Drinking? I call it “research”

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RESEARCH AT Joe Sixpack Central is a never-ending occupation. Here are a few of my recent findings.

* Dundee Oktoberfest (Rochester, N.Y.): Dundee Ales & Lagers is one of those margin-dwellers that has been glomming onto the craft beer renaissance for years. Because it is priced cheaply (low $20s per case), it grabs a lot of drinkers who are after something other than BudMillerCoors but don’t want to shell out an extra 10.

The entire brand is nearly doomed by its flagship, Original Honey Brown, a decidedly dull, thin amber lager with an unfortunate metallic aftertaste.

So why am I recommending Dundee?

Because the brewery turns out some surprisingly good seasonal specialties, including this fine Märzen-style lager. At a recent private tasting, I shocked my guests when I told them this rich, malty lager came from the same brewery that makes Genesee.

It’s proof that a beer doesn’t have to be expensive to be good. Buy it by the case for cool fall Saturday afternoons, and you won’t bother raking up all those leaves.

It has me looking forward to Dundee’s upcoming variety case, packed with an English-Style Ale, Pale Ale, IPA and an above-average Porter.

* Cascade Sang Noir (Portland, Ore.): This beer ain’t cheap. In fact, it’s supremely expensive, something for a special occasion. A 750 ml bottle at Devil’s Den (11th and Ellsworth, South Philly) for a pal’s birthday put a $30 dent on my credit card.

Why so expensive?

First, it’s a wonder that tiny Cascade Brewing even finds its way to Philly. Its 10-barrel brewhouse is about the size of a local brewpub, so it doesn’t exactly enjoy mass-production cost efficiencies. Plus, its most notable varieties are barrel-aged, which means the brewery has to sit on inventory for months before it’s ready to be bottled – another big cost.

Its distribution in the East in uneven, at best. And its solid Northwest rep means scarce bottles that make it this way are scooped up quickly.

It’s easy to see why Cascade enjoys so much buzz: Its sour, lactic-fermented cherry and apricot ales are mindblowers. These are not sweet and artificial Jolly Ranchers; they are tart and deep with honest flavor.

Sang Noir is a red ale that was aged in pinot and whiskey barrels, then blended with a barrel of Bing cherries. Its sour cherry flavor is tempered by oak notes and a handsome malt richness.

Yes, they’re pricey. But to put that into perspective, I’d love for someone to show me any wine at twice the price with something approaching this beer’s superb, complex, original flavor.

DuClaw Repent (Bel Air, Md.): One of these days, you’ll have to trek down to the suburbs around Baltimore and visit one of DuClaw’s brewpubs. Order the sampling tray – they’re all winners.

Or start hunting for its newly released bottles. They’re just making their way into Pennsylvania, and I’ve spotted them at State Line Liquors, just over the Delaware border at the Elkton, Md., exit of I-95. Its uber-strong Colossus (22 percent alcohol by volume) draws a lot of attention, but Repent is the one that I’m digging.

It’s a strong Belgian dark ale (15 percent abv) that DuClaw calls a “pent,” as in what comes after a quadruple. As you’d expect, its fairly sweet, like a Werther’s caramel – the kind you find in your grandmom’s candy dish. If your grandmom is a boozehound.

Pour it into a chalice-style glass and let it warm till the volatile alcohol fumes off. You’ll be greeted by the aroma of raisins and apricots. Then sip till you’re on your knees, in full repent.

Samuel Adams Fat Jack Double Pumpkin (Boston): If you’re going to waste a perfectly good weekend pretending to be a country rube at the yokel pumpkin patch, you don’t come back with a pint-size gourd, right? You want a pick a big, freaking PUMPKIN – one of those mutant critters that blows out the shocks in your Prius.

Anything less and, well, you’re probably talking about Sam Adams’ annual Harvest Pumpkin Ale, a wishy-washy afterthought of a beer.

Seems like Sam Adams got the memo, and this season is rattling the shelves with big bottles of this imperial pumpkin ale. It’s amped up with more nutmeg and allspice, more malt and more alcohol (8.5 percent by volume) for much bigger, in-your-face pumpkin pie enjoyment.

While half-liter bottles may be mostly plucked, you should still be able to find it on draft.

Not enough suds? Here’s a few others you’ll enjoy:

¶Starr Hill: The Charlottesville, Va., brewery is expanding and hitting the Philly market with bottles and draft. Its portfolio is tight, approachable and priced in the low $30s for cases. Look for Jomo Lager, named because someone already has a beer called Mojo.

Sierra Nevada Beer Camp: The California brewery hosts beer lovers for excellent, intense beer-making weekends during which groups design their own original styles. Then it picks the most interesting of the flavors for 12-packs. This year’s outstanding stock includes silky oatmeal stout and three hop monsters: a floral India pale ale, an imperial red ale and a imperial pilsner.

Elysian Night Owl: Nobody brews more varieties of pumpkin beer than Seattle’s Elysian, and this one made with roasted pumpkin seeds is right up there with the finest. On Sunday afternoon, it’ll be featured as one of more than 25 pumpkin beers at the City Tap House (3925 Walnut St., West Philly) Pumpkin Smash. It’s a pay-as-you-go event with live music, a pumpkin pie-eating contest and more.


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