Monday, February 23, 2009

Afternoon Delight (For Beer Lovers)

Winter Warmer is in itself anachronistic, but when prefaced with the premise that said alliterative combination is in reference to a festival celebrating the strongest beers of the season, it is quite apt. I can attest that I came out of the third annual festival warmer than when I went in. Held at Rock Bottom Brewery in Cleveland's Flats, this installment treated revelers with the work of 13 local breweries.

The ticket, $30, was again raised for this year's event (as it was last year), though the price of admission did entitle attendees to feast on a small but satisfying buffet lunch. But let's get real, no one bought their ticket for the food.

The beer was the main event, and boy did it deliver. Historically, brewers opted for stronger recipes for the cold winter months. Those worthy brews were the impetus behind the festival. Hundreds of hop-heads, amateur brewers and curious beer lovers crowded into Rock Bottom, armed with the complimentary pilsner glass and 15 sample tickets. Katie and I met up with my parents as we have done for the past two years (it's become a greatly anticipated tradition for the Simmons'), and got down to business.

The star of the show, in my own humble opinion, was Hoppin' Frog's India Pale Ale (IPA) entry, Hoppin' To Heaven. Frog, from Akron, consistently puts out much-admired styles available in 22 ounce 'bombers'. My only beef with them is that they don't produce the traditional six pack, a hindrance to wider distribution and interest. The Hoppin' To Heaven was chocked full of hops, but well balanced by a spicy, almost tea-like malt. There are plenty of IPA's that lay claim to extremely high IBU's (International Bitterness Units), but there are few that offer the complexity of this. I don't think I'd pick over my beloved Bell's Two Hearted Ale, but it would be close.

Other winners included new Cleveland brewery Indigo Imp's cask-conditioned Winter Solstice, Brewkeepers' Olde 21 IPA, and the ever popular Great Lakes Brewing Company's (GLBC) Blackout Stout. Surprisingly, GLBC didn't offer a beer unique to the festival, or one not available at the Restaurant in Ohio City. I asked Luke, the company's head brewer, why no surprises this year. He said that between preparing the upcoming seasonals and the increasing production of flagship brands, there just weren't enough hours in the day. I could go on ad infinitum about the marvelous offerings, but that would bore all but the most devoted beer lovers. I'll just say that there was no place on Earth that most attendees would rather have been than in cloudy, cold Cleveland on a Sunday in February... except maybe Belgium.

Named for the massive 2004 blackout that darkened much of the Eastern Seaboard, as well as the Cleveland area, not for the condition prompted by excessive drinking.

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