Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sunrise Sunset

Everything in is this life comes and goes, especially beer. Like a fine meal, each batch of craft beer is a perishable commodity, a transitory phenomenon like a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Enjoy them while you can, because they won't last. Even if there is another sunset or beer just like it tomorrow, it won't be the same; there will be some subtle difference.

While I know that all good brewers strive for consistence, I think that may be one of the things which turns me off when it comes to the BudMillerCoors macrobrews: their utter sameness, both amongst each other and from one batch to the next.

Yes, I know it's a triumph of the brewer's art and modern technology, but drinking the same beer over and over again would be as boring as eating the same meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No matter how well-made and tasty, after a while you're bound to be sick of it. I prefer to take the risk of change, to enjoy the sunrise in the knowledge that the sunset must inevitably follow, to revel in the beer while realizing that in doing so I'm consuming the very thing I am enjoying, hastening its demise, even as I am conscious of the reality that there will never be another quite like it.

My friends Curt, Dave and I had this driven home to us last Friday when we stopped in at St. Elias Brewing Company on the way home, planning to start our respective weekends with a goblet of their Eclipse Strong Ale. However, when we took our seats at the bar, I could see that it was no longer on the chalkboard, and a quick chat with brewer Zach Henry confirmed that it was gone (along with the Winter Wheat), much to Curt's disappointment, as he has long thought it was fantastic. Imagine my chagrin when Zach suggested that my rave reviews in this blog had contributed to Eclipse's swift demise! By voicing how much I'd enjoyed drinking it, I'd hastened the day that I could no longer could do so.

So you can see why my thoughts are running the way they are. Even if Zach decides to try to make another blend like Eclipse, it will never be exactly the same. Perhaps it will be even better, but it won't be the same; from now on, the pleasure of drinking that beer will reside only in my memories...

However, for every sunset, there's a sunrise. Also on Friday Zach was just in the process of putting on this year's version of his Marathon Mild Ale. I reviewed last year's version of this beer on 6/5/2009. Zach has tweaked the recipe a bit, making the beer darker in color but even lighter in alcohol, coming in at 3.6% ABV. This is the classic session beer, the beer to have with lunch before you go back to the office or to choose when you've got a long evening ahead of you and you want to keep your wits about you. While it's low on alcohol, it's very high on taste; this darker version is even better than last year's in that area. This beer is proof positive that a beer doesn't need to be high in alcohol to be packed with flavor. If you've never had a mild before, you really need to try this beer.

Other news from St. Elias: Zach sister Jessie has brewed her first beer; look out for a raspberry ale real soon. Their outside patio is now officially open and they are still having live music every Thursday night from 7 to 9 PM. This week the band is Thumper's Credo, so either Bambi's rabbit friend is their lead singer or they've got lots of percussion...

Looking to the other breweries in the area, Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop released their latest batch of Gold Nugget Hefe last week, which is another sure sign of spring! Kenai River Brewing Company has their latest Single Hop IPA, made with Saphir hops, on tap. Doug and the lads have also been putting the occasional 5 gallon or 50 liter keg of prior IPAs on and announcing it on their Facebook page. So far we've seen Chinook and Glacier. Once the word goes out, they don't last long, so if you want a shot, you'd better "friend" them on Facebook. Assistant Brewer Joe Gilman is off to Haines for the Haines Beerfest; stay out of trouble, Joe!

And now for something completely different, as boys on Monty Python used to say. I came across this painting the other day and thought I'd share it with you.

The Ale-House Door was painted around 1790 by Henry Singleton; it's sometimes referred to as At the Inn Door. The original 10 x12 inch canvas in in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

I really enjoy the imagery: a weary traveler, his bindlestaff and tired dog at his feet, stops at the alehouse to smoke a pipe and enjoy a refreshing pint (or is it a quart?) of good English ale, served to him by the proprietress.

The quintessential English-ness of it, coupled with the sense of welcome that it seems to exude, very much appeals to me. I bet that ale tastes just delicious...

Based on the sign, it would appear that this pub is named The Bell. This was a very common pub name, thanks to a common saying of the day that "a bell speaks all languages".

Just another of the many examples of beer in art through the ages.

Well, that's about it for this week. I hope you will all enjoy the Memorial Day Weekend. Get outside, enjoy the good weather, grill some burgers and drink some good craft brews.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Yardwork + Teamwork = Good Times

Happy American Craft Beer Week! I'm celebrating by drinking good beer all week; what are you doing?

Summer comes on apace here in the Great Land. Seems everyone is busy cleaning up from winter and getting things fired up for summer. Elaine and I spent the weekend working around our yard, buying new plants then potting and planting them. If all goes well, that hard work should translate into plenty of potatoes, onions, carrots, strawberries, not to mention flowers and kitchen herbs, between now and when the snow flies again.

Yard work can really bring on a thirst, which gave me a good excuse to try three new beers, two of which represent collaborations between multiple brewers/breweries. But before I opened either of them, I opened a bottle Schlafly Oak-Aged Barlywine (2007 Vintage), produced by the St. Louis Brewery. I'd never had a Schlafly beer before and they don't distribute to Alaska. I only had this one because I'd traded some Midnight Sun brews to another beer lover in Rhode Island, and this was one of the beers he'd sent me in return.

I poured the beer out into a large 20 oz snifter; it's color was a very dark amber with a fair off-white head, which dissipated relatively quickly. The aroma was of vanilla, oak, caramel, perhaps a little chocolate. On the palate the wood became even more evident, even dominate. Finish was long and dry. The label listed the beer's stats at 10% ABV and 75 IBUs. Without the extensive wood-aging, I think this would be a fairly run-of-the-mill barleywine; the tremendous amount of wood-derived flavor components make it something else entirely. Sitting next to a roaring fire pit on my patio, looking out over the fruits of my yard work on a cool May evening, this woody brew was excellent. It's too bad I loathe cigars...

My next beer was one I've been anticipating for several months: Sierra Nevada Brewing Company's 30th Anniversary Fritz & Ken's Ale. This beer was released back in mid-March, as the first in a series of four beers being brewed in collaboration between Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman and other pioneers of the craft brewing movement to celebrate SN's 30 years in business.

This particular beer was a collaboration between Ken and Fritz Maytag, the man behind Anchor Brewing in San Francisco and the godfather of American craft brewing (see my blog on is on 4/26/2010 for more on Fritz). Style-wise, it's an Imperial Stout, corked and caged into a 750ml bottle with a magnificent label.

Pouring this beer (again into a 20 oz snifter), I'm greeted with an absolutely opaque liquid, with a luscious-looking tan head. The aroma is superb, chock full of roasted coffee and dark chocolate, very inviting. The beer is just as good on the palate, rich and full bodied, with roasted malt/coffee and smooth chocolate flavors fighting it out for supremacy. The finish is quite dry, long-lasting and moreish. Hard to believe this beer is 9.2% ABV, it is so phenomenally drinkable. My only regret is that I didn't get my hands on a couple more to cellar for a few months to a few years; I suspect this beer would aged wonderfully. You probably won't be able to get your hands on any of this beer, but if you do, grab it! I know I'll be waiting for the next three beers in the series with great anticipation.

The final beer in this trio is Juxtaposition Black Pilsner, a collaboration brew between Stone Brewing Company of San Diego, CA, Cambridge Brewing Company of Cambridge, MA, and BrewDog Brewery of Fraserburgh, Scotland. Stone is justly famous for it's flagship brew, Arrogant Bastard Ale, while BrewDog is one of the new crop of European breweries inspired by the example of American craft brewers. They are earned themselves quite a bit of press notice on account of their extreme strength beers and their take-no-prisoners ad campaigns. Here's an example:

Cambridge is somewhat less well known, but during the two years I spent living outside Boston and attending MIT, they were one of my favorite haunts, with outstanding beer and food. (I especially remember how good their paella was). So when these three got together, they were bound to produce something unusual.

Juxtaposition claims to be a Black Pilsner, which is another name for schwarzbiers, a regional specialty of northern Franconia in Germany. I poured my 12 oz. bottle into another 20 oz snifter; the large, tan head produced mostly filled the glass. The aroma was an equal fight between coffee, licorice, honey, and cocoa, with some hints of alcohol (10% ABV). When I tasted it, the flavor profile was not at all like the schwarzbiers I've had in the past; it was much closer to a stout that to the black lagers I'd tasted. Roasted flavors predominated, with some hop bitterness and alcohol heat. The finish was good, with lots of lingering notes. All-in-all, it was a very unique brew, from three pretty unique breweries. There was a tremendous amount going on, and I'm still trying to decide if it was a symphony or a shambles. Guess I'll need to drink a few more to make up my mind...

In other news, the 18th Annual Great Alaska Craft and Home Brew Festival in Haines, AK will be happening on Memorial Day Weekend. I have yet to be able to make it there, but I hear it's a great time, so be there if you can. Maybe next year...

Well, that's the beer news from the Last Frontier. I hope you all enjoy American Craft Beer Week and drink lots of good craft beer.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Hints of Summer At Last!

Well, it looks like we're finally starting to see some warmer weather up here; we're staying above freezing at night and all the snow is gone. We'll be seeing mosquitoes before too much longer...

Last week we had some very nice clear days, which was good, since the Soldotna Community Playground build was in progress. I've been part of the project since they held a beer tasting last January to raise money (1/11/2010). I didn't get to help out much during the build, since last week was very busy for me in my day job at the College: graduation, two days of Campus Emergency Response Team training (pictured), and then an end of the year staff meeting & BBQ. Still, they had 800+ volunteers help out with the construction and the new playground is beautiful.

Now all we need is a beer garden built right next to it and Soldotna will be the best place to play on the Peninsula!

Besides our better weather, the other harbinger of summer is change is opening hours for our local businesses. The "official" start of our tourist season is Memorial Day Weekend, and the local establishments which cater to them are opening for the season or expanding their business hours. Last year's summer was nothing to write home about, so we're all hoping to have something better this year.

St. Elias Brewing Company has increased their opening hours. As of May 1st, they are now open from noon to 10 PM, Sunday to Thursday, and from noon to 11 PM on Friday and Saturday. Given how busy they've been every time I've been in there in the last few weeks, I don't know how many tourists they're going to be able to accommodate, but I guess that's a good problem to have!

Also at St. Elias, the Snow Angel Imperial Pilsner and Moose Juice Barleywine are finished, and they've been replaced by Eclipse, a blend of vanilla porter & barleywine that's spent several months in a whiskey cask. This beer was served at the Great Alaska Beer & Barleywine Festival in January, and lots of folks have been waiting impatiently for it to be on tap again. It's 9.0% ABV, 65 IBUs, and loaded with bourbon and wood-flavors. For sale in 6 oz. goblets only, it a wonderful after dinner sipper. Zach Henry tells me that he'll be making another mild ale soon; this one will be darker than last summer's wonderful Marathon Mild, and I'm looking forward to trying it.

Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop has just re-released their Gold Nugget Hefeweizen and their Imperial Spiced Honey Wheat, so if you're hankerin' for a good wheat ale, grab your growlers and head out to Nikiski.

Over at Kenai River Brewing Company, the boys have been very busy. Their latest Single Hop IPA, made with Challenger hops, is almost gone. Their next one will be made with Saphir hops. As always, these beers serve as a great venue to showcase the qualities of specific hop varieties. Challengers are an English hop, a descendant of Goldings, first introduced in 1972. In the IPA I thought they were nice and subtle, strangely reminiscent of Chinooks. I think they only have about 5 gallons left, so be sure to grab some soon if you want any. Doug gave me a taste of the upcoming Saphir Single Hop IPA. Saphir hops are a new breed of European hop that is starting to replace the Hallertauer Mittlefrüh variety, which has become more and more susceptible to disease and pests. It shares many of the Hallertaur Mittlefrüh characteristics, which makes it very well suited as an aroma hop. In the IPA, I thought it was a little more aggressive than the Challenger, but that may be simply because the beer was younger. It's not a hop that I am very familiar with, but it seems very interesting. If you're a homebrewer or a serious hophead, you need to give this a try.

Another beer on at Kenai River is a reformulation of their Resurrection Summer Ale. Doug has added some rye malt to the wheat malt he's used in the past. The result is a little darker in color (I think) and an even better flavor, with the rye adding interesting flavor notes. At 4% ABV, this is definitely a wonderful session beer, great to have a summer party or picnic. If you've tried it in the past, be sure to taste the new version.

In other news, Oklahoma has finally legalized homebrewing, effective 1 November. Now the only states left in which brewing beer at home is still illegal are Mississippi and Alabama. Americans are still saddled with a ridiculous number of archaic and down right stupid restrictions on the purchase and consumption of alcohol, but at least we are making some progress, slow though it may be.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, May 3, 2010

National Homebrew Day

Well, I hope you enjoyed National Homebrew Day on Saturday; I know I did. I had thirteen friends and former students from my beer appreciation class over and together we brewed a batch of my Pinnacle Ale, an American IPA. Besides the brewing fun, we drank a couple of growlers of beer from Midnight Sun (more on that below) and several of my homebrews, while nibbling on some very fine cheeses. It was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

I really enjoy events such as National Homebrew Day. I think it's incredibly important that all lovers of craft beer and homebrewing make every effort to reach out to those folks that they know and introduce them to these things we know and love. It's the only way to really grow the community of American Craft Beer.

Speaking of that, American Craft Beer Week is May 17 to 23rd. The mission of American Craft Beer Week is to encourage beer lovers everywhere to celebrate the accomplishments of America's small and independent craft brewers. So check out their website, sign the Declaration of Beer Independence, and look for an event near you, wherever you are.

I was up in Anchorage on Thursday, so on the way out of town I stopped at Midnight Sun and had those two growlers filled. For the first, I picked their CoHoHo Imperial IPA; this is a winter seasonal, so when it's gone, it's gone until next winter. It's one of my favorite brews; see my review on 10/20/2008 for details.

For the other growler, I went with the second beer in their 2010 Pop Ten Series, Gold Digger Double American Pilsner. The design thought behind this beer is very interesting; as near as I can tell, it's made exactly like an imperial pilsner, except that the classic European noble hops are replaced by American varieties. It pours a lovely clear, golden color, with a nice, white head, just like a standard Czech pilsner. It has the same clean, crisp taste on the palate, but with a much more pronounced and robust bitterness and hop aroma. A Pilsner Urquell drinker in Prague would probably say that it lacks the subtlety and delicacy of a "real" pilsner, but so what? We're brash Americans and this is one fine tasting beer. It's draft only, so look for it in Anchorage.

I also picked up a bottle of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company's Glissade Golden Bock. I have to admit, I haven't had the chance to drink many bocks in the last several years; it's not a very popular style with American Craft brewers. However, based on what I remember from my sojourns in Europe, Glissade seems spot-on for the style. It's a lager, of course, and brewed up from two-row European barley. German Magnum and Perle hops are used for bittering, while German Spalter and Slovenian Aurora & Styrian hops provide the finishing & aroma. Glissade pours a lovely deep gold color with a nice white head. The aroma is a nice balance of hops and malt, with neither dominating. On the palate, it has the crisp and clean taste you'd expect of a cold-fermented lager, with plenty of malt backbone to stand up to the 42 IBUs of bitterness. The beer is so well-balanced that the 6.2% ABV is not apparent; it's as easy-drinking as a beer with less than 5% ABV. This is a great beer to enjoy sitting out on the patio in the sunshine, as the last, lingering traces of winter are melting away. Another quality product from Sierra Nevada.

My final new beer of the weekend was one I had been looking forward to for a long time. Bridgeport Brewing Company's Highland Ambush Scotch Ale. I'm a sucker for a good Strong Scotch, and this one had the added feature that 33% of it had been aged in used bourbon whiskey casks and then blended with the un-aged two-thirds. First brewed in the 80's for Bridgeport's Brewpub, it was re-released in December and I've been looking to snag a bottle ever since, so I was happy to pick some up at La Bodega. (By the way, I saw on Saturday that it is now available at Fred Meyer in Soldotna, AFTER I had gone to the trouble to buy some in Anchorage. Typical.)

The beer itself poured with a slightly thin appearance, and very little head, which is not atypical for some Scotch ales. There was not a tremendous nose, but some malt was noticeable. On the palate, my first impression is that the beer was thin, almost over-attenuated. While I don't expect my Strong Scotch Ales to be as chewy as an Imperial Stout, I do look for a good backbone of unfermentables to build around. Not so with Highland Ambush. The wood aging did eventually make itself felt, though there was no discernible bourbon flavor. The finish was not bad, long and quite dry. All-in-all, not a bad beer, but not anywhere near the best Scotch ale I've ever had. I'm not sure how "wet" the whiskey barrels used were, but their impact was minimal, at least to my palate. Since they're available locally, you can try it for yourself, but I was sadly unimpressed...

Well, that's about it for now. I'll be pretty busy this week, trying to wrap up the end of the semester at my day job, but I hope to have more local beer news to report next blog.

Until Next Time, Cheers!