It was only last year that we started writing about cider here at Drink Craft Beer. Contemporaneously a slew of cider producers launched right in our backyard...or at least in our city. One of those was Bantam Cider Company and their Wunderkind cider. We’ve waited for the follow up with bated breath and even got a sneak peak at jm Curley a while back...finally, they’ve released La Grande into bottles, their long-anticipated barrel aged dry cider. Aged in rum and bourbon barrels, this one has me stoked because I’ve long hoped for brewers and cider makers to branch out in the type of barrels they use...and rum is one of my favorite liquors. So let’s dive right into this one!
We're also excited to have Bantam joining us for Drink Craft Beer Summerfest: A Celebration of Farmhouse Ale 2013!
[Editor’s Note: You may be wondering why Sarah, Drink Craft Beer’s cider writer, isn’t writing this review. Don’t worry, she’ll be back, but she’s currently on a reviewing leave as a result of being pregnant with our first child. I say ours because, if you haven’t volunteered at a Drink Craft Beer festival, you may not know this but Sarah and I are married. We can’t wait for the first Drink Craft Beer baby...branded onesies coming soon!]
La Grande is a crystal clear, amber honey tinged cider than can only be qualified as luscious. It’s honestly the color of light, high-end maple syrup. As with almost all ciders, a lack of protein in the liquid means there’s no head...don’t worry, that wasn’t just me executing a poor pour.
The first word that came to my mind - and will come to yours as well, most likely - is juicy. Seriously, I could smell this while I was pouring it in a big way. As I’m typing this, the La Grande is off to the side and I can smell it. This is one deliciously fragrant cider. It’s much sweeter in aroma than Bantam’s flagship Wunderkind, which has more of a wild flower honey thing going on. Big, juicy fresh pressed apple juice asserts itself right away. I keep putting my nose into it, and more details keep coming out. After that apple sweetness there’s some tannin that I had assumed was from the oak barrels, balancing the sweetness a little. I was at best half-right as it turns out this cider was made from “the Reine de Pomme, an heirloom French Cider apple rich in tannins,” according to the label. Either way, there’s a lot going on and it all works! (Note: Let it warm up for a bit and more of those rum notes will come out...as a fan of rum, I’m really digging it!)
Whoa! That is NOT what I expected! As I mentioned, the cider smells sweet and full-bodied. The label mentioned a blend of wild and cultivated yeast, leading to a complete fermentation and dry product. I didn’t think that could be true given what my nose perceived, but I was wrong. The low residual sugar mixed with tannins from both the apples and barrels means a super dry drink. With that said, while dry usually means crisp, I would never use that word to describe this one. Rather, a restrained hand with the rum and bourbon barrels adds on to those Reine de Pommes, lending a character similar to white wine. La Grande will just dry out all the moisture from your mouth with a ton of tannin. Don’t shy away, though, as it’s quite delightful. In the end, I’ll sum it up by saying this is a cider that you have to try. It blew my mind and then I went back for more. We here at Drink Craft Beer love Wunderkind and this is a great follow up for their second product!
If you'd like to try some of Bantam's offerings, they're available in stores all over the Boston-area or you can come out to Drink Craft Beer Summerfest: A Celebration of Farmhouse Ale! They'll be pouring a special farmhouse cider, as well as other offerings!
OK, bear with me while I make two sweeping generalizations, and then attempt to justify them using a single example.
The first generalization is that the color of your beer follows the seasons (summer is lighter, winter is darker). The second - that the booziness of your beer matches the temperature (colder is higher ABV, warmer is lower). Right, fine, I know you can point out hundreds of examples to disprove either of these statements. But let’s be honest you agree just a little bit.
I bring this up because with spring here the temperatures swing wildly between day and night, which makes it hard to pick out exactly which beer to enjoy after a hard day at work. For us folks living in the DMV - DC Brau’s Oaked Penn Quarter Porter is a fine choice for the changing season. Named after a popular neighborhood in D.C., PQP was DC Brau’s first limited release beer, though it is fairly easy to find. The oaked version - aged on Catoctin Creek Distillery Round Stone Rye whiskey barrels - is a little harder to come by, but oh so worth it!
At 5.5% abv the beer works nicely in warm early evening weather, but as the sun sets and temperatures drop the robust boozy flavors of DC Brau's Oaked PQP keep you nice and warm.
Right off the bat you notice the opaque black pour with a caramel head, then the spicy whiskey and vanilla oak flavors hit your nose forcing you to double check that you didn't accidentally open an 11% abv brew.
Waves of vanilla, whiskey, bittersweet chocolate, cold brewed coffee and roasted malt enliven your taste buds, but are tempered by a jammy stone fruit funk and a slight hop bitterness towards the tail end of a sip. The complexity and layering of flavors is impressive, and the roastiness actually fades a bit faster than I find to be typical for the non-oaked version - a plus in my book. My senses tell me to expect a drunken punch to the face, but the beer delivers a jovial pat on the back.
Soon enough we’ll be inundated with summer beers - so take the opportunity to enjoy this versatile all-season beer while you can!
When I think of Mystic Brewery one word comes to mind, saison. Mystic has built a cult following over the last year or so based on their exceptional line of saisons. As a brewery they actually challenged my idea of what a saison was, and really opened my eyes to the unlimited possibilities out there. While perusing the shelves on my local beer store I saw a new bottle on the shelf. On first glance you might actually miss the fact that it's from Mystic. As it turns out this series was spurred by one of Mystic's original employees, Alastair Hewitt, who is originally from the UK. Let me just say right now that I'm really glad they hired him.
I really like the way they've branded this series. If you try this beer expecting traditional Mystic funk then you'll be disappointed. If, however, you go into this beer looking for an amazing English inspired Oatmeal stout then you'll be in heaven. This is one of the best oatmeal stouts I've had in recent memory, perhaps ever. The aroma is laced with a subtle sweetness with hints of roasted malt. The first sip just pulled me in, though, in reality I can't call it a sip so much as a gulp, it was just so good as soon as I tasted it that I had to have more (cue Will Ferrell jokes). Seriously though, it's incredibly smooth, the oatmeal provides a fantastically good round mouth feel that just begs you to keep drinking more of it. The roasted malt is fairly subtle and the balance between malt bitterness and sweetness is sublime. I don't normally gush over beers like this but it's that good. One of the things that makes me happiest is a single line of text on the bottle "traditional ale series." That one line means there's more to come, and if the rest are anything like this then we're in for some seriously good beer.
The Boston area should be proud of the proliferation of new breweries and craft beer friendly bars that have sprung up in the past two years – but they aren't alone. Washington, D.C. has nearly the same population as Boston, and the craft beer industry within the district boundary has grown exponentially since 2011. Three new breweries have opened, alongside countless restaurants and bars – and nearly six new breweries are in various stages of development.
One of these bars is Smith Commons, which opened in my soon-to-be neighborhood in January 2011, only a few weeks before I finalized my move. The bar is located in the rapidly changing H Street NE corridor, and they strive to provide an atmosphere where everyone can feel comfortable and try something new. Between hosting summertime homebrewing demonstrations, fundraising parties for local organizations and a visit by President Barack Obama for dinner the Smith Commons team has been busy working towards that vision! We recently asked Miles Gray, Managing Partner at Smith Commons, to share his story, his favorite beers, and his opinions on the future of the craft beer scene in DC.
Drink Craft Beer: How did you get into craft beer?
Miles Gray: I got into craft beer about ten years ago after a night of drinking on the "old" U St. corridor. I found myself in this bar called The Saloon, where I had my first experience with Delirium Tremens. That led me to research and try the Belgians, which quickly led me back to the domestic crafts. As I'm sure many people have experienced, there is no coming back once you have great beer.
DCB: What inspired you to open Smith Commons, and how does that inspiration shape Smith Commons’ operations?
MG: My business partner, Jerome Bailey and I are long time friends and fraternity brothers, so that friendship sparked the conversations about an approachable, unique venue and that became Smith Commons. Our friendship has had a direct impact on the way we manage our team and interact with patrons, as we strive to always put people (all people) first. The best example is our beer program. We consciously chose to only place 12 taps, to avoid intimidating and confusing people, especially those new to beer, with an overwhelming number of choices. We also aim to educate and introduce people to craft beer by comparing our all American draught lines with the Belgian standards (Duvel, Chimay, Delirium etc.) which we carry in bottles.
DCB: Where do you see the DC area craft beer industry heading in the next year? And, in that vein, can we get a sneak peak at what new to expect from you in the coming year?
MG: The DC area craft beer industry will have to error correct and readjust the market strategy over the next year. We will see more breweries enter the area, which is a great thing, but the consumer education is not growing at the rate of craft beer distribution and expansion. What will happen is, the beer community will start to realize that the base consumer in the market has been left behind and not educated fully in regards to making craft beer and better food a lifestyle choice.
I would draw an analogy between where craft beer is at and the early days of the recycling/ sustainability movement before things like the "An Inconvenient Truth" movie gave large numbers of people a different view of a longstanding movement. By that I mean, there is little being done currently to explain the value of craft beer to the 80% of the population who will carry the movement beyond us beer snobs. The beer community does not do much in the sense of diversity, and the sole approach of beer dinners and tap takeovers is not a true platform for growth. Of the 2000+ bars in our area, there are maybe less than 50 that take craft beer seriously. To me, that is one of many signs that not all of the breweries in our area will thrive without creation of new consumers, inbound marketing, and analyzing market thresholds for price point, distribution etc.
DCB: I’m curious What types of activities do you think the industry can do to promote the value of craft beer to a broader audience?
MG: To promote the value of craft beer to a broader audience the craft beer industry needs to study the achievements and pitfalls of big beer, and the big spirits industry. I hear people saying they hate big beer without really studying the history of how big beer kept brewing alive during and post prohibition. I think Ommegang out of Cooperstown, NY has taken a huge leap in the right direction by partnering with Game of Thrones/ HBO for a beer series. On a more local level, what Brian Strumke of Stillwater did with Lower Dens is another great example of creating "beer venn diagrams" of overlapping cultures, music, tech etc.
Our "Masters of the #CraftBeer Universe" event for #CBC13 [ed. Craft Brewers Conference] was put together in that same vein.
DCB: You walk into a magical beer shop with every beer currently available. You can put together one six-pack. What do you walk out with? Only one beer can be from your brewery.
MG: Great Lakes Christmas Ale, Ommegang Rare Vos, 3 Stars Southern Belle, The Wedge Brewery (Asheville) Hemp IPA, Stillwater Cellar Door, Allagash Curieux
DCB: You have one night in your favorite beer city with your staff. What city are you in and where do you go (it doesn’t all have to be beer)?
MG: My knee jerk reaction is Asheville, NC and their lovely local breweries, restaurants, music and scenery, but globally my favorite beer city is Ghent, Belgium. I would suggest that everyone take a trip there during Gentse Feesten (Festival of Ghent). The festival is a ten day party made up of about a dozen smaller festivals, and beer literally flows in the streets. They have incredible little things like this pop up meatball spot called Balls & Glory, and large events like Polé Polé music festival, spread out all around Ghent. It's a great experience to eat and drink beer, amongst the architecture of 1500 year old towns, and I would love to chill in Ghent with our team at Smith Commons.
DCB: Miles, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us! Best of luck with the #MOTCBU event, we’ll be sure to stop by!
Smith Commons is located at 1245 H Street NE, Washington, D.C. 20002
I love Spring, not just because the snow is thawing, the days are getting longer and the salt and grime washes away with each passing rainstorm (though I do love it for all of those reasons) but, rather, because Spring seasonals comprise some of my favorite beers. Big stouts get lots of love in Winter and the pumpkin beer craze gets bigger every year in Autumn. Spring on the other hand is open to a lot of interpretation; in general though I see a theme of something fresh, something new and something exciting.
Mayflower Spring Hop is one of those beers that signals the start of Spring to me. OK, sure, hops are not a seasonal ingredient in the strictest sense. But Spring is when our dormant hop plants begin sprouting, hinting at a new crop to come, and for that reason this is a perfect Spring beer. Normally I prefer beers that are late hopped, which tends to lead to stronger citrus or spice notes, but this beer has a serious in-your-face bitterness. Mayflower calls this a red ale, and it does have an awesome deep copper hue to it and a killer malt backbone, but as the name might hint at the real star is the hops. Citrusy, floral and definitely bitter this beer packs a serious punch, though at only 5.3% ABV you can have a few. In fact, I think I'm going to go open another right now.
I'd encourage you to go out an pick some up, but you can also try it at Drink Craft Beer Springfest: A Celebration of Hops this April.