Monday, August 24, 2009

Beer: It's Not Just For Drinking Anymore

I think I've made it pretty clear in past postings that the only thing I'm more crazy about than cool new beers is cool new books about beer. Perhaps that's because it's legal to get books through the mail in Alaska, unlike beer...

But I digress. I want to turn you on to a great new beer cookbook I got last month as a birthday gift. The Gourmet's Guide to Cooking with Beer by Alison Boteler is just bursting with delicious-sounding recipes, like Irish Lamb Shanks Braised in Stout, Skillet Steaks with Porter and Peppercorn Sauce, Baja Scallops in Beer Batter, and on and on. There are separate sections for everything from appetizers to desserts, with plenty of mouth-watering photos.

Still, I never recommend a cookbook until I've tried at least one recipe from it. This weekend Elaine and I made Pilsner Pulled Pork Sandwiches (p. 169) and the results were spectacular. After putting a pork shoulder in a slow cooker with onions and beer, we let it cook down for about 10 hours on Saturday. Then we took it out, pulled the meat apart (you could do it with your fingers, it was so tender), and put it in the refrigerator overnight. Then on Sunday it's back into the slow cooker, this time on high for three hours, along with more onion, mustard seed, and a bottle of good BBQ sauce. Wow! Amazingly good. We'll definitely be trying lots more recipes from this book.

If this cookbook sounds like something you'd like, you can pick it up from for just under $16.

After smelling that pork shoulder cooking all day Saturday, Elaine and I were feeling pretty hungry, so we decided to head in to St. Elias for dinner, which also gave me a chance to catch up with Zach Henry. First and foremost, his daughter Claire has made a full recovery, and he sends his thanks to everyone for their thoughts and prayers. Second, he had just finished brewing what he called a Special Bitter. He described it as being well-hopped but not as high on the initial gravity as his Williwaw IPA, which makes it sound to me like the Young's Special Bitter that I used to drink pints and pints of when I lived in London. That cask ale was wonderfully hoppy but not so strong that you couldn't drink it all night and still make your way home safely. I'm very much looking forward to trying Zach's take on that style of beer.

I also asked Zach for a complete run-down on what he had currently aging in whiskey casks. He still has another cask of his Jack and the Beanstalk Baltic Porter, he has a barleywine, he has a blended old ale with sour cherries, and he has a beer he's calling a rye bock, which he let me sample. It was a very dark ruby color, with a smooth and interesting flavor. It's still got a ways to go, but it should be very interesting when Zach decides it's ready to face the public.

Later in the evening, I got around to opening a bottle of Midnight Sun's Big Slick Barleywine, the latest in their Crew Brews series. When they say this is a big American barleywine, they ain't lying. Coming in at 11.9% ABV and bursting with 100 IBUs of juicy hop bitterness from Nugget, Simcoe, Chinook, and Centennial hops, to my taste buds this one was very similar to Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot (which is pretty high praise in my book, given that to me Bigfoot is the classic American barleywine). So if you've got a hankering for a really BIG brew, give Big Slick a try.

Finally, there are some interesting new beers appearing on the local shelves. I stopped in at the Soldotna Fred Meyer over the weekend and noticed they had several new ones. I didn't happen to have my notepad handy, so I may miss a couple, but here's what I remember:

Lagunitas Brewing Company's 2009 Correction Ale in 22 oz bottles and sixpacks of their Little Sumpin' Sumpin'

Port Brewing Company's Old Viscosity Ale and their Wipe Out IPA in 22 0z bottles (and on sale!).

Dogfish Head's 60 Minute IPA in six packs.

These were in addition to their usual selection of good imports and craft breweries, plus good Alaskan breweries like Alaskan, Midnight Sun, and Silver Gulch.

We may not have the same plethora of choices here on the Peninsula as they do at Brown Jug or La Bodega in Anchorage, but things are by no means desperate.

So get out there and buy more good beer!

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Down at the End of the Road...

On the Kenai Peninsula, down at the end of the Sterling Highway, lies the town of Homer. The folks of Homer like to pride themselves on being a "cosmic hamlet by the sea" and an artist community, which is a far cry from the hard-drinking fishing village it was several decades ago. A few remnants of those days remain, like the Salty Dawg Saloon, but they're fading fast.

For quite a while Homer was the cutting edge of craft brewing on the Peninsula. Since it was opened by a some local homebrewers in 1996, Homer Brewing Company has been producing "Fresh Traditional Country Ales to Go", filling growlers and 20 oz re-purposed Sobe bottles, as well as supplying kegs to local restaurants and bars. In 2001 they moved to their current location of 1411 Lake Shore Dr. and in 2005 they installed their current 7-bbl brewhouse.

When I moved to Alaska in 2004, Homer Brewing Company was the one and only craft brewery on the Peninsula. There had been a couple of other abortive attempts, like Chinooks in Seward and Alice's Champagne Palace, also in Homer, but none of them had made a go of it. (As a side note, the brewhouse from Alice's was purchased by a certain Frank Kassik of Nikiski and is now being used to make award-winning beers at Kassik's Kenai Brewstop. You can't keep a piece of good brewery equipment down...) So you know I made it a point to load up whenever my travels took me to the end of the road.

However, now that we have two breweries and a brewpub 75 miles closer to my home and job than Homer, I haven't been so diligent in trying to get down there. So when my work took me to Homer last Monday, I made a point of heading over to the brewery again. They had four of their regular beers on, along with two specialties. The regulars were Old Inlet Pale Ale (5.4% ABV), Broken Birch Bitter (5.3% ABV), Red Knot Scottish Ale (5.6% ABV), and China Poot Porter (5.3% ABV). The specials were Celestiale Belgian Spiced Ale and Odyssey Oatmeal Stout, both at 6.6% ABV.

I have had plenty of their regulars in the past and spiced ales tend to leave me cold, so I picked up a 20 oz of the oatmeal stout. When I drank it at home it had a nice malt backbone with a restrained amount of roasted flavors. The 12% oatmeal in the mash gave the beer a nice oily silkiness on the palate. Very drinkable and if I lived in Homer, I'm sure it would be one of my favorites.

I also picked up another interesting beer on my last Anchorage trip: Sierra Nevada's 2009 Southern Hemisphere Harvest Fresh Hop Ale. It comes in at a respectable 6.7% ABV and an impressive 66 IBUs. Couple that with a 26(!) oz bottle, and you've got the recipe for a nice long evening of good beer drinking. It's made with pale and caramel malts and New Zealand hops, harvested in our spring (their fall) and then flown all the way to Chico, CA, to arrive and be used only about a week after being picked. That may sound like an awful lot of trouble, but it's the only way to get a fresh hop ale made in the Northern Hemisphere's spring. And the results are well worth it. Like everything else Sierra Nevada brews, this is a beer of outstanding quality, with a crisp, clean hop bitterness and a massive hop aroma practically jumping out of the glass. This one is definitely worth giving a try, if only to whet your palate for the much larger number of fresh hop ales we'll be seeing in a month or two.

Well, that's it for now.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sour Beers

Individual taste is a funny thing. The old adage that "one man's meat is another man's poison" pretty much sums it up. For example, I personally really can't stand beans. Baked beans, red beans and rice, green beans, you-name-it beans, I can't stand any of them. My lovely wife Elaine refuses to eat any sort of seafood, while I can't get enough of the stuff. So there's little in the way of rhyme or reason to explain what one person likes or dislikes.

Still, we can make a couple of generalizations. Research has shown that young children have a much greater preference for sweet, sugary food and drinks than do adults. Or put another way, as the average person's palate matures, they develop more of an appreciation for flavor components such as bitterness and sourness. How many folks start off taking their coffee with cream and sugar as teenagers and end up slurping it down black and bitter? I know I did. How many people start their drinking careers with rum and coke and finish up drinking single malt scotch? A lot fewer than go the other way, I'll wager.

So it's perfectly understandable that sour beers are not to everyone's taste. But for folks who do develop a hankering for them, they are marvellously refreshing and really something special.

Last Friday I was in the mood for something sour, so I went into the far recesses of my beer frig and came up with a 750ml corked bottle of Palm Breweries' Rodenbach Grand Cru. This beer is the benchmark of the style known as a Flanders Red Ale. It undergoes a mixed fermentation of yeast and bacteria, then is aged for over 2 years in real oak casks. Normally having bacteria present during the brewing process would be a cause for alarm, as it can consume the same sugars that the yeast does (and even some that the yeast can't), but produces things like lactic acid, which can impart a soured, vinegary flavor. This would be the destruction of most beers, but somehow Rodenbach takes what should be horrible and turns it sublime.

It's a bit like the way a chef can use garlic and butter to take snails (yecch!) and turn them into escargot (yumm!)...

Back to the beer. I poured it into a nice large snifter and spent the better part of the next three hours enjoying it. Tart from the start, followed by the flavors of plums and wood, with minor notes of other fruits, like grapes. Incredibly complex, the carbonation keeps the tartness from being overpowering as it moves to a long, dry finish. At only 6% ABV, it's not overly strong for drinking in quantity. All-in-all, a phenomenal beer.

The late, great Michael Jackson, was frequently quoted as saying that Rodenbach was "the most refreshing beer in the world". I'm not sure I would go that far, but it's certainly in the top five.

If you want to give a sour beer a try without shelling out $$$ for a whole bottle, you'll have a good opportunity this Thursday, August 13th, in Anchorage. Midnight Sun will be putting a keg of their highly regarded 13th Anniversary Good Mojo Sour Brown Ale on tap at their Loft Bar. It's a blend of young(70%) and old/sour beer (30%), with sour cherries and tons of wood aging. I had the opportunity to drink a growler of this in 2008 and I was amazed at the complexity of it. It's 9% ABV, so treat it with respect, and it's by the glass only, and only until the one 5-gallon keg is gone, so don't delay or you'll miss it. Maybe I'll see you there.

Next week I'm making a road trip to Homer, so I'll have a some words for the other brewery here on the Peninsula, the Homer Brewing Company.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Summertime is Party Time in Alaska

If you've been reading this blog for more than a couple of months, you know that we Alaskans talk about the weather A LOT. Winter cold, heavy snows, spring floods, fall rains, we've got it all. As I've said before, Alaska is one place you learn to respect the weather; folks who don't have a bad habit of ending up rather dead.

The flip-side of all that is that Alaskans tend to really "seize the day" when the weather decides to cooperate. I'd hate to tell you how many folks just don't show up for work around here during the summer when we get a really nice summer day (especially if it's during the time when the reds are running). We all know that beautiful, warm summer days are all too few and fleeting; you've got to enjoy them when you can.

So it was in that spirit that my lovely wife Elaine and I threw a little shindig at our place over the weekend, ostensibly to celebrate the completion of our patio paver project, but really just to take advantage of the gorgeous weather we've been having for the last few days. Here's a picture of me with one of the surprise attendees: my good buddy Jim Roberts, AKA Dr. Fermento, beer scribe extraordinaire!

Also attending from the local beer crowd were Doug & Amy Hogue and Joe Gilman from Kenai River Brewing Company. Unfortunately Frank & Debara Kassik and Zach & Jenny Henry weren't able to make it, so I guess we'll just have to have another party. By the way, Zach and Jenny's daughter Claire is doing much better. She's back home and looks to be on the road to complete recovery, so that's good news.

Anyway, between all us beer-types and a dozen or so of our other friends, you can imagine that we went through plenty of suds, mostly from Kenai River (Thanks, Doug!). Particularly of note are a couple of new brews they now have on tap. First up, Raspberry Razz is back! This beer was available last summer and lots of folks (including my wife) have been eagerly awaiting its return. Basically it's Kenai River's Resurrection Summer Ale, but with some raspberries added to it. This gives it a very subtle fruit flavor, which for my money is the best way to go for a fruit beer. Some fruit beers taste way too much of the "fruit" and not nearly enough of the "beer"; Raspberry Razz does not make that mistake.

If you're in the mood for a different fruit, Kenai River also has a version of their Northern Lights with peaches added to it. The plain beer is an adaptation of one of Doug's old homebrew recipes. It's a what a light beer would taste like if the big brewers were interested in actually making beer instead of producing a commodity to be marketed with clever add campaigns. (Triple-hopped my ass!) Anyway, Doug added some peaches to this batch, once again going for a subtle flavor, one that compliments the beer rather than masks it. Very drinkable and a great summer thirst quencher, just like the Razz.

Last week I decided to open a bottle of Deschutes Mirror Mirror barleywine, just to get a baseline read on what it was like. The bottle I opened had a "Best After" date of April, 2010, so obviously I wasn't getting exactly what the brewer intended. Still, even drinking it 10 months early, I thought it was very respectable. At 11% ABV and 30 IBUs, it's another great American-style barley-wine, and a perfect choice to cellar, if you're looking for a candidate after reading my blog last week.

The Vanilla Porter went back on tap at St. Elias about 10 days ago; sorry for the late notice. Comparing it to my memories of it's previous incarnation last year, I think the vanilla flavor is a bit more pronounced. Talking with Zach Henry, he attributed this to the fact that this time around he was about to add the vanilla beans loose into the brew (due to having installed a new in-line filter). In his previous batches he had to contain them in a bag, to keep them from clogging his system, which probably reduced their ability to impart flavor. So if you liked the Vanilla Porter last year, you should like it even more this time around.

Finally, Cafe Amsterdam has a new website, Check it out for their latest doings and offerings.

Well, that's the latest news from the Kenai. Now get out and enjoy that weather, 'cause we'll have snow before you know it!

Until Next Time, Cheers!