Can American Brewers Make Belgian-style Beers Right?

Back in the bad old days of, say, 1933-1993, American beer was considered the worst in the world, and maybe it was. The post-Prohibition era was dominated by mass-market brews that were inoffensive at best and insipid at worst, not that people didn’t still drink them by the gallon. But then things changed, drastically.

The craft beer revolution produced hundreds of new beers that were flavorful, complex, and fun to drink. In the span of a few years, American beer went from a punchline–sex in a canoe, anyone?–to the best in the world. In their all-American way, brewers like Sam Adams have been tinkering with ingredients and brewing techniques ever since, unencumbered by hidebound traditions and stultifying laws like Germany’s Reinheitsgebot. But there was one niche the Yanks had trouble cracking, the holy grail of brewing: Trappist beers.

Yes, those Belgian monks sure did have a lock on their unique style of suds, top fermented, bottle conditioned, and usually dark, strong, and intensely flavorful. Maybe they held their secrets behind monastery walls, maybe they were just really good at it, but, while American brewers have proven adept at copying–and improving–styles like English ales and German pilsners, the perfect Abbey ale remained elusive. 

Of course many have been attempted, and they taste quite excellent, but they lack that certain spark you’ll find in a Chimay or Rochefort. But that might be changing, if a new beer from Sam Adams is any indication. Coming this fall, Sam Adams Tetravis is the Boston Brewing Company’s latest interpretation of a traditional Belgian Quadrupel, and it’s fantastic. 

It’s also as close as I’ve tasted to a proper Trappist ale without being from Belgium. It’s gorgeously dark, mildly sweet, and features notes of fruit and spice. It’s blended with another beer called Kosmic Mother Funk, which gives it extra complexity and floral notes, and has a hefty 10.2% ABV. You’ll want the proper glassware for this one. It deserves better than a pint glass. 

Is it better than the best Trappist ales? No, but it’s very close, and a heck of a lot cheaper, at between $10 and $11 a bottle depending on where in the U.S. of A. you buy it. (In New York expect your corner bodega to charge $14-ish.) And if it’s commited any sin at all, it’s that of being welcoming and a bit more user-friendly than some of the clovier, spicier beers from across the pond. This is America. Nobody gets left out of the party.

And so America has proven that it can make Trappist-style beers. The next step is teaching people that you can drink these things anywhere, not just in some wood-paneled beer bar with a plate of cheese and charcuterie in front of you (though that’s awesome). Just once I’d like to see some fancy, large-bottle beers in a nightclub situation. Does bottle service always have to be vodka?

Let the people drink what they like, and celebrate American ingenuity until last call and beyond. 

[Related: BlackBook New York Nightlife Guide; It’s Your Beer and You Can Do Anything You Want With It; More by Victor Ozols; Follow Me on Twitter]

Minor Innovations in Beer Technology: Sam Adams’ New ‘Sam Can’

In the beer business, quality and convenience are often at odds with one another. It’s universally accepted that the best-tasting beer is draft beer–assuming your draft lines are clean and everyting is in good working order. But a full keg of beer weighs 160 pounds, and that’s nothing you’d want to lug to the beach. Your next best bet is beer in bottles, which work great in most scenarios, but still aren’t perfect. Bottles are kind of heavy, they break if you drop them, they can be used as deadly weapons, and are often prohibited from places like swimming pools and airplanes for these reasons. So until the beer world makes my dreams come true and starts putting their suds into Tetra Pak-style boxes like my kid’s apple juice, that leaves us with cans. I’ve never had a problem with cans, except that not enough good beers actually come in cans. There are scientific reasons for this, something to do with the beer-to-air ratio, but it’s probably a consumer perception issue more than anything. Fortunately, that’s changing. Companies like Brooklyn’s Sixpoint brewery are putting some of their beers in snazzy, Red Bull-style cans. But Sam Adams is keeping it real by continuing to use the can style we’re all familiar with. They’ve just made a couple tiny tweaks that make a big difference. Pick up a Sam Can of Sam Adams Boston Lager and you’ll see what I mean. 

It won’t be evident at first. The can looks cool, but has the same squat dimensions of a can of Bud. The magic is up top. The opening is wider, it’s further away from the edge of the can, and it has a little flare on the lip. And that’s, well, pretty much it. That’s what "two years of ergonomic and sensory research and testing" get you. 

But before we scoff, let’s see if these innovations make a difference. I compared a new Sam Can with a traditional can of Boston Lager, side by side. Keeping in mind that the tweaks to the can are designed to enhance the pleasure (heh heh) of drinking straight from the can, I popped them both open and took generous slugs of each.

The difference? Like Sam Adams says, it’s minor, but it’s there. The beer from the Sam Can poured more smoothly into my mouth, hitting right on top of the most beer-loving part of my tongue. The beer from the regular can tasted good too. It’s Boston Lager, after all, a fine brew. But I did notice more of a glug-glug-glug in the pour, not so smooth and clean as the Sam Can. So, I can definitely feel a benefit to having a larger opening located further from the edge. As for the little flare on the lip, I really couldn’t notice any added turbitidy, but it’s nice to think it helps. 

Sam Adams is unveiling its Sam Cans of Boston Lager just in time for summer, so be sure to pick up a couple of cases for those scenarios when bringing bottles (or lugging a keg) would be inappropriate: the beach, the pool, your daughter’s school dance recital. Now if they could just find a way to muffle the sound of cracking one open, we’d really be in business. 

[For New York’s best beer bars, visit the BlackBook Guides; Related: Let’s Hear It for the Evolution of Booze Containers; Spiegelau Creates New IPA Beer Glass; More by Victor Ozols; Follow me on Twitter

Three Springtime Beers to Crack Open On the Equinox

Spring in the Northern Hemisphere begins on Wednesday. Do you have the right beers for it? Brewers with the ability to create season-specific beers throughout the year are releasing their spring lines now, led by the beery Bostonians at Sam Adams. I tried a trio of their new spring beers over the weekend and started hearing smale fowles maken melodye in my head, if not in my snowy backyard. So, for you Pagans and Neo-Druids out there looking for something to drink at your Ostara party, here’s a quick rundown:

Samuel Adams White Lantern

The idea behind most springtime beers is to split the difference between the spicy, heavily flavored brews of winter and the light, refreshing beers of summer. In the case of White Lantern, they’ve taken a Belgian-style white ale and dumbed it down for warmer weather quaffing. I’m not complaining. I like Belgian ales, but when they go too far into potpourri-land I get turned off. This has just the right balance, with the DNA of a Trappist ale and a peppy zing from the orange zest. It’s tasty and fun without the cloying sweetness of a Christmas beer. To be honest, it’s not really my style, but I liked the restraint and enjoyed drinking it.

Samuel Adams Double Agent IPL

I know what you’re thinking. They misspelled IPA, right there on the label. Embarrassing. Except they didn’t. This beer isn’t an India Pale Ale, it’s an India Pale Lager, which means it has the same hoppy ingredients of an IPA–in this case, West Coast hops like American Citra, Cascade, Centennial, Simcoe, Ahtanum, and Zeus varietals, plus New Zealand Nelson Sauvin hops–but fermented cold with bottom fermentation, resulting in a crisper, lighter drink. I like this one, and found it smooth, dry, a little bit bitter, and very satisfying. I just wasn’t sure what kind of glass to pour it into. I decided on a Spiegelau IPA glass, but felt funny about it. 

Samuel Adams Alpine Spring

Even though I taste all kinds of beers and love most of them, I have a soft spot for simple, clean brews that don’t require me to think too hard. Alpine Sping lands comfortably in that category. It’s a crisp, smooth, flavorful lager that has a great blend of hops and malt, as if they’re balanced on a seesaw at a playground, each with its little legs hanging off the ground. True to its name, it tastes springy and light. At 5.5% ABV, it’s slightly stronger than a standard lager, but clean enough to session straight through to the solstice. Enjoy spring!

All of these beers should run you between $8 and $10 for a six-pack, unless you’re in New York, in which case your bodega guy will probably charge you $14. Still worth it. 

Into weird beers? Drop by one of New York’s best beer bars, like Blind Tiger, La Birreria, and the new Torst

[Related: BlackBook New York Guide; More by Victor Ozols]

Move Over, Wine. Beer Pairs with Fancy Food Too

While I’m woefully behind on certain trends—e.g. I’ve still never seen Titanic or heard a Justin Bieber song all the way through—those involving beer are not among them. Nope, I’m totally up to date when it comes to beer and all the wonderful things you can do with it. Therefore, the beery folks up at Sam Adams really didn’t need to set up that nice beer/food pairing they invited me to at Chelsea Market yesterday, but I kept my secret and showed up anyway, knowing how fun it would be.

The idea was to sample a few wines that are commonly thought to be excellent companions to various foods, and then try Sam Adams Boston Lager instead, just to see how it clicks. To do this, they enlisted the help of Jake Dickson, proprietor of Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, who hosted the tasting and even came up with a special cut of beef designed to complement Boston Lager which he aptly named the Boston Lager Cut. It’s a tender cut from the cap to the top sirloin that has a big, beefy flavor. You can buy the Boston Lager Cut from Robinson’s Prime Reserve if you like.
So there was a nice plate of medium rare steak, and we started off by tasting it with a wine selected by wine and beer sommelier (cool job, huh?) Gianni Cavicchi of Café D’Alsace. He poured a 2009 Oberon Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, which is a tasty, medium-bodied red wine that costs about $19 a bottle retail. It paired nicely with the steak, as many red wines do, and I enjoyed the interplay of flavors as I have in the past. Then we tried the same steak with Boston Lager, which, as Sam Adams brewer Jennifer Glanville explained, is designed to have a perfect balance of malt and hops. Wouldn’t you know it, the steak and beer matched up great, the hops in the beer cutting through the caramelization of the steak, yielding a mouthful of meat that was even more succulent than I had hoped. A primo pairing. 
Next up was chocolate. Have you ever paired chocolate with wine? Of course you have, you sexy thing, on those cuddly nights with your ever-loving boo. We chomped on some TCHO 70% dark chocolate that Cavicchi paired with a 2009 Bonterra Zinfandel from Mendocino County that you can buy for $13. It was another fine red wine, and it gave the chocolate a nice fruity edge as it melted in my mouth. But when Glanville handed me my Boston Lager, it was a whole new ballgame, with the carbonation and maltiness of the brew cutting through the chocolate and yielding a medium-sweet treat that I can’t imagine ever getting tired of. It’s just as romantic as a wine and chocolate pairing, but a little more fun. Cue the bow-chicka-wow-wow, if you know what I’m saying. Because I’m saying it could lead to ’70s porno-style sex. 
Finally, we had our cheese course, nice healthy hunks of Roquefort spread over slices of French bread. It’s a powerful cheese, which Cavicchi paired with the most expensive wine of the bunch, a Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Tawny Port from Portugal that’ll run you $54. It was another fine pairing which I enjoyed, but the Boston Lager actually did a better job cutting through the pungency of the blue cheese, with the carbonation and hoppy edge lifting the creaminess off my tongue, and helping me experience the deeper flavors. A match made in cheese and beer heaven. 
All the while, a team of Dickson’s Farmstand butchers was working a few feet away from us, deftly chopping up massive forequarters of humanely-raised cattle, a display that would horrify vegetarians but I found quite interesting. We all chatted a bit more about how we like to eat and drink, and Cavicchi explained a little sommelier’s trick for helping guide diners to wines that are in their price range without making them feel bad for not wanting to blow a hundo on a bottle. (The trick involves going down the wine list with your hand in the devil-horns position, with the index finger pointing out the vineyard while the pinkie shows the price. "Oh, you like that vineyard? Excellent choice, sir.") And then that was it, and I was back out into the heat and sunshine of lower Manhattan in early September, still tasting a symphony of flavors in my gob. 
So now we all know just how well beer in general and Sam Adams Boston Lager in particular can pair with all kinds of food. Of course, Sam Adams makes many different beers you can experiment with. My current seasonal favorite is Samuel Adams Fat Jack Double Pumpkin Ale, the perfect beer to welcome the official start of fall on Saturday, September 22. Now go get a bunch of food and a bunch of beer and start tasting. 

Signs of Summer: Sam Adams Rustic Saison Smacks of Sunshine

It’s been a long and brutal winter, which we survived thanks to a steady infusion of sublime single malts. But warm weather is just around the corner, with no surer sign of the sun’s return than the arrival of a new batch of summer beers. First in line is the 2011 Samuel Adams Rustic Saison, a light, crisp, and flavorful ale that tastes like sunshine – precious, precious sunshine – in a glass.

This farmhouse-style beer is brewed with Belgian yeast and a touch of honey, giving it a floral aroma and fruity flavors that seem suited for an afternoon of lackadaisical lawn care or general sloth. Far from a chewy, sweet winter ale, it has a golden color and satisfyingly thin mouthfeel, with a well-balanced melange of herbal and citrus notes that accentuate its spicy hop bite. Sam Adams says farmhouse ales were traditionally brewed to “quench the thirst of farmers throughout the summer months,” and that sounds about right. I could see sipping one of these while baling hay or sowing seeds or whatever it is that farmers do. I wouldn’t recommend drinking beer to the exclusion of water, but if you remember to stay hydrated, it would make the sky that much bluer and the clouds that much fluffier. At 4.35% ABV, it’s wonderfully sessionable.

I envision the sweet spot for Rustic Saison to be between 2 and 4pm on a sunny afternoon. Drink one or two with friends, wash a car, chase a dog, play a game of volleyball, or just relax on a tattered lawn chair and think about life. You’ll get sleepy, so don’t fight the nap. You’ll wake up refreshed and ready for the real party. Summer is so sweet.