Monday, August 8, 2011

Well. We have finally recovered from the Route 66 Cork & Tap festival (waaaaay back on July 23) and my fingers will now listen to my brain again without bitching about all the beer I made them hold in tiny plastic cups for about six hours. And let's not forget our poor asphalt-fried feet!

Fortunately, we were staying at a house in very easy walking distance from the festival, which other than being all eco-friendly meant we could enjoy samples to our tongue's content without even the slightest worry about our capability to maneuver a large piece of vehicular machinery at any point in the day. We met our friend Kim just outside the barriers for the event, one of several portions of Summerfest which justified shutting down Central Avenue for the day.

(Kim was also our paparazzo for the day -- it's amazing how people think you're important when someone with a nice camera follows you around!) (Paparazzo is singular for paparazzi, btw.)

At first, the size of the alcohol-driven portion of Central struck me as... inadequate. Because each of the tents given to brewers and winers (there's got to be a word for wine-maker, and I'm apparently too lazy to Google even that--fortunately for our readers, I'm never too lazy to look something up. The word Zach is fumbling for is a vintner.) was relatively small, they crammed a lot of drinkable options into a one-block stretch of asphalt. One block of astronomically hot, molten-magma-esque asphalt is what he means to say. The tents might have stretched further south, but part of the Cork & Tap party bulged out sideways into a parking lot.

Was this one-block of beer really worth the ten dollars' admission (plus service charges, of course)? Did I really pay ten clams to fricassee my poor feet?

For the way the event was pumped as a showcase for nearly all the New Mexico-based breweries and wineries, and knowing how many of the breweries in Albuquerque alone we have already visited together, we thought that we'd blow through the whole event in an hour and be done.

All in all, we were able to make a day of it, without becoming incoherently inebriated. Although Zach has somehow forgotten to tell our good readers about the height of his tipsy-times when he left Kim and me doubled over in cackling laughter because he suddenly had to--just had to--call my mom and convince her to become an Irish citizen, or at least research the possibility.

Of course, it still would have been possible to blow through the whole event in an hour.

We arrived maybe sixty minutes after the gates opened, and there were plenty of folks who had clearly used up their ten 3-oz drink tickets and moved on to finding bigger cups to gulp. And I'll admit -- four little servings go down the gullet much more quickly than a 12-oz longneck. I think you fool yourself into thinking you're not drinking anything significant. But credit goes to someone -- either the vendors or the event staff or maybe even the patrons, because we didn't see a single instance of drunken disturbance.

I should mention that Kim was joining us at the fest for more than our company; she had only been exposed to the tip of the mountain in the realm of beer-drinking--one might say Kim only knew the froth on the mug where beer is concerned. Thanks to this little hobby of ours, she wanted to see just what wonders beer could hold for her. And Kim, if you're reading this, please feel free to let folks know what you thought of the beers you tried. Rather than throw her to the winds, Jenny and I tried to determine what sorts of beers she might like based on her preferences for taste in other areas. Kim apparently likes spiced meats and chocolates (but not coffee), and on those hints alone we determined that she needed to try a good stout.

We also learned quite quickly that good stouts, being more sensitive to temperatures than other brews, were left at home with the brewery babysitters. As such, some of our favorites -- the State Pen Porter from Santa Fe Brewing Company and the Malpais Stout from La Cumbre -- were unavailable at the fest. Well, shit. But still, props to Kim for trying some beers, and beginning to discover what she likes. And what she doesn't. (Equally important discoveries, we at Al"brew"querque believe.)

Jenny and I failed to note every single beer we tried--which is not to say that we failed to give them all a fair sip, gulp, or glug. But here are the highlights (and some lowlights) in no particular order:
  • Mimbres Valley Brewing Company (Deming, NM): Mimbres Valley is a new brewery -- the fellow behind the table said they are less than a year old, and do not yet distribute very far from home. They had a small selection of Belgian-style beers. I had the Belgian Special. I found it to be less full-flavored than the Trippel (Jenny "Belgophile" Mason, take it away! I will, I will, dear. Finish your thoughts.), but still tasty. It had a sharp bite that might turn some folks off, and the finish was uneven -- definitely weaker than the initial taste, and I wanted some final flourish to round it off. But still, a valiant effort. I actually agree with Zach on his assessment of the Special. You wouldn't drink it and gag, but bite he refers to dissipated without ever really asserting itself. While Zach took a sample of the Special, I opted to try the Liquid Nap, the 9.2% Belgium Trippel Mimbres Valley hauled all the way to Albuquerque. I, for one, am glad they did, too. The Trippel was peachy, fresh, and well-crafted. And like any Trippel, it packed a wallop, even the little Dixie cup-sample I had.
  • Turtle Mountain Brewing Company (Rio Rancho, NM): Turtle Mountain is a long-time favorite of Jenny's, and we're hoping to make it there before we leave for Ireland. At the fest, I tried the Pork & Brew Brown (name not guaranteed to be accurate). For the Rio Ranchers who read this, they'll know Zach has nothing to fear in his philology. The Pork & Brew is a time-honored event in ol' Rio. This beer was designed to accompany a meaty barbecue, so yes, it was a peculiar choice for a largely vegetarian fellow like myself. But just as I find ways to enjoy all the advantages of meat without actually eating much of it, I thought of so many ways to enjoy this beer. It was roasty and malty without tasting like the walls of a smokehouse. Definitely perfect for a barbecue, whether you're roasting up chops or portobella mushrooms. I took a sample of the Cabo Lager, which was a new-to-me TMBC brew. Hey, I haven't lived in Rio this past year and a half, cut me slack, Jack! The Cabo was smooth on the tongue--no abrasive flavors scraping on your tastebuds. But it also tasted just a bit flat...or flavorless. Perhaps the heat got to TMBC's keg like it got to my feet.
  • Rio Grande Brewing Company (Moriarty, NM): Rio Grande is part of a conglomerate of brewers in Moriarty that, as I understand it, also includes Monk's Ale, Isotopes Brewing, and Roswell Alien. Coincidentally, I tried the Alien Wheat and can only report that it was the most refreshing free sample of water I'd had all day. I sampled two of Rio Grande's beers at the fest. The Rio Grande IPA certainly had a hoppiness to it... but was certainly weak (in hoppiness and I think in ABV) for an India Pale Ale. The IPA breed was originally developed with higher hop content to preserve it for travel from England to India, and it has become a sort of litmus test for craft brewers and a lightning rod for hop-heads. Meiner Meinung nach, the marketers at Rio Grande should rebrand this brew as a regular ol' Pale Ale. I also tried the Rio Grande Outlaw Lager, which was surprisingly dark (I had to remind myself that while lagers are frequently light in color, they are by no means required to be so by definition or by the brewing process -- man, I know some people who could stand to remember that when voting for presidents). The draft was full, yet not quite as rich and diverse as the palate had potential for. All in all, a disappointing selection from Rio Grande, but not so shabby that I wouldn't go back again (we've had their pilsner on another occasion, and I recall it being a perfect summer-day beer).
  • Il Vicino Brewing Company (Albuquerque, New Mexico): Known mostly for its classy-pizzeria feel, it turns out Il Vicino is growing increasingly serious about its beer. I've had several of their brews in the past, so this time, well into a fiery Saturday afternoon, I opted for the classic summer option: the Hefeweizen. Theirs was not the absolute finest Hefe I've ever tasted... but that is not to detract from it. It had a very good citrus quality, the right amount of opacity, a clean and crisp refreshing feel to it, and is all in all a very solid example of the style. I'd go visit their "Canteen" for more.
There were plenty of other varieties we sampled, and I'll let Jenny take over for a few of those:
  • La Cumbre Brewing Company (Albuquerque, New Mexico): We've posted on La Cumbre before and I'm happy to report that word is getting around about this place. La Cumbre brought a frisky little red beer they called La Roja. This red advertised a belligerent level of hops, and boy they weren't kidding. La Roja slaps your tongue around with every sip, and in the end your tongue stand up on shaky knees, muttering, "Please sir, may I have another?"
  • Nexus Brewery (Albuquerque, New Mexico): Here is yet another diamond in Albuquerque's bosque-rough that we must try before leaving for the Emerald Isle. Nexus was new to us, and I'm a little surprised Zach gave me the microphone to belt their praise alone. We went back for an additional sample of their Scottish Ale, which was the creamiest, most authentic of such a breed of ale that I've ever had in these here parts of the desert Southwest! This beer had complimentary flavors of toffee and chocolate malt. So. Effing. Good. I wrote in my notebook: Finishes soft like a virgin's first night. And, while I might have been pretty tipsy at that point, I think Nexus really hit the nail on the head! After snooping around their website, I think I know how Nexus managed it! Their Brewmaster is one Paul Farnsworth, a British beer bodger straight out of the brew-centered town of Burton-on-Trent! What's more, their Head Brewer, one Manuel Massen, learned is craft in Cornwall. We met the benevolent, always grinning Maun Massen who genuinely loves beer, and really loves talking about it!
  • Santa Fe Brewing Company (Santa Fe, New Mexico): No beer fest would be complete without this gang of dedicated brewers. Santa Fe beers are some of my most favorite brews! I tried the Free Style Pilsner, which was watery, but I'd be willing to bet that the heat got to it, just like TMBC's Cabo. Did I mention my poor charred feet? While I've had it before, I just had to get a sample of their Nut Brown, which is always good--an all-occasion, all-weather beer! And for shits and giggles, I tried their Sour Ale which tweeked and jerked my tastebuds in many a direction. It was like playing pin the tale on the donkey and as I finished the sample, I couldn't help but think that this Sour Ale would make the perfect drink for a Halloween Party! Fun and freaky, just like some people's costumes!
Back to you Zach!

The atmosphere at Cork & Tap was generally very convivial throughout the afternoon. Live music helped, particularly because unless you were right by the stage it was never so loud that you could not hear your friends. One band kicked up with Django Reinhardt-style tunes, and we kicked back, enjoying fresh-fried potato curls -- don't forget with cheese! Gooey-yummy cheese! Soon, the wonderfully kind folks at the Dukes of Ale table (if you're in Albuquerque and into learning more about home brewing, check these folks out) passed along some of their drink coupons to us... which meant we had more samples available to us than we could drink. So while Kim snapped pictures of us, we started doing some serious schmoozing for Sláinte, our his-and-her Irish beer project (modeled, in large part, on this here blog!). Here we are passing out our own business cards with free drink coupons, and being surprised at how long people would stand and chat with us:

(Did I mention that these shirts advertised Al"brew"querque, too? It's on the back of the shirts, right below the part you can see on Jenny's back there.)

Then, with a surprising amount of sobriety still spread between us, we meandered away from the fest a bit before sundown. We were tired, we were hoarse, we were not nearly as dehydrated as we had rights to be (thank you, backpacks with water bottles!). And despite its low points, we were proud of just how far craft brewing has come in the state of New Mexico.

If I could offer one bit of advice for the Cork & Tap: if it is to become a regular feature of the Albuquerque summer, they should consider ponying up for actual glassware, and encourage their vendors to rinse out the glasses upon each tasting. Like I noted earlier, outrageous drunkenness seemed to be no problem at all, and the wine festival counterpart in Bernalillo each year has a souvenir wine glass to aid in tasting. Zach, you've take the brave, outspoken trail here, and I follow you on it! I would also add that Cork & Tap need not be a summer event. Early fall weather in Albuquerque is never so severe that you can't enjoy an outdoor event--it's the springtime that's schizophrenic. Why not have this even in the early fall when brewers might be able to haul out their porters, stouts, and spicy seasonals? 

The attitude of beer-drinking and beer-crafting as sophisticated activities was prevalent; the atmosphere was on the verge of just-classy-enough; and yet, drinking out of plastic cups the size of my grandma's Dixie cups intended for mouthwash made both the beer and the event feel a bit like a frat boy's miniature wet dream. (If there is city code preventing actual glassware, at least ask for vendors to give a courtesy rinse. Mimbres Valley was the only tent I visited courteous enough to do so. If craft beer is to have the respect of wine, let's treat each pull with the respect it deserves.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Weekend festivities

Jenny and I will be attending the Route 66 Cork & Tap festival in Albuquerque this Saturday. It's from 2-10:30, and I suspect we're most likely to be there from about 2:15 to 10:27. If you would like to join us -- or if you want a chance to sample ten different local brews just for the cost of entry -- the event promises to be quite a showcase.

If you know you're attending, feel free to email us your phone number! We'd love to hear your take on beer, for a change. And if you're extra lucky, you'll be present for some impromptu-snarking, courtesy of us.

(And if you're extra extra lucky, you'll become a backer for Sláinte! We would love you forever for it! We'll hug you and everything, without even being intoxicated!)

If you do go, please drive safely. Or even better, arrange for a designated driver or other safe way home. We want our readership to grow, not the other way around.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Trapped in the Land of Mock-Bocks, or "Alt"ernately titled: Good beer, I stoutly maintain, gives Albuquerque a better discerning.

To understand the dueling titles of this post it is important to know that I am writing (and concurrently drinking) in Montpelier, Vermont for the next week or so, while Zach is posting and drinking in Albuquerque. And we are all impressed about how little Zach is drinking, considering just how lonely and


delightfully busy he has been.

To comprehend why I am in Vermont we must back up to a time called "April" which is also referred to in our household as "still-waiting-for-these-frigging-grad-schools-to-either-accept-or-reject-us-month." It was at about the middle of this month when both Zach and I were finally notified of our acceptances to Trinity College Dublin, and when I also discovered that I had been accepted to the Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I accepted the prestigious and rare opportunity to pay tuition at both institutions and thus here I am. (She should spin issues for the Obama administration.) I realize this explanation does not account for the apparent insanity involved in doing two graduate programs at one time, but in the words of Tony Soprano, "Whuddaya'gonna do?"

By this logic, she will indeed shoot someone by the end of the year.

While here in the land of luscious-overgrowth-spilling-south-from-Canada, I am supposed to be attending lots of lectures and readings, workshops and meetings. ButI found I could not force our readers a two-week wait on a beer post. Additionally, Montpelier is situated in a formerly, albeit partially, Italian and German-settled area. Heck, Berlin is not that far away! (Apparently, Berlin IS that far away. Keep reading.) I reasoned there had to lots of good local beers to try. Thus inspired, I made may way down the steep hill that sequesters campus from the "town" of Montpelier. I ambled down tree-lined sidewalks and manicured lawns with a variety of colorful flowers, ivy, and bushes arranged in hulking clusters the likes of which I can only see in my desolate desert home at the Home Depot garden center. I even saw a woodchuck--or some species of not-really-a-beaver-not-really-a-groundhog!

(If she really were writing spin for the President, this would be the new way to refer to Republicans.)

I reached Montpelier's Main Street only to discover that I was "thus inspired" too early for any of their three bars to be open!

What--the good Vermonters don't drink at 9:30 a.m.?? Ok, well neither do I, but I did scour the local grocery store for some local beers to haul back to campus and enjoy later. I found several local brews available and finally settled on Long Trail's "Double Bag" because they advertised this as an "alt" bier which they used to save and serve only to those faithful beer-lovers who ventured to the brewery. This had to be good, I remember thinking.

The label on the bottle is intriguing. There are two cows standing "utterly" in the center of the label, which I think accounts for the name even though this beer is neither a milk stout nor a dubbel. And I thought it's what the grocer did to ensure your bottles didn't fall out. I conversed with my fellow writers and classmates about the beer and its label as we gathered for the usual nightly swilling of alcohol, which they call here the "wine pit." I like to think of it as an informal panel discussion where students can come and hone their more Hemingway-ian skills. Yes, good readers, even aspiring children's authors need to improve upon these capabilities.

You practice chauvinism and brevity and fishing? Oh, wait... you mean drinking. You could have chosen the Inklings. Or maybe that's just what's on my brain.

Upon first sip of the Double Bag, my tongue cried out "Bock! It's a Bock! Feel the fur!"

Either Jenny is playing here on the fact that Bock in German means "goat," or... yeah, I'm missing something, too.

Odd. Altbiers, as they are known in Germany, are usually just dark amber lagers, and Zach might be able to fill in more detail here as he lived for year very close to, if not directly in, the heart of German Altbier country. All you need to know: the Meter of Beer. They use darker hops and strive for flavors akin to caramel or tame nuttiness. This beer, unfortunately, possessed neither. What it had was that distinct Bock-style of robust, semi-sour...fur. Yes, this beer had some occasional glimmering hints of fruitiness, but overall with every drink, I felt as if the brewers had used some kind of rare and woolly, long-horned hop. Used, but not sheered. This can't be the isolated fault of the Long Trail brewers, though. Any time I have ever had Bock beer, like AmberBock, I feel as if my mouth gets full of fur. I know of no other way to describe the sensation. And...this might be TMI, but for me, the other definitive trademarks of a Bock beer are the raucous, burbling, old-man belches (*co-farts-ugh*) they incite!

(Okay, yes, fine! You caught me admitting to having drunk a Michelob AmberBock, but I was young and in college and experimenting with a lot of new things! Beer just happened to be one of those things.)

In the end, there were several among my classmates who thoroughly enjoyed the bottles of Double Bag which I shared with them. As frequenters of the Vermont and New England area, they swore that overall Long Trail's stock was good. I would however have to think long and hard before I schlepped back down (and consequently back up) that huge hill to go get more. There are, to be sure, plenty of alt style beers worth drinking until the cows come home, but I'm afraid Long Trail's "Double Bag" is not one of them.

And I, being for once in my life the one less traveled, turned to an old favorite: the Oatmeal Stout from Marble Brewery, one of the finer microbreweries in Albuquerque (and certainly the best distributed -- their distinctive color-balled taps are approaching ubiquity). The problem here was that like an evening with any old, dear friend, I felt happy and comfortable -- but I failed to pay particular attention to the details. The Oatmeal Stout (which is good every which way, but particularly when served in-house) was savored and enjoyed to the last sip... but I can't say I took notes.

In hindsight, when I was trying to explain this fine dark beer to Jenny over the phone, I said it reminded me of something warm, something delicious... something like cocoa butter.

She said, "Eewww."

Then I realized that I never have actually sampled cocoa butter. But the Oatmeal Stout is like cocoa, and it's like butter. Warm even when it's cold. Just rich enough without approaching an extreme. And it certainly is not your usual bouquet of flavors in a stout.

I think many breweries would call this one a porter. While some brewers will tell you otherwise, there is no real difference between a stout and a porter -- mostly brewer preference. Guinness has given stouts a tendency toward creaminess, with the sort of opaque head that can be rendered in a black-and-white Sharpie sketch. This Marble stout is much heartier and savory than its famous distant Irish cousin. Its head comes out brown and bubbly, the perfect gaseous vessel for releasing the warm, comfortable flavors into your nose before you even set tongue on the liquid.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show of beers: a cult favorite that cannot remain cultish because it is just too unique and, if you're into that sort of thing, just too good. I'm already thinking that Jenny and I will have to get a growler of the stuff to celebrate her return... and if we do, I'll get back to you on that whole specificity thing.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Al"brew"querque Goes International

That's right. Our Irish beer book project is a go. Or at least, the funding stage is...

If you don't know about Kickstarter, all you really need to get is that it is a reciprocal patronage platform. Backers of the arts can do so in small increments, and yet they get to be involved with the progress (and sometimes the creation) of a creative project.

And we have a pitch for our Irish beer book, tour guide, and story chronicle.

Watch the video. Read the page. And if you still have questions -- well, just ask away. We're bound to be pretty convivial about this project. After all -- it's beer!


Monday, June 27, 2011

Lofty Lunchers at La Cumbre

I lifted the squat, beveled pint glass to the unrelenting afternoon sunlight streaming through the window and failed to see any trace of solar brilliance, like some sort of deep-sea creature eager to see even a glimmer of light through the brackish water. (For once, Jenny is the deep-sea creature in this simile.) This stout was liquid night, and not just any night, but the kind of delicious, infinite, caramel-covered nights we associate with first-kisses or love-making. The stout was, in a word, perfect.

Good beer heaven. We found you at last!

Wait wait wait WAIT. We hadn't found beer heaven ever in our lives before now?

I suppose I should back up just a minute and explain. (Oh. You were going to elaborate. I should have waited.) You see, not eight minutes previously Zach and I were blanching under the scorching desert sun, deep in the industrial region that intersects at Girard and Candelaria. We were suspiciously eyeing a yellow-stuccoed, square, 1970s-box-style building with wrought-iron bars on the windows. The sign outside the establishment told us we had correctly located our destination, but all the tombstone-like gray warehouses and industrial lots spanning out as far as the eye could see told us otherwise.

It was more Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood than Mr. Rogers' is what she's saying.

At two-thirty on a Sunday, La Cumbre Brewery was not exactly hopping. We stood across the street wondering if we should even go in. Or if we should get back in the car and drive away, hoping no one had slashed our tires or stolen our engine while we stood there indecisively.

Maybe they were closed. After all, their posted hours for the day were noon to "close."

But go in we did, mostly spurred on by the sunburn forming on my pale shoulders. And our undoubtable masculine manliness, naturally. We discovered an easy-going, mostly empty, two-story drinkery. Big, bulky wooden chairs. Thick-lumbered square tables mixed in with round barrel-top tables. Hanging lamps were creatively crowned with license plate lamp shades. One quick glance up revealed an equally creative beer-bottle chandelier.

I could tell by the relaxed why in which the three or four patrons were snugged up to the bar, La Cumbre was a great place to enjoy a beer--despite the inauspicious exterior.

And apparently a great place to brew a beer, too. Or at least to be a brewer. The wall-mounted menu was the standard blackboard with colored chalk that so many breweries and brewpubs have come to love. But where most stop at the beer's name and the ABV, this one had terms I had to ask about to understand (Initial gravity and final gravity -- they are the density of the wort at the beginning and end of the brewing process) on top of facts like the brew date and the bitterness level (IBU). Non-sports-inclined stat nerds: I have found your mecca. (Sports-inclined stat nerds: you'll be happy to know the bar-mounted TV was showing sports. Present, without dominating the atmosphere. I dig it.)

Zach ordered a Beer. Yes, that's what it was called and I'm sure he'll spare no details describing it.

If one or two details are lucky I'll spare them. But yes, I mostly ordered this one on name alone. Beer with a capital B. The barkeep told me it was a pre-Prohibition-style American lager. And despite sounding like a drink for Neanderthals, this is the beer to give all your snotty friends who claim they don't like beer but they love them some white wines. This Beer tasted eerily like a good German Riesling, with the bubbles of a sparkling white. I could have sworn I smelled the acidity of fermenting grapes, which must have been a trick of the hops. The hops were otherwise veiled, as beyond the unexpected and remarkable flavor they added, the Beer had the lack of bitterness one associates with a good lager. Good carbonation, good head, good transparency, good full flavor... good Beer. Mmmm.

I got the Malpais Stout, which I described above. This stout warms the mouth, prickles oh-so gently without being at all creamy. It has no head to speak of, which brought to my mind the look of a porter, but perhaps La Cumbre did not use a nitros-tap as one would if serving a Guinness. But the initial flavor and aroma was definitely like a Baltic Porter. And I don't mean to kick off some kind of porter vs stout debate. I'll take the beer's name at face-value and say it was a stout. After all, there were the trademark flavors of coffee and a tiny bit of chocolate which come in a classic American Stout.

And, true to its name, that stout was just as black as the lava rock it was named for. If you haven't been to the excellent hiking areas of the El Malpais National Monument, you really should. They are just a short drive west, toward Gallup. From flowing pahoehoe (pah-hoy-hoy) lava-falls to jagged acres of razor sharp a'a ( know like the sound you'd make if you walked barefoot over it), El Malpais is like visiting another world.

And so is going to La Cumbre! They have and enforce a three-drink limit and post quite clearly the numbers to Safe Ride or cab companies. The owners feel strongly about drinking, but also feel strongly against drinking and driving. They encourage patrons to sip and enjoy or take home growlers. Zach and I strongly support their efforts, too. Indeed. This is a bar not about drinking so much as it is about savoring and appreciating and doing so responsibly. The time slid pleasantly by and before too long La Cumbre was filling up with a congenial crowd.

We settled into our seats, nestled down in our beers and then emptied our picnic bag on the table. Yes, you read that right. We brought in our own food and partook of it freely. Besides the wonders of it's beers, La Cumbre is unique because they allow the patrons to bring in their own food. Lunch, dinner, snacks. Whatever. We brought cheesy mustard sandwiches on rye bread, chips and salsa, some strawberries and Gouda cheese.

My goodness, my gracious. If you have never tried pairing beers with cheeses and fruits and breads... well, you'll be the snob you swore as a freshman in college that you'd never be. But the right pairings are SO GOOD.

With the right blend of blues, jazz, and rock music cranking through the speakers, we had no trouble getting comfortable at La Cumbre. We had been told before coming that the upstairs portion had an excellent assortment of couches and pool tables, but I'm afraid we were happily ensconced right where we were downstairs. Like the Walrus and the Carpenter, we talked of many things not limited to shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, cabbages, and kings!

We were so pleased and so thoroughly enjoying ourselves that Zach returned to the bar to get a South Peak Pilsner for me and Pyramid Rock Pale Ale for him. In hindsight, I am very glad I did an about-face on my beer selection. The South Peak Pils was just as yellow and transparent as the Malpais Stout was black and ubiquitous. According to the drink menu, this Pils is made with Czech Saaz hops, which imbue it with a "rustic" flavor, but I tasted warm, buttered sourdough. Heck, I smelled bread when I held this beer up to my nose. Whether that's a sign of rustic hops or diacetyl in the yeast, who knows or cares. The Pils was good and paired excellently with the strawberries and cheese in our picnic.

And the Pale Ale is not to be confused with an India Pale Ale (increased hoppiness in the original style to preserve it for travel) or an American Pale Ale (I swear these give hop-heads their name). This was more in the style of what I call English Pale Ales, wherein the scales are tipped in favor of hops over malt, but the hops play on each other and the other flavors rather than dominating. English Pales have always felt a little floral to me... sweet, and a touch of bitterness around the edges, but ultimately dedicated to a bouquet of beauty on the taste buds. Floats like a butterfly without ever stinging like a bee. Just beats you around the face with its vibrant wings for a while.

Ultimately, La Cumbre lives up to it's name. It is, in my opinion, the summit of great beers made locally in Albuquerque! (OUR opinion! I'm shocked -- SHOCKED -- to hear Jenny say this, though. Unless she's not counting Rio Rancho as part of Albuquerque...) You wouldn't want its neighborhood to be your neighborhood, but I guarantee that after one visit, you'll want La Cumbre to be your neighborhood bar!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

O'Moving Day at O'Niell's

How do you thank people who drive 400 miles through wind and smoke (yes, we drive through smoke in New Mexico now) several hours each way to store a truckload's worth of furniture for you while you prance off to Ireland?

You take them out to lunch, of course. We took Jenny's folks to O'Niell's Uptown this past Saturday for just that reason. (Thanks for making that drive, guys!)

Can I just say that taking them to lunch is the best thing you can do for your parents when they are as true-blue as mine until you are a millionaire, at which point you need to alleviate them of all the stress and burdens they ever had!

O'Niell's has become a bit of a standby in Albuquerque. It now has two locations (one in Nob Hill, one in the Northeast Heights), which pretty much means it's conveniently located no matter what circle of friends, family, or acquaintances we have any reason to dine with.

And it's alright. The food is solid if not spectacular (I think we both wish so many of the entrees were less greasy than they are--yes, it's pub grub, but still), the decor is fitting if not exorbitant, and, well, each spot has an outdoor patio where I prefer to sit.

Don't let Zach's description underwhelm you. O'Niell's has done a spectacular job making itself the closest thing to a community-minded, family-friendly pub...the kind one sees overseas. They have regular live performances by bag-pipers, folk-singers, and more! They have other fun events like Geeks-Who-Drink! Zach and I have attended several of these, whereby you listen to several rounds of mixed Trivial Pursuit-like questions, mark your answers on a sheet and turn them in one round at a time. You're trying to come up with on-the-spot answers on topics as varied as movies, history, pop-culture, music, and so on. All while drinking...and probably eating. It's fun! We placed 5th one night...which is not bad considering we were up against teams of 5+!

We end up going there so frequently in large part because of the variety of the menu, and that's both food and drink. Family can't agree on American food or Italian food or Mexican food? O'Niell's has a bit of all of it, on top of the standard Anglo-Celtic fare. They are one of the more vegetarian-friendly places in town, with several palatable options (including the Weird Sandwich, which changes to something different each day, with varying degrees of weirdness), and the portions are substantial without being too large. I've yet to see someone take home leftovers because they got too full... but then again, no one leaves complaining of hunger.

The drink menu is, objectively speaking, one of the better in town. If you're into scotch, our friend Megan would have some recommendations for you. And if you're into beer... well, you're talking to the right folks.

O'Niell's has a standard set of beers on tap -- ones like Guinness and their own* O'Red. And the best part is, they have a rotating seasonal variety. (Most of them aren't local, but they're decent microbrews and other small-brewery products.) This past winter, for example, they had Rogue's Dead Man Ale, a Monkeyshine (so good you'll get a third pint), and the Santa Fe State Pen Porter. (That porter deserves a post all its own. Jenny, whaddya think?) 

No objections here! I love that porter! Stay tuned devoted readers....

*This past Saturday, I asked our waitress if the O'Red was brewed by O'Niell's. She said no, that it was really the Full Sail Amber, just relabeled. O'Niell's is good, but this is why it doesn't rank among the very best beer establishments in New Mexico.

What do they have this summer? Well, I wish I could tell you in greater detail. But our waitress ascribed to the school of "ask me what's on tap, and I'll cock my hip and try to recite them all in one breath." And then get them wrong. I know they have a double Fat Tire right now, because when my dad asked what that was, she said it was a new strong version from Newcastle, rather than New Belgium. She was clearly not a beer drinker herself. Which is fine--but those of us who care what's on tap probably want to hear the names as separately and distinctly as we want to taste them. (And I have to say, I think that's rare for the staff at O'Niell's. Usually they are quite knowledgeable about the drinks and specials. This girl had to be new.)

Jenny ordered the Santa Fe Hefeweizen, which I think was the perfect selection for an early Saturday afternoon in June. (It truly was. I was the envy of our table. This Hefeweizen was pretty good! It was--almost shockingly--the color and opacity of melted butter. It made me think immediately of those deliciously make-believe butter beers we Potter fans have read about for years. Although it came with a wedge of orange, it did not need it. The beer had a wonderfully bright, citrussy flavor all its own. You could of course taste the wheat, but it did not remind me of liquid bread, as many wheat beers are wont to do. It's was not as good as Hefewizens I've had in Europe, but I can hardly object. I thoroughly endorse this beer for anyone's consumptional enjoyment.)

I got the Arrogant Bastard, in part because I'm snotty about my German-style beers and partly because it was the first item in our waitress's recitation. (Specifically, I think you got the Oaked Bastard...)

The Bastard was good. Like O'Niell's--solid, everything I asked for, but nothing to make the family sell the farm. (So really, what you're saying is that it was more of a Pretentious Fop, and not so arrogant or bastardly?) I appreciated the hint of oak that lingered around the edges of the dark brown ale, though like a fat guy in a Boba Fett costume on Halloween, the taste of alcohol let its presence be known more than I would have preferred. It was a good complement to the Big Cheese sandwich I had, but more than anything because I drenched my fries in malt vinegar. Ale just goes with malt vinegar, no matter what you put it on.

We left the restaurant before having a second drink because we had a truck full of furniture to get loaded up. But if we had stayed, I don't believe I would have ordered another Bastard. To be honest, I'd have stuffed my stuffiness and ordered one of the Hefeweizens, hold the orange.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Top off my 'Topes in the top of the third, please!

Last Friday night was one of those great evenings for a baseball game. I can't say perfect--there was still too much smoke in the Albuquerque sky for it to be perfect. (Not only for the fact that smoke was in the air, but even more for the ever-hanging reminder of the tragic fire in Arizona.) But that aside...

I'm a bit of a baseball purist. And sometimes, I'm certain, frustratingly so. (Frustratingly? That's the adverb you chose?) I'm the guy who doesn't boo the umpire when an opponent is called safe at the plate, but who has to explain to everyone around me that the tag was high and really, the runner was safe by a mile. I'm the guy who remembers (aloud) the old Albuquerque Sports Stadium every time I visit the much newer Isotopes Park on the same spot, and who wishes (aloud) that he could still see the Dukes in their old red-and-yellows instead of the 'Topes and their admittedly-quirky Simpsons-inspired team. I'm the guy who prefers a 1-0 game or a 3-2 game with stellar pitching to a 17-15 slugfest (which I've seen at Isotopes Park before). But baseball is baseball, and even if it's a lopsided 14-1 game, I enjoy it.

This game provided me with a good middle ground (and a very good seat. We had scored discounted tickets, six rows off of first base!). The Albuquerque Isotopes were hosting the Nashville Sounds, and I'll admit I didn't recognize any of the names on either roster (though both the Dodgers and the Brewers supposedly have decent farm systems). (I love sports, but I am not knowledgeable about baseball, at all. I enjoy games more when I'm with Zach, but I have a bad habit of referring to the barnyard system or grass-fed system, which is why he's writing this post.) But it wasn't the kind of game that Albuquerque, with its high elevation and thin air, is known for. The big inning never happened. (You see, in Albuquerque, a four-run third and a three-run seventh are not big innings. Not quite.) Baserunning was more important than power. Starting pitchers stayed on the mound relatively deep in the game. And we had a very good, locally-brewed beer.

(Translation for the non-baseball fans: Games in Albuquerque usually go like: boring, boring, WOW, boring, boring.....)

You see, Isotopes Park has been taken over by some of the big breweries. Just like ballparks almost everywhere. Sure, each of the concession stands has a slightly different variety, and of course Miller Lite and Bud Light are on tap for those who value cheapness at a game (ha!) over any kind of quality. I mean, we're talking Blue Moon counts as a "premium" beer. You used to be able to buy at least a Fat Tire or a Sierra Nevada to go with your peanuts and Cracker Jack. No more. And for all the decent breweries in the Albuquerque area, none are served here. Save one.

And I can't figure out why they don't sell more of it. I mean, come on. It's their own friggin' brewery.

Isotopes Brewing Company has its headquarters in Albuquerque and brews, as far as I know, out in Moriarty at the same complex as Roswell Alien and Monk's Ale and Rio Grande. Jenny and I have tried their blonde beer at a game before, but when we went to the same booth last Friday night, they only had the Isotopes Amber. (See? Why don't they serve both beers? And any others they might have? And at every window?) Partly out of feeling snobbish about beer, partly out of wanting an Isotopes beer at an Isotopes game, but mostly out of a desire to take the beer most likely to please, we each ordered the amber.

Amber is precisely the word for this beer. The makers somehow dipped their hops directly into a New Mexican sunset. You know that precise shade of red that we in the desert call 7:45. We held it up to the sun to compare. Absolutely gorgeous. Georgia O'Keefe could have painted with this beer color; that's how gorgeous!

And it is good. Nothing too fancy. It's an everyman beer, just like baseball is an everyman game. It tasted like it was meant to be served in a flimsy plastic cup--and I mean that in the best of ways.

But just like baseball, that doesn't mean it's not complex. That doesn't mean it's not nuanced.

You want nuance? This beer has that very basic, often underestimated, old fashioned beer flavor. It was the flavor of a ball game on a hot afternoon. It was a beer for grabbing yer' crotch, spittin' tobacky in the grass, flashin' the sign for a fast ball to the catcher all just before taking another swig of that fine, clear golden beverage! Aaaaaahhhhhhcccchhhh, you sigh in that guttural, throaty way that humans sigh when they've drunk something so delicious and refreshing.

I couldn't isolate any of the tones or flavors in this amber, (tobacky?) but I know what it complemented. The smell of my baseball glove's leather. (Yes, I smelled my glove while drinking the amber.) The mixture of leather, sweat, and remnants of old dirt when I took my hand out of my glove. (Yup, I smelled that too.) (I must have been buying kettle corn or something. I promise I never allow this kind of scratch and sniff behavior when we're seated side-by-side.) I wanted to pick up a handful of the moist infield clay, because I believe that this beer was meant to pair with the scent of dirt between first and second base.

I might have done it, too. But we bought our beers in the third inning, and I didn't want to get thrown out of the ballpark. Not that early in the game, at least.

He acts like the trouble-maker. Honey, tell 'em about that one game when the 'Topes were fending off a 12th inning comeback by the opposing team. The bases are loaded and the batter cracks the ball down center field. It's retrieved, relayed--OUT! Relayed again--OUT! Meanwhile the guy on third base is truckin' as fast as he can to home. If he makes it the 'Topes are sunk! The entire stadium falls silent under the weight of nervous anticipation. The ball relays to the catcher who readies himself on home plate. Then in the midst of the total silence some girl shouts out "OH SHIT!" so loud that who even knows the outcome of the game because everyone is pointing at that girl. Yeah...that might have been me. Zach might have laughed hysterically. But hey, it shows I was paying attention to the game, not just my kettle corn.

The game, like so many good ones, went into extra innings. The Isotopes won when Trayvon Robinson lashed a walk-off home run to lead off the bottom of the tenth. And just like that, it was over. But not without climax. Not without the taste of the game holding all the way through, just like the Isotopes Amber.

Would the beer be any good bottled? Sure. (Oh, then you could have it in the backyard, while barbecuing some burgers and hot dogs on Independence Day. Mmmmmm!) But would it be as good as it was with the evening sun warming the bubbles, with the hint of rawhide and clean soil and wood that goes hand in hand with a professional ballpark? Not a chance.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Laru Ni Hoppy

As a city, Albuquerque continually earns its "quirky" status, and not just for its Isotopes baseball team or its famous submarine house, but also for the unusual way it mixes the urban landscape with rural ranches or splices old vaquero attitudes with cutting-edge nuclear research facilities.

And you can pretty much pinpoint the epicenter of quirk by traveling to the Nob Hill area. The roughly three-mile stretch of Central Avenue (formerly Route 66) just east of the University has grown into a convivial, primarily local, shopping area where the strip-mall store fronts mingle with 1950s era car dealerships converted to pubs, theaters converted to churches, and motels made of doll-heads. Nob Hill is a Candyland of mural art, neon lights, and and bric-a-brac.

Laru Ni Hati is one such decoupage store front with its retro-style neon tower sign which crowns the building to advertise "Hair," "Nails," "Skin," "Cards," and "Cigars." This hair salon has it all, with patio seating for its in-house Cubano grill, wine and cigar display cases, twirling postcard stands, and a billiards table. Stepping into Laru is a sensory adventure. The flooring is a mix of hardwood and smooth concrete that always fluctuates between some state of flat, ramp, or stairs. There are fabric panels suspended mysteriously, neon lights, metal-bead curtains, and lots of flat screen monitors--some showing classic film noir and others showing modern, bisexual phantasmagoria.

-Bisexual phantasmagoria?? Wait, how did I miss this?! I must have been too busy looking at the postcard towers! That's it, we're going back!

On a recent visit to Laru for their discount-price "late night" hair cut (honestly, this discount price is only one of two reasons I'll pay more than ten dollars for a haircut), Zach and I were delighted to find that included in the cost of our hair cut was a chance to taste a brew from the local Marble Brewery. (Can you guess the other reason?)

Fully clipped, trimmed, and thirsty, we paid our bills and took our Marble Reds onto the patio to enjoy. The New Mexico sky was thickening from periwinkle gossamer to navy blue velvet as we took our first sips.

The Marble Red possessed the perfect, creamy, lacy head of bubbles and that sultry, seductive red hue that just tempts you to drink it...drink it and like it. So drink I did, always forgetting that American reds are different from the reds drunk 'round the rest of the world. Most reds are characteristically sweet, or toffee-like, almost bordering on the side of caramel. In other words, I order a red and I'm thinking, "Mmmm, this is gonna' be sweet."

But then drinking the American red when one is expecting a red beer is a lot like meeting Mr. Hyde when you're expecting Dr. Jekyll.

Bitter. Bitter. Bitter. Admittedly, this is exactly what an American red should be (distinctly bitter with a distinctly hoppy edge)...but I am not a bitter beer person. When I taste the bitter of hops, I feel as if I am drinking the rain water collected off an airport tarmac. But that could just be me. Lots of people love and enjoy American reds. I am sure I might even know a few of them. So, maybe the female tongue was not made for that level of bitter. So for a fully appreciative discussion of the tarmac-sauce that is a fine American red beer, please refer to Zach.

I don't think Jenny gives enough credit to the female tongue (or its preferences for taste). Yes, the Marble Red is bitter, but more than that it's hoppy. It's hoppy like an IPA should be hoppy, only without the underlying sweetness I notice in a lot of pale ales. Granted, my experience with American reds is not as broad as I would like it to be. (You mean I have to try more beers to get there? Oh darn...) But even if it's not "tarmac-sauce" -- don't be discouraged by THAT description, folks! -- I don't feel like this particular brew is representative of the color.

The flavors are all there. But yeah... it's just too bitter for my preferences. Right off the top of my head, I can think of four or five Marble beers I would choose first. And yet, I fall right into the same trap Jenny does every time. "Red... that sounds good... I think I'll go for that!"

Admittedly, I feel I have to improve my knowledge of the beer type before I can give a good comparative analysis of the Marble Red. (Are reds -- like ambers -- so named more for the color and no other real definition, or are they christened more for their hops, their brewing process, their malts?) But I can say that the first sip of this beer, whether consumed fresh after a darn good hair cut (I recommend Liz's styling talents for men's hair and her knowledge of food in Buffalo, if you should be headed that way) or tasted any other time, kicks the back of my throat.

But that sensation mellows. And I finish the beer. Every time. So at least that's something.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fish Tacos and Monastic Bliss

This was a Wednesday of contradictory experiences. Fish tacos in the high desert. "Riders on the Storm" played during the warmest, clearest, and sunniest of middays. Two soon-to-be students saving for graduate school splurging on a lunch out.

Belgian-derived Abbey-style beer with Mexican food.

And yet, the juxtapositions made the day. Or, in this case, the meal.

After a morning spent doing backyard gardening for an elderly friend, I called Jenny on a complete whim and asked if she would like to join me for a nice lunch, anywhere of her choosing, but probably near UNM so she could stay close to work. She never hesitated to say yes. (This is why I love this woman.) We deliberated for a bit, and settled on El Patio, the Mexican/New Mexican food establishment for the University district. (Unless you count Bandido's. Which I don't. Call me crazy, but the silent man walking around campus and standing in the median on Central with his Nacho Libre mask always creeps me out. Besides, buckets of Bud Light obviously don't rank high on our list of fine drinking experiences.)

The reason we chose El Patio? Fish tacos. El Patio (142 Harvard Dr. SE, Albuquerque, NM; 505-268-4245) only serves their renowned fish tacos--or what I like to call delectable, crunchy bundles of yum!--on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday of each week, and Jenny loves them. (He's being modest, folks. I am seriously the worst fish taco junkie the world has ever seen.) Apparently I had only ever been a weekender at El Patio, so I had never tasted these so-called delights. I was in. Why not?

On a day like this one, our choice of seating was really no choice at all. We took a seat on the front patio (presumably, the very namesake of the establishment) along the front wall. We were essentially right on the sidewalk, but the simple wooden fence made me feel like we were in a backyard in a quieter part of town.
Zach is right on with this observation. El Patio's approach is simple yet effective. The place itself is small and the patio: even smaller. But in my opinion this keeps the conversational volume knob at medium, which means you can hear what your lunch date has to say. 

Then came the inevitable question from Jenny, setting off the restaurant routine we share each time we dine out: What are you going to drink?

I answered like I always do: What are you going to drink?

But this dance had a variation. See, Jenny and I don't get to go out to lunch very often. I blame work. At dinner, assuming the place has any beer selection worth mentioning, our sudsy beverage is a given. But lunch? Ah, in America (and surely in some other part of the world, though I haven't found it yet), we are meant to think one is not intended to drink during lunch. Especially on a work day. So really, the veiled question was instead, not what, but are you going to drink?

We knew already what to eat (though we both gave the menu an obligatory glance), so we turned to the drink menu. There was a selection of Mexican beers, none of which particularly excited us at that moment, and one local brew: Monk's Ale.

Every time we go grocery shopping, we see Monk's Ale among the selections. And we always debate it. And we never decide to buy it. So I looked up from my menu, and Jenny looked up from hers, and our eyes made the decision for us. Two Monk's Ales, please!

We began to discuss how our drinking culture in the United States is so very different from what we both experienced in various places throughout Europe. Clearly, drinking at lunch here is not so powerfully taboo that it cannot happen, like purchasing liquor on a Sunday used to be. After all, we were able to order our Monk's Ales just then without any hassle. But why this difference in cultural attitudes? Why does one see outdoor tables with no purpose other than mid-day drinking in France and Germany and Belgium, but so very seldom in New Mexico?

The beer was brought out before we could reach any ground-breaking conclusions. I suspect this is what happens to a good many brilliant conclusions. The server gave us each a typical pint-style glass and a bottle of our selection. (If you like Belgian-style beers, I do recommend purchasing a six-pack. As is typical when going out, our two bottles cost well over your usual six-pack cost. But they were SO worth it. Keep reading.) We poured them, and on a visual level, we knew we'd picked a winner. The beer came out wonderfully bubbly without fear of fizzing over, and the marigold-yellow brew looked clear and crisp. I held the glass up to the dappled light coming through the shade tree at the center of the patio. "Whoa," I said. "This beer's not transparent."

I don't think Jenny believed me until she lifted hers up, too. (I'm not a skeptic, just a hands-on, do-it-yourself, and see it for yourself kind of learner...that's all.) I can't explain the appearance (oh, but I on!) of this beer other than to say it was opaque without being cloudy. I tip my hat to those monks.

And tip he should, if there be money in that hat! The makers of Monk's Ale accomplished one of the most important, and perhaps difficult feats concerning a great Belgian brew, which is make it the very color and opacity of Heaven's own golden, cloudy gates.    

Then I sipped it. Now, if one can call me a connoisseur of any particular genre of brew, perhaps I can speak of German beers. Or stouts and porters. Jenny is the real expert on Belgian- and Abbey-style beers. But I know what I like. And I liked this particular beer. A lot. It had a very light floral taste without overdoing it, and what I would call a slight citrus undertone. It was the kind of beer about which you could use words like "bouquet" and "fruit" without saying "crowded" and "fruity." That is, it tasted like it might as well have been brewed in Brugges. And it accompanied sunlight and fresh air simply beautifully.

Well, now, I wouldn't profess to be an expert but I developed my pallet for the Abbey-styles while in Belgium. Where else, right? And yes, the local Monk's Ale craftsmen fermented into this beer the same outdoor elements that the monks of scenic Belgium would have celebrated and meditated. The buzzing of the bees, the color of tulips, or the fresh smell of rain. All of it is there in that sip of heaven. And that little taste of citrus Zach noted in this ale I'd say is nothing other than the unique Zia-zing of outdoor New Mexico!

Only then did I notice the subtle music coming through the speakers. Of course I noticed it, because it was Neil Young's acoustic "My My, Hey Hey" off of Rust Never Sleeps. Who plays that song at a Mexican restaurant? But it was, if I may say it, perfect. Then it rolled into one of the melodic tracks off of Led Zeppelin III. Then "Riders on the Storm." It was a strange string of songs, ones I never would have associated with a lovely early afternoon such as this. Yet it fit. The day was perfect for such pairings.

Then the food came. These fish tacos were, indeed, fantastic. (Nom! Nom! Nom! Gobble-gobble-slurp!) And at something like $6.50 a plate, complete with three soft-shelled tacos, salsa, all the garnish (including avocado) and decently-sized french fries, I felt like it was a steal.

Now if I'd thought ahead and remembered that seafood is so often served with this style of beer in Belgium and the Netherlands and France, I might have realized just how well paired this meal would be with this beer. But I was too engrossed in the day to think like that. And oh. my. God. did they go delightfully together. Scrumptious! It was the kind of meal where you want to sip your beer while still chewing your food, just to let the flavors mingle and frolic together on your tongue.

The only tragic part was when we had to leave. Our lunch break was over, and we had to go back to the grinding stone. (Believe me when I say that we both seriously considered quitting our jobs right than and there, just to continue enjoying the flavors, the music, the moment!) Besides, our one-hour parking had expired. But just as the warmth of the sun and the air lingered on our skin, and The Doors lingered in my ears, so the memory of this delectable discovery continued to tantalize my tastebuds. I would have eaten (and drunk) the whole thing all over again. Before we leave Albuquerque, I believe we will.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

San Antonio Sud-Slingers

Of course this blog is primarily devoted to chronicling our consumption of local beers in Albuquerque, but this month we're on the road. Zach and I are posting all the way from the capital of Yippee-kai-yay: San Antonio, Texas. Remember the Alamo?

Remember the what?

Don't feel bad. We didn't either, but that's why we set out one muggy afternoon (which followed a muggy morning, only to precede a muggy evening) to explore the famous Riverwalk and tour the Alamo. Originally in San Antonio to present at the huge Popular Culture and Southwest Pop Culture Conference, we budgeted some time away from the conference and away from our lengthy papers (mine on death in Gothic children's literature, Zach's on Neil Young's movie-esque Twisted Road Tour), to discover the local brewery scene in one of Texas's most celebrated and historic cities. And this might be why we felt justified to include our liquid-escapades. For a city of this age and of this size, rooted as it is in the vaquero culture that is Texas--think bulls, boys, dust, and boots--we expected during our preliminary online research to find many a brewery dappling the sizzling streets of ol' San Antone. After all, Albuquerque is maybe a quarter the size of San Antonio, and we have at least twenty, depending on how you stretch the boundaries of the metro area.

San Antonio has 4-6, depending on how you scroll around Google's map. Without a rental car to call our own, we set off on foot to reach the Blue Star Brewing Company on South Alamo St. The brewery and and restaurant was nestled in one of San Antonio's characteristic historic neighborhoods complete with Georgian architecture, birch, palm, hackberry, and jacaranda trees. Blue Star's headquarters looked like a barge that had crash-landed off of one of the tributaries of the San Antonio River, which is to say charming with its dark wood, wrap-around deck where we and our traveling companions saddled up for some Texas-style suds.

A note on our traveling companions: to save on cost, my good friend Jana booked an historic house in a neighborhood not too far from Blue Star, where she and her family were staying while in town to celebrate her husband's graduation from Air Force boot camp. Not only were they good enough to let us stay with them, but they were more than delighted to join us for dinner and drinks at the brewery. We were, however, such a large group that the server had to seat us on the elevated "private" deck. Considering the view of the city and the sunset, we could hardly complain. (Not to mention the parking lot, and the flat-sided apartment building. Come on, it's still Texas.) Considering how rowdy and rambunctious we got later on, they could hardly complain.

Our server quickly brought us a sampler of all the beers Blue Star had available that night: the Texican Lager, Smoke Dark Ale, the Stout, the Pale Ale, King William Ale MMXI (a barleywine: my all time favorite, if they are done right). We traded the sample-tumblers like bandits and gunslingers at a gambling table swapping chips and money. There was some greed, some disgust, some winners and some losers.

The key here is "available that night." I was actually quite surprised at the number of beers NOT available that night. Also, the "black board specials" that promised rare and seasonal beers... had the regular menu.

The Texican, as golden yellow as wheat before a harvest, can sit proudly beside its brothers of the Lager family. This beer was refreshing and even little sweet. It coaxed you to recline back in your chair, tip your hat forward and make y'self at home.

Agreed. Quite crisp, refreshing, and all the other words Miller Lite uses. Only this beer means them.

The Smoke Dark Ale, according to Blue Star's website, comes from a wood-smoked malt. When I tasted it, I openly declared, "Yyyyeeeccchhhh! It tastes like Liquid Smoke!" You know, the stuff your mom keeps in the spice cabinet to flavor her gravy or darken the homemade BBQ sauce. There were few at the table who could muster a better description or opinion.

It was... strong. Like a bear smells strong. That's a compliment... right?

The Stout was a decent stout with a thick creamy head and an aftertaste evocative of a hardy coffee--evening coffee for hard-working, thick armed men with V's of sweat still marking the fronts and backs of their shirts. I wound up not choosing to drink the stout for the night because along with all that was good about it, there was a hint of cigarette...the slightest tinge on my tastebuds, which reminded me of menthol.

Intentional? Or a careless brewer? Either way, these San Antonio folks like them some smoke.

Finally, I tried the sample I was most looking forward to, the barleywine, the King William Ale MMXI. Barleywines have always, and will always hold a special place in my heart and on my palette. A student of history, and a fan of ancient Greece and Rome, I first read about barleywine in the Xenophon--a charming, only slightly gory "coming home" tale. Zach and I also have the dark, toffee-like Ol' Oku barleywine of Turtle Mountain Brewing Company to thank for adding the earliest kindling to our romantic fire.

For those who don't know much about barleywines, they.are.strong. They can range between 8-12+% alcohol, which is why at most places you are limited to two sniffers of the stuff. Sometimes, they taste like candy, or a rich toffee and at other times, they are much more fruity, or biting like a strong wine.

In the case of Blue Star's King William, the transparent beverage captured the color of mahogany wood, almost teak. The King has a bite at first and then mellows into a more fruity flavor that reminded me of Christmas in King Arthur's court. Before you run out to San Antonio shoutin' "All hail the King," I should first point out how subtle spices like nutmeg, frankincense, perhaps even myrrh danced around my mouth with every sip. Essentially, this particular barleywine might have been a bit more aromatic than I would otherwise prefer, I could hardly say it was a bad beer. Long live the King!

Ugh. I. Disagree. The barleywine was certainly spiced, but in that way that my kitchen experiments were spiced when I was six years old and threw every ingredient I could reach, including sugar sprinkles and ground black pepper, into a plastic bowl and insisted that it sit on the counter overnight. The alcohol was very present, but not warming, not complimentary. The alcohol kicked the back of my throat, and then rubbed the spices in the gash. Ick. If this had been the barleywine that tried adding kindling to our romantic fire, I'm not sure Jenny and I would be together now. And Jenny's a real looker without the barleywine. If you'd asked me if I preferred this barleywine or the liquid smoke... I would quickly change the subject. "My grandfather drove a tank in the war." Like that.

Or... like this: "Kids, do you remember that three-legged cat we used to have when you were kids? And how someone ran it over? Well, it wasn't someone. It was me. I backed over the cat." This was Jana's mom to her two daughters. She blamed it on the lager, despite being maybe five ounces into her pint. We lost it. Simply lost it. I'm not sure I've ever laughed so hard at another family. Jana and her sister immediately sent text messages to their other siblings. One said, "Call me ASAP. Our childhood was a lie." The girls proceeded to question the supposed deaths and injuries of their other pets. Their mom swore up and down she was not responsible for any others. But one was enough.

Already I can't remember that cat's name. But, being a cat, I'm sure it's grousing around in heaven right now about those damn humans thinking its gimpy strut was something so funny. But oh my goodness gracious stars above, I'm laughing again now.