Reporter’s Notebook: The Best Beer You Almost Never Had

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Trying to quantify something as “best” in beer is often a laborious task, if not a disastrous one.

Beer is subjective, offering an array of tastes and experiences, and even when writing my own analysis of best beer lists compiled by websites like RateBeer or Beer Advocate, I try to write “best” in quotation marks because I realize the results of each poll or survey aren’t necessarily indicative of what that word means to everyone. What is a top beer for me isn’t the same for you.

Except, perhaps, when it comes to one particular beer.

Never have I seen and heard such consensus to elect a single beer as best as I have with Brasserie Dupont’s Saison Dupont Vieille Provision. Or, as you probably know it, simply Saison Dupont.

This Belgian saison, which almost disappeared several decades ago, is truly the benchmark for the style. That certainly made it deserving to be the focus of a recent feature for All About Beer, highlighting Saison Dupont in the magazine’s regular Classic Beer column.

“It’s always a good idea, when you’re learning about beer, to have benchmarks,” said Wendy Littlefield, who, along with husband Don Feinberg, were responsible for first bringing Saison Dupont to the U.S. through their Vanberg & DeWulf import company.

In my conversation with Wendy, time and time again she noted the wide recognition of Saison Dupont as a pivotal beer. Not just for the style, but for the industry as a whole. It’s a beer that has launched hundreds, if not thousands, of imitators. And, as I note in the story, there was a time when it was set to be erased from history.

“There was every intention to discontinue it,” noted Mike Battaglia, brand manager with Total Beverage Solution, which now imports the beer. “Saison Dupont represents heritage, quality and history and it nearly went extinct.”

On March 12, people celebrated Saison Day, another one of those made up beer holidays meant to excite drinkers about a particular style or brand, but when it comes to this beer in particular, it seems an appropriate reason to celebrate. How often can you actually pick up a best beer at your leisure? You can walk into a higher-end grocery store like Whole Foods or your local bottle shop and find Saison Dupont, considered by many to be perfect.

“It’s hard to make a beer with that simple a recipe that also has as much flavor and character,” said Gordon Schuck, co-owner and brewmaster at Colorado’s Funkwerks. “It’s masterful.”

Learn more about Saison Dupont and how this best beer almost went away for good in my All About Beer story.

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Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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Westbrook Brewing Lineup: McCullough, Gratzer and Cap’n Skoon

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My adoration for Westbrook Brewing beers has been previously documented, but because the Mt. Pleasant, SC-based brewery doesn’t ship near me in North Carolina, it’s a rare opportunity that I’ll get my hands on a bottle or two.

So I was lucky to recently get my hands on three.

I’ve mentioned before how this was a brewery to watch out for. The time may have already come for Westbrook in South Carolina, but wherever you catch them, don’t hesitate to stop and sample early and often. Here are a few of their offerings I was lucky to taste and you’d be so lucky to find if they still exist in someone’s cellar or fridge:

McCullough

mccullough webThis is the second offering from Westbrook’s “Bearded Farmers” series. Their first, Hughey, was amazing and had I not been forced to fight against McCullough’s insane amount of carbonation, this beer would have topped it.

That said, the immense amount of foam flowing out of my glass was the only thing to complain about.

This farmhouse-style saison is like a boozy cupcake, with aromas of sweet banana, sugar and honey billowing from its intense carbonation. There’s just a little pepper-spice bite thanks to the inclusion of rye and three different kinds of peppercorns.

McCullough was fermented with three different strains of Brettanomyces, a wild yeast that offers just enough barnyard funk to make the beer a little tart, but never sour.

More info on McCullough

Gratzer

The qualifications over what makes a proper American session beer may be debatable, but I’ll be damned if this beer shouldn’t be a part of the conversation.

At 3.4 percent ABV, Gratzer (pronounced “grate-sir”) is a true session-style. While it’s historically an ale, it is clear as day like any translucent pilsner. Made with 90 percent oak-smoked wheat malt, there’s no missing the taste of smoke from this beer.

Smokey flavor is aggressive to the point where it’s impossible to miss, but light enough that even a sensitive palate shouldn’t be completely turned off.

Typically, this style of beer is made with an IPA-level amount of hops, but you may not notice them aside from a little earthy/floral smell. Smoke is what you want and smoke is what you’ll get with this.

What impressed me most was how truly refreshing this beer was. I sipped at it while sitting outside in the sun, a perfect setting for this brew.

More info on Gratzer

Cap’n Skoon’s Ballistic Stout

skoon webMade as Westbrook’s second anniversary beer, this 10 percent behemouth reminded me a little of the Westbrook-Evil Twin collaboration, Mini Growler Stout, although not nearly as sweet.

Skoon’s booze profile is a bit heavy in the aroma and can’t be missed. There’s chocolate and cinnamon in there and just a hint of tobacco.

On the tongue, Skoon tastes of very bitter chocolate with a leathery dryness that left my mouth feeling a little taxed after half a bottle. That said, the aroma really helped to carry me through because it smelled so damned good. The bitterness is robust, but jabs of an espresso flavor make it pleasant.

More info on Cap’n Skoon

 

+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

Westbrook Brewing Hughey (Bearded Farmers series)

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Round 2 of my brief introduction to Westbrook Brewing, courtesy of Nick at Drink. Blog. Repeat., is in the books.

Friends, this is one brewery to watch out for.

While Nick has sung the praises of Westbrook for some time, what’s attracted me most to their beer has been a commitment to experimentation while still a young company. Reminds me a lot of Fullsteam, one of my favorite brewery options in the Triangle.

My latest go-around with Westbrook was with Hughey, the first entry into Westbrook’s Bearded Farmer Saison Series. Based on the beard featured on the label, this had to be impressive.

How impressive? Pretty impressive. That’s a lot of impressives.
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Goose Island Pepe Nero

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In future decades, a crotchety old man version of myself will look back on my early experiences with Goose Island and think “this beer isn’t want it used to be.”

At least in present day – while putting the AB InBev takeover and the mess of its aftermath aside – it’s easy to say that Goose Island still produces some really fantastic beers. And all joking aside, if there’s one thing Ab InBev is good at, it’s reproducing the same form of quality over and over again, so maybe there’s nothing to worry about at all. Or is there?

I digress.

Goose Island’s Pepe Nero is part of the brewery’s “Vintage Ale” series, which also features well-known, Belgian-style brews like Sofie and Matilda. Pepe Nero itself is a Belgian farmhouse ale, which scores a 85 on Beer Advocate. Let’s hit the jump to see how this black saison performed.
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Great American Beer Festival: Night 1

So … day/night #1 of the Great American Beer Festival is in the books and it was a hell of an experience. Beer as far as the eye can see and lots of great conversations with brewers, brewery employees and beer fans alike.

Interested in a quick and dirty rundown of my inaugural visit and thoughts on a slew of beers? Hit the jump to see which beer kicked my ass the most and the biggest surprise of the night.
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A Few Words on … World Beer Festival

Yesterday was one of my favorite beer events here in Durham – All About Beer‘s annual World Beer Festival. The festival features about 100 breweries with a wide collection of beer, although fall styles play a big role, considering the time of year. This year’s even was perhaps my favorite yet and here are some of the highlights:

Top of the Hill saison – based in Chapel Hill, Top of the Hill is a brewpub and a newly minted distillery as well. Their beers have always been great and their saison that was served yesterday was an absolute perfect example of the style. The beer was light and crisp with wonderful citrus and banana notes on the nose and tongue. While the pour was only a couple ounces, I could tell the carbonation was spot-on and the light, golden beer had a great ivory head. A great palate cleanser and not knowing the specific ABV, it could be a perfect session beer during the waning summer days here in North Carolina.

Abita Andygator – while this brew only has an 80 on Beer Advocate, I’d consider it for a higher number. I’m not crazy about bocks, but this dopplebock was something I really enjoyed. It sits at 8 percent ABV, but you wouldn’t know it and the smell is something more akin to a sour beer in the vein of Brux – very light and crisp with a definite lead aroma of tart cherries. The taste was nothing like the smell, however, with a typical malty sweetness leading the charge. I loved the color – a near transparent gold that sparkled in the sun.

NoDa Coco Loco porter – The name says it all. This Charlotte-based brewery knocks it out of the park with this beer, which is brewed with coconut but I couldn’t tell at all. Everything is dominated by an incredible characteristic of roasted cocoa nibs. There’s just a hint of coffee on the nose, but chocolate and brown malt make this a beer Willy Wonka would be proud of. I was most surprised by the ABV – 6.2 percent – which is right near the top limit of the BJCP guidelines for a “robust” porter. I just haven’t typically seen a porter that strong.

Noda Hop, Drop ‘n Roll IPA – NoDa hit back-to-back homers when I tried their IPA, which showcased all the resin of the Citra and Amarillo hops and none of the bitterness. It was super-clean, crisp and just had amazing citrus flavor. I’d dare say it would be among my favorite straight IPAs I’ve had.

Two other big highlights after the jump.

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We made a friend! or: Guest post on Knee Deep Ryedentity Crisis and Stone IPA

Surely I can’t drink all the beers by myself? Now I’ve got some help from Friend Of The Program David Gonos. He was kind enough to take a few beer recommendations and report back. It’s all a matter of setting him on the path of righteousness – and he’s already learned a lot from doing some homework at Beer Advocate! Good man.

David headed over to his local Total Wine, so let’s grab a pint and get social. On with the fireworks … This Is Why He‘s Drunk:

Here are my analyses of two of the beers that Bryan assigned me. This first beer was tasted before I learned what to look for, how to taste it and how to describe it. I learned it recently and I can only hope I learn more as I try to become a better amateur beer expert!

Knee Deep Ryedentity Crisis
Knee Deep Brewing Company, Lincoln, California

This was the very first beer I drank as part of my “assignment.” It’s a mild, fruity beer that actually reminded me a little bit of Leffe Blond from Belgium – my favorite beer ever. Heck, even their website is classy!

An American craft beer that tastes like a beer I drank from Belgium!?! Identity crisis indeed!!!

A couple years ago, I traveled to Germany to visit Erik and Rachel, two friends from back-in-the-day. Erik was stationed there in the army and he introduced me to several beers while I was there. But a trip to Belgium with Rachel one day turned me on to Leffe Blonde – which means I like this new beer aplenty!

This Ryedentity Crisis is absolutely fantastic – and I fear it will be the best of the bunch. Eating this along with some warm, fresh crusty bread and butter would be perfect. It has a nice, soft, sweet taste that goes down well as a pre- or post-dinner treat.

(Note: I can NOT believe that I compared it to a Belgium beer, and then read that it is a saison (French for “season”), which is a beer generally associated with Belgium. This is like making a guess for a pie in Trivial Pursuit and nailing it!)

This Amateur Beer Expert Says: If warm buttered bread isn’t doing it for you, then consider drinking it with a huge bowlful of mussels cooked with garlic, butter and white wine?

This second beer was tasted after I did some reading and discovered what I’m trying to taste.
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Dogfish’s Saison du BUFF

I am never one to turn down anything Dogfish Head and surprisingly, I had never tried any of their Saison du BUFF collaboration beers. So why not. It’s got an 87 on Beer Advocate.

Brewed with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, this beer smells like a spice rack. But definitely in a good way. Should I have been cooking with this? Even if herbs aren’t your thing, they’re all well blended in this. It actually reminds me a lot of basil beers. Maybe it’s simply the mixture of the different herbs, but that’s what it most easily reminded me of.

The saison is so smooth to drink, part of which was because of how well carbonated it was. The head retention was really strong which also improved the mouthfeel.

I will say this: while I really like this beer, I don’t know if I would want to spend $10 on a four pack of it again. During the summer, one of my favorite things to do is buy some PBR, muddle a handful of fresh basil in the bottom of a glass and pour the PBR over it. While it doesn’t taste near the same level as the Saison du BUFF, it’s essentially the same kind of herb profile considering how much basil I throw in. It’s a much cheaper alternative to getting more of this Dogfish beer.

Nonetheless, I recommend it (and the PBR idea).