Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Come Snow or Ash Fall...

Well, I'm a week late on this blog, but there are extenuating circumstances. In particular -- particular, get it? -- the ash fall generated by our local volcano, Mt. Redoubt, has disrupted things a bit around south-central Alaska. My lovely wife Elaine and I were actually in Anchorage last week when it gave one of its more enthusiastic belches, so we cut our visit short in order to get home before the expected ash fall hit our portion of the Kenai. As luck would have it, the wind shifted and dumped the ash on Anchorage shortly after we left, meaning we never actually got any at our house. We also made it out of Anchorage before the avalanche that closed the only road south for several hours. So we were home by the time the snow storm blew in last weekend and dumped another couple of inches of snow on us. Springtime in Alaska, anyone?

The important part of all of the above is that we did make it to Anchorage and back, so I did get a chance to pick up some new and interesting beers to try. I was especially happy, after several months of trying, to find a six pack of Oskar Blues Brewery's Old Chub Scottish Style Ale. I have a small quibble with name, as a beer packing 8% ABV as this one does would typically be called a Scotch or Strong Scotch style, rather than Scottish. Regardless of what it says on the label, Old Chub has the reputation as being one of the best beers on the market today and I've been wanting to try it for months.

After I got the chance to pop open a can and pour it out for a tasting last weekend, I can definitely say that reputation is well-deserved. This is probably the very best beer I've ever had from a can and one of the finest Wee Heavy's I've ever tasted. The beer has the massive malt backbone you'd expect from the style, with just enough hops for balance. There's a touch of smokiness from a bit of beechwood-smoked malt from Bamberg, Germany. Personally, I think peat-smoked malt would be a little truer to the style, but that's a minor complaint, given the exceptional taste of this excellent ale. Anyone who thinks you can't get great beer out of a can has not tried this one. I could certainly see myself and my friends fishing the Kenai River on a drift boat this summer and working our way through a six-pack of this brew. I can't wait to get back to Anchorage to pick up a case!

In keeping with the Wee Heavy theme, I also snagged a bottle of Great Divide Brewery's Claymore Scotch Ale. Available from February to April, this was the first time I'd seen it here in Alaska. I drank it after I had my first can of Old Chub and I'm afraid it suffered by comparison. Don't get me wrong; it's not a bad beer. But when my palate is fresh from what could well be the best scotch ale in the country...

Still, Claymore is a respectable effort from a fine brewery. It was plenty malty, with a deep-ruby color and lots of caramel sweetness, a reserved hop profile, and a subtle warming from the alcohol. As I said, a good beer. Just not a classic.

Well, that's it for now. If Mt. Redoubt doesn't smother me, I'll be back next week to talk about some of the other new beers I picked up in Anchorage, like Midnight Sun's Descent.

Until then, Cheers!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Two New Books for Your Beer Library

If there's one thing I like almost as much as beer, it's books. Unlike beer, books don't get consumed by being enjoyed, so they do tend to pile up around the house, as anyone who has seen my library can attest! So when a great new book on beer is published, it's a no-brainer that I'm going to pick it up. Here are a couple of relatively new books that I think are worth noting.

First, Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher, released last month and listed at $11.53 on Amazon.com. Randy has been well-known in serious beer and homebrewing circles for years. His earlier book, Radical Brewing, is a classic for anyone interested in brewing and a wondrous font of cool recipes for beers to brew at home. Tasting Beer is a much more approachable work, aimed more at the general audience of beer drinkers out there than at us "beer geeks". It provides a broad overview of styles, tips on pairing beer with food, proper glassware and serving techniques, historical perspectives, and even the basics of sensory evaluation of beer. Profusely illustrated, including many helpful charts and diagrams comparing various styles of beer, this really is an exceptional work. It would make a perfect gift for anyone who is at all interested in any aspect of modern craft brewing. I like to think I'm fairly well-read when it comes to beer, but I was still fascinated and picked up several new and interesting beer facts to share with my class.

The second beer book worth checking out is named --strangely-- The Beer Book. Published last year, it is a collection of reviews and descriptions of over 1700 beers, plus suggested tours of various breweries and pub crawls through various beer-blessed locations, like Prague and Brussels. Edited by Tim Hampson, the book is reminiscent of the classic Michael Jackson's Beer Companion, though this book is much more heavily illustrated (with photos of most of the beers covered) and lighter on the interesting text than the one produced by the late, great Bard of Beer. If you're looking for a more up-to-date volume to compliment the classic, The Beer Book is what you're looking for.

Interestingly, both books have forwards from Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery. I guess since his coronation by The New Yorker magazine as the "Bad Boy of Beer" back in January, no one is allowed to publish a beer book without his seal-of-approval.

Just kidding, Sam...

Besides reading these two books, I've also managed to pick up a couple more new beers this week, both from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company.

The first is the return of an old favorite, Bigfoot Barleywine. Brewed each year since 1983 in February for a March release, I've been drinking Bigfoot for 20 of those 26 years. Dosed with massive amounts of classic NW hops (Chinooks, Cascades, & Centennials), it charges in with 90 IBUs to balance its hefty 9.6% ABV. As I try to every year, I buy some to drink and some to cellar. When I opened a bottle and poured it into a snifter, the hop aroma hit my nose like the perfume of a long- lost love. You can't go wrong with this classic American Barlelywine. Even better, the brewery got rid of the 25th Anniversary label they used last year and have returned to the old, cool label. You know, the one with Bigfoot, the prospector, and the donkey...

The second beer was something new from Sierra Nevada, their Torpedo Extra IPA. The beer takes its name from a new device the brewery designed and built to improve the effectiveness of its dry hopping, called a "hop torpedo". This new device was required by their desire to continue using only whole leaf hops, rather than hop pellets. Having used both types to dry hop various batches of homebrew, I can imagine the problems which the leaf variety would cause for a brewery attempting to bottle on a large scale! It seems the "torpedo" solves these problems, for this IPA has an outstanding amount of hop flavor and aroma, with Magnum, Crystal, & Citra hops being used to produce 70 IBUs. At 7.2% ABV, this is not a session beer, but if you're a serious hophead, Torpedo Extra IPA should be right up your alley. It's taken Sierra Nevada 29 years to come up with an IPA they felt comfortable about selling year-round; I'd say it was worth the wait!

Until next time, Cheers!

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Church of Beer

If you asked my lovely wife Elaine what religious denomination I belonged to, I suspect her response would be "None, unless you count beer". Like Rick Blaine, Humphrey Bogart's immortal character in Casablanca -- who, when a Nazi asks him his nationality, replies with "I'm a drunkard."-- this makes me a citizen of the world.

This also means that I, like the devout follower of any faith, have a duty to proselytize and evangelize. I must work hard to spread the "good news" about Beer, even if I must do missionary work amongst the heathen. This blog is part of that, as is the class I teach at my local community college, but a true preacher never ceases to look for new opportunities to spread the gospel. Recently, I had another opportunity to do so come up.

We held a gala event at the college where I work last Friday night. Since I was on the planning committee and we had decided to serve beer and wine, I made the suggestion that we get our beer from local breweries. The committee concurred and assigned me the task of making it happen. When I approached the three local breweries, they each generously agreed to donate beer for the event. Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop provided their Spiced Cream Ale, Kenai River Brewing sent their Skilak Scottish Ale, and St. Elias Brewing supplied their Flower Child XPA. Recognizing that the attendees at this event would be a cross-section of the local community, the brewers deliberately selected beer which would make a good first impression on someone who was not already an established craft beer drinker.

The event was a rousing success. I tended the beer bar for about three hours and almost every drop of the donated beer was consumed, meaning many individuals from the local community were given an exposure to some of what their local craft breweries had to offer. If not everyone was instantly converted, well, that's OK, too. At least we were able to give folks a chance to taste what they are missing. And that's all we Beer Evangelists can do, right?

What about the beers themselves? I've written about Kenai River's flagship Skilak Scottish Ale before, so I won't cover it again. (Though if you haven't yet tried their amped up Wee Heavy version, you'd better hurry up, before I drink it all...) Kassik's Spiced Cream Ale was very subtly dosed with nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom. I have to take Frank and Debara's word for the last spice, as my palate isn't good enough to pick it out. Smooth and delicious, it's also drinkable in quantity, which sometimes isn't the case for spiced ales. Zach Henry at St. Elias calls his Flower Child XPA a "mock pilsner". By that he means it's brewed using an ale yeast, but at much lower than normal fermentation temperature; this gives it a very clean taste, closer to a lager than to the typical fruity ale flavors. He also hopped it with noble Saaz hops, giving it that typical pilsner aroma. The result is indeed damned close to a Czech pilsner, light & refreshing on the palate, and with a lovely golden color.

Finally, while I'm on the subject of spreading the gospel of beer, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that we here on the Kenai were visited last week by the Archbishop for the Alaskan Beer Diocese, Jim Roberts AKA Dr. Fermento. Jim braved some truly atrocious weather to come down here last Wednesday to give a guest lecture to my beer class and lead them (and me!) through a tasting of the first beer in Midnight Sun's new Crew Brew series, Brewtality. Jim is truly a gentleman and a scholar, always willing to go the extra mile in the name of advancing the cause of better beer for us all. Thanks, Jim!

Well, that wraps up today's sermon. Now I charge each and every one of you: Go forth and spread the good news amongst the heathen! And don't forget to partake of the sacrament as often as you can.

Until next time, Cheers!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Aloha Already! Now Give Me A Beer...

Ask any sourdough about Cabin Fever and you're likely to get an earful of stories about the strange effects our long, dark winters can have on people. Most Alaskans are also very familiar with the best cure for Cabin Fever: two weeks in Hawaii. Since the missus and I were feeling pretty feverish, we took the cure, returning late last week. Like Nixon in '68, now we're "Rested, Tanned, & Ready!"

I lived in Hawaii from mid-1991 to mid-1994, so this was also a bit of "old home week" for me. The biggest and most amazing change I noted from 15 years ago was in the local beer scene. When I left in '94, Hawaii was a beer wasteland. The growing craft beer revolution had not yet made its way over from the Mainland. What a difference a decade and a half makes!

For starters, there's a Gordon Biersch Brewpub in the Aloha Tower Marketplace. Yes, it's a chain, but they brew quality beers. My wife and I had lunch there; she had a fine Czech Pilsner and I had an excellent Marzen. And the food was great as well. Too bad they don't have one of these closer than Seattle...

Then we paid a visit to Sam Choy's Big Aloha Brewery, another brewpub out towards the airport and Pearl Harbor. Elaine tried their Blonde Ale, while I checked out their James Cooke IPA. The IPA was in the British style, as befits one named after the great explorer, and my wife gave the blonde high marks as well. On tap they also had their Hefe-Weizan, Kiawe Honey Porter, Ehu Ale (a brown/amber ale), and a Steam beer (the daily special). Since I was driving, I limited myself to only one, but I suspect they were likely all quite good.

Probably the most ubiquitous local beers are the brews from Kona Brewing Company. During the course of our stay, my wife and I drank most of their beers at various locations around Waikiki and the rest of Oahu, and they were always good. Given her predilection towards lagers, she usually went for their Longboard Lager or Duke's Blonde Ale; our daughter who lives on Oahu favored Wailua Wheat. Since I'm more of an ale man, I usually went for their Fire Rock Pale Ale, Big Wave Golden Ale, or Pipeline Porter. I never got a chance to try out their Lavaman Red Ale, Hula Hefeweizen, or Castaway IPA.

However, my favorite would likely be their Black Sands Porter, only available at their Koko Marina Pub, near Hawaii Kai, east of Waikiki. It was wonderfully smooth and dark with strong roasted and chocolate malt flavor and aroma. The full malt flavor was well complemented by the blend of hops. Their beers were artfully used in cooking many of the dishes on the pub's menu; my favorite was the Beer-i-misu, tiramisu with the traditional expresso replaced by Black Sand Porter. Mmmmm, good...

I also got to try a couple of beers from the Maui Brewing Company at the Yard House restaurant in Waikiki. They are another of the groundbreaking craft brewers who are canning their product. I liked their Big Swell IPA, but I was particularly taken with their CoCoNut PorTeR (that's their spelling). It had an interesting sweetness from all natural roasted coconut, and I can understand why it has won numerous awards.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that the bar in The Banyan Court at the Westin Moana Surfrider Hotel has Duvel. I can't think of a more pleasant way to watch the sun go down than sitting under the banyan tree and sipping a wonderful Belgian ale...

But now the vacation's over and it's back to work. Next week I should have some new and interesting Alaskan brews to tell you about.

Until then, Cheers!