Monday, September 27, 2010

Beer Reviews & Beer News

OK, so maybe I have shorted you folks a bit on beer reviews lately. Guess I've been having so much fun drinking new beers that I haven't had much time to write about them. So this week I'll try to make up for that. Let's review some brews.

Last time out I reviewed one of Midnight Sun's Pop Ten Series, The New Black. This week I tried another in that series, Head Banger, which they are calling a Belgian Malt Liquor, which is a new style for me, I must admit. Poured in the glass, the beer is a light amber or a dark gold, depending on how the light catches it. It had very little in the way of a head, and what there was dissipated quite quickly. There was not much aroma, just light notes of malt/sugar sweetness, with no hops. On the palate the body was fairly light, with some spicy/herbal notes and no detectable hop bitterness. The finish had some alcohol warmth in it from the 8.8% ABV. Obviously quite a bit of sugar was used to get a beer this strong yet so light on the palate. With only 10 IBUs, the hop usage was pretty minimal, so what you get is a strong, fairly sweet beer that's light on the palate. In summary, it's a technically interesting beer, but not one that particularly suits my tastes. Still, it's a lot more more drinkable than Colt 45.

Now let's talk about some beers I got to try down in Denver. I stopped by Great Divide Brewing to take a tour and sampled a couple of brews in the Tasting Room at the brewery. First, I tried their Smoked Baltic Porter. Seeing as we in Alaska have easy access to just about the best smoked porter in the world (Alaskan Brewing won another gold medal in the Smoked Beer category at the GABF this year), I've got a pretty high standard when it comes to smoked beer. The beer poured opaque with a nice tan head that dissipated to a collar fairly quickly. The aroma was of smoke, roast coffee, and a little residual sweetness. On the palate there was good mouthfeel, a nice amount of smoke, and more roasted, coffee flavors. As a Baltic porter, this beer is a lager, brewed with smoked German malts and hop, so in some ways it was very similar to a rauchbier, as it also had the good, clean taste associated with that family of brews. Coming in at 6.2%, this was a very nice beer. I still prefer Alaskan Smoked Porter, but I certainly wouldn't refuse one of these.

Next at Great Divide I had a Rumble Oak-Aged IPA. I knew this beer was going to be something special when it was served to me in a glass containing a whole hop cone as a garnish! In the glass the beer was a lovely golden amber with a nice white head that dissipated to a good collar and left excellent lacing on the glass. The aroma was chock full of hops (helped along by the whole cone, no doubt), as was the first sip. As I worked my way into the beer, the wood notes became more evident, with flavors of vanilla & oak mingling with the strong piney hop flavors. Given the large number of different things going on in this beer, the brewer has done an exceptional job of keeping all the flavors balance. At 7.1%, it's a bit strong to be a session beer, but when you're in the mood for a very classy IPA, Rumble would be an excellent choice.

Both these Great Divide beers are available up in Anchorage at La Bodega, and possibly at some of the other beer stores as well.

On of my favorite places to hang in Denver is the Falling Rock Tap House, which many folks consider to be the best beer bar in America. On this most recent trip, I visited it several times and got to try some amazing brews, almost none of which are available here in Alaska. Here are a couple of the absolute best.

Russian River Brewing Company's Publication. We don't get any of this amazing brewery's beers up in Alaska, so I never pass up a chance to try them, especially one I haven't had before. A farmhouse/saison style, this beer was a cloudy gold in the glass, with a great white head that left plenty of lace. The nose let me know immediately that this was one of Vinnie's sour specials, with maybe a hint of green apple. On the tongue it was astonishingly sour, but clean and refreshing, and with a long dry finish. There is plenty of funk from brettanomyces as well. As much as I enjoyed this beer, between the 8% ABV and the shattering sourness, one is about all I can manage in a sitting.

Feeling the need for a change of pace, next I ordered a Moylan's Barrel-Aged Ryan Sullivan's Imperial Stout from 2008. Moylan's is another California brewery whose product don't make it up here to Alaska. This stout comes in at 65 IBUs and 10% ABV, so it's nothing to sneeze at. Its aroma promised great things, with elements of dark fruit, dark chocolate, and bit of alcohol. On the palate, it was thick and chewy, with tremendous mouthfeel. The dark chocolate was still there, mixing it up with flavors from the wood-aging, moving to a finish that was laced with some heat from all that alcohol. It's an outstanding imperial stout, made to order as an accompaniment for an after dinner cigar or a rich chocolate dessert.

For my last review, I want to talk about Tank #7 Farmhouse Ale, from Boulevard Brewing's Smokestack Series. I didn't drink this beer in Denver, but I bought a bottle of it down there and brought it back to Alaska with me. I had it last weekend, after a hard day cutting and splitting firewood. I'd had a another beer in this series, The Sixth Glass, during my July trip back East, and thought it exceptional, so I was primed for a good beer experience. Tank # 7 did not disappoint.

It poured lovely dark gold, with a thick white head that slowly collapsed to a collar and left excellent lacing on the glass as I worked my way through this beer. The nose was fairly clean, but with some hop aromas and a touch of Belgian yeast earthy, spiciness. Tasting the beer, the spicy yeast flavors were more in evidence, with plenty of nice hop bitterness up front, easing into a long dry finish. As saisons go, I thought this beer was comparable to Saison Dupont, which is pretty high praise, as I consider that to be the benchmark for this style. I only wish I lived in an region where I could obtain this beer consistently; if I did, I have two or three bottles available in my cellar at all times.

the local beer news front, there's been lots of good things happening at our local breweries. Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop has been doing some serious expansion this week, as in pouring the slab for their new Tasting Room, which will not only give folks a nicer place to sample their brews, but also free up space needed for a bigger cooler and eventually a bottling line. Over at St. Elias Brewing, Zach Henry has a line on another conical fermenter and another serving tank. The serving tank will allow him to consistently have 9 beers on tap, while the extra fermenter will give him more room to experiment with beers requiring longer times to finish. Over at Kenai River Brewing, they were putting up some nice new signs, which should make the place that much easier to find. This should come in handy since they are releasing this year's Winter Warlock Old Ale this Friday, 1 October. Do not miss this beer! If you're wondering why, see my review from September 8, 2008.

That's about it for this week. If all of the above wasn't enough of my guff for you, you can hear me pontificate some more right here. I'm the devilishly handsome fellow on the left end of the couch.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Denver: Final Report

So we survived GABF 2010 and made it back to Alaska safely. Hooray! Traveling by air these days sucks so bad that I always feel like cheering when it's over, but that's another story.

My interview with the BeerTapTV guys went great; look for it on their Taste Buds show in a couple of weeks. Then we went to the first session of the GABF. I won't go into tremendous detail about that here; maybe in a later blog. Suffice it to say, being in a huge hall with 50,000 people tasting over 2000 beers is quite an experience.

Friday was given over mainly to press events, with a Media Luncheon from 12 to 2, followed by a bus tour to the Breckenridge Brewery, the Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey distillery, and ending up at Wynkoop Brewing Company for the tail-end of the 2nd Annual Denver Rare Beer Tasting in support of Pints for Prostates. My only complaint was that by the time we made it to Wynkoop, most of the rare beers were all gone. Still, Elaine and I did bump into an old friend there, Mr. Chicken.

Saturday we went back into the hall for the Members Only Session in the afternoon. I liked the atmosphere much better this time around, as it seemed less crowded and more people were interested in the beer they were drinking, rather than just drinking the beer. Afterward, the BeerTap TV guys did a cool wrap up of the entire event with a bunch of the bloggers at GABF. Look for it on their website as Beer Buzz # 92, "Buzzed with Friends".

This illustrates one of the real paradoxes that I have found out about going to beer festivals. Often the things going on around the main event are even more fun than the main event itself. Perhaps it's because these events seem to attract the folks who are really interested in the beer (as opposed to the drinking), or maybe it's just that they are usually smaller and more intimate. So while the GABF was fun, the stuff we did outside and in the days leading up to it were the best.

Meanwhile, things have not stood still back here in Alaska. Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop has a brand-new American-Style Hefeweizen. After a contest to suggest a name, they have picked Whaler's Wheat. I missed the big Oktoberfest celebration last Saturday, hosted by the Soldotna Elks with plenty of Bavarian Dark Wheat beer from Kenai River Brewing. At St. Elias, Zach Henry has been moose-hunting for the last couple of weeks, but he's back in the brewhouse now. They will be holding their Oktoberfest celebration on Friday, October 22nd, and Zach tells me he plans to release his new Imperial Russian Stout then. Prior to that, he's got a couple of casks to tap, so watch this space for news of Firkin Fridays.

Next, I want to let everyone know about the Mighty Matanuska Brewfest. It's being held on Friday & Saturday evening, October 15th & 16th, at Raven Hall on the Alaska State Fairgrounds from 6 to 10 PM. I haven't yet been able to attend this fest (and after spending a week in Denver at the GABF, I don't think I'll be able to get there this year), but I hear it's a great time. Kassik's and St. Elias will both be there, along with Alaskan, Denali, Glacier Brewhouse, Silver Gulch, and Sleeping Lady from this state, and Pyramid, Deschutes, & Sam Adams from Outside. So if you can get up to Palmer on either day, you should really check it out.

Finally, it's about time I did another beer review. On my way back from Anchorage on Sunday, I made a quick pit stop at Brown Jug and picked up a couple of new brews from Midnight Sun. Last night I opened up The New Black, one of this year's Pop Ten series. This one is billed as a Belgian Black Bier, a black lager aged in oak barrels with black currants and Brettanomyces. It poured opaque with a nice tan head. The aroma was of dark fruit with hints of brett funk, which was confirmed in the taste. Very smooth, very balanced, with the fruit flavors working well with the woody notes and the brett elements. It reminded me quite a bit of their Lust, one of the Seven Sins Series from 2007, which was also oak-aged with brett, but they used sour cherries in that one. Overall, it's a very nice beer, but at 8.4% ABV, it's a sipping beer, not a session one.

Well, that's about it for now. I'll try to get myself further dug out from the pile of work I'm still buried under and write up some of the excellent brews I had on my trip, plus the new ones hitting the Peninsula.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Denver: Third Report

It's Thursday morning and we're getting ready for the first session this evening at 5:30. Elaine and I picked up our media credentials yesterday and I've got an interview scheduled this afternoon at 12:30 with the BeerTapTV guys, Erik & Eli. We'll be tasting a brew or two that I brought with me from Alaska.

The last couple of days have been very busy and tons of fun. Tuesday, we drove up to Longmont to visit the Oskar Blues restaurant & bar up there, Oskar Blues Homemade Liquids & Solids. I had a very nice smoked porter, That's Some Good Smoke, and a great bowl of jambalaya. There are a couple more breweries up there, but they didn't open for tours until 3 pm, and we needed to get back to Denver by 4.

Here's a photo of the interior of the Oskar Blues joint:

The reason we wanted to make it back by 4 pm was to catch the last tour of the day at Great Divide Brewing Company, located a few blocks from our condo at the corner of 22nd & Arapaho. The brewery has a nice Tap Room, though it is a little small. We had a very nice tour from Tannea. Here she is telling us about the mashing process. Note the used whiskey barrels in the rack behind her, used for oak-aging some of their brews.

Great Divide has been undergoing substantial expansion lately. Just this week they finished installing another brand-new 300-barrel conical fermenter outside there plant. As you can see in this photo, now they have three of these fermenters, plus a 300-barrel conditioning tank. With this final fermenter, they will pretty much be at max capacity for their current 50 barrel brewhouse.

Wednesday morning was spent indulging my wife in a little shopping around Denver, but we headed back to Falling Rock about 4:30m for some more excellent brews. The Rockies ballgame at nearby Coors Field had just ended, and between the fans leaving the game and the brewers and beer geeks in town, the place was packed. The team from Alaskan Brewing was there, so I got the chance for a quick chat with them. We stayed for two brews; I had a Russian River Supplication & an Avery Seventeenth Anniversary Black Lager. I'm looking forward to getting back to Falling Rock every chance I get this week, never mind the crowds.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Denver: Second Report

I'm a little late on this, thanks to the internet at the condo I'm staying in being down for 24 hours.Sunday, Elaine & I were at Falling Rock Taphouse. Here's a picture of the glass of Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA I had. How's that for some great lace?

Monday, Elaine & I walked down to Argonaut Liquors on East Colfax to pick up some beers to bring back to Alaska. On the way back, we stopped at The Cheeky Monk, a great Belgian Beer Bar. Since it was only 11:30 in the morning, the only folks in there were the bartender Leah & the cook Simon, but they made us both feel real welcome. Great selection of beers, both on tap and in bottles. Here are some photos:
Monday night we were back at the Falling Rock for the official kick off of the GABF Week, then over to Wynkoop for more (free) beer and dinner.

More info later, if I get the time and the wireless keeps working.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Denver: First Report

OK, we made it to Denver. Pretty good flight down overall; non-stop from Anchorage. Seems funny to go anywhere without having to stop in Seattle first. I guess I don't spend enough time at Ted Stevens International; I didn't know there was a Humpy's at the far end of Concourse B. I know where I'll be spending my time waiting for flights from now on...

We got in about 6 AM Denver time Saturday and had our first beer event that evening at Wynkoop Brewing Company. They were hosting The COntenders Event, a tasting featuring beers from Colorado breweries who have won medals at previous Great American Beer Festivals. There were over a dozen breweries pouring nice samples of various brews. I decided to just relax and enjoy myself, so no formal reviews I'm afraid, but it was a great event. Here is a quick photo Elaine snapped to give you an idea:

This evening we'll be heading over to Falling Rock Taphouse after supper. I'll try to keep you updated on what goes on during the rest of the week.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Those Who Labor For Our Enjoyment

Yesterday was Labor Day, a federal holiday to "celebrate the achievement of workers and the labor movement", so it seems only fitting to take a moment out to remember and thank the folks who work so hard to make the beer that so many of us love to drink. Brewing beer in a huge industrial plant like that of Coors or A-B may be a matter of pushing buttons and monitoring computers, but doing it in a 7 or 10 barrel brewhouse entails plenty of hard, physical work.

Any lingering doubts I might have had about this fact were dispelled when I spent from 8:30 am to 5 pm Monday working with Zach Henry in the St. Elias Brewing Company's brewhouse. Zach and I were brewing a beer we designed together, a Strong Scotch Ale loosely based on one of my homebrew recipes that attempts to replicate Caledonian's Edinburgh Strong Ale, a favorite of mine from years past. See my blog way back on 12/15/2008 for more info on this non-longer-produced masterpiece.

As I said then, since this beer is no longer brewed, I've been trying to replicate it via my homebrews. The results have gotten good enough that Zach decided it was worth brewing a batch. Translating my extract-based recipe for a 5 gallon batch into an all-grain formula for 7 barrels (217 gallons) was a bit of a challenge. We both dug into reference books to glean more information on the beer we were seeking to emulate. Once we were satisfied with our plan, it was time to put it into action. So there I was at 8:30 am on Labor Day, ready to start brewing.

As I said, brewing a beer in your typical microbrewery or brewpub entails plenty of manual labor. First off, I carried 12 25kg bags of grain up a set of stairs to dump them into the hopper above the grist mill, a total of 646.5 lbs of grain. That will get your heart rate up, let me tell you! Next came the mashing in, mixing all that grain with hot water as it was carried into the mash tun by Zach's augur system. Zach and I took turns on the canoe paddle which serves as his mashing fork, and after a few trade offs, his turns got progressively longer, I'm ashamed to say. After plenty of hard work, we had a well-mixed, full (and I do mean FULL, as in darn near overflowing) mash tun, so we could take a break while the enzymes did their magic.

This was the perfect time to trade our mugs of coffee in for pints of beer; we needed to replenish all the fluids we'd just sweated out! We each had a pint of Black Hole, St. Elias' new Cascadian Dark Ale. As I said in my review last week, it looks just like a porter, but has that Pacific Northwest hop aroma and bitterness that's the defining characteristic of this new style. It was a nice segue from my cup of coffee into something equally roasty but a little stronger.

Soon enough it was time to start drawing off the sweet wort, so back to the brewhouse. This took quite a bit of time, as in several hours, but eventually we had a kettle full good-looking wort. Given how full the kettle was, the 90 minute boil meant standing around, making sure it did not boil over, especially after the hop additions. Of course, this gave us time to shovel out that 645 lbs of (now-waterlogged) grain from the mash tun into a half dozen 55 gallon garbage cans and spray down and clean the mash tun.

I won't go into detail on the rest of the brewing process, the sanitizing, the cooling and transferring of the wort, the pitching the yeast, the cleaning, etc, etc. The bottom line is that there is a tremendous amount of work involved, work usually done by one man alone. I am not too proud to say that after 8 hours of helping Zach, I was beat. Yet he regularly does all this by himself, week in and week out, just as the guys at Kenai River and Kassik's do. These folks work their tails off so that you and I can stand at a bar or sit in front of our TVs at home and enjoy excellent, hand-made craft beers, at ridiculously reasonable prices.

If there's anyone who deserves recognition on Labor Day for their hard work and dedication to their jobs, it's the American Craft Brewers. As Shakespeare said in Two Gentlemen of Verona: "Blessings on your heart, you brew good ale." Keep up the good work, guys.

Speaking of good ale, Kenai River has released the latest beer in their Single Hop IPA Series; this one is hopped with Liberty hops. This is another hop variety that I am not especially familiar with, having never used them myself, so I was anxious to taste them. They are an American version of the noble German Hallertauers, traditionally used as an aroma hop in German lagers. Used in the IPA, I thought they had a bit of citrus favor to them, but not as strong as that from Simcoe hops. For some reason, I found them reminding me of Chinooks, which is strange as they are very different, at least on paper. Chatting with Joe Gilman, the Assistant Brewer at Kenai River, we both agreed that this was a brew that might get even better with some aging. He plans to put a couple of 5 gallon kegs aside, and I think I may do the same with a swing-top liter or two. If you like hoppy beers, be sure to stop by and give the Liberty a try.

On Saturday, September 18th, the Soldotna Elks will holding the 11th Annual KDLL Oktoberfest to benefit our local public radio station. For only $12 you can enjoy a traditional German dinner, music from Die Alaska Blaskapelle, and an Oktoberfest beer from Kenai River. The Elks Club is located at 44640 Parkway Ave and seating is limited, so buy your tickets in advance. Dinner is served at 7 PM.

Finally, there may or may not be a blog next week, as I'll be in Denver attending the Great American Beer Festival. If you happen to be there and see me, please come up and say hello!

Until Next Time, Cheers!