Monday, September 28, 2009

A Good Time Was Had By All

Well, if you didn't make the Beer Tasting at Mykel's in Soldotna, you missed a very enjoyable evening. The food was excellent, the live music was good, and the beer was plentiful. I didn't get an exact headcount, but I'd estimate that there were between 40 and 50 folks in attendance.

Gene Diamond of Specialty Imports and Jhon Gilroy of Merchant du Vin were the "beer hosts" for the evening, with Jhon doing most of the talking while Gene did most of the pouring (and the rest of us did most of the drinking).

For those of you not familiar with the history of good beer in the US, allow me to tell you that Merchant du Vin is a name to conjure with. The company was founded in 1978, when Charles Finkel, a very successful wine merchant, decided that it was time to offer Americans the opportunity to drink beers from the classic styles from around the world. Prior to this, importers focused on the country of origin, rather than the style. Finkel identified a couple of dozen styles (courtesy of Michael Jackson's seminal World Guide to Beer) and set out to find definitive examples of each to import into the US.

Over the years, Merchant du Vin has focused on beers that they regard as "authentic". By that they mean they come from a historical or regional brewing tradition, are an outstanding representation of the style, and are produced by a brewery of superb reputation, either family- or abbey-owned. They are currently importing some of the absolutely finest brews in the world, from Trappist brews like Orval, Rochefort, and Westmalle, to British ales from Samuel Smith, to German beers from Ayinger and Pinkus. On a personal note, back in December 2008, I wrote about one of my first craft beer loves, MacAndrews Scotch Ale from Caledonian Brewery. This beer was bottled exclusively for Merchant du Vin to import into the US.

While Merchant du Vin has been bringing all these wonderful beers into the US, Specialty Imports has been bringing them (as well as great American craft beers) to Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula for the last thirty years. So Jhon and Gene make a natural team to host a beer tasting.

With all this history behind it, you would expect the beer tasting to be pretty special, and it was. We started out with Pinkus Organic Hefe-weizen, which was much more restrained than the Bavarian hefes that most folks are used to. Very crisp and dry, it made a great starter.

Next, we tried a Zatec Lager from the Czech Republic. A classic Bohemian Pilsner (even if it is labeled a "bright lager" rather than using the name of the rival brewing center), it had the fantastic aroma and hop finish that everyone associates with the noble Saaz hops.

For the third beer, we went back to Germany for the Ayinger Oktober Fest-Marzen, the traditional style of beer for Oktoberfest. Marzen means March in German; in the days before refrigeration, this beer was brewed in the spring, before the weather became too hot for brewing, then left to age in cold caves until the festival held at the end of the harvest. This long, cold-fermentation, or lagering, produces a golden amber beer, with a fruity nose and a soft dryness. It made a great pairing with the bratwursts cooked in beer that Mykel's included in the buffet.

For our next experience, we left Germany for Belgium and perhaps the most interesting beer of the evening.Green's Endeavour Dubbel is brewed for Merchant du Vin in Belgium and it is gluten free. This important for that significant portion of folks out there who suffer from Celiac Disease, for whom consuming any food containing gluten (such as a beer brewed from barley or wheat) can lead to death. Endeavour Dubbel is brewed from millet, rice, buckwheat, and sorghum, rather than the traditional brewing grains. It had a lovely appearance in the glass, and a phenomenal aroma, like a fine Scotch Ale. Unfortunately, the taste showed me why folks have been brewing with barley and wheat for the last five thousand years, rather than millet, rice, buckwheat, and sorghum. While the taste was not bad, it lacked the mouthfeel and richness you normally associate with a dubbel. I'm sure if I had Celiac Disease, I'd be glad to be able to drink beer at all, so perhaps I shouldn't expect too much from the Endeavour Dubbel. If you know someone with this condition who misses drinking beer, I'd point them toward this beer, plus the gluten-free Amber and Tripel which Green's also brews.

After that new type of beer, we went across the channel to have a very old favorite, The Famous Taddy Porter from Samuel Smith's Brewery from Yorkshire in the north of England. This is a classic porter, a lovely deep brown, with a rich, creamy head. Brewed using the unique Yorkshire Square fermenters, giant two-story vessels made from huge slabs of slate, this beer is another classic of its style. I've always had a weakness for a good porter, and Taddy Porter is one of the best.

Then it was back across the channel to my favorite beer of the night: Orval, a Trappist beer that is unique even amongst that elite group. Brewed by monks in their abbey brewery "For the Greater Glory of God," Orval is a rich amber-gold, incredibly dry and ridiculously complex, due to extensive dry-hopping and the use of a mixed strains of yeast, including the infamous brettanomyces. One famous beer writer referred to it as "God's own homebrew", and I heartily agree. It's the sort of beer I could drink everyday for the rest of my life and never get bored with. Yeah, it's that complex. If you haven't tried it, you are really missing out on one of the unique beer-drinking experiences out there.

The final beer of the evening was a Pomme Lambic from Lindemans. I've had many spontaneously fermented lambics before (I'm particularly partial to gueuzes, which are made without adding fruit), but this was my first encounter with a Pomme (Apple) Lambic. All lambics tend to refreshing with a nice, tart finish, and this one was no exception. The apple flavors married very well with the other elements. It's not something I would drink every day, but it went extremely well with the sweet dessert that it was served with.

All-in-all, it was a fantastic evening. Thanks again to Jhon Gilroy and Gene Diamond for doing such a stellar job. When's the next one?

Some other random thoughts:

I received an email telling me that some folks found my attempt at humor in last week's blog offensive, which certainly wasn't my intention. I had intended it to be taken as a good-natured jest, but humor is very subjective, so if you are a resident of Nikiski and found my words ill-chosen or insulting, please accept my humblest apologies.

On a side note, I think I may have had the comments feature on this blog improperly set. If you have tried to post a comment in the past and have been unable to do so, please give it another try. I am always eager to hear what any of you have to say about my writing, be it good or bad. I believe the blog will now allow you to comment anonymously, if you wish to.

Speaking of Nikiski, Kassik's Kenai Brewstop will release the next batch of their award-winning Caribou Kilt Scotch Ale on Tuesday, 29 September. If you've had it, you already know how good it is. If you haven't, get up to Nikiski and see what all the fuss is about.

Up in Anchorage, La Bodega now has some Victory Ales on offer. Located in Dowingtown, PA, Victory has a great reputation in craft beer circles, with beers like Hopdevil, Storm King Stout, Hop Wallop, and Baltic Thunder. I have had a chance to try these brews on occasion in the past, and they are great. So if you can get up to La Bodega, pick some up to try yourself.

Speaking of hoppy beers, Sierra Nevada's Torpedo Extra IPA is back on sale. I blogged about it back on March 16 of this year. Now that the hop harvest is in, SN has been able to make more of this wonderful beer and I've seen it on sale at both the Soldotna Fred Meyer and at Country Liquors in Kenai. If you love hoppy ales, you have to try this one!

There's live music most Thirsty Thursday nights at St. Elias Brewing Company in Soldotna, from 7 to 9 PM. This week, drop by to hear local artist Chris Towne.

And don't forget that Kenai River Brewing will be releasing their Winter Warlock Strong Ale on Thursday, 1 October.

Looking ahead, I will not be posting next week, as I will be heading south to visit my father in the beer-desert that is Mississippi, where beers over 5% ABW are still illegal and half the counties are dry. Look for the blog to return in about two weeks.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Beer News You Can Use. And Lots of It!

Some weeks, it seems like there isn't much happening in the world of beer. Other weeks, it seems like I've got more to say than time and words to say it. This week being one of the latter, let's get to it!

First, see my breaking report from last week about the Beer Tasting that Merchant du Vin & Specialty Imports are hosting at Mykel's Restaurant in Soldotna this Friday, 25 September. It should be a great time, so don't miss it.

Next, Kenai River Brewing has their newest Single Hop IPA on tap. I've written before about what a cool idea this series of beers is, as they allow the traits of a specific hop variety to be showcased. This time around the guest of honor is the Chinook hop. Chinooks have been around since about 1985 and have long bee a favorite of homebrewers and craft brewers alike. They are a high alpha hop with a wonderful herbal character when used as an aroma hop or for dry-hopping. They're one of the classic Pacific North West hop choices.

This versatility really comes through in the Single Hop IPA. Often, these single hop beers clearly demonstrate why a mix of hops is superior. A given variety has a strong suit, but when it's called upon to sing the entire song by itself, that strong suit becomes monotonous and the end result is not great. Chinooks do not have that problem. To my taste, this Single Hop IPA, while perhaps not as good as a blend, like Kenai River's Sunken Isle, had a wonderful flavor and is eminently drinkable. My thanks to Doug and Joe for re-introducing me to an old friend, and I'm already planning to use some Chinooks in my next home brew.

Also from Kenai River is the news that their Winter Warlock will be released again on Thursday, 1 October. This English-style Strong Ale spends a year aging at the brewery before being released each fall, and it is well worth the wait. So mark you calendars and stop by KRB to get some on the 1st.

I went up to Anchorage on Friday afternoon and spent the weekend up there, as I had meetings for my job on both Saturday and Sunday. This gave me the chance to pay a visit to some of my favorite watering holes up there, as well as check out a new one.

First, my lovely wife Elaine and I stopped by Cafe Amsterdam on both Friday and Saturday evenings. Besides enjoying the floor show provided by Will Miller (Winner of the Best Bartender in Alaska Award for three years running) and soaking up the convivial beer-loving atmosphere, I got to try a couple of great beers.

First up, I had a goblet of the Duchess de Bourgogne, a fantastic Sour Brown Ale from West Flanders, brewed by the Verhaege family on the same site since 1880. At 6.2% ABV, it is smooth and rich, with some flavors of fruit, that eventually moves to a long, dry finish. It's also available in bottles in some of the better beer stores in town, like La Bodega and Brown Jug Warehouse. This brew rarely makes its way up to Alaska, so if you are at all interested in sour beers, grab it while you can.

And if you're not sure if you're interested, go by Cafe A and get a taste.

Next, I had a pint of Alaskan Brewing's Rauchbier, part of their Rough Draft series. In case you don't remember, these Rough Drafts are how Alaskan perfects a recipe and gauges market interest in potential new releases. Some of their previous entries in the series that are now regular beers include their IPA, their White, and their Baltic Porter. In my humble opinion, their Rauchbier is ready for prime time as well. The underlying beer has a wonderfully crisp and clean taste, very lager-like, though I believe they are using an ale yeast. The smokiness on top of this wonderful base gives the beer a very interesting flavor, and would pair extremely well with many foods. This beer is as good as any German rauchbier I have ever had, so I hope Alaskan will be releasing it to the mass-market soon.

Cafe A is also celebrating Oktoberfest (which started 9/19 and runs through the first weekend in October) with great German dishes and fine German beers. Among the offerings they had on were Spaten's Oktoberfest, Ayinger's Oktoberfest, Celebrator & Brau-Weisse, Paulaner's Salvator, Bitburger Pilsner, & Left Hand Brewing's Oktoberfest. Everyone should drop by and raise a glass.

On a less positive note, I also tasted Denali Brewing Company's Mother Ale and did not like it at all. This puts me in a difficult position, since I usually try to emphasize the positive in my beer reviews. I mean, if life's too short to drink bad beer, it's certainly too short to spend time writing about it. Unfortunately, this beer was so bad, I feel compelled to say something, as I don't want to see a brewery in this state go under, and I fear that might happen if many folks have the same experience I did.

To be specific, the beer I tasted had a tremendous amount of diacetyl, which gives beer a "buttery" flavor. In this case, I'm talking movie-theater-popcorn-buttery beer. If I had gotten the beer anywhere else, I might have suspected a contaminated draft line, but not at Cafe A. So I've got to suspect either a stressed or mutated brewing yeast or a keg or batch with bacterial contamination. Either way, it's something the folks up at Denali Brewing need to address, and I mean right now, or their brewing days will likely be sadly shortened.

On Saturday evening, Elaine and I stopped by Midnight Sun's Loft Bar. I wanted to taste their Berserker Imperial Stout carbonated with nitrogen rather than carbon dioxide. I was surprised at how much difference the change in gas made, as the nitrogen gave the beer a much smoother, creamy mouthfeel. Personally, I think the last thing Berserker should be is smooth and creamy, so I think I'll stick with the standard carbonation, but it was interesting to taste the difference.

I also had a glass of their Full Curl Scotch Ale. This used to be one of their regular production beers, but it's been retired and now it's only produced as an occasional seasonal. It's a good beer, a fine scotch ale or Wee Heavy, but I think I prefer their smoked version, the Kilt Burner. It's only available only on draft at the brewery, just like the Berserker on nitrogen.

Then we headed down to South Anchorage to have dinner at the new Firetap Alehouse on Old Seward just south of O'Malley. It boasts an impressive 30+ taps of mostly local Alaskan brews and a lovely high-ceiling modernistic bar/restaurant layout. The food was quite good, plentiful and not overly expensive by Anchorage standards. My only complaint is that for a place that bills itself as an alehouse, the beer side of the operation was somewhat understated. The beer menu did not have any details on any of the beers listed, beyond the name of the brewery. The wait staff did not seem terribly beer savvy, and even the little flip display on the table was about mixed drinks, rather than special beers on tap. All of which is not to say that Firetap is a bad place; it's just that if you are going to call yourself an "alehouse" rather than a "bistro" or a "pub", I'm going to expect a little more from you.

Still, they haven't been open that long, so perhaps the emphasis in the future will shift towards the beers.

And my calzone was very good, as was my wife's Chicken Alfredo.

Well, that wraps it up for this week. Before my next blog I intend to venture out into the wilds of Nikiski to get an up date on the doings at Kassik's Kenai Brewstop. {Edited to remove a silly joke which I'm told some local folks found offensive. If you were one of them, please accept my apologies.}

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Breaking News on Local Beer Tasting

Just a quick note to let everyone know about an event coming up next week.

On Friday, 25 September, at Mykel's Restaurant in Soldotna there will be a Beer Tasting, hosted by Merchant du Vin & Specialty Imports. It starts at 6:30 pm, includes a great appetizer buffet and 6 or 7 beers to taste. As of right now, the final beers haven't been set, but so far it looks like a couple of German beers (Pinkus Hefe & Ayinger October Fest-Marzen), a couple of Belgians (Green's Endeavor Dubbel and Orval Trappist Ale), Sam Smith's Taddy Porter from Britain, and Zatec Lager from the Czech Republic. They might throw in an Lindeman's Lambic as well.

If you've ever eaten at Mykel's, you're familiar with the high caliber of cuisine they produce. I've been to beer tastings there in the past and they do them right, believe me. The cost is only $35 per person, which for this sort of night out is a real steal.

Seating is limited, so I suggest you book in advance at 262-4305.

Tell 'em Bill Howell sent you!

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Take Pride in What You Do...

Of all the "Seven Deadly Sins", I've always thought that Pride was the one that least deserved to be there. All the others have pretty much solely negative connotations: Wrath, Gluttony, Sloth, Greed, Envy, even Lust have little to no redeeming qualities about them. But there's nothing wrong with Pride, so long as it's justified and not taken to extremes. "Arrogance" might have been a better choice when they were picking deadly sins, but no one asked me about it.

With all this in mind, perhaps, the folks at Midnight Sun have just re-released another batch of their take on Pride. Or maybe they were justly proud of the fact that this beer took a Bronze medal at the World Beer Cup and a Silver at the Great American Beer Festival last year. Or maybe they just like fooling around with Brettanomyces and French Oak Chardonnay barrels.

Whatever the reason, Pride is back on the street, which was my excuse to dive into my cellar and pull out a bottle from its last release, 18 months ago. Given what a notoriously slow-worker brett can be, I was interested in what sort of changes that much time might have produced.

The beer poured with a lovely white head of pinpoint carbonation, typical of the Belgian Strong Pale Ale style. Bottled at 6.5% ABV and 40 IBUs, on the palate it was very dry, with the strange, "horse-blanket" funkiness that screams brett to anyone who has ever tasted it. Slightly tart, amazingly refreshing, time has only served to make this brew something that its makers can be even more proud of. I plan to pick up several more bottles from this new release, some to drink fresh, some to cellar. I'd suggest you all do the same.

Speaking of picking up beers, I noticed that Stone's 13th Anniversary Ale, which I reviewed last week, is available at the Safeway here in Soldotna. Here's your chance to get some without driving to Anchorage, so don't miss out.

Zach Henry of St. Elias sent me an email telling me that he had a new beer on, so I stopped by on Saturday to check it out. Henry's Best Bitter is his take on the classic British Bitter style, high in hoppiness but relatively low in alcohol, to allow for extended drinking. Such a beer would typically be in the 3.8 to 4.6 % ABV range, and in Britain would be delivered from a cask (not a keg) via a handpump. Unfortunately, St. Elias is not (yet?) set up for dispensing from casks, so this Best Bitter is on draft like the rest of their offerings, but at 4.2% ABV, it's right on target for the style.

Instead of the using the traditional English hop varieties, such a Fuggles or East Kent Goldings, Zach decided to go with American hops, including Amarillo and Simcoe, among others. The result is a very interesting beer, scoring high not only on hoppiness but also -- without the extra alcohol of an IPA-- on sustained drinkability . You could imagine it's the sort of beer we might all be drinking today if we colonials had never sent the Brits packing. I really enjoyed it and look forward to enjoying it again the next time I duck into St. Elias for lunch or dinner.

Also, Zach mentioned that he will soon be installing an 8th serving tank, and he plans to maintain a tap line-up of five regulars (Puddle Jumper Pale Ale, Mother's Milk Irish Stout, Farmer's Friend, Williwaw IPA, & Flower Child XPA) alongside three seasonal beers.

And last but not least, I hear Kenai River has a new Single Hop IPA on offer; I plan to stop by there sometime this week, so I should have a review of it in next week's blog.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Everbody Must Get Stoned

It's that time of year again! Time for Stone Brewing Company of San Diego to release their 13th Anniversary Ale. Beer geeks around the country look forward to this every year, when we get to learn what sort of memorable brew the Stoners have dreamed up for us all to enjoy.

And this year marks lucky 13, so you know they had to whip up something special!

The beer started hitting store shelves at the end of June, so it's only taken about two months for it to make its way to Alaska, which is pretty much par for the course up here on the Last Frontier.

I guess I would call this year's brew a Double Red IPA; it's definitely a hop bomb, with over 90 IBUs of bitterness from Chinooks, Simcoe, and Centennial hops. The Chinooks handle the bittering during brewing, with the Simcoe & Centennial hops being used for dry hopping during fermentation. Plus, Stone actually does a second dry hopping just prior to bottling! This is one hoppy beer, my friends! Even with all that hopping, the beer remains remarkably drinkable, though its 9.5% ABV demands it be treated with respect.

It also has a very unusual color for an IPA, being a dark ruby, from crystal and amber malts used during the brewing. There's plenty of malt backbone for all that hoppiness to hang off of.

This beer reminds me somewhat of Midnight Sun's Mars, also an "Imperial Red IPA", which was released early in 2008 (prior to my starting this blog). It was around 85 IBUs and 8.7% ABV. It was also hopped with Simcoes, along with Columbus & Amarillo hops.

Bottom line: If you're a hophead like me, pick up a bottle of 13th Anniversary Ale. You won't be disappointed.

And don't even think about cellaring this beer! These hop flavors are meant to be savored fresh.

As long as we're talking about what time of the year it is, let's talk about the end of Tourist Season in Alaska. We didn't have a great year up here, with visitors down 20-40%, depending on where you are. Of course that means things were a lot less crowded for a change...

But now that the touristas, what there were of them, have departed, Alaskan breweries can go back to releasing big, interesting beers for us Alaskans. At the head of the line, Midnight Sun just released this year's edition of their Berserker Imperial Stout. This bad boy shows up every year about this time and it is eagerly awaited by beer lovers both near and far.

This year, we've got a new label, sporting what I assume is supposed to be a viking axe. The beer pours black and slow, with a small tan head. Talk about mouthfeel! This brew is very heavy on the tongue, almost chewy. "Vicious and viscous" is the ad copy, and Berserker certainly lives up to it! You quickly pick up hints of the molasses and maple syrup that are added to it, along with notes from its aging in oak. This is a massive beer, fully capable of going toe-to-toe with Deshutes The Abyss, North Coast's Old Rasputin, or any of the other great Imperial Stouts out there. At 30 IBUs and 12.7% ABV, this is definitely one to share and sip slowly.

Bottom line: Midnight Sun has done it again. Run, don't walk, to pick up a few bottles of Berserker for your cellar.

Well, that's about it for now. Got to go cut more firewood; winter will be here before you know it.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?

I tend to think of myself as a pretty forward-looking guy. Sure, I can talk about "the good old days" with the best of them, but when you get right down to it, in a lot of ways the good old days sucked. I don't know about you, but I kinda like the Internet, Direct TV, DVDs, MRIs, GPS, and all the other wonderful stuff we have today that we didn't have when I was a kid. So I'd hardly say I'm a reactionary who opposes all change.

But some things just rub a man's rhubarb...

Case in point, the following news item:

My first reaction on reading that that British government was considering banning pint glasses was that it had to be a joke. Once I realized that they were serious, I got angry. The British pub is one of those icons sacred to all lovers of good beer and the various British governments over the last half century have been doing their level best to kill it, via one wrong-headed means or another. There's not much I can do about it as an American, other than wish our British cousins good luck in opposing this stupidity and be even more vigilant against our own crew of thieving, lying politicos when then decide to try some sort of similar foolishness on this side of the Atlantic.

And don't think they won't, either. When your health care is costing Uncle Sugar $, he just might have something to say about how much or what kind of substances you'll be allowed to consume. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and once the Feds take over health care, we'll all be dancing to their jig.

It reminds me of the old joke: A man is speaking to an attractive single lady who he would like to get to know better. Eventually in the course of the conversation, he asks her if she would sleep with him in exchange for $1 million. She thinks about it for a moment, then says that she would. Then he asks her if she would do it for $10. The lady becomes angry and says "What sort of a woman do you take me for." The man replies: "Well, we've already established that you're a whore. Now we are just negotiating your price."

Once you concede the principle, the rest is just a matter of degree. So they can have my pint glass when they pry it from my cold dead fingers...

Still, as I said before, not all change is bad. Like craft beer in cans; there's a change I can get behind! Specifically, Oskar Blues' Dale's Pale Ale, which I picked up a six-pack of at our local Fred Meyer's last weekend. Nicely hopped with Centennials, it poured a pretty copper color with a nice head. Since it was from a can, the 65 IBUs of hoppiness were perfectly fresh. At 6.5% ABV, you need to treat this pale ale with respect, but for me it would be a perfect beer to take on a fishing or camping trip to enjoy in the wonderful Alaskan outdoors. Like their Old Chub, about which I have waxed lyrical in the past, Dale's Pale Ale is a quality beer and an excellent value for your money.

Speaking of hoppy beers, I also picked up a bottle of Port Brewing Company's WipeOut IPA at Freddies. Their Old Viscosity had impressed me greatly when I tried it a few months ago, which is not surprising given that Brewmaster Tomme Arthur is one of the top regarded craft brewers in the US today. WipeOut does not disappoint. It's a big beer, weighing in at 7.0% ABV and is massively hopped with I believe six different varieties of hops, among them Simcoe, Summit, Amarillo, and Centennial. It was a nice honey-gold color and very fresh and clean on the palate. While hardy a session beer, it was still very drinkable and refreshing for its strength, so I plan to pick up more.

If you travels take you up Anchorage way, keep an eye out for Midnight Sun's re-release of Pride, an award winning brew from their Seven Deadly Sins series. If you missed it the first time around, don't miss it this time!

Until Next Time, Cheers!