Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Taste of Wood

Well, no blog last week.  Sorry about that; I had a few too many irons in the fire, and it was what fell off the plate.  That means this week's is extra long, as I have lots of news to report.

Former wine barrels waiting to be filled
Last blog I mentioned that I was going to write about my latest home brew project, Captain Merrill's Strong Ale.  The main reason I decided to brew this particular beer (besides the fact that I like drinking home brew) is to explore the effect that wood-aging has on a beer.  You'd think think that that would be something easy to learn, given that every where you turn, someone is offering a barrel-aged version of this or that brew from their stable of beers.  However, I wanted to study the impact of the wood on the beer, not the impact of the wood AND whatever other alcoholic beverage had previously been stored in the barrel.  Darn few brewers out there use fresh barrels (mainly due to their expense); most choose used bourbon or wine barrels, which can be obtained much more cheaply.  So if I wanted to taste a beer aged on fresh oak, it was easiest to make it myself.

The other reason I decided to brew this beer was that in my experience, to really understand something, you have to do it yourself.  You can read all the books you want about beer and brewing, but if you've never actually made a batch of beer (or at the very least helped someone else brew), you can't really understand what it's all about.

My great great great great great grandfather
So to explore the question of oak and ale, I decided to harken back to our colonial days and craft a beer like that my ancestor, Captain Benjamin Merrill, might have drunk in 1771, prior to his execution for treason by the Royal Governor of the then-colony of North Carolina.  It's a little known part of American history, and one I was never taught about in school, but if you would like to learn more about this prelude to the American Revolution, you could start here.

Since the settlers of North Carolina at this time would still have thought of themselves as British, I decided to use classic English hops, East Kent Goldings and Fuggles, and an English yeast, White Labs Dry English Ale Yeast (WLP007).  For specialty malts, the only thing I used was some Crystal 120L, which gave the beer a lovely dark ruby color.  My target was about 8% ABV, and after three weeks of primary fermentation, I racked the beer to a secondary to start the wood aging.  I used three ounces of medium toast American oak cubes and left the beer on them for eight weeks before bottling.  After two more weeks to condition in the bottle, I was ready to give it a try.

Captain Merrill's Strong Ale poured a lovely deep ruby color with  a nice cream-colored head.  The aroma was primarily from the oak aging; hop aroma was pretty non-existent.  On the palate there was good carbonation and a nice mouthfeel, with the oaky notes very prominent and good balance between the malt and hops.  The finish was long and pretty dry, inviting another taste.  I was very pleased with the end result, both as an experiment to study the impact of wood on a beer absent any other alcoholic flavors and as a successful batch of home brew that was very enjoyable to drink.  Here's to you, Captain Merrill!

Moving on to beer news, Midnight Sun in Anchorage is gearing up for their 17th Annual Anniversary Celebration at The Loft this Saturday, April 28th.  They will be tapping a keg of Wolf Spirit Sparkling Ale at 11:00 am; this is a recreation of the first beer that they brewed, which was tapped at the Haines Beer Fest all those many years ago.  Congratulations to Barb, Mark, and the rest of the crew; wish I could be there for the festivities!

I also have some information on upcoming Midnight Sun releases.  This year they are not doing a new "series", such as they have in the past.  Instead, they are doing a Ten Most Wanted, bringing back the ten most popular beers from previous series.  So when you recognize some of the names below, you'll know why.  Here's what I got from Darcy Kniefel, who's now managing The Loft:

Brandie's Panties aka Panty Peeler Tripel Aged in Brandy Barrels: "One of our top selling beers gets a lift from the brandy barrels.  This sold out FAST last summer so we are looking to bottle some up this year.  Tasting this by end of May, we reserve the right to keep it aging if the brandy barrels tell us to do so."

Berserker Imperial Stout: "Rolling out in June, we will have draught and bottle of this Imperial Stout available."

Brewtality: "This was Head Brewer Jeremiah Boone's Brew back when we did the Brew Crew Series and it is back with a vengeance.  This Espresso Black Bier expected to roll in June, bottles and draught."

Sex Machine: "Sour Brown for James Brown will roll out in July.  This is coming in from our Funk Tank Series.  Expect a disco ball extravaganza to bring on the funk!"

New Black: "Tops on the list of most requested returns, this Belgian Dark Strong aged with Brett and black currants had a taste like no other. September is our expected due date on this yum."

Oaked Son of Berserker: "The second running of Berserker Imperial Stout is currently sitting in oak barrels to age up, we should have this out in time for Autumn sipping in September."

Also on the Anchorage front, La Bodega has completed its move from University Center and is now open at the new E. Benson location (right next to Cafe Amsterdam).  One of the benefits of their new place is that now they have space for a growler bar!  Here's their initial line-up of beers, ciders, and mead available:

Kodiak Island Snowshoe Pale Ale
Midnight Sun Oak-Aged T.R.E.A.T.
Sleeping Lady Cherry Grand Cru
King Street IPA
Kenai River Gummi Bear Tripel
Ommegang BPA
De Proef Broederlijke
Green Flash Hop Head Red
Konigshaven Quadruple
Celestial Meadery Razzery
Angry Orchard Apple Cider
Spire Apple Cider

Owner Pamela Hatzis does ask that you bring a clean growler and a cap, as they have not yet received their shipment of La Bodega growlers.

I got an email from another blogger, Jason; he write The Frugal Dad blog.  He had a recent post on beer and food pairing that included a nice infographic.  Check it out here.

Alaskan Brewing has announced that they will be "exporting" their Rough Draft series outside of Alaska for the first time, by sending them to select bars in the Pacific Northwest.  The first beer to be offered will be their Free Ride American Pale Ale. Click here for the complete press release.

Here on the Kenai, Odie's Deli on the Sterling Highway in Soldotna is now serving beers from Kassik's Brewery and Kenai River Brewing Company, as well as wine and hard cider.  They have five taps, two for each of the local breweries and the fifth for the cider, plus cans of Sunken Isle IPA and Skilak Scottish from Kenai River.  Now that they've got their beer and wine license, Odie's is beefing up their evening schedule with Pub Quiz Trivia every Wednesday night from 6 to 8 PM.  The entry fee is $5 for a team of up to four people and the winning team takes home all the fees.  Pub Trivia Night is a long-standing tradition in many British pubs, so I'm happy to see it getting going here in Soldotna!

Friday nights at Odie's will be live music night, with bands playing from 6 to 8:30 pm.  They will be serving food until 8 all summer long, and once a month there will be a five course set menu dinner, cooked by the talented Chef Joel DeLong.  Look for the dinners to start including beer pairings soon.  The next one is this Saturday, April 28th and costs $40. 

OK, let's do some reviews:

Brasserie Dupont's Posca Rusitca: Since their Saison Dupont is one of my top five or six all-time favorite beers, I was expecting quite a lot from the beer, and it did not disappoint.  The cork released with a loud pop, before pouring a very clear gold in the glass with a huge white head.  The aroma was classic Dupont house yeast -- earthy, spicy, unmistakable, at least to me-- plus spices and floral hops.  The beer description would seem to indicate that no hops are used, just spices and herbs, but I sure seem to taste some in it.  Actually, it seemed very similar to Saison Dupont, though perhaps a little spicier and it had the same wonderfully dry finish.  Overall, another excellent beer from an absolutely classic Belgian farmhouse brewery.  I wouldn't hesitate to pick up a bottle if the saison is unavailable or just for a change of pace.  8% ABV.

Another brew I picked up during my last Anchorage trip: Imperial Gemini Ale from Southern Tier Brewing in New York state.  Southern Tier has been producing some extremely impressive beers lately, so it's become SOP for me to snag any new one I see.  This particular brew is a blend of two of their beers: 50% unfiltered Hoppe and 50%  Unearthly.  I haven't had either yet, so I can't really speak as to which contributes what to Gemini,  but the end result is pretty darn good.

Gemini poured a nice copper color with an off-white head that left excellent lacing on the glass.  The aroma was classic Pacific Northwest hops and a check of the label indicated that they were all in there: Amarillo, Centennial,Cascade, Chinook, & Columbus. On the palate the bitterness was assertive but not excessive; this beer is quite hoppy but not a total hop bomb.  It hides its 9% ABV quite well, and I had no trouble finishing the 22 oz bottle by myself.  Another very nice brew from Southern Tier; I'm very happy that we're seeing their brews up here in Alaska.

The final brew I purchased in Anchorage was a bottle of Old Tom Strong Ale, brewed by Robinson Family Brewers, located in Stockport, UK.  Stockport is in the northwest of England, just southeast of Manchester.  Old Tom is a classic British Strong or Old Ale, and one I had never had the opportunity to try before, despite living in the UK for three years, so I wasted no time in grabbing a bottle.  Beside the original Old Tom, which has been brewed to the same recipe since 1899, there were two other versions available, one brewed with chocolate and one brewed with ginger.  Being something of a traditionalist, I stuck to the original version.

Old Tom poured a lovely deep ruby color, semi-translucent, with a small, cream-colored head.  The aroma is very complex, with elements of wood, dark fruits, and caramel malt.  All the same elements are pleasant on the palate, giving it a real sherry-like flavor.  I can see how this brew has become to be such a classic example of this style; it was absolutely fabulous.  If you like British ales, I strongly recommend you give Old Tom a try if you can.

Drift Wood Old Ale
Finally, let's look at a couple of local brews.  St. Elias Brewing has Drift Wood Old Ale currently on tap. I wrote about it in my last blog.  Here's a full review:

As you can see from the photo, Drift Wood pours a dark chestnut color with a tan head.  The aroma is slightly tart, with malty notes.  The tartness continues on the palate, with a very complex taste, including wood, cherries, and caramel.  The carbonation is nice, and the mouthfeel is good.  This brew is very refreshing and quite drinkable for an Old Ale at 7.5%.  Another delicious if slightly serendipitous brew from Zach Henry at St. Elias.

Over at Kenai River Brewing, they have have M.I.T.H. (Monks In The Hood) Dubbel on tap.  This is an unusual blend of Belgian Abbey Style with American hops.  It poured a dark amber with a small, fast-dissipating tan head.  The Mt. Hood hops announced their presence in the nose, along with the classic Belgian yeast spiciness.  On the palate there were raisins, plums, plenty of hop bitterness, and some other spicy notes.  Overall, I'm not sure the American hops really worked here; they seemed a little too brash for the subtler dubbel flavors, but that's more a matter of personal taste, I'd guess.  M.I.T.H. weighs in at 6.8% and is well-worth trying to see what you think of it.

Well, that's it for this time around.  Get out and enjoy the sun and drink some good craft beer.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Getting Ahead of the Game

I'm going to be pretty busy toward the end of this week with some big events at work, so I thought I'd try to get this week's blog out a little early.

Alaskan Brewing has announced that they have a great deal of new apparel available in their web store.  You can find it here.

I mentioned this in my last blog, but to reiterate: La Bodega will be closed until Friday, 20 April, for the move to their new location, right next to Cafe Amsterdam on Benson.  They had a big moving sale last weekend, so hopefully people in Anchorage got to take advantage of that.  I'm very much looking forward to seeing their new digs.

Kassik's Brewery will be featured at a three-course beer dinner at the Sitzmark Restaurant of the Alyeska Resort this Sunday, April 15th, from 7 to 10 pm.  Chef Jason Porter will be creating the food, and Kassik's will be providing the beer.  Price is $39 per person and you must be 21 or older to attend.  Find further info here.

Kenai River Brewing reports that their Gummi Bear Tripel is sold out.  It only lasted about ten days, which is a real tribute to its popularity. To replace it, this Friday will see the release of M.I.T.H (Monks In The Hood) Dubbel, a 6.8% Belgian abbey ale using M.t Hood hops, brewed by assistant brewer Cory.  Also, look for their Falconer's Flight Single Hop IPA to be on soon.

Cask -conditioned Brass Monkey ESB

At St. Elias Brewing, last Friday was First Firkin Friday, so I made a point to stop by and have a couple of pints of their Brass Monkey ESB from the cask.  Pulled via their hand pump, the pint had that wonderful creamy carbonation that only cask conditioning can provide, plus some added hoppiness from the East Kent Goldings used to dry hop it.  The whole experience was so wonderful (and my buddy Tom was buying) that I just had to have another as soon as I had finished the first one.  I'd say that's pretty much the definition of a session beer...

Now that Vanilla Bean Porter is gone, Zach Henry has put a new beer on tap: Drift Wood Old Ale.  Here's what he had to say about it: "This style recalls the type of beer brewed before the Industrial Revolution, stored for months or years in unlined wooden vats.  The beer would pick up a tart character from wild yeasts and tannins in the woods.  Ours aged in oak barrels over a year, where complex flavors of sweet malt and oak work together with tart fruity nuances to produce a wonderfully complex Old Ale."  I got to taste a small sample a few ago ; it's delicious.

Zach also reports that he's dosed several of his barrels with brettanomyces, so we can look forward to some new and funky brews over the next few months.

That more or less covers the news, so let's hit a couple of reviews.

There's a new brew on sale at Fred Meyer from Ninkasi Brewing Company of  Eugene, Oregon.  Their ReNewAle 2012 Porter, 5.9% ABV and 35 IBUs, is available in both 22 oz bombers and six-packs.  I picked up one of the former to give it a try.  It poured completely opaque, with a nice khaki head. The nose was of bittersweet chocolate, with some hops aroma around the edges.  There was good mouthfeel, with more chocolate flavors, balance by roast malt and hop bitterness, making for a rich and fairly complex taste.   Overall, this is a nice example of a robust porter. Next time around, I think I'll grab a six-pack.

Finally, I had a bottle of Alameda Brewing's Bad Bunny Imperial Cream Ale that a friend brought back from Portland, Oregon.  An Imperial Cream Ale is a bit on an oxymoron as a style, since Cream Ales are typically around 5%, not the 8.2% of this beer.  Still, these days anything can be made "Imperial"; just ratchet up the alcohol level.  Heck, I've even seen an Imperial Mild, and if there's any style which should never be "imperialized", it's that one.

Anyway, this Bad Bunny poured a slightly cloudy gold with a nice white head.  The aroma was of Saaz hops and some fruity ale notes.  Good malt backbone, with some creaminess from the use of flaked maize, and a good amount of bitterness for balance.  A bit unusual in its flavor profile and strength, but still quite enjoyable.  Worth looking up if you find yourself in the Portland area.

Well, that's about it for this week.  I should have some more beers of interest to talk about in my next blog, including my latest home brew, Captain Merrill's Strong Ale.

Until Next Time, Cheers!

Friday, April 6, 2012

Big News

Those of you who actually bother to read this blog to the bitter end have probably been wondering about the cryptic reference to "an exciting piece of news" that I made two weeks ago.  It's taken longer than I thought to lock down the details but here it is at last:

Kevin R. Tubbs, the long-time Alaska Correspondent for the Northwest Brewing News and author of its "Ales on Top of the World" column, is stepping down, and I have been asked to take his place, starting with the June/July issue.  This is very exciting for me and more than a bit scary, as Kevin will be leaving me some very big shoes to fill.  Still, this will hopefully give me even more chances to do one of my favorite things, write about craft beer in Alaska.  By the way, if you aren't subscribed to the Brewing News, you really ought to give it some serious consideration...

On the national beer front, New Belgium Brewing has announced that its hew East Caost brewery will be in Asheville, NC. It will be a 200-bbl brewhouse, with an annual production of 400,00 barrels.  Construction will start next year, with the brewery slated to go on-line in 2015.  By choosing Asheville, they are following in the footsteps of Sierra Nevada Brewing, which announced earlier this year that they would be building their new brewery there.  Looks like Asheville may be finally earning its much-disputed title as the "Best Beer Town in the U.S."

La Bodega in Anchorage will be having a Moving Sale this Friday and Saturday.  It's 5% off everything in the store, buy 6 bottles of beer or wine and get 10% off, buy 12 22 oz or larger bottles of beer and get 15% off, buy 12 bottles of wine and get 15% off, and all sake/liquor is 20% off!  It's a great chance to stock up.  La Bodega will be closed for their big move to their new location starting on Easter Sunday.  They hope to be open for business again on Friday, April 20th.

Last Friday, Kenai River Brewing released their eagerly-awaited Gummi Bear Tripel.  I'm told Friday and Saturday were the two busiest days the brewery has seen, ever!  That's pretty impressive.  There is big demand for this unique brew.  For example, it will be on offer at the Taste of Alaska Beer Festival on Saturday, April 21st at The Pub on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.  It's 6 to 10 pm, $30 in advance or $35 at the door.

A week later, Kenai River and several other breweries will also be pouring at the 2nd Annual Beer & Mead Social, being held at the Tap Root in Anchorage on April 28th. There will be two session, noon to 3 PM and 4 to 7 PM. Participants will have the opportunity to sample beer, mead, and spirits from Alaska’s best breweries, meaderies, and distilleries, and to discuss the finer points of the libations. Participants will also receive a custom souvenir 6.5 oz glass that they can take home, and 15 tickets each good for a 3 oz pour at any of the participating vendor booths. There will also be food for all ticket holders. A portion of this event’s profits will be donated to Green Star Inc., a local non-profit organization that helps businesses develop green initiatives in the workplace.  You can purchase tickets by clicking here, and see the poster below for a complete list of breweries.

Click to enlarge

Oh, and the next Single Hop IPA that I forgot last week?  Well, no wonder I forgot, since it's not really a single hop!  It will be brewed with Falconer's Flight, the proprietary hop blend from Hop Union.  Should be very interesting.

Moving on to St. Elias Brewing Company, this Friday is First Firkin Friday.  Stop by and get some delicious Brass Monkey ESB on cask from their hand pump.  This style of beer was created to be served from the cask, so this is your chance to experience it as it was meant to be served.

I don't get over there often enough, but Hooligan's Lodge in Soldotna has some very interesting brews from Alaskan Brewing on tap.  I hear they've got both Ghost Town Brown and Fresh Hop ESB, from Alaskan's Rough Draft series, on tap.  You can only find these Rough Drafts at a couple of places outside Juneau, like Humpy's & Cafe Amsterdam in Anchorage, so we're lucky to have the chance to try them right here in Soldotna.

Let's move on to some reviews:

"Borrowed" from KRB's Facebook page
First up, Kenai River's Gummi Bear Tripel.  If you drink this beer expecting to taste gummi bears, I'm sorry to disappoint you.  The only gummi bear "flavor" you're likely to find is if you eat the candy that the folks at the Kenai River Taproom like to garnish glasses with.  It stands to reason I guess; the candies are pretty much pure sugar, so once they go into the boil...

Regardless, the beer poured a lovely orange-gold, with a small, fast-dissipating  white head.  The aroma is the classic earthy, spicy notes that I always associate with Belgian yeast, followed by a slight bit of alcohol (not surprising since it's 9+% ABV), and some hop.  On the palate it's not too heavy or boozy, but fairly dry, with some good bitterness and a long, nice finish.  It's a very well-executed tripel, right up there with Midnight Sun's Panty Peeler or any of the other American takes on this classic Belgian style.

Click to enlarge

Speaking of Belgian beers, I tried a new one: Hop Ruiter Blonde Ale, from De Scheldebrouwerij, in the town of Turnhout,  NE of Antwerp, near the Dutch border. Stylistically, this is a Belgian Strong Golden Ale, like Duvel.  It poured the beautiful clear gold with the massive rocky white head that is typical of the style.  The aroma was bright with delicious hop aroma (Styrian Goldings?) and notes from the Belgian yeast.  On the palate, the beer was almost effervescent from the excellent carbonation, and had good bitterness backed with plenty of hop flavor.  A truly excellent beer, as good as (or dare I say better?) than the style-defining Duvel.  If you like the Strong Golden Ale style, this one is worth seeking out. I found my bottle at La Bodega in Anchorage.

Click to enlarge
While at La Bodega, I also picked up a bottle of Ommegang Brewing's Witte.  This brewery always does a great job on their Belgian-style brews, though not always in expected ways.  Case it point, Witte poured a crystal clear gold with a nice white head, rather than the cloudy straw color of a traditional Belgian wit.  The aroma was of coriander and citrus, along with spicy Belgian yeast notes.  The body was light with good carbonation and a nice balance of the flavor elements.  It's not spectacular but it's very refreshing.  It would be just the thing after mowing the lawn on a hot summer day.

Finally, I dipped into some of the plunder from my SoCal trip in February and opened my bottle of The Bruery's Saison De Lente.  I've never been disappointed in a beer from this brewery, and Saison De Lente was no exception.  It poured a slightly cloudy orange-gold with a huge white head.  The aroma immediately confirmed the presence of brettanomyces, with the characteristic barnyard funk, mingling with some citrusy hop aromas.  Carbonation was fantastic, and the beer was nice and dry on the palate, which is how I like my saisons, backed up by a touch of funky tartness from the brett.  Overall, this beer reminded me of a Saison Dupont, with a touch of brett.  Since I consider Saison Dupont to be the benchmark for the style and one of the top ten beers in the world, this is high praise from me.  I just wish we could get these beers here in Alaska.  Hand-importing them from the Lower 48 is getting to be a drag...

Well, that's about it for this week.  Enjoy your spring if you live Outside and try not to get flooded by Break Up, if you're an Alaskan like me.

Until Nest Time, Cheers!