The Bar at Venture Cafe @ CIC: Research

In her first blog post, our new bar manager, Amy, whom you will see more of – both in the Cafe and on this blog, discusses the trip that she and I made this past Saturday to the American Craft Beer Fest, organized by our local beer enthusiasts at the Beer Advocate. We were doing serious research for future draught beer choices for the cafe. Since we are prototyping, we’d like to see what our consumers prefer, even (or maybe especially) in beer. We had a preference to try 1) local (meaning mostly New England), 2) easy drinking (i.e., lower alcohol, and usually lighter ales and lagers), and 3) ones that were fun to say, which usually means they’ll be a conversation starter, another good thing for our audience!

And now over to Amy!

…Carrie took the words right out of my mouth (er, fingers) when she wrote that our Mission at the American Craft Beer Fest began as a very serious research project directed to identifying the best local craft beers to serve to our guests.  In fact, as we attempted to enter the doors on the ground floor of the Seaport World Trade Center, we were advised, very seriously, to walk to the end of the approximately half mile long line that led to the doors of the second floor.  Thus we were left to sun ourselves while forming the optimal strategy for screening – as professionals – as many of the 400+ beers as possible for our very discerning guests.

Armed with the Fest program, map, plastic tasting cups and pens for diligent note-taking, Carrie and I strode confidently into the Hall… and stopped.  Our sunny and very serious strategy session had not prepared us for the actual experience of Beer Fest: brewery booths with both tried-and-true and completely unfamiliar names beckoned, lines of beer enthusiasts streamed from the booths’ kegs, cries of happiness and disappointment interrupted the loud hum of background conversation, and most pungently, the scent of fresh beer wafted throughout the hall, bringing forth long-forgotten memories of college fraternity basements.  After a brief but very serious restrategizing session (should we take the time to wait in long lines for popular beers?  should we hit our favorites first?  should we methodologically taste from booth to booth in lines around the hall?), we headed through the guzzling crowds to Cape Ann Brewing Company.

The line for Cape Ann boasted about 25 fans, but it was not long before we stood before the kegs to order our Fisherman’s Brew (American Amber Lager) and Fisherman’s Ale (Kolsch).  It was at the Cape Ann booth that I learned how difficult it was to take notes directed to my tastes while tasting the beer.  Suffice to say that I, a completely sober professional, spilled 3/4 of my Brew while I stood on one leg using the other as a writing surface.  While I consequently have no notes on this first taste, we felt sufficiently positive about the Fisherman’s Brew to order it for Thursday’s Venture Cafe!

The next booth presented us with a new very serious strategy: follow the cool logos.  Element Brewing Company beckoned to us with its chemical formula logo.  We agreed that our Venture Cafe guests would appreciate the obvious dedication to science and technology displayed by this brewer.  We stood, I with my Dark Matter, and Carrie with her Red Giant, to toast the excellent taste of these Massachusetts beers.  The Dark Matter hit the tongue as a combination of a German-style black lager laced with the floral profile of an IPA, resulting in a smooth toffee taste.  Carrie’s Red Giant indeed showed its deep ruby color through her plastic glass, and offered a complex tasting experience involving caramel sweetness partnered with hop bitterness.  We both drained our glasses and carefully noted our observations.

Directly across the way stood the New England Brewing Company booth, which a beer connaisseur friend of mine had recommended.  The booth offered the additional draw of a brew called “668 Neighbor of the Beast,” which I remarked would be fun for me to say to guests.  Alas, the brewers’ supply of 668 did not meet demand, so Carrje asked for the Atlantic Amber – caramel sweet and rich – while I watched my Elm City Lager – all German pilsner malts and hops – fall into my cup.   It occurred to us at this juncture that it might be advisable to refrain from drinking ALL the beer we were served, especially if we were not all that keen on it, if we aimed to remain very serious in our assessments.  Ascertaining a very serious lack of conventional spittoons, we poured our dregs into buckets placed under the water jugs for leaks and dutifully continued our research.

Despite diligent attempts at very serious note-taking, the next few beer booths blend together in my memory.  We found Otter Creek’s Stovepipe Porter and Solstice brews to be very drinkable but unlikely to be great conversation starters.  The Trinity Russian Imperial Stout, from Rhode Island, tasted dark and rich, but finished with a bit too much hoppy bitterness for my taste.  On a whim, I tried the Opa-Opa Watermelon Ale, which contained the perfect amount of watermelon crispness for my tiny cup, but I couldn’t imagine finishing of an entire pint of it.  The Mayflower Porter tasted too smokey for my palate, but those who enjoy strong coffee and chocolate overtones would enjoy it.  Cody Brewing Company’s Wheeler Oatmeal Brown (American Brown Ale), I thought, provided an excellent beer for those who like their beer to hit the bitter taste buds at the back of the tongue.  I tasted Defiant’s “Defiant Little Thumper” because I imagined it would be fun to say, but thought it also might taste too bitter for our guests.  Carrie’s Defiant Belgian Style (Tripel), however, proved to be quite tasty, although on the high side in alcohol content (9%).  Duck-Rabbit’s optical illusion logo and large selection of dark beers enticed both Carrie and me to the booth, where we found the Duck-Rabbit Milk Stout to be pleasingly smooth and nutty.

Three highlights occurred toward the end of our journey through the Fest, one expected and two not.  I stopped at an unfamiliar Colorado brewery called Oskar Blues and tried the Old Chub Scottish Ale, which sat darkly in my cup and made its sweet presence known on the front of my tongue before smoothing out the back and traveling down the hatch.  McNeill’s Brewery, down from Vermont, poured an excellent Tartan (Scotch Ale), also with the just the right balance of sweetness and smoothness, and perhaps the tastiest “Warlord DIPA” (Double IPA) I have ever consumed.  Both McNeill brews, new to me, earned very serious and haphazardly-written stars on my program.

We arrived at the Pretty Things booth late, having postponed it a few times due to long lines.  Carrie and I were familiar with Jack D’Or, having served it previously at Venture Cafe to great acclaim, but planned to explore the brand further.  The server filled my cup with Babayaga (what professional wouldn’t love to say that continuously over a period of five hours?!), a brew that tasted sweet and smokey at the same time, and earned two messy stars penned into my program.  Carrie’s Saint Botolph’s Town (Rustic Yorkshire Brown Ale) similarly did not disappoint, with black malt flavor finished with an ale tartness, and likely pleasing to a crowd.

After Pretty Things, Carrie and I noticed that people stared and cocked their heads when we paused to take notes.  In fact, most staggered around the hall and must have forgotten their pens somewhere.  Acquaintances even abandoned their lines to ridicule us, teasing that our very professional manner at the Fest could be interpreted as very unprofessional.  We, however, had committed to finding the very best beers for our guests, which entailed very serious documentation of our consumption.  As the lights dimmed for Last Call, Carrie and I emptied our cups, stepped outside, and began our very unserious night on the town.

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