Best Balm for your Beer: Keeping your lips in shape for winter imbibing

LipBalmsAs autumn sings her last chorus, the season is quickly shifting into those chilly months where many of us situated in the Northern Hemisphere have to deal with the reality of chapped lips (I suppose the same applies to the desert regions of the world). While women beer drinkers may suffer the conundrum of whether to drink wearing lipstick (The Bitch is soooo not gonna go there), the reality is that you want to protect your lips while still being able to drink a great craft beer.

So, in the honor of science, I have undertaken the very subjective task to testing leading lip balms with regards to how they hold up under the stress (and taste and aroma) of drinking beer. This is actually something I’ve wanted to explore for a couple years now, ever since I figured out that some of my random lip balms really interfered with my joy of drinking. I figured there are probably tangible differences between brands, so I set out to find the most popular brands and rank them accordingly.

The parameters:

  1. I only tested one beer against all five balms. The beer I chose was Raging Bitch Belgian Style IPA, which I purchased in bottles from my local bodega. I shop there pretty regularly, and I often get the Belgian IPA. I didn’t want to go with a beer that I didn’t know well; I also didn’t want to pick a wildly hoppy or malty brew. The Raging Bitch Belgian is strong enough to cut through mild flavors, but not so overpowering as to blow my palate out before I got to balm number five.
  2. I drank from a glass. I chose a standard goblet that I picked up (I didn’t steal it, I swear) from Lucky Pie in Denver when I was there earlier this month.
  3. Balms were chosen based on ubiquity: I picked major brands (with one notable exception, see below) and I tried to get as neutral a balm as possible (i.e. minimal scent, flavor). I deliberately avoided anything too “girly,” not because “girly” is a bad thing, but because healthy lips are not gender specific. I also didn’t want to choose some new age Brooklyn-based lip balm that sells for $400/ounce and can only be bought on Bedford Avenue. Think ChapStick, not PigLardLips (I made that up… I think).
  4. Balms were tested for four main characteristics: Scent (and how that scent affected the beer), Feel (greasy, smooth, sticky, etc.), Taste (both in terms of licking my lips and in terms of affecting the flavor of the beer), and how much of a Smear was left when my lip touched the goblet.

And the results follow (in the order I tried the balms; note: I was careful to remove all of the balm before trying a new one)…

Lip balm: White Labs 15 SPF

Okay, so White Labs is the outlier. They were giving these lip balms away at the Great American Beer Festival, so I figure they really should know better. Turns out, they do. This balm wasn’t half bad.

  • Scent: Smells of well-chewed Wrigley’s Spearmint; didn’t affect the nose of the beer
  • Feel: Glossy, a bit slippery
  • Taste: Very faux mint with a sweet aftertaste; didn’t seem to affect the beer unless I licked my lips
  • Smear: Slight lip mark on the goblet

Final verdict: 2nd Place. Honestly, there was one balm that was the definite winner, and one that was the definite loser (keep reading). The middle three were pretty interchangeable. I ranked White Labs lip balm as second for two reasons: one, they’re White Labs (come on!); and two, I would definitely do some serious kissing before, during or after drinking with this lip balm on. It’s a nice kissing lip balm, with little to interfere with the beer.

Lip balm: Blistex Medicated 15 SPF

Maybe there’s an unmedicated Blistex (I don’t believe there is). The medicinal quality of this (and the next) balm was not ideal for beer drinking. That said, there are times when you want more of a warming balm for your lips. So, how did it work with beer?

  • Scent: Slight wintergreen/camphor; definitely interfered with the nose of the beer: I felt like I was drinking on Vick’s Mentholatum
  • Feel: Almost none… for about 20 seconds; then my lips got so warm that I didn’t really want to drink at all; after about five minutes, the warmth died down and was no longer particularly noticeable
  • Taste: Negligible, but the beer seemed more bitter when drinking, as though a lingering sweetness in the balm was bringing out the hoppiness in the beer
  • Smear: Probably the least noticeable on the goblet

Final verdict: 3rd Place. If you wait for the burn to subside, this is a nice balm. Probably only for when you really need a medicinal edge (i.e. your lips are already chapped), but good to use in a pinch. The fact that it is only minimally greasy helps a lot.

Lip balm: Bert’s Bees with Vitamin E and Peppermint

Honestly, I think you either love Bert’s Bees or you hate them. They come in a variety of flavors; I don’t even know if this is the most neutral version available. The effect was very similar to the Blistex balm, the trade-off being that the Blistex balm seemed to have less of an effect on the actual process of drinking the beer (despite my sense that the hops were more pronounced with Blistex).

  • Scent: Slight mint; didn’t affect the nose of the beer
  • Feel: Instantly strongly warming; didn’t seem to wear off as quickly as the Blistex
  • Taste: Stale chewing gum; despite the lingering warmth, the flavor of the beer was unaffected
  • Smear: Minimal mark on the goblet

Final verdict: 4th Place. This really came down to that warmth, which is great if you’re walking outdoors during a blizzard but is rather distracting while drinking. I probably won’t give up using Bert’s Bees, because it’s my go-to balm, but I may reconsider if I’m doing a festival or drinking beers that are new to me.

Lip balm: ChapStick Original 8 SPF

When I was growing up (my age is showing), ChapStick was this nasty white clumpy stuff that we all were forced to don and we all universally hated. Well, this is not your mother’s ChapStick. Still white in color, the balm’s texture is light and protective without being messy.

  • Scent: Slightly herbal; I can’t quite place the aroma, but it’s very neutral; no effect on the nose
  • Feel: Pleasant gloss with no greasiness whatsoever
  • Taste: Very slight candy flavor, possibly vanilla; no effect on the taste of the beer
  • Smear: Slight lip mark on the goblet

Final verdict: 1st Place. This balm was a surprise. I bought it mostly because it’s ChapStick, and to do a comparison without it would be ridiculous. I didn’t expect it to be just what The Bitch ordered: It coats the lips without interfering with drinking at all.

Lip balm: Carmex Original

Uh… this was downright awful

  • Scent: Medicinal; totally got into the nose of the beer, too
  • Feel: Greasy; it felt like I’d kissed an otter that just survived the Valdez oil slick
  • Taste: NUMBING!!! Not a choice for any beer I can think of; totally leeched into the flavor of the beer
  • Smear: Noticeable lip mark on the goblet

Final verdict: 5th Place, but might as well be dead last. I knew this was a long shot going in, but I was disgusted by how this worked while drinking. Limit your Carmex to the ski slopes. Keep your ChapStick for your beers.

San Diego Send-Off: Smoked Beer Dinner at Ballast Point

ColbyChandlerBPI have a bias to admit: I’m not really big into hype. Whenever I hear about a “must have” beer or brewery, I generally exert too much effort and find myself disappointed in the end product (read: my quest to find Heady Topper). It’s not that the hype isn’t warranted; many times it is. However, by the time I get around to “the real deal,” my expectations are so great that I’m invariably left thinking, “Is that it?”

The opposite can also be true: When I go in with diminished expectations, I can be truly surprised by what I discover.

Among the options on the APlus Limousine tour prior to the San Diego Beer Bloggers Conference were excursions to both Green Flash and Ballast Point. The majority of the group wanted to seek out beers that were not distributed nationally, so both these breweries were left off the pre-excursion itinerary. Thus, when a group of bloggers wanted to visit both these spots after the conference closed, I was happy to tag along.

The big surprise came at Ballast Point. We chose to visit the smaller brewpub in the Little Italy section of San Diego. We were warmly greeted by Tasting Room Manager Amber Crocker, who noted that she was preparing for a beer-pairing dinner later that afternoon. Seeing as I had yet to eat (and already been drinking up at Green Flash), I thought a beer dinner might be a nice change of pace. I asked her the menu: Smoked foods with smoked beers. Not The Bitch’s favorite combo. But when in Rome…

Executive Chef Colin MacLaggan mans the grilling station at the Ballast Point Smoke Beer Dinner on August 24, 2014.

Executive Chef Colin MacLaggan mans the grilling station at the Ballast Point Smoked Beer Dinner on August 24, 2014.

After a brief detour to the Salivador Dali Argillet Collection (which was amazeballs… if you are in San Diego, be sure to check it out at Meyer Fine Art; the installation has been extended through September 27th), I returned to the back patio at Ballast Point, where nine taps were flowing with recommended food pairings from Executive Chef Colin MacLaggan.

It wasn’t long before Ballast Point’s Specialty Brewer Colby Chandler joined me; while the rest of the group was inside the brewpub ordering off the menu, Colby chatted with me about the pairings and then took all of us on an ad hoc tour of the brewery where he poured the Pale Ale Infused with Smoked Serrano Peppers right off the tank. It was so much spicier without the food pairing (see below) and that’s what makes beer such a cool beverage: the fact that food can completely alter its flavor profile.

At $50, the dinner was one hell of a good deal, and the pairings ranged from interesting to intense. And if Amber, Colin and Colby are the status quo for staff service at Ballast Point, the company will continue to expand both in southern California and across the nation (and, yes, the Grapefruit Sculpin on tap is incredible).

The dinner was arranged as a walk-around event with five different stations, so I could start with (and repeat) any course I chose. However, the courses basically went in the following order:

An amuse hors d’oeuvers that was passed around on trays to pair with a can of Even Keel that was handed out at the check-in: A smoked onion, blue cheese tart with mustard seeds reconstituted in the same beer. I think I had five of these, they were so good (and about the dimension of a quarter… hey, I told you I hadn’t eaten all day!).amusetartBP

First course was freshly shucked oysters on the half-shell with a choice of three mignonettes:

  • Smoked shallots in a white balsamic vinaigrette
  • Avocado and cilantro
  • Raspberry

OysterBPHonestly, this was the least appealing of the courses for me, and the beer pairings didn’t really help the cause (somewhat surprisingly, this was also the only station that had a queue, with people coming back for multiple oyster servings). I tried three oysters, one with each mignonette, and paired with the Lung Fish Oak Smoked Helles. I know very little about west coast oysters, but I do know that August is not an ideal month in general for fresh oysters. For whatever reason, the bivalves were incredibly briny and, when combined with two of the three mignonettes (only the avocado/cilantro combination really worked for me), completely overpowered the delicate flavors of the Helles. I went back for a fourth oyster (avocado mignonette) to pair with the San Salvador Oyster Shwarzbier with Herbs, and this was a much better pairing, although the brine of the oyster was still very much the dominant flavor.

The second course (which I had fourth) was a perfect pairing: Chilled Cucumber Gazpacho with Smoked Foam paired with the aforementioned Ballast Point Pale Ale Infused with Smoked Serrano Peppers. This beer was hot hot hot… but I had no idea until I drank it a second time straight from the tank without the gazpacho. The cucumber completely neutralized the spiciness without diminishing the flavor of the beer. A+ to Colin and Colby on this combo.gazpachoBP

The third course was a revelation: Grilled Spanish Octopus with mushrooms, cherry tomato, Shishito pepper in a Banyals vinaigrette over garlic puree. This was paired with the Smokescreen Beachwood Smoked Helles. On its surface (and maybe this is where expectation really comes in to play), I should have hated this pairing. I mean, I am no fan of octopus, finding it too chewy and just damn weird to look at . And the Smokescreen was the closest thing to a rauchbier I drank all night (not a beer I ever enjoy). However, the chef treated the octopus for 48 hours before cooking it over an open flame. The result was a lobster-esque tenderness (Colby likened it to string cheese), and the earthiness of the mushrooms plus the smokiness of the Shishitos brought out so many subtle flavors that this was genuinely a gourmand’s dream come true. And the beer was perfect. Best in show for this pairing. I had two servings, I liked it that much.octopusBP

Another course being served by Chef Colin at the same grilling station was a Smoked Pork Rib served with a “Carolina style” smoked beer BBQ Sauce over honey slaw and cornbread crostini. Paired with Abandon Ship Beechwood Smoked Marzen, this pairing brought out both the salty and spicy notes, although I didn’t detect much Carolina in the sauce (that would be mustard based, I assume?). Either way, another excellent match between beer and food.smokedribBP

Finally, dessert was served with a trio of beers:

  • Sour Wench with Raspberries (too soda pop for my taste)
  • 2012 Sour Wench with Marion Blackberries (much nicer version of the Sour Wench)
  • 2011 Boob Check (the cancer awareness collaboration beer they made with White Labs)

dessert_BPThese were paired with a baked “crispy” shortbread over which was poured fresh berries and smoked rose petal curd, topped with a dollop of rosemary cream. The outside of the shortbread had been coated in sugar, and the rosemary cream was a delightful addition, particularly to someone like myself who doesn’t particularly care for sweet desserts.

There was a tenth beer that was supposedly available—the 2010 Three Sheets Barleywine—that I didn’t try to track down, so I don’t know how it tasted. By that point I was with Colby checking out the brewery, and I’d had quite my fill of great food and optimal beer pairings that this dinner offered. I liked this smoked-smoked idea so much that I recommended it to my NYC client, and he’s going to be hosting a smoked beer with food pairings dinner next month.

To see all my San Diego pictures, including more from Ballast Point, please visit (and like) my Facebook page.


San Diego Day 3: A Six-Hour Tour

APlusLimoOne of the things I really enjoy about craft beer people is the age range (I wish I could say I enjoy the diversity, but with a few notable exceptions, we’re largely a majority-male, white, educated group). However, I’m certainly in the mid-age range and I remember Gilligan’s Island fondly, a sitcom based on the notion that a group of strangers head out on a boat for a three-hour tour, only to get caught up in a maelstrom and lost to a desert isle. Without going too far into the premise of the show, Thursday in San Diego was reminiscent, as about a dozen beer bloggers showed up a day early to take a six-hour tour courtesy of APlus Limos and led by our generous host, Michael Puente. Thanks to APlus, we could get around to see more of the amazing breweries San Diego has to offer, including:

  • Societe Brewing Company – A bit of a mash-up between old-world Belgian styles and new California hoppy beers

    The barrel aging room at Societe.

    The barrel aging room at Societe.

  • White Labs – The die-hard beer geek’s personal piece of heaven; had we been stranded here, I would have died happy
  • AleSmith Brewing – Arguably the best drinking spot in San Diego (and go ahead and argue, if you like), where I met Kevin who has offered to drive me to Lost Abbey on Sunday (hi, Kevin!)
  • Benchmark Brewing – With an emphasis on sessionable and table beers

Along the way, we also stopped by a Mexican fast food place; the verde burrito might have been the best I’ve ever had (dunno how I will be able to eat Brooklyn Mexican ever again!). While any of the venues (Council Brewing was also a stop, but I had already drank my way through most of the line-up on Tuesday) would warrant its own blog post, I have to say that White Labs was the most unusual and delicious stop.

For those who may not know, White Labs is the premier harvester of yeast in the U.S., possibly even the world. Their scientists have written the definitive book on yeast, and their tasting room offers up beers named by style and yeast strain (hence, the best beer I’ve had thus far, a porter on cask with the designation WLP028). You can also order a flight of a particular style of beer with four different yeast strains. My porter flight included:

  • WLP006 Bedford British Ale Yeast
  • WLP051 California Ale V Yeast (from northern CA)
  • WLP005 British Ale Yeast (maybe because it was a porter, this was the best of the bunch other than the cask)
  • WLP862 Cry Havoc pitched as a lager (licensed from the king of homebrew himself, Charlie Papazian)
  • Bonus brew: the cask porter made with vanilla soaked oak spiral (I had to ask: rather than aging in barrels, the soaked oak piece is added to the fermenter), vanilla beans, honey and cocoa nibs

BBC14_APlusI also drank the Frankenstout, an eighth generation beer that is made using all 96 varieties of White Labs yeast (don’t ask me how they manage, only that we joked about a sterile mop!). The thought that there are that many yeast strains in a single beer is somewhat outside the scope of my mind to encompass, but the beer was great.

In fact, White Labs (which has long been on my bucket list to visit, and partially why I decided to come to San Diego for the Beer Bloggers Conference) really illustrates the brewers axiom: Brewers make wort; yeast make beer. The variety of flavors among the same beer with different yeast was incredibly broad. I would happily go back to White Labs just to try their flights on a regular basis. As it stands, I have APlus to thank for getting me there safely and in comfort… along with 13 of my beer blogging buds.