Monday, July 27, 2009

A Little Something From the Cellar

One of the ways you know you're crossed the line from plain old "beer drinker" to "beer geek/beer connoisseur" is when you start buying beer not just to drink immediately or in the near future, but also beer to save. That's called cellaring, from the days when most beer was actually stored in cellars.

The vast majority of beers are made to be drunk as soon as possible. A Budweiser is as good (?) as it's ever going to get the instant it leaves the brewery; it's all down hill from there. Hence their emphasis on the "born on" or "best before" dates. Light, heat, oxygen... they're all enemies of good beer, leading to chemical reactions that produce the dreaded stale or skunked beer. So why in the world would you buck common sense and deliberately age a beer?

Well, because certain kinds of beer actually benefit from aging. What kinds of beer are likely to benefit from a few months to a few years in the cellar? First and foremost, they must be bottle-conditioned, that is beers that still contain live yeast. A pasteurized or chill-filtered beer (about 90+% of American beer) will not improve with aging because there is no living yeast in it. Biologically inert, it can not grow; it can only decay. Second, beers suitable for cellaring are typically 7+% Alcohol By Volume; there are exceptions to this, like certain sour beers, but it's a good rule of thumb. Alcohol acts a a preservative and 7% or so seems to be the amount needed for enough long-term stability. Also, beers which have been dosed with Brettanomyces, a notoriously slow working yeast, often benefit from giving it plenty of time to do its work. Finally, if the brewer bothered to give the brew a vintage date, like Sierra Nevada 2009 Bigfoot Ale or Alaskan 2008 Smoked Porter, that's a pretty dead giveaway that he or she expects you to at least consider cellaring it.

If you decide you're going to come over to the geek side and start cellaring beer, what do you need to do it? Well, pretty much all you need is a cool, dark place in which to store your beer. By cool, I mean 55-65 F, with hopefully little to no temperature variations, though I've heard that somewhat higher temps during the summer don't seem to cause any problems. If you've got a cellar or basement that meets those criteria, you're good to go. Just put up some shelves and start buying beer. Myself, I lack a basement in my home, so I use a combination of a bedroom closet and a special wine cooler-type refrigerator that I had regular glass shelves made for. The reason for those shelves is that beer is always stored upright during cellaring, not on its side like wine. If you're really ambitious, you'll have a cellar "book"; this is just a notebook or some other place where you check brews "in" when you add them to your cellar and then "out" when you decide to drink one. If you've got a huge cellar, a book helps make sure you don't "lose" something amongst all your other treasures.

I went into my cellar this weekend and pulled out a little jewel that has been aging for about a year and a half. It's a 22 oz bottle of Midnight Sun's Lust, the last of their 7 Deadly Sins series. It's easy to see why I decided to put one away for a bit: Bottle conditioned, 11.5% ABVs, and dosed with brett; Lust practically screams to be cellared. The impetus for this expedition into the back of my cellar was being offered a taste of an in-progress beer on Friday, 7/17, at St. Elias by Zach Henry. He'd added some sour cherries to one of the strong, dark beers that he's aging in used bourbon barrels. I thought it was pretty darn good, but I couldn't help thinking it was reminding me of another beer that I'd had before. It took a bit, but the memory finally dropped in, and sent me cellar-diving for my last bottle of Lust.

I took it over to the brewpub this weekend, looking to share it with Zach, only to learn that he and his wife Jenny were in Seattle with their 6-year-old daughter, who is having very serious medical problems. So that beer tasting is on hold now, awaiting Zach's return, and best wishes to his daughter for a speedy and complete recovery.

So pick up a couple of strong brews, put 'em in a cool, dark place, and join the fun.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Are You a Hophead?

Are you a hophead? Since my beat-up copy of Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines a hophead as "North American slang for a drug addict," you might want to think carefully before you answer.

Me, I'm definitely a hophead, though of the milder sort than some. By that I mean I can also appreciate a good malty brew, like a Scotch Ale or a doppelbock; a beer doesn't have to have 50+ IBUs for me to get my fix from it.

Still, I like hops. One of the key reasons I became a homebrewer two decades ago was that that was about the only way you could get real fresh, hoppy beers (unless you were lucky enough to live somewhere you could get Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on a regular basis). These days real hoppy beers aren't so hard to find and I probably brew more dark, malty beers than I do IPAs, but you never forget your first love.

So when I felt the need for a hit this weekend, I opened a 750ml bottle of Urthel Hop-It Belgian Blond Special Ale that I picked up in Anchorage last month. The story behind this ale illustrates both the love of hops and also how the beer scene in America has really become the envy of the world. Hildegard van Ostaden, a Belgian brewer, visited the Pacific Northwest (including the Great Alaskan Beer and Barleywine Festival) in January, 2005. In the course of the trip, she tasted so many amazingly hoppy IPAs that she was inspired upon her return to Belgium to start her own brewery and begin brewing hoppy beers with a Belgian twist. The first one was Hop-It.

The beer poured very clear, with a beautiful golden color and a thick white head of lovely pinpoint carbonation. The taste was very hop-forward, as you would expect, but with the spicy, peppery notes characteristic of a Belgian yeast. The 9.5% ABV is well-disguised, but makes the beer very warming as you drink it. All-in-all, it's a superb beer and a real tribute to the kind of cross-pollination that makes this a wonderful time to be a beer drinker.

Speaking of hops, the latest of Kenai River Brewing Company's Single Hop IPA series is on tap; this one is hopped with Vanguard hops. For those of you who may have forgotten, the Single Hops are brewed identical to KRB's Sunken Isle IPA, with the exception of using only a single variety of hops. This really lets the different characteristics of the hops shine through.

In this case the Vanguards are a hybrid of the Hallertau Mittlefruh hop, and shares a lot of the same character as that German variety. It made for a delicious IPA, with lots of hop bitterness but without any of the citrus or resin notes of some of the more usual Pacific Northwest hops, like Centennials or Cascades. Very nice.

Finally, my lovely wife Elaine and I stopped by St. Elias on Friday to grab a pizza and a beer before heading out to listen to some live music. The Marathon Mild was still on, so no Vanilla Porter yet. Zach estimates it will be on sometime this week.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Loose Ends

Every so often, you need to take a step back and tie up some loose ends. Or at least snip them off.

Several weeks ago Doug Hogue of Kenai River Brewing gave me a beer he carried back from his spring trip to Norway. Doug visited several breweries while he was there, including the AEgir Brewery & Pub. This amazing brewpub was recently featured in a beer magazine (damn if I can remember which one, but maybe you do). The picture I've uploaded scarcely does justice to the whole "Viking Longhouse" vibe the place has going. If you're interested, I'd suggest you check out their website at:

Anyway, Doug was kind enough to pick up one of their brews for me to try, which I have finally gotten around to doing. The beer, which I don't think is imported to the US, is Sumbel Porter. It was a dark, robust, rich porter with plenty of velvety mouth feel. Coming in at 4.7% ABV, you could certainly quaff more than one of these, while sitting next to the fire in the longhouse. It's one of the better porters I've had in the last year or so. Thanks, Doug!

Next, I want to talk about a book that I just finished reading. For quite a while I'd been planning to get a copy of Dr. Charles Bamforth's Grape Vs. Grain. Then I went to the National Homebrewers Conference last month at which I got to actually hear him speak. He was so interesting (and hilarious, in that typically British way) that I had to move the book to the top of my list. Now that I've finished reading it, I can recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone interested in beer. Dr. Bamforth is the Chair of the Department of Food Science and Technology and the Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Science at UC-Davis, so you know that when it comes to grape versus grain, he comes down on the side of the angels.

I tasted a new beer this weekend, one I had heard very good things about. On my last Anchorage trip, I picked up a 750ml bottle of St. Feuillien's Triple. This abbey ale is a beautiful golden color, which pours with a white, smooth head. It had the interesting aroma that is typical of Belgian ales, with plenty of hops. The secondary refermentation in the bottle means it will continue to develop in the cellar. I found it delicious and refreshing.

Finally, the results for the E.T. Barnette Homebrew Competition have been announced. My Imperial Stout, Liana's Christmas Coffee Stout, tied for second place in the Stouts category. So that makes me feel pretty good. Making me feel even better, I finally got to taste the Belgian Golden Strong Ale that I brewed months ago. After 6 weeks of cold-conditioning, The Heretic has turned out quite well. So now I'm really looking forward to picking up my homebrewing again come the fall.

Well, that wraps up things for now.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Brew News From Up North (And An Anniversary)

My lovely wife Elaine and I are back from our Fourth of July trip to points north of Anchorage and I have much beer news to report.

Our first stop was in Talkeetna, where I was looking forward to tasting some of the brews from the brand-new Denali Brewing Company. Unfortunately, with my usual luck, we arrived there on July 2, which was a day or two too soon. I was told that the brewery had had some production problems and that their first batch would not be released until the weekend. So I was reduced to peeking in the window of the brewhouse, which is not particularly conducive to satisfying your thirst, let me tell you!

As a consolation, I decided to stop in at the West Rib Cafe & Pub to try their Ice Axe Ale, brewed exclusively for them by Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage. Having tried plenty of their other brews and been very impressed by them, I was looking forward to giving this one a go. However, my first indication of trouble was the menu, which bragged about how strong (9.2% ABV) the beer was, stating that patrons were limited to a max of two pints and that Ice Axe Ale was the "Colt .45 Malt Liquor" of Alaskan beers. I don't know about you, but cheap, strong malt liquor is not what comes to my mind when I think of quality craft beers!

When my pint arrived and I tasted it, it made me wince. The flavor was indeed reminiscent of a cheap malt liquor, though in this case the alcohol level was jacked up with honey rather than some cheaper sugar. The beer was very light on the palate, which meant it lacked the backbone needed to support the level of alcohol present, giving it a hot, solvent-like flavor. Centennial hops rounded out the package, but even they were over-powered by the alcohol. I managed to choke down a couple more sips, then paid my bill and left 3/4 of the glass on the table.

I found this beer to be objectionable on two different levels. First, as a beer drinker, I thought the beer itself was deeply flawed, being a perfect example of what happens when you let one element (in this case alcohol) become overly dominate in the flavor profile. I know the brewers at Glacier Brewhouse know how to make better beer than this, so I can only assume that this is a case of the customer (West Rib) demanding a specific product. However, what I found even more objectionable than the quality of the beer was the way it was being marketed. All the emphasis is on how strong the beer was, which to me just encourages all the worst stereotypes of alcohol drinkers in general and beer drinkers in particular. I've railed in this blog in the past about "sin taxes" and the targeting of drinkers by government; Ice Axe Ale and the way it's being sold just plays into the hands of the neo-prohibitionists out there.

And besides, it tastes like crap...

So, after the vast beer disappointment that was Talkeetna, my wife and I headed north the next day. We had a nice drive and some lovely views of Mt. McKinley, but the first beer stop of note was the Overlook Bar & Grill, just north of the entrance to Denali National Park. I had heard good things about this place and it did not disappoint. They have a very extensive tap line and a large bottled beer selection (in the neighborhood of 75-100 beers), including beers from Alaskan's Rough Draft series. Elaine had a nice, fresh Stella Artois (served in a beautiful 0.5L glass) and I had a Sockeye Red IPA from Midnight Sun, which was also excellent. Add in an excellent burger and fries and the Overlook had me feeling much better about venturing north of Anchorage.

After lunch, we continued to roll north towards Fairbanks. At Mile 352, we pulled into Gold Hill Liquors. I had heard very good things about this place from the redoubtable Dr. Fermento, and it lived up to his reports. Amazingly for a store in such an isolated locale, they had a fantastic selection of beers (and meads). Even more amazing, they had things that had sold out in Anchorage last year, like Full Sail's Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Porter and Midnight Sun's The Viking. It was like opening a beer time capsule! My much-abused beer credit card took another severe hit and I walked out with a box full of treasures.

Just before you come to Gold Hill heading north on the Parks Highway, you pass the turnoff to Esther. This former gold rush boom town is now half tourist trap, half funky artists colony. The tourist trap half is closed for renovations this year, so we dropped in to the Golden Eagle Saloon, which is anything but. Definitely a down-scale locals joint, it nevertheless boasted an excellent beer selection. On tap they were offering Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Galcier Brewhouse IPA, Midnight Sun Oosik Amber Ale, Deshutes Black Butte Porter, Spaten Pils, and a mystery beer (for $2 a glass). In a can or bottle, among others were Left Hand Milk Stout, Oskar Blues Old Chub & Dale's Pale Ale, 21st Amendment Brew Free or Die IPA, Deschutes Buzzsaw Brown, and even Lindemans Framboise Lambic. I had a couple of the GB IPAs, while Elaine had a glass of the Pils; both were in excellent shape. During the time we were standing at the bar, we saw several of the dozen or so locals present ordering various beers different, including the lambic. It never fails to amaze me that you can actually find spontaneously-fermented Belgian lambics in the Alaskan bush; what a wonderful world we live in...

Anyway, I'd give the Golden Eagle Saloon two thumbs up: one for a fine selection of well-kept beers and another for a very friendly and interesting bunch of folks who hang out there. They'd probably scare the tourists, but they made us fellow Alaskans feel right at home.

Heading north to Fairbanks and then beyond, about 8 miles up the Steese Highway, you come to Fox, Alaska, home to Silver Gulch Brewing Company, the northernmost brewery in Alaska, which also means in the United States. Besides my desire to check out the brewery, I was dropping off my entries for the E.T. Barnette Homebrew Competition (fingers crossed!).

As you can see from the photo above, the brewery's exterior runs to rustic industrial. However, inside is a lovely bar & restaurant (besides the retail store and brewery). Behind the bar are four magnificent glass-fronted refrigerators, proudly displaying their massive (120+) collection of bottled beers for sale. As soon as I saw these coolers, I wanted one. In fact, I wanted all four. I tried to convince my wife that we could rip out the stove and kitchen cabinets to install coolers like them, but she wasn't having any of it. Oh well...

On tap were eleven of the brewery's own brews. In the course of two visits, I tried six of them:

Epicenter Ale is an unfiltered ESB, well-hopped with Willamettes, weighing in at 8.3% ABV, rich & malty with a nice floral nose.

Old Gerk IPA is a bit of a hybrid between American and English style IPAs. Its malt bill is that of a traditional English IPA but the hops are the classic Cascade hops from the Pacific Northwest. It comes in at 6.6% ABV.

Pick Axe Porter is also hopped with Cascades. At 4.5% ABV, it's very drinkable, with a deep brown-red color and a rich, malty flavor. An excellent session beer.

Definitely not a session beer at 14% ABV, Angry Monkey Barleywine has been aged on oak spirals and has great, smooth flavor and an interesting citrusy aroma. By-the-by, the rumor I heard was that it got that name because if you have too many you'll start hurling your feces at folks...

Coldfoot Pilsner is a classic Bohemian-style pilsner, clean and crisp with the noble hop character such a style demands. 5.2% ABV.

Fairbanks Lager is a Vienna-style lager. Munich malt gives it an amber color and a bit of malty sweetness, well-balanced with noble hops. 5.0% ABV.

Other beers on tap that I didn't get to try were Copper Creek Amber, Old 55 Pale Ale, Sourdough Stout, Hefeweizen, and a Spruce Tip Baltic Porter.

I thought all the beers were uniformly excellent. Service was great and the food menu looked very interesting, though we didn't actually have any. My only complaint against the establishment was the bar's lack of a foot rail. When you've spent as much time leaning against a bar as I have, you quickly come to realize how important a foot rail is for ergonomic comfort. But other than that minor quibble, I thought Silver Gulch was great.

Finally, as you might have noticed in the photo, Silver Gulch will be hosting the upcoming "Golden Days Beer Festival" on Saturday, 18 July in their outdoor Beer Garden. Over 100 beers to sample, live music, and Alaskan BBQ. It runs from 3-10 PM and cost $20, so if you'll be in Fairbanks that weekend, you should definitely stop by.

Other beer news: A few weeks ago, I posted about a proposal before the Senate Finance Committee to increase the excise tax on beer. At the same time I made that post, I sent emails to Alaska's senators, Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski, letting them know what I thought of it. I never heard back from Senator Begich (I can only assume that as a Democrat, he never met a tax he wasn't in favor of), but I received a phone call from one of Senator Murkowski's staffers, who asked me several questions about the subject. Not being on the Finance Committee, I guess the Senator was unaware of what had been proposed. I eventually got a second call from the staffer, who was happy to tell me that the proposal seemed to be dead (at least for now), which is good news for us all.

And last, but not least, this blog marks my one year anniversary of writing this blog. It's actually # 46, so somewhere along the way, y'all have gotten shorted a couple of ones. Sorry about that. I have had a great time and I hope you have all enjoyed it, too. I plan to keep writing it until I run out of things to say about beer, which doesn't look likely anytime soon.

So thanks for reading, and

Until Next Time, Cheers!

P.S. Just got back from having lunch at St. Elias. Zach Henry tells me that when his Marathon Mild is finished (likely in about 10 days, give or take), he'll be bringing back his most excellent Vanilla Porter. So mark your calendars...