A few weeks ago, while we were discussing favorite purveyors of local bottled beer, a friend told me of the wonders to be found at the Spirit Haus on College Street in Amherst. I'd driven past the place before but never visited, and eager for something new, I high-tailed it across the Coolidge Bridge.
As promised, I was amazed by the selection. Not since Table & Vine consolidated its operations to Springfield had I seen a collection of brews so diverse north of the Holyoke Range. But, to be honest, I was a little overwhelmed.
I spent nearly an hour there, cash burning in my pocket, thirst parching my tongue, but I felt strangely panicked. There were West Coast beers I'd never heard of, and it seemed every country in Europe and almost every continent was represented. I was curious about some Russian beers, but judging by the layer of dust on them, I figured the bottles had passed their prime. I almost got lost in the establishment's maze-like cooler that seemed to go on forever with dozens of surprises tucked inside. While I carted a few prospective beers around the aisles for a while, in the end, when no one was looking, I slunk out of the Haus empty handed. Defeated by too many choices and too little guidance, I headed back to familiar ground.
There is sometimes great peril in being an adventurous beer drinker.
Most evenings, even the bravest drinkers tend to stick close to their familiar stand-by brews, rather than braving the brutal realm of the unfamiliar that lies outside our small oasis of beer knowledge. As joyous as that first sip of discovery can be, the shock of tasting something truly awful can shatter one's confidence and cripple one's palate.
Of course, there are dozens of beer writers out there, happy to steer you away from the duds and toward the best suds, and on the Web every imbiber who's ever belched a beer burp seems to have something to say. Sites like beeradvocate.com compile such critiques and offer a grading system based on an average of people's ratings to help guide the thirsty. Unless I've been following a given reviewer for a while and comparing notes, though, the anonymous guidance seems to me no better than trusting the marketing on the beer labels themselves.
What's a beer pioneer to do? Lately I've been turning to a technique that, while popular with some, is rare for my gender. I've been asking others for direction.
While there are certainly exceptions, I generally find that unless you're talking to the manager of a liquor store, most retail clerks are only familiar with a few varieties in the spectrum of flavors offered. You're better off talking to the bartender or waitstaff of a bar or ale house you admire. The best tap rooms offer samplers, and if you let your server know your likes and dislikes, they can help you winnow the field.
Asking advice recently helped me stop overlooking the Northampton Brewery's Blue Boots IPA after the bartender assured me it was the best of its kind in the Valley. Unfiltered, cloudy and delicious, it's certainly a strong contender. For Father's Day brunch at the Dirty Truth in Northampton this year, I threw caution to the winds and asked for something German that came in a stein to accompany my eggs Benedict. The smoky ale I was served complemented the Hollandaise sauce and well-herbed potatoes perfectly.
Even better than asking a friendly barkeep for advice, though, is finding a fellow beer explorer whose senses of adventure and flavor align with yours.
As I have mentioned in this space before, I'm particularly fortunate to have happened upon an excellent beer navigator in the gentleman who delivers my mail. Finding each other by chance as he walks his route and I commute by foot between home and office every other week or so, Dave and I compare beers we've recently discovered.
Recently, there were three discoveries of note.
He pointed me toward the Maine Brewing Company's Peeper Ale, which I greatly enjoyed (I'm now on the lookout for their Lunch IPA), but he also recommended something closer to home. I'd missed the Narragansett Porter when my mailman first recommended it, but I recently managed to snag one of Narragansett's seasonal bocks. While the historic Rhode Island lager is now mostly produced by Genesee Brewing in New York, Narragansett's specialty brews are made either in their original state or nearby Connecticut. Not a big fan of bocks, usually finding them too sweet, I was happily surprised by the relatively dry, balanced flavor of this beer.
Just a few days ago, as I was trying to keep beer-free during the work week, Dave told me about E. S. Bam, a farmhouse ale brewed by Jolly Pumpkin, a maker of artisan ales from Wisconsin. A farmhouse ale is a cousin to the Belgian lambic. More complex than a traditional ale, lager or stout, farmhouse ales are more sour than bitter. Like the best lambics, during the brewing process the Jolly Pumpkin beer is exposed to the air, so that local breeze-borne yeasts help ferment the beer. The brew is then matured in oak casks.
Dave had raved about "Bam" and promised me it was worth the $12 for one large bottle. That night I hopped off the wagon and gave it a go.
Though a well constructed and refreshing beer, I found it fell short of the nirvana Dave had promised. Somehow, it had all the right elements—an earthy-grain flavor, bitter overtones and a slightly sour finish—but instead of a poetic blend, these tastes all presented themselves in a less seamless manner than in the European versions I've tried.
It was the first time I didn't completely agree with Dave the Mailman, but as I downed the last of the Bam, far from feeling lost, I looked forward to sharing my experiences with my fellow journeyman. Next time, with more refined advice, I know I'll hit pay dirt.