Month: March 2014

Holy Beer (an Introduction to Trappist Beer)

Here’s another one from the archives.


After diving head first into the world of beer, I learned of the Catholic Church’s role in beer. Cistercian monks, who became known as Trappist monks, were influenced by St. Benedict and therefore chose a life of silence and contemplation. The history of when these monks began brewing beer is vague, but their special brews aided in spiritual reflection and also became an alternative source of income for the entrepreneurial and beer loving monks.

There are several Trappist breweries that are still around today, with world renown beer brewed by monks. To differentiate authentic Trappist beer from imitators, the International Trappist Association stamps its beer with the seal of holy authenticity – “Authentic Trappist Product.” There are many very good Abbey beers out there that are inspired by the Trappist tradition, but if it doesn’t have the Trappist seal it’s not an official Trappist beer.

Each Trappist brewery’s beer is different; however, all are warm fermented ales and all are brewed in Belgium, with the exception of one Dutch Trappist brewery.

Here are the most notable Trappist beers currently available. I’ve tried most of these beers and they all live up to their reputations. I would highly recommend Achel Blond if you enjoy “light beer.” It’s a great entry into the wonderful world of Trappist and Belgian beer.

Trappist Achel 5° Blond – Brouwerij der St. Benedictusabdij de Achelse


La Trappe Blond from Brouwerij De Koningshoeven






Finback Brewery


Glendale, Queens is not a prime location for craft beer.  I’ve been living in Glendale for the past two years and it’s craft beer purgatory.  With the exception of the decent craft beer selection at my local bodega/deli, there aren’t any bars or craft beer serving restaurants in Ridgewood or Glendale – both neighborhoods share the 11385 zip code. Almost a year ago I learned that two home brewers, Basil and Kevin, found a Queens location for their new brewery Finback.  Of course, I was besides myself with joy. The brewery, located on a quiet block in Glendale, is now fully operational, churning out kegs for bars and restaurants all over NYC. Basil and Kevin took a quick break from their very hectic schedule to show me around the brewery, talk about their upcoming plans, and answer questions from their very excited neighbor.



Kevin Stafford and Basil Lee were both home brewers for nearly a decade. Active in the Brooklyn home brew community, their paths crossed several years ago eventually solidifying their Finback destiny. It took approximately three years to go from dreaming and idea-mapping to the life-changing day the real estate agent handed them the keys to their new property, a warehouse that would become one of the few breweries in Queens. It took almost a year to find the right location and several more months to get everything ready for beer production.


The Brewery:

From the inside of the brewery, the space looks like it encompasses at least a quarter of the entire block. Finback is huge, with amazing potential for growth. Basil showed me the various rooms and their plans for each – yeast room, barrel aging room, bar and tasting area, and outdoor space. Right now the focus is the beer, ensuring there is enough supply for the rising demand in the city. I’m not sure how these guys get any sleep. There was a U-Haul van parked inside the brewery, its engine still warm from a recent keg delivery. The beer duo are doing their own distribution, as well. For now, Basil and Kevin are micro-managing it all: brewing the beer, kegging, loading the trucks, delivering the product, marketing and sales, and attending various craft beer events. (I’m sure I left a bunch out.) Back to the brewery – They plan on opening up the backyard space in the next few weeks, hopefully time for the real arrival of spring.  (If you’re in NYC or the East Coast, you know that spring hasn’t really arrived yet.)


The Beers:  

Unfortunately, they weren’t set up to have me do a tasting, but I’ve had a few Finback beers around town during the past few weeks. Their standard IPA is excellent – 7.2 ABV & 112 IBUs, loaded with Chinook and Columbus hops. I’ve been searching for their Witbier, which is a unique take on the light ale – filled with ginger, Szechuan peppercorns, and chamomile. Look out for these upcoming beers in the next few weeks:

BQE – 11.5% ABV & 63 IBUs
The BQE is our Brooklyn Queens Espresso imperial stout. Cocoa nibs from the Brooklyn based Mast Brothers and Coffee from Queens based Native Coffee Roasters were added to the boil making for a super complex tasty brew.

Moby Hop 9% ABV & 84 IBUs
This double IPA is extra big and extra bitter and still goes down smooth as a white whale.


Brewing and Music:

I was eager to find out what types of sounds fill the void when brewing. Basil explained that it ranges from classic rock to Guns & Roses and Metallica. Ironically, I was listening to Metallica as I rode my bike over to Finback on a twenty degree winter’s night.


The Future of Finback:  

As I walked through the brewery listening to Basil talk about plans for the physical space and exciting ideas for new beers, I eagerly wanted to fast forward several months to be able to enjoy Finback beers at their very own tasting room or backyard beer garden. Beyond the sours and barrel-aged stuff they are eager to start working on, there are also collaborations with other brewers on the horizon. If you see a Finback beer on tap at your local craft beer bar or restaurant, order one. Once they have regular tasting hours at the brewery, I highly recommend taking the trek to Glendale. You can also join their CSB (Community Supported Beer program) to have regular growler fills at the brewery and enjoy access to limited release and pilot batch beers.

Gun Hill Road Brewing Co.


I work at a Math and Science school in Brooklyn, so STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) is never far from mind.  A brewmaster’s skills, knowledge-base, and everyday responsibilities plants him/her very firmly in the field of STEM.  It’s not a career that gets mentioned much when highlighting the various STEM-related career paths.  Hanging out in Chris Sheehan’s laboratory, Gun Hill Brewing Company’s brand new brewery, it was evident that this seasoned alchemist is in his glory amongst the various heavy metal tanks, bags of hops and grain, and finished kegs of liquid gold.


The Man: 

Chris Sheehan’s storied career started in California, earning his brewing chops in Triple Rock Brewery and 20 Tank Brewery. He describes himself as a West Coast-style brewer, although he spent the majority of his time brewing for East Coast craft breweries and brewpubs, including Port 44 and J.J. Bitting in New Jersey, and Chelsea Brewing Company in Manhattan. Gun Hill Brewing Company will have a versatile line-up, but Chris is a Stout specialist who has received 6 GABF medals for his Stouts over the years.


The Beer: 

Our India Pale Ale features an abundance of hop character gained from 5 separate additions of hops including the use of whole-cone Simcoe and Citra hops in our hop jack. Notes of citrus fruit and grass in the aroma are followed by a rounded flavor of citrus and pine. (6.75% abv).

With the generous use of Mt. Hood hops, this golden ale was brewed to refresh. The soft aroma of bread and spice, smooth texture and noble-hop flavors make it an ideal “session ale” for any beer lover. (4.1% abv).

Tunder Dog Stout is a sweet-style stout, which is very hearty, full flavored, and the first of our Bi-anual stout selections.

Made using the brewer’s home-grown hops from the Catskills, which were hand-picked and then immediately frozen to preserve their freshness, this tasty treat features a deep red color, complex aroma and a pleasant fruity flavor with notes of strawberry and blueberry. It’s a lot of work but definitely worth the effort!

Locally grown, very fresh hops plus this secret weapon make all the difference when enjoying their line-up of beers.  Chris’ self-designed “Hop Jack” ensures a healthy infusion of hops during the brewing process.


The Brewery: 

Gun Hill Brewing Co. is the first brewery to brew on Bronx soil since the 1960s, with the departure of Rheingold Beer from the Bronx. Bronx Brewery, Jonas Bronck’s Beer Company, and City Island Beer all contract brew outside of NYC. Dave Lopez and Kieran Farrell are the co-owners/founders of Gun Hill Brewing Company, basing their company’s brand on the colonial history of the Bronx. The current plan is to supply kegs to local bars, restaurants, and craft beer shops, and to serve the Williamsbridge community via its tasting room.  (Tasting Room Hours: Monday-Thursday 1-8pm, Friday 1-9pm, Saturday 12-9pm, Sunday 12-7pm)


A Brewer’s Soundtrack:

BierWAX asked Chris Sheehan about the role of music while creating his brews. An avid fan of mainly British and Scandinavian Death Metal, Chris’ award-winning Stouts are frequently brewed with a dark and ominous soundscape. I won’t reveal some of his upcoming beer names, but a few of them will likely be metal-themed. The sounds of metal seem to eerily reverberate off the heavy metal vessels, kettles, tanks and tuns in Chris’ brew-lab.


Gun Hill Brewing Co. will certainly be a force to reckon with in NYC and beyond over the next few months and years.  With Chris Sheehan at the creative helm, fashioning some pretty drinkable beers, the future for the Bronx craft beer scene is undoubtedly getting brighter.

(American) Beer Basics

I wrote this a while ago, but it still resonates two years later…  Some background and historical context for those just getting into craft beer.

My mother’s knowledge of beer, like the majority of our country-folk, has been very cleverly shaped by mega beer companies that account for over 80% of beer sales in the U.S.  The following is more or less how I explained why I drink craft beer and not “crap beer” to my Mom.  Of course, beer, music, and one’s taste in food are subjective experiences.  However, as a former history teacher I was trained to dig a little deeper to uncover the often hidden truths.

Americans celebrated the end of Prohibition with the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment in 1933.  Lovers of beer were enthralled, but the beer landscape slowly declined over the next several decades.  As a handful of macro-breweries began to dominate beer production in the U.S., smaller regional breweries, who kept alive a diversity of beer offerings, quickly met their demise.  Mega beer companies rose to dominance and popularized what most Americans know as beer, an inferior version of a Czech Pilsener.

Mainstream beer, such as Budweiser, takes pride in its European roots.  However, the “King of Beers” wouldn’t even have been able to pass the German Beer Purity Law, known as the Reinheitsgebot.  This law stated that only four ingredients can be used in the production of beer: water, malt, hops, and later yeast.  Budweiser and other mainstream beers use adjuncts, or cheaper ingredients to supplement barley.  The most popular adjuncts in beers such as Budweiser, Coors, and Miller are rice and corn.  Cost cutting equals maximized profits and subpar quality and taste.  Quality or taste hasn’t really mattered because the big beer companies spend millions and millions of dollars in advertising every year to convince the consumer that their beers taste great and are the standard of what beer should taste like – light, bland, and consumed extremely cold.

In 2012, we have mega beer companies unparalleled in the history of beer.  Budweiser was already a mammoth company before merging with InBev, a Belgian and Brazilian company.  Coors and Molson are now under the umbrella of SABMiller, a South African company.  These two giant beer companies now control more than 70% of the world’s market and over 80% of the beer sold in the U.S., as previously mentioned.  Head over to the blog Beer Head for an in depth breakdown of these two major companies and the over 450 beer brands they own worldwide.

I’ll write about the history of the craft beer movement in another post, but here it is in a few sentences.  Home brewers, tired of the very limited options at bars and at stores, decided to brew their own beer, even when it was illegal to do so in many states.  Many of the beers they conjured up were inspired by European beer styles, often with an American twist.  Some of these home brewers were able to start their own micro-breweries and began generating local interest in their unique offerings.  First there were only a handful of breweries: New Albion, Anchor Brewing Company, Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer Company, Commonwealth Brewing Company, and Northhampton Brewery.  In the late 80s and early 90s, the movement picked up steam and craft breweries began opening throughout the country. By 1996, there were more than 1,000 craft breweries operating in the U.S.

What united a majority of these small breweries was a dedication to quality ingredients, an experimental spirit, and a steadfast commitment to remaining independent.  Some of these “micro-breweries” did so well that they grew beyond the designation “micro.” Breweries such the Boston Beer Company can still be considered craft breweries, but they are now multi-million dollar enterprises, with distribution deals in all fifty states.  Other craft brewing companies, in their desire for increased production and revenue, are now partially owned by either SABMiller or InBev.  (I’ll also return to this at a later date.) The majority of craft brewers remain independent and are committed to protecting the hand-crafted nature of their brews…superb ingredients, better quality, and more variety.

Sam Calagione, the founder and president of Dogfish Head, explains it quite well in his book Brewing up a Business:  

“The other big reality is that people are choosing to support small, local companies.  They see there are international, sort of nameless, faceless, publicly traded, global breweries that dominate the commercial beer landscape –and there’s beer being made right in their hometown, literally.  There are over 1,600 breweries in the United States today, and the average American now lives within 10 miles of a local brewery.  These local brewers are in their community, doing festivals, doing beer dinners, doing tastings, and introducing themselves on a very human level and scale.  And people are choosing to support businesses that are of a human scale.  People are discouraged by the failures of global, publicly traded companies and are embracing the opportunity to support a small, local brewery –or any small, local business.”



Hong Kong Discovery


Samichlaus changed my life.  Okay, I realize that’s a lot to say for a beer.  It was already a very big deal to be in Hong Kong for the first time.  My very good friend who was living and working in China gave us more than a few surprises during that five day trip.  Besides developing nearly fluent Mandarin in less than six months, he introduced us to this very peculiar beer.

It’s safe to say that Samichlaus is one of the strongest beers in the world.  It can’t compete with some of the very high ABV (alcohol by volume) offerings that BrewDog, Boston Beer Company and Dogfish Head have put out in the past few years, but it certainly still packs a very strong punch with a 14% ABV. Samichlaus, which means Santa Claus, is brewed once a year on St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6th).  It doesn’t taste like a typical beer for the folks out there who are accustomed to drinking “light beers” like Lagers, Pilseners, and such.  Officially a Doppelbock, I would describe the taste as leaning towards a Sherry or Port Wine.

The strongest beers that most breweries conjure up stop at 12% ABV.  Most brewer’s yeast goes to “sleep” at 12% ABV, that is the conversion of malt sugars into alcohol by yeast hits a wall at 12% ABV.  According to the beer historian Roger Protz’s research, the brewery’s researchers and scientists worked for several decades to culture a strain of yeast that would continue to work its magic past 12%.  In 1979, the new yeast culture was used to make a very special Christmas beer.  For over 30 years, Samichlaus has created quite a buzz.

After finishing a second round of Samichlaus, I knew my beer palate was forever transformed and I subsequently threw in the towel for the night.  Thank you, Santa and Master Wah for introducing me to a world of much better beer.

For more info on Samichlaus, visit