Beer tasting still a game of hit and miss

Trying different beers can sometimes be a game of hit and miss. It can be easy to spot an off-flavoured beer and you’re within your rights to send it back. But what do you do when you get a beer that’s just plain bad? If the beer’s on draught, you might try before you buy. Sadly, this is not the case with packaged beer. Some staff might try to dissuade you from ordering it in the first place or occasional some might offer to replace it, taking the sales hit in the process.

Beer enthusiasts might check ratebeer.com or untappd for reviews but that’s too much work. Often you just trust the establishment that the beers on offer are good, all the more so when their beer menu is limited and the rest of the drinks menu is carefully selected. This opens the possibility of one being misled as a fair few places show less interest in their beers as they do with wines, whiskeys and other handpicked small batch spirits. This happened to me a few weeks ago in an award-wining restaurant in New York City.

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When you’re away, you want to try as much local beers as possible. I had been drinking my own fair share of Brooklyn Brewery beers and I even eschewed aged-Orval (accidentally, due to the delay in shipping it stateside) on the menu. Instead, I opted for Kuka Coffee & Cream Stout by Andean Brewing Company. The brewery is located a few wiles west of the city on the far side of the Hudson River. It may be pretty local but the Kuka range of beers pride themselves in using Andean ingredients, with maca root (an aphrodisiac, apparently) found in all of their beers.

Kuka Coffee & Cream Stout (6% abv) pours black with a garnet tinge. It has a fairly limp, tan head – not a great advertisement for the powers of the maca root. The beer contains Brazilian coffee and lactose so it comes as no surprise that the nose is of coffee and a dusting of powdered sugar. The sweetness is there at the start. Unfortunately the body is too thin and fails to mellow the roast coffee.

The beer’s far too astringent and quickly overpowers the carbonation and the lactose. The sugars remain on the lips but this beer finishes harshly. I didn’t finish this beer. That says something. In fact, I quickly moved on to the wine. It goes to show that beer tasting is hit and miss. While thankfully it’s more hit than miss, there’s still a few disappointing beers out there. I still can’t get over why fine dining establishments and upscale bars don’t show more respect to the beers they stock.

Heading to the 2nd story for beer

2nd Story Brewing can be found on 117 Chestnut Street.

Philadelphia is a great city to get out and explore. 24 hours isn’t nearly enough time to take it all in. Yards Brewing is close to downtown. However, if you’re stuck for time, for example if you’re skipping out of a conference or simply balancing beer and site-seeing, there’s a brew pub even closer than you think.

After checking out Independence Hall & the Liberty Bell, you'll have earned a beer. The good news is that there's a brew pub 3 blocks away.
After checking out Independence Hall & the Liberty Bell, you’ll have earned a beer. The good news is that there’s a brew pub 3 blocks away.

2nd Story Brewing Company is only three blocks south of Independence Hall on Chestnut St. The origin of its name is simple enough – there’s a 15 BBL system on the 2nd floor. There’s seating in upstairs so drinkers can oversee the brewing side. It’s bright and airy. The ground floor has far more seating but is fairly dark, like so many American bars.

2nd Story Brewing can be found on 117 Chestnut Street.
2nd Story Brewing can be found on 117 Chestnut Street.

Having spent the morning in the National Constitution Center (I’m a politics nerd, not just a beer one), I felt I deserved a beer. I didn’t have long before heading to Washington, DC so I opted for a flight. The beers rotate fairly frequently so of those I describe below, it is more than likely only Five Mile will be on when you visit – it is one of their two standard brews. Expect some of the other beers to return at both the brewer’s and seasons’ discretion. My choice was heavily influenced by the recommendations of the bar staff.

The 15 BBL brewery is on the 2nd floor so it's not just a clever name. Wonder if there's a penthouse brewery out there?
The 15 BBL brewery is actually on the 2nd floor so it’s not just a clever name.

First off was Berliner Weisse (3.6% abv), which poured a wonderfully refreshing-looking light gold. It was almost perfectly clear. There was a touch of fruit and wheat bread on the nose. Tart but creamy also. There were hints of apples and lemon in the flavour profile continuing into a very pleasant dry, lemon finish. When this beer is pouring, you can avail of syrups to blend with it should you wish,

Next up was Thrills & Pils, a 4.5% abv German pilsner hopped with Hallertauer Blanc and Jarrylo. It poured slightly hazy, yellow straw. The aroma was a blend of grass, herbs and mango. It drinks fruity at first before a good dose of bitterness kicks in. There’s an intense herbal finish to this beer.

L-R: Thrills & Pils (4.5% abv); Berliner Weisse (3.6% abv); Evolve – VII (7.7% abv) & Five Mile (3.7% abv)
L-R: Thrills & Pils (4.5% abv); Berliner Weisse (3.6% abv); Evolve – VII (7.7% abv) & Five Mile (3.7% abv)

Evolve – VII is a Double IPA (7.7% abv) hopped with Hallertauer Blanc, Jarrylo and Hull Melon. It’s hazy, light orange in appearance and there’s a bright, floral character to the aroma. At first, it is sweet, floral and pleasant for a DIPA. Then, everything changes. The “D” could equally stand for deceptive. Bitterness descends and lingers warmly into the finish.

As I mentioned above, Five Mile, an English Mild (3.7% abv) is one of their two standard brews. Fritzie’s Lager (4.9% abv), a Vienna red being the other. I suppose being a brew pub, it’s important that your house beers are session-friendly and similar to Yards,  they are traditional styles tapping into to the historic city. Five Mile’s a ruby mild with hints of chocolate and dark mahogany in its appearance. Toffee, chocolate and hints of coffee all feature on the nose. Its flavour is not too far from a hazelnut macchiato. It finishes smooth, creamy and nutty. Think coffee cake in a glass.

Pope Beer - Pater Noster in disguise?
Pope Beer – Pater Noster in disguise?

I couldn’t leave the place without trying a beer that was brewed to commemorate Pope Francis’ visit to the city a few weeks earlier. It was simply called Pope Beer. It was straw-like in colour with plenty of esters and clove on the nose. It was fairly-well carbonated which helped balance the sweet and spicy flavours of this beer. I have my suspicions that this beer might’ve have been their Pater Noster, a 4.9% patersbier, simply rebadged. Either way, it wasn’t bad.

Recreating a Belgian "brown bar" with a splash of colour
Recreating a Belgian “brown bar” with a splash of colour

It should be noted that Belgian beers are celebrated in the City of Brotherly Love. From what I saw in Yards and 2nd Story Brewing, local brewers are happy to produce their own versions. There’s more than a few serious Belgian beer bars in the city. Monk’s Café is far and away the best. It has a serious tap and bottle list. Sadly, a late night visit wasn’t conducive to photography – I’m sure you’ll understand. Anyway, you’ll encounter other Belgian bars too when your wandering around the city.

Going the extra Yards in Philadelphia

Sadly, I’m not in Philadelphia this week for the Craft Brewers Conference and BrewExpo America®. Fortunately, I was able to visit the city last autumn. Ten years has passed since my one and only visit to the city. Regeneration has played a key role in its revival and it has become a good stop on one’s beer travels. I had less than 24 hours to take in a couple of beer destinations and see some of the sites.

Yards Brewing, now in its 22nd year, is in easy reach of downtown. It is one of those breweries that suffer unfairly from being one of the early movers on the craft beer scene. Familiarity can count against you in the craft beer movement, even one that holds “traditional” as key tenet.

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It’s a short walk from the Spring Garden metro stop. The first hundred yards or so is a tiny bit sketchy but the entire area is up and coming. You’ll see just how far it’s come on when you get to North Delaware Avenue, with the condo developments. This used to be the nightclub area of the city but with close proximity to the river front, land prices are going through the roof.  The vacant lots won’t be there for much longer. This part of the city has one added benefit. It comes complete with the smell of wort emanating from the brewery.

Yards Brewery focuses on traditional beer styles but they can have a twist. The branding, like its beers, reflect traditional British ales, a likely a nod to the revolutionary routes of the city. It also doesn’t hurt to compete with the British imports like Sam Smiths. The brewery operates Monday to Friday before opening up for tours on the weekends (12-4). Apparently people line up before it opens but they run every 20-25 minutes. Oh and it’s free!

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It’s worth visiting due to a good tap room and getting to meet the regulars, many of whom drop in on their way home from work. The tap room offers a window into the brewery so you don’t have to be there on a Saturday to get a view of the operations. Of course, visiting brewers and beer tickers stop by.  A group from nearby Conshohocken Brewing were in visiting. The tap room’s a great place to chat to the brewery staff. They can be found enjoying a post work pint at the bar but at times ducking back into the brewery to check up on things. Work never stops.

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First, up was Brawler a 4.2% abv English Mild. It was rich mahogany in colour with excellent clarity. As you’d expect the aroma was malty with slight coffee and nutty aroma. As a session beer, it was smooth and almost milky in mouthfeel. Toasty with a hint of caramel roasted nuts in the finish. Next was the Extra Special Ale (6% abv). Its appearance captured the colours of Philly and Pennsylvania perfectly – copper and chestnut. Think Liberty Bell & rusting factories. I’m partial to an ESB and this beer is interesting. There’s a lot going on. Spicy, nutty, dark chocolate flavours complete with a slight, citrus bitter bite. It has a big finish building intensity of the bitter malt. I would love to try this on cask but sadly they didn’t have it on when I was visiting.

L-R: IPA (7% abv); Philadelphia Pale Ale (4.6% abv); Extra Special Ale (6% abv) & Brawler (4.2% abv)
L-R: IPA (7% abv); Philadelphia Pale Ale (4.6% abv); Extra Special Ale (6% abv) & Brawler (4.2% abv)

Of course, the brewery’s pale ale and IPA offering is part of the signature flight. Philadelphia Pale Ale (4.6% abv) pours an incredibly clear golden colour. The aroma is of freshly squeezed oranges, thanks to being dry-hopped with simcoe. It’s certainly easy drinking with notes of fresh tangerines in the flavour. It’s reminiscent of orange squash with a pleasant dry, bitter finish. The IPA is called IPA because let’s face it, why bother coming up with a name for it because it’s a beer style that people just ask by style rather than name. At 7% abv it falls outside the session beer category. The colour is polished brass with orange on the nose. The fruit flavours continue with a sherbet-like mouthfeel at first before being hit by a big, bitter punch. There’s a sticky sweetness and pine notes in the finish. It’s hopped with chinook and amarillo.

Of course, you’re bound to take in some of the historical sites when in the city. If you’re not in the mood to actually venture into Independence Hall, you can smooth you conscience somewhat by trying beers inspired by three founding fathers as part of the brewery’s Revolutionary Flight. These beers are inspired by historic recipes of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin.

L-R: Love Stout (5.5% abv); Poor Richards Tavern Spruce (5% abv); Thomas Jefferson's Tavern Ale (8% abv) &  General Washington's Tavern Porter (7% abv)
L-R: Love Stout (5.5% abv); Poor Richards Tavern Spruce (5% abv); Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale (8% abv) & General Washington’s Tavern Porter (7% abv)

General Washington’s Tavern Porter (7% abv) has an aroma of roast coffee and beef. It’s smooth with a smoky body before a big dark chocolate and caramel finish. There’s also a bourbon barrel-aged version, which I have yet to try. Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale on the other hand is a strong golden ale (8% abv). It pours a clear, copper colour. The aroma is of lightly toasted wheat, red fruit and spice on the nose. The flavour and finish is of spice and honey.

Poor Richards Tavern Spruce (5% abv) is apparently based on a recipe of Benjamin Franklin. Billed as a historical style, it’s brewed with molasses and local blue spruce tips. Amber in colour, there’s ginger and vinous notes on the nose. The flavour and finish is of ginger and pine; a really interesting beer. The final beer of the flight is Love Stout (5.5%) named for the City of Brotherly Love. A nitro pour, it’s almost jet black topped by a creamy head. The aroma is of powdered milk chocolate. It’s creamy, with a coffee hit in the finish.  I understand there’s a variant of this beer containing 100% cacao Belgian dark chocolate.

L-R: PYNK (5.5% abv); Hefeweizen (5.4% abv); Saison (6.5% abv) & Cicada (8.5% abv)
L-R: PYNK (5.5% abv); Hefeweizen (5.4% abv); Saison (6.5% abv) & Cicada (8.5% abv)

The final flight consisted of four refreshing seasonal and small batch brews. Beginning with Hefeweizen (5.4% abv). It was 24ct gold in colour, if it was any clearer the guys on TV’s Gold Rush may finally retire. There was plenty of banana and clove on the nose. At first it comes across as a tad over-carbonated, leaving it too dry. It finishes in the opposite direction, however, with sweet banana flavours lingering long after. Saison (6.5% abv) also pours a lovely, polished gold. There’s banana, clove along with other saison yeast notes. It’s sweet, cereal with lemon and honey blending into a pleasant finish. There’s a dash of pepper and bitterness too.

Yards, like other breweries, are keen on giving back. They are passionate about supporting charities and what better way than through brewing beer. You should check out their Brew Unto Others initiative. Part of the proceeds from PYNK (5.5% abv), a tart berry ale, goes to support breast cancer research and awareness. This is a pink beer, no doubt about it. What’s better is that the colour is natural thanks to the cherries and raspberries. It’s none of that artificial colouring for green beer. It’s amber with a big splash of pink. For the aroma, think raspberry yoghurt. Upfront, there’s pleasant fresh sour cherry in the flavour before a brut, dry finish. The palate isn’t overpowered by the tartness.

The last beer of the flight was Cicada, a Belgian-style IPA brewed with local honey (8.5% abv). This bronze ale had a big Juicy Fruit aroma. It was hard to pick up the Belgian yeast aromatics; only the slightest banana esters could be detected. Drinks bitter at first, then floral and honey notes take over. There’s a warming bitter tropical fruit and herbal bitterness in the finish.

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I couldn’t leave the brewery without trying Olde Bartholomew Barleywine (10.3% abv) on cask. It pours lovely, clear amber. The aroma is a wonderful medley of marzipan and grapes. It’s not overly sweet, one might say medium-dry. The flavour is penetrated by pleasant hints of fruit. It finishes dry and spicy.

I had only planned to stay an hour or so in the taproom but I was there far longer than that. As I mentioned before, the taproom has a real “local bar” vibe to it. It’s a friendly place, whether you’re from the city or just passing through. And of course, the beer is good.