Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Visit with a Long-Lost Friend

Yours truly on SSN 679, circa 1987
Just over 25 years ago, on January 2, 1986, I arrived at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, WA.  I was an Ensign in the US Navy, just having finished 18 months of training and eager to join my first ship, the USS Silversides (SSN 679).  I can still remember what went through my head as I walked down the pier and caught my first glimpse of what would be my home for the next three years: "Dear God, is there a submarine somewhere under all that crap?"  She wasn't a very pretty sight.

I and the rest of the 130 or so men of her crew spent the next six months working 80+ hours a week to try to pry our ship from the clutches of the PSNS yardbirds in a shape that was fit to take to sea.  During the limited hours in the day that we weren't at work, we drank a lot of beer and occasionally slept.  While we weren't terribly picky, the consensus among us was that the best beer available locally was Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve.

Henry Weinhard had a long history of brewing in the Pacific Northwest, having been founded in 1856.  There brewery was located in Portland, and by the time I was drinking their beers in 1986, they had used a very successful ad campaign (anyone remember Schludwiller?) to position themselves as a regional microbrew, in contrast to the big national breweries. My friends and I drank their Private Reserve Pilsner because it actually had some hop flavor to it, unlike most of the other choices available at the time.  And being young Navy folk, we drank a lot of it.

Finally in June, 1986, we managed to escape from PSNS and head for our new homeport of Norfolk, VA.  Since Henry's was a regional brewery and did not distribute to the East Coast, that was pretty much the end of my experience with it, until recently.  In the intervening two and a half decades, Henry's, like so many of the moderately successful regionals, was absorbed by one of the bigger players in the beer game.  Today,  Henry's is owned by SAB Miller, with some of its beers being contract brewed by Full Sail Brewing Company.

Henry's came back on to my personal radar when I was contacted by a representative from the brewery who asked me if I would be interested in receiving a sample of their brand new India Pale Ale to review.  Never being one to pass up a free beer and being curious as to how the Henry's of today might compare to my memories from 25 years ago, I said sure.  The beer arrived late last week, so here's my review.

The beer poured a lovely gold-copper color in the glass, crystal clear and with a big white head.  The aroma is very clean, with plenty of floral & citrus hop notes.  The beer has 43 IBUs, primarily from Galena hops, I think.  Cascade and Citra hops are used later in the brewing process, which accounts for the floral and citrus notes in the aroma.  On the palate the beer is quite light, with excellent carbonation and a nice up front bitterness.  There's a decent amount of hop flavor on the back end, with a nice finish.  I'd score this beer very high on its drinkability; while it's not as hoppy as many IPAs out there today, that means you don't have to worry about your palate being wrecked after one bottle.  I could easily see enjoying several of these with pizza or perhaps fish and chips.  My shipmates and I would have loved it back in 1986...

I also drank a liter of Kenai River Brewing Company's Nugget Single Hop IPA over the weekend.  I know that the guys over there are working like dogs trying to keep up with the demand for their new cans, so I'm glad to see they are still able to find the time to bring out new one-off brews.  The beer poured a deep gold color with a slight haze and a nice white head.  There was plenty of hop aroma, as is usual with these single hops, but this time there was something else in the aroma, something that I could not identify.  Besides the expected floral/resiny elements, I got a a faint spicy note, but I'm still not sure how to describe it.  I was reduced to sniffing spice jars in the pantry, trying to identify it, but still failed.  It's certainly not an unpleasant aroma; just maddeningly difficult for me to identify.  The beer has excellent bitterness (as you'd expect from such a high alpha acid hop), good carbonation and an excellent finish.  Another interesting and successful exploration of the virtues and limitations of a single hop variety.

St. Elias Brewing Company has their new rauchbier on; it's named Pipe Dream.  They used some malt smoked over cherrywood to impart the smokiness.  The beer is a translucent brown with a cream-colored head.  The aroma is of caramel and smoke, but very clean otherwise.  The flavor profile is the same: maltiness and smoke, with essentially no discernible hops.  While I wouldn't say this beer is as smoky as an Alaskan Smoked Porter, it's pretty darn smoky.  Personally, I like smoke (especially peat smoke in Scotch whiskey), but if you don't, you'd better ask for a sample of this one, before committing to a glass.  I also found that as my glass warmed up a bit, the smoke seemed to diminish slightly, to let more of the malt flavors come through.  A classic take on rauchbier, but not for everyone.

I've also heard the has brewed a spontaneously fermented "wild ale" for the 5th Anniversary party of The City Beer Store down in San Francisco, California. It's called Open Container and here's what they had to say about it:

“Brewed in July 2010 at Midnight Sun by City Beer Store owners, Craig and Beth Wathen and our brew crew, Open Container was fermented with Wild AK yeasts then aged in Chardonnay barrels for several months. This very special 3-barrel batch honors eccentric West Coast brewing.”

I don't know if we'll see any of it for sale up here in Alaska, but I sure hope so.

I wanted to toss in another reminder about the  19th Annual Great Alaska Craft Beer and Homebrew Festival May 27 and 28 in Haines, Alaska.  I've yet to make it to this one and it's not looking good for this year, but I've heard from others that it's always a great time.  They're expecting over 1,200 attendees this year, so if you go you should have lots of company.  As for me, 2012 for sure...

Well, that's about it for this week.  Should have some interesting new brews to talk about next time around.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Power of One

Pierre Celis, 1925-2011
On Sunday I was reading the latest issue of The Beer Connoisseur magazine when I got word that Pierre Celis had passed away at the age of 86.  This got me thinking about the impact that a single individual can have on the world around them, especially in regards to craft beer.

To take Pierre Celis as an example, if he hadn't decided to create Hoegaarden Brewery to resurrect the wit beers that he remembered from his youth, would we even have beers like that anymore?  Might wit beers just be a style we read about in beer histories?  No such thing as Blue Moon or the hundreds of other beers brewed today in this style?  An entire style of beer that we have today only because one man decided that he wanted to drink good beer like he'd had as a youth.

How about Fritz Maytag?  What if he hadn't decided to rescue the Anchor Brewing Company?  If he hadn't chosen to be the trailblazer for all those who followed?  It would certainly have made things tougher for people like Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada and the other fledgling microbrewers for whom Fritz was an example and a mentor .  Would we still have had a craft brewing revolution?  Perhaps, but it's almost certain it wouldn't look anything like what we actually experienced.  All because Fritz decided that Anchor Steam was too precious to let disappear.  One man making a difference.

The list of individuals who have made singular contributions to craft brewing could is long and distinguished.  Jack MacAuliffe building the first micro at New Albion.  Charlie Papazian pushing to legalize and promote of home brewing.  Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada.  I could on and on, talking about people who by their choices singlehandedly re-shaped what we Americans think of when we talk about beer.  However, there's one more name that has to be mentioned.

Amongst the list of brewers who helped give us the wonderful craft beer scene we enjoy today, there must be added one other person who, as far as I know, never brewed a beer in his life: Michael Jackson.  The article  in The Beer Connoisseur that I mentioned reading at the start of this blog was a retrospective of his life, one which reminded me again just what a tremendous debt we all owe to Michael.  The very language we use to describe beer --the concept of a beer style, for example-- originated with him.  It hard to imagine what the craft beer world would be like without his influence.  We can safely say that several classic Belgian breweries would have gone out of business years ago if not for his telling the wider world about them in his books.

So as we all move on through this world, we should each remember that one person can make a difference.  Keep an eye out for your chance.

The list of the top 50 Breweries by Volume for 2010 has been released.  Our very own Alaskan Brewing Company comes in at a respectable #12 amongst craft breweries and #20 when all breweries are considered.  Nice job guys!

Click to enlarge
Turning to beer news from up in Anchorage:  Midnight Sun will be bringing back the bottle version of their Mammoth Extra Stout.  This is a beer that we used to have in bottles year-round, but then the brewery dropped it from their bottled line-up.  For those of you who might not have gotten to try it,  the brewery describes it as follows: "Dark and full-bodied, Mammoth Extra Stout boasts a rich melange of flavors, including chocolate, caramel, coffee and nut. Huge portions of pale and specialty malts give this mammoth brew a complex yet exceptionally smooth palate. Hops provide balance without overpowering the chewy malt profile."

Here are the specifics:
7.8 % Alcohol By Volume
50 International Bittering Units (IBUs)
Malt: Pale Two-row, Special B, Biscuit, Black, Roasted Barley

Hops: Magnum, Fuggles 

I'll be looking forward to picking up some to taste and review.

Also from up north, La Bodega now has a website.  Check them out at 

Closer to home, I hear that Kenai River Brewing has their Nugget Single Hop IPA on, though I haven't had a chance to stop by and confirm that.  St. Elias Brewing has a new rauchbier, made with malt smoked over cherrywood.  I got a taste last weekend and I'm looking forward to drinking an entire glass and writing a review, as the sample was excellent. I also heard that our local brewers are talking about hosting a beer festival here on the Kenai in early August.  Stay tuned for more details as they develop. 

Finally, only one new beer review this week: Elysian Brewing Company's Dragonstooth Stout.  We get a fair selection of Elysian's brews up here in Alaska, but this was the first time I'd seen this particular beer, which they call an Imperial Oatmeal Stout.  It poured perfectly opaque with a small brown head that dissipated quickly to just a collar around the glass. The aroma was of sweet roasted malt, a touch of oats, then maybe a hint of hops. Super thick and creamy on the tongue, this baby has all the mouthfeel you could ask for.  There's some acrid, roasted flavors, suggestive of espresso, with a nice balanced hoppiness; nothing overboard.  Some oily, silkiness from the oats helps to keep things nice and smooth.  There's a long finish with the roastiness.  With an ABV of 7.5% and 36 IBUs, this is a lovely beer that would make a great pair with any sort of rich, chocolate dessert.

Well, that's about it for this week.  Be sure to get out and try some good brews; I know I plan to.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

National Beer Day

This Thursday, April 7th, is National Beer Day.  The reason this date is chosen as National Beer Day is that on April 7th, 1933, beer became legal again in the United States after some thirteen years of Prohibition.

If you know that the 18th Amendment, which stated that "the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited" wasn't repealed until the ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5th, 1933, you might be wondering how beer became legal again 8 months earlier.  At this point, we must tip our hat to the ingenuity of Congress, which passed the Cullen-Harrison Act in March, 1933.  This Act simply declared that beer with no more than than 3.2% Alcohol By Weight was by definition not intoxicating.  Presto!  Beer is legal again on April 7th, 1933.

If you're interested in learning more about the madness that went into the birth, life, and death of the incredibly foolish and destructive attempt at social engineering known as Prohibition, I'd recommend you pick up a copy of The Last Call by Daniel Okrent.  I read it last summer and found it absolutely fascinating.  Or, if you prefer to get your history via film, Ken Burns is adapting it into a six-hour documentary, "Forbidden Fruit: Prohibition in America", scheduled to air this fall on PBS.

Regardless, be sure to raise a beer on National Beer Day in celebration of our freedom to do so, at least until Uncle Sam decides to try again to stop us...

Gabe Fletcher of Anchorage Brewing Company has released the label designs for the three beers that will be his first releases.  I don't have any specific release details yet, other than what I wrote in my blog of 1/20/2011, but here are the labels for your perusal. Click on a label to make it bigger.

Speaking of making things bigger, Kassik's Brewery is getting close to finishing their expansion.  They've gone from 1800 to 4800 square-feet, added a glycol chiller,  500 and 250 square-foot coolers, and a brand-new tasting room.  Best of all, by the end of April they'll be bottling their Beaver Tail Blonde, Moose Point Porter, and Morning Wood IPA.  Check out my column in this week's Redoubt Reporter newspaper for more details.

Kassik's also put a new batch of their Smoked Russian Imperial Stout on tap on Tuesday, 3/29.  I worked my way through a growler of this beer over the weekend and it was most excellent.  It poured completely opaque with a nice tan head that dissipated to a collar and left good lacing on the glass.  The aroma was just what you'd expect, chock full of roasty, espresso notes, backed up with malty sweetness and a touch of smoke.  On the palate it was rich and chewy, with lots of mouthfeel.  Flavors of roasted malt, smoke, and coffee intertwine in complex dance on your tongue.  I'm not sure of the alcohol, but based on the taste, I'm guessing the 8-9% range.  The finish is nice and warming.  If you're a fan of smoked beers or imperial stouts, you really need to give this one a try.

As long as we're out in Kenai, let's talk about a couple of beers that are on sale at Country Liquors.  The Firestone-Walker Brewing Company is located in Paso Robles, CA and has won numerous awards, including the Mid-size Brewery of the Year from the World Beer Cup three times, including 2010.  I don't believe I've seen any of their beers in Alaska before, but they are here now.  Country Liquors has two of them, on-sale for $2.99 each: Walker's Reserve Porter and the Union Jack IPAFirestone-Walker is most famous for its Union system, the only American example of a process developed in Burton-on-Trent in Britain.  It consists of numerous oak barrels connected via tubes (unions) that contain the beer while it undergoes its primary fermentation. 

Walker's Reserve Porter is in the robust porter style, weighing in at 5.9% ABV, and brewed using the Union system.  It's a blend of English and American ingredients, using Marris Otter malt, American and East Kent Goldings for hop additions during the boil, as well as Cascade hops in the whirlpool.  Poured into a glass, it is a dark brown with ruby highlights and a tan head that collapsed fairly quickly but left nice lace on the glass.  The aroma was primarily of the roasted malt, and on the palate the malt lead they way, but with enough hops for balance.  Extremely drinkable, this is one of the better robust porters I've had.

While I enjoyed the porter, the Union Jack IPA flat blew my socks off!  This was an absolutely amazing beer, so good that when I finished the one bottle I had purchased, I went back the next day and bought three more.  It poured a lovely dark gold, with a big white head.  The aroma was bursting with the odor of delicious floral hops.  For taste there was plenty more clean hop bitterness up front, with just enough malt backbone to balance, falling away to a nice finish.  Truly, one of the best IPAs I've ever had, a real pleasure in every way.

St. Elias Brewing Company also has a new release on tap.  Their Big Babushka Russian Imperial Stout has finally given out, to be replaced by Nocturnal, a Rye India Black Ale.  Another black beer with cream-colored head, this one has a strong hop & citrus aroma, likely from the dry-hopping during the barrel aging.  On the palate there's good carbonation and a light mouthfeel, with plenty of hop bitterness, some peppery, spicy notes from the rye, then a rapid fall off for the finish.  At 7% ABV and 66 IBUs, it's another quality beer from St. Elias.

Well, that's about it for this week.  Be sure to raise a glass on National Beer Day, and a middle finger for the neo-prohibitionists out there.

Until Next Time, Cheers!