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Beer: A rally for drinking sanity

By Greg Kitsock

It’s the other n-word.

“Nazi” refers to a defunct German political party, and, metaphorically, someone who is so narrow and intractable in his beliefs as to be obnoxious.

A “beer nazi,” then, can mean someone so wrapped up in the minutiae of beer style that if a beer—even a first-class brew—deviates ever so slightly from suggested parameters in terms of alcohol, hop character, color, etc., he will deliver a thumbs-down verdict.

Last week, a beer tasting at the Brickskeller — dubbed “Sanity/Fear: A Rally for Beer” by proprietor Dave Alexander, in reference, of course, to the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert rally — protested this sort of beer fascism and celebrated beers impossible to categorize.

Jason Oliver, head brewer at the Devil’s Backbone Brewing Co. in Roseland, Va., contributed Congo Pale Ale, an IPA from an alternate dimension. Oliver noted that the original India pale ales were brewed strong and hoppy to keep them from spoiling en route to the Subcontinent for Her Majesty’s troops. What would have happened, he wondered, if the Belgians had shipped a similar beer to their African outposts?

Congo Pale Ale is well-seasoned with three hop varieties, then fermented with the same yeast strain used for the classic Belgian strong ale Duvel. It’s got an aggressive bitterness appropriate to IPAs, along with a delicate pear flavor breaking through the citrusy notes of the hops.

Oliver also poured Kung Pow Enter the Hop, a kind of an Oriental IPA made with a pinch of flaked rice and hopped with a Japanese hop called Sorachi Ace that imparts a piquant lemon zest flavor.

Bill Madden, owner and head brewer of Mad Fox Brewing Co. in Falls Church, offered a whiskey barrel-aged version of his Wee Heavy, a strong, malty Scotch ale. The barrels, however, had held rye whiskey, not the single-malt Scotch that the lairds of the manor would have sipped. “The barrels, I’m told, were 10 pounds heavier when leaving the distillery than when they came in,” commented Madden. Much of the whiskey that permeated the wood seemed to have leached into the beer, resulting in a marriage of equals between beer and spirit, a category-blurring drink.

The wood-aged Wee Heavy came from Madden’s private stock, but he said he hoped to have beers like this commercially available once he initiates a barrel-conditioning program. Also in the cards for Mad Fox: a series of what Madden termed “extreme session beers” (low-alcohol but flavorful beers “you can drink a bunch of and not feel the effects”), as well as a cask-conditioned ale festival, possibly to take place next April.

Host Bob Tupper related the behind-the-scenes story of how his Tuppers’ Hop Pocket Pils won a gold medal in the German Style Pilsner category at Denver’s Great American Beer Festival in 2001. The judges greatly enjoyed the beer, but split evenly on the scoring, with half ready to bestow top honors and the other half calling it for the beer's disqualification because of a noticeable American hop presence, a technical deviation from the stylistic description. “Gentlemen, gentlemen!” intoned the late beer writer Michael Jackson. “These are only guidelines!”

Jackson won over the panel. “For the style to dictate the beer is kind of crazy,” said Tupper. “Some of our best brewers have left style behind them.”

Also at the tasting, Oliver channeled Robert Frost in reading a poem called “The Beer Less Poured”:

Two beers were upon a tap But I could only have one ... .

Both were very well made
And one had garnered more fame,
But I picked the renegade
Choosing craft-brewed over name.

Finally came my reward
In all its magnificence
So I chose the beer less poured
And that made all the difference.

Special guest Tom Dalldorf (editor/publisher of the California beer newspaper Celebrator did a spot-on impersonation of a certain conservative political pundit who shares the name of a well-known German import. Dalldorf and Alexander moved to the Brickskeller’s upstairs room, where they put on a show as the Rolling Boil Blues Band, borrowing from ZZ Top and Neil Young for a set of beer-themed songs.

Part tasting, part poetry recital, part cabaret, the event—like the beers—was impossible to pigeonhole.

-- Greg Kitsock

By Greg Kitsock  | November 1, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags:  Greg Kitsock, beer  
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