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Beer review: Westbrook Mexican Cake

Recently a dear friend treated us to a bottle of Westbrook Brewing’s Mexican Cake Imperial Stout, which has gained Whale status for a lot of beer nerds. A thick and sticky 10.5% ABV Imperial stout aged on cocoa nibs, vanilla beans, cinnamon sticks, and fresh habanero peppers… what could possibly go wrong?

Serving it too cold is wrong. Too cold only allows the harshest flavours and aromas to show through. It was still a touch too cold when we started drinking which meant that the capsaicin heat was quite aggressive, too much so even for my pepperhead sensibilities. Once the beer had warmed up to 55f (cool to the touch) the flavours suddenly smooth out into a symphonic experience: rich, aromatic vanilla; dark chocolate; super dark roast coffee; caramel and brown sugar; habanero fruitiness singing on the nose and the closing statement of gently warming chili heat.

This is undoubtedly an impressive beer.The way all the flavours blend and play with each other, the development of the character as it warms, and the way they all interlock is an experience. Is it “chase the delivery truck” good? Not for me – there’s lots of equally impressive Imperial Stouts out there – but everyone should try this at least once. Who knows, this may well be your own white whale!

Overall: 95%, very impressive, would drink again.

Posted in beer, reviews

An unexpected pairing

After you’ve been doing food and beer pairings for a while, your brain makes connections at random moments. You’ll find yourself eating a cookie and thinking “Hmm, I wonder what this would be like with…” and then checking your beer stash. That’s what happened to me recently.

The smell of gingerbread cookies and molasses hung in the air while we waited impatiently for them to cool down to eating temperature. As I pondered the ingredients I quietly cursed my inability to drink coffee, as it would have been the perfect accompaniment to home made gingerbread cookies.

Hang on, though. Coffee. Stout. What stout do I have that would do this? Founder’s Breakfast Stout.

Yes, people: Founder’s Breakfast Stout plus gingberbread cookies is a dynamite pairing. You know you want to….!

Posted in cooking with beer

Book review: The Complete Beer Course

The Complete Beer Course by Joshua M Bernstein has an ambitious target: “Boot camp for beer geeks: from novice to expert in twelve tasting classes”.

I felt a lot of scepticism at this claim. I have read many other books with similar aims and have usually been let down in a morass of half truths and regurgitated myths. Could this be the book to break this chain of fail?

The chapter structure immediately made me feel that I was onto something better. It starts with a chapter on basic knowledge – what is beer made of? What’s its history? how did we get here? How is beer made? This was a very good starting point, but they way Bernstein lays out the information was even better. He assumes you have no knowledge, but he also assumes you have a brain – the information is presented plainly, without flowery language, but without patronising the reader.

The following chapters take you through a journey amongst the beer styles. This is also a tripping up point for other books, due to the authors not taking account of the palate impact of the beers they write about.

What do I mean by “palate impact”? Well, I will relate here something that has been said to me many times before – “dark beers are too strong for me, I prefer lower alcohol”. There is a false expectation at the heart of that comment – that the colour of the beer has anything to do with its ABV. There are many factors that play into ABV, flavour, body, and mouthfeel, and all of these play into the palate impact. Basically, a light industrial lager will leave you unmoved, while a bourbon barrel aged barleywine will wipe out your sense of taste!

The beer chapters are arranged according, broadly, to palate impact. He starts with lagered beers, while explaining that “lager” doesn’t mean “fizzy yellow canoe beer”, moves through wheat, pale coloured beers, Trappist, dark, winter warmers, barrel aged, and finishes with a triumphantly sour flourish. Pretty much the perfect order – after a couple of sour beers, your palate is shot for anything less than another sour, and you are skirting dangerous reflux territory with too many sours! (Don’t ask how I know that…!)

This book is well worth a read for anyone, whether craft beer novice or certified beer nerd. It is a well written book, an easy read, and even I picked up some new stuff I didn’t know before. It deserves a place in your library.

Posted in books, educational

Local craft beer quality

With “quality” applied to something as subjective as beer, you have to be very careful how you define it. Are sales enough? Some would point to the mass brands as evidence that popularity does not equal quality. What about consistency? More consistency is better, sure. But the most consistent brands are, again, the mass brands. How about availability – if it’s only available in one location and you have to win lottery tickets to buy any, does that mean “quality”? Well, no. There is some ghastly beer out there which is only available in tiny quantities.

How about looking at prizes awarded? Well, sure, so long as you aren’t referring to a Blue Ribbon awarded in the 19th Century! Thankfully, the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) has just ended and we can look at the medals awarded there, and we can also look at a wonderful statistical analysis done by an economist working for the Brewers’ Association, the trade body that awarded the medals.

A word of warning before diving into the report – I know of a lot of great breweries who missed out on tickets to GABF due to the popularity of the event and the sheer number of breweries that now exist. At best, the GABF will only ever show the results from the minority of breweries that attended, which are becoming more and more of a minority of the total number of breweries, which number continues to grow at an explosive rate.

With that warning, let’s take a look at the figures. The top 3 states, unsurprisingly, were California, Colorado, and Oregon. These states have well established craft brewing industries that have been going for many decades. With that lead of experience it comes as no surprise that these 3 states were so highly awarded at GABF. Significantly, these 3 states did not win more medals than all the other states combined – sure, they won 40% of all the medals, but their advantage in the age and experience levels of their brewers does not equate to “these are the 3 best beer states in the country”.

The other thing the analysis revealed was that each state won pretty much as many medals as one would expect them to win based on the number of entries the state had in the competition. What this means is that “beer is pretty darn good everywhere”, at least according to the business association that awards the medals!

In the absence of a national consumer organisation taking on the task of rating beers from every state, the GABF is probably the best evidence we have of the quality of craft beer today.

Still not convinced? Let’s take a look at the Business Insider editorial on “The Best Beer From Every State“. Leaving aside the usual criticism that high ABV and high IBU beers disproportionately dominate such lists, the point is that every state has a flagship beer. I live less than 3 miles from Good People brewery and have been approached multiple times by people spread out across the USA looking for their Snake Handler DIPA.

All of this – awards, editorials, personal experience – goes to show that we are in a new Golden Era for beer. We are in the Golden Era of Local Craft Beer. With 75% of the US population now living within 10 miles of a brewery, what more excuse do you need to go have a local craft beer? You can do so in the knowledge that you are drinking some of the best beer in the world, and one that people all over the world would be happy to try!

Posted in educational

Oktoberfest beers

Those of you who are married probably think you had a pretty nifty wedding day. Now imagine you had a wedding reception that was still famous over 2 centuries later… that’s Oktoberfest!

It all started in 1810 when Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria married Princess Theresa of Saxony. Their wedding reception set such a gold standard that people of German descent – and others! – have been celebrating it pretty much ever since.

Oktoberfest/Märzen beers are a specific sub-group of the “lager” category. They are brewed in March – lending their alternate name of Märzen – to a higher ABV (5% to 6%) and they must comply with the infamous Reinheitsgebot, or Bavarian Beer Purity Law, of 1516. These beers started out as dark coloured, but have slowly become lighter and lighter in colour as time has gone by due to drinkers preferring the beautiful caramel-golden colour now typical of an Oktoberfest beer. Part of the mandate of the Reinheitsgebot was that no brewing could take place in the summer months – roughly April through September – hence these beers being brewed to higher strength to survive the long, cold storage. This extended lagering period from allows for a crystal-clear beer without filtering, and grants it a very clean finish.

With the ongoing explosive growth of craft breweries, there are now many more options of Oktoberfest beers available, Technically, if it’s brewed outside Munich it should be called an Oktoberfest-style beer – so here’s a nice long list of Oktoberfest-style beers courtesy of Beeradvocate.

With so many Alabama stores now allowing you to make your own 6 pack you can easily try several different beers in styles that are new to you, without worrying about breaking the bank. It’s also a lot of fun sitting down with a friend or loved one to share the sample pack and compare notes – you may be pleasantly surprised by the results!

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Posted in beer, beer history, educational, Huntsville-area brewery, reviews

Drinking locally in Scotland

It’s all well and good saying that you always drink locally when you are at home, but what about when you are away on vacation? It’s really not difficult now that there is ready access to the internet pretty much wherever you are.

It’s especially easy in a lot of European cities, like Edinburgh, which has readily available municipal wi-fi. Add in some local beer apps, like the Cask Marque or CAMRA apps, and you are good to go!

In my case I have family and friends in Edinburgh who gave me some great recommendations. While visiting we went to a several pubs, of which the following are particularly worthy of your time.


The Bow Bar

A lovely old-fashioned pub, The Bow Bar’s cask beers really shone. A delicious pint of Stewart’s Edinburgh No. 3, a wonderfully malty cask ale was quickly followed by Houston Brewing co‘s Warlock Stout, a stunning pint. Many more pints could have been consumed, but the research had to continue!

Brewdog Pub

A nice long chat with the staff at the Brewdog pub in Edinburgh was had. They were all stoked to be there and really loved what they were doing, which came through in their attitude and knowledge. We sampled many of their beers, which show a very strong American craft beer influence – this became a foreshadowing of what was to come.

The Hanging Bat

A nice, brightly lit, new pub on Lothian Road with 6 cask and 14 keg lines. A great spot for people watching, but even the cask beers were largely American craft inspired. Definitely worth a visit for the view alone, let alone the great beer list.

Other pubs

We visited several other pubs while we were in Edinburgh, which largely showed an inclination towards The Hanging Bat style – a small number of casks, a large number of craft kegs. Any city that has a JD Weatherspoon pub is well served for traditional pub grub as well as a wonderful range of cask and bottled beer.

The triumphant rise of craft beer in the USA is having ripple effects across the world. The positive side of that is that the old order of insipid yellow fizzy soda water is dying. But one should be careful that the baby doesn’t get thrown out with the bath water – other countries have wonderful brewing traditions of their own, and the danger is that these traditions (like cask ale) will fall by the wayside to the rise of the new.

Posted in educational

What is “session beer”?

The subject of session beer is hotting up in the USA, so I am providing this handy guide to people on both sides of the Pond as to why “session beer” is critical to define.

But before we go any further…

Note for U.S. beer nerds
British Session Beers pack an awesome punch of flavor in sub-4% beers by cask conditioning. Unless you have spent a significant amount of time drinking cask-conditioned, sub-4% beers, you cannot grok why British beer nerds hold them in such high esteem. Please also see the note on percentages below to understand why “session beer” has been generally defined in the UK as sub-4% ABV.

Note for British beer nerds
American macro beer long ago standardized with 5% ABV for their main beers, and 4.2% being the “light” beer. These are deeply boring beers designed to not intrude in any way on the consumer’s brain, resulting in mass consumption. You know this intellectually, but you don’t grok it – for U.S. drinkers, 4.2% and under is “alcoholic seltzer water”, and U.S. beer nerds generally do not understand how tasty and more-ish a 3.5% ABV cask beer can be.

About ABV percentages

At low ABV ranges, small changes in the beer ABV have a disproportionate effect.

5% ABV is 20% more alcohol than 4% ABV
4% ABV is 33% more alcohol than 3% ABV
5% ABV is 43% more alcohol than 3.5% ABV

Also, the higher the ABV the more alcohol there is in the glass and thus the less water there is in the glass. This affects how your body reacts to the intake of the beer.

Explaining “sessions”

A “session” in the British sense can easily include 6 to 8 Imperial pints (that’s 20 fl oz per pint) consumed over multiple hours, usually the course of an evening. A session is a very social event, usually involving a friend or three and dinner either at the pub or on the way home. During a session the focus is on your companions, not the beer, hence the larger volume consumption and the desire for a lower alcohol level.

So now you see why that extra 33% alcohol, which makes itself felt after just a few beers, let alone after 8, isn’t sought after for British cask-conditioned beers. Instead, hundreds of years of brewing history enable British brewers to pack all that flavor into a 4% beer.

The current state of the U.S. “session” beer

There is a controversy in the U.S. about what is the dividing line between “session”, “sessionable”, and “don’t even think of sessioning”. Some commenters say “a session beer is the beer I drink during a session, even if that is an Imperial IPA”. I can’t even compose a response to this – I mean, have you ever tried to drink 5 pints of a 13% ABV beer? Your liver will not thank you.

Others say that “session” in the U.S. sense incorporates up to 6%, or that “sessionable” is anything up to 5.5% ABV. Again, look at the proportions in the percentages table above, do a little math and see whether you can agree with those commenters.

Lew Bryson at the Session Beer Project proposes 4.5% as the dividing line for session beers. While such a comment would ignite a flamestorm in Britain, I think that for U.S. purposes this is an acceptable dividing line. Session beer is not about getting hammered, or double/imperial anything – it’s about a nice, tasty beer that allows you to drink sociably with friends, but which does not encourage you to get drunk.

I think that the future of craft beer is already moving away from the arms race of ever higher ABV. I think that the future will be lower alcohol, full in flavour, and a lot of fun to drink with friends. Those of you who live near Fairhope Brewery or Brew Stooges can already sample this future – Fairhope’s Everyday Ale and Brew Stooges’ Mo Better Bitter are good examples of low ABV flavour packed beer.

Check out your local brewery’s offerings.  Go on, go have a pint.

Posted in educational

The end of the Golden Era of National Craft beer

I am laying out a bold thesis here: that we are at the end of the golden age of national craft beer brands. I’m not saying that we will never again see the likes of Anchor et al, but that we will see their likes much more rarely going forward.

National craft beer brands are, more or less, the province of the second wave of craft brewing. We have behemoths like Anchor, Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head and Samuel Adams striding across a landscape that used to be a wasteland of fizzy yellow swill. Without these brands – and their sadly departed first wave peers like New Albion – we wouldn’t be where we are today, with over 2500 craft breweries.

In a country as large and diverse as the USA, national brands are a mistake. Alabama is different to Delaware, North Carolina is different from Minnesota, and California is different from everything else. How can one brand serve this diversity? It’s kind of silly to think that it can.

Craft beer is beginning to embrace what beer should have been all along – local. The future of craft beer is small. Small is good for economies – just see how many recent articles there have been on the subject of economic regeneration springing from the craft beer revolution. Small is relevant to the needs of the local community. Small keeps money inside the local community instead of it heading overseas to distant owners. Small keeps jobs in the local community, instead of being outsourced to wherever is cheaper.


We are exiting the golden age of national craft beer brands, and that is fine. We are entering a better era – the Local Era.


Think small. Think local. Think drink local.

Posted in educational

Calories in beer

With the recent announcement from the regulating authorities that brewers may, if they wish, provide calorie information, how will that affect craft breweries when consumers see the calorie count?

These figures are calculated by Beersmith, and are subject to natural variations in ingredients, but let’s take a look at a standard 12 oz serving, shall we?

Beer style Ave. calories in 12 oz
American macro lager 145
Belgian Pale Ale 175
Belgian Triple 329
Czech Pilsner 170
Dry Irish Stout 155
English Cask Bitter 118
English Pale Ale 160
Light American macro lager 100
Scottish 70 Shilling 120
Sweet Stout 194

All the traditional recipes listed above are what we would consider “craft beer” – their ingredients are water, malted barley, hops, yeast, and occasional adjuncts like wheat. They demonstrate a wide variety of flavors and food sympathies. And some of them are almost as low in calories as the mass brand “light” beers marketed as “American beer”.

The simple equation most commonly used is “more alcohol = more calories”. But reducing the number of calories imbibed does not mean having to accept a watered down version of an already bland and flavourless breed of beer-flavoured beverage – just choose your drink wisely, and have only one or two. Moderation means a cheaper night out as well as being better for you.

Enjoy your drinks responsibly, and choose craft. Local craft, of course!

Some examples:

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Posted in Birmingham-area brewery, educational, Huntsville-area brewery, Mobile-area brewery

Magic City Brewfest – a celebration of craft beer

The annual Magic City Brewfest is fast approaching, featuring more Alabama breweries than ever before – 15 at last count. Just look at all the local brews (marked with *) on the beer list!

And just today, the
Alabama Brewers’ Guild welcomed two more breweries into their fold, bringing us up to 21 breweries in Alabama:

  • Avondale Brewing
  • Back Forty
  • Beer Engineers
  • Below the Radar
  • Black Warrior
  • Blue Pants
  • Brew Stooges
  • Cahaba Brewing
  • Chattahoochee Brewing
  • Cheaha Brewing
  • Druid City
  • Fairhope Brewing
  • Good People
  • The Huntsville Brewery Inc
  • Old Black Bear
  • Patriot Joe’s
  • Railyard Brewing
  • Rocket Republic
  • Salty Nut
  • Straight to Ale
  • Yellowhammer

Heady days!

Posted in Uncategorized