever having to resort to the ubiquitous American lager styles we are so used to. California has always been a vanguard of alternatives: alternative lifestyles, alternative sports, alternative brews, too. Get a taste of the West Coast when you can, and I promise you won’t be disappointed for your Courage.

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Visit to the West Coast (Part 2)

We had a few beers in us.  The sun was shining along West Cliff Drive, the surfers were floating in the chop, and Northern California had taken on the perfect summer atmosphere. Before we let the buzz wear out, it was off to find the next new pint of Courage nestled in the hills of Santa Cruz.

Brewery Profile: Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing

Now, I again want to emphasize how limited was the scope of my vacation: we just bummed around town for about a week, no formal itinerary, sort of making things up as we went along. I say this because I wish to point out that Santa Cruz is not the Mecca of beer, merely a hidden gem in a culture of fantastic and innovative craft brew. To an outsider, expecting some over-glorified, expensive and vast brewery where the world’s most exemplary ales and lagers are created, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing might not look like much. It’s a small place, for starters. But just walk inside, and you suddenly realize the movement you are a part of.

The brewery itself is a two-part establishment: to the left and up the stairs is a small taproom, with nothing but SCMB offerings on tap; downstairs and to the right is the brewery itself, a room crowded with metal vessels, fermenters, airlocks, lots of bottles and kegs, and of course more taps. As we stepped inside the taproom, I noticed that the décor was nautical, with a life-saver, an old fishing net, and a cool blue color scheme. Inviting, calming, and quiet on a weekday afternoon, the SCMB taproom is one chill place. Pulling up a stool, my first selection was—surprise—their India Pale Ale. It’s not only my favorite style, its something of a yardstick I use to get an instant feel for the merits of the brewery. Hops are tricky, using them is an art, and in a style that showcases a brewer’s knowledge, the IPA can speak volumes. Thankfully, the 78 International Bitterness Units of their IPA were balanced by a substantial malt profile that finished sweet and almost a little biscuity. The aroma and big hop taste were fresh, and true to the style. I enjoyed it immensely.

SCMB 10

Jenn went for the porter (it’s kind of her thing) and was presented with the People’s Porter, an American-style porter brewed with a portion of fair-trade coffee. Full body, and notes of chocolate and coffee made this a smooth, well-crafted beer. I tried it, and with some curiosity, immediately revealed us as the out-of-towners we were. Turning to the bartender, I asked, “What’s with the fair trade coffee?”

Her response was that free-trade coffee provided a fair price to growers and to workers in developing nations and areas, and encouraged those growers to have a role in the companies they provided for. So, good karma all around, but then she let me know that in addition to using fair-trade practices, all of the breweries beers were 100% certified organic.

The organic movement is a big part of California psyche and SCMB is definitely and organization that embraces it. (To learn more about organic brewing, click here). It was endearing to see how a small local brewer not only went the distance in creating well-made and tasty beers, but also went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that these beers supported their providers and emphasized their ethics and values. Jenn and I had a few samples of the other offerings (the Devout Stout and Dread Brown Ale notables among these) and asked if we could poke around the brewery itself.

SCMB 7

“Go right ahead,” was the answer, “there’s probably someone down there right now cleaning up.” Not “sorry, we only do scheduled tours” or “ok, but don’t touch anything,” it was an open invitation to get to know the brewery itself.  Feeling much like a kid in a candy shop, I grilled the part-time brewer who was there with too many detailed questions. He was a good sport, and never once begrudged our presence in what was essentially his office. The pictures tell the tale of the small size but large character of the company known as Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing.

California Dreamin’

It’s easy to have a blast in California, and everyone from the budding beer novice to the beer-savvy veteran will find something to fit their palate. But you don’t have to make a voyage of thousands of miles to find a taste of the West Coast. Here I give a few examples of a few California breweries readily available at the well-stocked beer vendor near you.

Anchor Brewing Company, San Francisco

Anchor-Steam-BeerOften regarded as a pioneer in the craft brewing scene, Anchor has been around, in one phase or another, since 1896. After early setbacks in 1933 and 1959, Anchor found new life with a young Stanford grad and brewer named Fritz Maytag, who reopened the brewery in 1965. It would not be until the 1980s, decades later, that Anchor really became the San Francisco landmark that it is today. Their icon, without a doubt, is the staple Steam beer, which utilizes steam thermodynamics in the brewing process. To this day, all their beers are handmade.

Stone Brewing Company, Escondido

stone-brewingThough only recently celebrating their 13th anniversary, Stone has been tearing up the scene in Southern California as long as they’ve been around. Head brewmaster Greg Koch is something of a rockstar in the craft brew scene, and the accolades are well deserved. Stone’s philosophy is a pretty consistent middle-finger to the mass producers of bland lager (you know who I’m taking about) but the beer always speaks for itself. As a brewery, they are bold, and never shy away from the highest quality ingredients in insane amounts to produce excellent beers. As quoted directly from their icon, Arrogant Bastard Ale, “you’re not worthy” of appreciating their beers. Hasn’t stopped anyone yet, though.

Bear Republic Brewing Company, Healdsburgbear republic1

A combination brewpub, restaurant, and microbrewey in Sonoma County, Bear Republic realizes the importance of the home brewing movement. They acknowledge the innovation and fearlessness of beer that is best captured by amateurs in their garages across the nation. Employing traditional methods, such as cask conditioning, they embrace California ethos and ingredients to bring you some really spectacular brews. Their icon, Racer 5 IPA, is a decidedly hoppy and bitter brew that showcases two northern Pacific hop varieties, the Cascade and Columbus hop.

In the end, I feel lucky to have taken on so much fermented liquid goodness in so few days and to do it all without ever having to resort to the ubiquitous American lager styles we are so used to. California has always been a vanguard of alternatives: alternative lifestyles, alternative sports, alternative brews, too. Get a taste of the West Coast when you can, and I promise you won’t be disappointed for your Courage.

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Liquid Courage: Visit to the West Coast (Part 1)

California is known for a few things: pristine beaches, endless summer, Napa Valley, the California girls. What’s often overlooked is the real and powerful influence the West Coast has had on the American craft beer scene. Most beer advocates are already familiar with the stalwart story of Ken Grossman and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company (if you’re not, well, pull up a pint and read here) and recognize the iconic green stubby bottles of hoppy pale ale. Not to degrade their success story in any way, but that’s so 1980. Taking the example of Sierra Nevada, founded 1979, is useful because it exposes the huge strides the industry has taken and the paramount role West Coast brewers and drinkers have played. Today, California persists as one of the country’s most beer-savvy populations, with access to some seriously tasty brews. It can get overwhelming, so let’s catch you up to speed.

Surf City, USA

santacruzI want to make one point clear: I went to Santa Cruz to spend time with my family. It was a planned rendezvous dedicated to my cousin, and my primary aim was to relax and catch up with relatives. My beer escapades were an impromptu side-mission that suddenly had me inebriated and trying to keep track of all the different beers I was experiencing. That’s the thing about this place: you don’t need to try to find an awesome beer scene, it’s waiting there for you between the palm trees and the pubs. In any event, I did the dirty work of drinking brews, keeping notes, and taking pictures. Tough life, I know. Here’s a poorly organized list of all the different beers I had the pleasure of enjoying during my stay:

-Anchor Steam Beer, Anchor Brewing Co.
-Racer 5 IPA, Bear Republic Brewing Co.
-Cran Slam Wheat, Seabright Brewery
-Fat Tire Amber Ale, New Belgium Brewing Inc.
-Hop Rod Rye, Bear Republic Brewing Co.
-Hop Stoopid, Lagunitas Brewing Co.seabright 4
-Longboard Island Lager, Kona Brewing Co.
-Lagunitas IPA, Lagunitas Brewing Co.
-Le Freak, Green Flash Brewing Co.
-Long Hammer IPA, Redhook Ale Brewery
-Salvator Dopplebock, Paulaner Salvator Thomasbraeu AG
-Slim Chance Light Ale, Redhook Ale Brewery
-Red Tail Ale, Mendocino Brewing Co.
-Redhook ESB, Redhook Ale Brewery
-Sacrilicious Ale, Seabright Brewery
-Devout Stout, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing
-Dread Brown Ale, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing
-India Pale Ale, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing
-People’s Porter, Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing
-Oatmeal Stout, Seabright Brewey
-The Blur IPA, Seabright Brewery
-Pale Ale, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
-Summerfest Lager, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
-Ruination IPA, Stone Brewing Co.

Twenty-four different brews in five days (reviews and recommendations to come later). Don’t say I never sacrificed for the people.

The funny thing is how easy it was to compile this list. I didn’t actively seek out any of these bottles or pours; I just had some free time and asked around for the brewery. If four visiting tourists can cruise around town in a cramped Ford pickup and get all this done, you can too. The West Coast beer scene is easily a priority for any adventurous and exploring beer drinker, and if it isn’t, it should be on your list. But now I want to talk a little bit about my experiences with the local flavor and people as I was getting progressively more beer soaked.

Brewery Profile: Seabright Brewery, Santa Cruz, CA.Seabright-1

The Seabright Brewery is a brewpub, located just down the road from the Santa Cruz harbor and yacht wharf. We (my father, brother, and girlfriend) showed up around lunchtime on a weekday and found the place already at capacity, with a 10-15 minute wait. Things came together, however, once we went inside. The interior had enough seating for around (total guess here) 30-50 comfortable patrons and a fully stocked bar, but the place to be was outside in the sun, kicking back a freshly brewed tap pour. We sat outside and ordered, taking in the sun and blue sky, and just enjoying passing the time. This place has a definite local vibe to it, friendly service, quite inviting.  The pesto and cheese fries were outstanding and stood up to the bitter, cutting hoppiness of Seabright’s IPA. Jenn had the teriyaki salmon dish and paired it up with the Cran Slam wheat, a wheat beer brewed with 15 pounds of honey and 50 pounds of fresh cranberries. The best pour to my taste was a reddish brown ale called Sacrilicious, which matched a robust malty sweetness and round body to the dry, puckering flavor of “a sinful amount of Columbus dry hops.” Lunch was fantastic, kicking back in the sun, and on the way out I made sure to pick up a growler of their award-winning oatmeal stout to bring back home for the evening.

UP NEXT: the taproom at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, and how to navigate among California’s biggest and baddest breweries.

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Room at The Table: Dedication, benevolence, and tasty brews in Brooklyn’s Park Slope

Walking along a dusty 7th Avenue sunset, you probably wouldn’t notice the place. No loud sign above the doorway, just a stencil on the glass door reading “Beer Table,” and the inviting din of chatting patrons inside. Mason-jar fixtures around bare bulbs cast a soft light over the high wood tables, just barely revealing shelves upon shelves of beers in large bottles with names you have to pronounce phonetically. Beer Table hides its treasures, but accommodates the exploring palate—owner Justin Philips and his wife Tricia have arranged the beer list in a descending manner of “lighter at the top, heady at the bottom” for the not-so-beer-savvy. They source the specialty foods of local artisans to pair with their beer offerings. They use fine beers in the preparation of dishes. The promise of fine food and beer variety tempts the satisfaction of both geeks and newbies alike.

So how does Beer Table fare for events and tastings? Walk by at 9 o’clock on a Monday night—atypical imbibing hours for a hardworking city—and the vibe will tell you everything you need to know. Though elbowroom is sometimes at a premium, Beer Table is fast becoming a hot spot for New York’s local brewers to get face to face with fellow beer drinkers and satisfied customers. Last month, owner and head brewer Scott Vaccaro of the Captain Lawrence Brewing Company of Pleasantville, NY showed up strong with half a dozen expressive and boundary-pushing beers. Their Smoke-From-The-Oak Porter is a dark beer brewed with smoked malt, fermented with wild yeasts and bacteria, and aged in bourbon and red wine barrels. It’s galaxies away from anything that ever came out of a can with the word ‘drinkability’ on it, and has a barely smoky, barely sour, barely vanilla taste. Their Captain’s Reserve IPA was a super-fresh 12 hours old before it found its hoppy way into this writer’s stemware at the Table. And of course, with Scott there to tell the story of the fledgling brewery and his own adventures in the world of craft beer, the stage was positively set for a fantastic evening of craft beer.

Photo by Eric Arnstein

It all came together yet again on Monday, when the folks from New York and San Francisco-based Shmaltz Brewing Company arrived at Beer Table, with requisite knockout brews on tap. Their narrative flowed through owner Jeremy Cowan, art director Matt Polacheck, and New York sales point man Sean Lynch. On a holy mission to show the world just what lager yeast can do, Shmaltz’s dual brands of Coney Island and He’Brew merge Jewish heritage and Brooklyn fortitude with delicious result. Pomegranates, rye malt, multiple yeast strains and the blending of style guidelines—Shmaltz beers are a story in a bottle, and proof that taste buds trump marketing campaigns. Their story is grounded in the melting pot of New York and the forward thinking of the West Coast. In the words of Jeremy, “if we could successfully sell Jewish beer with a Palestinian refugee to a Yemeni Muslim in Hell’s Kitchen, maybe the beer had something going on.” Highly recommended offerings are the Rejewvenator (half German Dopplebock and half Belgian Dubbel, so you know that war’s over) and Bittersweet Lenny’s Rye IPA (a powerful 10% alcohol tribute to the late Lenny Bruce).

The effect of good beers and good company was not lost by the end of the night. Sitting on a stool at Beer Table, sipping and munching away to the easy flow of conversation among New Yorkers, it’s easy to miss the magic of what this place achieves and represents. When you see owner Justin moving among his establishment’s patrons, removing glassware, serving beer and dishes, explaining the nuances of style and taste, you can’t help but be drawn into the level of craft Beer Table embodies. Yes, it’s an opportunity for local grocers and brewers, but the victory is all yours. Beer benevolence is contagious, and Justin and wife Tricia’s dedication is to your enjoyment and experience. Looking to break onto the scene? Pull up a stool at the Table—there’s plenty of room.

“Liquid Courage” is a series of blogs written by Home Brewer Matt Sanders. Join him each week as he discovers unique beers and meets interesting brewers along the East Coast.

Photo by Eric Arnstein

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Liquid Courage

Water, malt, hops, and yeast. Doesn’t sound like much of a list, does it? These four ingredients are the backbone–and the magic–of every beer you’ve ever had. These four humble elements contain the potential to delight or to disgust, to satisfy or to frustrate. Beer is a living thing, and sometimes our encounters with it can be messy.

Yet good (and great) beer is so much more than four mundane ingredients. It’s passion, energy, and creativity. It’s an oak-aged, fruit-added, dry-hopped, twice-fermented, style-bending orgy of taste and bold flavor. It’s alive, and it’s been made just for you.

Liquid Courage is a blog on a mission. My mission as a homebrewer, enthusiast, and writer is to help you sort through the million miles of aluminum cans and bar stools to find that one elusive perfect beer. Your perfect beer is out there, hiding behind mass marketing, high prices, and wine snobs. I’m determined to find it. So grab a pint of Courage and join in.

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