Modeled after the long-running yearly event in Philadelphia, a singular beer event in New York started somewhat slowly, hosted by an enterprising bar, Mugs Alehouse, on the corner of Bedford Avenue and North 10th Street in Williamsburg. Long before good beer bars had started popping up weekly around town, and long before the hipsters descended on Brooklyn, Mugs was one of the few beer outposts in Brooklyn worth leaving Manhattan for. And typically the first weekend in March — a slightly-belated birthday gift to me each year — Mugs would convert all its taps to unusually strong beer for a couple of afternoons.
It’s also a good excuse for good friends from somewhat near the area to come in and enjoy a weekend of casual drinking, reconnecting, and roaming Brooklyn in search of tasty food and interesting beer. So it was that a few of us locals mingled with friends in from as far away as Buffalo and New Hampshire.
With everything as five-ounce pours, it makes more sense to get a couple apiece and share them around the table if they’re worth sharing. We sat at the tables on the raised area inside the door, so we had a waitress bringing us lots of little snifters all afternoon.
My first two selections. On the left, Highway 78 Scotch Ale, a collaboration brew from three of the stalwarts of the Southern California: Stone, Green Flash and Pizza Port Carlsbad. At 8.8%, this was one of the weakest beers of the day. Slightly smoky, I was pleased with how this beer stayed clean and focused on the malt.
To the right, the Goose Island Imperial Brown Goose (11%), an amped-up brown ale aged in a bourbon barrel from the (normally) spot-on Chicago brewery. Yeah, it’s pretty murky, and on top of that, it had lost all the character of the base beer, and tasted only like sweetened bourbon. Not terribly pleasant, but there are always a few mediocrities in the sea of beers to try.
Oooh, a trio of beers ordered by others: In front, the Allagash Burnham Road smoked ale (7.4%) and Mikkeller From Via To (8%), a spiced porter, with the Captain Lawrence Golden Delicious (10%) behind. The Burnham Road disappointed with how boring and bland it turned out (a rare misstep for the Belgian specialists from Maine), while the Danish Mikkeller was as good as expected — and nearly as inexpensive in a bar as in the bottle on store shelves — rich and roasty, a little spicy, and fortunately, none of the algae listed as an ingredient showed up where anyone could taste it.
The Captain Lawrence Golden Delicious was surely one of the best beers any of us tasted that day. It’s their popular Belgian-style Extra Gold aged in applejack barrels, and they have really dialed in the proper ratio of beer to alcohol flavor contributions in this batch. A wonderful sipping beer bursting with fresh apple and a little heat, mellowed by the time spent aging. It’s quite available right now in bottles, too.
And we come to the “dare” portion of the day. First, we’ll be nice to the Coronado Red Devil (10.7%), a stronger version of the brewery’s “Mermaid’s Red”, and a well-balanced Imperial Red Ale if ever I’ve tasted one. Bracingly hoppy, with a big malty, not very sweet, backbone that ties this beer together well. Another favorite on the day.
That one on the right, kind of the color of a lane ball at the bowling alley? Yeah, that’s White Birch, an infamous “nanobrewery” from New Hampshire. I seriously have over a dozen friends whose palates I trust, who have used all sorts of adjectives to describe tasting beer from here. None of those adjectives were positive, and most are unprintable. Of course I had to get the White Birch Oak Aged Tripel (11.6%), described in the program as “Belgian esters and light fruit notes meld with vanilla and oak”. What we got instead? The most apt descriptor was “Orangina lambic”. More specifically? Sour cantaloupe, vegetable soda, dish soap, a rancid creamsicle… really, this beer had no merit whatsoever. This is apparently par for the course from White Birch, though, and makes me question the ability of the brewer to actually smell or taste. I had to try it myself to believe it. It’s a shame, because I hear the brewer is a really nice guy.
So we had to dip back into better beer after that atrocity. Harpoon brewed Leviathan (9%) on the left, an Imperial Pilsner-style beer that was pleasant and smooth, without much of the hop character I’d rather feel in such a beer but clean nonetheless; and the oldest beer on tap at the festival, a 1999 Dogfish Head Immort Ale (at least 11%), which, while oxidized, really held up well and could probably go another few years without falling apart.
Running out of beers on tap we felt were worth trying, we settled for the Flying Dog Imperial Porter, brewed in 2005, and the newly-released Sierra Nevada Hoptimum, an Imperial IPA. The Flying Dog (9.2%) held up… not so well, as it was a little sour and flat. Quite odd, but still drinkable. Hoptimum (10.4%) pleasantly surprised me, though, with enough of a hop bitterness to nearly get this beer as unbalanced as I like with IIPAs (but not quite). It’s one of the better ones available in New York, even if it’s fairly pricey on the shelves.
As happens at Split Thy Skull, many people brought bottles of interesting beer and (in my friend’s case) mead, sometimes hard to get here, sometimes old, sometimes ridiculously old. MM, for instance, brought a smoked mead from Moonlight Meadery, and it was… well, it was excellent, just the right touch of smokiness with the residual sweetness. Another group shared a Jester’s King beer that was a roasty beauty.
Fish brought along this Fuller’s Reserve, gifted by a friend in England. Obviously we just had a little sample each in order that everyone could enjoy it, so I wouldn’t give it a full review beyond it being a perfect warming sipper which didn’t overpower with the whiskey, just as I prefer.
Then the back and forth started. Phil pulled out Ithaca Le Bleu, a sour beer aged on blueberries; this is just a powerfully tart, sour magnificent, and magnificently rarely seen, beer. Eddie, the bar owner, started dragging out older bottles of beer to match the stuff being passed around, including three small bottles of Anchor Old Foghorn barleywine from 1995, and eventually, this bottle of 1988 J.W. Lees Vintage Harvest Ale, an annual release very commonly aged but so difficult not to consume too early. This rich, viscous beer was a tasty bit of history.
Naturally, there was a second day, and MM insisted we return. Okay, it was always going to happen, so after a breakfast of smoked North Country bacon — just no desire to whip up the potatoes and eggs that accompanied it the day before — we headed through the rain to try the Sunday lineup. Yes, almost a completely different set of beers awaited Sunday Mugs-goers.
First up on Sunday, the Goose Island Night Stalker stout (11.7%) and local brewery Brooklyn’s Detonation, best described as an “Imperial pale ale”. The Night Stalker was a winner, with classic winey oxidative notes, a big, roasty finish, and a loss of a lot of the original hoppiness (since it was probably a year or so old).
The Detonation was as advertised, with a big floral, citrusy aroma and blisteringly bitter coating of the palate from the “blend of American hops”. But other than the massive citrus and perfuminess, there was no depth from the malt to match the bitterness. Nice to try it, though.
Next: Mikkeller Big Worse (12%), a standard American barleywine brewed by the Danes, and on the right, Founders Nemesis, billed as a massively hoppy American barleywine with a big roasty flavor. The Mikkeller managed to balance its barleywine very nicely, not overly hopped nor overly caramelly or sweet from the malt. It’s a shame it’s so expensive, usually.
The boys from Michigan managed something completely different but to me, at least as good. The Nemesis had a slightly sour, plummy, cherrylike flavor to it, and quite a bit of raspberry to boot. And it managed to keep the abundantly hoppy bitterness. But… where did the normal big, somewhat caramelly malt backbone go? Clearly it was off, but it was off in a good way. To me. Most of my friends disagreed. Forget them.
In between these, I sampled a few other beers floating about. Stone Brewing decided to throw some Belgian yeast in their barleywine to see what happened. And, actually, it didn’t mess it up — the Belgian character worked well with the American hops (a common theme in brewing the last several years) and the big malty backbone didn’t suffer from the abuse, either. The Hercule Stout (9%), the original Belgian Stout, was just as remembered, and while it isn’t a favorite style of mine, the beer delivered a nice roasty, off-kilter punch to the tastebuds.
Last of the unpictured, and rather least, White Birch had another entry on Sunday, the Indulgence Ale, purportedly a 9.2% dark Imperial porter-y, stout-y thing. Hard to screw up one of those, right? Yeah, this one was thin, burnt-tasting, and sour all at the same time. Simply unpleasant, but hey, it wasn’t as awful as that thing from Saturday!
One more tap, because I like to talk about one of my favorite breweries in the country. Victory Brewing has been making beer for 15 years, and I’ve been drinking them almost exactly the same length of time. They brew a ton of kickass lagers from their digs in Downingtown, PA (about a half hour west of Philadelphia), but they nail most other styles as well. One of my favorites? The annual release of Old Horizontal, their American barleywine. (Yes, I drank a few barleywines on Sunday.)
This being the 2009 vintage, one might expect it to show its age. One would be correct. While the hop punch had died considerably, it still provided a little citrus in every sip, if not the nose, with a rich, full mouthfeel from the slightly caramel-flavored malt backbone. Quite a pleasant little sipper to round out my sampling for the day. After all, we had other places to go.
But not before, in our time-honored tradition, we bid adieu to the strong beers by enjoying pints of the normal-strength Smuttynose IPA, a slightly-astringent, roughly bitter, altogether tasty beer from the good folks in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A real refresher, the IPA capped a couple of stellar drinking days at Mugs.
I always enjoy these events more for the people than the beer itself, but really, that’s how it should be. A lot of new beers sampled, old favorites revisited, and friendships rekindled over a weekend, that’s a pretty solid win in my book. Mugs does similar-style event periodically during the year, and it’s worth keeping a lookout for them. Enjoy what you’re drinking!