Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Whale A Week: Three Floyds Dark Lord 2012

Now in my second year, A Whale A Week is my challenge to try (with an array of beer loving friends) a rare beer for every week of the year.  Last year I had a great time with this and have continued it for 2016.  Not every beer will be a truly "white whale" beer, but all are hard to find and a treat to try!

Three Floyds Brewing Dark Lord 2012 Vintage

This week we point our attention to a famous brewery from Indiana, Three Floyds!  Located in the small border town of Munster, the brewery started up way back in 1996.  They have grown and become quite famous for their "Its Not Normal" style beers.  I've had the pleasure of getting to the brewpub where it all started a few times now.  The tour was nothing special, but the beers and the food were fantastic!  Each time I went, there was a big line outside 45 minutes to an hour before they opened, so plan accordingly.  The brewery vibe is very Heavy Metal and irreverent, surely influencing other breweries such as Surly here in Minnesota.  In fact Surly and Three Floyds have done a couple of collaboration beers such as Urine Trouble, Baller Stout, and Blakkr.

Dark Lord is the brewery's most famous beer.  This is a big 15% ABV Russian Imperial stout brewed with coffee (Intelligentsia) and Mexican vanilla.  Available in bottle since 2004, the beer is released only one day of the year--Dark Lord Day--at the brewery.  This day has become an epic event with people camping out and traveling across the country to take part in the festivities and get a few bottles of this rare beer.  My friends Rob and Ron of Limited Release actually recorded the 2012 festivities for their show and I've linked it to the bottom of this post if you want to see what this is all about!  Oh and Rob brought me the bottle we are tasting for this Whale A Week from that excursion.  Thanks Rob!  Dark Lord is rated 95 on Beer Advocate and 100 on RateBeer and is much hoarded and traded.  I first tried a bottle of this shared by Chris German of BSG at a Jack Of All Brews event held in his home brewery--perhaps around 2009?  For me that was one of the best beers I had ever had up to that point and it became my unattainable White Whale--until I got to try it again in 2012!

For this tasting we gathered up the largest group I've ever used in one of these tastings--our entire group of Jack Of All Brews officer's--during our 2016 planning meeting.  Things got a little chaotic!
Eric Wenting: Me! BJCP National ranked judge, homebrewer for over 25 years, stout fiend.  Sarajo Wentling: My tolerant wife.  Tyrone Babione: BJCP judge, writer for BSG.  Annette Babione: BJCP judge, knitter extraordinaire.  Joe Lushine: Homebrewer, guy who hates judging beers.  Shawn Wischmeier: Judge, homebrewer, beer hoarder.  Steven Mathistad: Homebrewer, craft beer lover.  While reading the bottle we saw Cyrillic writing on the bottle and Tyrone managed to translate it visually with a cool app on his phone--we were all blown away by this seemingly magical effect!

We cut off the thick red wax on the bottle with The Hopsecutioner (my battle axe shaped heavy steel opener made by my blacksmith friend Martin Pansch).  The bottle opened with only a small fizzing sound.  The beer was poured into a group of waiting snifter glasses for our expectant crowd.

Aroma: In which our party get ready for an complex and sweet beer.

Eric: Dark, dark chocolate.  Deep dark candied cherry is strong.  Vanilla notes.  Hint of roast.  Very sweet smelling and sugary.  Slight oxidation (papery) as warms up.  Raisins.  No hops.
Annette: Dark Chocolate, cherry, toasty coffee, wood (oak) drifts lazily.  Smells like the syrup you wish you could have on a pile of pancakes.  Hint of soy sauce.
Joe: Malt forward.  Small hint of hops. Soy sauce.
Steven: Slight smokiness.  Raisin.  Wet cardboard.  No hop aroma.
Shawn: Chocolate, raisin, molasses.  Deep malty aroma.  Sherry or port-like aroma--like an aged English barleywine (Thomas Hardy's).
Tyrone: Black strap molasses entices one's nostrils deeper into a dark pit--a siren song beckoning those who have only known the light to disappear into darkness.  Sweet songs of perfumed pit fruits, plums and dark cherries, mask the forbidden.  A slight oxidative note warns of old warlock magic ahead...

Appearance: In which our explorers bemoan the lack of head...

Eric: Deep brown to nearly black in color.  Hint of ruby highlights at edge of glass so it isn't completely opaque.  Very fine light tan head fades quickly to a ghost.
Annette: Black in color.  Opaque.  No head.  Rings around edge with little lacing.
Joe: Opaque.  Hint of red.
Steven: No head.  Very dark brown.
Shawn: Dark, opaque.
Tyrone: Dark brown center--absolute clarity with bright orange halo framing the edges.  No head or noticeable carbonation.

Flavor: In which fruit and fortified wine notes cavort across our palates, and Tyrone gets even weirder...

Eric: Holy chocolate covered cherry!  Bourbon-like vanilla notes.  Very very sweet.  Not much roast to this.  Hint of hop flavors.  Alcohol is present but not hot.  Smooth finish but borders on cloying for me.  Dark cocoa.  Not picking up coffee.  Raisin and dried cranberry as it warms up leading to a tartness and a sherry-like oxidation.  Almost no carbonation accentuates the syrupy thick mouthfeel.
Annette: Chocolate cherry that feels heavy but drinks light.  The choco/cherry syrup coats delightfully.  A light bittering compliments the malt and sweet notes.
Joe: Very sweet.  Low bitterness.  Caramel flavor.  Thick!  Maybe a hint of oxidation.
Steven: Plum.  Very sweet.  Doesn't taste like 15%!
Shawn: Same raisin, molasses, dark malt as aroma.  Sherry-like flavors.  Grain bill a bit too much, even for a RIS.  Bordering too malty, giving a strong, overly malty finish.  Flat profile.
Tyrone: Chewy Fig Newton drops a juicy load in the puckering back pockets of my mouth.  A sweet almost golden raisin-like sweetness comes close to making the intrepid hero torn away--until it washes away in a smooth finish, calling him back to his heroine siren.

Overall: In which we all need some water...

Eric: Smoother than I remember it, but it has been a few years!  Still very sweet. The chocolate covered cherry flavor is unreal and more spectacular than most actual cherry beers I've had.  Almost tastes barrel aged due to the oxidation and vanilla.  I gave this a 4.5, but ended up dropping to 4.25 because the finish was so sweet.
Annette: Delicious!  While this could have gone the way of cough syrup, it instead was a beverage best served over ice cream.  The coffee, chocolate, and cherry notes blend nicely with the hop bittering--mixing perfectly.  4.2
Joe: Good beer.  A little out of balance toward the malt for my taste.  Is a little cloyingly sweet to start but finishes surprisingly dry.  3.5
Steven: Smooth, medium body.  Very enjoyable.  4.25
Shawn: Exceptional balance in ingredients.  Aging improved the beer a lot and gave way to sherry-like character.  Beer has a bit too much specialty malt character, however, to be excellent.  Alcohol warmth is very appropriate.  The aroma was my favorite part of the beer.  4.25
Tyrone: The Dark Lord rises from the syrup molasses swamp.  He trudges through a thicket of crushed and fermented figs, dates and prunes rain from broken branches and trunks; his skin stained with the crushed souls of raisins.  4.75
Sarajo: It fell a little flat for me.  3.5

Overall Score: 4.1

Below is the Limited Release episode for Dark Lord Day 2012!

Photo info: This week I took a close up of the bottle label and superimposed it with Photoshop Elements over a macro shot of a Warhammer chaos warrior miniature I painted back in my teens.  I thought it was "metal" enough!
Also I created a new Whale A Week intro photo using one of my only watercolor paintings (the other one was stupidly given to a girl) from about 1993.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Brau Brothers Brewing!

Not long ago my wife (Sarajo) and I took a field trip to the far and distant land of Marshall, MN to visit one of the more venerable craft breweries in the state--Brau Brothers Brewing Co.  I live in Waconia (a far far western suburb of Minneapolis) and Marshall is about a 2 hour and 15 minute drive (mostly) west of us--getting close to the South Dakota border.  No man's land.  This fine winter day, we warmed up the car and headed out over the frozen windswept tundra of Hoth Western Minnesota.  The car's windows creaked with the cold and dry gusts scattered granular snow in small drifts across the winding country roads before us.  The car's thermometer topped out at negative 13 degrees F along our frigid trek.  A thankfully bright sun warmed us inside the frosted windows of our vehicle, rainbow hued sun dogs shimmering in the air to each side of it in a miraculous fashion.

Across an abandoned wintry scene more reminiscent of a bleak desert, we wound our way through the countryside, snow crusted farms and fallow dune-like fields speeding by our windows.  Occasionally, we would have to jerk the car into the oncoming narrow lane to avoid an especially large snow drift.  This was truly remote, yet the hostile environment had a sort of wicked and pastoral beauty to it.  Finally, we entered the outskirts of Marshall, a larger city than I expected, with a population over 13,000.  Civilization at last!  We followed our trusty GPS to the "new" site of Brau Brothers.

A little history lesson before we continue.  Dustin and Mary Brau (along with help from his two brothers) started in 1999, opening a small brewpub called the BrauHaus in Lucan, a town with a population of just over 300 souls.  These guys were truly pioneers of craft brewing at the time.  With just a handful of breweries in Minnesota at the time (Schells, Summit, Town Hall, Great Waters, Fitgers, to name a few) starting a brewpub in the world's tiniest town was a bold move.  They continued on for a while, but in around mid-2000's with craft beer starting to "grow up" in the state they decided to expand into a true production brewery in order to supply beer to the budding tastes of the Metro area.  In 2006 they opened their larger brewery in Lucan and began packaging beer for us Minnesotans who were thirsty for a change.  I remember first trying the beer at a wine and beer event at the Arboretum (mainly wine at the time with just a couple of breweries involved.)  The Brau family were there in force, sampling their beers and trying to educate the palates of all those wine drinkers!  I loved the folks and enjoyed the beers, making a note to keep an eye on their progress.  A few years later, Sarajo and I were at a small beer dinner at the now defunct Pairings and got to talk with Dustin and Mary Brau quite a bit over some amazing food and great beers.

As the craft beer scene has continued to grow dramatically, the Braus have also continued to grow.  Their growth has been steady and sustainable, unlike some of the huge exponential growth of some of the bigger regional breweries in the state (Surly, Summit).  Taking advantage of their rural location, the brewery location in Lucan hosts its own hop yard--providing fresh hops for the seasonal IPA 100 Yard Dash--as well as its own barley fields.  In 2012 it was time to expand the brewery's footprint, and to get a bit closer to a larger city in order to capitalize on taproom and food sales.  The Braus bought a huge old Runnings (off-brand Fleet Farm for you city folk) building at the outskirts of town and starting brewing on a slightly larger scale.

Snapped with my phone and frostbitten fingers...

Here's where we come in!  Bundled against the bitter cold, dodging angry wampas and frozen tauntaun carcasses along the way, we made our way into the enormous building.  Within, I was struck immediately with just how massive the place really is!  Crazy high ceilings, girders, and either insulation or sound-baffling line the roof.  Across from the entrance is a small area filled with Brau Brothers swag (shirts, tin tacker signs, glassware, etc.)  But once you fully enter the space, the center point to the taproom comes into glorious view!  The 1956 Lucan firetruck that Dustin Brau used to fight fires on sits behind the long brick-fronted, stainless steel bar.  Even this large red firetruck is dwarfed by the available space in the taproom!  The serving taps actually come right out of the side of the truck, with restaurant storage available in the back of it.  This is an incredibly cool feature for a taproom and really makes it stand out.  Several large booths, high-tops, and regular sized tables provide copious amounts of seating around the taproom space.  We were there on a Sunday afternoon and the place wasn't especially busy, but they have space for large events if needed.  We met up there with our friends Tyrone and Annette Babione--fresh from helping out at a beer festival in Mankato--and quickly ordered some beers.  The taproom was a bit chilly, but frankly this wasn't surprising considering the outdoor temp.  Our server was a young guy, fairly new at the place but helpful and earnest, getting us our beers quickly and without fuss.

We were all excited that Dustin Brau himself was kind enough to come in on this Sunday to give us a personal tour of the place!  First he took us into the spacious brewery proper, pointing out their 1995 15 barrel brew system, rescued from a long-closed brewery in Richmond, VA.  "This isn't exactly a Cadillac system, but we've learned how to make it work for us," Dustin remarked as he told us the story.  The floor in the brewery had to be built up in order to provide drains for overflow, so you have to take a big step up when entering the brewery floor.  It was a bit chilly back there, and I wished I had not left my coat back at the booth!

Dustin Brau showing off the brewery!

Next we took a trip into the even cooler barrel storage room.  I believe they put out their first sour beer last year, and have been working at creating a small sour and barrel aging program for the brewery since.  Sealed off from the regular beers, this room was filled with several used barrels, most filled with slowly souring beer.  I'm a huge sour-head so this program gets me interested!  Surprisingly, Dustin commented about how quickly the locals took to the sour beer and wanted more when it was gone!

Moving on, we checked out the vintage 1975 bottling line.  They really don't make them like this anymore!  We also got to discuss the water treatment used in the brewery.  One thing that sets Brau beers apart from some of the other MN breweries is the fact that they use reverse osmosis water to start and then build up the water salts to suit each beer style they make.  This process apparently started back in Lucan where they had high radon levels in the water and the whole area was forced to do RO water treatment.  I think water and mineral salt control has a huge impact on the final quality of the beer--after all beer is over 90% water!

Dustin spent quite a bit of time with us, showing off all the nooks and crannies of this enormous brewery space.  We saw the small lab area, the label machine, the basketball hoop (yup this place is that big).  Whilst freezing our limbs off, we spent some time hanging out in the walk-in cooler while Dustin cracked open some beers to fill our now-empty glasses.  It was still balmy compared the outside temps!

Once the epic tour was over, we all settled into a large booth in the taproom and ordered some much needed food.  The menu is extensive and features a lot of locally raised bison.  I ordered a house cured pastrami sandwich that was quite good, but could have used a sturdier bun.  The hand cut fries were great and they also had sweet potato tater tots!

While waiting on our food, I tasted through much of the beer line-up.  Here are my bullet-point reviews.  I rate on a scale of 0-5 with 3 being standard OK beer, 4 I'll actively seek out, and 5 I'll hoard.

1) Bohemian Pils--Light straw color.  Up front noble hopping.  Hint of DMS.  Crisp and drinkable.  3.5

2) Quad--Belgian strong ale.  Lighter in color than expected--more of a light amber.  Slightly hazy.  A bit boozy with a candy-like sweetness. Ends dry and a touch astringent.  I like this now but would love to try with 6 months of aging! 4

3) ESB--Bread, hint of caramel, hop bitterness well balanced.  Very nice and comforting.  4.25

4) White Cap--Belgian Wit with orange peel and coriander.  Spices certainly present without being overwhelming.  Mild Belgian yeast character.  A very summery beer--way better than Blue Moon. 3.75

5) D'thai--A lager made with Thai Jasmine rice.  Slightly fruity aroma.  Very light in color.  Brisk, hoppy, crisp and wonderful.  Anyone could (and should) drink this beer--even your craft beer hating neighbors.  4.25

6) Bancreagie--Scotch ale with peated malt.  Aroma of peat fire smoke.  Flavor is sweetish, but ends dry.  Smoky flavor but not overwhelming.  Mellow compared to the last time I had this (2 years ago).  A bit fruity as it warms up.  3.75

7) Old 56--Named after the fire truck, this is the beer aimed at non-craft beer drinkers. Some corn flavor.  Bright, very light (lite?) but actually has some grain flavors.  A very good light beer option.  I'd drink this over PBR or Coors any day. Very nice dry finish. 4

8) Bourbon Oak ESB on cask--Hint of tartness.  Oak is too strong and astringent.  Bourbon not really present.  Not my favorite, but not terrible.  3

9) Moo Joos--This one is the flagship milk stout.  Sweet, roast, coconut.  Hint of sweet tart.  Great creamy mouthfeel.  Milk chocolate flavors.  3.75

10) Ring Neck Braun--Brown ale.  Mellow, a bit sweet.  Hint of diacetyl.  3

11) Tiramisu--Version of Moo Joos.  Aroma of coconuts. Flavor is harsh dry cocoa.  Tart finish is off-putting.  2.75

12) Village Tart--A sour!  Aroma is barnyard (but in a good way!) Flavor is tart with some malt flavors to back it up and give body.  Mouthfeel is medium.  A good base sour that cries out for the addition of some fruit! 4

That is a lot of beers to try!  I was excited to see a couple of cask beers, as well as a good mix of lagers and ales.  Overall, I was very impressed with the quality of beer, especially the lagers, which tend to be harder to pull off.  My least favorites were the experimental versions of regular beers--which is often the case with such one-off experiments--but I appreciate them trying new things in the taproom.

Prior to my visit out to the taproom, and the occasional bottle of Moo Joos in The Cities, I had frankly almost forgotten about Brau Brothers.  They were at the forefront of the local craft beer boom in Minnesota, but seemed happy to stick with their rural location, not urgently pushing for more expansion and market share. In a way, this slow growth method is more sustainable and fits with their small town way of life.  Supply the locals.  Send some beer to the Twin Cities.  Do a little contract brewing for some other smaller breweries in MN and South Dakota.  Buy a giant building and grow into it.  I had thought recently (while sipping that Moo Joos at a friend's holiday party) "What ever happened to these guys?"  Now I know, and am quite happy with the progress they have made.  The beer quality is excellent overall, and they seem to be happy with what they are doing.  Dustin seemed as energetic and "into it" as he did back at the start of things.  He has plans for a fully Brau Estate beer made with their own hops and barley, as well as expanding the sour and barrel aging program.  Yes please!

I think it's safe to say that we all had a fantastic time visiting the brewery, and really appreciated the time that Dustin spent with us.  I highly recommend the place for food and beers, but it is a serious trek from the Twin Cities area!

Friday, February 5, 2016

A Whale A Week: Dry Dock Bligh's Barleywine 2013

The lapping of waves against the scarred hull of the ship and the shifting shadows of the sunlight through the sails lulls most into sense of relaxed bliss.  Creaking joists and the incessant rubbing from the rigging ropes keep time with the roll of the deck beneath our hoary bare feet.  Hard and sometimes splintered wood echos quietly underfoot as we sidle across the deck in that classic sailor's waddle.  Ahead is the darkened shade of the hatch to below decks and our prize.  We quietly lower ourselves into the waiting dark, smells of oak, saltwater, dried fish, assail the nose, still better than the unwashed stink of our traveling companions.  There we go.  Aye, our goal is there ahead of us.  Quiet now, for the Captain can not know what we are about...skulking about below in storage when we should be mending sail or swabbing the deck.  There it is, the large keg there on the bottom of the pile.  Inside rests liquid gold, or perhaps more liquid courage--something we will need for the detestable things we must do.  As we fill our wooden cup with this strong and boozy brew we toast silently an end to gathering breadfruit and to that terrible tyrant. We finish, instilled with new vigour, knives pulled and muskets primed.  It is time...

This week we travel (by boat!) to Aurora, Colorado for a rare treat from Dry Dock Brewing Company.  Dry Dock was founded opened in 2005 and has expanded a few times since their humble start as an offshoot of a homebrew shop.

Bligh's Barleywine was the brewery's first barrel aged beer and is a beefed up version of their HMS Bounty Old Ale.  The barleywine is named after the infamous Captain Bligh of the aforementioned HMS Bounty. The first batch came out in 2008 and is released yearly now.  The original recipe was created by co-owner Kevin DeLange and then assistant brewer Jim Denier and the bottles still bear a facsimile of their signatures.  For those who read my blog frequently, or live in the Western Suburbs of Minneapolis, you may recognize the name DeLange:  Kevin's two brothers Peter and Bob recently opened up Waconia Brewing here in the city of the same name!  Small world it seems...  Back to the beer!  The English style barleywine is aged in whiskey barrels for 7 months and released to much applause.  The beer has a 95 score on Beer Advocate and a 99 on Rate Beer.

Bob DeLange brought a bottle of this over to share at a Jack Of All Brews meeting last year and it was quite the hit.  I've been looking forward to doing a write-up on it in a more controlled manner.  We had a Whale A Week alum, Dave Manley over for this one, as well as my usual partner in crime and wife, Sarajo.

Dry Dock Bligh's Barleywine 2013

Aroma: In which Dave makes his O-face...

Eric: Strong toffee, caramelized sugars.  Mild English hopping gives an earthy and light citrus note.  Peanut brittle as warms.  Very sweet and malty smelling.  A bit of paper and tannin as it warms up more.  Not a ton of booze.
Dave: Damn!  Caramel, malt, slight oxidation--the kind that is just right for barleywine.  Love it!  I could just sit and smell this beer, but...I won't...  Not much barrel or bourbon.

Appearance: In which turbid chunks of yeast dance and play...

Eric: Burnished copper to deep amber color.  Despite a careful pour has a lot of yeast floaties in it.  Very wispy off-white head fades quickly to the edge of glass.
Dave: Poured cloudy--like liquid caramel.  Mild carbonation.  Floaties, but I don't mind.

Flavor: No mutiny in our comments here...

Eric: Ohhhhh.  Sweet.  Boozy.  Smooth.  In that order.  Balance is certainly to the sweet side but the hopping balances this enough that the beer isn't cloying.  I get tons of caramel and English toffee.  Mild oak tannin and some sherry notes from either oxidation or barrel.  Marshmallow and vanilla subtle as it warms up.  Slight alcohol warming but not hot at all.  A bit yeasty.  Not a ton of whiskey present.  Mouthfeel medium and mouth coating.  Finish is semi-sweet.
Dave: Malt, slight oxidation.  Creamy/slick mouthfeel--perhaps from the floaties.  Some barrel complexity.  Slightly alcoholic.  Definitely malty sweet.  Slight hops.

Overall: In which Sarajo gives an accurate description of both the beer and her husband...

Eric: A wonderful English barleywine.  I love this style and the whiskey just adds complexity, though fairly subtle compared to some versions--then again this is from 2013 and may have mellowed from fresher.  I'd compare this favorably to Steel Toe Lunker and Pelican Mother of All Storms.  I want to try this one fresh and see what the hopping and booze is like!  4.5
Dave: Enjoyed this quite a bit. 4
Sarajo: Kind of chunky, but sweet and yummy.  4

Overall Score: 4.17

Monday, February 1, 2016

If You Aren't Able, Might As Well Raise Cain

Not long ago, some friends of mine wanted to get together for a weekend afternoon in Minneapolis.  Being the beer geek I am, I suggested trying out the relatively new Able Seedhouse, and everyone was game.  The first I heard of this place was actually a review I saw from fellow blogger Paige Latham on her Alcohol By Volume blog, and I was intrigued right away.

A little history:  The head brewer is Bobby Blasey, a guy with an official American Brewer's Guild diploma under his belt.  The brewery is focused on locally grown grains, and has the goal of malting their own grains in house.  I'm not sure where they are sourcing said grains, but with Rahr malting of Shakopee being a local maltster I'm wondering if that might be the source.  I'm also unclear on what the brewery is doing to roast/kiln these malts.  This involvement in the processing of grains into what will ultimately become beer is a step beyond what anyone else in the state is doing for their beer, with a few exceptions like an upcoming limited release Brau Brothers estate beer.  I actually wish there was more info on the website about what they're doing since I think this is the thing that will distinguish Able from the hoard of other budding (sorry couldn't help it) breweries in the state.

Able Seedhouse + Brewery is located in the Logan Park area of Minneapolis in a somewhat industrial area (I know shocking for a brewery!)  This is not an area I had visited before, and I'm always happy to explore new places in the city.  Unfortunately the temp outside was hanging right around 0 degrees F that day, discouraging wandering around with my camera and dragging my group all over the neighborhood.  We were able to park in a lot right across the street from the brewery--something not always easy to do in Minneapolis.  We bolted across the icy street and into the blessed warmth of the large brick brewery building.

The place is huge, with high ceilings, open spaces, and minimalist design.  The decor is a strange mix of reclaimed or re-purposed materials, and newer spartan furniture.  A small bar sits within the taproom proper, the brewery equipment visible behind and partially cordoned off by a honeycomb patterned wooden screen on one side.  A large white mural with a naturalistic black pattern, possibly mimicking tree rings or seed layers, takes up a wall across from the entrance and provides a nice focal point for the brewery.  Huge windows provided rare and warming sunshine for us chilly travelers, but I'm wondering how bright it might get in summertime.  At least one garage door is placed in the taproom exterior wall that can be opened to provide access to a patio area in warmer months.  Some beautiful long and thick solid plank tables with natural curved lines provide seating, as well as some smaller high-top tables.

Two pleasant and helpful young ladies were serving patrons during our visit and seemed very interested and knowledgeable.  They were serving up the house beers with a few twists for us, as well as cold press coffee for those needing a little kick.  Let's go through the line-up shall we?  I rate beers on a 0-5 scale with 3 being an average beer I'd drink, 4 being a great beer, and 5 being the Holy Grail.

1) House Red: This one is hoppy and a tad astringent.  Hints of dark roast malt?  Seems like a cross between a hoppy west coast amber and an Irish red.  Very clean and dry.  3.75

2) Propers Pub Ale:  Not a bad beer.  Served on nitro.  Has the hop bitterness of an English bitter, but very little hop aroma.  A bit harsh on the finish.  3.5

3) First Light: American IPA.  Sage aroma mixed with tropical fruit/mango rind.  Flavor very similar to aroma, unique.  Very dry with astringent finish. 3.75

4) BLK WLF: 3.7% ABV Stout.  This is very much an Irish dry stout (in the vein of Guinness).  I get a strong roastiness, hint of caramel as it warms.  Very dry, despite addition of lactose.  At first too dry for my taste, but as it warmed up the body seemed to improve.  3.75

5) BLK WLF Neon: This version was mixed with the cold press coffee they have on tap.  Smoother body, sweeter flavor.  Strong fresh cold press coffee aroma and flavor.  This one popped!  I ordered a full glass of this one after my sampler was done.  4.25

6) Two Sparrows infused with Raspberry:  A wheat pale ale.  I didn't like this one. Astringency overpowered the wheat flavors.  Raspberry aroma and flavor were very artificial and medicinal.  The fact that there was no pink or red to the beer tells me that this was likely an extract and not real raspberry.  2

So overall, just one I didn't like, otherwise all were above average.  Everything was cleanly fermented and attenuated.  However, all of the beers really had an overly dry/astringency to them that really only fit stylistically with the stout.  I'm wondering if this is water chemistry related?  I've come across a few other breweries that have the same type of "house flavor" notably Sisyphus.  Insight Brewing used to have this issue, but right after visiting Able we went over there and their beers seem to have gained body and balance since last time I was there.  Might want to check in with them and see what they have done recently...

I give the taproom high marks for vibe, for while its open and somewhat sparse, it has a cleanness of line and decor that appeals.  We had excellent service and decent beers.  I was happy to be able to visit and write them up.  I won't blog about a place under 6 months old if I don't like them, but if I have overall positive things to say I'll jump ahead and do it!  I really want to find out more about what they are doing with the seedhouse!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Lupine Brewing--A Wolf Among Sheep

Recently my wife (Sj) and I took a Sunday drive into Delano to visit the two breweries in town.  You can check out my South Fork Brewing review HERE.  After finishing our beers there, we bundled up against the bitter wind, the last pink light of dusk lighting our way the two blocks to Lupine Brewing Company.  I managed to grab a couple pictures of the exterior before the light completely failed us and the howling tauntaun-killing cold turned my exposed fingers to icicles.

Entering the old 1800's era building we were struck by blessed warmth, mellow lighting forming comfortable pools of yellow radiance around the space.  My first impression was of restfulness, age, and history.  Exposed brick walls added a depth of character, while reclaimed rustic wood from the other half of the building formed the bar and the tops of solid tables scattered about the taproom.  Before we had our coats completely off, one of the owners, Michael Dumas, had handed us a bowl of pretzels and introduced himself to us.  With this warm greeting we were seated at one of those hefty tables.  There were about 8-10 people in the taproom, resulting in a quiet buzz of conversation that was not overly distracting but actually added to the comfortable and relaxed atmosphere.

Not long after getting seated, another of the three owners, Eric Sargent, came over to say hello. I met Eric briefly at All Pints North in Duluth this past summer while he was pouring beers and he seems to be very good at remembering people!  Sj and I sampled through the whole line-up of beers and Eric stopped in a couple more times to see what we thought of them and tell us more about their process and recipes as well as history.  Apparently the building had most recently been a Mexican restaurant and after tearing up several layers of flooring they discovered 1900's birch hardwood floors that now add character to the taproom.  They were also able to recover the original tin ceiling tiles.  I recently talked to Paul Jostwick (owner of the fantastically beer-centric Hollywood Roadhouse) and apparently he was involved in the build-out of that restaurant and was sad to see all those old features covered up.  Here they are again, revealed and used to best effect!  Their 10 barrel brewery equipment had been located in St. Cloud prior to moving to Delano, and they'd been using it there since 2014.  I honestly hadn't realized they'd been brewing that long and had assumed they were contract brewing somewhere.

Here's my quick review of the beers with a rating on 0-5 scale.  3 is average, 4 I'll actively seek out, and 5 worthy of my secret dragon's hoard.

1) Wheat Ale--An American wheat beer.  Easy drinking, clean and well balanced.  Not my favorite style but well crafted. 3.75

2) IPA--Fairly sweet with some caramel notes.  Hint of diacetyl buttery flavor.  This tastes much more like a pale ale than an IPA and just lacks the hop punch in flavor and aroma that I'm looking for.  Still pretty drinkable though. 3

3) Rout Brown Ale--A very flavorful and balanced English brown ale.  Wayyyyyy better than Newcastle.  4

4) Murder of Cranberries--An oatmeal stout with cranberries.  Interesting beer and more subtle than expected.  I've had this before at Hollywood Roadhouse and liked it.  Some oatmeal slickness on the palate helps with the body.  Roasty.  Mild tartness from the cranberry.  3.75

5) UnCayndness Stout--Not bad.  Very subtle chili pepper spice on the finish.  I want more pepper!!  3.5

6) Three Bandits--Locally roasted coffee infused in this stout.  Very strong cold-press coffee flavors dominate this, but the mouthfeel is still full and creamy.  I'm a home coffee roaster and love the freshness of this brew.  Not for the hater of coffee!  My favorite of the night.  4.25

7) Oatmeal Stout--Had a strange Smarties roll candy aroma and flavor that hurt this for me.  Sj described it as Necco Wafers without me even mentioning my thoughts... This one was odd since Lupine proved to me that they can do stouts well (see above!) 3

Lots of dark beers to choose from, perfect for the season!  Overall, I was fairly impressed with the line-up.  While a couple of the beers had some minor flaws or stylistic issues, all of them were drinkable.  The Three Bandits was my favorite for sure and I took home a growler of it for later...

Lupine was a bit of a surprise to us.  We were immediately put at ease and really loved the ambiance and service of the taproom.  The beers weren't too shabby either!  I would highly recommend a visit to the brewery.  I'll be watching what the guys do closely over the next year and hope they continue to try new and interesting things.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

2016 Photochallenge 3: Natural Light Portrait

The end of last year I discovered  This is a small group of photographers who set forth a weekly challenge to other professional and amateur photographers.  What I was drawn to with this weekly assignment is that is pushes you to try new techniques and get out and take pictures on a weekly basis.  I plan on taking part again this year and will also do a quick blog post about each of them.  The rules of the challenge do require that these are new pictures, not from your back catalogue.  With my busy work schedule, I may not be able to get out each week and do this, so I will likely add a few of my older photos on the blog--taking the opportunity to look at the plethora of pictures I've taken and actually do some processing and weeding.

2016 Week 3: Portrait Natural Light

The challenge this week was to do a portrait and use natural light source only.  I'm not going to lie, I have 0 skills in portrait photography.  People?  Why would I take pictures of people?  That's what selfless are for right?  Also this week has bitter cold, overcast, snowy, and not worthy of making my wife go outside for a shoot.  Excuses I know!  However, at the last minute I discovered my cat Willow basking in a rare ray of sunshine in the living room and couldn't pass up the opportunity to catch a few shots before she moved.  

While she looks a little cranky, this still brings out the texture of her fur well.  I only wish I could get rid of the baseboard in the background…

I like this one purely because of the cat-eared shadow in the foreground!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Whale A Week: Sam Adams Utopias 2013

I had meant to have this one over New Years for a special tasting, but my scheduling failed a bit.  So here we go for a bit later in the month!

Samuel Adams Brewing was truly one of the original craft breweries.  The first bottles of the now ubiquitous Boston Lager were sold in 1985 and (like their namesake) were quite revolutionary for the time.  Over the years the brewery has grown exponentially and depending on who you ask is no longer called a craft brewery.  I started drinking beer with Sam Adams cherry wheat as my gateway to craft beer (I can't stomach it now).  What I will say about the brewery is that they continue to put out a ton of new beers in different styles.  I don't love them all, but they still take risks and try new things.  Founder Jim Koch is still very involved in the homebrew community as well.  The brewery put out one of the first "extreme" beers back in the early 1990's with the 19% ABV Triple Bock--shocking the fledgling craft beer world at the time.

Which brings us to our featured beer: Utopias.  This beer held the record for strongest beer for many years clocking in at around 28% ABV.  Utopias began when the brewery started to blend together and attempt barrel aging of the previously mentioned Triple Bock and the Millenium.  Currently the beer is a blend of beer and maple syrup aged in a mix of bourbon, port, Scotch, and cognac barrels.  Some of the barrels used are up to 19 years old according the web site!  Utopias comes out in very limited batches every 2 years and is one of the most expensive beers out there--usually going for over $200 a bottle.  The resulting precious concoction is very strong and uncarbonated, served from a beautiful ceramic vessel shaped like a copper brewing kettle.

It took me years to get a taste of this elusive beer.  The first time was in 2012, when a sweet little elf left a bottle under the Christmas tree for me.  This was a special off-year bottling that marked the 10 year anniversary of the beer.  I'll be writing that one up later this year!  I then got to partake of a bottle of Moonlight Meadery's Utopian--a strong honey wine aged in used Utopias barrels--that was also stellar.  I was once again shocked to find a new vintage waiting for me under the tree in 2013.  I have a wonderful wife by the way...  This vintage was the first to include some of the sour beer mother (Kosmic Mother Funk) that Samuel Adams has been using in their large bottle Belgian and sour program.  We had the good fortune to run into a group of the brewery's barrel room staff at a small pub in Belgium a few years ago and they told us a bunch about this process while sipping amazing Belgian lambic beers.  Since then they have actually released a special KMF Grand Cru of just that beer--I still need to try it!

As usual for this Whale A Week tasting I invited over some knowledgeable friends to help out.  Our cast of characters was:
Me (Eric Wentling)--BJCP National ranked beer judge, homebrewer for over 20 years.
Kevin Meintsma--Also a beer judge, award winning homebrewer (in fact he got to brew a beer with Mike Hoops at Town Hall this past year!)
Dan Beaubien--Craft beer geek, fellow beer blogger for Beerploma.
Sarajo Wentling--My wife who gets to try all the beers, especially when she buys them for me...

Samuel Adams Utopias 2013

Eric: Port wine, cream sherry, cherry.  Alcohol is strong--like a fortified wine.  Fresh plums.  Sweet and malty.  Vanilla and toasted oak.  Candied orange rind.  Bourbon.
Kevin: SHERRY!  Moderately high vanilla.  Faint oak.  Light aroma of dark ripe cherry.  Vanishing clove.  Moderately boozy.
Dan: Barrel.  Dark fruit.  Vanilla.  Whiskey.  Maple syrup.  Molasses--burnt sugar.

Eric: Deep amber to almost ruby red color.  No head at all and no carbonation.  Thick legs cascade down across the glass edge.  Very clear.
Kevin: No head.  Completely flat.  Very clear.  Dark amber.
Dan: Dark brandyish in color.

Eric: Complex as any beer I've tried.  Initial hit of sweet sugar and dessert wine fades to a tart but sweet marmalade flavor.  Sherry is strong.  Alcohol warming in chest and nasal passages.  Malt sugars, grape, aged cognac.  A bit of sharpness.  Finish is off-sweet and hot.  Raisins as it warms.  No hop flavors. Thick on tongue, alcohol cuts the mouthfeel though at the end.
Kevin: Very hot alcohol.  Burns the front palate--similar to a whiskey in character but highly oxidized with sherry notes.  Very strong wine character.  No hops.  Light tartness--slightly sour.  Moderate oak, raisins and figs in the lingering finish.  Mouthfeel is slick and coating.  Huge alcohol.  Despite thickness, mouthfeel is thin--possibly due to barrel aging.  Alcohol leaves the palate tingling.
Dan: Warming.  Port wine.  Dates, plums, dark cherry.  Sherry-like.

Eric: Fairly complex.  Somewhere between an expensive dessert wine and a bourbon or cognac.  A very cool experience for one as jaded as myself!  Having had the 2012 version I like that one more though. The sour Kosmik Mother Funk is notable in this vintage. 4.75
Kevin: This is not a beer.  It's a sherry.  Fairly complex, dried fruit.  Hot boozy flavor and aroma.  Vanilla and wood.  Very drinkable in small amounts. 3.75
Dan: A lot smoother than one would think given the heat in the aroma. 4.75
Sarajo: Makes my chest feel warm.  4.5

Overall Score: 4.44 (Because Kevin is a hater...)

I'm looking forward to writing up the 2012 version, and would love to try the newest 2015 batch as well...