Category Archives: Feature

The Great Pumpkin Beer Reviews, 2016

pumpkinbeers

If you’re lucky enough to live in New England like us, you know that autumn is arguably the most beautiful time of year. The shortened days and chilly nights paint the landscape in vibrant scarlet, blazing orange and sunshine yellow.

And it’s about this time when “pumpkin spice” finds its way into pretty much everything, from coffee to muffins to…well, pretty much everything Dunkin’ Donuts sells.

So I guess it was inevitable that pumpkin would eventually find its way into beer. And when we first saw an early pumpkin beer a few years ago, we were skeptical.

But it turns out that not only does pumpkin have a place in the brewing world, it’s actually carving itself quite a following.

Visit the renowned Eastern States Exposition fall  fair in West Springfield, Massachusetts — fondly known as “The Big E” — and you’ll find several stands selling pumpkin beers in plastic cups with rims that have been dipped first in caramel, and then in a mixture of cinnamon and sugar.

And before you recoil in disgust, we need to tell you that not only is it absolutely delicious, it’s becoming so commonplace that ordering a beer “with a rimmer” is something you can know say aloud without receiving uncomfortable, suspicious glares.

Pumpkin is now in everything from ales to shandies to imperial stouts. We tasted a handful of the styles to offer you some guidance as you traverse the pumpkin beer landscape.

So, happy autumn, everyone, and enjoy our collection of pumpkin beer ratings below. Maybe you’ll find something you like, so you too can get rimmed this fall.  Wait, that didn’t come out right.

Pumpkin Beer Reviews

Rogue Pumpkin Patch Ale (85 points)
Harpoon Imperial Pumpkin (82 points)
Southern Tier Warlock (81 points)
Jack-O Traveler (78 points)
Dogfish Head Punkin Ale (73 points)
Long Trail Imperial Pumpkin (72 points)
Shipyard Pumpkin (71 points)

What a giant brewing merger means to you

Word broke Tuesday that the world’s largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev, is purchasing the world’s second largest brewer, SABMiller.

Media reports list the deal at somewhere between $104 billion and $106 billion. But hey, what’s a couple of billion?

If the deal goes through, the buyout will create a massive conglomerate that currently accounts for roughly 30 percent of the world’s global market share.

AB InBev’s brands include Budweiser, Busch, Michelob, Rolling Rock, Stella Artois, Natural, Shock Top, Goose Island and Blue Point.

SABMiller’s brands include Miller, Coors, Foster’s, Grolsch, Icehouse, Keystone, Blue Moon and Leinenkugel’s.

Reconstructing corporate brewing conglomerates takes a beer that isn't brewed by one.
Deconstructing corporate brewing conglomerates is best enjoyed while drinking a beer that isn’t brewed by one.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Together, their portfolios comprise 158 brands.

So I decided to grab myself a bottle of Old Rasputin Russian imperial stout — brewed by decidedly independent craft brewer North Coast Brewing Co.  — pour it into my favorite pint glass, and put this whole merger into perspective for you.

The Bad News

The bad news is…monopolies rarely benefit the consumer. Just last year,  in 2014, Jean Tirole of Toulouse University won the Nobel Prize in economics for his study of how unregulated monopolies can hurt consumers by driving up prices and stifling innovation.

That lack of innovation is apparent in many of the brands I listed above — and you probably nodded along in resigned disappointment as I rattled them off.

But I’m willing to bet that you also thought, “Whoa! Ayyyyy!” in surprise when I listed “craft” brewers Goose Island, Blue Point, Blue Moon and Leinenkugel’s at the end of those two lists.

Along with the mass-produced stadium favorites Bud, Bud Light, Coors Light and Miller Lite, brewers like AB InBev and SABMiller are gobbling up craft brewers to broaden their fan base.

If you’re thinking you’re going to escape the conglomerates by heading to other well-known brands…think again.

Heineken NV owns Heineken, Amstel, Murphy’s and Newcastle.

Diageo owns Guinness, Smithwick’s, Red Stripe and Harp. Oh, and most of those have been downsized from 12-ounce bottles to 11.2 ounces.

Does that anger you enough to drop your beer and grab the Johnnie Walker?  Well…don’t bother, because Diageo owns Johnnie Walker, as well as Smirnoff, Ketel One, Don Julio, Dalwhinnie, Seagram’s, Crown Royal, Tanqueray, Captain Morgan’s, Lagavulin, Bailey’s and many, many more.

The Good News

So let’s assume that roughly 50 percent of the world’s beer is owned by corporate conglomerates. If that’s true, then the good news is this…roughly 50 percent isn’t.

The craft brewing industry is exploding. The United States is among the top brewing countries in the world — and according to Thrillist, second only to Belgium. That’s pretty impressive.

When you immerse yourself in beer culture as we here at The Basement Beer Tastings have, you’ll hear story upon story of craft brewing upstarts founded by beer enthusiasts “fed up” with commercial offerings.

It’s the story of the American dream, realized in long-necked brown bottles topped with tiny, tightly-affixed metal crowns. And as fast as the corporations can gobble up the “sell outs,” there’s another restless soul disgusted just enough to set up their own shop.

The Bottom Line

We’ve gotten to the bottom of the AB InBev SABMiller merger –and I’ve reached the bottom of my glass of stout — so what does this merger mean to you?

Well, if you’re against corporate monopolies, then the list of beers you’ll want to avoid just grew.

If you don’t care who owns your beer as long as it still tastes the same, then you don’t have much to worry about. But make note of the current price of your favorite brew, and beware of potential upticks. Also beware of cost-saving measures and package downsizing practices.

The bottom line is this…regardless of how many brands the conglomerates gobble up, there are thousands of choices that span all 50 states — both commercial and independent. There truly is something for everyone.

The hard part is that it may take a little extra effort and a little more research now to find a beer you’re comfortable drinking.

But finding a brew that you love is something you can still accomplish…while having a hell of a lot of fun searching for it.

-Jon Graney

 

Please Drink Responsibly

“Please Drink Responsibly.”

This message, or one of its other many incarnations, can be found in most — if not all — alcohol advertising.   

Here's an example of what NOT to do.
Just one example of what you shouldn’t be doing.

Think of a recent marketing pitch you’ve seen — probably some good-looking Twenty-Somethings having the time of their lives.  A narrator explains how you too can be carefree while enjoying [insert alcoholic beverage name here].  

And just as the high priced, market-researched branding comes into view, somewhere on the screen in tiny print you’re reminded to  “please drink responsibly.”

From my point of view, responsibility seemed to be the farthest thing from the minds of those enthusiastic revelers in the advertisement.  To be honest, I would imagine many consumers have become numb to these ever present reminders.  However, maybe we should be giving “please drink responsibly” its due consideration.

Do we even know what this message means?  Why are the alcohol manufacturers telling us that we should drink responsibly?

From a cynical viewpoint, these manufacturers do care for us since we are, after all, giving them our hard-earned money to purchase their products.  So it stands to reason that the more irresponsibly we drink, the more money the companies receive.  

So they must only be protecting their liability from accidents, injuries and health consequences caused by their products.

But let’s skip the cynicism and assume the companies do actually care for our well-being.  If that is the case, I’ve come up with a few different ideas about what the purveyors of alcoholic beverages have in mind when they tell us to “please drink responsibly.”  I’ve also added some suggestions to be included in the fine print.

Possibly, it’s the impact our drinking enjoyment can have if we decide to operate a motor vehicle.  That message could be a little more specific:

Please drink responsibly.  If you’re going to drive, make sure it’s long after you’ve enjoyed your last round.  Because remember, it’s not just you out there on the road.  It’s also somebody’s daughter, son, mom, sister, brother, grandmother, dad, grandfather…

Or, could it be that we need to be aware of the health consequences irresponsible drinking could lead to in life.  Perhaps that message could go something like this:

Please drink responsibly.  Nobody likes cancer, but your mouth, colon, liver, rectum and breasts especially don’t like it.  Unfortunately, those frequent alcoholic beverages you enjoy so much…well, they just may put those parts, along with some others, at risk for “The Big C.”

Even still, to some the responsibility could take the form of maintaining one’s inhibitions that tend to get lost with inebriation.

Remember all those adjectives (funny, engaging, intelligent, sexy) you thought about yourself during your drunken revelry? Realize now that every responsible drinker around you was thinking the antonym of each of those words about you.  Please drink responsibly.

The list could go on and on for the reasons one needs to drink responsibly…and I didn’t even mention the children and the responsibility to only drink alcohol when of legal age.

Now let’s be clear. The Basement Beer Tastings is in no way trying to make light of a very serious message.  On the contrary, it’s our hope that more consideration is given to “please drink responsibly” than a three-second blip on the screen or a quick glance at a print ad.

Yes, everyone needs to be responsible when they drink.  It’s part of the reason why there is a legal drinking age and strict laws about operating motor vehicles.

And, unfortunately, even we of legal drinking age sometimes still can’t handle the responsibility.  I would imagine the majority of us who enjoy alcoholic beverages have at one time enjoyed them irresponsibly.  But maybe, if we start thinking more about those reasons to drink responsibly, we won’t have to live with the repercussions of irresponsible drinking.

So, PLEASE DRINK RESPONSIBLY.  I’ve got my reasons. Do you?

– Mike Festi

A Tasting of One’s Own

Think about your closest friends and family members.  Do you have your list? Need another minute? That’s fine…take all the time you need.

Okay, now that you have it, remove the four-legged members and anyone not of drinking age.  I’m going to guess that your group comes in between 10 and 20 people.

Think about this next part.  How many of these people would you say are beer drinkers?  Let’s generalize and define “beer drinker” as anyone that enjoys drinking a beer.

“Enjoys drinking a beer?! What kind of beer drinker doesn’t enjoy drinking a beer? ”

(Answer: Beer drinkers who are “Up For Whatever.™”)

Now remember, we don’t know each other, but I’m going to bet at least 8 to 16 of your group — roughly 80 percent — meets our definition of beer drinker.

Now you may be thinking, “Holy Moses, smell the roses! What kind of mental magic is this?!”  No magic. Just simple, logical reasoning.

Beer is more popular than ever. Think about the rise in craft breweries in the last 5-10 years.  I’m not going to make some type of blanket assumption and say that everyone is a beer drinker — I remember SAT prep well enough that any statements using the words “all” or “none” are usually false ones.

However, it’s logical reasoning to assume the majority of adults who are of-age enjoy a tasty brew every now and then.  And since you have a close group of family and friends, I have a novel idea for you.

It’s a way to enjoy some company while at the same time expanding your knowledge of beers.  Are you ready for it?

HOST YOUR OWN BEER TASTING!

The first thing I said after we held our first tasting was, “Everyone should be hosting their own beer tastings.”

This was quickly followed by, “If only there was a way for us to make money off of this.”  We’re still working on that one.

But I stand by that first statement. Everyone should be hosting their own beer tastings…be it in a basement, living room, kitchen, attic, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, doghouse, or any other place Harrison Ford could have been hiding in The Fugitive. You should be hosting your own beer tastings.

Behind this door is where the magic happens.
Behind this door is where the magic happens.

To help you organize your beer tasting, I’m going to give you a peek behind the curtain (technically the green door) into what happens at our bi-weekly tastings.

The panel is made up of four to eight beer drinkers from our social circle.  For the monthly themed tastings, each panelist provides a selection of one type of beer that follows the theme.

One at a time, we evaluate each beer on appearance, smell, taste, aftertaste and drinkability.  We talk openly about what we notice as we’re tasting, but we never share our actual numerical ratings until everyone has finished writing their ratings and tasting notes.  This way we’re not influencing one another’s scores.

After sharing the numerical ratings for each category, we share our total score for the beer and then find the average of all the panelists’ scores.  

And as simple as that,  we’re able to come up with the rating for each beer we taste.  No need for complex formulas or standard deviations here at The Basement Beer Tastings.

When your friends talk to you about beer, do they temper their opinions with weighted averages? Of course not…and neither do we.

So what’s so awesome about these beer tastings?  Well, besides from the fact that we get to sample a variety of brews and expand our beer acumen, joy lies in the discussions that follows each selection.

Each panelist brings with them their own tastes and beer preferences.  And yes, while some tastes are more similar than others (Mike and Jon), there are enough differences to provide for diverse viewpoints.

One panelist’s dirty dishrag aroma may be another panelist’s floral bouquet.  Different strokes for different folks.

Yes, you’ll find beers that are divisive among the group. But you’ll also find beers that are universally enjoyed.  And it’s these beers that have the greatest chances of being the Excellent and World Class brews.

So contact your family and friends, set your tasting theme, and lay claim to your selection.  Trust me, you’re in for a magical evening of beer tasting and conversation.  Just remember to enjoy responsibly — the emphasis is on tasting, not binging.

And while you’re setting up your beer tastings, we’ll still be trying to  figure out just how to turn a profit on this.

– Mike Festi

Beer Drinkers, Now is Your Time

BEER.  Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s get down to it.

I’m assuming if you’ve found your way to this site, you’re a beer drinker.  Greetings and salutations.  Though we may not know each other, you and I both know we have something in common…BEER.

Panelist Sara Esthus and co-founder Mike Festi discuss ratings with the panel.
Panelist Sara Esthus and co-founder Mike Festi discuss ratings with the panel.

Since you’re like me, I’m sure you’ve noticed the great rise in beer offerings at your local package store or watering hole.  While this should be a sign of exciting times, all these selections can also seem overwhelming.

I live in a (very) small New England town, and I can think of at least five…wait…six local breweries within a 20 minute drive.  I’m not talking about some hole-in-the-wall operation where only one type of craft ale is offered through the purchase of a 64-ounce growler.

Oh no, each of these breweries offers at least three different selections of beer.  Not only that, half of these breweries’ selections can be purchased in area package stores and not just by the growler but in bottle and can form, too.

Right now you may be asking yourself, “How did one man get so lucky as to live around such a wide selection of breweries? Some type of geographical anomaly where Heaven is actually here on Earth?”

Far from it.  Do a quick Google search for breweries within 30 miles of your current location, and I’m sure you’ll be quite surprised by the number you’ll find.  And that’s just within a 30 mile radius. Expand the distance and you’ll come up with many more offerings.

Now take a moment to breathe this all in. All these breweries…how can one find all the time to taste each selection?  How do you tell the palate pleasers from the palate disasters?  Do you really want to be wasting your hard earned money on a beer that tastes like it was brewed from hot dog water? (Ommegang Hennepin, I’m looking in your direction.)

Panelist Rick Czapla inspects an IPA's appearance.
Panelist Rick Czapla inspects an IPA’s appearance.

Obviously not.  So that’s where we at The Basement Beer Tastings step up to the plate.  Our mission is to lend a helping hand to our beer drinking brethren and sistren.

We’re a panel of typical beer drinkers, with tastes that vary.  We’re not out to make friends with the brewers or impress anyone with our acumen.

While we strive to be well-versed experts on beer, do you really need to be an expert to decide what beer you want to enjoy all night and what beers you wouldn’t even use as toilet water?  We don’t think so, and that’s why your opinion means as much as ours.  We’re just here to help you.

So if you’re looking for an honest review, I’m sure you’ll find someone on our panel whose tastes are similar to your own.  And hopefully we’ll have helped you discover your new favorite beer — or in the least bit, helped you to avoid the hot dog water.

– Mike Festi