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.