There’s nothing wrong with having a big head.

Three Heads Berwing Big Head Stoutby Mark Tichenor

The beer scene is all about pushing the envelope. Each new beer is bigger, stronger, hoppier or more sour. But sometimes the way to grow is to take a step back toward the fundamentals. That’s what Three Heads Brewing did with their new seasonal release, Big Head Stout.

With the exception of the Irish dry style, you don’t see a lot of plain old stouts. Right now it’s all about insanely strong imperial stouts made with unicorn horns and virgin’s tears, then aged in 100 year old whiskey barrels. In that sense, Big Head is a retrenchment, free of gimmicks or pretense. It’s comfort beer that takes the Heads back to their days slaving over the basement brewkettle.

“When we did homebrewing competitions, the beer that consistently got the most medals was our stout,” says Geoff Dale, co-partner and head of sales for the company. “This is a stout you can have three pints of, but still not feel like it’s a watered-down weenie beer.”

Named after Three Heads employee Brian Johnson’s magnificent cranium, Big Head Stout packs a lot of character into that pint glass. As you’d expect, it’s pitch dark, with tons of vanilla and hazelnut in both nose and flavor, but without the ‘burned’ quality that’s so characteristic of stouts due to the heavily roasted malt. This makes the 7% abv Big Head instinctively, dangerously drinkable. And yes, my freshly poured example had a big, voluminous head.

The beer’s texture serves as the delivery vehicle for all that flavor, it’s silky, almost chewy, but doesn’t get so heavy as to be cloying. It’ll fill you up, but you’ll wind up happy to be full. It’s like the beer version of home cooking, and seconds are hard to resist.

Big Head Stout is a limited-release seasonal beer. The first 60 barrel batch is completely spoken for by pubs, restaurants and distributors, and there will be a second 20 barrel batch to follow. Dale says the Heads are playing it by ear, gauging consumer demand before planning a third time on the brew schedule. It’s currently on draft in Rochester at The Tap and Mallet, but you’ll soon be able to find it across the city and throughout Three Heads’ 10-state distribution area in places where they give a crap about good beer.

Really, Big Head Stout demonstrates a maturation for Three Heads, whose partners enjoy blurring style boundaries and occasionally playing with wacky ingredients. It takes a certain wisdom to realize that beer is an ancient beverage that stood the test of time for a reason, and sometimes the finest, most luxurious things are borne of simplicity. It’s a pity this is a seasonal release. Here’s to a very long season.

In other beers
The new Genesee Tap House’s 20 barrel brewery finally swung into action. Three new small-batch beers are now available for tasting and on draft in their upstairs pub: A Scotch ale, blonde ale and pale ale. The beers are also available to take home in growlers.

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to beercraft@rochester.rr.com.

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May I see the beer list please?


by Mark Tichenor

Restaurant owners tend to be a conservative bunch, and who can blame them? In such a tough business it’s generally best to adopt an “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” mentality. For the longest time, however, that mindset only served to annoy the bejeezus out of craft beer lovers.

Only a few years ago you could expect to walk into a nice restaurant, find a wine list the size and complexity of the U.S. Tax Code, yet be treated to two or three domestic lagers and maybe an imported…lager. There was a pervasive mentality that, in the face of wine, beer was somehow too gauche to grace upscale tables.

These days the inverse is true. It’s rare to find a restaurant that doesn’t display a range and knowledge of fine beers from America and countries around the world. Beer menus coexist with wine lists, and great brews bring a touch of refinement to the table without vinicultural pretene. What caused this change in condition? Restauranteurs figured out beer could make them money.

According to a study by Consumer Edge Insight, 33 percent of alcohol drinkers who visit restaurants regularly report that they are more likely to order beer when offered a large selection of brands.  A better beer selection also made 26 percent of respondents order more servings of beer than they otherwise would have, because they want to try different kinds. More beer sales equals more revenue.

It seems kind of obvious doesn’t it? Just like kids want to try every flavor in the ice cream parlor, well-adjusted adults want a sip of every beer. Not only will a good, rotating beer list drive increased purchasing on a single restaurant visit, it’s also a heck of an incentive to keep folks coming back.

With close to 2,000 breweries nationwide, and now firmly-established third-party distribution networks, keeping those beer lists both great and rotating. For restaurant managers, the decision to stock beer from a brewery around the block, or beer from the other side of the world, has never been easier.

It begs the question, is the growth in beer revenue hurting wine sales? Jaime Barclay, General Manager of The Tap and Table in Rochester, doesn’t think so. “What’s most important is having a well-rounded beverage selection, in beer and wine and craft spirits,” she says. “We’re known as a beer place, but finding a great beer may make a customer want to try a great wine on the next visit. That’s why we don’t separate the sections out on our menu.”

Donna Schlosser-Long, Sales Consultant with wine importers Fredrick Wildman & Sons, agrees. In her view, wine and beer have always had a symbiotic relationship. “I don’t think there are wine customers not drinking wine, or beer customers, not drinking beer,” she says. Schlosser-Long also points out that wine sales in restaurants continue to rise, bolstering the evidence that people are enjoying craft beer alongside rather than instead of wine.

So the next time you find yourself at one of those places without dollar-signs on the menu, consider ordering a great beer to compliment a great meal. You just might be surprised at how the right brew brings out food’s flavors, and you’ll definitely display a sophistication for the modern age.

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to beercraft@rochester.rr.com.

Porters to carry you onward

by Mark Tichenor

You think your job sucks? Try being an 18th-century porter in the streets of London. We’re not talking suitcases here. In the days before cargo vans, heavy things had to be moved by hand, onto and off of ships, into warehouses, across town. Porters were the guys who did it. It’s like if your moving company had to move the whole city. It was exhausting work. According to popular history, the favorite daily nourishment to sustain a full day’s, um, porting was the strong, black beer of London, what we call porter today.

Porter almost almost died out in Great Britain during the lean post-war years. Taxation based on alcohol percentage leeched out the nourishing carbohydrates, and the ascent of trendy European lagers made it seem downright stodgy. It took American homebrewing hobbyists, keen to attempt any beer style they could discover, to finally get porter bubbling in kettles again. 

Unsurprisingly, commercially brewed porter became as American as the people making it. It got stronger, often much hoppier. Brewers tortured their porter in all sorts of fiendish ways, adding vanilla, chocolate, or coffee, sometimes even maple.The Alaskan Brewing Company smoked the malt, creating a beer that would rocket the small company to legendary status. Brewers aged porter in retired whiskey barrels to impart oak and bourbon characteristics. You name it, it was done to porter. 

While many fine variations resulted from that mad ingenuity, some breweries still make a more classic, basic porter, a sip of which could transport your imagination back to those teeming wharves along the Thames. 

Naked Dove 45 Fathoms Porter is one such brew. Owner and Brewer Dave Schlosser is something of a traditionalist when it comes to beer styles–his porter is as straightforward as they come, free of gimmickry or fad flavors. Noticeably dark brown instead of black, 45 Fathoms offers a hearty, chewy mouthfeel and a flavor that melds pumpernickel bread and sherry notes, without leaning too heavily in either directon. Expertly balanced, it’s the star of the Canandaigua NY-based brewery’s range of year-round beers. 

Although best known for their pale ale, Venerable California brewers Sierra Nevada make a porter that’s worth dreaming about. Extremely dark, with the expected heavy roast and bready characteristics, Sierra Nevada Porter reveals a slight sweetness and subtle coffee flavor as well, yet with a remarkably clean finish. Hitting the drinker with all those big tastes without leaving them cloying on the palate is indicative of a very well-designed beer. 

Happilly, the style made a remarkable comeback in the UK as well, spearheaded since 1979 by the always great Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter. Black and toffeelike, with a noticeably softer mouthfeel than its American counterparts, Taddy is still fermented in gigantic open-topped slate boxes (Samuel Smith’s is the last brewery to use the old Yorkshire Squares fermentation system). Whether this helps impart that characteristic vanilla pudding smoothness upon the porter is open for debate. 

Although variations of  the stale are dressed up, smoked, made superstrong or aged in whiskey barrels, regular old porter is still a basic beer for blue-collar tastes. In each sip is a reminder of our roots and the role of those who toil hard for a living. Porter is, and will always remain, the beer of the worker. 

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to beercraft@rochester.rr.com.