Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Quartet of Beer Reviews

Hello again from the Last Frontier. Still waiting on Mt. Redoubt to blow, but in the meantime I promised to review several of the beers I picked up on my last visit to Anchorage, particularly a couple of new (at least to me) British ales.

First up, I had a bottle of Nightmare Yorkshire Porter, brewed by Nick Stafford's Hambleton Ales. This brewery was started in an old barn in 1991 and its name references a giant white horse carved into the Hambleton Hills. The beer weighs in at 5% ABV and has the creamy, roasty flavors you'd expect from a classic porter. Unfortunately, I found it a bit bland and somewhat thin tasting. OK, but not worth the price when there are so many better (and cheaper) examples available.

I also picked up a bottle of the Manchester Star Ale from J. W. Lees Brewery, located-- oddly enough-- in Manchester, UK. I was already very familiar with some of their other beers, such as their wonderful Vintage Harvest Ales, especially the ones aged in Lagavulin Whisky casks. I'd never heard of Manchester Star Ale, but the label statement "First brewed in 1884" caught my eye, so I decided to give it a try. I wasn't even sure what style of beer it was, until I poured it into a glass. The dark black color with the good tan head left no doubt that what we had here was another porter. Great roasted aroma, coffee mixed with some fruit notes. The taste is complex, with lots of roast malt and some sweetness, finishing fairly dry. Excellent mouthfeel, smooth, almost oily. An outstanding beer, very drinkable, even at its hefty 7.3% ABV. A wonderful example of a robust porter, well worth the price.

Next, I departed the UK and returned to the New World; to Full Sail Brewing Company of Hood River, Oregon, to be specific. Continuing the current spate of Scottish/Scotch Ales, we have Keelhauler, part of the Brewmaster's Reserve 2009 series. I've been wondering if the large number of new ales of this style are fallout from the much-ballyhooed hop shortage last year. Regardless of why, I'm enjoying this plethora of examples of my favorite style. Keelhauler is a pretty middle-of-the-road example of this style, coming in at 6.8% ABV & 45 IBUs. It has a nice maltiness up-front, with enough hop bitterness for balance. It was a good beer, but not quite up there with some of the more exceptional examples, like Oskar Blue's Old Chub.

After three nights of drinking dark, malty ales, I was ready to try something completely different, so I opened a 750ml bottle of Ommegang's Biere de Mars. This beer continues their daring experiments with the notorious Brettanomyces bruxellensis, the source of so much of the "funkiness" in Belgian and Belgian-style beers. Love it or hate it, you can't ignore the Brett! Biere de Mars is a copper-hued brew, with a lovely and long-lasting white head. It weighs in at 6.5% ABV and has a fairly assertive hop profile, including dry hopping. The Brett gives it a bit of funkiness, which plays well with the spicy, peppery notes from the primary yeast. I'll be interested to see how the flavor profile will change with some cellaring, so I plan to grab another bottle or two and stick them in the back of the beer fridge to see what happens. Meantime, it's a wonderfully crisp and refreshing beer, that would be great with some summer BBQ or grilled foods. Buy a bottle and give it a try.

In local beer news, Zach Henry of St. Elias Brewing Company here in Soldotna tells me that the Mild Ale that I have been badgering him (and the rest of our local brewers) to brew is finally in the fermenter and should be ready in a week or. Hopefully I'll get a chance to grab some soon and tell you all how wonderful it is. Prior to that, I'm back up in Anchorage for a couple of days, so perhaps I'll get to try something else new and interesting up there.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, May 18, 2009

A New Sun Rises in the East...

Hello again from Alaska. First, let me apologize for not posting last week. I had to drive to Homer and back on Monday, then up to Anchorage on Monday evening. My lovely wife Elaine and I spent Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday in the big town, returning Thursday evening. So with all that traveling, I didn't get a chance to post.

Now that that's taken care of, let's cut to the good news. Because I was in Anchorage on May 12th, I got to attend the open house at Midnight Sun's new brewery at 8111 Dimond Hook Drive (located on the east side of the Seward Highway, behind the Long Branch Saloon). It opened to the public on 5/15, but this was a sneak preview for the local Great Northern Homebrewers Club. It's an amazing new facility, one which will greatly improve their ability to brew and serve large amounts of their fantastic beer.

Their new digs will also contain a "To-Go Bar" on the ground floor, where folks will be able to roll in and have their growlers refilled and purchase bottle beer to take home with them. There will be nine different beers on tap down there, as well as direct access to the cooler. Up stairs, there is the "Loft Bar", where beer will be sold by the glass. See the picture above to view the eighteen (!) different taps up there! There will also be food served, but no music or bar games like darts, due to the weird licensing laws the brewery must operate under. You'll also be limited to 36 oz. per person per day served, though I'm not sure how they'll monitor that.

Down stairs there is massive room for expansion. The equipment which was so cramped in their old location looks almost lost in their cavernous new facility (see photo below). I believe they will have three times the square-footage as they did back on Arctic Blvd, so they will have all sorts of room to expand. Plus there will be a separate room for the bottling line, which will reduce the noise level for everyone else.

Besides getting the tour, I also got to taste the latest of their 2009 Brew Crew series, Fahrwasser, a Fairway Pilsner, which I will review in an upcoming blog. If you're going to pay them a visit, the Loft is open from 2 PM to 8 PM, Wednesday to Sunday, while the To-Go Bar is open from noon to 6 PM, seven days a week.

In addition to attending the open house, Elaine and I hit a couple of our usual watering holes in Anchorage, like Humpy's and Cafe Amsterdam. At Cafe A I sampled their special Anniversary Dark Strong Gruit, brewed by Midnight Sun to celebrate ten years of the cafe being under Ken Pajak's ownership; it's a strong (10% ABV), dark ale. Here I am using the word "ale" in its archaic meaning of a fermented barley beverage made without hops. Gruit was a mixture of spices used to flavor such ales before the use of hops became prevalent. The word "beer" originally referred to fermented barley drinks that had been hopped, while "ales" were those that hadn't. As hops became universal, the term ale fell out of use, until it was revived to identify warm-fermented beers, as opposed to cold-fermented beers, aka lagers.

None of that really matters when it comes to taste, so how was it? I was expecting it to be much too sweet, without the balance of hop bitterness, but I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, there's some sweet maltiness, but it's not overwhelming. Whatever spices that the folks at Midnight Sun picked to use, they chose wisely, as they produced an interesting and very drinkable beverage. It's only available on draft at Cafe Amsterdam, so stop in before it's gone.

Well, that's it for now. Next week I should have the reviews of some interesting British ales that I picked up at La Bodega.

Until Then, Cheers!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Big Brother Is Watching You. So Flip Him Off...

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll remember that I frequently comment on the weather here in Alaska. Living on The Last Frontier, the weather greatly defines what we can do, day-to-day; much more so than most other parts of the USA. I'm sure that to most folks Outside it seems like we're always being hammered by bad weather, either blizzards, ice storms, or avalanches, with the occasional volcanic eruption for comic relief.

While Alaskan weather can often be brutal, every so often we get a week like the one just past, one that reminds us all why we moved up here. For the last seven days we have had wonderful clear skies, with glorious sunshine, thanks to a nice "blocking high" sitting over most of the state and deflecting any cold, wet weather away. It won't last forever, but it sure has been nice...

So, anyway, there I was, sitting on my porch, enjoying the spring sunshine and the 80 degree (I kid you not!) weather, and I decided to give another saison-style beer a try. You'll remember from last week's blog the origins of the saison style. (If you don't, just scroll down and read it again!) This time I decided to try Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales's Bam Biere Farmhouse Ale.

Jolly Pumpkin is based in Dexter, Michigan and has earned a reputation in beer circles as interesting & innovative brewers. Their website states that by using "open fermentation, oak aging, and bottle conditioning, we are dedicated to elevating craft brewing into an art." The same website describes Bam Biere as "an artisan farmhouse ale that is golden, naturally cloudy, bottle conditioned and dry hopped for a perfectly refreshing balance of spicy malts, hops and yeast." The site lists its ABV at 4.5% and brags that Men's Journal magazine named it as one of the Top 25 Beers in America. With all that build up, I was really looking for something special.

Unfortunately, what I got was a disappointment. The beer poured nicely into my snifter, with the pinpoint carbonation of a typical saison and the fruity aroma you'd expect from the style. However, the first sip was so tart it made my lips pucker! I love a sour beer as well as the next beer geek, but this does not seem to be at all appropriate to the style. The beer was so tart it significantly reduced its drinkability. I finished the bottle, but it was a bit of a struggle.

I am loathe to judge a beer as individualistic as this one based on a single bottle; you never know when it may have picked something up or been improperly handled on the long road from Michigan to Alaska. However for now, at least until I can pick up another bottle to try, I have to give Bam Biere a thumbs down.

Looking for something a little more uplifting, I opened a bottle of Lagunitas Brewing Company's interestingly-named Undercover Investigation Shut-Down Ale. It's pretty obvious from the name and from various little notes on the label, that there's a backstory with this one. I've only heard it tenth-hand, but it seems the Feds shut the brewery down while trying make some sort of BS case against them for selling marijuana. When you read the fine print on the label-- "Shhh...Be vewry,vewry kwiet. We're sneakin' awound wookin' for gwon-up taxpayers dowin' tings we don't appwoove of... Be vewry kwiet... Dare around here somewhere... Shhhh... Be Vewry, Verwy quiet..."-- it's pretty clear that this beer is their way of giving the Feds the middle finger. A pretty ballsy move, all things considered...

But I digress. Let's talk about the beer. It claims to be an "Imperial Mild", which as styles go, is about as oxymoronic as they come. Or could come. It pours a chestnut color, maybe a little orange, with not much in the way of a head. The aroma smells of apples and citrus, then perhaps brown sugar. Caramelized apples? The taste suggests sugar and spice, a strong malt backbone with lots of hops (72 IBUs) to balance. The 9% ABV warms the body & the soul, just like our Alaskan sunshine, and leaves you wanting more. This bad-boy is dangerously drinkable.

Perhaps the Feds should start keeping tabs on anyone buying it, just to make sure they're not abusing it? Oh wait, they probably are. Well, as we Alaskans like to say, "Here's to you, Big Brother!" {Insert the rude gesture of your choice here.}

Until Next Time, Cheers!