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!

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