Searching for new beers is my favorite hobby...well, ok it is an obsession. I will drive 35 minutes and pay tolls to get to my favorite packie (liquor store) because the selection is incredible. Family, friends, and co-workers, who know how much I enjoy finding new beers, bring back beer for me when they travel.
I am the guy at your party who looks into the deepest, darkest corner of your refrigerator to find that one oddball beer that may be hiding back there. My first order of business at any restaurant is to swing by the bar to take a peek at the taps to see if there is something interesting on draft. You get the idea.
As you might imagine, this quest for new beers intensifies when I travel. Any first visit to a city or town is an opportunity for discovery. I sniff out micro breweries faster than my beagle hunts down rabbits in the backyard. Usually I do a little pre-travel reconnaissance work to find the best beer bars in the area. I sampled 42 new beers on my 10 day honeymoon, 24 new beers on a 7 day trip to London, and 30 new beers this spring while vacationing in Holland and Belgium for 8 days. I salivate thinking about great places like The Sunset Grill in Boston, the Brickskeller in Washington, D.C., The Yardhouse in Southern California, or t' Brugs Beertje in Brugge, Belgium.
Chasing down these new brews sometimes comes at a cost. Just because the beers are new does not guarantee that they are going to be good (unless you are in Belgium of course). I see it as a risk/reward process. For every dish soap tasting, light American lager that is included in the typical micro brewery sampler, there is a chance that one of the other 5 beers in the set just might surprise me. I hit the jackpot on November 11, 2004 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The first day of the 2004 Museum Computer Network conference had just ended and I decided to make a trip to the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. The collection is housed in a beautiful Frank Gehry building on the banks of the Mississippi River. The museum had an interesting exhibition on view entitled Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge featuring the collection of Cheech Marin. Yes, that Cheech Marin, from the Cheech and Chong movies, he has one of the largest Chicano art collections in the world -- who knew.
Well, it was getting late and the museum was closing so I decided to ask the guards at the front desk if there were any brewpubs or restaurants in the area where I could try a few local beers. One of them recalled a microbrewery somewhere on Washington Street South, but she could not recall the name. They pulled out a book of restaurants and found the place, the Town Hall Brewery. I asked if it was within walking distance, but they told me I should take a taxi. It ended up being about a mile away. I probably should have mentioned how famously cheap I am when it comes to taxis, but it generally isn't a bright idea to wander through an unfamiliar city at night.
After about 20 minutes of waiting and a 5 minute cab ride, I was belly up to the bar looking over the menu. In remarkably predictable fashion I ordered up a beer sampler and a pulled pork sandwich. There is something about pulled pork paired with beer that I just love -- it is a great comfort food combination. Surprisingly the sampler included 8 beers. So, I pulled out my Palm Pilot beer database and got to work. As you might imagine, this usually generates a few weird looks, but most often the bartender is intrigued and asks how I like the beers. All of the offerings were solid brews, but it was the seventh sample that really caught my attention.
I waited for the bartender to swing by again and asked him if the IPA was on tap all the time or if it was a special batch. He looked at me with a wry smile and immediately knew I was not from the area. "Pretty good beer huh," he said as he approached. I had only taken a couple of sips at that point, but I told him that the Masala Mama India Pale Ale was very impressive. "If you like it, you should try the cask version when you finish that sampler," he said. Asking me if I want a cask conditioned beer is like asking a kid "do you want whipped cream and chocolate fudge sauce on your ice cream." I ordered a pint of the cask Masala Mama, finished the last beer in the sampler and my dinner, and washed it all down with a large glass of water to cleanse my palate.
I knew I was in for a treat when the bartender delivered the beer -- it was a beautiful amber copper color with a massive creamy head. I almost fell off of the bar stool when I tasted it. Don't get me wrong, the regular Masala Mama IPA was fantastic, but this beer was something special. Halfway through the glass I knew two things: 1.) I could not leave the bar without ordering another one, remember I was taking a cab back to the hotel, and 2.) this beer would be ranked pretty high in my database.
In fact, this tremendous IPA now sits firmly at number 15 out of over 1,4oo beers I have sampled and rated. The beer had an amazing fruity citrus and floral hop aroma and the first sip was pure grapefruit hop flavors with touches of sweet caramel malt. It was exceptionally drinkable and the glass was covered in an intricate web of beautiful Belgian lace. If I lived within 100 miles of this place, I would make a monthly pilgrimage.
By the time the bartender brought the second pint, he knew he had a convert in his midst. "I told you," he said. We talked a little more about it and he mentioned that Mike Hoops, the head brewer created the beer. It may seem kind of silly, but I asked the bartender to give kudos to Mike and to tell him to keep up the good work. I find that the art of brewing often goes unrecognized and this beer was a masterpiece.
No, I did not have a third pint that night. I had to get up early Friday morning for the conference and it was already getting late. I started the night hunting for a couple of new beers and with a few strokes of luck I ended up finding an elephant. I did come very close to making a return trip to the brewery a few nights later, but I had more hunting to do -- although I knew I was not going to discover anything nearly as good as Masala Mama India Pale Ale. If I did, I was going to have a hard time convincing my wife to move to Minneapolis.