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!

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