Beers to You: Well-crafted beers, too little salt, at Charleston Brewing Co.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Charleston Brewing Co. opened softly to friends and family a few weeks ago, and then quickly ramped up to a full opening just a few nights later. I wrote a quick blog posting of my first experiences, but now I am ready to do a deep-dive review of the beer and the food that I have tasted.
I have been no stranger to the place, having visited for at least a beer several times within the past weeks; in fact, most of the staff know me by name. I have tasted all of the beer and quite a bit of the food, so let's start with the beer. Here is the current lineup:
Taylor Blond: This is CBC's most popular beer, according to all the staff that I ask. CBC brewer Ryan Heastings calls it a "Palesner," capturing the light drinkability of a German helles-style beer but fermented as an ale. This is a well-crafted beer (as are all of the CBC beers, so this is the last time I will say it). Taylor Blond is a great beer for the diffident beer drinker moving into the craft beer world with caution. No surprises here.
Marcellus Ale: An easy-to-quaff blond ale, but it asserts itself as an ale, unlike the Taylor Blond. There is even a noticeable kiss of hops at the finish that makes this one of my go-to beers.
Wobbly Best Bitter: A very traditional British-style bitter, but just a bit stronger. This beer is layered with traditional bready character along with counterpoint bitterness. The light amber color has a hint of red hue and just looks and tastes great from the traditional (yet still not imperial) pint glass in which CBC beers are served.
Raj IPA: A 7.1 percent ABV India Pale Ale more in the American tradition. Light in color for the style, but still delivers a very smooth American hop wallop! This is what the typical beer-geek will order and stick with through a typical evening.
Big Ugly Stout: Welcome to the world of true session beer. This stout delivers full, roasty flavor, but keeps the alcohol in check at 3.1 percent ABV! Crafted in the dry Irish tradition, the body is light but the roasted barley delivers rich, dark, mochalike flavor in a beer that is light in alcohol and calories.
Now for the food: The menu at CBC is squarely focused on upper-end pub fare. It offers a wide variety of dishes (no entrée-size salad?), and most of the comments I have heard is that it's a bit pricey, and I agree.
Let's start with the traditional English pub fare. The fish and chips are two large chunks of high-quality cod, hand-battered and fried. It is served with potato wedge-type chips and house-made tartar sauce. The fish is very good (but I do find nearly all of the food coming out a bit under-salted), but is it worth $18?
On the appetizer side of the menu we have Scotch eggs. In case you didn't know, Scotch eggs are a near-perfect food: a hard-boiled egg encased in a mixture of biscuit and sausage batter and deep-fried. CBC serves you two Scotch eggs for $8. The house-made liver pâté is awesome and is served with CBC's best thing ever: the bread and bread-crisps (which are nicely salted, incidentally).
Both the Scotch eggs and the liver pâté are also served with house-made beer mustard that is almost good, but lacks even a hint of creamy texture, being just a pile of mustard seeds in a brine, delivering more of horseradish flavor than that of mustard. While we are speaking of condiments, some of the dishes are served with a spicy chutney made from currants that is to die for.
A signature dish for CBC is the bangers and mash, a reasonably priced ($12) entrée featuring two house-made banger sausages flanking a pile of delicious coarsely mashed potatoes. The dish is topped with an English brown gravy and few peas for color. These sausages are delicious! There is just a bit of acidity that balances the meat perfectly, though I did have to once-again reach for the salt shaker for the potatoes.
The burger seems to garner some controversy with folks either loving it or being underwhelmed. I think the burger is of top-quality, though it needed salt. Chef Gary Needham was overheard telling a patron that they want the meat flavor to shine; I agree, but you still need to use a tiny bit of salt or it tastes like a hospital burger!
The smashed peas with rosemary are a fantastic side dish, but the sautéed mushrooms lacked flavor. The steamed mussels are a no-brainer, just make sure you get some extra rolls to soak up the wonderful broth! The bar also offers a variety of pickled fare such as radishes and eggs, an interesting and welcome addition that helps establish a true pub feel.
So far, I have had no issues with service. The bar staff is top-notch, and the patrons mostly seem to have food in front of them and smiles on their faces, though I know the kitchen can get backed up at times; that's the time to just order another beer and keep that smile going.
The ambiance is boisterous and loud, the latter because it's a brewpub operating under a concrete parking garage. I think some sound-abatement would go a long way toward warming the atmosphere a bit, making it more publike.
I am very happy overall with Charleston Brewing Co., and I know things will continue to get better. Heastings already has a few new beers ready to go, and I am sure the menu will continue to grow and change with the seasons.
For more on the craft of beer, see Rich Ireland's "Beers to You" blog at thegazz.com.