Friday, May 22, 2015

Eating and Drinking Through Asheville: Part 5

In which our intrepid explorers experience Art!  Beer!  Ciders!  And The Admiral!

Day 6

OK, so Asheville has been good to us so far this trip, with pleasant weather, great food and great beers.  Hm, what should we do on day 6?  How about more of the same?  Sounds like a plan!

Sj ready to get messy with BBQ!
We started out the day a little late with lunch at 12 Bones, a local BBQ joint known for its line outside the door and amazing North Carolina BBQ.  Located right in the midst of the Asheville River Arts District, this was a good excuse to get in the car and explore the city a bit more.  We got there shortly after they opened and didn't have to stand outside longer than about 10 minutes.  Pretty much everyone I talked to about the area had suggested this place, but I have to say I was a bit disappointed.  My ribs were dry, tough and hard to eat with little bone fragments in several bites.  The pulled pork came out in a bowl filled with watery juice and was quite bland on its own.  They did have several BBQ, mustard, and vinegar sauces to try with the meats, but none really wowed me.  We did get very quick counter service though.  I also tried the pale ale from local Pisgah Brewing and this prompted me to visit that brewery the following day.  The best BBQ I had on this trip was actually Black Dog Smokehouse in Urbana, IL of all places!  Oh well, you can't win them all.

From 12 Bones we walked across the road to a cluster of warehouses that had been converted to artist studios.  There were many such places in the area, and they offered a cool way to check out some of the local art and explore a bit.  The map of the River Arts District made it look easy to walk from studio to studio, but we discovered that there was no sidewalk and that places were farther apart than they looked on the map!  No problem, we foraged over high grass, braved narrow roads, and went cross-country across train tracks and through crumbled buildings.  I enjoyed the derelict nature of the area and had plenty of things to take pictures of.  Seriously though, the city should invest in some sidewalks to encourage more traffic to these places.

Coolest art studio ever?

We visited cool studios with pottery, woodworking, glass blowing, painting, metal smithing, and more.  Many of the old buildings were a treat to examine as well.  We did pick up some jewelry for Sj and also an amazing painting on tin from old Asheville.

Not far from here, we met up with an old friend of Sj's from Alabama, Amy Pike.  Amy has been in Asheville for some time and seemed to know just about everyone we ran into!  We met at Urban Orchard, a local cidery with 8 ciders on tap.  The place was new, spare, and comfortable, with the windows open to a warm breeze.  Our server was very attentive and seemed to actually know a lot about the different ciders, and didn't hesitate to tell us her favorites.  We ended up getting two samplers so we could try them all!  It was great to meet Amy, and I'm really glad that she and Sj had a chance to catch up on quite a bit of time.

The ciders at Urban Orchard were surprisingly good.  So many ciders I try these days are overly sweet, and none of these had that issue.  I gave pretty much all the ciders a 4 out of 5 star rating, except the Wit which really didn't have the right balance.  My favorites were the Black Hole (Blackberry!) and the Sidra Del Diablo (Habenero!) but I really also enjoyed their flagship Dry Ridge dry cider.  They do also offer some snacks for those who work up a hunger while drinking cider.  We had a great time hanging out in this comfy tap room and I would highly recommend stopping in if you are interested in trying some unique cider options.

After saying our goodbyes, we headed back to the Arts District to visit Wedge Brewing, which had just opened at 4 PM that day.  Nestled in among the art galleries, in a three story building originally used for livestock distribution, this place has some serious character.  Outside, railings, tables, chairs are all made of welded "found" metal tools and items.  Just wandering around the place is a treat!  It was getting pretty hot and sunny by the time we visited so we didn't want to sit out in the open patio with most of the crowd.  We headed in to the small taproom proper, where there was really just space to line up and order, with only a couple stools inside.  We got two samplers, going to a second alternate serving station outside to fill up one of the beers we ordered.  I like the chalkboard sides of the samplers--something I haven't seen before.  They also have bowls of peanuts and buckets for shells...something I haven't seen at a bar for years!  So if you have a serious peanut allergy, you may want to stay away from Wedge.

Just one of many cool metal sculptures outside Wedge

We ended up sitting outside on cool rotating and moving chair sculptures, out of the brightest of the hot sun.  I drank through the samplers and enjoyed many of the beers.  The Julian Price Pilsner was well made and very refreshing!  A hemp ale was actually tasty and will probably make me test positive on the next drug test I take.  And the Iron Rail IPA was classic and well balanced.  My least favorite was, much like Urban Orchard, the Wit.  Overall, a very cool space, vibe, and a good collection of solid beers.  I'm glad we went back to this place instead of heading back into downtown.

Parking our car quasi-legally outside Hi-Wire Brewing, we had one more stop before dinner.  I mean what else were we going to do?  Our server at Sierra Nevada had mentioned that her husband was a brewer at Hi-Wire, a brewery that had not really been on my radar before that, but I added it to the list after talking to her.  This is a small working brewery, with a tiny bar and a few high top tables for seating.  Not the most glamorous, but very "real".  I quickly tasted through the sampler and found all of the beers to be well crafted and good examples of their styles.  Nothing crazy, but all good.  My favorite double IPA of the trip was their Man Eater, and they happened to have just bottled them, so I took a few home with me.  Second favorite was the very nice ESB.  We also briefly got to say hi to one of the owners there who seemed appreciative of our business.  Getting back to our car to avoid towing, we headed on to our next destination.

Next we headed over to a place in West Asheville that had been suggested by our niece Anna as well as friends of Sj's: The Admiral!  This is the restaurant for the foodies.  The building is pretty tiny and unassuming, made of ugly cinderblock, with minimal signage.  Entering through a small door, the restaurant is small, close, and dark with booth seating along one side and tables in the center.  The small kitchen is visible from the seating area, and chefs bustled around throwing flames and tasty foods around like circus performers.  The place has the feel of an only slightly revamped dive bar or 1950's diner.  Our server was great, and very attentive.  With a menu changing daily based on local and available foods, the options are limited but all interesting.  We started with the Sweet Breads in spicy honey sauce and buttermilk ranch and my heart skipped a beat or two.  For those who don't know what sweet breads are: they are thymus glands, usually tossed as trash, but in the right hands can be a flavorful, buttery textured, culinary heaven.  And these were perfect.  We split some other dishes to get a good mix of things and everything we tried was stellar.  This place is a gem hidden in a tarnished base metal setting. This was by far the best meal we had on our trip to Asheville.  And yes, we had more sweet breads for "dessert".  Because they were just that good.

Back alley speakeasy entrance to One World
Not to be finished after two breweries, a cidery, and one of the best meals ever, we were ready for more!  Back to the hotel to drop off the car and back out to downtown.  One World Brewing was very close to the hotel and I had been saving it for just such an occasion.  Hidden down an alley right next to Farm Burger restaurant, the entrance is through a large metal framed portal (manned by a bouncer), down some stairs past a door with sliding peep-hole (speakeasy?) and into a dark and minimalist basement space.  The space itself is fairly relaxed looking with a small bar near the entrance.  When we arrived they had the World's Most Terrible DJ (TM) playing awful, bone jarring house music from hell.  Sj gave me "the look" saying silently, "Get your beers, drink them, and get me out of this place."  Which I promptly did.  The bartender was cheerful and quick, getting me the sampler without fuss.  I'll be honest here, the beers were not very good.  Not infected or unintentionally-sour-bad, but just not very good and not well balanced.  The exception was the Citra Bomb that I gave a 3.5 star rating since I'm a whore for Citra hops.  Looking at the homebrew sized brew system in the corner of the basement, I can see why they probably have some variability in batches, but these guys need to step it up if they want to compete in Asheville!  I didn't finish my beers and we escaped the hellish racket to the free air above ground. Your results may vary.

Our desire for a relaxing night-cap foiled, we continued to walk around for a bit.  Passing the famous French Broad Chocolates building and seeing no line out the door we at first thought that it must be closed.  But no!  It was actually open, so we finally had a chance to get some chocolates.  We both got decadent sipping chocolates that have to be the richest thing I've ever put in my mouth.  We also stocked up on Mother's Day presents.

OK, now that is the way to finish the day!  Only one more left in Asheville...What to do tomorrow?  Perhaps eat and drink some more?  Sure!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Eating and Drinking Through Asheville, NC: Part 4

In which Sj and I continue to loosen our belts in order to make room for some amazing food and drink! If you want more info on our previous days check out HERE, HERE, HERE.

Day 5

Day 5 of our trip really started by meeting up with one of Sj's jewelry-making friends, Barb, and her husband Bob for a lunch at the renowned Tupelo Honey Cafe.  While getting acquainted we broke our fast with a very filling and tasty meal.  I got my "South" on and had classic fried green tomatoes and buttermilk fried chicken and biscuits.  Yum!  Of course I was full for the rest of the day, but well worth the indulgence.

Next we headed to a Cherry Tree Beads, a local bead store that mainly does on-line business but has a physical shop nestled in a warehouse outside of town.  My jewelry making wife finally got to sate her bead addiction by rolling around in beads like Scrooge McDuck in his pools of money.  I can't complain as she let me pack much of our car with beers to mule home, while her beads took up very little space...

Our friends then drove us a bit further to the new Sierra Nevada Brewery complex.  Since the "real" Sierra Nevada is California, I hadn't really planned on visiting this new expansion project, but I'm very glad that we did get out there!  We didn't make a tour, but I wandered around a little bit with my camera.  As we pulled into the large parking lot, I was struck by the sheer immensity of the place.  This makes the new Surly Brewery look like a children's playground!  Solar power cells on large poles gather in light from above the parking to channel into green use for the brewery.  Reclaimed kegs on poles form a line of bike racks.  And copper, wood, and huge stainless tanks finish the picture.  Wow!  A we entered the taproom, three large burnished copper kettles off to the right make you know that you are in a brewery.  The taproom itself is large with long high tables and solid stools.

Our server was very helpful and helped us navigate the list of over 20 tap beers available.  They did do samplers, but they were very tiny (2 oz)--more to help decide what to get a pint of than as a drink unto themselves.  I have been drinking Sierra Nevada beers for ages and thought I had tried most of them.  I was wrong.  Not all of these make it to Minnesota, and some seem to be taproom only, so there were plenty to pick from.  Sj was happy with her Ovila Quad with Plums, and I settled for a Barrel Aged Bigfoot snifter. OK, I didn't settle, I was psyched to find that on tap!  Talking more to our server, she was not a local, and had moved to Asheville when her husband took a brewer job with Hi-Wire.  Based on her recommendation, we ended up heading there the next day.  The food looked great, much of it incorporating Sierra Nevada beers into the recipes, but we were too full after out Brunch to have any room.  We also dropped a fair amount of money in the huge and varied swag shop, loading up on tap handles, bar mirrors, Ovila, and shirts.  Great merchandising!

By the time we got back into Asheville proper, it was time for our early dinner reservations at Curate.  Pronounced Cure-Ah-Teh, this is an upscale Spanish tapas restaurant that was suggested by our wonderful niece, Anna.  Still not incredibly hungry, we ordered a few plates to share and were very happy with everything we ordered.  I'm a sucker for Jamon Iberico (the thinly shaved Spanish ham that is much like prosciutto.  Tasty black footed pigs!  I forgot to take pictures of the amazing food, but did get a pic of this strange Spanish ale that I drank with it.

From Curate, it being early evening and sun still shining, we headed back to the brewery district.  Because that is what you do in Asheville!  Wanting a nice desert beer, we headed back to one of our favorite local breweries, Burial, for their Bolo Coconut Brown Ale.  I really did love that beer and that place!

After our quick stop, light fading fast, we headed back into the downtown area to visit one more brewery.  This time we tried out Lexington Avenue Brewery, also called The LAB.  We had passed this place several times on our wanders through town, but had saved it for a later evening as it was closer to our hotel.  Even on a Tuesday night the place was fairly busy, but we found some seating fronting the sidewalk.  The day had been warm and the inside of the brewery was a bit stuffy, but our seat allowed some nice cool evening air to circulate around us, as well as some great people watching as folks walked past.  The place is fairly big, with an extensive bar.  I liked the feel of it, and can tell there was some decent money put into the business.

Our server at LAB was very good and helpful, always a plus in my book.  We ordered a sampler so we could try all the beers and some truffled fries that were tasty but difficult to eat as they were shaved so thin.  The beers were pretty good overall, with only the cream ale really striking me as not great.  My favorites were the light and refreshing Belgian table beer, and the Three Threads Porter, both very respectable.  This place is worth a visit while you are wandering around Asheville.

With just one more quick stop at Sovereign Remedies for another impromptu cocktail, we headed off to the Hotel Indigo for bed!

Coming up next: Art!  Admiral! Apples!  And Beer!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Whale A Week: Churchill's Finest Hour 2013

A Whale A Week is my attempt to share a rare beer with friends every week for the whole year of 2015, often accompanied by funky photo tricks.  This helps me get through my dragon's hoard of cellared beers as well as practice with beer photography.  This week we do another Bourbon Barrel aged Imperial Stout...

Churchill's Finest Hour 2013

Most folks have heard of Port Brewing in California, co-run with Lost Abbey and the Pizza Port brewpubs.  We still can't get those beers here in Minnesota, but I've got a few lurking in my cellar!  I have really liked Old Viscosity when I've had it in the past.  Every year since 2010 the brewery has released a special beer for Churchill's Pub and Grille in San Marcos, California.  The beer is a blend of up to three different beers to make a special and changing product each year.  The pub has a special Renaissance Day celebration each year which includes a ton of rare beers on tap and the release of this special beer.  Like a lot of these limited release events, folks have started showing up the night before and waiting in line for their entry and beers.

Knowing that a lot of effort went into getting this particular beer, I was excited to try it!  This week I had my good friend Rob Wengler share the beer with me.  Rob is known for his web based show Limited Release where he, Ron Johnson, (and occasionally me) travel to these special beer release parties and document the ensuing chaos.  And as usual, my wife Sarajo helped us to drink this beer.

I couldn't find much information about this specific beer, but I do know that it is 11% ABV and at least some of it is barrel aged.  The dark brown wax dipped top indicates that it is from 2013.  BeerAdvocate has a rating of 97 for this vintage, and RateBeer has a combined vintage score of 100.  I served this beer slightly warmer than I wanted to (60 degrees F.)

Fun with smoke effects!  I put some serious time into getting this just right, so enjoy it!

Eric: A mix of milk and semi-sweet chocolates.  Some strong nose-stinging alcohol and bourbon.  Vanilla and oak tannin.  No hop aroma.  There is a burnt coffee or overly roasted malt aroma as it is swirled.  Alcohol is very overpowering.
Rob: Dark cherries.  Dark toasted oak, vanilla and lots of tannin.  Alcohol heat. Candy, caramel/burnt sugar.  Slightly smoky.

Eric & Rob: Opaque black, no light is getting through this beer!  Large head with deep brown color.  Large bubbles that fade fairly quickly but are easily roused back again.

Eric: Semi-sweet chocolate like in the aroma.  Following that is very firm alcohol warming, bordering on burning.  Hints of vanilla and oak tannins.  There is sweetness here, but more like a dry Belgian beer than a sticky RIS.  Molasses and prune flavors as I get past the strong alcohol.  Body only medium, probably from the dry boozy finish, tannins and abundant roasted/burnt malt.  As it warms I pick up on some smoke.  Carbonation higher than expected from appearance.
Rob: Smooth/harmonious, very even.  Slightly smoky-makes me think of Scotch more than bourbon.  Just sweet enough.  Subtle spices, maybe a touch of cinnamon?  Hot and effervescent.  Carbonation makes it seem lighter bodied.

Eric: Very tasty overall.  The alcohol is so strong that it covers a lot of the other flavors lurking under the hood.  Pleasant and fun to try, but lacks complexity.  Feeling the burn!  I would be interested in trying other vintages to see what those are like.  4
Rob: Not as heavy as I'd expect for 11%.  Main flavor for me is Scotch.  This might be subdued more if we drank this colder. 4
Sarajo: It's OK. 4

A cool and rare beer to try with an interesting back story.  We all liked it, but serving it warm may have hurt this a bit.  That being said, I've had my share of RIS beers served warm that I gave higher ratings to.  I'd love to know if they actually used Scotch barrels for this batch.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Eating and Drinking Through Asheville, NC: Part 3

In which Sj and I manage to wander over miles of property and a million stairs at the Biltmore Estate and drink more beers.

Day 4

Day 4 of our Asheville trip dawned bright and sunny, leading us to decide on this as our perfect day for the Biltmore Estate.  I'm not going to get into much historic detail here since it doesn't revolve directly around beer or food.  And hence is lower on my priority list.  They were having a special costumes of Downton Abbey exhibit that Sj enjoyed quite a bit.  We did the rooftop tour of the estate which was pretty cool.  While you couldn't take pictures inside the house, you could do so from the roof.

Once we were done with our house tours, we drove to the Biltmore Village for lunch at Cedric's Tavern, named after the Vanderbilt family Saint Bernard.  Looking online it was unclear if this was an actual brewpub or just a pub that served some beers, but by 1 PM we were starving and it was close.  The food was very good though somewhat pricey.  The beer sampler featured three house beers that were all decent but not stellar--the ESB being the best of the three.  On further evaluation they have beers brewed for them by Highland Brewing, so not a real brewpub.

After a late lunch we wandered the expansive gardens and grounds around the manor.  Having come from Minnesota where I struggled to find anything blooming at all, this place was a riot of flowers, leaves, and strange southern plant life.  I switched to my macro lens and took lots of pictures.  During our trek, we kept going just a little further, or taking the next fork in the trail, until we had been out walking for hours.  We started the visit at around 11 and left the grounds close to 7 PM.

Hot, dehydrated, leg muscles jumping and spasming from unaccustomed activity, we headed straight for the Wicked Weed Funkatorium.  Priorities!  Mainly we did this since we had the car out already and didn't want to drag a case of bottles through the streets of Asheville on foot.  We each guzzled several glasses of water (thank you kind bartender!) and sipped at another glass of the Red Angel sour raspberry beer.  Seriously that beer was amazing!  We also shared the charcuterie plate for some early evening sustenance.

After loading up our car with bottles of sour beer, we walked over to Tasty Beverage Co. a block away and shared a glass of a very bright and tart Italian lambic while buying a few bottles there to take home with us.  We met a few locals there, who ended up trailing behind us at our next stop.

Not quite ready to leave the "brewing district" we went right next door to Twin Leaf Brewery.  I liked the feel of this little taproom.  The wide open building has a nice wooden bar with some other table seating, with full view of the small brewing system along one edge.  Our server, like many in Asheville, was not a local.  We shared a sampler to try most of the available beers.  None of the beers were bad, but most were fairly middle of the road.  They did have a lot of beers to choose from though!  I imagine you have to really up your game to succeed in a city with this much competition for the craft beer dollar.  My favorite of the beers was a fine oatmeal stout that I would easily put up against Samuel Smith.  No food here other than some snacks, so it was time to move on.

By the time we got our car back to the hotel and beers unloaded it was pretty late and dark.  And Sj was getting Hangry.  That is Hungry-Angry and you do NOT want to witness it first hand!  We couldn't decide on where to eat and many places were already closing down for the night (this was Monday night after all.)  We ended up walking past a place (OK, maybe Sj led us to a place) called The Twisted Laurel and being happy that they had a late-night menu.  They had mostly Mediterranean and American fusion food, that was good, quick, and filling.  They also had a pretty good beer list including Alagash and New Belgium La Folie--unfortunately these were the only two that weren't on special.  Typical that we have expensive tastes!

With just a little bit of energy left in us, we decided to visit one of the stops from our Eating Asheville tour: Sovereign Remedies.  This bar appeals to those who love unusual drinks and has a frequently changing list of cocktails and smart staff of mixologists willing to improvise based on your own suggestions.  They have a limited food menu that really appeals after a long night of debauchery as well as an herbal "Pre-Hangover Tonic" that you can drink prior to indulging.  I ended up with some kind of strange citrus-laden Scotch concoction that was very different from what I normally drink, but I liked it!

Not bad for a day full of wandering!  By the end of the evening we were dog tired, but ready to get going again the next morning!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Eating and Drinking Through Asheville, NC: Part 2

In this episode my wife and I continue to stretch our waist bands by eating and drinking our way through Asheville!  Please check out the previous days HERE.

Day 3

Day 3 began like most others on our trip--coffee drinks made lovingly by Cat, our wonderful local barista at the Hotel Indigo.  Once the caffeine had a chance to kick in, we headed out for the day's festivities.  Being a Sunday, the city was a little less crowded than the previous two days, but still plenty of activity going on.

Hungry yet?

We had an early lunch at The Gourmet Chip Company, a place we discovered on our Eating Asheville tour the day before.  This place makes hand cut potato chips to order with a huge array of toppings, making this place very unique in my experience.  Chips range from simple to complex with Cuban, Asian, Belgian, and Californian inspired toppings.  They have a small list of panini sandwiches, so we had these with some amazing fresh chips.  Chip-wise Sj had the Parisian which was topped with rosemary thyme goat cheese and truffle oil, while I had the Buffalo sauce and blue cheese chips.  Yum!  They also sell some of their more portable versions on-line...

After our nice lunch we went out in search of a brewery.  Many of the breweries did not open before 2 but we discovered a relative newcomer to the local beer scene that had a jazz brunch so was open earlier.  This brewery quickly became one of our favorites and was a small enough place that many locals we met had never heard of it.  With the unlikely name of Burial Beer Company, these guys started out with a tiny 1 barrel system, and have just recently upgraded to a 10 barrel system.  An industrial building just a few blocks from Green Man and the Funkatorium, this place has a cool rusted metal roof and walls lined with old bladed farm implements.  The place has a relaxed, slightly ghetto feel that is truly unique among the plethora of taprooms I've been to in my travels.  Along the patio side of the building a huge mural of Sloth from the Goonies and Magnum PI bring some wacky color to the otherwise somber space.  Folks were cooking up New Orleans style food for the jazz brunch out back when we first arrived, but we sat ourselves at the bar inside to escape the noise (Jazz).

Our first beer was the Skillet Donut Stout--a beautiful and complex black ale served with a donut hole sticking out on a skewer.  Realizing that they did indeed do samplers, we tasted through most of their beers, talking to other bar patrons as we did so.  The serving staff was very busy, but did a good job keeping us plied with beer.  They had a very respectable West Coast Surf Wax IPA that probably the best IPA I had on this trip.  (While nearly every brewery had an IPA, most were less than stellar.)  Our favorite of the lot was the Bolo Coconut Brown Ale which rivaled Town Hall Brewery's Three Hour Tour for our favorite coconut beer of all time.  Supposedly the brewery will be canning some of these soon and I can only hope that we will eventually get some here in Minnesota.

We actually returned to Burial two more times during our trip and were never disappointed.  Our server Travis Floan, the second time we were there, looked nearly exactly like Jason Lee, and was incredibly knowledgeable and pleasant--one of the best servers we had on the whole trip.

After an amazing group of beers at Burial, we walked a block away to the much touted Green Man Brewery. Having grown up reading fantasy novels and fairy tales, I have long known about the fabled Green Man, and have loved seeing his leafy visage gazing down from buildings across the world.  So needless to say, I love the brewery logo.  Several friends and many locals had told us that this was one of their favorite breweries in Asheville so I had high hopes for this stop.  

Located, like most of these breweries, in an older converted warehouse, the place has a small patio and a larger high-ceilinged roof inside.  The bar itself is quite small--perhaps smaller than my own basement bar.  The backsplash area behind the bar was covered in ceramic green men, silly signs, fridge magnets, and assorted other random bric-a-brac.  Kermit the frog and Yoda gazed down upon us from above the bar.

Despite us sitting right at the bar and having only about four other patrons to deal with, our server was quite inattentive and even downright surly when I ordered a samplers to try some of the beers.  I always like to chat up the bartenders to get more information about the place and their favorites, but this was like talking to an inexpressive brick wall.  Slapping down my sampler (with the beers in the incorrect order) and slopping beer all over our area of bar, she continued to not impress.  This did not bode well for a good experience and I could feel Sj seething a bit next to me.  Moving on to the beers:  I did enjoy the not-over-the-top Rainmaker Double IPA, but it didn't stand up to some of my other favorite commercial examples.  Spring Bock was a pretty well balanced Maibock style as well.  The Forester Winter Stout was pretty bland and watery and we didn't even finish the sample.  Overall, I'd give this place a pretty mediocre score based on vibe, service, and beer quality.  Not my favorite stop in Asheville, but not the worst by any means.  I did notice that right next door they are building a huge facility to expand Green Man, and hope this works out well for them.

Right next door to Green Man is the factory for French Broad Chocolates, an incredibly popular local chocolatier.  They have a small selection of truffles and chocolates for sale at the factory, and you can see the chocolates being made by hand.  The bonus is that there is no line out the door at this location!

Tell me this doesn't look tasty!

Service at Tasty
On the way to our next stop, we discovered Tasty Beverage Co. nestled unobtrusively in another warehouse building.  We stopped in to see what they had in bottles and were excited to discover that (unlike in Minnesota) they were also able to sell pints and growlers of commercial beer at a little bar inside the store.  With beers ranging from Italian lambics to IPA's we had several options to try.  We ended up sharing a Haw River's St. Benedict's Breakfast Dubbel that was nice, but not the best coffee beer we had tried that day.  We earmarked a couple of cans and bottles for a future stop when we had wheels.  As with most places we ended up talking with some of the locals at the bar and getting some inside information about what other places in the area to try. Beer folk are friendly and talkative as a general rule...

From Tasty, we walked over the Funkatorium (now open) to try some of the beers we had missed the previous day, and to get another glass of the stellar Red Angel raspberry sour.  Our service was great and the place was less nutty than our visit on Saturday.  This would still not be the last time we returned here...

By now we were happy not to be driving anywhere.  We swung by our hotel the refresh and went back out for our dinner reservations at Rhubarb.  The restaurant is built around southern style home cooking, and chef John Fleer was actually out of town during our visit due to being a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award.  Every week they do a Sunday Supper which is seated family style with folks sharing heaping platters of amazing comfort food.  We ended up sitting with four other strangers, but really had a great time talking to them over our dinner.  This style of eating used to be entirely foreign to me, but all the beer and wine dinners I've been to over the recent years have helped me shed my cautious Nordic stoicism and embrace it!  The fried chicken was heavenly.  Almost beer-ed out I did have one final drink at the dinner--a rhubarb saison from England of all places.

Off to bed and a much needed rest.

Day 4 to follow!  Honestly I'm dragging this out so I can slowly relive the experience and it gives me an excuse to share pictures...Hopefully someone will see something cool and decide to try it (or not) based on my reviews.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Eating and Drinking Through Asheville, NC: Part 1

"So where shall we go for this year's trip?" My wife asked.  Not wanting to take an international trip, she and I discussed options of a road trip.  High on the list of destinations was Asheville, North Carolina--often called Beer City USA.  Having never been to the state, much less this city bursting with breweries, I was quite in favor of this ultimate goal.  What follows is a long winded travelogue about how to eat and drink your way through the city, with some random other stuff thrown in for interest.  We drove from Minnesota down through Champaign/Urbana Illinois, to stay with my dad for 2 nights.  There we had the best barbecue of the trip at Black Dog, and I got to reconnect with an old friend.  Yes we visited two breweries while there, but I've written them up in the past, so I won't go into them this time.

A quick word about Asheville before we begin.  The town began in the 1700's as a trading outpost, and really hit it's stride in the 1880's after the railroad arrived.  George Vanderbilt also arrived around that time and built a huge (castle) home that took over 6 years to complete.  The city has kept much of it's turn-of-the-century appearance, and retains a very eclectic and unique feel.  The area has drawn a large number of artists (bohemians and hippies) and has grown to be a huge tourist destination for those drawn to art, craft brews, and great food.  Most of the stores and restaurants in the downtown area are locally owned and not the usual chain stores you find everywhere else.  Don't worry, you can find your favorite big box stores outside of town.  Overall this place is an interesting mix of the old and the new, a progressive gem nestled in the otherwise conservative South.

I like the juxtaposition of old and new in this shot--I think it really shows what Asheville is...

Day 1

We arrived in Asheville fairly late in the evening on a Friday.  After checking into the quirky and pleasant Hotel Indigo, we foraged out for our first taste of the scene.  Most of the "action" in Downtown Asheville is within an easy 5 to 15 minute walk from the hotel, so we rarely had to drive anywhere during our stay.  I figure we burned off at least a few beers worth of excess by walking a lot during our trip.  Being Friday night, the town was hopping!  There were crowds of tourists walking the streets.  Musicians, jugglers and artists busking on nearly every other street corner gave the evening a chaotic and almost overwhelming aspect.  Passing the central square we came upon a huge crowd gathered to watch and listen to a huge drum circle.  With echoes of drums still drifting on the wind along with honking horns, and snatches of guitars, we continued our trek across town.

We arrived at our destination of Wicked Weed Brewing for a very late dinner (9PM) and found them to be packed to the gills.  This brewery has a very large seating area and long bar, with high ceilings and a huge mural of Henry the 8th on one wall.  We ordered a beer at the bar while we waited outside for our seating, taking the time to watch the crowds wander past.  One raucous group of guys was seated in the chilly outdoor patio and at one point the bouncer needed to move them along.  It got much quieter after that.  We eventually got seated and had some wonderful food and wonderful beers.  I had a crispy-on-the-outside bison meatloaf with greens and a spicy mustard sauce that was heavenly.  Even drinking 8 oz pours of beers we couldn't even try a third of the huge tap selection.  Beers ranged from IPA, to a great hoppy red ale, to a strange but tasty beer loosely based on a mint julep.

Sj and Henry 8 at Wicked Weed

We ended up coming back to Wicked Weed on our final day in Asheville and continued to work on the list of beers.  It wasn't until the second trip that we noticed a stairway at the far edge of the bar leading to a second basement tasting room and patio featuring even more beers to try!  Wicked Weed is right next to The Orange Peel (a famous music venue) and while there saw someone try to climb up from the patio to the line into the music hall.  Once again a bouncer magically arrived, made him settle up a bar tab and vacate.  I really loved the ambiance (despite being crazy crowded and loud), food, and beers at Wicked Weed!  These guys are in the very top of the Asheville beer scene for me and are really doing things right.

Day 2

Day two we slept in a bit to recover from our previous day's drive and late dinner.  The cheerful staff at the Hotel Indigo served me some great local coffee and sent us on our way with ideas of great places to find beer.

We headed first to Early Girl Eatery, a farm to table local restaurant known for southern comfort food and great breakfasts.  We arrived shortly before they opened and joined the long line waiting to get in.  Yup, it is that kind of place!  The tables are covered in brown paper and one wall has samples of some really impressive artwork from folks who have dined at the restaurant in the past.  Did I mention that Asheville has a lot of artists?  I had a wonderful southern breakfast featuring grits and biscuits smothered in bacon gravy.  Yum!  We were excited to discover that the ceramic sugar containers at each table were made by one of Sj's old friends from Alabama, Patty Bilbro.

Next we walked a ways past the local bus station and into the "brewery district" for a visit to one of the city's oldest (1998) craft breweries--Asheville Brewing Company.  The bar itself was small and a bit over-hot already at noon on this fine spring day, so we settled outside in the large covered patio.  Service was a little spotty out there, but the servers were pleasant when they actually came to the table.  They had a lot of beers of varying styles, but most were just mediocre.  The best of the lot for me were the Bronson Oat Brown and the Holy Ninja Oyster Porter.  A big deal was made about their recently released double IPA, but I didn't love it.  The brewery is known for pizza, pub food, and being kid friendly.  They can some their beers and I found them in restaurants and bars all over town.  Worth a spin by, but not the best place we found in town.

We had planned on stopping by another brewery with our fairly slow service, we ran out of time and headed to our pre-arranged Eating Asheville High Roller tour.  We had planned this in advance based on some good reviews I had seen in print and on-line.  We met at a used bookstore/wine bar for the first leg of the tour and then moved to several great venues across the downtown area for snacks and drinks.  At Cuchina24 we had a sample of the singular best bolognese pasta I've ever had, served directly to us by the executive chef.  Based on that dish alone we set up reservations for a late dinner there later in the evening for more of that and vegetarian pasta featuring fresh local ramps.  The tour was a lot of fun, with stops at places I wouldn't have discovered on my own. I highly recommend the tour and it was great to get this done early in the trip.

After the tour we wandered around the city and checked out some local shops and art galleries.  One of my favorites was an old Woolworth's that had been converted into a large art gallery, complete with 50's era soda fountain!

I got the Funk

Our last stop of the day (other than dinner at Cucina24) was the Wicked Weed Funkatorium.  Not content to rest on their laurels as a great local brewery, Wicked Weed has been developing a name for sour beers over the past several years.  Within the last 6 months or so, they opened the Funkatorium: a large barrel aging facility for their sour program, featuring a ton of their sours on tap and a small snack menu.  With it being so new, many locals we talked to hadn't even been to it yet.  Since this was a Saturday, they only offered a set sampler of 4 beers, but on slower days will do custom samplers.  We shared this and really enjoyed all of the beers we tried.  I really loved this small, dark tasting room with it's enormous barrel filled back room, filled to bursting with silently souring beers!  We would end up back here several times over our trip, mainly for repeat glasses of the epic raspberry flavored Red Angel.  That was probably my favorite beer of the whole trip.

Sampler at Funkatorium...

Not a bad way to start a trip.  Keep up with this here blog over the coming week for more details so you can start planning your own Asheville beer and food trip!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Whale A Week: AleSmith Vietnamese Coffee Speedway Stout

A Whale A Week is my attempt to both share some rare beers with good friends and empty my overflowing beer cellar.  Over the entire course of this year I will drink and blog about one "Whale" beer every week!  I've been on an epic road trip to Asheville, NC with tons of beer stops on the way, so I am running behind on these posts!  Two weeks ago we covered the 2012 KBS, and this week we move to another famous coffee beer...

AleSmith Vietnamese Coffee Speedway Stout 2014

For this tasting I had over one of my friends: Andrew Gieseke.  Known for his snarky attitude and love of sour beers, he chose this little gem from my stash.  

AleSmith Brewing Company is a craft brewery out of  San Diego, California, opening in 1995.  They are currently expanding into a new and larger brewhouse and tasting room just a few blocks from their current digs.  It looks like Mikkeller is moving into the soon-to-be-vacated current brewhouse, but I don't have many details of that deal.  

Speedway Stout:  I've been a huge fan of this beer since I first tried it about 2 years ago.  Earlier this  year I wrote up a blog entry on coffee beers that included the special Jamaican Blue Mountain version of the beer. You can review it HERE, if you like.  That beer was amazing, so I was very excited about trying another version.  I also have a Barrel Aged version I'm holding back for a future Whale A Week tasting...

Vietnamese Coffee in a stout?  This special limited release version of Speedway Stout features Vietnamese coffee.  For this batch AleSmith traditionally brews Vietnamese coffee, with a phin style filter that gently percolates water through ground coffee.  The filter is a small metal "hat" that sits on top of the coffee mug.  Vietnamese coffee usually comes from multiple sources and is blended for the right character, making it different (and some purists would say inferior) than the 100% Arabica beans found in most upper end coffees.  Typically the roast is dark, similar to French Roast, but is roasted longer and at lower temperature to get a more even character and less burnt flavors (Charbucks I'm talking to you...)  Traditionally the beans are roasted with a little oil to help with even roasting and may even use a hint of sugar, vanilla, and cocoa.  As a coffee fan, I'm already intrigued!  I'm trying to figure out where AleSmith found a big enough phin filter to do this for a whole commercial batch...

Beer Advocate rates this one at a solid 100, as does RateBeer, and this batch is seriously traded for!  

For our tasting we cracked this bottle at about 45 degrees F and served it into snifter glasses, so we could cup it in the hand to warm it up to closer to proper 50-55 degree tasting temperature.  My wife, Sj tasted along.  Here are our tasting notes. 

Eric: Cinnamon, vanilla, iced coffee all very strong.  I get semi-sweet chocolate sweetness as swirled.  This has a powerful malted milk sweetness that reminds me of the malted milk I used to drink as a child.  Coffee gelato aromas.  No hops.  Mild alcohol warming on the nose.
Andrew: Bitter black chocolate poured over coffee.  Medium roast with nutty overtones and some vanilla marshmallows.  A bit of graham cracker crust.  Swirl wafts more bitter dark chocolate and espresso bean.  Wood/oak tannins.

Combined: Inky black.  Carbonation meteors appear from the foam ridge of the glass, wispy strings hang around.  Thick body with legs at glass edge.  Deep tan to full brown head--one of the darkest I've seen.  

Eric: Sweet and malty brew up front, coating the tongue with creamy and viscous mouthfeel.  Vanilla and marshmallow is strong. Cocoa and expensive dark chocolate flavors with some bitterness toward the middle and end.  Roast malt and dark coffee flavors actually hit a bit late after the chocolate, making a lingering mildly astringent finish.  Coffee flavor is more subtle than in the aroma, but is very present and mellow--melding well with the creamy mouthfeel and the roasted malts.  Some alcohol warming, but not overly boozy.  As it warms I get some earthy character.  No hop flavors, but certainly some bitterness here--still balanced to the malty side.  I get some tannin and what seems like bourbon/oak character.
Andrew: Strong vanilla-marshmallow and woody/oak.  Chocolate covered espresso bean.  Medium roast and some boozy heat.  That woody, nutty pop like when you bite into an espresso bean.  Rounded over with vanilla.  Not too thick and sticky, but a bit creamy.  Dry from booze and tannins whether that be coffee or roast malt.

Eric: Seriously--this isn't bourbon barrel aged????  The complexity, combined with vanilla, booze and tannin makes this taste incredibly similar to a bourbon barrel aged beer.  The beer uses coffee in the best possible way--strong, but not overwhelming--a great supporting actor for the base Imperial stout that is the star of the show.  The overall impression is that of high end dark chocolate, coming across as sweet and rich without being cloying.  Deep, dark and decadent.  I give it a 5.
Andrew: Love the blends of coffee and then the big vanilla bomb hits!  Touch on the boozy/acrid side but the dryness makes it easier to drink, especially for a 12%.  Well blended.  The complexity of this is incredible. 4.5
Sarajo: Tastes like barrel. 4.5

This was a great beer!  I wanted to make a couple of points before moving on.  First off, this beer was bottled 7/14.  Age will often cause coffee to fade, and sometimes move to an earthy vegetal flavor (see previous 2012 KBS review for more on that).  Personally, I have found that coffee more than a few months old in a beer often strikes me as cinnamon, and I certainly picked this up today.  We were all shocked by how much this beer tasted like it was aged in a barrel.  There apparently is a version where that is done--and I can only imagine what that tastes like!  I was happy to get to share this special beer before it lost its mojo.