Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Ales of Summer

Time to review some Summer beers. I was recently sent a couple bottles of Newcastle Summer Ale (which I would link to, but I have no bloody idea how to navigate their website). I also picked up a couple other beers at the Ale Jail, including Summit Summer Ale, and Schell's Czech Dark Lager.

First up was Newcastle Summer Ale. I have gotten a few beers from them recently which is quite nice. In Cooking Lager fashion, I'm not quick to say 'no' to a free beer. This one is probably the nicest of their seasonals I've tried, if for no other reason that honestly in advertising. It's called a Summer ale, which usually means drinkable and simple. This definitely fit the bill. It's got that Newcastle watery aroma and not a whole lot of anything else. Very mild malt and hop flavor. Not objectionable.

Next up was the Summit Summer Ale. This I had very high hopes for since they removed the Hefeweizen to make room for this new beer. Their Hefeweizen seems to have been a contentious beer among beer-people I've talked to. A lot disliked it (which goes with the territory with Hefeweizen, it seems) and some liked it. I thought it was a very serviceable Hefe, though not quite up to par with the best German examples, though that is a very high bar. As for the Summer Ale, I have to say I was a bit disappointed. It really is quite plain. They describe an elegant fruity and floral aroma, which was easy to miss.

I suppose this is de rigueur for summer ales, but we could really do a lot better. There are so many nuances and flavors to be experienced in beers on the milder end of the flavor spectrum, and these types of summer beers leave a bit to be desired. Session beers and non-extreme beers hold a special place in my heart and I hope we can be more ambitious not the with the loudness of flavor in beer, but with the quality of it.

Fortunately, I also tried Schell's Czech Dark Lager. Schell's is probably the best local example of notable breweries doing a great service to Lagers and less in-your-face beer styles. This is the fifth in their one-off Stag Series of beers. The latest of these seem to be inspired by history and, mother of god, do I hope they continue on that path. This beer is amazing. Not exactly a "summer beer" as much as a beer I would like to drink every day. Forever. Also in Summer. I regret that I do not know much if anything about Czech brewing styles (check in with Fuggled if you're into that sort of thing) but Schell's Czech Dark Lager claims to be inspired by the U Fleku example of this style and uses floor-malted "hanka" malts among others. The aroma is gentle and has whiffs of banana and just a bit of malt. This is beguiling as the body is full and the flavor is loaded with biscuity and dark malt flavors. Some grassy hops and a staccato of subtle esters wishes you well on the way out. Roastiness is very minimal, and tends more to the caramel side, although, again, very balanced. This beer is like a warm coat on a fall day. Or whatever the Summer version of that analogy is. I don't know. I live in Minnesota. I have yet to try it on tap, but I plan to seek it out whenever possible. I give my strongest recommendation that you do as well, given that this is a seasonal beer that may never come back, and seems to be a shining example.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Summit Dunkelweizen

This month begins the newest entry in Summit's quarterly Unchained series of beers. This month is a Dunkelweizen.

I was pretty excited for this one when it came out. Dunkelweizens are somewhat ignored, and it's a great beer for spring. I bought this pack at Big Top, unrefrigerated, but presumably quite fresh.

It's a nice amber-caramel color and cloudy as you would expect. As for the taste? It leaves a little to be desired. I gave it a couple go's on different nights, and it's not a bad beer, but it's a little flat and doesn't leave much of an impression. It has a very nice balance of mild banana and clove (in that order) right up front and in the aroma. Some mild biscuit with a slight astringency follow and then it finishes quickly and quietly without much to say. It is missing a bit of the creaminess and that sort of hard-to-define subtle, wheaty/malty quality that outstanding German Weizens seem to have. This dunkelweizen is 6% abv, which strikes me as a bit high, but after checking, Erdinger (which is probably my favorite of the style that I've had) is only 1% abv less, so perhaps that not as large a difference as it seems.

I'd recommend giving it a try, and I'd love to drink it on tap, but perhaps it could have been better. One thing I do lament about the Unchained series is that they're here and then they're gone. I would love to try another updated version of this beer once they had some time to refine it, but that's it the nature (and part of the appeal) of these beers: one batch, and they're gone for good.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

St Patrick's Day: the Tet Offensive for beer drinkers

It is the worst day of the year for us anti-social drinkers. Beware when going outside. I have read that half a million are gathering in Dublin today to drink and celebrate. It sounds truly terrible. March the 17th is when many chose to celebrate Patrick, the former slave and patron saint of Ireland, whose holiday was originally intended as a solemn event, rather than an ass-busting, beer drinking, all day BBQ street party (despite the latter being more common for Catholic observations as I understand*).

If you are going to wear green and binge, drink something Irish, like O'Hara's  (I do love their logo and labels) rather than Guinness, Jameson Bushmill's, or Bailey's which are all nice, but are owned by mega-super global giant Diageo.

And may the Great Irish Elk guide you on this solemn day.

*not really

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Newcastle's new ales (part II)

I recently tried one of Newcastle's new beers, Werewolf. Since then they have come out with the Winter IPA, and Founder's Ale. The Winter IPA sounded interesting to me, so I picked up a six pack. IPAs frequently seem to be relegated to late summer or fall (during the hop harvest when fresh hopped beers seem popular) but for my mood, something strong and bitter always seems more appropriate for winter. Newcastle's is not very strong, and it's not terribly bitter either. So much for that approach, I guess. As an IPA it left a little to be desired. It wasn't a bad beer, but when I hear something evocative like "IPA", certain perceptions pop into my head. When those expectations are underwhelmed, I can't help but let it color my opinion of the beer. This is one area where I feel beer-naming is important. If they had called it a pale ale, or something nondescript, it may have seemed impressive by comparison. Instead, it fell short. It's relatively clean, with just a touch of hop bitterness and flavor. It may be a good entry for drinkers who aren't versed in American style IPAs.

I was also fortunate enough to be sent a bottle of Newcastle Founder's Ale. It's billed more ambiguously. Listed variously as a pale ale or ESB, I had no real expectations to exceed or fall below. It has a distinct Newcastley flavor: mild, effervescent, and with just a touch of biscuit in the middle. The flavor comes and goes quickly with not much on the finish to remind you what it was like. These beers all tout clean flavors and drinkability which to their credit, they have in spades. As new entries in a market where exciting craft beers dominate, will they make a lasting impact? Both are available in the Twin Cities markets before the rest of the country.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Winterfest 2012

This past weekend was Winterfest, the sister festival to fall's Autumn Brew Review. Where ABR is generally packed and outdoors, Winterfest is a bit more austere, hosted in the beautiful Minnesota History Center, and limited to 700 tickets.

The real story at this year's Fest is all the new Minnesota breweries who came out in force. New since last year were: Lucid Brewing, Mankato Brewery, Third Street Brewhouse, Big Wood, Boom Island, Carmody Irish Pub (Duluth), Leech Lake, Castle Danger, Staples Mill, Harriet Brewing, and Steel Toe. Quite a list. This has been a history-making year or so in Minnesota beer for sure. I think the question in the back of everyone's mind is "Can all these breweries co-exist?" but it seems be generating a lot of interest and excitement and I haven't heard much backlash. Perhaps some will succumb to market forces etc, but so far, it seems, so good.

Old stalwarts like Surly, Town Hall, Barley Johns, and Fitger's all had excellent beers on show. Barley John's won the award for best beer (Dark Knight imperial stout) again after doing so with that beer in 2007. I'm glad to see them getting some recognition because despite making award winning beers, they still seem not to generate all that much attention. That's probably for the better, as far as I'm concerned, since their tiny pub can only seat 30-something people anyhow. The stand-out beer for me was Mankato Brewery's "Mankato Original", a delightful, drinkable Kolsch with a haylike aroma and a surprisingly authentic bready, slightly honey like malt base. It's chewy yet easy to digest with enough grassy, lemony hops to balance things out. Kolsch is something shamefully missing from the craft beer industry which has been so busy not following "beer styles", that this type of beer has almost ceased to exist here. I can't applaud Mankato Brewery enough for doing something as brave and unexpected as breaking the rules by not going out of their way to break them.

Other worth mentionings were Lucid Brewing (from Minnetonka) who had great beers in "Air" and "Cammo". Leech Lake I was pleased to see, but their ESB was a bit sour and not all that good. Third Street Brewhouse I had not heard of at all. Their brown ale was quite nice and toasty and bread-crusty with a good bit of caramel and hops in the American Brown Ale style. Their business cards say "Cold Spring, MN" (home of the dreadful soda factory and part time beer brewers, Cold Spring Brewing which recently gave the shaft to Lift Bridge who are all some of the nicest guys in the industry). When I asked for some clarification, the  Third Street brewmaster was a bit obscure and pointed to a picture of "the new brewhouse they're building" and then said "they said we couldn't do it!". I got the impression this line is stock and had been given out all night. When I googled around, their address is in fact listed exactly the same as Cold Spring Brewing's, so they appear to be the "craft brand" under Cold Spring's ownership - something they seem to want to hide. I wouldn't even mind as much aside from the fact that they've obviously tried very hard to obscure this fact. Very "big beer" of them. With as many new breweries as there are, I'll be happy to drink from the guys who can really use the business. Regardless, the website is pretty nice.

All in all, Winterfest was a great event and I look forward to next year.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dogfish Head's expansion

Greetings readers. I have not written for a while and for that I either apologize, or say "you're welcome", depending on where in my fan-spectrum you are.

So this is fairly fascinating. Dogfish Head has been approved for their massive expansion, which seems like good news for them. More interesting to me is that the local neighborhood did not want them to move in (somewhat oddly, the development called "Cannery Village" was concerned about industrial zoning in their back yard). I think this is a common hurdle for breweries when laypeople associate breweries with factories or drunks*. According to this article, though, they were worried instead "over concerns about what could happen if Dogfish were sold". Apparently, DFH has even been "approached by national brewers" which gives some credence to the concern.  In this stage of craft beer in America, I find that to be very telling. I don't think Dogfish Head is likely to sell soon, especially right after investing in a huge expansion, but it does raise some questions when the big brewers are taking interest in something like Dogfish Head, and when their hypothetical sale could have hindered their growth as a successful independant brewery. The perennial question of how long they can continue to market themselves as "craft" when they're pumping out millions upon millions of barrels also remains to be answered. The lines continue to blur.

*I don't think these complaints would have gone too far though, since Sam C's father in law (you know, the guy who wrote him all those checks so he could get own a brewery in spite of years of profitless operation?) owns the local TV station that reports on the story as well as the business trust that owns the subdivision which was making the complaint against his brewery to begin with. So basically, Tom Draper is getting your fucking money either way.