Grand Rapids’ Grand Entrance

Sometimes, craft breweries find success, expand wildly, eventually lose steam, and either sell out or alienate their base of serious enthusiasts and settle for a spot next to Blue Moon’s tap handle at Chili’s. Other times, they keep doing what they’ve always done on an increasingly large, but sensible, scale and bring quality beers to more and more folks across the country. I am quite happy to report that Founders Brewing Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan falls into the latter group.

For the past few years, traveling in the U.S. has almost always meant stopping at a bottle shop or Whole Foods store to see what beers are available that I don’t have access to in Southern California. In many cities, from Austin to New Orleans to New York City, this goes hand in hand with buying Founders beer. Their bottles made their way into my suitcase (if they lasted that long) and into my heart. In fact, the first beer trade I ever did came with a bottle of Founders Imperial Stout as an extra. Just last month, I wrote about how excited I was to try Breakfast Stout while I was in London. And now, without any trading or interstate travel, I have access to their magnificent brews right here in Long Beach.

The news came to me at Beachwood BBQ in Seal Beach, where I can be found at least once a week on Tuesday or Wednesday nights, via a flyer showing the month’s events. Down near the bottom was the headline “Founders OC Launch Party” and that was enough to sell me on coming back the following Thursday. It wasn’t until the day of the event that I realized they would have not only Breakfast Stout on tap, but also Kentucky Breakfast Stout (the famed “KBS” as it is known in beer circles) and Blushing Monk, a raspberry bonanza of a beer. That night, I slipped in through the back door to find a packed house in the bar area. Looking at the board of current taps, I saw that nearly half of them were occupied by Grand Rapids’ finest. I couldn’t wait another minute and got myself ten ounces of KBS.

He likes brewing beer and I like drinking it!

Kentucky Breakfast Stout is a bourbon barrel aged version of Breakfast Stout, which includes coffee and chocolate, and it quickly became apparent why this had been hailed as one of the world’s best beers for the last ten years. It’s a decadent and flavorful beer that’s incredibly easy to drink and reminiscent of a dark chocolate lava cake. Less than halfway through my glass, Mike, a representative from Founders who was there for the release, introduced me to their brewmaster, Jeremy. With my small beer notebook in tow, I asked Jeremy all sorts of specific questions about KBS and geeked out at his answers. Did you know KBS is aged in Heaven Hill, Buffalo Trace, and Jim Beam barrels that range in age from four to twenty years? You do now! Jeremy then pointed me towards Project Pam, a beer I hadn’t but admittedly should have been familiar with. This Black IPA was aged in bourbon barrels that had most recently held maple syrup from a Michiganian hero who ages maple syrup in bourbon barrels for what I imagine is the single greatest thing that has ever happened to a pancake. The resulting brew is complex without seeming muddled or busy.

You won’t regret either of these purchases.

After a few tastes of beers that were being passed around among friends (Blushing Monk might have come through two or three times because its raspberry goodness is too great not to be shared), I finished the Founders OC Launch Party with a glass of Backwoods Bastard, a bourbon barrel aged edition of their scotch ale. Unsurprisingly, it was another fantastic beer that matches the malt sweetness inherent to the style with the sweetness of bourbon, along with notes of oak and dark fruit. It was an apt finish to a night full of beers that fell on the heavy and sweet side of the spectrum. Overall, I am thrilled that Founders has distribution in Southern California now and have already picked up a six-pack of their Azacca IPA and bottles of Backwoods Bastard and their Imperial Stout to add to my cellar. As you see them creep into stores and onto taplists, make a point to start trying beers from Founders. And when KBS hits shelves in a few weeks, you have my permission to freak out—I know I will.


Have you had Founders in Southern California yet? Lucky to live somewhere that it’s been available for awhile? Let me know!


Ales Abroad: Beer in Cornwall and London

It was neat to see how much locally brewed beer there was in Cornwall, even if it wasn’t amazing.

Having just returned from England, I couldn’t help but notice that the beer is slightly different there than it is here in America. For starters, it’s cheaper, warmer, and less flavorful. The stereotype about warm beer in England is half-true: much of the beer served in English pubs is cask ale, which is pulled out of room temperature kegs using a hand pump. (Side note: I believe a compromise would be perfect, because as I’ve mentioned before, much of the draft beer in America is served far too cold.) I admit that I don’t know why beer is cheaper there, though Southern California probably isn’t the best rubric by which to measure America’s beer prices. As far as flavor is concerned, I suppose it depends on what you consider the standard here in the U.S.—if the three most popular beers by volume (Bud Light,  Coors Light, and Budweiser) are the norm, English beer has considerably more flavor. But if you’re reading this, you probably have somewhat of a taste for craft beer and would find the average cask ale in England to be somewhat lackluster.

While I would like to say something about the appreciation for subtlety and the importance of keeping true to style constraints, I actually found most of the beers I tried to be rather unexciting. And I believe there are a few reasons for that. First, English hops are quite different from the American hops of the Yakima Valley that we’ve grown accustomed to. English hop varietals don’t usually have the characteristic pine, resin, or citrus notes that we find in our Pale Ales and IPAs; instead, they are known for their floral and grassy flavors. English brewers also tend to use fewer hops and the resulting beer has a less bitter and somewhat muted (to my palate) flavor. Additionally, the malt used in many of the cask ales I tried was on the sweeter, but lighter, side with flavors of honey and crackers instead of the rich caramel notes we often find in American ales of a similar color. So overall, the majority of cask ale I tried was light in body, amber in color, and slightly sweet in taste with no real bitterness (this last bit being somewhat of a curveball as the style was often just “bitter” or “extra special bitter”). This adds up to a beer that can be consumed surprisingly quickly and voluminously, which I believe is the point. They even serve them in imperial pints, which hold 25% more beer than our puny American sixteen ouncers.

It is easy to miss, right?

It is easy to miss, right?

So, did I have any good beer in England? Absolutely. One night in London, after much research on both BeerAdvocate and CAMRA (the CAMpaign for Real Ale, an organization that nearly single-handedly saved cask real ale from going extinct), I went to Euston Tap, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bar near the Euston train station. Behind the bar were about fourteen taps and eight cask pumps, each pouring a noteworthy beer. I started with was the most exciting brew to me, Founders Breakfast Stout, a world-renowned beer that I’d only had a sip of once before. It had all of the rich coffee and chocolatey goodness I was hoping to experience and was also able to grab their last to-go bottle of it as well. With that out of the way, and some water to clear my palate, I tried the bartender’s choice of cask ales, both of which were done in a hop-forward West Coast style. Clouded Minds Luppol Golden Ale came first and was filled with a classic Cascade hop aroma and flavor in a hazy golden package. Next up was Summer Wine Brewery’s Oregon Pale Ale, which was a successful American Pale Ale in my eyes, as it balanced citrus and pine flavors with a clean malt backbone and an ABV around 6%. I was starting to think that the two best British beers I would havewould be near-replicas of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the quintessential American craft beer; however, a few nights later on New Year’s Eve, I opened a can of Magic Rock Brewing’s Salty Kiss Gooseberry Gose, which lived up to its name with plenty of salt and berries on the palate and satisfactorily ended 2015 for me.

I was happy to see a few breweries branching out stylistically in these ways, and I think that bodes well for the future of English craft beer. And even though I wasn’t particularly impressed by most of the cask ales I tried, I do believe it’s a good thing that they continue to satisfy the average beer drinker’s thirst and carry on a centuries-old tradition in pub culture. As long as they’re not drinking Coors Light, Heineken, or Stella Artois, I’m content.

What do you think? Was I too harsh on cask ale or was I missing something? Or do you agree that the beer in England has as much flavor as the food?



Finding Authenticity

There was a time when quantity reigned supreme in my life; I designate this time in my history by referring to it as “college.” The days of all-you-can-eat dorm food and vast amount of watery beer are now thankfully in the rearview mirror, but why did they occur in the first place? Why did it seem better to drink ten Milwaukee’s Bests that I hated than two Black Butte Porters that actually brought joy? Maybe competition had something to do with it. Though nobody explicitly said as much, it was understood that your social standing seemed to be directly correlated to the amount of alcohol that could you stomach. In a fraternity, legend told of the brother who took 100 beer bongs in a single weekend, thereby joining the Century Club in the most incredible way possible. He was to be revered, as was the person capable of taking the longest pull from a plastic handle of Prestige Vodka, the elixir surely responsible for the greatest number of bad decisions in Westwood Village.

I must reiterate that this is no longer the way I view the world and, while I would like to point to a single eye-opening experience that shook my world like a game of Boggle, the actual change took its course over the length of a Monopoly game, which is to say several months. My first experience drinking a beer and actually enjoying it took place on the sands of Los Cabos, Mexico, when I added a bit of lime to a Negra Modelo and thought “Wow, this beer isn’t just going to get me drunk, it tastes good too!” Back in America, my two gateway beers are probably familiar to many other craft beer drinkers: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and the aforementioned Black Butte Porter from Deschutes. These beers are exceptionally made for the volume at which they are brewed and lead drinkers down two separate flavor paths (which ultimately lead to Double and Triple IPAs and Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts, respectively).

For me, however, the impact was much greater and more far-reaching than leading to high-ABV beers that top lists of must-have beers. At a time when Taco Bell constituted a significant portion of my diet, craft beer was the first food or drink that made me actually care about what I was ingesting. Again, the shift from beer pong light lagers to craft beer was a gradual one, but as my worldview towards alcohol adjusted, so did my attitude towards food in general. Maybe others are capable of drinking something made with love and care by a locally-owned brewery one minute and then scarfing down a soulless McDonald’s cheeseburger the next without considering the disparity between the two actions; I am no longer able to. Good craft beer makes you crave authenticity and quality, and sharpens your ability to spot poseurs. Note that I am saying “good” craft beer here: just because a brewery is local or micro does not necessarily mean it produces beer of exceptional quality. I’ve had plenty of beers that would qualify as “drinking local” that I do not plan to have again. Many of them come from young breweries who produce a line-up that reads like the first five recipes in a beginners homebrewing book, with a resulting product that’s not too far off in taste, either.

When I have these uninspired beers, I question why they were brewed to begin with and usually find myself answering the same way: someone with money must have thought a microbrewery would make them more money. The lack of enthusiasm reveals itself in the uninteresting beer. Similarly, I’ve had meals with all the trappings of new wave gourmet or edgy food truck cuisine, but I can tell they exist for the wrong reasons and can cut through the bullshit immediately straight to disappointment. Craft beer has raised this bar for me. “Good enough” no longer suffices. I’ve had hundreds of IPAs, many of which have tasted quite similar, and I can call out from memory the ones that made me pause and reflect before taking a second sip. That is the experience I want. I want a meal from a chef who was born to cook, puts her soul into a meal, and feels crushed if the food isn’t received well. I want to drink beers made by a brewer who would rather see a subpar batch dumped down the drain than passed along to consumers who hopefully won’t notice. There’s no end to almost-upscale gastropubs selling the same $8 fries with house-made ketchup or breweries whose offerings seemed to be designed for your friend who is in the process of graduating past Blue Moon and Shock Top. After a few tastes of the real McCoy, you’ll be digging a little deeper and trying a bit harder to weed out these types of “good enough” establishments.

What I’m suggesting borders on pretension and snobbery; in fact, maybe it skips the border and firmly exists in that realm. But consider this: it’s worth it. Life is too short to settle for quantity over quality, good enough instead of great, or the banal as opposed to the exciting. And for my money, good taste doesn’t become snobby unless you get preachy about it, so keep your head on your shoulders as it rises over mediocrity into the land of authenticity, where passion and originality reign supreme.