Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Just a Small One, Then I Have to Get Home...

It's a phrase I've heard a million times and said myself more than once while standing at the bar in a pub.  So here's a short blog before I depart and go home for my Christmas stand-down.

There's not a tremendous amount going on at the local breweries this week.  Like most of us, they are trying to enjoy the Holidays.  However, here's a photo I lifted off Facebook, showing a new 15 barrel tank arriving at Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop two weeks ago.  If you're delinquent like me and haven't been out there to see the expansion, the next week or two might be a good time to check things out.

On the new beer front, I have tried a couple since my last blog. The first was from AleSmith Brewing Company in San Diego.  This is a well-regarded and award-winning brewery that unfortunately does not distribute their beers in Alaska.  I managed to obtain a bottle of their Wee Heavy Scotch Ale through trading.  I sent some bombers of Midnight Sun and Alaskan to the East Coast and this was one of the beers I received in return.  Being a fool for Scotch Ales, I was delighted.

Checking out the label, I read that AleSmith recommends cellaring the beer for anywhere between six months and two years, to allow the flavors to continue to develop and mellow. I'm not sure how old my particular bottle was, since it made its way from San Diego to Rhode Island to Alaska, but I cellared it for about two months before opening.  At 10% ABV, it's certainly strong enough to keep for two years or even more.

It poured a very dark mahogany with a slight cream-colored head.  The aroma was of sweet malt and caramel, with some touches of dark fruit and a hint of smoke.  The mouthfeel was medium, with decent carbonation and a slight alcohol heat.  No bitterness to speak of, just enough hops to provide balance to the massive malt assault.  Good finish, with another hint of peat smoke.  One of the best bottled Scotch Ales I've ever had.  I liked it so much that I went on-line to see how much another bottle of it would cost me.  Answer: $10.99 plus $32 shipping.  Oh well...

The second new brew I tried was the Urthel Saisonniere Blond Special Ale, from De Leyerth Brouwerijen, the Belgian brewery better know in the US as Urthel.  This beer was first brewed in November of 2009 and last summer it received the prestigious World Beer Award 2010 as Europe's Best Seasonal Pale Ale.  It is brewed to 6% ABV using 20% wheat in the mash.  The brewery recommends pouring half the beer into the glass, then giving the bottle a swirl to rouse the yeast into suspension before pouring the remaining beer into the glass, similar to the technique used for a German hefeweizen.

Following these instructions and pouring into a large snifter, I was rewarded with a lovely golden ale, slightly clouded by the yeast, and a beautiful white head, thick and rocky.  To my nose there was an enticingly clean and crisp hop aroma, with some spicy/earthy/phenolic notes, which I assume came from the yeast used.  It was light on the palate with excellent carbonation, leading to a nice, dry almost pilsner-like finish.  While it's currently winter here in Alaska, I can see how this beer would make an amazing summer quencher, holding its own against other summer seasonals.  Very, very nice and exactly what you'd expect from a fine brewery like Urthel.

Finally, I receive a press release about the next beer in Alaskan Brewing Company's Pilot Series.  The newest addition to this line of limited edition specialty beers in 22 oz bottles will be their Imperial India Pale Ale.  In its earlier incarnation as part of their Rough Draft Series, this beer was known as Xxtra Tuf Imperial IPA, after the ubiquitous Alaskan footwear.  I reviewed it back on 11/24/2009.  I look forward to sampling the new "final" version.  I assume the name change was in deference to the folks Outside who have no idea what an Xtratuff is...

That's about it for this week's blog.  I'm planning to take next week off to relax and celebrate, so my next one will not be published until 2011.

Don't forget that the next meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Brewing & Tasting Society will take place at 6:30 pm on Wednesday, January 5, at Kenai River Brewing.  I'm dipping into my cellar for a vertical tasting of Alaskan Smoked Porters, from 2004 to 2010, so you won't want to miss that.  Dues paying members only, so if you haven't turned in your membership form yet, be sure to bring a check or some cash to the meeting, so you can pay up.

Until Next Time (and Next Year), Cheers and Happy Holidays to you all!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

H&H Highland Ale and Others

The Royal Banner of Scotland!
Well, the deed is done.  H&H Highland Ale, the beer that Zach Henry and I have lavished so much care and effort on is finished and released to the world at large, to sink or swim based on its own merits.

To recap, this beer is a Strong Scotch Ale we brewed back on September 6, using Golden Promise barley, to an O.G. of 1080.  We hopped in with Fuggles to about 35 IBUs and fermented it using White Labs WLP 028 Edinburgh Scottish Ale Yeast.  Once fermentation was complete, Zach moved half of the batch into bourbon barrels, with 25% going into a fresh barrel that had not been filled with beer before.  Last week, all the ale was blended back together before being carbonated and served.  Final ABV was 7.4%.  So how did it turn out?

I know I'm a somewhat biased judge, but I think it's fabulous!  In the goblet it is a slightly translucent ruby-brown color, with a small cream-colored head.  The whiskey aging is obvious in the nose, backed up with notes of caramel and a hint of peat smoke.  On the tongue there is medium mouthfeel and good carbonation.  The strong malt flavors are in the forefront, as is proper for the style, followed by touches of wood and whiskey, dropping off to a nice, long finish, once again with a hint of smokiness.  The whiskey presence is actually smaller than you would expect from the nose and works very well within the context of the other flavors.  My only regret is that we had to use bourbon barrels, but used Scotch barrels are not easy to obtain in Soldotna, AK.

All thing considered, this has been a very unusual and exciting experience for me.  I've never had a hand ind designing a beer to be brewed on such a scale before, or one that would be offered for sale to the public.  If you've tried H&H at St. Elias, please make a comment and let me know what you think of it.  Don't worry, I'm a big boy and take criticism well.

Also, I want to give my personal thanks to Zach for giving me the chance to indulge my creative brewing side.  I only hope the result sells well enough that he doesn't come to regret it!

I also tasted a couple of other brews over the last week.  The first was an old friend, while the second was something completely new.

The old friend was Samuel Smith's India Ale.  As I've written in previous blogs, Samuel Smith is a very traditional brewery, located in Tadcaster in the north of England.  They are the only brewery in the world still brewing using Yorkshire Squares, open fermenters made from huge slabs of slate.  Their India Ale is traditional in another way, besides its method of production.  It is very representative of what most surviving India Pale Ales in England had become by the late 70's, before American craft brewers began to revitalize the style.  At 5% ABV, it has the same alcohol level as the brewery's Pale Ale, and it's not all that much hoppier, so for someone who is used to today's rip-roaring American IPAs, this beer will seem remarkably tame.  On the plus side, it uses the wonderful Samuel Smith's house yeast and is hopped with Fuggles and Goldings, classic British hops.

It pours a lovely copper color with a nice cream head.  The nose announces the presence of those classic hops, along with the unique "butterscotch" aroma of the Samuel Smith's house yeast.  On the palate, the mouthfeel and carbonation are good, as is the balance between the hops and the good malt backbone.  The beer finishes well, and scores high on drinkability, since it is so restrained and balanced.  A very nice beer, even if it is no longer representative of the typical IPA.

After revisiting India Ale, I thought it was time for something new, so I opened up a bottle of Nogne O Brewery's Sweet Horizon, a Norwegian Ale made with coffee.  It poured opaque into the snifter, with a very slight head.  The aroma is of coffee, malt, brown sugar, perhaps some dark fruits, along with a bit of alcohol from the 14% ABV.  Tasting, they're all there again: malts, licorice, coffee, sugar, and alcohol.  More drinkable than you would think, this is certainly a dessert beer, or as the label proclaims, a dessert in and of itself.  Like the Red Horizon I reviewed last week, Sweet Horizon is a bit of a tour de force.  I get the impression that Nogne O brewed it just to prove they could.

In local beer news, the folks at Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop have brewed an Imperial Nut Brown Ale, Big Nutz.  They also report some damage to the Tyvek on their new addition from the recent high winds around here.  Over at Kenai River Brewing, the can plans continue apace; Doug Hogue told me last week that their canning machine and new fermenter had both been shipped.  At St. Elias, Zach and his crew have had to wrestle with some equipment problems, first with his glycol chiller and then with his steam boiler, but I'm sure they will beat both fire and ice in the end.  Everyone is looking forward to some time off around Christmas, followed by the big ramp up to Alaska Beer Week and the Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival in the second week of the new year.

Well, that's about it for this week.  It's time for everyone to get their Christmas shopping done and buy some nice holiday brews to sip by the fire.  My lovely wife Elaine and I are heading up to Anchorage on Saturday to finish up the former and load up on the latter.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Breaking News: H&H Highland Ale to be Released This Friday!

Just got off the phone with Zach Henry at St. Elias Brewing Company.  He is having an equipment issue, which is forcing him to juggle his release schedule a little bit.  Due to a problem with a chiller pump,  he needs to move to the 50% of our collaborative brew, H&H Highland Ale, out of the fermenter that it has been resting in.  So he's in the process of blending the 50% of that beer that's been barrel-aging in whiskey casks back together with the beer in the fermenter, and then he will be moving the entire batch over to a brite tank.

Bottom line: H&H Highland Ale will be released this Friday, December 10th!

See my blogs on 9/7/2010 and on 11/18/2010 for more details on this brew.  It's based on my two-time gold medal winning homebrew recipe and represents our homage to the wonderful Wee Heavy Ales of Scotland.

Please give it a try and let Zach and me know what you think of it.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Open IT! Weekend & Humpy's Big Fish Results

So this weekend just past (Friday, Saturday, & Sunday) was Open IT! WeekendOpen IT! was the brainchild of UK beer writer Mark Dredge, who writes at Pencil and Spoon.   He designated the first weekend in December — the 3rd through the 5th — as “Open It!” weekend. What that means is that it’s time for beer lovers to open some of those special bottles we’ve been saving for that special occasion that never seems to come around.

As my contribution to this noble endeavor, I reached waaaaaay back into the bowels of my beer cellar and pulled two bottles out into the light of day.  The first was a 750ml corked bottle of Ommegang Brewery's Ommegeddon Ale from April, 2008.  The second was a 22 oz bomber of Midnight Sun's The Viking, released in the fall of 2008. When I first tasted these beers, over two years ago, I had surmised that they might be interesting with some cellar time, especially the Ommegeddon, as it was dosed with the notoriously slow-working Brettanomyces yeast. My lovely wife Elaine and I took them both with us when we headed over to our good friends Curt & Kathy's house for dinner.

We popped the cork on the Ommegeddon first, and there was no mistaking the funky, "barnyard" aroma that comes from Brettanomyces at work.  When I first reviewed this beer on 10/20/2008, the funkiness was there, but it was somewhat subtle; not anymore!  It poured a lovely golden color, with a massive, long-lasting white head.  After over 2.5 years in the bottle, the beer was tremendously dry, with the same semi-sour, horse blanket funkiness that cellaring Orval  for a year or two used to produce (beer the monks started dumbing it down).  The dry hopping that was so evident in the fresher version was not nearly so prominent. The beer made an excellent aperitif, and a great accompaniment to the stuffed mushroom appetizers we were munching on.  While this beer was excellent back in 2008, now it was simply amazing.  I wish I had cellared a case, rather than just a bottle...

As we sat down to dinner, we popped the cork on Curt's contribution, a 750ml bottle of Odell Brewing Company's Bourbon  Barrel Stout, a 10.5% ABV Imperial Stout that's aged for four months in used Kentucky bourbon barrels.  Bourbon-barrel aged beers like this one are all the rage these days, but Odell's version is rightly considered one of the best examples out there.  It poured thick and rich, dark as midnight with a big tan head.  The nose promised great things: dark chocolate, espresso, molasses, caramel, along with wood and whiskey notes.  On the palate, the beer was pleasingly think and chewy, with the hints of vanilla and even toasted marshmallow added to the flavors listed above.  It's one serious beer, and made a fine accompaniment to the very hearty chicken and potato stew we were dining on.

Finally, we moved on to the dessert course, some delicious Belgian chocolates paired with glasses of Midnight Sun Brewing's The Viking Belgian Dark Strong Ale.  I first reviewed this beer on draft back on 9/22/2008, then drank a bottle of it with friends in the summer of 2009; this bottle was my last.  Unfortunately, time had not improved this brew.  Perhaps it was the fact that it only had 23 IBUs, or perhaps the bottle in question hadn't had the best treatment prior to my obtaining it in Fairbanks in July, 2009.  For whatever reason, I found the dark, rich flavors to be subdued, at least compared to how I remembered it.  It was still good, and made a fine pairing with the rich Belgian chocolate, but it seemed a pale shadow of its remembered glory.  The moral:  Beers are made to be drunk.  While some may profit from cellaring, time wins in the end, so be sure not to hold on too long.

Last weekend in Anchorage was also the Humpy's Big Fish Homebrew Competition, the Great Northern Brewers' end-of-the-year blowout.  As a special prize, a batch of the Best-of-Show beer is brewed commercially by Midnight Sun and sold at Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse.  I entered three beers last year and won  gold, silver, and bronze medals .  This year I entered four beers and won a gold, two silvers, and a bronze, so I was very happy about that.  Still haven't come close to Best-of-Show, but maybe next year.

My Howell's Highland Ale, in the Strong Scotch style, has now won gold two years in a row.  This is the recipe that Zach Henry & I used as the basis for the beer we brewed back on Labor Day.  As I mentioned on 11/18, this beer is still maturing (50 % in whiskey barrels and 50% in stainless), waiting for us to blend it back together and serve it up.  Zach and I are convinced it will be ready before Christmas, so as soon as we set a hard and fast date, I'll be spreading the word.  We both believe that H&H's Highland Ale will be something special, and hope you all judge it to be so as well.

Besides the beers extracted from my cellar, I have had a couple of other interesting ones since my last blog.  Thanks to Rob Weller and Gene Diamond of Specialty Imports, I got to try a bottle of Nogne O Brewery's Red Horizon Norwegian Ale.  This is a very unusual brew, as it was made using the No. 7 Sake Yeast provide by Matsumi Sake, from Nagaro, Japan.  Weighing in at 17% ABV and 75 IBUs, this beer is obviously deserving of being treated with great respect!  The brewery recommends serving it chilled, so I tried my sample at lager temperatures, around 35F.  It poured a cloudy amber into the snifter glass, with a small head that quickly dissipated.  The  aroma was slightly suppressed by the colder serving temperature, but I picked up malt sweetness, backed up by some alcohol heat.  On the tongue it displayed medium body, with plenty of residual sweetness, giving way to a good deal of alcohol heat on the finish.  Some fruit esters were evident (this particular yeast is famous for producing them), and they became more prominent as the beer warmed.  As for hops, I know they had to be in there somewhere, but this beer is so big and sweet they are totally overwhelmed.  Another interesting and unusual beer from Nogne O, but much too "big" for anything except sipping after dinner.

At La Bodega in Anchorage I picked up a bottle of Black Albert Royal Stout, brewed by the De Struise Brouwers of Oostvleteren, Belgium.  This is a special beer, brewed by them for the 3rd Annual Belgian Beer Festival held by Ebenezer's Pub of Lovell, Maine.  Most folks in the beer world have heard of this place, as is has been named the #1 beer bar in America and the world by Beer Advocate for five years in a row, though I've never personally visited it.  De Struise decided to create something new with this beer, a Belgian Imperial Stout.  Of course Belgium has a king (King Albert), rather than an emperor, so it had to be a Belgian Royal Stout.  It poured an absolute midnight black with a creamy tan head.  The aroma was rich and redolent of chocolate, roast, perhaps some licorice or dark fruit. Mouthfeel was medium, perhaps a little lighter than is typical for an imperial stout.  Flavors were more chocolate and roasted notes, with some spiciness from the Belgian yeast around the edges.  Remarkably drinkable for a beer with 13% ABV and 100IBUs; the elements are so well-balanced and complimentary I would have guessed it was 8-9%, rather than 13.  A fantastic beer; get it while it lasts.

In other beer news from around the Peninsula, The Copper Kettle is finally open for business!  Stop by, say hello to Shane and Melanie and check it out for all your homebrew supply needs. St. Elias Brewing had a another Firkin Friday last week, tapping a cask of Tin Hat that had been dry hopped with raisins.  I didn't make it there, but I have it on good authority that it was "wonderful".  Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop will be releasing a batch of their Imperial IPA, Double Wood, on Thursday, December 9; I reviewed a previous batch back on 12/2/2009.  It likely won't be around long, so don't miss it.  The new coolers are in operation at Kenai River Brewing, full of pigs ready for customers to grab on the way to their holiday parties.  Finally, the Guest of Honor for next month's Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival has been announced.  It will be --drum roll, please-- Ken Grossman, Founder and President of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company!  As I mentioned last week, tickets are on sale now; they sell out each year, so don't wait too long or you'll be stuck dealing with the scalpers.

Well, that about it for this week.  Stay safe out there, and enjoy the Holidays.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

New Beer Books for Your Xmas List

Thanksgiving is over, so now it's officially time to start thinking about shopping for Christmas.  If you're like me, then your Christmas wouldn't be complete without a beer book or two under the tree.  Here's a trio of beer books that I've read in the last couple of months, which might make nice gifts for any beer geek on your list.

Amber, Gold, & Black: The History of Britain's Great Beers is the wonderful new book from Martyn Cornell, founding member of the British Guild of Beer Writers and a former British Beer Writer of the Year.  His earlier work Beer: the Story of the Pint is also a great and informative read, by the way.  Amber, Gold, & Black has chapters on 15 different styles of beer with long histories of being brewed in Britain.  Bitter, porter, stout, IPA, barley wine-- they're all here.  What's more, Cornell has really done his research, digging back into old newspapers, advertisements, brewery logbooks, etc.  He takes great pleasure in disproving the "received wisdom" about the origins and natures of these beer styles.  Personally, I found the book extremely informative, chock full of tidbits of information that I will be incorporating into the college class I teach each spring, The Art & History of Brewing.  As beer books go, this is definitely an "advanced" tome, one for the beer lover on your list who is already very familiar with beer styles and their history.  Cornell also has an excellent blog, The Zythophile.

While Cornell's work was for advanced students of beer, either of the next two books would make great introductory works for the novice beer lover.  The Beer Trials by Seamus Campbell and Robin Goldstein contains the results of the blind taste testing of 250 different beers by panels of beer drinkers.  This book is the follow up to a previous book that did the same thing for wine.  Beers are scored from 1 to 10, and the tasters made comments on the flavors they perceived.  Tasting the beers blind eliminated any bias the tasters might have had based on the beer's reputation, which may explain why some beers usually considered "world class" only scored in the 6-7 range. The authors refer to this bias in favor of famous brews as "beer goggles".  For the novice drinker, the ratings do a good job of pointing the way toward some interesting beers, while the experienced drinker will want to see how their favorite beers fared.

The final member of the trio is Andy Crouch's Great American Craft Beer: A Guide to the Nation's Finest Beers and Breweries. This book is something like an updated version of some of the books produced by the late, great Michael Jackson, in that it tries to be a fairly comprehensive overview of the American craft beer scene as it presently stands.  The majority of the book (195 of its 319 pages) is devoted to reviewing/describing various American craft beers, dividing them into their respective styles.  The rest of the book covers some general beer history and plenty of good information about serving beer, pairing beer with food, and cooking with beer (including several recipes from respected beer chefs such as Sean Paxton).  One new idea Andy deploys is to try to guide novice beer drinkers by recommending beers based on other flavors that the drinker likes.  For example, an espresso drinker would be pointed toward Speedway Stout from Alesmith Brewing, while for  someone who likes smoked meats, he suggests Smokestack Heritage Porter by East End Brewing.  This is a simple yet useful way to ease a new craft beer drinker into the world of flavorful beer.  Great American Craft Beer would make a fine Xmas gift for the beer drinker on your list, regardless of their level of expertise.

Moving on to the local beer scene, tickets for the Great Alaska Beer and Barley Wine Festival on Jan 14th & 15th have gone on sale (via Ticketmaster).  This is THE beer event in our state, so if you can possibly make it to Anchorage during those two days, you should plan to attend. You should go to the Connoisseurs'  Session, from 2 to 5 PM on Saturday, Jan 15th.  It costs a little extra, but the Brewers Guild of Alaska gets the extra money. Admittance is limited to 1500 people, rather than the 2500 for the other two sessions. Each of the brewers brings a special beer, that they only offer during this session. Finally, it's during this session which they announce the winners of the barley wine & winter beer competitions. If you're only going to make one session, it's definitely the session to make.

At Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop, they still have some of their award-winning Caribou Kilt Strong Scotch on, as well as their Imperial Spiced Honey Wheat and Holiday Spiced Cream Ale (spiced with ginger, nutmeg, & cinnamon). Also, as a thank you to all their patrons, Kassik's is offering a 10% discount on all their merchandise (hoodies, shirts, hats, glassware, etc), everything except beer and beer containers.  Stop by and do some Christmas shopping.

Over at Kenai River Brewing, they are re-arranging; this is in preparation for beginning to can their Skilak Scottish next month.  New coolers have appeared in their Tasting Room;these will eventually allow patrons to grab six-packs and pigs themselves.  If you come to the meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Brewing & Tasting Society there on Wednesday, December 1, at 6:30, you can see for yourself.

At St. Elias Brewing Company, Zach Henry & company will be having another Firkin Friday,  this Friday, December 3.  At 6 pm they will be tapping a cask of their Tin Hat Belgian Brown Ale that has been "dry hopped" with raisins.  The standard Tin Hat is a pretty amazing brew.  Over a year ago, Zach brewed a brown rye ale, fermented it with his typical clean-fermenting American yeast, then put it into whiskey barrels to age for a year.  Recently, he brewed another brown ale, this one with a Belgian yeast, then blended the resulting beer with the aged brown rye ale.  The result is Tin Hat, a wonderfully complex beer.  It pours a dark brown, with a tan head that dissipated fairly rapidly to a nice collar.  The aroma is of caramel, whiskey, and a touch of Belgian yeast phenolic spiciness. On the palate it's a melange of flavors: wood, whiskey, rye spiciness, Belgian yeast peppery/earthy notes, you name it.  Every sip seems to produce a new and interesting flavor profile.  Once again, Zach Henry has flown in the face of conventional beer styles and produced something unique and delicious.

Well, that's about it for this week.  I should have some new and interesting brews to report on next week, as they're waiting patiently in my cooler at home for me to find the time to taste them.  So take care and if you're reading this in Alaska, stay warm (it was -7F at my house when I left for work this morning).

Until Next Time, Cheers.