It’s just hops, a little barley malt, some water and yeast. And yet, out of the sum of those humble parts, the whole reveals itself in an amber, red and chocolate rainbow of flavors, from Pabst to Great Lakes Christmas Ale to Sterkens Bokrijks Kruikenbier and all the rest of the thousands of varieties being imbibed, as I write this and as you read it, the world over.
It’s always five o-clock somewhere.
Meanwhile, most of us are one-beer people. I have a friend who will always think “Heineken” is the right answer to any question. And the Miller-versus-Bud debate has had a significant portion of the world at odds for decades (I’m a Miller girl).
How intriguing, then, to see a tiny write-up in the PD about the Winter Warmer Festival: an eight-hour beer-fest at Rock Bottom Brewery featuring nine local breweries. Finally, a chance to taste-test the best our breweries have to offer, all in one place, all on the company’s dime! True to its name, the event took place on a frigid Saturday in the darkest month of the year — February. The first-time event attracted the perfect amount of drinkers — enough to make us feel like we were at a real beer fest, but not so many that we couldn’t get to the beer. When we arrived around 6 p.m., a crowd of about a hundred was very, very mellow. Thanks to the high-quality bevies on hand, this was clearly not going to be a raucous, Bud-Light-girls, wet-T-shirt kind of beer-fest, for which we were eternally grateful. After all, we really were there to taste-test some beer, and a perfect testing environment requires minimal jostling and bar brawls.
We learned, we laughed, we got tons of cool stickers from the brewers. We tested 18 beers. What did we come away with?
Just kidding! We came away with a warm, fuzzy, happy buzz and these truths about the world, as seen through high-quality-beer goggles:
1. The Buckeye Brewing Co. guys are really cool. A hippie was running the booth. He may have even had on a Baja jacket. He definitely had a scruffy goatee and a funny hippie hat. Minor details from the evening are a leetle fuzzy. But the important part is that he gave us the most, and the coolest, stickers, and the Buckeye Hippie IPA, brewed with German lager hops for a less biting finish, fit the mood perfectly — it was like a little bolt of sunshine. “It makes a hippie happy,” my friend noted. We all giggled. “It’s balanced, earthy, bitter but not over the top,” said the hippie. We all nodded seriously.
2. Chuck’s in Chagrin Falls is the spot for beer geeks. By the time we made it to the downstairs portion of the tasting, tasters and pourers alike were at least one-and-a-half sheets to the wind. The Corner Stone rep was happy to chat with us about all sorts of things, including his love for the selection of beers at Chuck’s Fine Wine and Cheese store. “Mama!” he said. “Go to Chucks!” This was, overall, one of the best parts of the tasting. At every booth, the reps took the time to answer questions and join in the beer love-fest. I’ve been to wine tastings and seen this happen as well, but something about tasting beer just makes the atmosphere so much more enjoyable, laid back and fun. Which leads me to No. 3:
3. Beer tasting is superior to wine tasting. I didn’t make this up. One of the reps told us that he read about it in Wine Advocate. I did some research into the truth of this, and found that, while I can’t pin it on the Advocate, there does appear to be some concession out there that there’s a lot more variety in beer than there is in wine — the flavor notes are almost endless when there are so many different things added in to beer. With wine, grapes are pretty much all you’re going to get. Which could be why I wrote “tastes like candy … old-fashioned candy … bubble gum” after tasting the Cleveland Chophouse’s Belgian Tripel, and “strong, citrus and coffee … a little metallic tasting” about the Brew Kettle’s Imperial Stout, while years ago I went to a wine tasting and couldn’t distinguish a pear, tobacco or nut taste anywhere.
4. It’s hard to pretend to enjoy barley wine, even if it has been bourbon-barrel aged for 13 years. The Brutus barley wine was the “super secret surprise” from GLBC, and the general sentiment was not that great. “It’s like Christmas in your mouth,” the rep said, and maybe it would be for a beer lover bringing years of experience to the table. For us, it was by far the strongest beer at the tasting, and because of the high sugar content it tasted almost like a brandy. On the other hand, the Blackout Stout, GLBC’s other offering, was deliciously sweet and tangy yet accessible.
5. IPAs are your friend. And mine. In my old college days, graduate students loved nothing more than lounging on the patio at Arbor Brewing Co., quaffing IPAs and saying intellectual things. On these grounds, I’ve always stayed away from IPAs. Here, though, was an IPA at practically every table, and with just two options per, we ended up tasting a lot of IPAs. And they were great! Besides the Buckeye Hippie IPA, we loved the Rocky River Brewing Co. IB Zeus, labeled as a “West-coast-influenced double IPA … aggressively hopped with Simcoe, Columbus, Cascade and Chinook.” It had a mint leaf taste and an ivy-on-a-building sense about it, even though the bitterness was doubled (hence “double IPA”).
6. Beer can also be gentle and sweet. Rock Bottom Brewery’s Harvest Ale was just that (although we tried its version of barley wine right beforehand, so perhaps my reaction to the Harvest Ale was partly relief). And the Chophouse’s Scotch Ale fit the bill nicely as well: perfect for a regular night, when you just want to throw back a few with some friends.
7. In the end, dark beer is still the best beer. If I’m getting adventurous, my tastes usually run toward dark, thick, meal-in-a-glass beers. And every table had at least one stout or porter. Thirsty Dog’s Siberian Nights was perfect: very dark, but very drinkable, like a cousin of GLBC’s Christmas Ale. The Mad Cow Milk Stout from Willoughby Brewing Co. was nice and spicy, but pretty light for a dark beer.
8. People think you’re crazy when you don’t finish your beer. Reps, staff, guests — they all watched in disbelief as we handed our glasses back for dumping and rinsing. Next year, they’ll have to get somebody else to write up this event. I’m gonna get schnookered.
This year, the Winter Warmer Festival takes place Saturday, Feb. 9, 1-9 p.m. at Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery. Features The Brew Kettle, Buckeye Brewery, Cleveland ChopHouse & Brewery, Corner Stone Brewing Co., GLBC, Hoppin’ Frog Brewery, Rock Bottom Brewery, Rocky River Brewing Co., Thirsty Dog Brewing Co. and Wiloughby Brewing Co. $20 includes admission and a tasting glass.