Tuesday, April 24, 2007


One of the Epicurean pleasures close to my heart is beer. I like wine, but I like beer more.

When I was younger, I kept a beer tasting notebook, and would enthusiastically search out any new beer I could find; just to add it to my repertoire. I used to read books on beer, participate in alt.food.drink.beer, and discuss beer carefully with other beer drinkers.

Now I just drink it and enjoy it.

I don’t like to get inebriated. I drink beer for the flavor, not the effect. I typically cut myself off after a couple, or as soon as I can feel it.

Beers can be generally divided into two categories: ales and lagers. Ale is beer made with yeast that floats: it’s sometimes called “top-fermenting beer”. Lager is made with yeast that sinks: it is sometimes called “bottom-fermenting”. Ales are fermented at a higher temperature than lagers, and the yeast tends to produce a fruitier drink, since the floating yeast tends to pick up wild strains in the air. Lagers ferment at lower temperatures, and produce “cleaner” flavors, and typically a cleaner-looking beer.

German and Czech breweries typically make lagers; beers like Warsteiner or Pilsener Urquel are lagers. British and Belgian brewers tend to create ales: stouts, porters, and bitter are all ales.

There’s no difference in strength between lager and ale: the strongest beers in the world are pretty evenly divided between lager and ale.

I prefer ale to lager, and I typically drink British or Belgian beers. The Belgians perfected the “Abbey Ale”, which is a strong (typically more than 8% ABV) or “high gravity” beer. They are typically bottled in larger bottles (typically 750 mL bottles) with live yeast and sugar, so they continue to ferment in the bottle. The British term for that is “Barleywine”, although they don’t use it very consistently. I use the term “British” to include all the British Isles: so I consider Guinness to be a British beer, although it is Irish.

So after that primer, let’s look at some of my favorites:

UnibroueTerrible. This is probably my all-time favorite beer. It’s dark. Not “dark” like Guinness, “dark” like “black”. It looks like soy sauce. And it’s strong: 10% ABV. Now, this stuff is too strong for every-day drinking; but Unibroue makes a “light” version (heh), called Chambly Noir. If I had to forsake all beers but one, it would be Terrible or maybe Chambly Noir This stuff makes Chimay look like a girlie beer.

Irish (dry) stout: Beamish, Murphy’s, Guinness. My “everyday beer” would have to be Irish stout. My favorites are these three, but I’m always willing to try something else. These three each have a subtly different flavor, but I like them all, and am occasionally found sitting in a pub with three pints: one each, in front of me. Sometimes people assume I like porter because I like stout, but I don’t. I have no rational explanation for it, but I don’t like porter at all. I’ve tried a lot of porters, and not one struck me as a good beer. Weird.

Smithwick’s. This is an Irish ale that is making an appearance all over my area. A couple years ago, this was only available in “Irish pubs”, now it’s in all the grocery stores. If you like Smithwick’s, another wonderful beer to try is Belhaven’s Scottish Ale. Wonderful, dark, peaty.

Chimay Grande Reserve. Chimay is the “original” Trappist brewery. Well, probably not, but it’s pretty close. This is the gold standard for an abbey ale, but it’s not my favorite. One thing to note about Chimay: it needs to sit a while before drinking. Grande Reserve is almost always too young to drink when you buy it. Experimentation has led me to believe it needs to sit at least four years before opening. Michael Jackson, one of the world’s foremost authorities on beer, claims the shelf life of this beer to be around 25 years, so you don’t need to worry about leaving it too long...

Samuel Adams Summer Ale. Samuel Adams beers are made by Boston Brewing Company in New England. They are all supposedly “craft beers”, but I think the operation is certainly too large for anyone to consider it a “micro-brew”. I’ve drunk a lot of Sam Adams beers, and I have to say I don’t like them for the most part. Having said that, I eagerly await their Summer Ale every year. It’s almost perfect as a warm-weather brew. It’s considerably lighter than I normally drink, but it has the perfect hint of wheat, a light hoppiness, and a mild spicy flavor. I keep this stuff on hand from April to September.

Unibroue Maudite Maudite is a drinkable Belgian. Well, it’s not really Belgian, but it’s a wanna-be Belgian, and it’s a good, solid beer. I try to keep some of this on hand. It’s not cheap, but it’s decent as Belgians go ($7 or $8 for 750 mL), and it’s a great bang-for-your-buck deal.

Delirium Tremens. Some people consider this the perfect beer. It’s a little too light for my taste (straw-colored), but the flavor is excellent, and it’s a great drink. It’s a little expensive in my neck of the woods (typically $9 for 750 mL), but I keep a bottle or two on hand for special occasions. The same brewery also makes Delirium Nocturnum and Delirium Noel. I think they’re both better than the Tremens, but Tremens appears to be their most popular line: it’s the easiest to find.

Corsendonk. Corsendonk makes several beers, none of them bad. I think I like their Christmas ale best of all, but their Abbey Brown is delightful.

This is not a complete list, but it hits some high points. And please be aware that my tastes change suddenly, without rhyme or reason. But I am generally considered an aficionado: I have never been accused of bad taste when it comes to beer.

As a special treat, I’ve included some photos of my own beer collection. This is not complete, in the sense that I have more beer in my “cellar” than I’ve shown here. But it is a few I’ve squirreled away, so to speak:
Beer Gallery


Gwen said...

I like beer, although I know nothing at all about them. I'm a total weenie, though, because I much prefer the light ales - generally those from micro-breweries in BC.

What was that beer you used to drink from Quebec -- it had a devil on the label, if I remember correctly. That's not Unibroue, is it?

clumsy ox said...

Well, knowing the history and terminology of beer arguably makes you a bigger weenie than just drinking what you like...

Local micro-brews are certainly not loser beers. No matter how light, there is a certain kewlness to drinking a local micro-brew. Every beer snob will hold you in respect for that.

The devil-label is certainly Unibroue. Actually, that was specifically Maudite, which is French for "damned". There's a flying canoe on the label: remember that story? I think that was mandatory reading for French 11 in BC.

I think Unibroue has an unbeatable quality at the price point. Here in the States, there are a couple breweries trying to get into that same league, and some are succeeding; but Unibroue seems to be unique in a couple ways. Most significantly, they're traditionalists: rather than try something very different, they actually imported a brew-master from Belgium (I think from Chimay). Americans are making some awesome beer right now, but they lack balance: their IPAs are bitter to the point of painful, their abbeys are too strong to drink... Americans tend to be fascinated with pushing the envelope. There's nothing wrong with that, but it gets old after a while. Unibroue has a more "mature" approach, which differentiates them.

I think Ommegang is the closest thing to Unibroue here in the States, at least as far as making "abbey ales". They're much more traditional than say the beers from Bell's.

Having said all that, the American micros are doing some cool stuff. Even the ones that are a little over-the-top for my taste are making some good stuff.

In the end, beer snobs have it wrong: it's about enjoyment, not mastery.

KingJaymz said...

"Sometimes people assume I like porter because I like stout, but I don’t. I have no rational explanation for it, but I don’t like porter at all. I’ve tried a lot of porters, and not one struck me as a good beer. Weird."

Naw, man, you'd be downright normal in my neck of the woods. Not many people I know like both porters and stouts. I'm truly one of the few.

Just an educational note:
Because "micro-breweries" were defined as putting out less than 10,000 barrels a year, the industry came up with the term "craft-breweries" as a redesignation. The guidelines now regulate the type (2 row barley instead of 6 row being primary among them) and quantity of ingredients used in the beer as opposed to how much gets put out (think about how much Chimay or Unibroue has to put out to achieve their worldwide distribution). There are many craft breweries here in the Northwest that crank out over 10,000 barrels of some of the finest beer annually. Full Sail, Widmere, Pyramid, Rogue, Bridgeport, etc. If you ever have a chance to get a bottle of Rogue Brewery's...well, anything, do it! They have a chocolate stout that you'll over-pay $15 a bottle for because it is just so d**n good! It's like chocolate and beer had a perfect baby together.

I hate to say it, but I really think that barleywine is a bastard term that gets used far too often. I don't even know what it's supposed to mean anymore.

"I don’t like to get inebriated. I drink beer for the flavor, not the effect." It's nice to know that there are other people in the world that say this. I don't think many in the church believe me when I say this.

Great post man! You've got me hooked on coming back for another sip of (clumsy) ox blood!

KingJaymz said...

I loved your comment, by the way. It is so true on every point.

Especially when you talk about pushing the envelope, I like trying new stuff, but not all the time. I have to be up for it. It is an adventure that is totally cool and unique, but there is something about having a "classic" that is just gratifying and satisfying on so many different levels. It's my real peeve when a local place makes a fantastic beer for a few months, then I go back one day and it is gone, never to return to tap.

clumsy ox said...

Rogue, my friend, is an excellent example of an American beer operation producing world-class beer that's distinctly "American".

Shakespeare Stout is a classic. And I love Dead Guy Ale. I've avoided their high-gravity offerings, largely because of the price: they run $14+ per bottle out here. But now you've got me thinking about chocolate stout...

Thanks for the educational note(s) on the "micro" and "craft" designations, by the way. It was very helpful. I appreciate you setting the record straight on that.

"I hate to say it, but I really think that barleywine is a bastard term that gets used far too often."
Yeah, it's not at all a well-defined word. According to Michael Jackson, it was a British-ism used to describe the high-gravity ales the Belgians were making: strength of wine, but made with barley instead of grapes. But you're absolutely right, it's been high-jacked and reduced to meaninglessness. But it sounds really cool.

And we'll look forward to you coming back! I've enjoyed your contributions very much.

Shan said...

I once got completely plastered on Vancouver Island Brewery's "Wolf's Scottish Cream Ale". Can I be in the club too? Huh guys? Can I?

Thirty years later and I'm still following you and your friends around.

clumsy ox said...


I know very well you've forgotten more about mixed drinks than I will ever know.