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!

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