Monday, April 27, 2009

The Season of the Sun

It's been a long, cold winter (when isn't it in Alaska?), but spring is finally here. Nighttime temps are staying above freezing and daytime temps are starting to flirt with 50 F on the sunny days. The snow is almost all gone, with just patches left in the shady areas. In a few more weeks, everything will be green and blooming, the king salmon will be heading into the rivers, and the tourists will begin their annual migration north to Alaska to deposit their money in the pockets of hard-working Alaskans. At least that's what we all hope, though given the economy this year...

For most Alaskan brewers, this means putting some of their more challenging brews on hold and gearing up to brew mass quantities of the more pedestrian stuff that the tourists demand. Like many other Alaskan businesses, our brewers have to make hay while the sun shines. By that I mean make their profits during the hectic summer season.

Anyway, given the season of spring, I though it was appropriate to try a new saison this weekend. As a style, saisons are some of the most unpredictable and artisanal brews produced in Belgium. And given some of the other funky styles that nation is known for, that's really saying something! Saisons (which means "season") were originally farmhouse beers, brewed in March to last through the hot summer months, when brewing was impossible in the days before refrigeration. As such they had to have enough alcohol and hops to last, yet still be thirst-quenching for the farmhands who would be drinking them through the summer months. Bottled in left-over wine bottles, they would have been bottle-conditioned, with the living yeast continuing to work throughout the months of cellaring.

This old-fashioned style of beer had almost died out in Belgium, when it was "discovered" by the late, great beer writer Michael Jackson, who almost single-handedly brought them on to the world stage. One of the six or seven Belgian breweries still producing classic saisons is the Brasserie Dupont, which is also still a working farm. Saison Dupont Vielle Provision is their flagship brew, but they also produce several others. One of these is Foret. I drank a 750ml bottle of this beer on Saturday, while watching the Red Sox spank the Yankees.

Foret is an organic saison and shares the bitter finish of Vielle Provision but is spicy and earthier-tasting. The cork came out with the resounding "pop" that I always associate with a saison, but the beer was not too lively, pouring with a beautiful white head of pin-point carbonation. It had a wonderful malty aroma with hints of spice and fruit. The beer has a wonderful long, bitter finish, exceptionally refreshing. This was easily in the top ten beers I have had this year, and I can't wait to pick up another bottle. If you get a chance to try this or any other of Brasserie Dupont's exceptional beers, don't miss out.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Sin in Sin Taxes...

It's that time of year again, when we all get reminded just how much of our hard earned income the Feds (and some states) have decided to clip us for. I'm not going to waste your time ranting about the IRS; not that the IRS isn't worth ranting about, but you can find plenty of other blogs that do that. No, this blog is about beer, so I want to say a few words about beer taxes.

Alaska is normally thought of as a pretty low tax state. We've got no income tax and no state sales tax; traditionally the state has existed off the money generated from resource extraction, most recently from oil. Things aren't helped by the fact that the Federal government owns over half the land in Alaska, rather than the people of Alaska, but we'll pass over that little issue as well.

What you may not realize (I know I didn't until I looked it up) is that Alaska has the highest beer tax in the entire country. Alaska charges a tax of $1.07 per gallon. Compare this to the U.S. median beer tax of 18.5 cents per gallon and the lowest tax state (Wyoming) with its massive 2 cents per gallon! So you can see, we here up on The Last Frontier are paying a pretty penny for the privilege of paying more pretty pennies to have a beer.

Why is this? Why do lawmakers think it's OK to stick it to beer (and other alcoholic beverage) drinkers? And to smokers? They like to call these excise taxes "sin" taxes. Well, I've got news for you legislators (at least those of you who haven't gotten popped by the FBI for taking bribes): DRINKING BEER IS NOT A SIN! Neither is smoking, and I say that as someone who has never smoked. Since when did our elected representatives become God's agents on earth, authorized to "punish" sin by making money off of it?

Suppose they decide tomorrow that chocolate is a "sin"? Arguably it's not nearly so healthy for you as beer. How about fried foods? Would it be OK to slap a $1 tax of every order of french fries? If no, why not? How does that differ in principle from screwing beer drinkers by jacking up the price of every growler they buy by about 10%? If they can do one, they can do the other, and don't think they won't. There's already talk about taxing foods with "too much" fat content. That's too much as decided by some fat cat politician, of course.

I love to homebrew anyway, but now I love it even more, knowing that I'm making beer for myself and my friends on which I won't have to pay this ridiculous rip off of a beer tax. And believe me, I'll be letting my state representatives and senator know just what I think of this targeting of beer drinkers as worthy of having their pockets picked.

Well, enough ranting. Let's talk about tasting some beers. On Saturday I had a chance to taste the latest entry into Midnight Sun's Crew Brews series, Anchor, on draft at Cafe Amsterdam. It's a pretty unusual customer, being a Belgian-style wit beer with the added flourish of Brettanomyces.

There's no question that brett isn't everyone's cup of tea; when my good beer-buddy Curt heard that brett was a player in Anchor, he told me not to bother picking a bottle up for him. He'd rather stick to bourbon-barrel aged porters and imperial stouts, thank you very much.

Still, if you like brett's horseblanket funkiness, and I confess I do, it can do some very interesting things to conventional beer styles. Case in point, it gives Anchor a very interesting "twang" at the finish, which makes an interesting counterpoint to the sweetness and citrus notes of the wit. I think the touch of sourness at the end emphasizes the refreshing nature of the beer. For my money, it's another winner from the Brew Crew.

Midnight Sun keeps churning out new beers, even as they get ready to move into their new digs. Earlier this month they released their Kilt Burner, on draft only. This is another Strong Scotch Ale, which just continues the embarrassment of riches I'm experiencing with my favorite style of beer. This is about the smokiest Scotch Ale I think I've ever had, reflecting Midnight Sun's philosophy that anything worth doing is worth overdoing! And we're talking honest-to-God peat smoked malt here, just like in Scotch whiskey. Coming in at 7.6% ABV and about 20 IBUs, this is a great beer for slow sipping after dinner while watching a good baseball game or enjoying a good book. If you don't live in Anchorage, this one will be hard to find, since it's draft only. If you do live there, why haven't you tried it already?

Next week I plan to review a couple of new saisons I picked up. Until then, Cheers!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Couple of New Brews Worth Drinking

Looking back at my last couple of blogs, I realized that I was delinquent in delivering on my promised review of Midnight Sun's Descent, the second in their 2009 Crew Brews Series. Since I'm a man of my word, let me remedy that oversight right now.

Descent is pretty solidly in the style of a Belgian dubbel. Dark, with plenty of malty sweetness, the 25 IBUs of bitterness is there just for balance. It is brewed with raisins and grains of paradise, which only enhance the fruity, spicy notes characteristic of the style. It resembles Midnight Sun's Monk's Mistress, in that they are both dubbels weighing in around 8.5% ABV, but Descent is hoppier, as the Mistress only has 13 IBUs. I found it very drinkable, perhaps even more so than the Mistress due to it's higher hop rate. A very worthy entry into the Crew Brews.

Another new brew that I got to try this weekend was the latest entry into Kenai River Brewing's Single Hop IPA series; this one is hopped with Warrior hops. I've never had occasion to use this hop variety before, so I was very curious as to how they would perform in such a solo act.

Warrior is a general-purpose bittering hop that offers a neutral, clean bittering primarily in ale styles. Alpha acids are in the typical to high bittering hop range of 15 to 17%. It has a relative low cohumulone content which contributes to a smooth, pleasing bitterness. This is a relatively new variety that was first bred at Yakima Chief Ranches, and is used in some well-known beers like Dogfish Head's 60 Minute IPA.

After tasting the Warrior Single-Hop IPA, I was impressed with how clean tasting it was. There were none of the citrus notes or the pine resin flavors you sometimes get in beers so heavily hopped with Pacific Northwest varieties. Instead, there was just the clean, crisp bitterness and excellent hop aroma. Given this experience, I think I will look for an opportunity to give Warriors a try in one of my homebrews.

I plan to be heading up to Anchorage again for a meeting later this week, so hopefully I'll have something else new and different to report on next week.

Until Then, Cheers!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Zach Henry is a Beer Brewin' Man

Every man has a dream. Lots of those dreams involve alcohol in general and beer in particular. It's a rare few of us who get to transform those dreams into reality AND get paid to do it. Zach Henry is one of that rare breed.

Zach is the owner/brewer of St Elias Brewing Company, our local brewpub here in Soldotna. Since its opening last May, St. Elias has gone from strength to strength. Those of us locals who care bout good craft beer are ecstatic to finally have a brewpub to compliment our two excellent microbreweries, while even the teetotalers hereabouts are impressed with the outstanding gourmet pizzas emerging from St. Elias' oven. Business has been so sustained, even through the dark days of winter, that while other restaurants were closing for the season or even going out of business, St. Elias has continued to do a brisk business and has stayed open seven days a week.

So now that he's over the hurdle of building his own brewpub and getting it up and running, what's Zach going to do for an encore? I spent some time with him this weekend, so I've got a fair amount of news hot off the presses to report.

First, he's got some new conical fermenters coming in. He's replacing four of his cylindrical fermenters with three larger conical ones (two of the used tanks are heading to Midnight Sun's new facility in Anchorage, while two are heading to Idaho). Zach says this design (which he's familiar with from his days working at Yazoo Brewing in Tennessee), will give him added flexibility and the ability to fully ferment a brew in the same tank. Currently he's racking his brews from a primary to a secondary, which will no longer be required. Not to mention he thinks he'll have better control of the quality of the yeast he'll be pulling off, allowing him to use it for more generations.

Second, the space he'll be freeing up will allow him to bring in several wooden casks, which he plans to use to age some of his beers. He's already got one Jack Daniels cask, which he brought with him from Tennessee and which is currently filled with Baltic Porter, a slightly modified version of the extremely popular Vanilla Porter he made last year. Zach was generous enough to share a small sample with me that we pulled from the cask; I was already impressed with how much additional flavor it had picked up from the wood, even though it has only been in the cask for a couple of weeks. Given that Zach is talking about aging this beer in the wood for months not weeks, it should be truly amazing when he finally decides its ready to turn loose on the world. Watch this space for a head's up when that will be.

Third, Zach tells me that he plans to brew a Mild Ale as one of his summer brews this year. Since Mild is one of my favorite styles and I've been trying to convince our local brewers to give it a whirl for over a year, I'm obviously happy to hear this. I look forward to testing my theory that folks will like to drink a relatively low alcohol beer that's dark and full of malt flavor. We'll see...

Finally, Zach tells me that St. Elias will be opening for lunch! Yep, after a year of serving only dinner seven days a week, they're going to bite the bullet and take a shot at the lunch crowd, starting Friday, May 1st, 2009. Given how busy they were in the evenings last summer, I'm sure they will now be packed from noon until closing time. And it couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of folks.

So that's the news from my little corner of the Great Land this week. More news about new brews next week.

Until next time, Cheers.