Thursday, October 27, 2011

Remember when Anheuser Busch said they weren't going to change Goose Island?

Neither do they.

This does not constitute a sweeping change for Goose Island since the beer apparently had a pretty minimal production. However, they justify dropping a "small volume brand" for the purpose of freeing up space so they can brew interesting beers. That does make a tiny bit of sense. On the other hand... What??? Didn't they just sell to AB for exactly the purpose of expanding without cutting brands?

Perhaps it's nothing, but the wildly speculative side of me* thinks that this was probably a result of corporate cost analysis and perhaps a desire to test the waters of public perception at brand-cutting. We'll continue watching. For the time being, I'm still enjoying Goose Island IPA.

*that is also the side that writes blogs, if you were wondering

Monday, September 19, 2011

Newcastle Werewolf

I recently had the good luck to try some Newcastle Werewolf. I was sent a few bottles for which I'm very appreciative.

Newcastle is an interesting brand. They're owned by Heineken, and for better or worse, "brown ale" is synonmous with the name. I don't mind at all - brown ales have always been one of my favorite beer styles and Newcastle Brown was one of those gateway beers that led me down the path to beer that doesn't taste like PBR (I thank them for that), but I suspect in the changing world of beer, it may seem like a liability. It's usually interesting, if nothing else, when a brand that's defined itself with one beer or one beer style decide to branch out and try something new. Will it be Bud Light, or New Coke?

Enter Newcastle's new line of beers. Werewolf is the second (after their Summer Ale, which I've missed but apparently has been around for a little while). Following along will be a confusing sounding Founder's Ale, and a Winter IPA which sounds like a grand idea. Being right after the hop harvest, winter has always seemed like a better season for IPA than summer when they seem more prevalent.

I think Newcastle have been very smart about several things. First, they aren't pretending so be something they're not; faux-craft seems to be the lamest way big brands have approached the changing market and it almost always falls flat. Second, they haven't stepped so far outside their own history as to seem absurd (a la Guinness lager or Stella Black). Third, the new beers are in brown bottles. I can not emphasize enough what a simple and really good idea this is.

The beer itself does pour a dark ruby red color. The nose is surprisingly biscuity-malty and the cherries-and-fruits aroma that the label promises is right there are well. The body is very light making it easy to drink and there does seem to be a touch of that bready rye flavor, but the aroma and color imply a much deeper flavor than is there. Each sip seems to sort of fade out. This is not a bad thing necessarily, but there could be more going on.

All in all not a bad beer at all and very much what I would have expected if someone told me "red ale. brewed by Newcastle*". The color and use of rye in a potentially big commercial beer like this is potentially interesting, though, as it does seem like they might actually be paying attention to craft beer. I suspect this will make a nice gateway beer for less adventurous yet curious drinkers.

*Note: Newcastle Werewolf is actually brewed by the Heineken owned Caledonian Brewery in Scotland. The flavor profile is remarkably similar to Newcastle Brown Ale, though. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Double IPA showdown

A double IPA showdown: ODell's Myrcenary vs Great Lakes Brewing's Lake Erie Monster.

Both beers have labels on the bottles

I don't do grouped tastings like this very often, but I ought to. It's great fun and one of the most efficient ways to get drunk. On the table were two recent entries in the Double IPA category, at least as far as their availability in this region. In addition to being new, both were also a month or two old. Not wanting to be too in vogue, I do have to try to appear somewhat disinterested. Along those lines, these beers were sitting in the fridge (along with an Oskar Blues Gubna which was about a year old*) because I don't drink a lot of double IPAs. Among beer styles, it has to be one of the most homogeneous. Much like Spinal Tap's proud claim to be one of England's loudest bands, this is probably America's loudest beer style. Of course, there is more to life and beer than just... "more".

Anyways, enough of my bullshit:

The Tasting

I find it's helpful to taste each beer in several different glass-styles to get a complete picture

Both beers contain a similar alcohol level (9.1% for Lake Erie Monster and 9.3% for Myrcenary) and had best before dates within a month of each other and so should be on similar footing for a tasting. Upon opening, both are very intense. Everything is is like a thick orangey-sweet blanket soaked in pine and citrus aroma. They're also bitter. First off is the aroma, which hits you before you even get the glass close to your face. It's a melange of smooth citrus fruits and a hint of piney/grassy aromas.

Lake Erie Monster skews more to the piney grassy side, but is still dominated by citrus: grapefruit tangerine and honey flavors and aromas are all intense. This is also a very sweet beer, which sometimes mutes some of the bitterness, but in this case it's almost too much. The sweet honeyish quality masks any malt flavors that might be hiding within.

On the other side, Myrcenary is also incredibly strong with its citrus aroma but it skews more to the orange and pineapple side of things. It also comes off much drier with a hint of malt and biscuit right at the end. There is also a very noticeable chalky flavor that pairs with the fruitiness to the effect of something a lot like Rolaids. I have to wonder if a hefty dose of gypsum was added to the brew water, because it is quite distinguishable although it does not necessarily detract.

I was quite surprised at the difference visually. Myrcenary on the left

I have to say I am highly partial to Great Lakes Brewing, but the unanimous winner in this case was Myrcenary. The milder sweetness and slight malt undertone made it much more drinkable and palatable than Lake Erie Monster, even in tiny tasting glasses. If I were to feel an urge for a double IPA, I think Myrcenary might be one of the best I've had.

Somehow, Stone Double Bastard didn't make it into this tasting. Maybe next time.

*People will try to tell you that IPAs have to be drunk fresh. As a rule, I try not to listen to people who tell me how things need to be done. Past experience and drinking a year old Gubna next to two relatively fresh versions makes it clear to me that while some hop aroma does fade, when you approach maximum saturation like these beers do, they're not any less walloping after a year.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Summit Silver Anniversary Ale

As you can see from the picture above, I'm drinking Summit's Silver Anniversary Ale. The brewery has now been around for 25 years, which is quite a feat. To celebrate, they've brewed (to my knowledge) their first anniversary beer. It's an IPA I've heard described as double Summit Pale Ale. I would not agree with this assessment, but it is quite delicious. This is the bottle version. I have also tried a pint of it on tap, which for some reason seemed much more harshly bitter and less hoppy and aromatic. Perhaps it was an off keg.

Either way, the bottle version is very nice. It's got very little malt going on, and even less of that earthy grassy hop sort of thing that the Pale Ale has which is just fine. This is a straight away IPA and the Extra Pale Ale is a great pale ale. I have to wonder if they brewed this beer to finally satisfy people who asked and/or critisized Summit for not having a generic and highly hopped IPA: here it is.

I am generally not very excited about hoppy, citrusy IPAs. They've been done to death and there are dozens available everywhere if you want one. That being said, I do enjoy a classic American IPA from time to time and I can understand the appeal. They're gaudy, uncomplicated, and the American versions are unmistakenly American versions. Sometimes that's what you want, and this is a good one.

Tastes and smells, you ask? Lots of pine and herbal hop notes right up front. Some citrus aromas and flavors slide in gracefully afterward and a merry bitterness follows quickly in three part harmonies. There is a bit of body and slick malt as an after thought, but virtually no sweetness (a gift in this type of beer). Not reinventing the wheel by any means, but it's a pretty nice wheel at that.

Monday, August 15, 2011

A request to bars

Please, can we start serving beer in the proper glassware? Craft beer and beer bars are no longer in their infancy in this country. I go to any city of even moderate size and find a bar that offers 30 or more different taps on the chalkboard, several on cask, and even more in bottles. I can get beer from every corner of the brewing world, including that stuff that's brewed in a converted garage down the street.

I think we've outgrown the straight-sided shaker pint glass. It's fine sometimes, but if we're going to take the time to serve beer from 3 different continents (and likely at $6 a pint) it's not too much to ask to have them served in different glasses is it? One glass when you've only got one option is fine, but please, don't serve me a stout, a bitter, and a hefeweizen all in the same type of glass.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Brew City, USA

I spent a little time in Milwaukee recently, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. They call it Brew City, and I don't think the name could be more applicable anywhere else in the US. The presence of Miller, beer in general, and the history of brewing is almost palpable. There's Miller Park, the Pabst Theater, former brewing complexes across the city, and a good beer or bar is never too far away. It's former past as one of the largest brewing cities in the world seems to have left some sense of pride, or at least a sense of identity in Milwaukee. Having spent my youth in and near former-industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, I half expected a bitterness about its former glories, but I didn't sense that at all.

My first night was spent almost entirely at a great pub which just happened to be a few miles from the airport hotel I was staying. As a place that was chosen partially for convenience, I did not have high hopes. Usually this kind of situation means a crappy bar full of sad locals who get a little too enthusiastic with you by the end of the night and only a couple decent beers to choose from. Not the case, dear readers! Not at O'Keefe's House of Hamburg (that is indeed "Hamburg" as in the city in Germany, and that is also "O'Keefe" as in the decidedly un-German surname - awesome). The German history of Milwaukee seems to permeate, from the bratwurst on the menu of the Gyro place we visited earlier, to the German beer and theme of this pub which anywhere else would have been an Irish bar. God bless them for that.

Twelve or more taps (all German from what I could see) protrude from fake barrels on the wall behind the bar; wide, thick wooden tables scatter the place, Ray Wylie Hubbard plays from the speakers in the corner, and a goofy tongue-wagging dog named Molly greets us: instantly I am aware that I'm in a place I would be happy to spend a lot of time in. This could easily be a sad hole in the wall where people within walking distance come to get overly drunk, but instead, it's casual, welcoming, and jovial. Unsurprisingly, it's also a cash only bar (which I rather enjoy, if I'm aware of it before hand since I prefer to pay cash for drinks unless I'm at a place that starts a tab for me as soon as I walk in). After settling in I decided on DAB Pilsner, a beer I'd never had before, and it was absolutely fantastic. I diverted to some sort of Maibock for a round, but the Pilsner was so good I switched back to it for the rest of the night. The body was light with a fluffy malt-graininess and a touch of honeyed sweetness. This is balanced with a mild but a pitch perfect level of grassy, herbal hop bitterness. It was really nicely done. I hope to track down some more.

As a geeky side note. This particular beer was made in Dortmund (DAB stands for Dortmunder Actien Brauerei) but was identified as a pilsner. This confuses my very limited knowledge of these styles, most of which comes from the BJCP which separate Dortmunder lagers from Pilsner lagers, but perhaps the former is more an offshoot of sorts of the latter. That is, if such clean and linear distinctions can be made about the styles, which is rarely the case. I would be interested to hear from anyone who knew more.

Either way, I'll surely be back to check out some of the "can't miss" parts of Brew City that I didn't even get to on this trip.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Stone Brewing, a less-than-love letter

Stone Brewing came to Minnesota a couple of months ago after pulling out of nearby Wisconsin. Stone brews "extreme" beers which while certainly very decent, are not terribly exciting, and certainly aren't extreme in a post Pliny/Hopslam world.

BrewingTV interviewed some of the Stone guys, one of whom was Mitch Steele. About his past at Anheuser-Busch he said:

we were in an environment where the beers we brewed were very much marketing driven and very much competitive.

He inadvertently describes Stone's beers raison d'etre better than I could have. Budweiser, at least, has cost prohibitions on their beer which they have to deal with. Stone's are something that purely seem to be born in the marketing world. I have not had a drop of their beer since coming here, and after watching, I don't feel too bad about it. Greg Koch is a precocious snob, who would be lucky to be as brash and unappealing as his company's marketing is. You can watch him describe Stone's plans to build a brewery in Europe to save European beer drinkers from themselves and also to help build a world where white bread and freeze dried coffee don't exist. I am personally not a fan of freeze dried coffee and store bought bread, but I'm lucky to have the good fortune to be in that position. Most people simply don't have the luxury to buy boutique artisan products. Speaking at a time when unemployment here is at least 10%, the unawareness of any difference between luxury and necessity is a bit too much for this blogger.

Watch and decide for yourself.

Brewing TV - Episode 41: Stone Brewing Co. from Brewing TV on Vimeo.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The importance of regionality

More video today

There are a couple nice things going on in that video. When Mr Stutrud says:
"Some people say that hops are the soul of beer. I couldn't disagree more... you can tell being out here that we're in barley country"

Firstly, that's a little dig at Sam Adams's slightly over simplified "hops are the soul of beer" ads, which I can appreciate. Secondly, it's just nice to actually hear someone talk about flavors other than hops in craft beer. Until now, American craft beer has been hops obsessed, largely due to the west coast brewers who got in the game early. Their hop-focussed beers make some sense being brewed very near to the largest hop growing region in the country, but here in the Midwest which, in addition to being one of (if not the) biggest supplier of grain and malt, was also historically the largest brewing region in the nation. This brewing output of course consisted mostly of lager and other beers which would have been mild in flavor (relative to the craft beer of today). Those tastes are still obviously alive and well if you look at some of the largest regional brewers (and their biggest brands): New Glarus (Spotted Cow a light farmhouse ale) Goose Island (312 Urban Wheat) and Summit (whose biggest brand I believe is Extra Pale Ale followed closely by hefeweizen which I have been told is produced year round for sale in Chicago, which drinks massive amounts of it).

So cheers to that and cheers to regionality. Craft beer continues to grow, and it's certainly matured to the point where nuance and regional tastes can have a place in the market. After all, regionality is truly the soul of beer.

Thanks to Appellation Beer on which I saw this video

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Michael and me

This clip was recently posted by Draft Magazine. I would highly encourage watching it. It's highly entertaining and stars beer writer Michael Jackson.

This clip reminded me of my first exposure to Michael Jackson when I saw him on Conan some years before that interview (based on this list I am pretty certain I saw him in 1998). I was not into good beer at that time, but the interview was amusing and Jackson was entertaining and charming as I gather he almost always was, so it stuck with me. As I started to dabble and learn more about beer, his name popped up. First on a label of Lion Stout where I thought "I've seen him, I know that name!" and later in various reviews and books that were checked out of the library. At every stage of my beer appreciation, Michael Jackson had always been there first, and was always (still is) an accessible, informative source hovering just out of sight watching over us. If you can't tell, I feel very indebted to Michael (as everyone who loves good beer should) and was completely thrown back to see an interview with him. That clip was taken the year before he died and he was still witty and quick on his feet. Like many other people, I think I did not realize that he had Parkison's Disease late in life, and I probably giggled at how sloshed he seemed right out of the gate.

This probably would have been a better post for his birthday, but anytime of the year is a good time to raise a glass to Michael.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye

I had the chance to try Bear Republic's Hop Rod Rye. This isn't something we can get in Minnesota, but I picked up a bottle while over the river in Wisconsin. After getting it home and taking a closer look, I braced myself for a poor drinking experience. The bottle wasn't even completely full. As you can see below, it was filled about an inch or more below the normal fill level for a 12 ounce bottle.

It was also completely full of yeast and hop residue. I normally take care to leave sediment behind in the bottle when pouring, but this one had so much it was almost unavoidable (I almost wonder if this was the very last bottle off the line) and it basically looked like OJ with pulp.

mmmm pulpy.
To my delight, though, it tasted fantastic. It poured with a pretty small head which dissipated quickly. The aroma was thick with dank hops in the aroma. Full of moss and orange peel hop-bitterness, it was attention grabbingly bitter and nicely sweet and full bodied to match. The flavor was like honey-and-maple drizzled hops. West coast brewers often seem content with pushing one flavor-dimension to the obvious extreme, but this beer happens to push them all to the extreme in equal portions, and ends up with something balanced. Extremely balanced? I am informed by the label that this beer is brewed with rye, although I can't really pick anything rye-ish out in the flavor. It does have a nice crackery malt component which I sometimes associate with rye malt, and either way it's very pleasant. My only regret is not buying more.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dave's Brewfarm

I [finally] had the opportunity to get out to Dave's Brewfarm last weekend. After hearing about it I've been dying to check it out. If the name doesn't give you an idea, it's a farmhouse brewery, Wisconsin style and it was fantastic. If you haven't heard of Dave's Brewfarm, it's probably due to the fact that they do not do any advertising or even internet or "street" marketing. Instead, just as you might hope, the farm-brewery happily maintains a low volume business and relies on word of mouth and locals for support. They have 2 beers available in bottles or cans which are contract brewed in a near by production facility. The brewery on the farm serves to brew pilot batches and supplies for the tasting room. As you can see below the eponymous brewmaster crafts beer on a small-brewpub sized rig as well as some homebrew-sized equipment. It's enough to make a Minnesota dwelling* homebrewer extremely jealous.

Dave's BrewFarm's farm house brew house

The brewfarm is a short hour-drive from the Twin Cities, and not a bad drive at that. I love Wisconsin. The weather and scenery at this time of year is almost Irish. As such, it was grey and drizzling when we left. After crossing the St Croix River, we quickly stopped for some fried cheese curds. Further along, near Baldwin, WI it was realized that the Brewfarm is almost certainly cash-only (it is - be forewarned if you plan to go) and so we stopped to get some cash. The woman behind the counter at the gas station informed me that all the ATMs in the whole town were down (still not sure exactly what that meant) but that she could give me some cash from the register. How nice! Cash in hand we were minutes from arriving.

Raindrops on the windshield

The tap room was surprisingly full. The St Paul Homebrew Club happened to be there on the same day, but even so, apparently 40 or so people during tasting hours is about the average. Despite the noise produced by a largely drunk homebrew club, it was fantastic. The tap room and the brewhouse share the same room and complementary Fleet Farm peanuts top the bar and folding tables. With 8 beers on tap (2 rotated in while we were there for 10 total) and flights available, it really feels more like a tiny beer festival than a bar or a tap room. Correction, it's more like what you would want a beer festival to be like: small, intimate, completely lacking loud douchebags, and the actual brewer is there and willing to talk for a bit.

Dave in the back and a beer he made

And just like that as we left, perfectly on cue, having had a wonderful time and moods being lifted as they do by good company and good beer, the sun came out. Sadly, they do close and so we had to leave but will surely be back.

*Minnesota laws prohibit selling on-premise alcohol from a home, brewpubs from distributing off-premise beer, wholesale breweries from serving beer in a tap room or holding a liquor license, and many breweries from selling growlers.

Monday, May 2, 2011

City Pages Best of

The City Pages best of the Twin Cities came out recently. Generally I find their results to be misinformed and frustrating. See: best brewpub 2009 - the Happy Gnome (which, mind you, is not even a brew pub) but this year they did alright. Below are the beer-centric cliff notes.

Best Beer List
The Muddy Pig

Best Brew Pub
Town Hall Brewery

Best Neighborhood Bar St Paul
The Muddy Pig

Best Neighborhood Bar Minneapolis
Tootie's on Lowry

Best Local Beer
Surly Abrasive

It may be a little silly to have picked the same place for two awards, but I love the Muddy Pig so damn much, it doesn't bother me. Some of the other selections might not have been my picks, but they at least made sense. I've never been to "Tootie's", for example (nor will I ever), but it seems like a nice enough place. I think we've also produced better beers than Abrasive, but it's a beer that captures the ideology behind one of the defining breweries in the Twin Cities and so, I can see it's place on the list.

As I write this, I also realize I have never blogged about Town Hall brewery which is the clear choice for best brew pub and probably ever will be so. It's one of my favorite brew pubs I've ever spent time in, and despite some minor quibbles, it is well deserving of a blog post and a visit again, soon.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

International Homebrew Project recap

A bit behind schedule, but finished nonetheless. The beer brewed for the International Homebrew Project was voted on, brewed, bottled and now it has also been drunk. I can say it was one of the most interesting recipes I have ever brewed. My version of the brew was a 2.5 gallon batch that turned out having a higher original gravity and a higher final gravity than any of the other brewers. I only got about 60% attenuation which I can only explain by assuming that the invert sugar ended up being mostly unfermentable. My version ended up looking like this:

OG: 1.060
FG: 1.036
IBU 40
abv: 3.2%

2.5 lbs Warminster Maris Otter  51%
0.375 lbs Simpson's Dark Crystal 8%
0.5 lbs Amber malt 10%
0.375 lbs Brown malt  8%
0.375 lbs Roasted barley  8%
0.5 lbs lactose  10%
0.25 invert sugar  5%
0.5 ounces fuggle @ 120 min
0.4 ounces kent golding (super kent at 7.2% AA) @ 90 min
Wyeast 1318 London III
~0.5 lbs lactose in priming solution

Upon tasting, it has an extremely powerful flavor for a beer of 3.2%. There is so much lactose, and the final gravity is so high, that it's just very thick and is something of a sipping beer. As you can see from the picture, the carbonation has not fully developed in the bottles, and I think once it does it may provide a counter point to some of that thickness. In either case, it drinks and tastes like a much bigger beer. I genuinely think I could enter this in a competition as an imperial stout and do well with it. I just may. It's absolutely jet black and opaque in the glass. The flavor is dominated by dark malts and roastiness. There is a pronounced dark/unsweetened-chocolate flavor that hits you right up front and dominates the palate. There are some toasty malt notes as well as some berry-like fruitiness followed by some sweetness, but not as much as you might expect. Bitterness from the hops is mild-to-moderate but persistent as is a slight grassiness. The roasty coffee-like flavors and the slight fruitiness gives an experiance very much like drinking cold press coffee, and in a good way.

I think this ended up being a great beer. I don't mean to give myself much credit for that fact: the original recipe from the Barclay Perkins brewing logs is due all the real credit. Had it not been for the vote going the way it did, I probably wouldn't have ever given one of these historic recipes a chance, but I'm glad I did, and I hope to brew others in the future.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Beating a dead Goose

Just another quick note on the sale of Goose Island. After the internet exploded with reactions for and against the sale last week, they've been in hyper PR mode. This interview attempts to quell some of the backlash. In it, founder and CEO John Hall somewhat inadvertently confirms exactly what I had questioned about the potential transformation of Goose Island.
"But Anheuser-Busch didn't buy us to change us. It bought us because we can do things its people can't. They're megabig, so it's harder to get people who sell huge brands to really push new products. As in a lot of industries, it's the small guys who are really creative, because they have to be creative. That's what's made us what we are."
Yet they're no longer who they were. They are big. They are owned by the largest beerish-drinks company on the face of the Earth. Assuming John knows what he's talking about, how does Goose Island plan on acting like a small company when they no longer are? He doesn't mention anything about it in the interview, but I sure agree with his assessment of the problem with big brewers.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Session: How do they make me buy the beer?

This month's session is hosted by A Good Beer Blog which poses the very zen-like question "how do they make me buy the beer?"

My first thought is that I'm not really sure. How do they make me breathe the air? I suspect there is a similar mechanism at work. For all the talk about branding and commercialism etc. beer really does an excellent job of selling itself. By many accounts, beer and the birth of civilization are linked, and in beer drinking cultures, I think it's very much considered a staple, so I don't really think anyone needs to make me buy beer.

That's really more of an answer to the [unasked] question "why do we drink beer?" but this topic is about selecting a specific beer, and the reasons for doing so. If I were going to make this simple I would just say "putting beer in a cask". Any beer that's on cask at a bar, I will order, almost without exception. Bottled beer I don't buy all that often because frankly, I don't really have the budget for it. I don't buy beer on price alone, but in the world of craft beer and $10 bombers, I'm frequently out of my depth. The majority of the beer I drink at home is beer I've made. When I do spring for some treats, I tend much more toward beers that I know by reputation from traditional breweries that I may not be able to get easily. A bottle of Hook Norton and one of Uerige Alt I found at the local bottle shop were much more exciting to me than the latest double IPA or sour beer. Frequently, my drinking persuasion is much more an exercise in beer flavor anthropology and curiosity for my own brewing than the palate version of an eating contest that extreme beers tend to provide. There is, of course, a time and place for those beers, but it's rarely something that moves me to buy their beer.

So there it is, clear as mud.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Goose Island Selling to AB Inbev

If, for some reason, you haven't heard, Goose Island have been sold to super-mega beverage giant AB InBev. I say "sold to" because that's exactly what happened. Goose Island wasn't bought, it was sold. There is a very nice and level headed interview here with current Brewmaster Greg Hall. Sadly (and the worst part about this deal is that) he'll be stepping down as brewmaster of Goose Island. He states that nothing is going to change about the beers after the sale, but since he's stepping down as brewmaster, he can't really say what's going to happen once he's gone, can he?

Apparently the sale was motivated by a desire to expand. Fortuitously, in seeking funding for a 1.3 million dollar expansion, Goose Island was able to stumble onto the 38.8 million that AB paid. This all begs the question in my mind: why does capacity need to increase? It may seem a silly question, but if sales are good and steady with current production abilities, and everyone is making money, why the push to turn into something completely different? Granted, there is demand, but does demand need to be met at all costs? As small and regional brewers seek to rise to the challenge of delivering their beer to every possible consumer in America, they inevitably become something that's no longer regional or small. This is great for the bottom line, and plenty of people will be happy to defend any decision which pads profits, but as a consumer, why would I possibly care about such a thing? Regional tastes and ingredients are inextricably linked to beer styles and beer flavor. Could their 312 wheat or oatmeal stout have come to be on the West Coast? Would Bourbon county stout ever have been brewed in St Louis? I don't think so, and I would be surprised if we see the kind of innovation we've seen from the Fulton Street brewery that we've seen in the past.

Goose Island's predicament isn't a unique one. John Hall started Goose Island 23 years ago. He's now in his 60's and demand for craft beer in this country is reaching unprecedented levels. This is sort of a perfect storm for the sale of a business and it's emblematic to what's going on across the industry right now. The first generation of craft brewers are reaching the age at which control of their breweries will need to passed along in some way. Jim Koch of Boston Beer is 62; last year at the age of 72, Anchor Brewing's Fritz Maytag sold what many call the first modern craft brewery to investors; likewise, Bell's Brewery has been in business for 26 years, and Sierra Nevada is 30 years old. All are companies old enough that the founders are likely thinking about exit strategies. While these first generation brewers and breweries are reaching a transitional age, the quest for growth is changing the landscape as well. Bell's recently aquired 52 million dollars for an expansion, Dogfish Head also announced earlier this month that it will be pulling out of several export markets even after its recent expansion in order to keep up with demand. This is a story that's reverberating around the world of craft beer right now. Given the age and the profitability of these breweries, it would be very easy for craft beer to lose its identity in the kind of consolidation that helped create the craft beer movement to begin with. If craft beer is a revolution, the founders of the revolution are staged to transition power to another generation. If they don't stay true to the ideals they began with, the whole thing will fall apart, or at least mutate into something unrecognizable. The answer to me seems simple: maintain regionality, and maintain growth at a sustainable and reasonable pace. New Glarus is an outstanding example of this model, and because of it, they've been able to produce amazing beers without over extending themselves and alienating their customers.

If you haven't gathered, I am disappointed by the sale. I feel no need to be an apologist for Anheuser Busch: they have ruined beer in America for generations of people. Some may argue with that, but even AB loyalists must admit that at the very least, they've been at the wheel during the worst period in time for beer, which makes them well deserving of some distaste and suspicion. As I write this, Anheuser Busch does not make any good or great beer. They do not own any companies that make great beer. I suppose it's possible that Goose Island under AB InBev will continue to make great beer, but I see no historical reason to believe such a thing will happen. At best, Anheuser Busch won't ruin Goose Island. That's the best possible scenario, and that's what defenders of the sale are hopeful for. I have not heard anyone (even people in support of the sale) suggesting that the deal could possibly improve Goose Island's beers, which I think says a lot.

As it stands, I very much enjoy Goose Island's beers and I plan to continue to drink them. I remain skeptical of the possible good that could come from the deal, but I'll reserve judgement until we actually see what happens.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Are you Loathsome Tonight?

Because I think Bell's Brewery might be.

Some back story: Northern Brewer sells homebrewing equipment and supplies. They have a beer kit (the raw ingredients to make beer) called Three Hearted Ale. It's based on Bell's extremely popular beer Two Hearted Ale. Earlier this week the lawyers from Bell's sent Northern Brewer a cease and desist letter explaining that their Three Hearted beer kit is infringing on the beer's trademark. There may be some sort of justification for a craft brewery doing something like this to protect its trademark, but frankly, even if there is, I don't really care about it. As far as I'm concerned, this is completely outside the spirit of craft brewing. Squabbling over trademarks? With other people in the industry? It's downright ridiculous. I don't think I'm alone in that thought either. Hours after mentioning the trouble on their facebook page, Northern Brewer was inundated with comments of support for them, anger with Bell's, and even some calling for a boycott of Bell's beer (unfortunately, I don't think I could participate in a boycott of Bell's beer even if I wanted to, as they brew some of my favorite beer on planet Earth, but that doesn't really excuse the behavior). Is this sort of action really necessary in a world that has built itself on producing a "craft" product? It's a move you'd expect to see from one of the big brewers, but hardly from Bell's.

And this is all assuming that somehow a beer kit could possibly violate a trademark for a commercial beer. In Bell's reaction to the backlash they ludicrously base their claim, in part, on this statement

"Bell's Brewery are of the opinion that there is a likelihood of confusion between [Northern Brewer's] mark and the trademarks for TWO HEARTED owned by Bell's Brewery. The marks create the same overall commercial impression. Furthermore, the goods associated with your mark and the trademark for Two Hearted are identical." (my emphasis added)

So even if this sort of litigiousness and paranoia was somehow justified in the communal world of craft beer, the idea that a consumer would mistake a pile of hops and malt that you can make into beer, with bottles of packaged beer is absolutely absurd. There's also the small fact that the Three Hearted Ale kit has existed for 9 years without Bell's either realizing or caring about it, which certainly doesn't point to it endangering or getting confused with their brand. Finally, there's the small matter that there are probably half a dozen homebrew supply companies that have similar beer kits based on real beers. Austin Homebrew has hundreds. Even Northern Brewer has a dozen or so similar kits that are based on everything from New Belgium's Fat Tire to Timothy Taylor's Landlord without a single peep or complaint from any of the breweries in ownership of those brands. Surly even came right out and gave away the recipes for 5 of their extremely sought after and well loved beers for use in Northern Brewer's Pro Series beer kits. The names are even right on the kits, verbatim. There was certainly no harm done there.

Well by now, it's been over a day (which is a month in internet time) since the letter was revealed on facebook and the backlash began, so Northern Brewer and Bell's are friends again. No one actually got sued and no brands were harmed in the forming of this controversy, but I'm still left with a sour taste in my mouth. All this touches on something I may expand upon in another post: is this where craft beer is headed? Small brewers viciously clinging to trademarks and brands? Suing homebrewers and fans of beer for trademark infringements? It seems the exact sort of thing that craft beer drinkers claim to dislike about AB InBev and Coors. Let's hope it doesn't become the norm.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal that I work for the homebrew supply in question and hence am not impartial. My thoughts do not reflect those of Northern Brewer.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Counterpoint: push out the hate, bring in the love

Recently, some of the local craft-beer types have been discussing the issue of dirty beer lines on Twitter. Specifically, by calling out bars that serve beer from dirty lines with a #TCdirtylines hashtag. You can read about the inspiration for the idea by the gentleman who started it over at Beer Genome. This conversation is something of a follow up to the recent #MNCleanpint silliness that was going around recently.

There are some very good points made at Beer Genome. In the interest of getting good beer to customers, having clean beer lines is absolutely essential. It's certainly more valuable than having a "beer clean" (as opposed to regular clean) glass which actually does nothing to improve the flavor of beer. Beer geeks love to talk about "lacing" though, despite it not really being an indication of anything intrinsically related to beer quality. It's true that residual detergent and sanitizer can ruin beer lacing, but lipids do as well. Lipids, which can be present on unclean glasses, are also naturally present in beer. They're a bi-product of healthy yeast, and also exist in higher quantities in grains like rye and oats than in barley which tend to leave certain beers with a less long-lasting head and less lacing. Next time you're at your favorite brewpub compare a pint of IPA to a pint of oatmeal stout. Don't tell anyone, though, lest we have to talk about how beer tastes instead of how it looks.

Which is what brings us back to dirty beer lines, which can, and do, drastically affect the flavor of beer. An unpleasant nutty, or buttery flavor can be due to beer lines which have not been cleaned regularly. They can also occur in beer itself, regardless of the lines.  And while I agree that it's something which should be prevented, I'm very wary and skeptical that calling bars out on Twitter (or anywhere) is the best way to do so. Firstly, and most importantly, there is really no way for a bar patron to determining that the beer in their glass was served through dirty beer lines unless they're under the bar. Much as we hate to admit it, beer faults can originate at the brewery as well. Asking random people to accuse their bar of having dirty lines because of a perceived flavor defect is a witch hunt. While it may be satisfying to publicly label a bar with perceived dirty lines, the best course of action is to send the beer back, tell the bartender why you're sending it back, and ask for something else. Most bars will accommodate such a request if made politely. If they don't, leave and don't go back. Secondly, it's ultimately the brewery's and distributor's responsibility to ensure that their beer is being served properly. Letting either of them know, in addition to letting the bar know about your experience is much more valuable than a passive aggressive scarlet letter. We should at least give them the chance to solve the problem, right?

And anyways, who really cares about bars that refuse to clean their lines? I'd be much more interested in hearing about bars who DO serve their beer consistently well. #TCgoodbeerbar seems much more productive to me. If we're really interested in preventing dirty beer lines, legislation and being vigilant are much more effective, in my opinion.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Summit - [new] Gold Sovereign [and improved] Maibock

"Spring is in the air" what I might say if I lived below the 44th parallel. Since I don't, it is still very much winter as I write this on the 15th of March. As such, the weekend excursion to the Muddy Pig was a hair-raising ordeal across 6 blocks of completely ice-coated sidewalks. The wind is still blowing, wearing multiple layers is required, and snow banks are still waist-high. Once there, I was rewarded, though. Summit's new releases put me in a snow-melt state of mind. The Maibock is out a couple months early, as usual. Their seasonals always seem to come out a bit before you might expect, but I don't mind at all. It's become a tradition of wishful thinking. Early-summer beers in March, Oktoberfest in August, etc. I quite enjoyed the Maibock.

The star of the show on Friday night, though, was the newest release in the Unchained series, Gold Sovereign. The beer is apparently based on a Victorian-era recipe. Damian McConn, the brewer behind Sovereign Gold was on hand most of the night to talk about his beer and he described some of the trouble in getting the top-cropping strain of British yeast to clear. The beer is unfiltered and does pour a hazey, light, golden color. Gold Sovereign utilizes Boadicea, Sovereign, Pilgrim, and First Gold hops. It really is a showcase for British hops and it doesn't go easy on them. This is a bitter, hop-forward drinking experience for sure. There is a dominating, lemony, grassy punch right at the beginning of the first sip that lingers for a while and eventually fades into a mild saltine-like maltiness at the finish. I expected something malty, sweet, or warming based on the description, but this is a drinking-beer. For a something that's in the 6% abv range, it is extremely quenching and easy to drink. I'm not the only one who thought so, either. Two hours after the tapping, the cask was empty and by Sunday when I stopped in for another drink, the keg was also completely gone. I wondered previously if the beer's obscure origin and style might affect its popularity, but that certainly wasn't the case during the release weekend. It will hopefully be available on tap shortly, and the bottles are set to release the week of March 21.

OG 1.060
Organic Westminster Malt
Boadicea, Sovereign, Pilgrim, First Gold hops

Summit's Maibock is much improved over previous years. I have found it disappointing or lackluster in the past. No longer. For 2011, Summit is using a new Moravian Pilsner malt as the base. Their Moravian malt is made from a barley variety originating in the Czech Republic. It's grown in North Dakota (allegedly by some of Summit-owner, Mark Stutrud's family) and is under modified* when malted which is a more traditional method of production. The end result is amazing. Summit has tweaked their Maibock in years past and it tended toward the sweet side in the style of most American Maibocks. This version is sublime. It rises right to the top of my list. If anyone can think of a better American Maibock, well, I'd be interested in trying them side by side. Summit Maibock 2011 is easy-drinking and complex. The holy grail of beer, as far as I'm concerned. Each sip is like a new experience. Soft, smooth malt flavors dance with nuanced hops. Balance is the word of the day. You first sink into gentle, creamy malt like an overstuffed sofa only to be greeted by your good friend hops. "Hello hops!".  Further sips reveal spicy, floral, grassy (artichoke leaves?), and a slight piney-ness all accompanied by that classic well-made-lager malt component.Great lagers are sorely missing from the American craft brewing community (and not without reason - they are difficult and more expensive to produce) so this is a welcome improvement in my book. The only shame is that it's a seasonal. I hope Summit brings it back without change next year.

OG 1.060
abv: 6.5%
IBU: 40
Moravian Pilsner malt, Munich malt
Czech Saaz, Mt Hood hops

*under modification refers to the a lower level of starches and proteins which are converted and readily available after the malting process. Under modified malts hence require additional processing by the brewer but yield a different or better flavor.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

International Homebrew Project: Brewday

Last Saturday was the designated brewday for the International Homebrew Project. Sadly, my camera battery died right at the beginning of the brewing so I have no pictures. Posts about brewing without brewing-porn are pretty useless, but as a record, I thought I'd blog my experience. This is a highly unusual recipe, and I did learn some things that would be good to know if I ever brew a historical recipe (likely from Shut Up About Barclay Perkins) some time in the future. I do 3 gallon batches, so I had to scale the recipe up for efficiency and then down. This what I ended up with:

OG: 1.060
IBU 40

2.5 lbs Warminster Maris Otter  51%
0.375 lbs Simpson's Dark Crystal 8%
0.5 lbs Amber malt 10%
0.375 lbs Brown malt  8%
0.375 lbs Roasted barley  8%
0.5 lbs lactose  10%
0.25 invert sugar  5%

0.5 ounces fuggle @ 120 min
0.4 ounces kent golding (super kent at 7.2% AA) @ 90 min

You can see the recipe on hopville here as well. I opted for maris otter because I dislike mild malt. I suspect modern versions of mild malt are nothing like the mild malt of half a century ago, anyhow.

Making the invert sugar was an imprecise process. My small batch size means I only needed 4 ounces of sugar. If I was thinking, I would have made a larger batch of invert and saved some, but as it was, trying to boil 4 ounces of sugar in 8 ounces of water made it very difficult to monitor the temperature. Nonetheless, there did seem to be a noticeable burnt sugar, creme brulee kind of thing going on in the wort sample. It really tasted amazing. The invert sugar flavor paired with roasty and toasty flavors from brown and amber malts on top of coffee and dark chocolate from the roasted barley should make this a really nice beer.

The other thing was the outrageously long boil. My gravity ended a bit high because I boiled off more than expected. Almost 50% boil off at the end of it.

I chose to use Wyeast 1318 which is apparently Boddington's yeast for this batch. I'm not sure why Kristen England recommend this yeast, but I hadn't really used it before, so I wanted to give it a shot. A week before this brewday, I brewed a pale ale (with some Canada malting pale malt - a new variety for me) to prep the yeast. I conducted an open fermentation and skimmed off the first krausen, pictured below. The second krausen that formed was saved in a mason jar, pictured further below, for the IHBP. This also presented a problem as yeast skimmed from actively fermenting beer also contained unfermented wort, so the jar had to be burped periodically to release pressure.

God forgive me for taking so many pictures of yeast. There must be help for people like me.

You can really see what a top cropping and flocculant yeast this is here

A gravity sample yesterday showed the beer at 1.040 which is about half way there since I expect this to finish around 1.018 or so. The partially fermented wort sample tasted much different than expected with almost no sweetness, so it will really be interesting to see how the beer develops.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Session 49: Regular Beer

Stan over at Appellation Beer is hosting this month's session for the topic of regular beer.

"Regular beer" could mean quite a few different things. I think has 29 definitions for the word "regular", so we could easily jump down the rabbit hole. A beer I drink regularly, in my thinking, is by definition going to be a regular beer, so that's what I'll go with. When I think of these beers, they're frequently the same beers I think of when I talk about comfort beer: beers that you can find comfort in without being pummeled with strong and extreme flavors. Largely, this is the antithesis of craft beer in this country, since light lager has almost ruthlessly defined what "regular beer" that doesn't impose itself is. So "regular" is not a word many of us use to describe beer we're passionate about.  It's a word I hear most commonly used by people who dislike craft beer, and flavorful beer. It's a word used to describe something in contrast to craft beer. As in, "reg'lar beer". I recall sitting around campfires with Coors Light drinking friends who handed down the decision that oatmeal stout was, in fact, not regular beer and may in fact be hippy beer, or kind of weird. More recently I was at a local beer bar (it's not so much a beer bar as a music venue with about 10 taps or so of mostly decent beer although the shortest pours in town) when I saw a member of a band who was playing that night order a couple of Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout. To my amazement, since these were on the house, they poured two full pints of BBC, only to have both pints returned minutes later because the gentleman ordering them thought that they were gonna be "regular" and hence he did not like them. I watched in horror as they were dumped down the drain. It would have been easy for a beer snob to step in and say something, but that's a bit prickish, so I kept my thoughts to myself. In matters of personal taste, no one needs unsolicited advice. Inside, though, I felt a bit like Willem Dafoe in that famous scene from Platoon. It's instances like these that make it easy for some of us to write off "regular beer", but regular does not necessarily mean plain, ordinary, or bland just because that's what it means to light-lager drinkers. My regular, most commonly, is Summit Pale Ale. Something you can find almost everywhere in the Twin Cities. If you open Michael Jackson's Beer Companion or Great Beer Guide you can see Summit Extra Pale Ale right there, too. To my disappointment, it's occasionally panned by local beer geeks who take it for granted. It's not the most explosive and obnoxious beer, but its supremely sessionable quality is sandwiched between spicy floral hops in the tradition of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and crunchy, biscuity malt in a more Midwestern tradition. The result is something that's interesting and drinkable, but easy to overlook in the world of 8% abv double-imperial-everythings. Many a local beer geek was weaned on Summit Extra Pale Ale (just a "Summit" if you're ever ordering one anywhere in Minnesota) only to forget its pleasure. Not I. So let's hear not for crappy, middling, or bland beer, but regular beer.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Beer Review: 21A Bitter American and Anderson Valley IPA

I guess we're doing a West Coast themed beer review over here at A Flagon of Ale this week. Hella, brah.

I had to drive over the border to Wisconsin to get a bottle of Anderson Valley's Hop Ottin IPA. There must be something about the curvature of the Earth that makes it easier for west coast brewers to ship their beers to Wisconsin before Minnesota despite our apparent proximity. Perhaps our unfavorable and outdated laws have something to do with it. Speaking of California beer by way of Wisconsin news, Stone Brewing will definitely be coming to MN. They have a distributor and events lined up in the Twin Cities. Stone's marketing seems to get in the way of their beer, but they're going to have 20 taps at the Muddy Pig (as well as events with fewer taps at the Acadia, Stub & Herb's and other beer bars) so there will be something for any beer lover to enjoy, and more breweries in MN is a good thing. There have been rumors flying about Stone leaving Wisconsin. These are mostly unfounded, but if true, probably won't bode well for them in Minnesota. If any brewery can't make it in one of the drinkiest states in the country (who, by the way are unhindered by the like of the MLBA) they'll never make it here. On to the beer:

21A's Bitter American is something I was eager to try because it's labeled as an "American session beer" which I would greatly like to see more of in the world of craft beer. Also, it's an American take on a British style by a California brewery that's brewed and canned in Minnesota. Lots of room for something to get lost in translation there, but I'm glad to say that wasn't the case. Granted, in spite of the alcohol content, this isn't really a session beer in my mind because the explosive, bombastic hop flavor that comes at you makes it hard for me to imagine drinking more than one in a row. A session beer should have a reasonable alcohol level, as well as an unobtrusive flavor, but I certainly won't hold that against this beer. Baby steps. To appeal to craft beer drinkers (and it should) Bitter American is essentially a small IPA. It's got huge piney, almost acetonic aromas from the hops and a nice bitter kick as well. It would have been easy for this beer to be overwhelmingly bitter without the malt and alcohol that many IPAs rely on, but it isn't. Hop heads delight: Bitter American has huge flavor without huge alcohol. Will this be the face of American session beer? Perhaps. There is also a chimpanzee on the can which I don't understand. I generally dislike cans, but won't say anything bad about this one. The art is interesting, and it doesn't get confused for soda or an energy drink sitting in the cooler. summary: great beer, will buy this again.

Anderson Valley's Hop Ottin' IPA is one I've been eager to try for a while. It seems to be one of those pioneering, early-ish American IPAs (anyone know if this impression is correct? I couldn't find out when it was first brewed with the Google). There is a folksy story on the label explaining the name. Anderson Valley's IPA is overwhelmingly dominated by bitterness. The first impression is of a powerful bitterness and the finish is even more bitter as it lingers. It's like bench clamp of bitterness on the palate which doesn't leave room for much else. Malt flavors seem to be pushed very far in the background, as are any alcohol or estery notes. The aroma is that of an American IPA: lots of citrus, grapefruit, etc. Overall a nice beer, but not very inspired. I'd drink it again, but I don't think I would seek it out.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

This Week in News

So here are some the things I've been reading:

A recent report from the WHO states that America ranks 57th in alcohol consumption in per capita alcohol consumption compared to other countries. Not nearly as bad as you might think. I wonder how our rate of alcohol-related crime stacks up? I found no mention of it in the report. As the country that brought prohibition to the world* As a country who's drinking culture is still defined by prohibition, there are a lot of teetotalers here which I suspect makes a difference. I also fear that this is really indicative of beer culture in the US: namely, that most people don't really care about it. This, of course, just feeds the binge and purge drinking mentality that is aided so well by tasteless light lager. The first step to responsible drinking is enjoying what you're drinking.

It looks like hop and grain prices may be increasing for home brewers, and possibly for beer drinkers as well. The National Hop Report shows that hop production was down 31% this harvest over the last. Amarillo and Simcoe hops seem to be especially scarce for home brewers, although that fact may not be indicative of what's going on in craft beer at large. Home brew stores are generally the last to get hops from suppliers after the harvest, so any shortages are felt by home brewers harder than by commercial brewers. There are also rumors that grain prices will also rise this year. I don't expect to see any crises, but prices may jump.

Jeff at Beervana recently wondered "Why can't Milds be Wild?" in which he states
I have given up the idea that low-gravity, malt-forward session beers will ever find more than the nichiest of niche followings.
Hate to say I couldn't disagree more. I don't know that Jeff is wrong, but I want him to be wrong. Hop-driven beers are nice, but can't we have something else, too? After a while, super bitter, and super hoppy beers are fairly one-dimensional. I won't say that I don't enjoy a hop bomb when the mood strikes, and I was frequently blown away by them (like I think most people were) in my nascent stages of beer appreciation, but I certainly think there is room for delicious, low gravity session beers, too. Eventually the hop-bubble has to burst and hopefully a tide of balanced, nuanced beers will emerge. If we ever want craft beer to represent a substantial share of the market, it's going to be on the back of something that's low gravity and approachable to non-beer-nerds.

I see here that Anderson Valley's beers are going into cans soon. I'm going to keep beating on this drum: I dislike cans. My preference is purely aesthetic and  superficial, but I just do not want to pay $10 for a six pack of cans. Especially when they look like this:
Generic soda, anyone?

Canned beer is synonymous with terrible beer to me. Perhaps its something I'll get past at some point, but as I've said before, cans are the best and fastest way for a brewery (and craft beer in general) to piss away any "brand equity" that they might have as a quality product. Packaging and image damn well matters, just ask Steve Jobs.  Here's an analogy: nest time you have a party, put out cans of Coke next to glass bottles of Coke and see which people gravitate towards. The can looks like something you would stock your fallout shelter with, the glass bottle is visually appealing and nice. It's like a treat. Also, cans can't be refilled with home brew.

Goose Island is going to have their IPA and Honker's Ale contract brewed out of state in Portsmouth, NH. Apparently, this is where Redhook is brewed. I am a big fan of Goose Island and I say good for them. Rent isn't cheap in Chicago, and you could tell that some of their beers were occasionally being rushed out early. Their 312 wheat beer especially seemed to suffer from this. It also sounds like they've really taken the time to get things right at the contracted brewery.

Stan at Appellation Beer recently mentioned the Cicerone program to which I responded that
"I hate the poncey, arrogant, cicerone crap. If there has ever been a greater crime committed in the name of wine-ifying beer, I don’t know what it is"
 And I do. I didn't want to clog someone else's blog with ranting and complaining, but the Cicerone program is steering things in absolutely the wrong direction, as far as I'm concerned. I know some certified Cicerones, and they're all very nice and enthusiastic about beer. Ray Daniels by all accounts is also a nice guy. His books were a huge resource for me in home brewing. However, it drives me up the wall when people long for the world of beer to match the world of wine. The Cicerone program does that. While I appreciate an effort to "educate" servers and bar staff about beer, it's not fucking wine, and honestly, it's not really very complicated. The program was conceived as a counter point to the wine "Sommelier" which in itself is simply a way to make wine and places that serve wine seem more exclusive, sophisticated, and to pamper to wine douches. All things that the beer world gloriously does not have, and does not need. Beer is good because it's simple. Any beer bar worth anything will happily offer you a sample glass of beer so you can decide whether or not you want it. At most, any pint of beer will cost, what $10 at the very upper end? We're not talking about a $500 bottle of wine that can't be re-corked, so I don't think a trained expert is necessary in any way. And I don't think that the existence of Sommeliers in the wine world was ever credited with improving the quality of wine, so I doubt it will do anything to improve the overall quality in the beer world either. I see it in much the same way I view the Brewer's Association: nice folks, but we don't really need a faceless "man behind the curtain" to tell us which beer styles are actually beer styles, which craft breweries are actually craft breweries, and in this case, which bartenders and bars are worthy of handling beer. Thoughts?

*corrected thanks to Beer Nut

Monday, February 21, 2011

Flagon of Ale

is now on Twitter. You can find me here. I've been on the fence about Twitter but thought I'd give it a try. Enjoy, readers. Now both of you can see what I'm up to on Twitter.

Friday, February 18, 2011

An Experiment: Aged Hopslam

Preface: I don't like Hopslam all that much. I tend to think it's overrated. My initial impression the first time I tried it was "this doesn't taste like beer". Fair warning, beer geeks.

So that brings us up to speed. Last year for my birthday, a friend gave me a bottle of Hopslam, which even though I wasn't dying for, was still appreciated being that it's fairly expensive and can be hard to find. I planned to keep in the back of the fridge (my "cellar") for a little while to let it mellow out. Weeks turned into months and I had forgotten about it until just recently. By now it's a year old and much past the prime of any normal American IPA. This isn't a normal American IPA, though. At 10.5% abv it's well within cellaring range, alcohol-wise, and over-hopped enough that the loss of hop aroma may not be a bad thing. While not intentional, this was certainly an interesting beer to try 1 year later.

 How did it stand up? Personal preferences aside, not great, but it wasn't bad either. This was only one bottle, so it would be silly to over generalize. I also can't attest to its treatment before it got to me. Excess carbonation had built up over time and it poured with a very agitated, volatile head. Bubbles raced to escape the beer creating a beverage that was initially a bit champagne like. Given the beer, it wasn't completely out of place. Fizz cut through the honey-ish alcohol and thick hops. There wasn't much of a boozey quality although, deceivingly, there isn't much in the fresh version either. Surprising was the level of hop bitterness. Even after a year it's really still out front, and almost seems more pronounced without the massive hop flavor and aroma to distract the senses. When this beer first came out there was quite a bit of speculation among home brewers as to whether the beer was hop bursted* or not, and what sort of techniques the brewers might have employed to get such a walloping hop drink/beer. Hop aroma and bitterness from late hops tends to fade very quickly in beer when compared to bitterness from early hop additions. The longer boil time more fully isomerizes hop oils which makes them more stable and less volatile. In my humble opinion, the bitterness present in aged Hopslam was much more indicative of early hopping rather than just late hopping, so I do not personally think it's a hop bursted beer. That ever fleeting hop aroma and flavor was the quality of this bottle that was noticeably, drastically reduced and the area where it most suffered. There was still undeniably a good amount of aroma, but it had a stale, metallic tinge to it. Not overwhelming, but not something that makes you to want to go back for another sip. Under the odd notes it mostly tastes and smelled like a regular strength IPA with some mellow citrusy, lemon, and grapefruit notes.

In the end, it did mellow out the beer as I had hoped, but the effects of age and (possible) mistreatment were just as present. IPAs are a delicate bunch. They're all strut and muscle-flexing on the surface, but they're  fragile under neath. Without the solid, malt foundation of something like a barley wine, they do need to be treated right to have a chance of aging well, but that almost makes them a rarer treat. A tasting with aged IPAs might be forthcoming.

* "hop bursting" is a brewing technique of by which all or most the hop bitterness comes from late kettle additions rather than from early additions, the idea being that you can get huge aroma and flavor without over-bittering the beer

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Trouble Brewing for Surly

Last week local Surly Brewing announced that it had plans to expand their brewery into a new, nicer, larger location. The new brewery plans include an on-site beer garden and restaurant. Right now it's illegal for a brewery to sell you a pint of beer in this state. It's also illegal for them to own or have any financial interest in a business which has on-site alcohol sales. To anyone with an ounce of reason, I think it's pretty obvious that a beer garden on the site of a brewery is not unusual or out of place. Breweries from Bell's to Sierra Nevada to Weihenstephan have beer gardens on the brewery grounds. This is a win-win as far as anyone could be concerned. It brings jobs to the area (to build and staff the new brewery) and if MN could become even a humble beer-destination, like the New York Times indicated, plenty of local industries would also stand to benefit.

Unfortunately, the outdated and absurd liquor laws are standing in the way. Laws that restrict local businesses, "outlaw" beer gardens, make it impossible for brewpubs to sell bottles of their beer, and all while doing nothing to limit over consumption. If anything, the three-tier system encourages irresponsible serving by on-sale businesses as they are forced to buy liquor indirectly and as a result, pay a higher price for it. Breweries and manufacturers likewise see less profit per barrel if they have to lower their prices to stay competitive with distributors taking their piece of the action. As such, both manufacturers and on-sale businesses have to sell more alcohol at a lower margin just to break even. It's not hard to see how counter-productive this is.

As the voice of all things counter productive, the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association has also come out against Surly's expansion plan. The MLBA is a delightful little organization who combines the ignorant, heads-up-their-asses attitude of prohibition with the thuggish mentality of the mob. They claim to work on behalf of the beverage industry, but continue to resist alcohol sales on Sunday, beer and wine sales in grocery stores, and the right of breweries to serve the beer they make to customers. This is what they recently said about Surly's new plan 
"Nothing is preventing him from going out and opening up a brewery in another state... this is Minnesota. These are the rules. If you want to come in and work within the parameters of this rule we will embrace him." 
Brilliant. The MLBA's solution is to try to drive successful businesses out of the state, essentially just because. If the MLBA isn't really protecting breweries or people who do/want to sell alcohol, they aren't taking the interests of the state and the economy, and they certainly aren't protecting consumers, who are they protecting? Aside from existing as a corrupt arm of special interests in the state, what reason do they have for existing?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that people need to get behind the plan. Surly is not trying to scrap the entire three-tier system (which personally, I think needs being done away with) they're simply asking for a rewording of the law to allow them to serve pints of beer to customers in their beer garden. Yesterday Surly issued the call for people to contact their legislators to voice their support. If you're local, or you happened upon this from google, please go here and find your state representative and let them know how you feel:

It's an important beer issue, and one that's going to need vocal support from as many people as possible to have a chance.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What is Craft Beer?

Had some after-work beers tonight. Rush River chocolate coffee oatmeal stout. Not exactly my kind of beer, but the bar in question tonight had a beer in the cask, and that was it. So I ordered one. A bit sweet and distracting by the end of the pint, but not bad. Not great, either. Next up was a Deschutes Red Chair. I had this beer a year or so ago when I was in Washington state, and didn't remember being blown away. It was recently voted best beer in the world or some such nonsense, so I thought that I better give it another try. I guess my taste a year ago was just as incorrect as it is now, because I, once again, was not blown away. It's a nice beer. It's from the PACIFIC NORTHWEST as they insistently declare, and tastes like it: a bit sweet, caramely, and over-hopped for my taste. It has a zingy, herbish, hop flavor that tastes like rosemary or mint.

This is what I'm drinking now:

It's an IPA I brewed in an open fermenter which I blogged about here. By now it's pretty good. There is a bit of a weird flavor from the super old hops I used, but overall it's nice. The open fermentation really creates an amazing flavor profile. You would never guess that it was fermented with "American" yeast.

There seems to be a lot of talk about the term "craft beer" on other beer blogs right now. Personally, I think it's a valuable term, if a bit vague. The whole discussion reminds me of the "what is art?" conversation you hear frequently. Something being "art" doesn't ensure that it's good. It just ensures that it's not something meaningless created in a factory. As The Beer Nut pointed out in the comments here, beer brewed by brewers rather than accountants, is craft beer. Art matters, craft matters, things that are created by humans and not by computers matter. To me, simply, that's what craft is.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ireland Round Up

A pint of the Haus lager and the cleverly named "plain" stout at Messrs Maguire.
I have returned from my trip to Ireland. It was nothing short of amazing. I've been struggling to write about the beer I had in Ireland having only just gotten a taste of it. As I get older, traveling becomes more of a chore. It's been almost a decade since I was off the North American continent, so I was also ill-prepared for the effects of jet lag. This is all preamble to say: I didn't drink as much beer as I had intended or hoped, but I still enjoyed myself immensely. Ireland is such a beautiful country, and the weather is in such stark contrast to Minnesota right now, that at times it almost seemed a shame to be inside a dark pub. I suppose I'm not a very good beer tourist. Now that I'm back, I'm kicking myself for practically walking past several great pubs without realizing what they were. The beer I did have a chance to try was great, though. Even Guinness didn't disappoint, not that I had terribly high expectations of it. Irish Guinness truly did seem superior to my memory of it. Smithwick's did disappoint even with my memory if it being bland.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Galway. The Salt House. Maybe my favorite pub ever. This is where I had my real epiphanic moment: Dungvaren Helvick Gold on cask. I was so distracted by the beer menu and the awkwardness of walking into a new pub for the first time that initially I didn't even notice the Angram beer engine that was smack in front of me. I did not expect to find any cask beer in Ireland, and based on several conversations I over heard the bartender having, I gather it's something new for other people as well. I was pleased enough to see that they also had Galway Hooker and O'Hara's stout on tap. After well over a week of not having any beer, Dungvaren cask was perfect. Drinkable, complex, delightful. Blonde Ale sometimes means "bland, ale-version of lager" but Helvick Gold could not be farther from that notion in every way possible. The nuanced malt flavors and slightly grassy hops come together in a surprisingly flavorful beer. would it be pretentious to describe it as "harmonious"? Probably, but this was one of those angelic drinking moments where everything is just right, so I'll allow it. Galway Hooker was served to me from the tap in a weizen glass. It calls itself an Irish Pale Ale and that description seemed perfect. It's softer than American Pale Ale, gentler around the edges, and generally has more going on. Hops are present, but instead of being the focus, hop bitterness compliments the nutty, biscuit-like quality of the malt. It's conversational beer. Something you can sip and enjoy, but don't have to be afraid of. Complex enough to hold your attention, palatable enough to drink all night. These are true comfort beers. After only one or two pints of each, I won't try to describe them any more in depth, but suffice it to say, there are some pints that etch themselves in your memory, like my first-ever pint in a pub in Cork 10 years ago, and these fall into that category. The setting inside the Salt House is a very small and cozy pub with a small bar and several tables with short stools lining the walls. I get the impression it would be easy to fill this place so it feels crowded, but this was a Monday in January, so no worries there. Most of the clientele are people playing games, and for some reason other tourists. The Salt House was filthy with American tourists. Regardless, this is my idea of an ideal pub: cozy, welcoming, and an excellent beer selection.

Dublin is a large European city. I know this because I've now been there once* and because it's in Europe. It's also fairly fast paced, taxis abound, and I feel under dressed even on public transportation. Sure signs, all three. I like Dublin. I feel like I could live in Dublin. There are many cities that are nice to visit, but are terrible to live in. Dublin did not strike me as one of those. The pints pictured above were enjoyed at Messrs Maguire, a brewpub right in the heart of Dublin on the south bank of the Liffey. Messrs Maguire is expansive and massive. Easily the largest brewpub I have ever been inside. I didn't even explore half of it. There are apparently 4 levels all with their own bars and slightly different moods. On this level, dark wood and comfortable leather furniture tuck inside various nooks and corners to create semi-private seating areas. There is also a long bar with tables facing a screen that displays a soccer match. From my seat I can see Daniel O'Connell across the river, past the ornate street lamps and the double decker buses zipping around. It's a much needed change of pace from the scene outside. Why in fuck's sake did I pick a Saturday to come to O'Connell Street? Beers will help. Service here is good. The bartender explains to me which beers are available and which are not (despite what the sign says) and offers a sample without acting put-off. A pint of the stout and the Haus lager. The stout is nice. Lots of chocolate and not much else. I feel as if something in the finish (roast, hops?) might do this beer well, but it's enjoyable enough as is. The next round is their brown ale and "Rusty" which is a red ale. The red ale is served on nitro like the stout and, similarly, is nice, drinkable, and not too complex. The brown ale is great. I have a great love for brown ales. This one shows off some of the gentle roastiness and caramel in balance that I love about them. I wouldn't mind coming back here to see if subsequent visits were as nice. People are starting to collect in various areas, now, and for some inexplicable reason, Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair" followed by several dance-club type songs come on, which makes me wonder. All in all, great beers in a supremely enjoyable atmosphere. I hope to have a chance to visit them again.

By now, I have a long list of other places to visit and ones not to miss next time. I hope it's not long before I have the chance again.

*maybe twice, if you count multiple visits on the same vacation