The Hops: Backyard Brew

The ability to chug a whole bottle of PBR in one mighty draught only impresses your peers for so long. What was formerly an athletic display of swilling prowess becomes something sad, a little desperate. It is a sign of the need to grow up, difficult as that can be to accept. So how is one to move up in the world of beer drinking? With keg stands and beer bongs and shotgunning behind us, what lies ahead?

The answer is taste.

When we first drink beer, it is with a grimace, a feat of overcoming the obstacle of the senses. Despite the chilly, dank pissy flavor, and the threat of driver’s ed class the next morning, we persist in choking down domestic, mass-produced barley spittle until we could tolerate it, eventually growing accustomed to, and then even appreciative of, the flavor. But there is something better beyond that watery trough. In the interest of helping the uninformed or even willfully ignorant PBR-loving Iowa City Cheap Beer Drinkers move forward in their painful growth process, Little Village convened the Great Iowa Beer Tasting Swigathon ’09.

In appreciation of the “buy local” movement, as well as the need to provide some journalistic focus, the Swigathoneers were supplied with nine varieties of Iowa-brewed beers, and one surprise entry of hard cider (which was the only beverage selected that used local ingredients―the beers were brewed with malts and hops from around the world). The Tasters were a hardened crew of PBR chuggers, Coors-cadets, and assorted townie lowlife, selected for their ignorance of any sort of brewy lore, as well as the general degradation of their palates. They were given simple scoring sheets, asked to rate the beers on a one-to-five scale, as well as provide notes.

To allay their concerns that they were being tricked into something “fancy” or “high brow,” the tasters each selected a code name, which was written on duct tape and worn on their shirts. Any taster who uttered the “government name” of a fellow participant was subjected to a penalty, either chugging a bottle of PBR, or taking a shot of Ancient Age whiskey. The subterfuge worked, and the resulting scores and comments provide a doorway through which the path to Refined Taste and Exquisite Choice becomes apparent.

Light Refreshment

Five or six varieties that were tasted were considered “light” beers by the uncultured brutes that made up our panel. By this, they meant simply that they were (at least by the standards of the average Angry Drunken Townie) light in color and density, with a high “mouthfulability” factor, indicating that they could be chugged with relative ease. Of the varieties tasted, which included Millstream’s John’s Grocery Generations White Ale, Millstream’s Iowa Pale Ale, Hub City’s Pale Ale, Hub City’s Golden Ale, Hub City’s Wheat Beer, and the fence-straddling Olde Main Dinkey Wheat, the Dinkey Wheat was the highest rated, with an average score of 3.79 out of a possible 5.

Taster Spurlock described it aptly: “honey vagina with coriander hints,” and RADAR declared it to be “good for the whole family.” While the mouthfulability factor was high with this one, it had a very strong coriander flavor, which could wear on a drinker after a few bottles. The Hub City Pale and the Millstream Iowa Pale ales tied for second with an average score of 3.21 out of 5. The unfortunate entry in the light category was the Hub City Wheat Beer, which scored a miserable 1.5 out of 5, with comments like “is this how it’s supposed to taste?” “tastes like a hobo’s bed smells” and “ROTTEN GARBAGE.” It is definitely to be avoided.

The Dark End of the Street

The beers in this section were definitely a little weightier, massier, a bit more grown up. The kind of beer you could have for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It should be noted that these beers were judged towards the end of the tasting, after the light beers had softened the palates and hearts of the panel, T-Pain songs had been sung, and friendships forged in the crucible of mutual insult.

Also, owing to the vagaries of the purchase process by which the panel did not actually buy the beer, but merely enjoyed booze on the company dime, all three of the dark beers tasted were products from the Hub City brewery in Stanley, Iowa. Hub City, which opened up a larger and more modern brewing facility in mid-September, made a fine showing with their darker varieties. With the disastrous Wheat Beer still a recent trauma for the panel, they were rocked, befuddled and overawed by the rich flavor and quality of the Hub City dark selections.

The three Hub City brews in the dark category were the Brown Ale, the Old Browne Porter, and the Oatmeal Stout. Far and away the winner amongst the dark varieties and the overall high-scorer of the tasting, with an average score of 4.14, was the Old Browne Porter, giving rise to such exhortations as “Fuck dinner, I’m drinking this,” “creamy goodness,” and “Exquisite.”

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The generally high marks given to all of the Hub City darks are both a tribute to the craftsmanship of their brews, as well as the effects of the previous selections on the generosity of the judges. The Brown Ale received a score of 3.71, with Spurlock declaring it “like steak in a bottle,” and the Oatmeal Stout was given an average score of 3.43, seen as perhaps a bit on the bland side after the exquisite coffee-creamy overtones and rich finish of the Old Browne Porter.

What the hell, man, it’s cider.

As a surprise entry, the Sutliff Hard Cider acquitted itself quite well amongst a crowd that (barring Turbo, the one female judge) was generally against hard cider in principle as well as practice. RADAR drew an obscene yet complimentary picture for his notes on the Sutliff, and the score of 3.79 was surprisingly high for a crowd so predisposed against the beverage. It was found to be crisp, not overly tart, with a smooth finish. Both Clarence and Turbo declared their desire to chug one of the oversized bottles themselves, the highest compliment a beverage can be paid by the group of blackout aficionados assembled for the Swigathon.

Refinement Derailed

After the score sheets were gathered and congratulatory cigarettes smoked, the Swigathoneers ruined what had been a halfway-respectable attempt at ranking and rating classy suds with a short jaunt down the alley to the Mighty Shop to buy sixpacks of PBR tallboys. It was as if their brief foray into classy boozing had shocked their sensibilities, and they sought to vigorously reestablish themselves as Angry Drunken Townies.

They sojourned forth into the cool Iowa City night to descend upon a house party, ravage the hors d’oeuvres, piss everywhere but the toilet, and drink mighty draughts, preferring not to speak of the refinement that was almost within their grasp.

The Freshest Thing Going

No discussion of Iowa-brewed beer would be complete without a nod to a local favorite, Old Capitol Brew Works, on Gilbert Street. While the beers reviewed at the Swigathon are all bottled and sold on local store shelves, the Brew Works serves up the masterful creations of the Great River Brewery, located in Davenport, fresh from the tap. With seven varieties on tap, from Mexican styles served with lime all the way to the rich, captivating Espresso Stout, there’s something for every palate.

The Brew Works has the advantage of suds served fresh and chilly. The optimal way to get these delicious beverages into your thirsty gullet is by buying a growler, a half-gallon glass bottle. The growler, initially purchased full for $12, can then be refilled at OCBW. The real deal is on Friday nights from 5 to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., when the growlers can be refilled for a stunningly cheap FIVE DOLLARS.

Many of the Swigathoneers have been made converts to the dankbrau available at Old Capitol, especially the delectable Espresso. The knowledgeable staff will serve up a taster flight of all seven brews for six dollars, allowing you to pick your favorite, and expand your horizons with new styles you might not normally drink.