Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Summer Solstice

Solstice: Either of two times of the year when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator. The summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere occurs about June 21, when the sun is in the zenith at the tropic of Cancer; the winter solstice occurs about December 21, when the sun is over the tropic of Capricorn. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year and the winter solstice is the shortest.

The summer solstice is a pretty big deal up here in the Great Land. Back in the lower 48, I don't remember anyone making very much of it. The weatherman might mention it, or maybe there would be a news story about the druids at Stonehenge, but that was about it.

But up here in Alaska, where we spend so much of the year without much sunshine, the longest day of the year merits celebration. Lots of celebrations. In fact, you can't hardly swing a cat without bumping into a solstice celebration. They even play baseball at midnight in Fairbanks, but that's another story.

Most Alaskan solstice celebrations involve music, food, and drinking-- not necessarily in that order of priority-- and the shindig last weekend at St. Elias Brewing Company was no exception. Elaine and I cruised in about 6:15 and the place was already packed with folks and the music was going strong. (Maybe a little too strong, but we were sitting right next to one of their speakers.) We had friends coming to meet us a little later, but we wanted to make sure we could all get a table.

The cask of Williwaw IPA, dry-hopped with Amarillo hops, was scheduled to be tapped at 7, so in the meantime I ordered a pint of the just released Sunfire Saison. When my pint arrived it was a hazy orange-honey color, with a nice head. The aroma was just what you'd expect from a Belgian saison: earthy, spicy, maybe a little citrus, some hoppiness. On the palate, Sunfire is classic Belgian; it's spicy, a little bit tart, and a bit dry. Comparing it to a Saison Dupont, the stereotypical Belgian saison, Sunfire is not quite as dry and not as hoppy, but it's well within the style boundaries and delicious to boot. ABV is 6.4%, so it should be treated with respect. Taken all-in-all, I think Sunfire Saison may be the best beer Zach has released to date, with the possible exception of some of his barrel-aged blends. If you like saisons at all, you owe it to yourself to try this one.

As I was working my way through this fantastic beer and a delicious pizza, our friends joined us. Promptly at 7, Zach tapped the cask. In my blog last week, I said that the casks were firkins, holding 72 pints. Zach informed me that I was in error; they are actually pins, half the size of firkins, so only 36 pints or so. Zach was pretty nervous about tapping the cask, as this wasn't something he'd had a lot of experience with, but he did an excellent job. I tried to get a photo with my wife's cellphone, but I'm a crap photographer and the picture was lousy. So the photo here is courtesy of Zach's sister, Jessie. Thanks, Jessie!

That's Zach on the right, hammering the tap in, while Assistant Brewer John holds the cask. Note the soft spile in the bunghole at the top of the cask.
I'm proud to say that I got the very first pint from the cask, and it was excellent. I'd forgotten just how much better the natural carbonation of a cask-conditioned ale is, as compared to one from a force-carbonated keg. The cask IPA seemed smoother, silkier; it's bitterness lacked the slightly rough edge that Zach's regular Williaw IPA can have. The dry hopping ensured it was bursting with excellent hop aroma. If I had to pick a nit, I'd say that the beer wasn't as clear as I would have liked; it hadn't quite "dropped brite", as the Brits say. Talking with Zach about this later, he agreed and thought he might refine his use of finings, which are substances added to the cask to encourage the yeast and other haze-inducing compounds to drop out of suspension. Still, this only impacted appearance, not taste, and, given that this was his first go at cask ale, it's a pretty minor complaint.

In conclusion, I think that the first cask ales on the Peninsula were a rousing success, and judging by how fast the pins were emptied, I think lots of folks agreed with me. Zach is already talking about putting in some handpumps...

Continuing with the summer beer theme, I want to review a couple of brews that are perfect for the warmer months. Alaskan Brewing Company's Summer Ale is a kolsch-style ale, a style that is a favorite of my wife, and I enjoy one now and then myself. This is a style that's native to Cologne, Germany. In fact, that's why it's called a kolsch-style, rather than just a kolsch; to be called a kolsch, it has to be made in Cologne.

Beers made in this style are ales that are fermented at very low temperatures and then cold-aged, like lager beers. The resulting hybrid brew has a crisper and cleaner taste than you would usually expect from an ale, which makes it very refreshing in warmer weather. Alaskan's version is very true to the style, clear golden in color, with only 18 IBUs of hop bitterness and 5.3% ABV. It's clean and light on the palate, perfect for pairing with lighter dishes like salads or fresh seafood. It would also be a good choice for a first-time craft beerdrinker.

Another interesting beer from Alaskan is their Raspberry Wheat Ale. This beer was released back on May 1st and is part of their Pilot Series of of big, bold beer, released on a rotating basis in 22 oz bottles. So far, the other members of the series are their Baltic Porter and their Barleywine, both of which were excellent beers. Raspberry Wheat is an interesting brew, with a pound of fresh raspberries being added to every gallon. All that fruit gives the beer a slight red hue, and adds a tartness that makes the beer very refreshing on a warm day. Unlike some fruit beers that just have fruit juice added, the use of whole berries give this ale a very interesting flavor profile, as well as adding additional alcoholic strength (6.5% ABV) but leaving the finished beer very dry. If raspberries are your thing, you'll find this ale a very interesting incorporation of them.

I also tried another classic, Anchor Brewing Company's Summer Beer. This is the granddaddy of all American wheat beers, first brewed in 1984. In spite of its being around for over 25 years, I'd never had any before this. The beer is made from 50% malted wheat & 50% 2-row barley and comes in at 4.6% ABV. Pouring it out into a large snifter, I was rewarded with a very large white head, just as you'd expect from a wheat beer; the beer itself was honey-colored and very clear. The aroma was of of malt, but light and clean; no hops or citrus. On the palate it was light and crisp, with no extremes. Very drinkable, but not as interesting (at least to me) as the other fine brews I've had from Anchor. I can see where this beer was a real ground-breaker twenty-five years ago, but there are many more wheat beers around today. A good, solid American wheat beer.

I was up in Anchorage on Saturday and, as usual, I managed to snag some interesting beers. I haven't had a chance to try all of them yet, but one I did get to try was Lindemans Faro Lambic, a brand new import into the US from Merchant du Vin, distributed in Alaska by Specialty Imports.

As a style, faro originated in the cafes of Brussels, where aged lambics were mixed with a younger, sweeter beer and served to patrons via pitchers or jugs. Eventually the younger beer gave way to the use of candi sugar or molasses as sweeteners. Today, faro is also available in bottles, in which the lambic has been pasteurized to prevent the added sugar from fermenting in the bottle. It's a very rare style, and one I've never seen outside of Belgium before, so kudos to Merchant du Vin and Specialty for getting it to Alaska.

Pouring the beer into a snifter, I was immediately struck by how much darker it was than a typical non-fruit lambic like a gueuze. Obviously they used dark candi sugar as a additive. The head was small and fast dissipating, while the nose was quite sour, just as you'd expect from a lambic. The beer's aroma and lambic origins lead my palate to expect something sour; what I actually tasted was something much sweeter, thanks to the added sugar. In fact, the flavor profile was an interesting balance, or maybe battle, between those two elements, the sweet and the sour. I can see where it might not be everyone's cup of tea, but I found it quite enjoyable and I'm hoping to pick up a couple more bottles.

Well, that's about it for this week. Let's all get out and enjoy the good weather, folks, 'cause the summer solstice means one more thing: the days are going to be getting shorter. There are still many weeks of summer left, but winter is coming...

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cask Ale Comes to the Kenai

Friday, June 18th, will be a banner day in the story of good beer on the Kenai Peninsula. For the first time, at least as far as I know, ale will be served from the cask. Back on 2/8/2010, I waxed rhapsodic about how much I enjoyed good cask ale when I was living in Britain. I mentioned that it was available, at least occasionally, in Anchorage. Well, now folks in the central Kenai will get a chance to try it also.

When I stopped by St. Elias Brewing Company last Friday, Zach Henry called me back into the brewery to show me his latest acquisitions: three firkins, tw0 made of stainless and one of wood. Firkin is derived from the dutch word for a "fourth", as it holds a quarter of a standard barrel, or about 72 pints. Here's a picture:

You can clearly see the bung hole in the side, by which the firkin is filled and vented, while the tap hole on the end is located on the bottom on the cask end, rather than in the center, as on a keg. This is because a cask is set on its side to be tapped, with gravity causing the beer to flow out, rather than being forced out by carbon dioxide as in a conventional keg.

Cask ale is a much more perishable commodity than keg ale, since drawing off ale allows air to enter the cask, which eventually produces oxidized "stale" beer. So no cask can remain on service beyond a few days. However, a fresh cask ale is an absolutely wonderful experience.

According to Zach, he will be tapping the casks during their 2nd Annual Summer Solstice Festival this weekend. He plans to tap a cask of his Williwaw IPA each evening at about 7 PM. I'm not sure what his plan is for the wooden firkin of Farmer's Friend Ale.

Besides oohing and ahing over Zach's new firkins, I also tasted his latest release, Island Girl Ale. This is a "no doubter" raspberry ale, and is a pretty shade of pink, or maybe rose, in color. Coming in at 5.5% ABV, the raspberry flavor is very much in the forefront, with a nice clean finish and not much bitterness. I'm not a great fan of fruit beers myself, but I'm sure that Island Girl will be a very popular summer choice, especially with the ladies.

Zach also told me that as soon as the Brass Monkey ESB is finished, it will be replaced by his new saison, which he's very happy with. Can't wait to try it!

I also stopped in at Kenai River Brewing Company on Friday to sample their Russian River Razz, another take on a raspberry ale.
This is a much more subtle take on a fruit beer. In the glass it's light gold in color, rather than pink. Tasting it, I had to hunt for the raspberries; they are there, but you do have to look for them. In fact, I seemed to perceive them best as part of the finish. At 5% ABV and 20 IBUs, it's a nice summer beer, very drinkable and thirst-quenching.

I also had some more of their latest Single Hop IPA, hopped with Saphir hops, which I reviewed this back on 5/11/2010. If you've never had the chance to taste this hop variety before, I'd suggest you swing by Kenai River and give it a try.

Finally, a couple of international beer stories caught my eye. First, a fellow blogger named Steve Williams, AKA The Beer Justice, was selected as the official London Ale Taster, which sounds pretty similar to being chosen Beerdrinker of the Year, except he gets even more money to spend on beer (1000 British pounds, to be exact). You can read the full story here. Congratulations, Steve, and welcome to the club.

Second, it seems that A-B Inbev can now have you arrested for wearing the color orange, at least in South Africa. If you had any doubt that that company has gotten way too big for its britches and needs to be broken apart, this story should remove all doubt. Remind me never to visit South Africa, either!

Well, that should about wrap things up for this week. Be sure to check out one or both of the cask tappings at St. Elias. I'll be making a quick trip to Anchorage over the weekend, so hopefully I'll be bring back some more interesting beers to review.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Hope Springs Eternal

Hope springs eternal in the human breast: Man never is, but always To be Blest.
---Alexander Pope

On Saturday, my lovely wife Elaine and I decided to take a little drive and visit the community of Hope, Alaska. When I say little drive, I mean little by Alaskan standard; it was 85 miles one-way. For the past six years, on every drive to Anchorage and back, we have driven past the turn-off to Hope. On most trips one or the other of us has said, "We need to go up and check out Hope sometime." Last Saturday we finally did it.

Hope is a pretty amazing place. Founded in 1899 by miners pulling gold out of Resurrection Creek, the town got its name purely by chance. After discussing what their new town would be named, the miners agreed that they would name it after the very next newcomer to arrive by boat. When young Percy Hope stepped ashore, Hope got its name. Today it's a small, quiet place, with a population of about 150 folks.

From a beer prospective, the most interesting thing about Hope is the Seaview Bar. It's located in a historic building right downtown, next to the Seaview Cafe, with which it shares a patio. It's a fabulous location, with a terrific view out across Turnagain Arm towards Bird Point. The weather was a little wet while we were there, but on a nice sunny day the patio would have been a great spot to enjoy a beer.

When Elaine and I went inside, I actually did not hold out too much hope for the beer selection. Boy, was I wrong! As you can see from the photo, they had seven taps and every one was a local Alaskan beer. Huzzah! In bottles, they had Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Alaskan Amber and Summer Ales, plus the usual suspects (Bud, Miller, Coors, etc). An amazingly good selection, considering how isolated they are.

As you can see from the interior photos, the decor is pretty much pure, rural Alaska. Chatting with the young fellow tending bar, Joshua, I learned that the bar is only open noon to 11 PM from mid-May to mid-September and that they have live music on Thursday and Saturday nights. I think you can get food from the cafe next door, though we didn't actually order any.

All things considered, I had only two complaints about the Seaview Bar. One, it had no foot rail. There's a reason bars need foot rails, which I might go into in a later blog. Whenever such a rail is absent, I really miss it. Two, they need better beer glasses. I noticed that wines was served in proper wine glasses, but beers were poured into mason jars, of all things. Maybe that's part of the "Alaskan ambiance" they're trying for, but if that's the case, why not put their wines in them too? Once again, we see folks disrespecting good beer. Sigh...

Regardless of those two complaints, the Seaview Bar is a wonderful place to have a beer or three. If you find yourself in Hope, you really need to stop by and check it out.

While we were at the Seaview, I had a "jar" of Denali Brewing Company's Mother Ale (it's was excellent, by the way) and I used a new style of notebook for my tasting notes. If you're the sort of beer geek who likes to take notes on beers that you drink, check out the pocket-sized beer journals at 33 Bottles of Beer. They are very handy and much more practical to stick in your pocket than a full-size notebook.

Speaking of tasting beers, I had a Samuel Adams Double Bock, one of their Imperial Series, over the weekend. It poured a dark amber with some ruby highlights. The head was a light tan and seemed to subside fairly quickly. On the palate, it was very malt forward, in keeping with the style, with some alcohol heat. The finish was nice and smooth; good balance. This is a worthy American version of the classic German doppelbock; if you like strong, dark lagers, this is a good beer for you!

On the local scene, Kenai River continues to release one-off kegs of some of their previous efforts. Most recently it was a keg of Conglomeration, the IPA the brewed using all the hop varieties from the first year of the Single Hop IPA series. These releases never last long, so you really need to sign up on Facebook if you're interested.

At St. Elias Brewing Company, they have just released their new summer seasonal, Island Girl, a raspberry ale. There will be live music on Thursday, June 10th with Mike Morgan, from 7-9 PM. St. Elias will also be having their 2nd Annual Summer Solstice Festival, next week on the 18th and 19th of June. Look for live music on the patio, starting at 6 PM, and apparel giveaways. Elaine and I will see you there.

Over at Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop, they've got several events coming up. They'll have a beer tent at the Kenai River Festival, held at Soldotna Creek Park this weekend. Look for
their Beaver Tail Blonde, Morning Wood IPA, Moose Point Porter, Gold Nugget Hefeweizen, and Dolly Varden Nut Brown Ales on tap. Their brews are also on tap at the Peninsula Oilers' ballpark; the Oilers kick off their home season this Friday. There's nothing better than taking in a good game with a hot dog and a brew, take it from me. I also hear they're down to their last keg of the Imperial Spiced Honey Wheat, so get it before it's gone.

Well, that's about it for the week. Next week I'm going to try to review the slew of summer beers that have been released locally. Hope y'all like raspberries...

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Stretching the Limits

Some things are just plain "Out There". They stretch the limits; the limits of propriety, they limits of society, even the limits of sanity. Of course, it's only by such stretching that the limits are ever expanded.

One of the main reasons I teach a class on beer is to help people stretch their personal limits, to help them expand their definition of what constitutes "beer". For far too many Americans, beer is defined by the very narrow stylistic range of American Light Lagers, exemplified by BudMillerCoors. I try to expose my students to many of the other styles of beer out there, to see the tremendous range of choices available, but there are some styles which are so "out there" that I don't spring them on my students, for fear of scaring them off.

This weekend I had a couple of brews which would certainly qualify as pushing the boundaries.

Back on June 18, 2009 I reviewed Midnight Sun's Cafe Amsterdam 10th Anniversary Dark Strong Gruit. Technically, this isn't even a beer, since it contains no hops at all. The label proudly proclaims "00 IBUs" and "no hops were harmed in the making of this beer". At the time I found it less sweet than I expected, with a nice flavor from the spices added. Last week during a stop at Sav-U Mor, I saw that they had some bottles of this for sale. I was interested to see how the passage of a year would have affected the gruit, given that hops were originally added to beer in the first place to help preserve it. How would a totally unhopped beverage fair?

When I poured the beer I noted no change in the appearance or the nose, but on the palate the difference was immediately noticeable. The fermentation process had continued in the bottle, and the beer had become quite tart over the course of a year.

Sourness is usually considered a defect today, but centuries ago, when all beers were stored in wood, sourness was pretty much an inevitable result of beer being kept for any period of time, as the microflora living in the wood would eventually add more and more sour flavors the longer the beer was kept. Many brewers blended sour old or stock ales with younger, sweeter brews to produced a desired flavor profile. This gruit was pretty sour, but still very enjoyable on its own terms. If you're interested in stretching the limits of your taste experience and want to know what most ales tasted like six or seven centuries ago, here's your chance. Snag a bottle at Sav-U-Mor and give it a taste. Just be careful: at 12% ABV, this "beer" is not to be trifled with!

After revisiting this unique beer and whetting my appetite for tart brews, I went digging in my beer refrigerator for something special and came out with a bottle of Boon's Geuze.
This beer is a lambic, a spontaneously fermented beers from Belgium. Once again, here is a style of brewing that dates back centuries, to a time before brewers understood the significance of yeast in the brewing process. Instead of being deliberately inoculated with yeast, lambics are simply exposed to the air overnight and are fermented by whatever yeasts happen to drift in. They are hopped, but where most brewers seek the freshest hops available, lambic brewers use very old hops, which have lost all their aromatic and bittering properties. They are added for their antibacterial preservative properties alone. Finally, lambics are aged, traditionally in wood, and can become quite sour after several years.

Most people's exposure to lambics is likely in the form of one to which fruit has been added. The sweetness of the fruit, traditionally cherries or raspberries, helps balance the tartness of the underlying beer. I prefer a geuze (or gueuze; spellings vary), which is a lambic without fruit. Instead, older, sourer lambic is blended with younger, sweeter beer, then bottled. The sugar in the younger beer help balance the sourness of the older component and produce a refermentation in the bottle, naturally carbonating it. This harkens back to the old technique I mentioned above, blending old and new beers to achieve the desired flavor.

The result is one of the most amazing experiences to be had in the world of beer. A sparkling, highly carbonated drink, it poured a cloudy, pale amber with a wonderful, dense and long-lasting white head. The aroma was of tart cider, very appealing. On the palate is was wonderfully light and remarkably dry, with enough sourness to make you pucker. Little malt and no hops, this beer was a classic geuze. Such beers are difficult to find, even up in Anchorage, but they represent another opportunity to stretch your beer palate.

Speaking of stretching the limits, another volley has been fired in the "strongest beer in the world" war. The Schorschbrau Brewery in German has reclaimed the title from Scotland's BrewDog with their announcement of the release a 43% ABV "beer", which tops BrewDog's 41% Sink the Bismark. Here's a graphic which shows the recent progression:

With the exception of the Boston Brewing Company's Sam Adams Utopia, all of these beers use freeze distillation to increase strength (see my blog on 3/21/2010 for a discussion of this process). While using freeze distillation has a long history with the eisbock style of beer, these newer brews have pushed the limits so far that I'm not even sure that they qualify as beer anymore. In my opinion, they are more like beer-flavored liquors than beer. I'm sure their brewers would disagree, but when you change something so fundamentally, I'm not sure you can legitimately continue to call it by the same name.

After all, you can only stretch the limits so far, before they want to snap back.

That's about it for this week. Don't forget there's live music at St. Elias every Thursday from 7 to 9 PM. It's Thumper's Credo again this week.

Until Next Time, Cheers!