Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Numbers Don't Lie

If you had any doubt that we are living in the Golden Age of American beer, the statistics for 2010 just released by the Brewers' Association should remove it.  Not only did craft beer sales increase by 11% by volume in 2010, but by the end of 2010 there were more breweries operating in the US (1759) than there were in 1900 (1751)!  Truly amazing.

US Craft Brewers produced 9,951,956 barrels in 2010, which translates to 4.9% by volume or 7.6% by retail dollars of all the beer brewed in this country.  The macro brewers still produce the vast majority of our beer, but their sales continue to slip, as overall beer sales were down by 1 %.  Imports were up by 5% in 2010, after dropping 9.8% in 2009.

Bottom Line: Craft brewers continue to do an amazing job and the American public continues to reward them by using their hard-earned dollars to buy their products.  Well done, fellows!

My lovely wife Elaine and I were in Anchorage for a couple of days last week as I had to attend a conference for my day job.  We did managed to break away Wednesday night long enough to attend the Cracking the Can event at the Spenard Roadhouse.  Darcy and her crew did a nice job pulling it together and Doug & Amy Hogue were there to represent Kenai River Brewing as the Roadhouse started selling their cans for the first time.  We had dinner but couldn't stay very long afterwards, as I had to get back to the conference, but both the food and beer were excellent as always.

Click to enlarge menu
Speaking of beer and food events, The Homestead Restaurant and Homer Brewing Company will be holding a beer dinner at 6:30 on Saturday, April 2.  Having eaten at The Homestead, I know they have good food, and after looking over the menu of the five-course dinner, each one paired with a different beer from Homer Brewing Company, my mouth is already watering.  It's $65 per person, tax & tip included; call  235-8723 for reservations.  This dinner sells out every year, so don't delay if you're interested.

After their big shindig on St. Patrick's Day, I hear that St. Elias has put a new beer on tap, though I haven't had a chance to try it myself yet: Nocturnal, an India Dark Ale brewed with rye in the mash, then oak-aged in several barrels.  Each barrel was dry-hopped with a different variety of hops, then they were all blended back together.  Sounds delicious.  As I said, I haven't been by to try it yet, but folks who have give it high marks.  Hopefully I get to stop by before the end of the week.

My Art & History of Brewing class will be touring Kassik's Kenai Brew Stop this Saturday; I'm looking forward to checking out how their expansion is coming.  I'd also like to get some of their Smoked Russian Imperial Stout, but it's not scheduled to be released until Tuesday, 29 March, so I'll just have to settle for grabbing a growler of something else.

While I was in Anchorage I didn't have much free time to sample beer, but I did at least have time to stop at La Bodega and pick up an assortment of bottled brews to try later.  Here are a couple that I've gotten around to sampling:

First, I finally found some of Alaskan Brewing's Imperial IPA, the latest in their Pilot Series.  I'd tasted this beer on draft in some of its earlier incarnations, as part of their Rough Draft series, but this was my first taste on the final design.  It poured a lovely copper color with a big off-white head.  When I nosed it, I picked up tons of piney, resiny Pacific Northwest hops.  It's hopped to 60 IBUs using Chinooks, Amarillo, and Centennial hops, and I seemed to pick up the Chinooks especially in the aroma.  On the palate their was good carbonation and medium mouthfeel, excellent bitterness up front, without being overwhelming, then more hop flavor, with some hints of citrus this time.  It finished nicely, with just a hint of heat from the 8.5% ABV.  An excellent beer and much more drinkable than many Imperial IPAs out there.  Alaskan was a little late to the IPA bandwagon, but between their flagship IPA, their Double Black IPA and now this beer, they've down a wonderful job of catching up.  I've seen this beer at our local Fred Meyer, so it shouldn't be hard to find.

I also picked up a bottle of Oak-aged Quadruple Ale from La Trappe.  This is the brand name of the Koningshoeven Tappist Brewery. They are one of the seven authentic Trappist breweries, six of whom are in Belgium, while Koningshoeven Abbey is located just over the border in the Netherlands. The beer is in the style of a strong, dark Belgian ale, comparable to Chimay Blue or Rochefort 10.  However, in this case the beer has also been aged in oak, giving it even more complexity.  Poured into a glass, the beer was a dark honey, or perhaps red-gold color, with a nice head, considering its 10% ABV.  The aroma was classic Trappist, with notes of figs, raisins, leather, and even tobacco bouncing off each other.  The taste is very complex, with the woody elements from the oak enhancing the typical dark sweetness from the base beer.  The finish is long and warming, with the alcohol finally making an appearance at the end.  An exceptional beer, significantly enhanced by the time it spent in the wood.

That's about it for this week.  Let's all keep buying and drinking good beer out there.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Spring's Just Around the Corner (I Hope)

Mid-March in the Great Land, with clear, sunny days reaching 40F and nights down around 0F.  It's not spring yet in Alaska, but we have hopes it will be here eventually.

St. Patrick's Day is this Thursday and St. Elias Brewing Company has released a new beer for the occasion: Dough-boy Stout, named in honor of Frank Buckles, the last American veteran on WWI, who passed away a few days ago at the age of 110.  I had a pint last Friday.  In the glass it was a good-looking stout, opaque with a nice tan head.  The nose was of nice roast malt, very clean.  On the palate there was good carbonation and mouthfeel, with a bit more body than their Mother's Milk Irish StoutDough-boy also has more alcohol, with 5.5% ABV, compared to Mother's Milk's 3.8%.  In honor of St. Patrick's Day, St. Elias is selling pints for only $3 though Sunday, so be sure to stop by and check it out.

By the by, the Feast of St. Elias falls on July 20th (Orthodox calendar) or August 2 (modern calendar).  I wonder if St. Elias Brewing will be doing something to honor their namesake?

Over at Kenai River Brewing, they have brewed up another Single Hop IPA; this one uses Nugget hops.  Keep an eye out for it on tap in a week or two.  They will also be having another can release party tomorrow (Wednesday, 3/16) at Spenard Roadhouse in Anchorage.  Cracking the Can will take place from 5 to 8 PM, and will feature dinner dishes specifically created to pair with Skilak Scottish Ale.  The guys from Kenai River will be there, so if you'll be in Anchorage tomorrow night, stop by and tell them what you think of their new cans.

Speaking of Kenai River's cans, I hear they're on sale at Fred Meyer and I saw some of them in the cooler at Country Liquors in Kenai.  While I was there, I picked up another interesting beer, a 2010 Olde Bluehair Barley Wine from Big Sky Brewing Company (Bottle # 151 of 3000).  The label stated that this beer is aged for a minimum of three months in American Bourbon casks.  On Sunday I popped the cork on the bottle and gave it a try.

The beer poured a dark honey color with a huge cream-colored head that collapsed fairly quickly.  The bourbon aging was immediately noticeable on the nose, along with notes of vanilla, dark fruit, maybe some leather?  A fair balance between the barley wine elements and the bourbon ones seemed to be maintained.

On the palate, I picked up hop bitterness first, then the alcohol (10.5%), next the vanilla & apricots, finally the wood from the barrels.  Very rich and complex, this is a beer you could spend quite some time contemplating and deconstructing. It's worth picking up a second bottle to cellar, just to see how the numerous flavor components will shift overt time.

Finally this week, I had some news from Gabe Fletcher regarding his new venture, the Anchorage Brewing Company.  He reports that he has at last gotten all of his final approvals and is fully licensed and ready to "get some brew out".  Back in February, I visited Gabe in his Bat Cave-style Barrel Lair beneath the Snow Goose.  I actually shot some videos of his operation, which I seem to have manged to misplace (not that I could properly embed them into my blog, anyway).  Still, if you follow the link above you will get to see some photos of the racks and racks of barrels he's using to age his beers.  While I was there I go to taste both his White Out Wit and his Bitter Monk Belgian Double IPA from the casks wherein Mr. Brettanomyces was doing his magic.  Obviously both beers were only part way along the road to their eventual finished selves, but based on how they tasted then, they will be truly exceptional brews.  As soon as Gabe starts putting these beers on the market, be sure to join the stampede and grabs yourself as many bottles as you can afford.

That's it for this week.  Now go out and find a new beer to enjoy.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Every now and then it's good to take a step back and reflect.  Last evening in my beer class, we were talking about Belgian beer styles.  As I worked my way through the long list of the many different kinds of exceptional Belgian beers out there, I also made a point to tell the class which ones were available locally here in Soldotna.

Later, as I was driving home, a thought came to me.  Isn't it amazing that here on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, I can find in local beer stores such classic beers as Saison Dupont and Duvel?  That I can find not one or two but four different Trappist breweries represented on local shelves?  Never mind all the great and interesting beers brewed locally on the Peninsula, around Alaska, or even down in the lower 48.  I'm talking about beers brewed 5000 miles away by monks for goodness sake, and I can pick up a corked, 750 ml bottle in my local grocery for $10?  Unbelievable.

Whatever the other issues we have to deal with, there is certainly no doubt that THESE are the Good Old Days when it comes to drinking good beer.

Speaking of drinking good beer, here are some beer reviews that I didn't have space for last week.

Boulevard Brewery's The Dark Truth Imperial Stout.  I've been very impressed with every beer I've had from Boulevard in the past (Tank # 7 and The Sixth Glass), so I ordered a bottle of their imperial stout to have with dinner one night at Freshcraft when Elaine and I were down in Denver.  It poured opaque with a nice tan head like most imperial stouts do.  The aroma had some sweet, dark fruit elements, suggesting chocolate and raisins, probably from the Belgian yeast used.  There's plenty of roasted malt character on the palate, as you'd expect, plus some balancing sweet, chocolate-like notes.  Mouthfeel was excellent, like velvet on the tongue, and it faded to a dry, slightly smoky finish. At 9.7% ABV and 60 IBUs, this is a fine example of the growing trend to make imperial stouts using Belgian yeast, rather than English or American strains, and another excellent beer from Boulevard.  You won't find it for sale in Alaska, but it's worth looking for when you're Outside.

Another bottled beer that I tried while in Denver was the Highway 78 Scotch Ale, a collaboration brew between the Green Flash, Pizza Port Carlsbad, and Stone Brewing Companies.  As pretty much anyone who's read more than a few of these blogs knows, I'm a sucker for a good Scotch Ale, so naturally I wanted to give this one a try.  Named after the highway that links the three breweries, this was an interesting choice stylistically, as collaboration brews tend to run to the exotic or the extreme, rather than a straight-ahead Scotch ale.  The beer poured a pretty, translucent brown with hints of ruby highlights and a small head that left nice lacing on the glass.  The aroma was what you would look for in a Scotch ale: thick malt, ripe fruit, maybe a touch of smoke, and a hint of the 8.8% ABV.  On the palate there is plenty more sweet malt, with a hint of hops and alcohol to balance the sweetness.  It doesn't taste like it's almost 9%, but stays remarkably drinkable.  A nice Scotch ale, and I tip my cap to the breweries for trying their hand at making a malt-forward style, rather than another hop bomb.

The final bottled beer I want to review this week is Redemption Blonde Ale, from Russian River Brewing Company. The label on the bottle refers to this beer as a Belgian-style "Single", the semi-mythical brew ostensibly made by Trappist monks for their own consumption, as compared to the dubbels and tripels made for sale to the outside world.  Since there is no "standard" for this style, each brewer who chooses to make one pretty much gets to make it up as they go along.  Midnight Sun did their take on this style back in June, 2007 with one of their 7 Deadly Sins series, Greed.

Russian River's incarnation is bottle-conditioned and weighs in at 5.15% ABV.  It poured a slightly hazy gold with rocky white head that dissipated fairly quickly.  The nose was loaded with the spicy, peppery esters that scream Belgian yeast.  On the tongue there was good carbonation and a light mouthfeel, with a nice amount of hoppiness and a very dry finish.  This is a beer that's made to be drunk in quantity; it would be the perfect session beer.

Russian River Brewing Company June 2009
It's too bad we don't get this or any other of Russian River's fine brews up here in Alaska.  When I visited Russian River Brewery in 2009, I asked owner/head brewer Vinnie Cilurzo when he thought he would start distributing his beers in Alaska.

His answer? "Never."

I really hope it won't be that long.

Looking around the state, I just got  my first email reminder about the 19th Annual Great Alaska Craft Beer and Home Brew Festival, held at the Southeast Alaska State Fairgrounds in Haines, on May 27th & 28th, 2011.  I haven't been to this festival yet, but folks who have tell me it's a good one, with over 900 people and 13 Alaskan breweries in attendance last year.  Don't know if I'll make it this year, but it's on my list for someday.

You should also be on the look-out for the latest release in Alaskan Brewing Company's Pilot Series, their Imperial IPA

On the local beer front, I hear that Kenai River Brewing's can release party last Friday was a big success.  I didn't make it by there myself, but my lovely wife Elaine did and reported that six-packs and brats were flying out the door. Kassik's is continuing their expansion work, with an eye towards having their bottling line up and running in April.  St. Elias had their Mardi Gras Party on March 8, which I also missed (due to teaching my class).  Zach and his crew are already gearing up for their next shindig, on St. Patrick's Day.  In honor of that holiday, they will be selling pints of their Mother's Milk Irish Stout for $3 each all week long (13-20 March).  I'd pass on the green beer though, if I were you...

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

I'll Be the Judge of That: 2011 Beer Drinker of the Year

This wig is way too tight!
 If perchance you were wondering why there was no blog last week, here's the reason:  my lovely wife Elaine and I were in Denver for the 2011 Beer Drinker of the Year Finals at the Wynkoop Brewing Company (AKA The Place Where I Can Drink For Free).  Yes, I had to pass my crown along to my successor as BDOTY last Saturday.

Unlike when we flew down there last year for me to compete, this year's trip was so relaxed that it should count as a mini-vacation.  Since this was our third "beer" trip to Denver in a year, we had the lay of the land down.  Still, Denver is such a great beer town that we still found great new things to do.  Here are some highlights:

Outside of Pints Pub
Lunch at Pints Pub.  This British-inspired brewpub was on my list to visit back in September during the GABF, but we just never made it there.  Too bad, as Elaine and I thought it was a great place.  The food was excellent, the single-malt Scotch selection is the biggest outside of Britain and the cask-conditioned beers were pretty good.  I led off with a pint of their Dark Star Ale, listed on the menu as being in the "Yorkshire-style", so I was looking for either a Northern Brown Ale or perhaps a Black Mild.  In the glass it was a dark, translucent brown, with a small tan head that dissipated to a collar.  The nose held some hop aroma, along with roast malt.  Carbonation was spot on for a cask ale, the balance was excellent, with the roast malt flavors guiding you on to a nice finish.  All-in-all, very nice and a good start to lunch.

Inside Pints Pub
Next, I ordered the other beer on cask, their Lancer IPA.  This brew was less impressive than the first, I'm afraid.  Visually, it was very appealing, copper-colored with a nice, long-lasting head.  The aroma was nice, with plenty of floral hops.  However, I found an off flavor when I tasted it, something phenolic, reminding me a little of nail polish.  Not so bad as to make me send the pint back, but I certainly wouldn't order another.  Still, I would certainly recommend a visit to Pints when you're in Denver; it's cleaner and brighter than a real English Pub, but that's not necessarily a bad thing...

Bill's Strong Scotch Ale
Drinking "my" beer at the Wynkoop: One of the rewards of being chosen as BDOTY is that you get to design a beer that will be brewed by Wynkoop and served during the next year's competition.  Back in September, I had given Andy Brown, their head brewer, the "specs" for my beer, based on the H & H Highland Ale that I had helped brew at St. Elias on Labor Day.  Andy made some adjustments to adapt the beer to his equipment and also to convert it to a cask-conditioned ale.  The beer was released on 2/17, and  Elaine and I dropped in on Thursday 2/24 to give it a try.  The beer engine that delivered the beer was equipped with a long swan neck and a sparkler, perfectly correct for a beer style from the north of Britain.  Together, they produced a beautiful dark brown pint, with a lovely, frothy inch-thick head.  The aroma was of caramel, with a touch of smoke, the carbonation was excellent, and the flavors were superb.  Andy even used oak spirals to impart a slight woodiness.  Bill's Strong Scotch Ale was everything I'd hoped it would be, and I am proud to tip my cap to Andy for a job well done.

Me & my friend Pliny
Enjoying hard to get brews at the Falling Rock Tap House: No beer lover can visit Denver and not make at least one stop at Falling Rock; it's the law.  Especially on a weekend when they're planning to tap a small amount of Russian River's Pliny the Younger Triple IPA.  This is the amped-up version of their Pliny the Elder Double IPAPliny the Younger is only released in February and is available in only a select few spots besides the brewery tap.  It's 11% ABV, has IBUS off the charts due to using three times the hops of a standard IPA and being dry-hopped four times.  Falling Rock released a few gallons at 1 PM on Saturday, 2/26, and I was there to get a glass.  The beer was a very pretty clear gold with a nice white head, almost like a nice pilsner.  The hop aroma was massive, as you would expect.  On the tongue, the hop flavor was equally massive, totally masking the alcohol.  Easily one of the hoppiest beers I've ever had, I'm not sure that I would say that it lived up to the hype.  Don't get me wrong, it's an amazing beer, but I can't help thinking that it wouldn't be quite so highly prized if it wasn't so hard to get.  Still, I'm glad I got to try it and form my own opinion, rather than reading those of everyone else.

While I was waiting for the Pliny the Younger to be tapped, I had a pint of Pizza Port (San Clemente) ABLE Session IPA.  I picked this beer for a couple of reasons:  First, we don't get Pizza Port here in Alaska, but they seem to do well in competitions.  Second, it was only 4.2% ABV and I wanted to keep a clear head, as I needed to be a judge later in the afternoon.  This turned out to be an inspired choice, as I thoroughly enjoyed the beer.  It poured a light gold with a nice white head, once again more pilsner in appearance than the typical copper color of an IPA.  It had a nice clean hop aroma and a very pleasing balance of carbonation and bitterness from the Centennial hops used exclusively to make it.  In sum it was very enjoyable and certainly lived up to its name as a session beer; I could have drunk pints of it all afternoon.
Oskar Blues ODB Barley Wine

During a separate visit to Falling Rock, I had a beer which was most certainly not a session beer: Oskar Blues Brewing's Old Double Bagger (ODB) Barley Wine.  This was another beer that I picked off the chalkboard beer list without knowing anything about it, simply on the brewery's reputation.  At 13.2% ABV and 100 IBUs, this beer is a monster; the first sip made me think of their Old Chub on steroids!  It was a dark ruby in the glass with a nice cream head that left lace all the way to the bottom.  The aroma was of caramel, alcohol, maybe some wood and a touch of smoke, along with a touch of citrusy hops from the Columbus variety that was used exclusively to make this powerful brew.  It had great mouthfeel; smooth, rich, and warming with a long slow finish.  Oskar Blues claims this beer is a work in progress, and will improve as it ages.  As good as it is now, I shudder tho think that it can get better!

How's that for lace?
Dropping in at The Cheeky Monk:  No visit to Denver is complete without hitting the massive Argonaut Liquor store on Colfax Avenue to load up on beers to carry back to Alaska.  And no walk to and from Argonaut is complete without stopping in at The Cheeky Monk for a beer.  Easily one of the nicest Belgian Beer bars around, I love dropping in since you never know hat they'll have on tap.  While I had missed the Dogfish Head World-Wide Stout by a day (darn it!), they still had Boulevard Brewing's Tank #7 Farmhouse Ale on.  I had this beer in a bottle on my last visit to Denver (see my review on 9/27/2010) and loved it, so I didn't pass up a chance to have it on draft.  It was just as excellent as I remembered and produced some of the most perfect Belgian lace I'd ever seen.  So perfect in fact that I had to have Elaine snap a photo of it.

Lamb stew + Scotch ale = Mmmmmm!
Friday Night Beer Dinner at Wynkoop:  This was something new for this year's BDOTY contest.  A Beer Dinner held the night before, open to the public, and showcasing beer and food pairings chosen by the current title-holder and the three finalists.  Each finalist was given a different dish and asked to select a beer to pair with it. James Clark from Virginia was assigned the first course, a salad of Scottish bangers, malt vinegar cole slaw and apples.  He chose to pair it with Ska Brewing's ESB.  Phil Farrell from Georgia, back for his fourth time as a finalist, was given the main entree of grilled tri-tip steak, twice-baked potato, roasted garlic and thyme butter, and succotash; he chose to pair it with an Avery Dugana Imperial IPA.  The dessert course fell to Mike Dixon from North Carolina, a flour-less chocolate habanero cake with creme anglaise, which he matched up with Great Divide's Oak-Aged Yeti Imperial Stout.  As for me, I had it easier as the beer was already chosen: Bill's Strong Scotch Ale.  I just needed to come up with a dish to pair with it.  Working with the Wynkoop folks, we settled on with a lamb stew served in a sourdough bread bowl, served as the second course.At the very end of the meal, we finished up with a glass of Wynkoop's The Coupler, an Imperial Barrel-aged Milk Stout.  The beer pairings were well thought out and worked quite well; all the beers were exceptional.  The food was excellent as well, except for the dessert.  I'm afraid there was a little too much habanero in it, and I say that as someone who likes spicy foods!  Still, it was a wonderful evening and a great addition to the BDOTY festivities.

God save this honorable court!

James & Mike look on in awe as Phil blathers.
The Contest:  At 2 PM on Saturday, the three finalists put on their thinking caps and put their best foot forward in an effort to impress the seven judges.  I can honestly say that all of us judges were impressed by each of the finalists; it was easy to see why they had made it to this top level.  We tossed questions-- some serious, some less so-- at them for over two hours in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Wynkoop.  Each of the contestants took their turns at whispering to beer, listening to beer, and even trying to bribe us.  Finally, we retired to deliberate.  The discussion was vigorous, but in the end the judges were unanimous in selecting Phil Farrell of Atlanta (AKA The Chicken Guy) as Beer Drinker of the Year for 2011.  I had the great pleasure of making the announcement and being the first to shake Phil's hand and surrender the title of BDOTY to him for the next twelve months.  But I'd like to challenge all of your reading this to think long and hard about entering next year's competition; even if you don't win, it's still great fun.  And I know we'll be seeing James and Mike back again in the future.

All Hail Phil Farrell, 2011 Beer Drinker of the Year

That about wraps up my recent beer travels, but there are a couple of upcoming local events that I must mention.

First, at noon tomorrow (Friday, March 4), Kenai River Brewing Company will begin selling their new six-packs of Skilak Scottish Ale to the public.  To celebrate, they will be cooking up bratwurst in the beer and giving them away at the brewery, starting when they open at noon.  Beer and brats for Friday lunch?  How can you beat that?

Second, you may or may not realize that next Tuesday, March 8, is Mardi Gras. As someone who was born and reared in the Crescent City, Fat Tuesday is a very important holiday to me.  In celebration of the last day of Carnival, St. Elias Brewing Company will be serving gumbo and will have a 10-piece Dixieland jazz band playing from 7 PM on.  So why not put on your masque and stop by to have one last blow-out before Lent starts and we aren't allowed to have anything except doppelbocks for the next 40 days?

Until Next Time, Cheers!