Firestone Walker Brewing Company – Double Jack Double India Pale Ale

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My whole life has consisted of failure to appreciate the true depth of human stupidity. Most people are stupid, and they are both pretentious and unaware how transparent they are. Many of them spend time telling me “how it is” when they are so off-base that the disconnect from reality is onerous. But I digress: hipsters captured the beer industry and are posing at having knowledge while making bad beers.

Double Jack is one such bad beer. Monkey see, monkey do: hipsters realized that bitter beers with citrusy flavors were a signal our bloated and over-rated press corps was using to recognize quality, so they started making beers like Double Jack which signal all the right stuff but, because they are assembled of signals, have no internal structure or consistency and end up with the flavor of random junk. This beer immediately hits you with a strong grapefruit sensation, under which you will note a thin beer of anonymous flavor. The bitterness remains present, probably delivering rave reviews from idiots, but unlike a good beer, where all of the flavors work together toward some direction, it remains separate here. That may be a metaphor for this beer.

It is as if someone went through the reviews on Beer Advocate and highlighted all the key descriptive terms, then added those as features to an otherwise generic beer. None of the mild integration of yeast is here that you might find in a good beer, nor is there any overall flavor. Instead, there is bitterness, a yeasty backlash, a watery beer taste, then a slightly soapy beer flavor, and finally, the realization that this brew is surging with sugar and acid which means your post-party tacos are going to be a digestive challenge. It is not terrible like a mainstream American beer, but awful like lost potential: with someone who had a working brain, this could have been a great beer with these ingredients. Instead it is overpriced hype for hipsters to pass their time before smoking American Spirits among the ruins of their civilization. At 9.4% alcohol by volume, it at least allows a person to get decently tipsy on a bottle, but that does not make up for the wasted opportunity to not have drunk this beer, and to have purchased another one instead.

Quality rating:

1/5

Purchase rating:

0/5

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Unibroue – La Fin Du Monde (2015)

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This Belgian ale from Quebec has found itself a permanent place in American stores for two obvious reasons: first, most American beer is horrible because it is both utilitarian and junk food, sugar water soda with beer flavoring. Second, most imported beers have also made themselves terrible, and none quite as bad as the Belgian witbier which increasingly resembles a bilious corriander-beer soda.

Witness, for example, Shiner White Wing. Only a marketing genius could take cheap beer from central Texas and sell it at import prices, and that same twisted intelligence has been applied here to make a “Belgian ale” that tastes like the overflavored teas that women buy in malls. The main reason people like this beer is because it is sweet, bridging the gap between beer and soda yet another innovative way. But in the wake of the success of Belgian ales in America, numerous contenders have popped up. And yet here is La Fin Du Monde which has been pumping out this particular ale since the 1990s at least, and has kept both quality and price consistent. In other words, these people are not marketing geniuses, but they may be a greater form of intelligence: people who realize that if they make a good product consistently they will have an industry from now until the end of time, unless they screw it up. So they watch against screwing up, including the form of greedy screw-up that is marketing genius. Smart, those Québécois.

La Fin Du Monde smells and drinks like a German medium lager but has the light corriander flavor and muted sweetness of a Belgian ale. It retains its yeast, so is cloudy if the bottle has been moved much within the last few hours, but pours in a light golden color with a good foamy head and delicious yeasty smell. It is also worth noting that at 9% alcohol by volume and a heavy amount of carbonation, this fizzy beer will take no prisoners among your brain cells. Drinking one of these babies is like pounding down four of your favorite “import” beer (usually concentrated syrup/ferment imported from Europe, and made into beer American-style here for double the profits) bottles and then doing a couple jumping jacks. Luckily its flavor serves an excellent balance, with the hay-like notes of a good ale surging in behind the slightly bitter forward taste of the Belgian-style corriander-induced sensation, followed by overtones of light fruit — it has been compared to citrus or peach — with a strong yeasty goodness in the background. Thus this beer walks a fine line. It will not please the newly minted Belgian ale fanatics who only buy beers with fancy packaging and pretentious names, but it will rumble the tummy of anyone who appreciates a good beer with a flavor of its own.

****/*****

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Brasseries Kronenbourg – Kronenbourg 1664 (2015)

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France, the land known for fine wines, also makes fine beer. This makes sense given that it overlaps with a certain amount of formerly-German territory, but Kronenbourg 1664 stands on its own and is gaining some momentum in American markets. This lager very much in the European style has its own approach to beer making and tasting.

At first, it hits the palate with a sweetness. This broadens into a grainy taste, which then turns slightly bitter and then sweet again, like a melody passing from a few high notes to a surging dark riff and then ending on a semi-ironic, positive note. Slightly skunky, its combination of Pilsner and cereal malts gives it a sturdy but elegant flavor. Grassy hops propel its flavor to take on texture and depth, and its bready taste gains a small amount of almost citrus lightness as the beer warms. It pours down the throat smoothly like a light beer, but has the alcohol and complex flavor of a more traditional beer. In short, the wine-drinking cheese-eaters have given the Germans a run for their money here.

Kronenbourg 1664 is still hard to find in many places, but it is not exotic and fully ironic enough for the hipsters, so for now it remains the province of in-the-closet beer snobs like myself. All I ask for is quality, in part because what the majority of people drink — Budweiser, Coors, Michelob, Miller and Shiner — strikes me as both utterly bad and cynically cheapened yet given an appearance of uniqueness. Each maker puts out beers like television shows, with quirky personalities or weird ingredients, but underneath is an MBA bottom line: how to make something beer-tasting enough that people with buy it if subjected to advertising, and then how to save money by cutting out everything good. Kronenbourg 1664 has cut nothing good yet, but if it gets popular it will surely get the dreaded “Heineken treatment” and be reconstituted from syrup domestically to be sold as an import. Until that happens, this delicious beer with a light personality and cryptic depths awaits you.

****/*****

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Heineken Nederland B.V. – Newcastle Brown Ale (2015)

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Options in life often take the form of what is conveniently available plus feasible given resources. Imagine a standard American suburban Saturday night, when you are the squad are about to chill in the garage with some death metal and smokes. What can you pick up at a standard die-cut suburban liquor store or grocery store that does not hit either extreme, mediocrity or expensive novelty? One option for generations has been Newcastle Brown Ale, now brought to you by the same people who murdered Heineken and turned it into Budweiser with Dutch flavoring. Luckily, with Newcastle, there is less room to ruin: this has always been a medium-dark, sweet beer with a caramel-molasses flavor, and although this version is more watery than the ones from two decades ago, it mostly maintains that flavor. Pouring the beer releases a fallen leaves brown liquid with a medium head and an immediate note of its dominant flavor, a nutty warmth melded with malty stoved sugar with undertones of fresh bread and a hint of malt vinegar. It goes down smoothly with a creamy flavor and a lingering sweetness which might be the weakest point for this beer, followed by an earthy but not bitter flavor of hops. Like many commercial beers, its aftertaste is most revealing, which has the sugars dissipate to a slightly skunky yeast flavor. What saves it is that warmth and toned down brown ale flavor seamlessly mixed with a gentle sweetness. Sometimes this one is too sweet for me. But Newcastle Brown Ale provides a solid middle-of-the-road brown ale that can be found almost anywhere at a low import price, making this a go-to when the pale imitations of formerly great imports (and their 20% higher prices) make the lips curl with resentment and not anticipation.

Quality rating: 4/5
Purchase rating: 4/5

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Spoetzl Brewery / Shiner – White Wing

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If I had to identify a problem with beer in America, I would say it is that the audience is generally teenage in outlook, even if three decades removed from that age group. People are afraid to buck a trend and to admit that something which their favorite journalist writes up is in fact, odious, and instead they sit around, drinking hipster beers that turn the hops or yeast up to 11 and expect you to like it or be labeled an idiot who can’t appreciate good beer and thus a philistine who belongs in the lower classes, afraid to admit that they are in fact drinking swill.

Shiner White Wing is one such example of swill. Bilgy, decomposition-scented, sweet and yet acidic swill. Joining the trend of Belgian white ales it embarks upon a course of taste that is disgusting, but because it is disgusting allows hipsters and salarymen alike to claim profundity for liking it, White Wing is septic pond water of a beer. It has all that a hipster needs: ironic taste, oddity and quirkiness, and of course it comes from Shiner — who make their fortune selling domestic beers at import prices simply because the average American beers are so horribly bad — so it has automatic hipster cred, which is a holdover from the 1980s when Shiner was cheap beer for desolately poor artists, instead of weekly trust fund credit card swipe party favors for useless hipsters. If you enjoy the thought of fermenting grass and leeks together in a giant vat of sugar and coriander, you may enjoy the appeal of Shiner White Wing, but no one gets to that state honestly; it’s pure Stockholm Syndrome. In all fairness, this review is overwritten. It should merely say: “Yuck.” By doing that, I have stood up in a room of utter sheep disguised as anti-sheep and pointed out that they drink this crap because it is “different” and “ironic” but not because it is good. And good it is not. You’d do better with a brandy and pipe and avoiding this disgusting swill.

Witbier in general has zero appeal to me. The basic idea is this: use lots of cheap wheat in the beer, add coriander to make it “unique,” and then keep the fermentation going until just before the point of consumption. The result is a cloudy, sickeningly sweet, foamy beer that tastes about like huffing the results of a bag of scallions decomposing in the summer heat. If you fed a horse coriander and political promises, its flatulence would taste like this. The white beers I have had from more reputable breweries did better than the Shiner treatment, which consists of making every beer as grainy and yet dehydrating as possible, but the entire style is disgusting and appeals to those who crave novelty more than balanced or even quality flavor. Yuck, ten thousand times yuck. I am sure that the hipsters now are primly poised on their bar stools as they smugly prepare to excoriate me as a beer-illiterate who merely likes his simple ales like a good peasant, but the real peasantry here is people pretending to like this for being “unique,” when in fact it is disgusting. The emperor has no clothes! Witbier is vomit! And Shiner White Wing is low-quality clothes optional vomit sold at top tier prices. Avoid at all costs.

Quality rating: 1/5
Purchase rating: 1/5

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Grupo Modelo S.A. de C.V. – Modelo Especial

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Many Americans know the comforting brown appearance of bottles of Negro Modelo, possibly the last good decent beer for sale on the shelves of your average grocery store or Wal-mart. The others have fallen to consumerism, which is separate from capitalism because it relies on mass preference, and have become the fast food version: essentially soft drinks with beer flavor and separately distilled alcohol injected. This creates a wasteland of plenty. There are many options, but almost all of them cater to morons, and so the options are paltry.

Modelo Especial turns out to be not a Corona clone, but a relatively rich beer with plenty of grainy taste and some spice behind the sweetness. I was pleasantly surprised since, given its widespread availability, I assumed it was designed for morons. However, its obscurity as a Mexican beer — at the time when most people are drinking hipster microbrews that are universally bad because they overemphasize difficult and obscure flavors over simply making a quality beer — may have protected it from the Great American Gold Rush. Every weekend, millions of zombies leave their undead jobs and get in their cars to go home. Because their heads have been drained of any thoughts by the sheer stupidity and illogicality of what they are called to do, there is one option for the weekend… get loaded! — and they do this by trotting on down to Wal-mart in their golf shirts and buying, well, you wouldn’t want to get the usual mainstream beers would you? Just something enough imported to be quality… that means you go to the 9.7-11.8 cents/ounce category of Familiar Imports… and it turns out most of these are fakes… so you grab whatever looks good, go to the checkout and head home. If you drink five of them quickly you might not notice that they are basically burpwater soft drinks flavored like beer, and get a good buzz going. Modelo Especial has escaped this crazy rush because it remains consistent and marketed at lower income, so it does not have the pretense and “unique/different” factor of hipster beers or Familiar Imports, and thus is bought only by — you guessed it — actual appreciators of quality beer. The crowd cheers.

But this beer, unlike the unfortunate Corona Extra to which it is frequently compared, has an abundance of flavor that is more balanced than it is extreme. The hipster beers shit the bed by trying so hard to be ironic they become subtly disgusting, and the audience of sheep is too neutered to simply stand up and say that these beers are vomit fodder. The Familiar Imports are all basically watery and have a pulpy, rotting vegetation taste at this point. But Modelo Especial carries on, with a slight undertone of the pungent smell of its fermented origins, but mostly a warm and broad taste that works in sweetness like a summer evening. Like Negro Modelo, this is a beer to be enjoyed during normal events in life. It will impress no one from the label, but they will actually enjoy drinking it instead of pretending to like another over-priced over-fetishized hipster brew. Full of warmth, it is like the best of Mexico, a simple but entirely rewarding experience.

***/*****

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Amstel Brouwerij B. V. – Amstel Light

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Fins rising above his head and arms, the sea creature crept from the briny abyss and mounted the ladder which took him to the dock. There he assumed his stance, threatening and ambiguous, in his nightly role as a disturbed of the peace and scary of nosy observers. But as he stepped forward, something clicked under the loose boards, and a net dropped over his head.

“Now let’s sea who this deep sea terror really is,” said Fred Jones, ripping the plastic mask from the face of the oily monster.

“Mr. Amstel Brouwerij B. V.!” the team exclaimed in unison.

“This must be why he was trying to scare people away,” said Velma, pulling aside a door to show giant vats of sludgy tan goo.

“That’s right, I admit it. I made this costume to scare off passerby. You see, I’ve made quite a profit smuggling in this beer-flavored sludge from Amsterdam, and then mixing it with soda water to make an ultra-low cost beer which I sell to consumers at import prices. And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”

Once upon a time, Amstel Light was decent beer. Developed by the same brewer that makes Heineken and designed for the American market, it took the fuller flavor of European beer and adapted it to the market demand for lower-calorie beverages. Since it was head and shoulders better than the standard dreck, it got a good name for itself, and so the MBAs at Amstel Brouwerij B. V. realized there was a “profit pocket” — a certain amount of time they could bank on the good name by selling a far cheaper ersatz version and yet the audience would still, with insectlike motions, continue purchasing it at the higher price — and ran the brand into the ground. Amstel Light now resembles an American beer in its water, skunky, quasi-fruity flavor with the distinctly bilgy taste of most pasteurized mass-market beers. You might think that at import prices, this would be better than your average bottled drool, but they have played a bait and switch on you just like with Heineken.

*/*****

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Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, S.A. de C.V. – Dos Equis Special Lager

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This drivel sells under import prices when it is essentially repackaged American beer. Gone are the Dos Equis highlights of the 1980s, when XX brown was a thick flavorful beer that provided an alternative to the dreck on the big shelves. Now you get the watery drivel that happens when a firm decides to maximize profit based on the — not lack of information — low ability to discern shit from gold that identifies the average consumer. This liquid tastes pulpy and soapy and has low alcohol content, or at least low effect. It may be because if not drunk absolutely cold, it resembles the pulque substance they make in prisons more than beer. Any pretense that this is superior to Michelob are nonsense; it is a pale shadow of its former self, made fruitier and vapid so that Average Citizen Idiot can bob his head while listening to the “edgy” Ramones cover band at his local icehouse and talk up the fat women hanging like vegetative overgrowth around the bar, as everyone around him imitates past edginess in an attempt to seem like anything but the corporate stooges they are. Seriously, this is Mexican-flavored Miller Lite. Every burp feels like a vomit about to happen, except it is just the taste of this bilgy sweetened pond water masquerading as beer. Speaking of corporate stooges, this beer is undrinkable, unless you have already numbed your taste buds to the point of accepting the mediocre as the norm.

Quality rating: 1/5
Purchase rating: 1/5

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Independence Brewing Co. – Convict Hill Oatmeal Stout

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As much as I enjoy a bitter beer, or an idiosyncratic one, Convict Hill Oatmeal Stout confuses the outward appearance of refined taste with the taste itself. An intensely sour and dark beer, it swings away from the pleasurable dimensions of beers toward small rooms full of “experts” who like highly demonstrative, artificed tastes. Such drinkers are looking for a beer to talk about how much they enjoyed, rather than enjoying it, while overpraising it like metalcore in a big heavy metal magazine. They will discuss its oddities, use vague terms like “creamy,” and generally miss the point: this beer is designed toward unbalanced extremes to make talking points, and has character within.

As a result, it makes a terrible everyday beer, and while it might be good as a Guinness substitute in a black and tan where a dark and bitter beer is necessary to offset the Bass or other pale ale used in contrast, by itself constitutes the same kind of unpleasant drinking experience that eating straight dark chocolate provides to the culinary palate. Like gourmet food that carries the pretentious epithet an acquired taste, this oatmeal stout misses out on the balance of a really good version of this sub-type, in which harvest flavors balance the bitterness to create a sense of transition, and instead aims toward something for gritted-teeth hipsters to use as a conversation topic when explaining the superiority of their taste to yours. At that it succeeds because there is so much to talk about but none of it is interesting. Take for example the separation of flavors so that the aftertaste is a tarry version of the foretaste; or perhaps, the strange fermentation overtones as if something random were included in the vat, or the process did not quite complete. Independent breweries are quite trendy now but this beer shows that it is not the size of the brewery, but the intent of the brewer, that makes a great beer instead of a faddish mediocre one.

Quality rating: 2/5
Purchase rating: 1/5

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Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. – Sierra Nevada Pale Ale

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Only an American company could come up with this: a bitter beer wracked by a sweet fruity aftertaste. It is the approach one takes to bribing children to eat the disgusting faux nutrition that is “health food,” namely by making the food as vile as possible and then dumping a bunch of sugar on top so they will eat it for that. On the tongue, Pale Ale tastes like a European delicacy like Grolsch for just a moment before undertones of vinegar kick in, followed by a sugary fruitness resembling a Kiwi fruit swimming in corn syrup. The result is vomitous, a race between extremes in which the middle point — the balance of flavors that makes a good brew — vanishes entirely. Instead, you get get hipster cred for liking this “acquired taste” while having a big dollop of cupcake icing to follow it, with the assumption that you will not vomit from the clash of tastes on the palate. In favor of this beer, it is cleaner than most American beers, without the murky swill of unintegrated fermentation byproducts that makes American beer taste like stagnant rainwater. On the other side, however, it is like a car with the engine in the trunk that you steer with the stereo. Absolutely no integration of flavor leaves it feeling more like watching a crowd of random people pass, than the smooth ballet of a good beer.

Quality rating: 2/5
Purchase rating: 1/5

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