OH SO FAUX RETRO

A recent investigation of Full Sail Brewing Company’s Session Premium Lager, has lead to a closer examination of the retro-classic movement in the beer world. Session is what could be called a faux-retro-classic brand, with snub nose bottles complete with bottlecaps with printing underneath (it is either rock, paper or scissors here). All of this fine attention to package details it seems is an attempt to imitate real retro-classics such as Pabst Blue Ribbon or Ballantine Ale. PBR if you have never noticed, has playing card symbols underneath their bottlecaps, while Ballantine Ale has pictoglyphics. The snub nose bottle goes even a little further retro. Back to the late 50’s, when regional brewers chose this squat, space saving package for bottled beer. I am old enough to remember having my first Yuengling porter in this kind of bottle.
Not to sound too much like a voodoo doctor from Vienna, but isn’t the retro-classic movement a kind of consumer comfort zone in troubled times? This marketing technique can be useful for all kinds of products, from clothing to food to motorcycles to tools to electronics… you name it. The thing about retro-classic it is not just nostalgia for the past, but for memories that never really existed.
From what I have read, the people at Full Sail take Session’s working man ethic seriously, to the point that it is considered protocol to drink this beer straight from the bottle. But of course the bottle being eleven ounces rather than the standard twelve, reminds us that this is faux-retro.
The craft beer world has its own forms of New Speak. Take for example this expression: session. This is some polite jive thought up by the beer intelligentsia to not use words such as: pounder or slammer. A good example of this: you buy a couple of cases of beer at a drive-thru and the clerks says I see you guys are gonna pound a few! For those who want to elevate beer to the planet of the well-heeled, this would be considered uncouth.
Is class warfare going to break out over beer you ask. Naw, no matter how many Thomas Hardy Ales, Sam Adams Utopias, etc… beer will always be considered by those who know (whoever they are) to be on a lower rung of the cultural ladder, below wine and carefully aged spirits. Which is for the best. At least for The Beer Doctor. I was always attracted to beer because it is the people’s drink. Grape juice only drinkers will never know the restorative power of malt.
Speaking of malt, I came across a beer from Russia called Baltika 9 extra lager. This is what should be called malt liquor, because it was brewed with all malt, plus malt syrup, I guess for an extra fermentable. Although it makes no claim to be malt liquor, in fact, despite the Extra Lager in the name, it claims to be ale. This has much to do with taxes than proper identification of style.
Talk about bang for the buck! Baltika 9 Extra Lager, is 8%abv and sells for $2.99 in a fifty ounce plastic bottle. Now that is a people’s beer.
Thank you. The Beer Doctorst_thomas_151.jpghomer.jpg

A THANKFUL JOB

First here is a list: 1.Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome
2. Samuel Adams Winter Lager
3. Goose Island Christmas Ale
4. Anchor Brewing’s “Our Special Ale”
5. Breckenridge Christmas Ale
6. Dogfish Head Chicory Stout
7. Summit Winter Ale
8. Stoudt’s Winter Ale
9. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale
10. Saint Nikolas Bock Bier
11. Shiner 98 Anniversary Beer
12. Moylan’s White Christmas Ale
13. Pyramid Snow Cap Ale
14. La Binchoise Speciale Ale         To name a few of the beers I tasted, leading up to this winter. Believe me when I say that I discovered great pleasures, it is nevertheless exhausting. As probably some members of beeradvocate.com would know: sometimes pondering the taste of beer can become too ponderous!  Some reviewers are never quite satisfied. It is like they want a brew recipe to walk them around the block and then tuck them into bed. I’ve been asked many times: beer doctor what kind of beer should I drink? I always say: the kind of beer you like.
Of course beer seekers do not always know what they want and that is where the adventure begins. A truly priceless moment is witnessing someone sample a beer/and or type, for the first time. Reaction can range from horror to extreme delight. Expressions I have heard range from: “that’s like drinking motor oil” to “that is one spicy taco” to “oh my God!” to “wow! that’s got hair on its chest!”
It always good to remember that there are literally millions upon millions of beer drinkers who have only consumed bland pale lagers for their entire lives, and before Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada, there were even more. Not that I object to bland pale lager, for some folks that is their comfort zone.
Tasting new beer is a pleasure and stylistically speaking I do not mind if brewers customize beer styles, in order to achieve a new dimension in taste. Whatever the final results achieved, these efforts should be encouraged. Beer, like the yeast that transforms it,  is a living culture.
Technological advances, especially digital instrumentation, are providing tools for brewers that enable them to obtain a consistency of product unheard of, only a few years ago. Who said modern tools are only here to produce mediocrity? La Binchoise Speciale Ale is living proof this does not have to be the case.
I remember a few years ago when NBC Dateline tried to belittle Samuel Adams founder Jim Koch, by presenting this rather snarky view that Sam Adams is phony because it is brewed in multiple locations. A big media hit job if ever there was one. Some people thought of a conspiracy, a big corporate collusion. But in this case, I do not think so. Media driven controversy is stock and trade in the ratings business. This did nothing to stop The Boston Beer Company from becoming the global presence that it is, and cheers to that.
This is a thankful job to be sure. Whether your brew is Macro, Micro, Craft, or somewhere in between (I think they use to call that Regional), please enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy your beer, why on earth are you drinking it?
As always, thank you.
The Beer Doctor

LIVE FROM THE CAVE

12/21/2007: Well, it is Christmas once again. Someone here asks: “hey Doc, I thought Christmas was December the 25th?”
Hey if you are a western Christian go for it, although the orthodox in the east keep it on January 6, what is called here Twelfth Night. But the Solstice, the Sun day, was celebrated long before it became the Son day. And just to keep it in perspective, today is Saint Thomas feast day, my birth sake name. So let the celebration begin…

I am reporting to you live from the Beer Doctor’s creative space: the basement. The place that is referred to with some affection, by friends and associates, as “the cave”.
The cave is all lit up with CFL bulbs and LED rope light (the mayor of NYC would approve). John Coltrane, Live At The Village Vanguard, plays on the CD changer, where if I am not mistaken, Elvin Jones has found the groove, right before McCoy Tyner provides bell-to-chime support on the piano. Dear John starts very smoothly, sailing away on soprano saxophone.
Beer? What will you find in the apothecary, also known as the ancient Norge refrigerator? I could not obtain my beloved Saranac Season’s Best (it just did not get shipped to the Ohio valley) but I have many other wonderful choices. How about a Goose Island Christmas Ale? Bottled on November 13, it seems to have reached a magnificent flavor plateau on this holiday. Want more of a hop kick? How about a Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale? Want a robust porter? Try this Stoudt’s Winter Ale, it is brewed with cocoa. Or perhaps roddy, you are more interested in a wee heavy. Try this masterpiece of maris otter malt, known as Brooklyn Winter Ale. I should have baked up some shortbread to go with that one.
I do not know the weather forecast, but if things get harsh, I have some Old Man Winter Ale from Southern Tier Brewery, that will certainly help keeps things in perspective.

I noticed that the music has changed. Now it is the late great Junior Wells singing: “I should have been dead, just like my mama told me”. The blues harmonica is starting to get funky. Excuse me, I need to get up and dance a bit…

I recently had someone say to me: “you are going to be Big.” Of course the person who said this had no idea how vast the blogosphere ocean is, and what an insignificant drop I am in it. Some people are impressed that when they look up beerdoctor on google, they find I am listed. “My dear chap, I said, nobody pays much attention to what I do.”
And why should they? There are nearly an infinite number of entertainment choices available, and reading is not always a priority. I just write on subjects I care about. If others enjoy reading them, so be it. (In the cave right now, Junior Wells sings: “baby that’s the way I feel”.)
It is ironic that two of the most important Christmas calendar dates, December 6 and 21, are hardly ever acknowledged by most of my fellow citizens. And isn’t it strange that the Solstice is mostly associated with the New Age crowd, when actually it is one of the oldest Holidays on the planet. A quick note for religious fundamentalists, who always complain about putting the Christ back into Christmas: How about Caesar back into the New Year Holiday? (Meanwhile, Junior is singing: “give me my nightshirt, put on your morning gown”).

Later, several hours later, the internet radio is on, KNTU I think, beautiful, soulful jazz, simply flowing along. It would be grand if some folks stopped by for a cup of cheer, but everybody is so busy. Perhaps if I was driving an automobile, I would be occupied too. Instead of running around, I am culturally hunkered down, live in the cave, as it were. What have I to be thankful for? Why bloody everything! I have plenty of food, beer, clean water, and plenty of entertainment media, from DVD movies, to music from CD, internet and satellite. Being old school, I do not take any of this for granted, including this giant leap in publishing known as wordpress.com.
So now dear reader of this blog, I have a confession to make: I Am Happy. There are blessings within blessings. As always my only prayer is Thank You.

Merry Christ Ale and a Happy New Beer! The Beer Doctor

REMEMBRANCE OF BEERS PAST

It all began when I opened the bottle of Labatt Classic. It wasn’t the bubbles rising to the top of the golden liquid… no, it was the quaff! The crisp flavor acted as an ester driven time machine, transporting me back decades. Before retro-classic, before craft brewed, before micro-brew pub. This was the way it was.
And suddenly the memory returns.

I found myself in a cozy little food shop that specializes in Canadian and imported beers. There is Molson Export, Golden and that French Canuck  juice known as Molson Brador. There is Cinci Cream Lager with a maple leaf label, mind you this was before they used the Handsome Waiter symbol. There is Labatt 50, a classic Canadian ale still being brewed today. There is Moosehead, and Grizzly and Iron Horse.
Across the pond selections had the usual suspects: Bass, Beck’s and Whatney’s (suddenly I recall Stingo, was it an ale or stout?). Buying imported beer at this time was a tricky affair at best. Often improperly stored, light and heat damage often occurred. I remember visiting the storage basement of a rock-college bar where they had cases of Heineken stacked to the ceiling, right next to the furnace. Many of the college crowd in those days actually thought that a skunky taste was the way an import was suppose to taste.
On the domestic front, there was the niche group who drank Rolling Rock straight from the printed glass bottle. It had it’s moment: from the glass lined tanks of old Latrobe… but all of that is gone. Rolling Rock is just a brand in the Budweiser portfolio, manufactured in New Jersey.
Seeking an interesting beer at this time was not an easy procedure. Besides an occasional local spring bock, most of the time was spent knocking back ordinary suds. And how mundane they were! Many decent regional recipes were compromised by marketing geniuses who thought it was wise to use less and cheaper ingredients to make more product. Before their demise, many a brand was not recognizable in its final form. Many years later, this lead to the retro-classic revolution: a brewing restoration of classic macro brands, using their original formulas.  But back before 1980, when the President’s brother put his name on that awful Billy Beer, Foster’s which was made in Australia then, seemed like a decent beer. A husky adjunct loaded lager, in a 25 ounce steel can. In those days, that was strong lager for most people. For the more adventurous, there was Carlsberg Elephant from Denmark.
As we moved into the 1980’s, the demand for better beer began to take hold. Merchant Du Vin began importing unknown beers from England and Germany. Smaller, mostly unknown breweries began to be noticed: Anchor, August Schell, Yungeling. New beers from Holland, such as Alfa and Brand, began to appear. Even Ballantine’s India Pale Ale, stored in oak barrels in Fort Wayne, Indiana, could be found on shelves.
The craft brewed revolutions was just a few years away from really taking off. People such as Fritz Maytag and Jim Koch challenged the orthodoxy of the brewing industry. Soon an entire community was created to ensure that beer, one of the oldest and most noble drinks, would not allow its culinary dignity to be destroyed. Prosit!

THE 33RD ”OUR SPECIAL ALE”

This year’s “Our Special Ale” from the Anchor Brewery brings with it all the thirty two versions that preceded it, including the first five that the late great James D. Robertson pointed out, were not wassail. But since those early versions, the essential quality of Anchor’s Christmas Ale has always been the spruce essence that is present in one form another… at least in the 16 years I have sampled them.
This year’s edition gets to the core of the Anchor wassail experience. Rich in spices, quite malty this time, with an incredibly long dry finish. Poured into a non-stem pilsener glass, the rich brown color combined with multi-shaded foam makes this a first class holiday presentation. Although it is not super strong, the ale’s very full body make it difficult, even for the Beer Doctor. to drink more than one bottle.
I have been asked whether Anchor Special Ale would be a good beer to cellar. My answer: absolutely not. This very festive ale should be enjoyed during this season. Additional time would only diminish its amazing flavors. Happy holidays I say, on Saint Nikolas feast day. As always my only prayer is Thank You. The Beer Doctor.