Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Quick Trip to SoCal

So no blog last week.  That's because I was actually in Southern California (or on airplanes flying there and back) for most of last week.  I needed to attend some training for my day job in Irvine on Thursday and Friday, so my wife Elaine and I flew down on Wednesday and back on Sunday.  Once I finished my training at 5 PM on Friday, visiting breweries moved to the top of the agenda.

Southern California seems to have an extremely mature craft beer culture.  For example, Thursday evening we went out to dinner at a chain seafood place, McCormick & Schmick's.  It's evidently quite a large chain, though not one I'd ever heard of.  Anyway, looking at the menu, I noticed the front page was food, while the back page was wine.  Bracing myself for the usual disappointment, I asked the waiter about beer choices.  He returned a few moments later with an entirely separate menu, listing their quite extensive bottle and draft choices, as well as tasting notes and suggested food pairings!  Then he pointed out the line of ales brewed on-site.  Color me impressed!  Some of the "fine dining" places in Alaska could learn a lot from this California chain restaurant.

The Bruery Tasting Room
Friday night we drove up to The Bruery, a few miles north of Irvine.  By "drove", I mean we crawled through bumper-to-bumper LA traffic for 90 minutes to go less than 10 miles.  Living in Alaska, one forget the madness that is California driving...

Click to enlarge
Anyway, when we arrived at around 6:30, the tasting area was busy and the food truck parked outside was doing a brisk business.  I ordered a goblet of their Mischief, a Belgian Golden Strong Ale. After all that traffic, I needed something with a little kick and the 8.5% ABV Mischief fit the bill perfectly.  It was a beautiful clear gold with an excellent white head and good lacing, as you'd expect for the style.  Besides the hops, I was sure that I was picking up some brett on the nose, but the server swore that there was no brett in it.  They do make a bottled version with brett, called Mischief Gone Wild, but he said their regular version had none.  Carbonation was excellent, hoppiness superb, and the beer was amazingly fresh, of course.  As good as the beers from The Bruery that I have tasted in the past were, they didn't have the kind of freshness you get drinking them at the source.  A superb beer from an excellent brewery.

By now, Elaine and I we starving, so we took some advice from the server about where to head for food and made our way to Old Town Orange County to a gastropub called The Haven.  We found the place without much trouble, but we hadn't reckoned on it being a Friday night in CA and weren't interested in waiting 45 minutes for a table.  So headed back through the streets of Old Town, looking for a place to eat without having to wait.  We eventually ended up at a BBQ joint, one that served up a delicious rack of St. Louis-style ribs.  As luck would have it, right across the street was The Bruery Provisions, a combination of a beer & wine bar, and beer & wine bottle store, and a gourmet deli.  After we finished dinner, we checked it out.

I pretty sure that Alaska's rather silly liquor laws would make it very difficult to open a store such as The Bruery Provisions, which is really too bad, as it was a great place.  Here are some pictures:

What you don't see in these pictures is the back of the store, with the deli case full of cheese and cured meets and the 30-tap beer tower and the tables for people to sit and enjoy a beer or a glass of wine.  I was also happy to see half a dozen or so beers from Midnight Sun among the bottles on offer.  Needless to say, I walked out the door with several purchases (more on that later).

Next day, we headed south toward San Diego County and two of the biggest names in craft brewing: Stone Brewing Company and Lost Abbey/Port Brewing.  We headed for Stone first, since we knew they served food and we'd be arriving around 11:30 am.  Arriving at Stone was interesting; there's no sign (I seem to remember an interview with Greg Koch in which he was quoted as saying that there was no sign because he wanted people to have to come there on purpose rather than just see it while driving by), and it's the only brewery/brewpub I've ever been to with valet parking!  We skipped the valet, parked ourselves, and walked in.

The outdoor dining area

It's an absolutely amazing facility. Besides the brewery (visible through a huge glass wall from the bar area) and a very large store, there's a large outdoor dining area/bar, that overlooks the "beer garden".  The beer garden is perhaps an acre of land that has been turned into a 21st century California version of an old-fashioned German beer garden.  There are small streams (crossed by foot bridges), numerous benches and tables and rocks to sit on, scattered through out the garden, off the path that winds through the entire area.  You can buy a beer up at the deck bar, then walk down into the garden area with your friends and enjoy it.  It was extremely cool!
Part of the garden. Seats near the water.
Another part, with shade to get out of the sun.

Inside Stone's bar from above.
Stone also seems to be doing an amazing amount of business.  When we arrived at 11:30 am (without a reservation; it's that Alaskan thing again), we were told the first available one would be at 1:45 pm.  Fortunately, we could get the full lunch menu at the bar.  We split an appetizer of pretzels, and then I had a roast beef melt sandwich and Elaine had a chicken schnitzel; it was all delicious.  For beer, I started off with a Smoked Porter, thinking it would go well with my sandwich.  This is a beer we can get here in Alaska, but once again, it was wonderfully fresh, drinking it at the brewery.  I noticed that they also had a beer engine and asked if they had a cask on.  At first our bartender said no, but then checked and found out that the cask was still on from the night before, their just released 2012 Old Guardian Barley Wine.  Since I'm a sucker for almost anything on cask, I had to have a glass of that as well.  As expected, the cask-conditioning gave it a more delicate, creamier carbonation.  I thought the hop aroma was more pronounced in this year's version and struck me as a bit less "English" than I remembered.  When I asked the server, he informed me that, sure enough, this year they had replaced the East Kent Goldings with a mix of American hops, Chinook, Calypso, & Cascade.  In fact, he said this is the first time Stone has ever used Cascade hops in any of their beers.  Very nice and I'll certainly be looking to pick up some in the bottle when it makes it to Alaska.

After our lunch and strolling through the beer garden, we headed out for Lost Abbey/Port Brewing, about a ten minute drive from Stone.  Located in an industrial park, the brewery was easily spotted by the number of cars parked around it and the ubiquitous food truck parked in front.  It was a release day for their Box Set Track #2 Beer, blend of their Cuvee, Angel Share, and Project X beers.  I was hoping to snag a bottle to bring home and share, but they were only selling it for consumption on the premises.  Since I'm a little funny about being told when and where I can drink something I've paid for, I decided to pass and had a pint of their Midnight Expression Black Lager instead.  As you can see these photos, the place was packed:

The Midnight Expression was an excellent black lager, completely opaque with a long-lasting tan head.  The aroma was of nice, roasty malt and the taste was extremely clean, with excellent balance and very refreshing.  It was a great beer for a warm California afternoon.  Of course I couldn't visit Lost Abbey and not pay my respects to its Brewer/Guru-In-Residence, Tomme Arthur.  I was honored that he actually remembered the last time we met, when we had dinner together (along with a lot of other people) during the 2009 National Homebrewers Conference in Oakland.  As always, I gave him my pitch to send more of his brews to Alaska, for all of us up here to enjoy.   A fantastic visit to a fantastic brewery.

So what did I bring back with me (besides a renewed respect for the brewers of SoCal)?  Here's a photo of my beer plunder:

I could probably have managed a couple of bottles more, but I didn't want to risk my suitcase going overweight, with all the extra $$$$ that entails.  I was on the lookout for the Alesmith Brewing's Wee Heavy Scotch Ale (see my review on 12/22/2010) since it's both fantastic and unavailable in Alaska, so when I saw a bottle at The Bruery Provision, it was a no-brainer.

I chose the two beers from The Bruery based on how interesting they sounded.  Acer Quercus is a collaboration brew with Lawson's Finest Liquids, a nanobrewery in Vermont.  The beer has been "oaked, smoked, and mapled", not necessarily in that order.  At 9.5% ABV, it sounded totally unique.  The Saison De Lente is their spring seasonal, a 6.5% ABV, 35 IBU saison with brett added.

Finally, I snapped up a bottle of Lost Abbey's Judgement Day Quadruple.  I could write about it, but why listen to me when you can have Tomme tell you himself (if the embedded player doesn't work, click here):

Yes, it's one I'll be cellaring for a special occasion or the End of the World, whichever comes first.

OK, with the trip report done, let's move on to local news.

St. Elias Brewing will be putting another cask of their Vanilla Bean Porter on hand pump this Friday. I missed this brew last time around on cask, so I'll definitely be stopping bye to grab a pint this time.  Zach Henry added extra vanilla beans to the cask, so this one should be extra delicious.

I saw Joe Gilman at Kenai River Brewing on Wednesday.  He's recovering from his elbow injury, doing physical therapy, and hoping to be allowed to start lifting things with his arm in a few weeks.  Stay with it, Joe!

Kassik's Brewery is getting big time press coverage!  They will be on KTUU's "Assignment Alaska" during the 6 PM news hour on Thursday, 23 February.  So set your DVRs!

Gabe Fletcher at Anchorage Brewing Company has finally found time to get his website up and it looks pretty cool!  Check it out here. Now all Gabe needs to do is claim his Facebook page!

Alaskan Brewing has announced that they will be expanding into the Texas market this spring, which is a big leap forward for them.  Also, the next beer in the 22 oz. Pilot Series will be Alaskan Birch Bock, an 8.5% doppelbock made with birch syrup.Here's how it's described in the press release:

" Alaskan Birch Bock is a tawny, copper-colored ale with lightly toasted and caramel malt highlights and the earthy undertones of birch, figs and spun sugar. Birch Syrup adds a subtle woodsy and sherry-like character that mingles with the hop bitterness to create clean and dry finish that nicely masks the spice of alcohol in this medium-bodied beer. "

  Release date will be 1 March, so look for it at your local beer store in early March.

Finally, it's not too soon to start thinking about American Craft Beer Week, which will take place May 14-20 this year, followed immediately by SE Alaska Beer Week, 18 to 26 May, which will culminate in the 20th Annual Great Alaska Craftbeer and Homebrew Festival in Haines, on Saturday, May 26th.  Everyone I've ever talked to says this is a fantastic festival, so if you can be in Haines, Alaska at the end of May, it should be a great time.  Stay tuned for more details in future blogs as we get closer and the event schedules firm up.

Well, that's about it for now.  I should have some more beer reviews next week, as I get caught up after my trip.  Take care and keep drinking that good craft beer.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Still Working My Way Back

It's been a bit of a rough week.  I'm still working my way back to full health, and my sinuses have been pretty screwed up, which has seriously impacted my perception of taste and flavor.  So I've steered away from trying any new brews (since I can't really evaluate them properly).  I do have some reviews below of beers I tasted before I got sick, but nothing really recent.

However, just because I've been ill, beer news hasn't stopped happening. A big announcement from Alaskan Brewing Company: they are following in the footsteps of Sierra Nevada Brewing and moving to get rid of twist-off caps on their 12-oz. bottles.  Pry-off caps are much better at protecting beer, and better protected beer means greatly improve quality and consistency.  The sacrifice in convenience is minimal, in my opinion, so the trade-off is well worth it.  A tip of the cap to the folks at Alaskan for doing the right thing.

Locally, tomorrow night (Friday, 10 Feb) is The Taste of the Kenai Event, and many local food vendors, including the local breweries, will be taking part. It will be held at the Soldotna Sports Center, from 6 to 9 PM.  Tickets are $50 each and can be purchased from the Kenai Peninsula Tourism & Marketing Council office.  It's a great chance to experience the best in food & drink that the Peninsula has to offer, and a fine way to spend a Friday night.

Zach Henry's new Vanilla Bean Porter at St. Elias Brewing has been getting some rave reviews from my friends, especially the folks who were able to get it from the cask last Friday.  I'm looking forward to trying it as soon as I shake this head cold.

Kassik's Brewery just released a new batch of their award-winning Carribou Kilt Wee Heavy Scotch Ale last Tuesday.  I think I'll make a run out their way this weekend and get me some!

Normally, I'd say things are going well at Kenai River Brewing, but after I saw this on their Facebook page this morning, I'm not so sure:
Forky strikes back!

Could it be that Joe Gilman's absence is being keenly felt?  Say it ain't so, Joe!

Now for some reviews:

While I was in Anchorage, I picked up an interesting looking porter from Sweden, D. Carnegie's Porter.  There's a very long history of porter brewing in the Baltic, including Sweden, so I thought it would be worth a try.  Since then, I've also seen it for sale at Country Liquors in Kenai.  It poured a deep ruby color with a small khaki head that dissipated pretty quickly. The aroma was mainly of chocolate malt, with a little roastiness.  This carried through onto the palate, before dropping away to a bit of a disappointing finish.  Stylistically, I'd say this was more of a brown porter than a robust or Baltic one, even though its 5.5% ABV is a bit strong for that style.  When I finally finished the beer, I took another stab at translating the Swedish label.  That's when I realized it was actually brewed by Carlsberg, one of the biggest breweries in the world.  Suddenly it's inoffensive mediocrity made perfect sense...

Another (and much better) beer that I grabbed in Anchorage was Boulevard Brewing Company's Harvest Dance Wheat  Wine-style Ale.  Since I pretty much love anything from Boulevard, especially their Smokestack series, I was looking forward to this one.  It poured a clear, deep gold color,with a truly massive white head that kept threatening to overflow the glass.  The nose was of bright, fresh Citra hops. Carbonation was exceptional, making the beer very light on the tongue.  There was nice bitterness but it wasn't excessive, and the French & American oak aging comes through a bit on the finish.  The single adjective that came to mind as I drank it was "brisk".  It hides its 9% ABV fairly well and is quite drinkable for such a big beer.  Another exceptional brew from Boulevard!

Finally, as I wrote last week, Alaskan's Black IPA is in the local stores at last, in both six-packs and 22-oz. bombers.  It poured very dark, almost opaque, but with some ruby highlights.  It had a nice, khaki-colored head and the aroma was chock-full of Centennial and Cascade hops.  Both the aroma and flavor had no discernible roastiness, leaving the field primarily as a showcase for the hops.  This is a nice, easy drinker, a beer you could readily have more than one of in a single sitting.

Well, that's about it for this week.  Hopefully the next time I take keyboard in hand, I'll be back to 100% in the tasting department and will have some more interesting brews to report.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Recovery Mode

Alaska Breweries section of the GABBF
Yes, I'm in recovery mode.  No, it's not because of Alaska Beer Week and the Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival, good as they were.  It's because of a really nasty bug I picked up somewhere along the way, which has really had me under the weather for the last week or so.  Add that to all the work at my day job that piled up while I was up in Anchorage plus the deadline for my newspaper column, plus a last minute request from the Rare Beer Club, and something had to give.  That something was this blog, naturally, so here it is, three weeks from my last posting.

Steven Pauwels
This year's  Guest of Honor for the GABBF was Steven Pauwels, Brewmaster of the Boulevard Brewing Company.  Given that I've been admiring his beers for a couple of years, it was great to meet him in the flesh and chat about beer and brewing.  His speech to the GNB Club meeting was especially good.  Besides being exceptionally funny in a dead-pan European way, it was interesting to hear his perspective, as a Belgian, on how homebrewing has influenced and continues to influence the American craft brewing industry.  He was a real gentleman and someone I hope we see up this way again.

Alaska Beer Week as a whole was an absolutely fabulous time.  Last year's dozen or so events grew to more than sixty this time around.  Beer dinners, meet the brewer events, the Great Northern Brewers club meeting, and the GABBF itself-- they were all great.

To my knowledge, there was only one dark spot on a great week. Joe Gilman, assistant brewer at Kenai River Brewery, was injured in a freak curling accident late on the evening of Wednesday, January 18.  And before you ask, yes, I said curling. Yes, the Olympic sport with the ice and the rocks and the brooms.  He slipped and fell and sheered his humerus at the elbow, requiring surgery the next day to install a metal plate.  I know we all wish Joe a speedy and painless recovery.

In better news, Galaxy White IPA, the new release from Gabe Fletcher's Anchorage Brewing Company, will be the February offering of Rare Beer Club, one of the Beer of the Month Clubs. I know this because I was contacted by the Club to contribute some copy regarding Gabe and his brewery.  Galaxy White IPA is available locally here on the Peninsula at Country Liquors in Kenai for $9.99 for a 750ml bottle.  Gabe has also produced the beer for this year's Fur Rendezvous, the Running of the Reindeer Saison.  It should be available next week at Country Liquors as well.

Besides breaking Joe, while they were in Anchorage the crew at Kenai River released a bit of their brand-new Russian Imperial Stout at the Connoisseurs' Session of the GABBF, then put the leftover 7 gallons on tap last Friday. It lasted all of 3 and a half hours.  Fortunately, I was able to get some at the GABBF.  I thought it tasted pretty good, but that it could use a few months more conditioning.  Not sure when it will be released for real, but it will certainly be one to watch for!  The new taproom at the brewery is also nearing completion.  Doug gave me a quick tour a few days ago and I can tell you that's it's going to look very, very nice.

Over at St. Elias Brewing, there should be a new beer on the hand pump this Friday.  Not sure what it will be, so we'll just have to stop by to find out! (Late addition: It will be Zach's famous Vanilla Bean Porter, both on cask and draft!)

If you've been looking to try the new Alaskan Black IPA, it has finally made it to the Peninsula.  Look for it at Fred Meyer and other local stores.  I just picked some up today, so I should have a review for next week's blog.

I had the opportunity to try several new beers while I was in Anchorage.  Here are a few reviews:

I stopped by Cafe Amsterdam soon after arriving in town and had a beers with Ken Pajak. From his extensive draft list, the one I picked was Conflux #2, a Belgian IPA collaboration brew between Deschutes & Boulevard Brewing.  It poured a slightly hazy gold, with a nice white head that left excellent lacing on the glass.  The aroma was bright with spices; I could certainly pick out orange peel and lemon grass.  It had an excellent mouthfeel, with plenty of good carbonation and plenty of additional spiciness.  The hoppiness did not overwhelm the spiciness, as sometimes happens in White or Belgian IPAs.  Very nice and refreshing.

Friday night, after a wonderful sushi dinner, my wife and I stopped by SubZero Longue for an after dinner drink.  I ordered a  glass of Flemish Primitive #3, a De Proef/Surly Bird collaboration.  This beer was a lovely clear gold with a small white head that dissipated to a collar but left nice lacing down the side of the glass.  The aroma was classic Belgian, with the earthy, spicy notes that I always associate with a Belgian yeast, plus some citrus elements.  The beer itself was fairly dry, with good bitterness; in the respect it reminded me a bit of Saison Dupont.  Unlike that beer, there was a touch of sourness on the finish, likely from whatever wild yeast made it primitive.  Very enjoyable and complex, it made the perfect nightcap.

I also got to try another new release from Anchorage Brewing Company, their Anchorage IPA.  This is a draft-only brew, so do not look for it outside the Anchorage area.  It poured a slightly cloudy gold with a white head and an aroma that screamed Citra hops!  Excellent carbonation helps to keep the bitterness from overwhelming the palate, and I thought I could pick up a slight fruitiness, perhaps from the yeast strain used.  Talking to Gabe Fletcher, he told me that he decided to brew this beer "because he missed brewing an IPA".  As usual, if Gabe does something, he does it right.  This is a very nice, straight-forward American IPA, as good as anyone makes anywhere.  If you find yourself in Anchorage, be sure to hunt it up.

I picked up a bottle of the latest from BrewDog Brewery in Scotland, Bitch Please, another collaboration brew, this time with Three Floyds Brewery. This is a strong (11.5% ABV) ale, aged in Islay whisky casks.  It poured a very dark copper color, with a massive off-white head.  The aroma was of smoky Islay whisky, and that was pretty much the dominant flavor profile.  As much as I love Islay whisky, I thought it a bit overdone.  Whenever I'm dealing with any kind of spirits barrel aging, be it bourbon, scotch, rum, or whatever, I want the spirit in question to complement the beer, not overpower it.  An example of a beer which does something similar but does it right would be J.W. Lees Harvest Ale, aged in Lagavulin Casks.  Here, there's just too much Scotch, not enough ale...

Finally, I tried a bottle on Midnight Sun's Anchorage Ice Bock, the last in their World Tour series.  As you'd expect from an ice bock, this is a hefty brew at 10.9% ABV.  True to style, it;s malt forward, with only 14 IBUs of bitterness.  Ir poured a dark ruby color, with a slight cream-colored head.  The nose was of caramel and malt, with a touch of alcohol heat.  On the palate it had a smooth clean taste, plenty of malt body and a hint of caramel.  No discernible bitterness, and some alcohol heat on the finish.  A very nice take on the classic style.

Now that the World Tour has finished, I guess I should give you my own personal ranking of performances, from best to not-so-best.  Here they are, from the top:

Macchu Picchu

As always, your mileage may vary.

Well, that's about it for this week.  Sorry for the big gap, but to quote Forrest Gump: "S**t happens."  I'll be back next week with more beer new and reviews.

Until Next Time, Cheers!