BEER-STAINED SPRINGTIME TRAVELOGUE BEGINS AT CHELSEA PIERS

On a brisk weekday night, before heading over to nearby Highline Ballroom to catch DeVotchKa’s unique brand of Eastern European-influenced indie folk, I took the short walk over to Pier 59 for a few choice beers at Chelsea Brewing. During this March 2011 layover, the trusty Manhattan watering hole provided some much-needed warmth as I retried a debonair wheat wine and became newly acquainted with a spot-on American pale ale.

While conversing with a few boat owners complaining about high gasoline prices affecting their seafaring ways, we watched college basketball’s Sweet Sixteen from our prime seats at the elongated half-moon wooden bar. Thankfully, the bartender ignored requests to put that dreadful American Idol program on any one of the eight TV screens stretched across Chelsea’s perimeters. And as the two-floored pub filled up with mainstream dinner patrons, the back tables overflowed with many young families, one of whom was celebrating a little girl’s birthday. I like the fact these seemingly normal folks chose the Big Apple’s only true brewpub to bring the kids. Meanwhile, core drinkers at the bar pounded the very popular Black Hole Stout.

Black Sabbath’s chilling metal scamper “Paranoid” proved to be quite apropos blasting through the capacious wharf space while the winds gusting off the Hudson River kicked dust at the back windows. A few nearby golfers at the driving range next door wore hats and coats trying to beat the chill.

Supper tonight, a tasty spiced chicken salad, went well with the wine-y winter warmer that’d perfectly contrast the cold weather outside. A resilient barleywine-like treat, Frosty’s Wheat Wine seeped woody hop dryness into sweet dark-spiced fruited malts, convivially mingling an apple-jacked, ginger-breaded cinnamon tingle with bruised cherry, sugared fig and candied orange. A tropical pineapple, peach, banana and mango subsidy perked up the estimable champagne yeast sparkle grazing the twiggy bark-seared currant-juniper bittering.

As Duke faced off against Arizona in the basketball tourney (ultimately losing in upset fashion), I began quaffing creamy moderate-bodied seduction, Alpha 5 APA. Crafted by local homebrewer Ray Girard, its buttery crystal malting draped expansive, dry-wooded, lemon seed bittering, epitomizing Frosty’s like-minded hop-spiced, currant-juniper conflux on the backend.

So it seems the loss of championed brewer Chris Sheehan to Newark’s Port 44 Brewery has not negatively affected the creative depth and fulsome character of Chelsea’s wonderful beer selection. New head brewer Mark Szmaida, has kept the quality beers coming, faultlessly combined the old with the new.

WEYERBACHER NIGHT RINGS IN SPRING

A few days after the latest Chelsea stopover, I re-revisited Andy’s Corner Bar for “Weyerbacher Night,” held Wednesday, March 30. This was a truly special night with the crowd overflowing all the way to the small round table near the back men’s room. That’s where I consumed a few previously untried Weyerbacher pints before heading to the bar to polish off smaller portions of a few lemony tart ales, plus a smoked ale I’d only had bottled.

The pride of Easton, Pennsylvania, Weyerbacher Brewing Company has been in business since 1995. Founder Dan Weirback’s slogan quickly became “Pushing the envelope of taste experience, obliterating style guidelines, and having a blast.”

Tonight at Andy’s Corner Bar, kindly Weyerbacher sales manager Natalie DeChico plays host to lurking minions hovering over 10 taps and two cask-conditioned ales her Keystone State brewery graciously provided. Showing off her vast knowledge, DeChico offered succinct beer profiles and explained how cask conditioning’s an art form that must be done correctly so the barrel aging doesn’t overpower flavor.

Though I didn’t sample tapped versions of fabulous Merry Monks Tripel and Blithering Idiot Barleywine this dusky evening, bottled versions are completely revelatory—some of the most dynamic brews made anywhere (rated 5 stars at my site, beermelodies.com). Luckily, I found time to return the next afternoon to quaff both. But let’s stick to tonight’s offerings for now.

Originally brewed in 2007 for a small batch series, the tapped version of Weyerbacher Slam Dunkel boasted richer fruited depth. Purple grape, Merlot and burgundy illusions, plus the faintest banana-clove suggestion, topped a dirty-grained earthiness coarsened by briskly assertive hop sharpness.

Gaining permanent seasonal status, Weyerbacher Fireside Smoked Dark Ale brought about slightly better beechwood smokiness and kiln-fired cedar nuances on tap. Still a tad understated, its mild Scotch malt sweetening contrasted slight Band-Aid astringency.

Getting cozy at the bar, I settled in next to a demonstrative Creedence Clearwater Revival fan from Brooklyn. We drank Weyerbacher Vertboten Belgian Pale Ale as he mocked me for not fully comprehending the specifics of plato degrees affecting beer gravity. On tap, Verboten retained a crisp lemony grapefruit theme above peppery Cascade-Centennial hop fizzing, herbal tea meditation and reclining rosemary-thyme spicing. Its undercoated honeyed malt sweetness caressed subsidiary hard-candied peach, pineapple and banana illusions.

In hand-pumped cask version, Specialty Verboten mimicked a medicinal lemon-candied herbal elixir with its lively citric tartness, charitable chamomile center, reliable mint-y eucalyptus freshness and speckled rosemary-thyme niche. Sublime red licorice undertones contrasted mild green tea bittering at the backend.

Also benefiting from an herbal citrus motif, Weyerbacher Oscar Hoppy Weiss segued from sun-dried, grassy-hopped alfalfa, whey and wheatgrass earthiness to lemon-bruised saffron spicing.

But the most dynamic potion may’ve been given to a developmental beer with a solid base. Weyerbacher Test Batch IPA #3743 caught some off-guard, with snubbing comments that it had been too bitter, tannic or unbalanced. But I digress.

This well-rounded India Pale Ale thrust forth with tenacious bark-dried, orange-peeled, grapefruit bittering and wild blueberry rancor. Mid-palate peach, apple and pineapple fruiting radiantly contrasted the biting currant-juniper sharpness augmenting fungi-bound rosebud, lavender and saffron nuances.

In my three-hour sojourn, the two TVs cornering the bar were never turned on. Everyone’s so content just soaking up the suds.

I’d return to Andy’s at 2 p.m. the following day with ol’ pal Dennis Flubacher to consume two perfect, full-bodied beers left untouched by my lips the previous eve. As we sipped Weyerbacher Insanity (a bold bourbon-barreled barleywine with brandied cherry glazing chewy caramel malts), we put on the TV just in time for the Yankees to take the lead on a Mark Teixeira opening day three-run homer in the sixth.

We chatted with Andy’s proprietors Barbara and George Grey as the Yanks brought in the bullpen to beat the Tigers. Dennis and I then settled into another savory bourbon-barreled delight. Illustriously rich Imperial Stout Weyerbacher Heresy dripped oaken vanilla atop creamy molasses-sapped dark chocolate, wine-soaked dried fruit and luxuriant liqueur spicing.

Later on, I chatted with DeChico via phone about Easton-based Weyerbacher Brewing Company’s past history and future brews. Learning about brewing from her father, who’d let her stir the wort as a child while concocting English Brown Ales, IPAs and Irish Red Ales, the Langhorne native joined local home brewer meetings, getting to understand the business better by bartending in Bucks County. She was substitute teaching when a rep position opened up at Weyerbacher, one of PA’s best craft breweries alongside Victory and Troegs.

“I was already very familiar with Weyerbacher’s line of beers and had befriended a few reps,” DeChico says. “In ’93, Dan and Sue Weirback, looked to start the business. Visiting Vermont microbreweries peaked their interests. They became passionate about brewing and started in a barn stable, making an ESB and Pale Ale, basic sessionable beers. It didn’t initially take off. Then, a few Big Beers changed all that. Weyerbacher Raspberry Imperial Stout, at 8 percent alcohol, was shockingly strong at the time. People loved it. Then, they concentrated on Weyerbacher Blithering Idiot Barleywine—another bold beer. Soon after, Weyerbacher Merry Monk’s Belgian Golden Tripel, at 9.3 percent alcohol, gained acceptance.”

She admits Test Batch IPA #3743 will probably be tweaked a bit to better represent a mellow, malt-darkened, English-styled India Pale Ale that’s not as heavily hopped as bitterer citrus-pined West Coast versions. And she let on what’s new going on at Weyerbacher.

Though secretive about newly brewed Weyerbacher Papa’s stylistic designation, DeChico maintains that every three months hereafter there’ll be a freshly marketed libation. Excepting the 16th Anniversary Ale (available July 2011), each newly introduced beer will follow the military alphabet code (as per Oscar and Papa and their 14th predecessors back to Verboten’s earliest incarnation as Alpha Belgian Ale).

DeChico kids: “Maybe the next one will be Que-bock.”

I counter: “How about a resinous Northwest-originated, Cascadian Dark Ale named Quebec. Richer than an IPA and darker, too, it would fit the cold weather climate with its brisk robustness and wintry noir appearance.”

As for the 16th Anniversary Ale, it’ll be a dark braggot with 30 percent honey that skirts ‘mead’ labeling due to its 70 percent malt sweetness (instead of grape wining).

“We’re working with local honey farms to find the correct wildflower or buckwheat honey for the braggot,” she concludes.

Seasoned Weyerbacher aficionados will be happy to know another fine oak-barreled ale, Blasphemy, is making a comeback in 750-milliliter bottles (following a three-year layoff). Another fine bourbon-aged ale, this 11 percent alcohol quadrupel blends cherry Kirsch, creamy vanilla and brown-sugared molasses illusions with rum-spiced, cognac-brandy-whiskey boozing.

Presently, Weyerbacher’s markets six year-round offerings and nine-plus seasonals. But there are always a few one-off surprises thrown in for hardcore ‘brewpies’ and beer geeks.

DEFIANT BREWING SETS AWHIRL PEARL RIVER

Since I live in Ramsey, a few miles across the Jersey border, meritorious Rockland County watering hole Defiant Brewing Company provides the perfect local retreat. And it’s absolutely unique—going one step beyond tap beers by serving a ridiculously large assortment of fresh beers straight from serving tanks! Opened since 2006, this Pearl River-based brick warehoused pub has poured me over two-dozen different beers on ten separate occasions. They even bottle a few nifty li’l numbers such as spicy seasonal Defiant Christmas Ale and herbal yellow-fruited, floral-hopped tripel Defiant Bear Mountain Ale for regional liquor and grocery stores.

Head brewer Neill Acer is a historic figure in these parts. In the late ‘90s, this huskily bearded zymorgist crafted beer for Suffern’s now defunct Ramapo Valley Brewpub. He then headed to Manhattan’s West End Brewery before settling at Defiant.

But wait. There’s more! Besides manning the tanks for Defiant nowadays, Acer does double duty brewing a totally separate line of beers for Peekskill Brewery (approximately a half-hour north across the Bear Mountain Bridge).

After celebrating Weyerbacher Night almost a fortnight ago, I once again drifted off to Defiant. Known for decades as New York State’s best place for vibrant neighborhood saloons, the quaint village of Pearl River didn’t totally embrace the idea of a brewpub until Acer’s remarkable libations won over eagerly awaiting patrons. And he had to succeed over a certain timeframe or perish because within walking distance are Parkside Tavern, Marty’s Public House, Horse & Jockey and a place that’s seemingly the size of these three establishments put together with just the word ‘SALOON’ etched across its frontage. For Christ’s sake, there’s even a bar at the railroad station directly across from Defiant called South Bend Café & Bar. Now here’s a town that likes its liquor on time!

But Defiant faced a rough start, since some of the beer bars thought a successful craft brewery would take away business. Contrarily, these local operations continue to thrive despite 2008’s swindling mortgage-backed security recession.

On this early March evening, I conversed with self-published novelist Stephen Roberts whilst consuming two more commendable concoctions previously untried. Firstly, Defiant 3 Finger Imperial India Pale Ale suited bold hopheads with its dry woody-hopped, grapefruit-peeled, juniper-like bitterness lacquering floral-spiced, pineapple-juiced, peach-apricot-apple fruitiness. Less piney and alcohol-smitten than previously ventured Defiant Medusa IPA, its sharply amplified bite never disrupted the tropical nectars.

I’m sure Acer would be the first to tell you he’s a huge fan of deeply roasted full-bodied beers that are as big and brawny as the man is in stature. Even his Defiant Muddy Creek Lager, a simpler stylized session beer, brings forth more illusionary nuances than your average run-of-the-mill lager. I’d already tried four of Acer’s expressive Defiant-brewed stouts (plus the robust chocolate-creamed tobacco-chewed oats-seared Vanilla Bourbon Stout and the coffee-roasted, oats-smoked, raisin-pureed Sally Sweeney’s Oatmeal Raisin Stout he formulated for Peekskill Brewery).

And now I’d become familiarized with the smoothly flowing Irish-styled O’Defiant Stout. In the same vein as espresso-milked Dry Irish Stout (sans some wood-charred brusqueness) and less creamy than maple-sapped Da Oaty Oatmeal Stout, its dry coffee-espresso theme, dark chocolate resilience, black licorice remnant and black cherry trifle received a clean-watered soothe that wouldn’t intimidate softer palates as a casual easy-drinking crossover.

Omitting the cocoa-dried, dark fruiting of equally approachable Stephano’s Stout, pushing aside the ashen charcoal astringency and sharp walnut shelling of coffee bean-defined Long Shadow Stout, and eliminating the hickory-smoked, peat-whiskey motif elevating Defiant Stout Of War, the congenial O’Defiant’s subtle hop-roasted backdrop ethereally buttressed its eminent mocha resonation.

As Defiant filled up with a few dozen regulars by dusk, my seat at the front of the brewery suddenly became enveloped by an eclectic array of young and old men and women, proof of the brewers’ diverse customer base. And though I headed home to eat eggplant parmigiana with family, I’ll soon be back for the slow-smoked brisket, pulled pork, ribs and cheeses, slowly infiltrating the growing menu. They ought to go well alongside Acer’s proud liquid offerings.

Cheers.

It is recommended that beer geeks and rock freaks go to John Fortunato’s website, beermelodies.com, for recommendations and salutations.

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