Beer Trails: Freaktoberfest Kicks Serious Ass

An eclectic array of hardened beer enthusiasts converged at popular Park Slope, Brooklyn, music club Southpaw to try some of the best offerings ever available under one roof. From the righteously stylized to the diligently experimental, Freaktoberfest 2011 had something for everyone this breezy Friday evening. Trendy Black IPA’s and sour ales generally took a backseat to prodigious dark ales, autumnal pumpkin-spiced concoctions and some frolicking, fruited fare.

As expected, the real story here at the third annual Freaktoberfest had to be the contagiously incessant do-it-yourself spirit of Shmaltz Brewery host Jeremy Cowan, whose two successful product lines (Shmaltz’s expansive Hebrew series and the ensuing sideshow-inspired Coney Island lagers) habitually astound ardent beer geeks. Selling over 10 million beers since ’96, Cowan’s bi-coastal contract brewing company has regaled San Francisco and New York City and many cities in-between from its auspicious inception ‘til now.

Another seasoned DIY-spirited maverick perusing Southpaw at this gathering was Gotham Imbiber web host Alex Hall, a ‘real ale’ fanatic, promoting not only cask conditioned libations but also a new Massachusetts brewery whose inspirational English-styled ale got the party started for yours truly. I immediately make my way through the crowded front hall at around 7 p.m. with fellow beer enthusiast Dennis Flubacher.

Making me feel like a privileged rock star, New York City Homebrewers Guild President Chris Cuzme recognizes me upon entering and welcomes us to the main open area post-haste. Now lobbying for Massachusetts’ newly operational Wandering Star Brewery, the long-time beer maven (and professional musician) proudly serves us samples of the perfectly rounded Wandering Star Mild At Hearta creamy schwarzbier-like English dark mild with crystal-malted dried fruiting and caramel-burnt chocolate spicing.

“There were three licenses supposedly readied for brewers,” Cuzme says as we work our way over to the opposite side of the table to quaff Two Brothers Heavy Handed IPA, a wet-hopped dry body with peach, pear, orange and tangerine fruiting emanating from Illinois. “But Massachusetts’ ridiculously antiquated laws could be a drawback to getting a brewery started. The state changed the way to determine what qualifies as a farmhouse brewery. Sam Adams and Harpoon qualified previously. At court, we argued that growing hops and barley on premises should let us qualify.”

Opened June, 2011, Wandering Star’s all-star crew includes above-mentioned cask ale expert Alex Hall, whom I didn’t get to speak to even though our elbows rubbed during dangling conversations.

Between sips Cuzme declares, “We’re really proud of our traditional mild ale. We try to give our beers extreme flavor without extreme alcohol. At the moment, we’re working on a Lemongrass Wit brewed with cardamom and lemongrass. Then, there’s a spelt-grained Saison and an Alpha Pale Ale that hasn’t been tapped.”

After cheering it up with Cuzme, Dennis and I head downstairs to the dank catacomb-like cellar, where a copper-topped corner bar serves a cornucopia of fascinating bottled beers and Shmaltz’s latest one-time seasonal, Geektoberfest Sour Brown Ale. A vinous, cherry-soured, raspberry-tart, grape-dried, high-octane ale made in coordination with respected New York brewers Captain Lawrence and Ithaca, its elegant bourbon theme caressed chocolate-malted marzipan sweetness and ginger-spiced, fig-raisin tartness.

A few previously untried libations that were bottled got examined next. The collaborative Shmaltz/Terrapin Reunion Ale ‘11, a succulent Imperial Brown Ale with advertised chili-peppered cocoa nibs and vanilla adjuncts, retained a creamy chocolate-milked Kahlua, coconut and chocolate cake sweetness. Dry-hopped Belgian-styled golden ale The Bruery Mischief used sour brettanomyces yeast to punctuate the farmhouse-wafted, basil-thyme seasoning and lemon-rotted bittering of this persuasive Californian. Pretty Things Baby Tree, cleverly formulated herbal-spiced, citric-hopped, floral-accented Massachusetts-based ale replicated Belgium’s finest Abbey quadrupels.

As we trek back to the main floor, the crowd has doubled in size, but the sampling tables are still easily accessible. I finally get the chance to try a few of Greenport Harbor’s well balanced, eager-to-please brews. The newest Long Island-based brewery to pop up since 2009 (alongside Great South Bay and Barrier) proved it’s not necessary to make only ‘big beers’ for snooty aficionados. Greenport’s Harbor Ale brought crisp Amarillo-hopped wood dryness to light, wheat-cracked dried citrus bittering. Leaf Pile Pumpkin Ale’s creamy, cinnamon-toasted pumpkin pie sweetness contrasted leafy hop foliage above allspice-cardamom-nutmeg spicing. Black Duck Porter wrangled cocoa-powdered, soy-milked black chocolate creaminess out of brown-sugared grain toasting and dark-roasted hops.

Next table over, I found a few herbal-spiced Belgian-styled pleasantries. Sour-fruited Saison farmhouse ale Sly Fox Grisette Summer Ale may’ve bettered the equally upscale citric pepper-spiced Empire Golden Dragon (a Belgian golden ale utilizing garden-grown Thai basil).

Excitedly, I encounter the Shmaltz homebrewer table to taste a few one-of-a-kind ‘gypsy brews.’ These so-called gypsy brews, generally local craft beers with no permanent home base made at the whim of adventurous zymurgists, prove the entrepreneurial American spirit hasn’t died yet.

A true gypsy brewer, Jeremy Goldberg started up Cape Ann Brewing Company in 2004. Last year, the Gloucester, Massachusetts, company presented a musty, caramel-glazed pumpkin beer that had Freaktoberfest ’10 patrons dazzled at Brooklyn’s smaller Rock Shop venue. This year, Goldberg brought down an eccentric potion known as Cape Ann Fisherman Tea Party, a fig-dried, ESB-like barleywine with earthen hops and smoked peat malting appeasing black and green tea adjuncts.

Next up was Smuttynose’s latest edition to its established Big Beer Series, a casually splendid Belgian IPA dubbed Homunculus. Its tart lemony orange tang lingered through apple, apricot and pear fruiting as well as earthen grassy-hopped leathering and floral jasmine-honeysuckle herbage. Nearly as rewarding and not far removed taste-wise, Smuttynose Finest Kind IPA saddled its mild woody-hopped, grapefruit-peeled bittering with bright peach, pear and orange rind illusions that grazed a leathery alfalfa-hay earthiness.

Shmaltz loves to promote home brewers. And a few scored high. The most ‘active’ amateur brewer at this evening’s event may’ve been Fritz Fernow, whose cool website,, features a Beerography and Beerjoints section. His Shmaltz-sponsored Horny Ryenocerous Rye IPA was aimed at “people who like to geek out on hops,” Fernow claims.

“There’s Chinook and Magnum bittering hops. Then, for flavoring, Centennial hops were used. Aroma hops include Citra and more Centennial. Then it’s dry-hopped with Simcoe and Amarillo,” the cordial Fernow explained like a well-versed pro. For me, the final product loaded lemony grapefruit rind bitterness atop caramel-roasted crystal rye malts.

Also worth investigation was Zomerfest, a homebrewed Dutch twist on a German ale. Its crisp lemony entry and almond-toasted easement picked up citric-floral nuances from Sorachi Ace hops, leaving a nifty gin and tonic finish.

For dessert, I choose a tremendous cocktail-like elixir from a tiny Detroit suburb and a magnanimous barrel-aged tonic celebrating Shmaltz’s 15th anniversary.

I’d met the Kuhnhenn family (father Eric and sons Eric and Brett) at their intimate Warren, Michigan, brewery several times in the past. And it was great to have them here in New York, even if they didn’t know where their serving table was assembled. Though I did find Kuhnhenn’s station unmanned, a leather-jacketed dude thankfully started pouring Dennis and I a few samples of the excellent Kuhnhenn Extraneous Ale. Months of aging changed the profile, complexion and complexity of this wonderful ‘big beer.’ While its original tapped version provided a heady bourbon piquancy and Cassis-like blackberry curdle, tonight’s vintage tasted like a Mai Tai with its coconut-pineapple conflux, caramelized whiskey malting and candied apple sash.

Lastly, the stimulating Shmaltz Genesis 15:15 Barrel-Aged Barleywine gave its pomegranate-juiced fig, date and Concord grape adjuncts a fantastic rye whiskey malting atop smoky hop roasting. Red-wined chocolate liqueur, Kahlua, and brown chocolate illusions settled beneath the profound dried fruiting, finishing like an awesomely full-bodied, brandied barleywine.

As mustachioed emcee Donny Vomit proceeded to juggle knives and swallow a fake sword in honor of Coney Island Sword Swallower Pale Lager, I finished up my samples and grabbed some Chinese food across the street before heading home. Without a doubt, this was one of the best beer-related gatherings I’ve ever attended. Can’t wait for next years’ shindig, wherever it’s at.