Saturday, March 24, 2012

20. Zeppelin does not quite climb the Stairway to Heaven

It’s been a while since I sat out in the country drinking beer from a Mason jar. I must say that it does, in fact, make me a bit more relaxed… if not more forgiving. It’s the wee hours of the morning as I write this – about 3 am. We’re spending the weekend with friends at the family’s ranch up near Normangee, Texas.

The day has included the things you would typically expect to find on a holiday weekend (Spring Break Rules!) : Fishing, riding four-wheelers off road, shooting rifles… and of course, drinking some beer. Earlier in the day I’d been drinking my old fallback beer, Shiner Bock. It’s a solid beer and a proud tradition in Texas, and what’s more, it’s one of my favorites, even though it has been surpassed by Shiner Black in my estimation and drinking preference.

The ranch house is quiet now and I’m probably the only one awake, so I thought I’d sit back with one of the three craft brews I brought with me this weekend.  For no reason other than it was windy outside, I decided to give the honors to Zeppelin, a cloudy German beer that definitely honors the birthplace of beer.

I bought Zeppelin at either Central Market or Spec’s Liquor in Houston, Texas. I don’t recall how much I paid for it, so it was probably under $3 for a single. It is bottled by Brauerei Max Leibinger in Ravensburg, Germany. Get info at

First, there is the surprisingly mild aroma coming from what turned out to be a beer with a medium dark color. That is to say, it has a medium-brown color that is darker than ales and most other beers, but I do not feel I can call this a “dark beer,” per se. Although it has a nice, strong flavor, it lacks the heft that you would expect to find in a true dark beer. Also, the beer is cloudy, and very proud of it, as trumpeted on the label:

“A special brew for connoisseurs: Zeppelin is a naturally cloudy, unfiltered specialty brew. Its natural cloudiness and natural ingredients from the Lake Constance region of Germany make Zeppelin a heavenly experience.”

The attractive black and gold label also provides the info on the ABV, which strides in at a rather pedestrian 5.2%. I also noticed the oddity that the bottle has 11.2 ounces of beer, rather than the US standard of 12 ounces or the wonderfully generous UK standard of a pint. Still, why quibble over 0.8 ounces?

After savoring the malty aroma, I did a standard pour that quickly disappointed me: This beer has almost no head at all. I have gotten more impressive heads from a day-old can of Diet Coke than I got from this beer. That made me worry, but that worry was mostly dispelled when I tasted it ice-cold (i.e. around 35-38 degrees) and was rewarded with the roasted malt that had been promised by my nose. There are hops present, but they only bite the tongue when the beer warms to over 55 degrees. Before that, this is a surprisingly smooth, bready tasting beer with a hint of sweetness.  As someone who doesn’t like being slapped by aggressive hops, this was a nice, smooth way to chill out for the evening.

As the wind blew itself away outside, I watched the trees stop dancing beneath the security light on the pole outside and just enjoyed the quiet inherent in this soft German import. The Mason jar is now empty and there was never a hint of lace on the glass. Except for a lingering scent of malt, you would never guess I had just polished off a bottle of German beer at all.

Right now, in this mood and this place, this was an almost-perfect nightcap. Not too bitter, not too strong… it’s sort of the Baby Bear of beers: It was just right. But I’m afraid this is not a memorable beer. It wasn’t great and it wasn’t bad. It was definitely better than some, and if I were offered it in a beer garden I wouldn’t turn it down. But I’m not likely to go out of my way to order it again, either. It just lacks that something special that would make this memorable.

Thoughts from the bottom of the glass:
Color:  Very cloudy brown
Aroma: Malty with a sweet undertone.
Hops: Only present at warmer temperatures
Head: What head?
Lace: It must be hanging out with the head because there ain’t none
Carbonation:  Mild but consistent
My Rating: 4.5 out of 10

Saturday, March 17, 2012

019. Let's go to the (Shiner) Hop with Wild Hare

It's time to dive into a cool (not frosted) glass of the Spoetzl Brewery's latest annual offering: Shiner Wild Hare. This is Shiner's first pale ale, and even as someone who prefers to keep to the dark side, this is a pretty good way to fill a glass.

The first thing that hit me was, of course, the aroma of hops. Shiner isn't known for having very hoppy beers, which is one of the reasons I love most of what they do (I like hops, but I don't like to be slapped in the face with them -- for me, there must be a balance with the malt or it's just a bitter mess trying to take my tongue hostage). I'm guessing the inclusion of stronger hops is why they named this particular brew after a rabbit.

Once I poured it, I liked the color. Mostly golden with hints of brown and even a slight hint of red, depending on the light (I was grilling steak while I was drinking this, and I must say the aromas of fire-kissed sirloin, my special beer-based marinade and Shiner Wild Hare made for a heady bouquet). It's also possible that the fire contributed to the hint of red, as I've only noticed that color twice since finishing off this six pack.

While I was outside grilling, I set the beer down in front of my flashlight (the back porch grill light had burned out and I haven't gotten a replacement bulb). I don't think it does justice to the color, but what the heck. How often do you have a Close Encounter of the Beer Kind? Someone cue the X-Files theme, please...

After tasting the beer and making my notes, I went out to read what others said about this beer and was surprised to see several comments about it having a big head and strong carbonation. That was not my experience. I always do a conservative pour: Glass at 45-degree angle for about 80% of the pour then top it off with an aggressive splash at the end to raise the head. This got me a very mediocre head (see my photo below). In spite of this weak head, I found the lace to be better than expected, and the bubbles -- although small -- continued to rise for quite a while.

TEMPERATURE: My first sip was very tart and the hops were overly pronounced (if you like hops, then it's probably just right). The malt was there as an undertaste, but I didn't care for it. The basic flavor was good, but it's just that those hops were, well... hopping around on my tongue. When I took its temperature, the beer was around 42 degrees. While tending to the steaks, it gradually warmed and I found that the hops rapidly mellowed to something more palatable. At a coolish 63 degrees, I found the fruity currents to rise to the top and, somehow, bring back out the tartness of the hops. For me, the magic zone is between 45-50 degrees because it yields the most balanced flavor.

I think this beer is best at around 54 degrees. It's still nice and cold (perfect for grilling a steak to perfection) and the hops and the malt come into a better balance. I also became aware of the hint of citrus that other reviewers mentioned. For instance, Nicholas L. Hall of the Houston Press writes:

"After that initial surge, Wild Hare is well-balanced between biscuity malt and dried tropical fruit hops. For all its balance, though, nothing really comes forward. It's almost like it's perfectly balanced so as to be perfectly inoffensive. Neither the hops nor the malt is particularly prominent or flavorful, almost canceling each other out in their attempt to get along. Ultimately, the beer seems to be trying so hard to be broadly appealing that it ends up not having much to set it apart."
As someone who prefers malt to hops, I like the balance. But I do have to agree that it's probably too balanced for most people and it doesn't seem like something that I would go out of my way to get (not like the Christmas season back in 1998 when I drove 40 miles round trip to a Spec's that still had two cases of the Shiner 98 in stock -- thank heavens they added that brew to their permanent line up as Shiner Black).

Thoughts from the bottom of the glass
Color: Golden with a faint hint of red
Aroma: Hops balanced with malt
Taste: Light, bright, a nice balance of hops, malt and a hint of citrus
Hops: Present and pleasant around 55-degrees F
Head: Confused. One pour was almost flat looking, yet an aggressive pour yielded a huge head that quickly popped away
Lace: Thicker than expected considering how light it is
Carbonation: Medium-sized bubbles, but they last a long time
My rating: 7.5 out of 10

By the way: The Website is hilarious! It has a series of "educational films" that look like 1960s Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom episodes. You should really mosey over there to enjoy them (or hunt for them on YouTube like I did so I could embed it here).

There are several films in this series, and I highly recommend watching them all.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

"Keep your silly frosted mugs!"

John Carroll (aka John the OFM) at The Miniatures Page (another forum I haunt) wrote this the other day:
Keep your silly frosted mug! That's why you need a frosted mug if you are drinking a Coors Light, or a Miller Lite. They have no flavor to begin with, so you may as well throw an ice cube in too.

I promptly informed him that he has NEVER BEEN MORE WRONG! Those beers do have flavor... it's just bad.  Very, very, very bad!

That's right, apparently I'm a Beer Snob. In that same forum a few weeks back, a few of the fellers were saying that the best beer is cold and free. I had to reply that, of course, no it isn't. This lead to challenges that I wouldn't turn down a free beer in the heat of summer, and everyone who knows me said that not only would I, but many had seen it. In fact, it happened at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo last night (well, sort of... trust me, there was no free beer to be had). Budweiser is a sponsor of the event, so for the most part they sell Bud Light and an assortment of their product. I sipped on a Diet Coke until I found a place that had a few offerings I could stomach: I settled for a $9 glass of Ziegenbock. It's not one of my favorites, but at least its drinkable.

Speaking of the Rodeo, I had a great time. The bareback riding and bull riding were great, and the calf scramble is always fun to watch. And if you've never seen Reba McEntire sing "Fancy" live, then you're seriously missing something great.


But back to John's comment about frosted mugs: Funny he should mention this, as I was talking to some of my wife's kinfolk this weekend about the effects of temperature on beer flavors. As you might expect, a single beer tastes very different at different temperatures. In my beer-tasting adventures, I have actually found a few brews that are, indeed, better when served ice-cold in a frosty mug. But these are the exception and not the rule. I have found that most beers are better and more aromatic when they are not ice cold but are not warm. Most seem to be good in the 40-50 degree range. I'm actually going to start measuring temperatures while I drink them to narrow down the range and impose a bit more science into my observations.

I don't think I'm going to go back and do any additional reporting or studying on this (okay, maybe as an excuse to drink some more of the good beers I've already had the pleasure of imbibing), but if I'm drinking at home I will have access to a thermometer, so I plan to take some readings here and there to see what I find out.

Stay tuned as I drink beer in the name of science!