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Higher alcohol beer is here at last


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It's the most exciting thing that's ever happened to beer in North Carolina," says John Boy, owner of Sam's Quik Shop in Durham.

Barely a week after Gov. Mike Easley signed the "Pop the Cap" bill into law, legalizing beers that contain up to 15 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), the brews are rolling into town. Chimay hit local taps a couple of weeks ago, and new brands are already trickling into stores. The state Alcohol Beverage Commission began accepting applications for label approval the Monday before the governor signed the bill on Aug. 13, and it is now processing (and approving) those applications with a speed and efficiency not normally seen in state bureaucracies.

In short, the dream of seeing the world's best beers on North Carolina store shelves is rapidly becoming a reality.

How did it happen?
Sean Wilson (beer lover) and Julie Johnson Bradford (editor of All About Beer magazine) organized a group called Pop the Cap back in February 2003. After fits and starts, Pop the Cap reorganized in the fall of 2003, planning fund-raising events and hiring a lobbyist. By spring 2004, Pop the Cap's membership had grown to more than 1,000, and the group was holding events at least once a month in locations across the state. Its lobbyist, Theresa Kostrzewa, was laying the groundwork for the 2005 legislative session.

And after a dizzying series of successes and setbacks (many of which were chronicled in the Indy), the bill passed the House in May and the Senate in August. The governor made things official by adding his signature. High-gravity beer is now on the menu in the state of North Carolina.

What does that mean?
Speaking generally, there are five styles of beer that will now be available in our state: barleywine, Belgian, bock, imperial stout and Scottish ale. In addition, there are a number of minor styles (old ale and strong ale are probably the best known) and variants that will make their first Tar Heel appearances, as well. Many beers defy categorization. Dogfish Head's Raison D'Etre is a Belgian style beer that uses, among other things, green raisins. Another Dogfish Head concoction, Aprihop, is chock full of both apricots and hops in full defiance of the convention that fruit beers shouldn't be hoppy. Nonetheless, there are some basic guidelines to styles that ought to be helpful for the beer newbie:

One legend claims barleywine originated during an English boycott of French wine. Another puts its "discovery" down to English brewers trying to compete with French wine. In any case, English barleywines tend to be maltier and less alcoholic. American barleywines can take your head off with their massive hop profiles and corresponding hefty complement of malt, and they often top out at more than 10 percent ABV. American barleywines are some of the most aggressive beers in the world, despite the fact that most appear to be nothing more than a pleasant pale ale ... until you take a whiff. Barleywines are often seasonal, and many brewers release them only in the winter or early spring.

Examples you'll find here soon: Anchor Steam Old Foghorn, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Rogue Old Crustacean, Avery Hog Heaven, Great Divide Old Ruffian, Brooklyn Monster.

There are hundreds of breweries in Belgium, a country about the size of Maryland. Lumping all Belgian styles in one category is grossly unfair, but Belgians (including wit and lambics, which are often less than 6 percent ABV) share one trait: unusual taste. Sometimes sweet, sometimes sour, but always distinctive, Belgian beers are often made by monks (or at least given a stamp of approval from an abbey or monastery) and are generally thick, hearty beers that are suitable only for sipping. Chugging a Belgian would be sacrilege. Belgians come in blonde, brown, burgundian, singel, dubbel, tripel ... these terms do mean something, but by and large each brewer makes distinctly different beers. The only way to find out what you like is to taste every Belgian you can get your hands on.

Examples you'll find here soon: Duvel, Orval, Corsendonk, Urthel, Chimay, Maredsous. There are some non-Belgian producers of excellent Belgian-style beers that are coming to town as well: the full lines of Allegash (Maine), Unibroue (Quebec) and Ommegang (New York, though owned by Duvel).

Perhaps the most generic of beer terms, bocks are malty, strong lagers. Past that, well, almost anything goes. Forget about Shiner Bock and Michelob Amber Bock--those beers are thin relations to their full-blooded cousins. The most important feature of a bock is that the malt flavor overwhelms a slight-to-modest hop presence. There are plenty of substyles, including doppelbock, maibock, eisbock and weizenbock. Again, these names do mean something, but each brewer interprets the styles differently.

Examples you'll find here soon: Spaten Optimator (doppelbock), Erdinger Pinkatus (weizenbock).

Imperial Stout
Much like India pale ale, which was infused with large doses of hops and plenty of malt so that it might survive the trip around the Cape to India, imperial stout was originally produced to make the voyage across the North Sea to the court of the czars in St. Petersburg, Russia. This style contains large amounts of hops and dark malt--think stout on steroids. Traditional English versions tend to be more balanced and "refined." American renditions are almost as aggressive as barleywines, though many brewers have taken to aging their imperial stouts in oak to mellow the hop bite and add even more complexity. Like barleywines, imperial stouts are often seasonal and released only in the late fall and winter.

Examples you'll find here soon: Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout, Rogue Imperial Stout, North Coast Old Rasputin, Avery The Czar, Great Divide Yeti (original and oak-aged).

Scottish Ale (or Wee Heavy)
The ale version of a bock (or is it the other way around?). These brews are malty and thick, with little or no hop presence. Of all the high-gravity beers around, these ones are the most likely to sneak up on you. Their alcoholic content is apparent in the nose and on the tongue, but Scotch ales are smooth and ever so tasty. A good Scotch ale is always worth the price.

Examples you'll find here soon: Highland Strong Scotch Ale, McEwan's Scotch Ale, Orkney Skull Splitter, Belhaven Wee Heavy.

Other styles
There are a number of India pale ales that come in above 6 percent (Brooklyn's East India Pale Ale is on the way), but some brewers go straight for the jugular and have created something of a bastard style, the "imperial" India pale ale. Rogue's version is perhaps the best known, but Avery, Great Divide, Ska and other brewers have their own takes on this extremely hoppy style that is only slightly less extreme than a barleywine.

The "imperial" designation is often used to indicate a stronger, more extreme version of a traditional style (Avery's Imperial Oktoberfest, Rogue's Imperial Pilsner, etc.). This "more is more" concept seems to be uniquely American, and the willingness of American brewers to turbocharge the taste of Old World styles is one of the reasons the best place in the world to find and drink good beer is the good ol' U.S. of A.

What are N.C. brewers doing?
They're brewing. Highland has already brewed its Tassgall Scotch Ale and received label approval from the ABC. Expect to see it in stores within a month--the end of September is the goal. Duck Rabbit in Farmville is planning to brew an imperial stout that will likely be released in November. The Carolina Brewery in Chapel Hill will have an imperial stout ready in late September, and brewmaster Jon Connolly plans to try his hand at barleywine, a doppelbock and some Belgian styles as well. Top of the Hill in Chapel Hill has brewed a barleywine (named Pop the Cap) that will be available at the restaurant by mid-September. In addition, the alcohol content of its Ram's Head IPA will climb to approximately 6.2 percent ABV.

What's missing?
The 15 percent cap means that some of the world's strangest and most sought-after beers will not be available here. Dogfish Head's 120 Minute Pale Ale clocks in at 21 percent. A single 12-ounce bottle of this beer often retails for more than $10. I picked up a 750 ml bottle of Dogfish Head Raison D'Etre (20 percent) at the source for $20. But that's nothing compared to Sam Adams Triple Bock (17.5 percent, $15-20 for 12 ounces) or Sam Adams Utopias (25 percent, $20 or more for a single 750 ml bottle). These scandalous omissions from our shelves simply give beer freaks another reason to storm the legislature in a few years and truly "pop the cap."

Where do I find these beers?
All over. Many fine dining restaurants are adding Belgian beers to their lists, and taprooms like Tyler's, the Flying Saucer, Mellow Mushroom, Federal and Sawmill are planning upgrades (some already under way) to their lists. A Southern Season plans to dramatically increase its beer section (beer buyer Daniel Bagnell promises beer tastings and maybe even a beer dinner or class). Fowler's and Sam's Quik Shop in Durham will squeeze in as many new arrivals as possible. Total Wine will significantly beef up its beer selection, and Whole Foods will be selling many new beers as well. Every retail outlet contacted for this story expected to bring in many new beers and to sell more beer now that the cap has been popped.

How do I start?
One bottle at a time. Even Michael Jackson (noted beer and Scotch expert) began his journey toward Beervana with a single pint. Be adventurous, and don't listen to the opinions of others--taste whatever you want to taste. After all, the only person who can tell you what's really good is you. Every beer freak has his or her own personal predilections. I'm still head-over-heels in love with one of the first craft beers I ever tasted, Bell's Amber Ale. That's precisely the devotion that drove the members of Pop the Cap to get this law passed, and that same devotion ought to make the Triangle a true beer hot spot in no time at all.

Beer here! (or on its way)
These are approximate arrival dates. They are subject to ABC label approval and shipment from importers/brewers. In addition to the beers listed here, hundreds more will be in stores in the weeks to come. Brews from American craft breweries not already in North Carolina are expected to start arriving in October.
Already in stores
Brooklyn East India Pale Ale
Chimay (red, white and blue)
Flying Dog (Gonzo, Horn Dog)
Greenwich Meantime (IPA, London Ale)
Maredsous (8 and 10)
Mendocino (White Hawk IPA, others)
Ommegang (all beers)
Rogue (Imperial Pilsner, Imperial India Pale Ale, Old Crustacean, Russian Imperial Stout)
Spaten Optimator
Tranquair (House Ale, Jacobite Ale)
Westmalle (Dubbel, Tripel)
Young's (Old Nick barleywine, St. George, Special London Ale)
Early September
Allagash (Grand Cru, Dubbel, Tripel)
Binchoise (Blonde, Brown, Reserve)
Des Rocs (Ambre, Blonde, Brune, Grand Cru)
St. Bernardus (ABT, Prior, Tripel, Witbier)
Samuel Smith Imperial Stout
Top of the Hill Pop the Cap Barleywine
Val-Dieu (Blonde, Brown, Tripel, Winter)
Victory (Hop Devil, Golden Monkey)
Watou Tripel
Late September
Carolina Brewery Imperial Stout
Highland Tassgall Scotch Ale
Unibroue (Don de Dieu, La Fin du Monde, Maudite, Trois Pistoles)


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