Thursday, August 25, 2011

New Releases and New Reviews

It's a busy time for yours truly.  My day job at Kenai Peninsula College is heating up as we get ready for the start of classes next Monday.  But I've got some news and reviews to pass along, so let's get right to them.

Click to enlarge
First, Gabe Fletcher of Anchorage Brewing Company tells me that he delivered his next beer, Bitter Monk Belgian Double IPA to Specialty Imports Tuesday, so it should be on store shelves by the time you read this.  Yippee!  After tasting his first release, Whiteout Wit, I've been clamoring for more.  To refresh your memory, Bitter Monk is brewed using Apollo, Simcoe, and Citra hops, aged in French oak Chardonnay barrels and dry hopped with more Citra.  9% ABV & 100 IBUs.  Don't miss your chance to try this one; it will be at La Bodega for sure, and perhaps at some of the other beer stores.  More good news: Gabe's Love Buzz Saison will be released in just a few weeks.  Even more good news:  Gabe tells me he's purchased 2 63-barrel capacity oak fermentation tanks from Harlan Winery in California, which means in the future all his beers will undergo their primary fermentation in wood (as opposed to the stainless fermenters at Sleeping Lady that he's been using up to now), prior to going into barrels for their secondary fermentation.  All very exciting!

On the local beer front, Kassik's Brewery put their last kegs of their Black IPA and Smoked Barleywine on tap Tuesday.  Get some before it's gone.  Over at Kenai River, Doug Hogue is dealing with separation anxiety, as he starts the school year as a brewer, rather than a teacher for the first time in 17 years.  He's compensating by canning Sunken Isle IPA for the first time, so we should be seeing it for sale real soon.  And judging by the number of cars parked outside of St. Elias, Zach Henry and the gang are still almost as busy as they were during July.

The Kenai Peninsula State Fair took place last Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  On Thursday evening, representatives from our three local breweries and I met to judge the homebrew entries.  Besides myself, Zach Henry, Joe Gilman, Frank Kassik, and his son Jason assembled to evaluate some homebrews.  Quite a distinguished beer tasting panel, if I do say so myself.  Unfortunately, at the fairgrounds in Ninilchik we found ourselves confronted with three beers, one cider, and about 15 homemade wines and liquors.  The next two hours were pretty painful, as five beers guys tried to figure out what to say about a whole lot of wine.  After we got over the fact that none of the wines had any carbonation or hoppiness, we were sort of at a loss.  Still, we did our best and hopefully next year we'll have a few more home brews entered (and some judges who know something about wine!).  Kudos to the local brewers for their support, especially their donations of prizes for the winners.  I saw the basket that Kassik's Brewery donated, and it was fantastic.

Looking further afield, on Thursday, September 8th, Jhon Gilroy of Merchant du Vin will be hosting a beer dinner at Ruby's Cafe in Anchorage.  You can check out the menu of beer & food parings here.  I've attended beer tasting dinners hosted by Jhon down here on the Peninsula in the past, and they were always a fine time, so if you'll be in Anchorage in two weeks, you should make reservations and check it out.  Plus don't forget Bodega-Fest on Saturday, 10 September at Kincaid Park.  Follow this link for more details.

Moving on to reviews, I've got three to share.  First, on the recommendation of Pamela at La Bodega, I picked up a bottle of Biere De L'Amitie Collaboration Ale, a joint brew of Brasserie St. Feuillien of Le Roeulx in Belgium and Green Flash Brewing Company of San Diego, CA.  Since these are both outstanding breweries, I was very interested in seeing what they'd managed to produce together.  Reading the label, I saw that it was produced using both rye and wheat malt, and dry hopped with Amarillo hops.  The 750 ml bottle's cork came out with a reassuring pop, and it poured a bright gold with an absolutely huge white head.  The aroma was full of the earthy, spicy notes that I always associate with Belgian yeast, plus some incredibly bright citrus notes, I assume from the Amarillo hops.  On the palate the beer was very light and spritzy, due to the wonderful carbonation.  The complex flavors from the yeast merged extremely well with those from the mixed malts and the American hops, producing a very complex beer, with many different things going on at once.  The beer gradually falls away in a long, pleasant finish, with just a touch of heat from the 9.5% ABV at the end.  An exceptional brew and one I am very happy I got to try.  Thanks, Pam!

In a similar vein, Sierra Nevada has released the second in the Abbey series of beers, Ovila Saison.  See my review on 5/11/2011 of the first beers in this series, their Dubbel, to cover the full backstory behind this series.  I was mildly disappointed in the Dubbel, so I approached the Saison with some trepidation.  I needn't have worried; this time around Sierra Nevada hit the ball out of the park.  The beer had excellent carbonation, shooting the cork to god-knows-where and producing a huge, dense white head on top of deep gold beer with exceptional clarity.  Once again the aroma was dominated by the earthy, spicy notes of a Belgian yeast.  When I tasted it, this saison was delicious, with fruity, spicy yeast flavors to the front, followed by a nice dry finish.  This is as good as saison as any I've has, right up there with Saison Dupont or Ommegang's Hennepin.  An excellent brew that more than compensates for their slightly lackluster Dubbel.

Finally, I needed to make some room in my "deep storage" space for some bottles of Deschutes' Black Butte XXIII Birthday Reserve Beer.  Space was getting a bit tight in there, so I decided to open a bottle of Black Butte XXI to free up some room.  The label recommended drinking it "after 10/17/10", so I was covered there.  The XXI was made with three different chocolate malts, three different hop varieties, cocoa nibs, and Ethiopian coffee, with 20% being aged in bourbon barrels. Once I managed to get the wax off the cap and open it, the beer poured an absolute opaque black with a tan head that dissipated to a collar and left excellent lacing down the glass.  The nose was chock full of roasted aroma (duh!) and plenty of sweetness.  On the palate the flavors were rich and complex, a blend of roast coffee, sweetness from the cocoa, vanilla notes from the wood, all wrapped up in a ridiculously luscious mouthfeel.  This is one exceptional brew, and worth waiting a couple of years for.  If you've got any squirreled away, consider opening it; you won't be disappointed.

Well, that's about it for this week.  As I wrote above, next week is the start of classes here at Kenai Peninsula College, so I may be too slammed to get a blog out. I'll do my best, but it may be a short one.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

2nd Annual Here We Come!

Well, the First Annual Kenai Peninsula Beer Festival was a rousing success!  A sell-out crowd of 1000 beer lovers spent six hours last Saturday enjoying good music, delicious food, and, of course, exceptional beer.  All credit to Matt Pyhala and his Rotary companions, the numerous sponsors, and of course the brewers and distributors who made this wonderful event a success.  While this certainly isn't the biggest beer fest in Alaska, in many ways it can already lay claim to being one of the best.

Here are some photos, taken by my lovely wife Elaine, to give you an idea of what you missed if you weren't lucky enough to attend:

The Calm Before the Storm: Waiting for the Doors to Open.
First customers at the Kenai Peninsula Brewing & Tasting Society Booth!

The Beer Lot outside starts to fill.
Inside starts getting pretty crowded as well.
Midnight Sun & Denali are popular.

Is that the famous Dr. Fermento, down from Anchorage?

Damn good food, too!

 I didn't have a ton of time to walk around and sample brews, as I spent the majority of my time helping out at the Kenai Peninsula Brewing & Tasting Society booth.  We poured a lot of excellent beer, both from keg and bottles, that our members had made and donated.  I really think we impressed some folks and we certainly raised the visibility of our club in this area.  But with all that serving going on, I only got away from the booth a couple of times to walk around and try some other stuff myself.

I didn't have to walk far to Kenai River Brewing booth, as they were right next to us. Doug and the boys decided to offer a sneak peak of their 2010 Winter Warlock Old Ale.  They brew this beer every fall and let it age for an entire year before putting it on tap on 1 October.  I've reviewed it before and it's truly exceptional, so I jumped at the chance for a preview.  Based on the sample I had, it's going to be another great batch, so mark your calendars for Saturday, 1 October, and be at the brewery for the release!

Just on the other side of Kenai River, Sean Rodriguez was manning the Alaskan Brewing Company booth and pouring, among other brews, one of their Rough Drafts, an American Pale  Ale.  I snagged a glass once I finished off my Warlock sample and I thought it was very clean and refreshing tasting, full of classic Pacific Northwest hop flavor and aroma, but not so bitter as to stray into IPA territory.  Very nice.

By the time I got around to visiting Denali Brewing, they were already out of their Chuli Stout, so I settled for a glass of their Twister Creek IPA.  It's 6.7% ABV and 71 IBUs.  I didn't have time to write up a formal review, but it had a wonderful floral hop nose and was bracingly bitter; just the pick-me-up I needed before I went back to pouring beers for patrons.  Given the distance from Soldotna to Talkeetna, I doubt many folks in attendance had had an opportunity to try many Denali brews before now.  Their table was mobbed most of the night and I think they were the first (but not the last!) brewery to run out.  I also got to sample a couple more brews, including a new version of Flower Child XPA from St. Elias (see below).

However, the best part of the evening is that I'm told there were zero DUIs associated with it, thanks to smart drinking and Alaska Cab Company offering free rides home.  When you hold a beer festival and the AK State Troopers compliment you on the job you've done, you know you've done something right.  Aurora Productions (the folks who put on the Great Alaska Beer & Barleywine Festival) please take note!

A winner of the People's Choice Award was also chosen at the fest.  Each attendee got to vote for one beer as the "Best in Show".  Hometown favorite Farmer's Friend from St. Elias Brewing Company took the prize this time around, and Zach Henry & company claimed their lovely custom-made gold pan.

What's he looking at?

St Elias has also released a couple of new brews since my last blog.  Flower Child XPA has returned, albeit in a slightly different form than when I reviewed it back on 3/9/2009.  This time around, instead of using noble German hops, Zach used the new Galaxy Australian hops.  In my last blog I wrote about trying a barleywine from Widmer Brothers that had been hopped using Galaxy hops, with their distinctive passion fruit notes.  These notes play very well with the crisp, clean taste of Flower Child.

Zach has also released another of his bourbon barrel-aged monsters:  Off the Hook, a Belgian dubbel aged for six months in the wood.  This beer poured a chocolate brown color, with a small, fast-dissipating tan head.  The beer was initially served a little too cold and had a significant chill-haze, which cleared as it warmed.  This beer definitely needs to warm up to the 45 to 50F range, whereupon it expresses its flavors and aromas much better.  Once it warms, the aroma is loaded with malts, dark fruits, woody notes and some bourbon.  All these are present on the palate as well, followed by a nice, long finish.  At 9.6%, it's another big brew deserving of respect, but it's delicious.  Just wait a few minutes and let it warm up a bit before you try it.

Cody & Joycelyn Christman
On August 6 & 7, Elaine and I hosted Cody & Joycelyn Christman at our place for the weekend.  Cody was the 2009 Beerdrinker of the Year, so he was one of the judges on the panel that selected me as the 2010 winner, and we both served as judges to select the 2011 winner, Phil Farrell.  So when he let me know that they'd be visiting relatives in Alaska, we grabbed the opportunity to get together again.  We did our best to show them the local sights, including our three breweries, and Cody was nice enough to bring me a bottle of  Odell Brewing's Woodcut #5, an oaked Belgian Quadruple.  We were so busy drinking local brews and my homebrews while they were here that I didn't get to open his gift until last Friday, so here's my review.

Woodcut #5 poured a translucent ruby-brown with a cream-colored head that dissipated fairly rapidly to a nice collar. The aroma was of plums, figs, vanilla, and some alcohol heat from the 11.3% ABV.  On the palate the woody, vanilla notes become even more apparent, perhaps with hints of cherry added to the plums and figs.  The finish is long and warming.  This is a very rich and deeply complex beer, one for slow savoring on a cold winter's evening.  Thanks, Cody!  Hope you like the Midnight Sun brews I sent home with you.

I was also up in Anchorage for meetings last week, and while I did not have time to visit any of the bars to have anything on tap, I did swing by La Bodega to pick up some beers they were holding for me.  Besides picking up those brews (to be reviewed later), I picked up some other that looked interesting.  First among these was Midnight Sun's Macchu Picchu Strong Brown Ale.  This is the second brew in their 2011 World Tour series, and features additions of coffee, cocoa, and maize.  It poured a dark ruby-brown, with a nice tan head.  The coffee was immediately apparent in the aroma, with the cocoa following on behind.  The beer was quite light on the palate, probably from the use of maize in the mash, and there was a touch of an alcohol bite from the 9.1% ABV.  At only 20 IBUs, most of the bitterness in this beer is from the coffee roast, not hops.  There's a luxurious feel to it, that's belied slightly by that alcohol bite I mentioned.  Another nice addition to the Midnight Sun stable and one to definitely seek out if you're an aficionado of their previous coffee-infused brews, such as Brewtality and Arctic Rhino Porter.

I also picked up a bottle of Avery Brewing's 18th Anniversary Beer, a rye saison.  I'm not sure how much longer we'll be seeing Avery brews up here, as I understand that they've announced they're pulling out of the Alaska market, but until they're gone, I'll keep trying them, as they make some amazing beers.  I've had rye saison before, and they make for an interesting combination, with the peppery notes from the rye malt playing off the spicy, peppery flavors produced by the Belgian yeasts.  In this particular beer, Avery used a blend of five different Belgian yeasts, as well as dry hopping with German Tettnang hops.  In the glass it was the color of honey, with a massive cream-colored head.  The aroma was packed with the spicy, peppery, earthy notes you expect from Belgian yeasts, along with some nice hop aroma from the Tettnangs.  On the palate there was excellent carbonation, lifting the spicy, peppery notes from both the yeast and the rye, moving to a nice long, dry finish.  A classic saison with an added twist, I liked Avery's 18 very much.

Well, that's about it for this week.  I just want to emphasize again what a great time was had by all at the First Annual Kenai Peninsula Beer Festival, thanks to the hard work of a great number of folks.  Given how well it went, I'm sure next year's will be even bigger and better!

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Bye, Bye Summer, Hello IPA Day

Well, it was nice while it lasted, but it looks like summer has passed here on the Kenai.  Oh, I'm sure we'll have plenty more nice days before the snow flies, but the fall rains have shown up early this year.  It's been pretty much non-stop rain since Sunday, and more predicted until the weekend.  On the plus side, the river closed to dip-netting on Sunday at midnight and the hordes of Anchorage-ites looking to score a freezer full of sockeye have departed, so maybe I'll be able to find a place to park at our local drinking establishments.  Always look on the bright side, right?

Speaking of the bright side, we're counting down to the First Annual Kenai Peninsula Beer Festival on Saturday, August 13th.  I've been beating the drum about his fest for the last couple of blogs, so I'm not going to go into anymore detail.  I'm just going to say that if you like around here or even up in Anchorage, you owe it to yourself to make it to this event.  So buy your tickets and make your plans to be there. 'Nuff said.

Also on the bright side, today is International IPA Day.  It's the brainchild of a couple of beer bloggers and seeks to use all our new social media to link up celebrants around the world in experiencing the most popular style of craft beer on it's very own day, August 4th.  I'll definitely by having an IPA this evening; how about you?

Around town, the usual suspects are up to their usual good deeds.  Kassik's Brewery just shipped out 60 cases of their Caribou Kilt Wee Heavy Scotch and 60 cases of their Beaver Tail Blonde, so the beer drinkers in Anchorage will be smiling soon.  Kenai River tapped a keg of their 2008 Winter Warlock Old Ale on Tuesday, but unfortunately I missed the notice on Facebook and it was gone in a flash.  They're still waiting on the Sunken Isle cans, but they hope to be able to release them around Labor Day.  They've also acquired the lease for the rest of their building; the hairdresser next door has moved out.  This will let them expand their operations when things slow down in the fall.  There are still permits to get and plenty of work ahead, but eventually they plan to have a true taproom, with tables and everything, in their new space.  Their beer of the week is Arctic XPA, with $8 growlers and $2.50 pints.

I mentioned last week that St. Elias Brewing had re-released their Jabberwocky ESB, but that I hadn't tried it yet.  Now I have, and I pronounce it to be good.  Reviewing my tasting notes from last November, I don't think I would change anything, so you can check them out, or better yet, stop in and taste some for yourself.

In fact this evening would be a good time to stop in at St. Elias, since it's First Thursday and there will be live music and hopefully a cask to be tapped.  Plus there's a brand new beer on tap: Off the Hook, a Belgian dubbel style ale that's been aged for 6 months in bourbon casks.  Sounds delicious!

I tried a new beer over the weekend, one I'd been saving for a couple of months: Widmer Brothers Brewing's Galaxy-Hopped Barleywine.  I'm always interested in experiencing a new hop variety; after all, hops are the "soul" of beer.  Galaxy hops are an Australian strain, bred from the Perle variety.  They're a high alpha acid strain, and have a unique aroma, described as a blend of citrus and passionfruit.  So I was eager to taste them for myself.  The beer poured a dark, semi-translucent chestnut color, with a tan head that fell fairly quickly but left good lacing on the glass.  The aroma was of hops, with some unusual fruity notes, that I couldn't quite place.  It been quite awhile since I tasted passionfruit, so I suppose that might be what I was getting.  On the palate the mouthfeel was good, with decent carbonation.  The malt was definitely in the foreground, as in an English-style barleywine, with toffee notes and enough hops for balance.  The finish was long and nice, with a touch of alcohol heat on the very end from the 9.5% ABV.  All-in-all a nice beer and quite drinkable for a barleywine; I finished the entire 22 oz. bomber in a sitting without a struggle.  My only caveat is that I'm not sure it really showcases the Galaxy hops well; the barleywine style is so malt intensive, the hops are more or less forced to take a back seat.

Well, that's about it for this week.  Enjoy International IPA Day, get your tickets for the Kenai Peninsula Beer Fest, and keep drinking good craft beer.  If you see me leaning up against a bar this weekend, be sure to step up and say hello.

Until Next Time, Cheers!