Beer Behemoths, Part One

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Remember when I mentioned in a previous post that I wished I could attend a certain beer tasting seminar organized by the Smithsonian Resident Associates? Well, my wish was granted! The "Beer Behemoths" seminar took place earlier this month at the Brickskeller, a DC restaurant that boasts a beer list of more than 1000 brews from around the world.

I guess I expected something a little more along the lines of the "What is American Food?" Resident Associates event I attended last fall, which was heavy on the tasting and light on the lecturing. But this was heavy on both—the speaker, local craft brewer Bob Tupper, was a born storyteller who barely even paused long enough to sip during the nearly four-hour-long event.

The place was packed when I arrived a few minutes into the talk; I squeezed myself into the only seat left at a long table. My fellow tasters' attempts at introductions were loudly shushed by a professorial-looking gent a few seats away, who was concentrating so fiercely on Tupper's photo slideshow of a brewery in action I thought there might be a final exam. (He erupted in several more fits of shushing as the beers loosened people's tongues, and before long I was doing a very poor job of stifling giggles. Sorry, sir.)

The first beer we tried was one I already knew I liked: Delirium Tremens, a strong Belgian pale ale from Huyghe brewery. (It's also the medical term for a brutal symptom induced by alcohol withdrawal). DT is a light, bubbly brew with hints of citrus and spice, and it tasted even better than I recalled, especially paired with a Blue Shropshire cheese (a sharp, creamy cousin of Stilton). Tupper says Belgian ales like this should be served in a large, wide-mouthed glass, stopping the pour a bit short to leave most of the yeast in the bottom of the bottle. (Or if you like a yeasty beer, swirl the bottle around a bit and dump it all in.)

Then we moved on to something special from the Gordon Biersch brewery and restaurant chain's Virginia Beach location, which brewer Allen Young stepped up to tell us about. Apparently the "Urgestiner Dunkel" (aka Virginia Native Dark) is his limited-edition re-brew of a beer called Chesbay Dark Horse that was a big hit in this region in the late 1980s. Young calls it a "strangely balanced" beer, noting that it is heavy on both hops and malt (and on alcohol, at 7.2 percent). I'd call it simply "pleasant"—something I'd order again if I lived near the brewery, but wouldn't go out of my way to find.

Next up was a "wee-heavy" Scotch ale from the Leesburg restaurant and brewery Vintage 50. It was brewed in 2002, using English malts (pale and crystal) and hops (First Gold) with a touch of flaked oats and roasted barley. The taste was complex and rich, reminding me of dark fruits like cherries, while the smell reminded me of a dairy barn (believe it or not, that's a positive association). And with over 9 percent alcohol, it was more than a wee bit heavy, I'd say!

The Chimay Grand Reserve, a Belgian ale brewed by Trappist monks, was one of my favorites. It's a bottle-conditioned beer, meaning that it wasn't filtered after the final fermentation. The taste was malty and slightly sweet and spicy, reminding me a bit of a hermit cookie. Which, come to think of it, is quite fitting. Tupper said that although he doesn't think this truly qualifies as a "craft beer" anymore because it's produced on a fairly large scale, it certainly qualifies as a very good beer.

I can see this entry is getting long, and there are still 7 beers to go, so I'll break here and give you Part Two another time!

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