BEER CLINIC :: Two Guys Walk into a Bar and Ask to See the Draft List..

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on September 18, 2012

A Joke?  Read On.

Courtesy of

Recently, on a trip to Chicago, Rick and I walked into The Hopleaf. Long one of our favorite beer bars, it has become nationally recognized for its outstanding Belgian draft selection.  For a while, this tavern was virtually inaccessible due to its popularity and resultant overcrowding, but now, thanks to its recent expansion, it is possible to walk in, find a seat at the bar, ask for the draft list, and have a bartender’s attention when needed.

Take if from me, Chicago is an excellent beer town.  With a number of superb beer bars and gastro-pubs, and now an increasing number of local microbreweries, Chicago is developing a regional style that is competitive with the best of San Diego or Colorado.

The bartender and I compared notes on our home brewing. He was setting up a batch of Baltic Porter, I was setting up an English Bitter and my signature IPA. All are flavorful, traditional, easy-drinking beers. Then I proceeded to scan the draft list and place my order.

The front page of the menu features Belgians, from brewers like De Koninck, Chimay and Bosteels.  Classic, delicious, any pick would be good.  Then I turned the menu over, to the US Craft beer. I was looking forward to a picking a new draft from among the latest releases from my favorite Midwestern breweries and….

OMG! What’s with the bizarre ingredients and over-the-top hops? Or the pair-up of local and distant breweries, of American and European brew styles that were never meant to go together? Is there anything I can trust to taste good?  What’s going on here?

Some examples copied verbatim from the beer menu:

5 Grass (Five Rabbit, Chicago)
5 Grass, a symbol of life in Aztec mythology.  Refreshing yet substantial, pale in color & nicely hoppy.  Smooth clean malt flavors; unique, complex nose.  Meant to invoke the desert’s brisk, clean aroma, it makes use of 3 unique hop varieties & some carefully chosen herbs and spices including juniper, sage & Tasmanian pepperberry, among others–to give a beautiful outdoorsy scent. 6.2%

Fiat Lux, Brooklyn Brewery

Fiat Lux (Brooklyn, New York).
Draft-only release brewed with Canadian & American 2-row malts and American Madsen unmalted white winter wheat:  Cascade, Chinook, Columbus, Centennial & Perle hops; and Levure Belgique yeast with the addition of lime peel and coriander.  Super refreshing.  6.1%

Diversey & Lille  (Two Brothers/Castelain, Illinois and France)
The first-ever collaborative beer between American & France and they certainly did it right.  Dry-hopped Biere de Garde superbly balanced between hops and sweet caramel malty flavors.  6.5%.

Wookey Jack (Firestone Walker, Paso Robles, CA)
Black rye IPA.  Rich dark malts & spicy rye careen into bold citrus-laden hops creating a new dimension in IPA flavor.  Left unfiltered & unrefined to retain all of its texture and character.  60 IBUs, 8.3%

Super IPA (New Belgium/Alpine Brewing, Fort Collins, CO, San Diego, CA)
Alpine might be small, but their brewing chops are mighty.  New Belgium teamed up with them to create this triple dry-hopped imperial IPA bursting with Columbus, Amarillo, Centennial & Simcoe hops.  Consider yourself lucky to get an Alpine beer outside of San Diego.  9%

Collaboration:  Special Belge (DuPont/ Iron Hill, Belgium / Pennsylvania).
Brasserie DuPont’s first collaboration in its 166-year history!  With Pennsylvania’s Iron Hill, they’ve created a sessionable, yet complex, Belgian blonde ale with subtle hints of peat-smoked malt.  6.8%

MCsaison (Flossmoor Station & City Provisions Flossmoor Illinois, Chicago Illinois)   The latest creating by City Provisions’ Cleetus Friedman, brewed by Flossmoor Station.  Saison-style beer brewed with strawberries & rhubarb, which are very subtle.  The alcohol is deceptively unnoticeable.  Very smooth & refreshing  8.1%

Home Sapient Trip Raspberry (Dark Horse, Marshall, Michigan).  A strong “one off” that will be around this month (September) only. A Belgian-style raspberry trippel w/ hibiscus & fresh raspberries, based on their regular Sapient Trip Ale.  Mild fruity tartness & faint aroma of the hibiscus flower.  9.5%

Enough.  Okay, I can understand the appeal of fresh fruit in midseason–who can resist a blueberry ale or a peach seasonal wheat beer?  And sure, pumpkin ales are as American as apple pie during the fall harvest.  But rhubarb? Juniper berries?  Hibiscus?

Barrel-aged beers — alright, a passing fad.  Sometimes exceptional, when a good beer goes into superb Kentucky bourbon barrels; usually the beer was better before the aging.  Extra-black IPA? Makes no sense to me.  Black malts  (actually dark roasted/burnt malted barley) have been used to add color to English porters since they were first developed. They were known to work best in lightly hopped beers (e.g. Guinness) and are always used sparingly, otherwise the result is an unpleasant ashy flavor, frankly bitter when over-hopped.

I don’t understand this fascination with adding more and more hops, or using herbal flavorings that were long abandoned after hops were widely adopted in the sixteenth century,  or taking a perfectly good European brew style and re-interpreting it to utilize American ingredients.  To paraphrase a quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw, in which he compared women authors to dogs that could walk on 2 legs: “It’s not that they can brew it well, but that they can brew it at all.”

I’m not against brewers experimenting, because that is the only way progress can be made.  But please, serve it in your home brew pub, get some feedback; don’t charge me $8.50 a pint at my high-end beer bar.

Beer should taste GOOD!  Not INTERESTING!

What does this mean to the average beer-drinker?  First, it means you can’t trust the latest release from your favorite brewery.  You will have to read the descriptions, make a few guesses, and then talk to the bartender.  Of course he/she is not likely to tell you that a beer is undrinkable, but will instead suggest “something you might like more.”  In a good beer bar, you will be given a taste of your picks, so you can choose among them. But that takes time and effort when you are thirsty!  Or just forget it; go to the front page and pick one of your old favorites, or a Belgian import, and skip the strange brews.

Back to the Hopleaf.  Our solution?  Rick ordered an old standby. I read the lists, tasted and compared.  I tasted the Diversey and Lill(e) from the Two Brothers/Castelain collaboration (see above) comparing their dry-hopped Castelain Biere de Garde to the original.  No question–the beer was better in its original form, it was not improved by dry-hopping.  What were they thinking?

Brewers, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. I’ll chalk this up to ennui.  Perhaps you are just getting tired of producing the same-old delightful, hoppy, end-of-season beers–the ones I really like to drink–and want to make something new.  I expect this phase will pass with the season.  So be it.  I never thought I would be looking forward to the fall beers–pumpkin ales and Oktoberfest knock-offs.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

admin September 22, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Carol –

One of our contributors, a former brewmaster has written (and I paraphrase)
“There are a lot of mistakes that can be covered by throwing enough hops at a beer,” and we’ve found there are a lot of mistakes that have gone uncovered, in the name of both a brewer’s personal taste, chemistry gone wrong, and experimentation. But I find your assertion that “Beer should taste GOOD! Not INTERESTING!” suggests a false assumption that both can’t be had in one beer. With so much out there tasting the same, “interesting,” while still maintaining the solid foundation of what defines a particular style is a challenge worth undertaking, and one that has been well met by many beers we’ve tasted.

As for Black IPAs, for instance, I recall you favoring 21st Ammendment’s Back to Black, a very black IPA, and a fine example of a very nice, balanced IPA that happens to be really black.

While the cask aging of beer may be viewed as a fad, we can also see it as yet another step in the modern age of craft brewing. I think comparing such a beer to the original is, if the brewer did it right, akin to comparing apples to pork chops. Very different brews emerge from casks. What they started out is generally just a fun reference point.

Dry hopping can add to an IPA, but can also add, again if done right with a nice touch, to the flavor of beers that are not traditional hop forward brews. I’ll be writing about Sixpoint Brewing soon and their dry hopping of EVERYTHING they brew, with quite a bit of success.

I’m hoping brewers keep reaching out beyond the norm, as these voyages can yield some horrible concoctions (but that would be my take on blueberry and peach involvement), and yet again, some wonderful beers. I, for one, am not a fan of ales that taste like I’m having Pumpkin Pie, foraging through the fridge for some ReadiWhip to replace the head with. But Dogfish Head created Punkin Ale that uses pumpkin in a brew that simply comes out tasting like a really fine ale with a personality. Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp produced a crisp, refreshing Black IPA with juniper that did NOT taste like a beer/gin boilermaker.

But thankfully, there are a million of them out there so, as you offer, if you feel like experimenting, you can almost always get a taster (thus saving that $8.50 a pint if you don’t care for it), and if you don’t, there’s a huge and growing list of spectacularly drinkable beers to serve as ready, steady, go-tos, regardless of your mood.

Good stuff happens, and there’s a large and happily growing list of brews out that taste good AND are interesting. Cheers.

Harvey Gold


Steve Strom September 22, 2012 at 7:01 pm

I am not a fan of pumpkin beer… or coffee, for that matter. (What’s next… broccoli?) I am of the opinion that what people like about “pumpkin flavored” things is the spices.

That said, I was at Boston Beer Works a few weeks ago. I tried a taster of a wheat beer with ghost chilis. The taster was enough for me, but I understand the brewers are quite proud of it.

Duke Ellington once said, “If it sounds good, it is good.” Ultimately, that’s how I feel about beer.


Carol, the beer doctor September 23, 2012 at 9:02 pm

I appreciate your comments. This article was meant to take a controversial approach, and stir up some thought and feedback, as it clearly did. I”m interested to hear other reader’s comments. And yes, I did enjoy 21st Ammendment’s “Back to Black” because it was subtle, and good tasting.


Greg Koch September 27, 2012 at 4:37 pm

With all due respect and politeness, I will resort to my oft-delivered phrase: Limit yourself all you like, but do not attempt to limit me.

Show me a person that complains that there are “too many hoppy beers” and I’ll show you a person that likes to complain. About additional choices even! I’ve yet to see “interesting” beers bump “good” beers off the shelf. Instead, the shelf is by-and-large getting bigger. A great thing choice is!

I realize, as you said in your Reply above, that you were meaning to take a controversial approach to “stir up some thought and feedback,” and bait taken I suppose, but railing against choice and experimentation…even not wholeheartedly or just to get a rise…is still railing against choice and experimentation.

I prefer to rail FOR it!




Carol, the beer doctor September 27, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Nice, thoughtful comments. Perhaps I meant to say, “many too-hoppy beers.” I love hoppy beers but I prefer when the hops are balanced, not just increased. I, also, don’t like my choices limited. Why did my favorite bar here in Wilkes-Barre carry 2 mediocre Octoberfests and 4 (!) pumpkin beers. No choice there either. I’ll have to stick to IPA in bottles till the season is over.


Franklin October 11, 2012 at 6:57 am

I believe that you may be in the wrong line of work. As a bartender, who works for arguably the best beer bar in the world, in the best beer city in the world(San Diego), I couldn’t agree less with everything you’ve said. While having cask conditioned ales, or beers adding crazy things like juniper, or black IPAs seem weird or foreign to you, I see them as the reason why American beers are simply the best in the world. Real ales have been around longer than our fine country, so it shouldn’t be a “fad” to see wonderful cask ales at bars. And black IPAs, while it could be debated as a fad, have been available for a couple of years now. I actually had the privilege to go to one of the early Sierra Nevada beer camps, and we made a Juniper Black IPA. Which has been one of the beer camp beers that have been reproduced.
Greg pretty much said it best above though. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with his work, but he works for this little micro brewery called Stone. You should try his Sublimely Self Righteous, that is if it’s not too black or hoppy for you.


Carol, the beer doctor October 11, 2012 at 7:50 pm

Great comments! As for my line of work, I really am a doctor, specializing in cancer. I spend all day listening to people’s sad stories and trying to help them with treatment, not with beer. I could never be a bartender. I do not get paid for writing for YBN. I do it because I enjoy beer and am not afraid to express my opinions, and can spin a good story. Qualifications? Homebrewer, beer lover, afficianado of regional microbrews, and ultimate consumer. Yes, I do represent the consumer –not “the industry.” And the bottom line is that you have to please the consumer if you want to sell beer. FYI I truly love hoppy beers, but I still maintain that hops can be overdone; hop balance and taste mean more than hop quantity. I’ll pass on the juniper, except in my dry martinis.


admin October 31, 2012 at 8:09 pm

First, Carol doing her curmudgeonly Andy Rooney piece has been the MOST FUN, with all of us up in arms! Thanks Doc!
Second, and this is for Franklin, note that your Beer Camp #16 Juniper Black IPA has made one of our Top 20 lists as had their #29 Ghifora Double IPA. Cheers to you.

Harvey Gold


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