Thursday, October 16, 2014

30 Word Thursday: Barn

Dying summer light
throws long shadows.
Cool breeze rattles remaining leaves,
and swinging lantern.
The last gasp of fall before inevitable winter comes.
Inside, friends gather,
celebrating the bountiful harvest.
This week's 30 Word Thursday photo was taken at the Minnesota Harvest Orchard in Jordan, MN.  Our homebrew club was out for a cider pressing last Sunday and had a great time.  I'll be writing up that event separately (hopefully to share later this week.)  Check out the other 30 Words at Erin's Treasures Found Blog!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

30 Words: Fall

Looming clouds part momentarily,
Leaving a patch of blue
Green, yellow, rust, crimson.
Leaves shimmer and shake
Temporarily illuminated by flashing beams
Cool breeze wafts by,
colorful detritus spiraling
This week's 30 Word Thursday pic was taken at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum on Tuesday of this week.  I stopped by on my way back from Minneapolis and wandered the grounds with my camera.  It was amazing to me how drastically the place has changed.  Two weeks ago I was snapping shots of flowers, bees, and butterflies.  Now fading leaves littered the paths and flowers were mostly a thing of the past.  Photos were tough since the thick clouds would cover the sun periodically.  Check out the other 30 Word Thursday challenge entries at the Treasures Found Blog!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Lazy Loon Brewing: Victoria, MN

So back to beer related stuff!  I was recently excited to discover that one of my homebrew club members was secretly converting his garage into a production brewery...unexpected and very cool!  I met with owner and brewmaster Jonathan Lueck to check out his facility and get the skinny. 

Proud papa showing off his beery offspring!

Getting to Jonathan's home in Victoria, MN was a pretty quick trip for me from Waconia.  His home is on a lot that used to host a decrepit farmhouse and some of the left-over debris remains...currently being used as a haunted house for Halloween.  In the attached garage of this unassuming but nice home lurks stainless steel, pallets of cans, and large lager coolers.  The door to the house from the garage apparently had to be sealed over to conform to regulations for a production brewery.   I have to say that this brewery garage is the first of its kind that I have ever visited--and after visiting hundreds of breweries, that is saying something!  Not only is Lueck brewing small batches there, he has his own Cask manual canning line as well.  The canning line has the ability to convert to an automated system in the future and handles 12 and 16 oz cans.  Each can is labeled by hand in advance of filling.

Canning beer on a small scale!

Jonathan has a degree in Economics, and is a practicing CPA and Attorney focused on small business consulting.  With said background he certainly has the knowledge needed to start a successful small business, something that many brewery owners lack.  He spent a great deal of time and effort looking into the necessary laws and requirements needed for opening his brewery and as a result was able to get his home brewery going fairly quickly. 

When asked about the origins of his interest in beer, Jonathan responded: "
With a German farming background, I seemed destined to have an interest in beer.  My hobbies have always involved being a “creative craftsman”.   As I started to learn more about how beer is made, the more I appreciated the craft of brewing.  The  potential for creativity is endless."  His favorite beers to drink are lagers and change with the seasons.  He mentions specifically migrating back to Schells since they have done an amazing job at developing craft lagers.

Not only does Jonathan like to drink lagers, but also to brew them.  I asked him about his decision to focus on those styles for his brewery, and his response was very technical:  "Craft breweries currently have roughly 10% if the market.  The craft brewing industry continues to go after and gain additional market share.  However, the trend is to continue to seek additional market share with the same approach.  I took a step back and analyzed the market to identify an approach to reach the part of the market that craft beer has not focused on.  The answer was obvious, lagers."

The biggest question I had for him was "Why build your brewery in your own garage?"  In typical fashion he returned with a well thought-out and economics minded answer:

"Establishing a brewery on my property allowed me the opportunity to enter the industry without the pressure of producing at levels necessary to cover the fixed occupancy costs.  This gives me the ability to be flexible and creative.  The small batches and labeling of cans provides the freedom to continue to develop the brand through many styles of beer, rather than being married to a minimum order of over 90,000 pre-printed cans.  If you think about it, we have the flexibility of a taproom with the portability of a full production brewery.   The establishment of this brewery is also a proof of concept that a nano-brewery model can produce and package.  We are now in a position to consult with others who wish to enter the brewing industry, but do not want to mortgage their future to do so."

"The long term goal is to continue to work the business plan with a focus of moving the location off site.  The future location will be a production facility with a tap room.   We are seeking a location that will allow us to have a tap room that is an experience, rather than just another room to drink beer."

To me this sounds like a good plan for a small business--gaining a following and name recognition with the eventual plan to increase production over time.  This has a similar feel to contract brewing with another brewery, but with the benefit of having more control over your beer and the brewing process from the beginning. 

So what about the beer you ask?  Jonathan let me try out a few of his test batches before their unveiling to the beer world.  Up front, I'm not as much of a lager guy, but I do respect and appreciate well crafted lagers.  Lueck's flagship beer is the Lazy Loon Lager--an American pilsner style that will have a broad appeal to those who are wary of "Craft Beer."  I liked the taste I had, enjoying it more than some American lagers from the big guys. 

The next taste was a summer version of the Lazy Loon with lime.  I got to try two different batches, each using a different technique for adding the lime flavor.  Both were bright and refreshing, but my favorite was actually when I blended the two samples together!  Haters may hate, but there is something happy about a hint of lime in a lighter lager.  The base beer for this has more flavor and body than another popular "lite" version of lime lager.

The Volksfest is his version of a maltier lager for fall, not quite an Octoberfest/Marzen but in the same vein.  This was also a decent and drinkable beer, but a bit too sweet for my personal tastes.

His Hat Trick is a label that will potentially be like Schells Snowstorm--a seasonal beer that may be an entirely different style and experience each time.  An intriguing prospect for those who tire easily of the same old thing, and one that allows him some opportunity for experimentation in recipe design.  This is early in the life of Lazy Loon Brewing and Jonathan is clearly working on dialing in his small 1 barrel brew system and lagering methods.  As a result of this, there is going to be a bit more variability batch to batch than in larger production breweries.  He seems open to suggestions and is interested in trying new things.  He has some interesting ideas involving collaborations with Jack Of All Brews homebrew club that I'm excited about!
To finish Jonathan wanted to make sure to thank the folks at Surly for their assistance,  Mike at Vintage in Chanhassen,  and Jason at MGM (Chanhassen, Chaska, Waconia, and Spring Park).  His beers are already on the shelves, so you don't have to take my word on it: try them yourselves and tell me (and him) what you think. 


Thursday, October 2, 2014

30 Words

Soft feathery petals surround delicate bristle.
Bees softly alight, carrying yellow pollen on fuzzy bodies, perpetuating the endless cycle of life.
Reminding one that life is beautiful and sometimes fleeting.
This week's picture was of a flower from my back yard.  The basic picture looked cool (and I have another version of the original as is) but I decided to keep experimenting with Photoshop Elements effects until I found this particular effect.  It reminds me of the old crayon and black paint that I used to use in my childhood, so consider this channeling my inner child!  The sentiment certainly has some spill-over from the very difficult passing of a family friend last week.  See the rest of this week's 30 Word Thursday (and last week's as well) at Erin's Treasures Found Blog.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Sierra Nevada Beer Camp 12 Pack Part 2

Ok, I've been a bit off my game recently and haven't felt especially "write-y"  but I wanted to try to post something beer related here.  I finally finished the last of the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp beers and finished this write-up.

On to the second half of the Sierra Nevada Beer Camp 12 pack!  This is a cool collaboration series with several other noteworthy breweries from around the USA, all packaged into one box.  I'm not sure if any of these are still available but if you see one--get it!  I blogged about the first six bottles last week: see that HERE.  I'm going to keep my descriptions a bit shorter.

1) There and Back by SN and New Glarus.  I've loved New Glarus for a very long time, so I was looking forward to this particular beer.  The name conjures up images of Bilbo Baggins sitting in his hobbit hole after fighting off Smaug the dragon, fondling his One Ring and having a pint.  This English bitter seems to be one of the lowest alcohol beers in the pack, clocking in at only 5.6% ABV.  Poured into an English style pint glass.

Aroma: Malt up front with a pleasant toasted bread character.  There is a bit of herbal and minimally citrus hop in the aroma as swirled.  Very subtle fruity esters.

Appearance: Slight haze (may have been my pour) with a deep golden to almost copper color.  Large tight white head.

Flavor: A healthy bite of hops right off the bat--earthy and citrusy but not musty.  Fades to a mellow toasty malt flavor ripe with melanoidins.  Finish is dry with a slightly bitter tinge--but not astringent.  Fruity notes as it warms.

Overall: Hoppier than most bitters, and more American hop character.  Balance is great on this and it is very drinkable.  I could drink a few of these (if I had more!)  4/5.

2) Tater Ridge by SN and the Ashville Brewers Alliance.  The ABA seems to be a group dedicated to furthering beer education and knowledge, as well as organizing beer festivals and events.  This beer is a Scottish ale brewed with local sweet potatoes.  ABV 7% and 35 IBU.

Aroma: Very malty!  There is a citrus zing to it as swirled as well as a hint of alcohol.  Overall sweet aroma.

Appearance: Deep copper in color.  Good clarity but not perfect.  Fine off white head that fades fairly quickly.

Flavor: Malty caramel and toasty flavors are dominant in the brew.  I do pick up on citrus hop flavors, but restrained.  Barest smoky note at end.  The finish is notable for a somewhat astringent end.  My wife (who loves Scottish ales) didn't like the finish and had me drink her half.  Oh well! 

Overall:  A very good beer.  I really like mix of American hops and Scottish style, but certainly not a great BJCP example of a Scottish ale.  I would drink more.  3.5/5.

3) Yvan The Great by SN and Russian River.  I love Russian River.  The only way we can get it in Minnesota is collaboration beers and having friends and family mule it across borders.  Known for both sour beers and some of the best hoppy ales in the USA, I had high expectations for this beer! 

Aroma: Very hoppy citrus (lemon and orange) up front.  After the first burst of hop, I gather a complex Belgian yeast aroma with banana and other fruit esters.  Hint of sulfur.  Some sweet candy sugar and bit of corny pilsner malt.

Appearance: Very light golden color with excellent clarity.  A fine white head with tight bubbles that fades fairly fast.

Flavor: In a word: Bright!  This beer has strong orange and lemon flavors that were hinted at in the aroma.  After the flash of hop, this fades to a wonderful bananas and cream flavor.  Some light pilsner malt character but more sugary.  The body is light and the finish is very dry.  Not astringent. 

Overall: Let me say up front that I dislike most excessively hoppy Belgian ales (especially with American hops).  This one blew me away by having a very harmonious blend of hop and Belgian yeast character.  By all rights this beer shouldn't work, but it does!  4.5/5.

4) Alt Route by SN and Victory.  An Alt beer (a style fairly difficult to find in the US--a German style ale brewed at lagering temps.)  ABV is 6.6% with 50 IBU.

Aroma: Some malt present with a subtle roastiness.  Candy sweetness with an almost Sweet-Tart twang to it.  Citrusy.

Appearance: Deep copper to nearly brown.  Large tan head with large bubbles. Slight haze.

Flavor: Sweetish malt flavors at first.  Sweetness quickly fades to a harsh bitterness that tastes of burning metal (ever throw tin-foil on a camp fire?) that just stays with you for several minutes.  Body is medium.  Balance wayyyyyyy to the bitter side.

Overall: My least favorite of the Beer Camp box.  Rough and bitter with terrible astringency.  Not a win for Victory...  2/5 and I dumped it.

5) Maillard's Odyssey by SN and Bells.  This is a darker beer of no stated style that plays up the malty and toasty quality of carmelized grain.  I tested this while brewing a barleywine so my notes are a bit spotty...

Aroma: Roasted malt with milk chocolate sweetness is dominant.  Slight metallic twang.  No hop aroma picked out. 

Appearance: Deep black and pretty much opaque.  Large dark tan head.  Very persistent fine bubbles.

Flavor: Just like the aroma promised!  Sweet malt and a milk chocolate and toasted bread flavor.  Fades to a smooth roastiness and a more bitter dark chocolate finish that is slightly astringent but not bad.  There is hop bitterness to even out the sweet but not much hop flavor (a shock for this box set!) Thick milkshake mouthfeel, but an off-dry finish.

Overall: My favorite in the box set!  Amazingly complex interplay between the malt and chocolate flavors.  Like an Imperial Milk Stout!  5/5.

6) Double Latte by SN and Ninkasi.  I love Ninkasi and was really looking forward to this beer--in fact that is why I saved it for last!  This is a 60 IBU and 7.6% ABV coffee milk stout.  The hopping is all nugget, not an incredibly popular hop these days.

I liked the aroma and appearance of this beer: a huge malt and roast nose and an enormous tan head.  The flavor fell a little flat for me.  The gratuitous hop bitterness and astringency accentuated the bitter coffee and roast and made this very harsh instead of creamy and pleasant.  Don't get me wrong I still drank it all, but not quite what I was expecting.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

30 Words: Hope

A beautiful little girl
So strong and bold
Fought so hard to maintain her hold.
Such struggle
Such vibrancy of life.
Living more
In her time
Than many ever do.
This is the toughest time I've ever had in writing something.  Little Emma was diagnosed with a cancer called neuroblastoma in 2010-2011.  Her parents are good friends of mine and she was also my patient.  She went through way too much hell for such a small child, but was eventually deemed clear of cancer.  However she had a recurrence and went through more treatments over the past year.  This morning I found out that she lost her battle and frankly don't quite know how to deal with the feelings I'm having.  I just can't imagine how her parents and brother feel.  Watching all of the trips (some for fun and some for treatments) she took; the events she took part in; the people she met; the love that she received from family and friends...has been amazing to me.  I'm deadened and saddened by this news.  But also I am reminded of how brief all of our time is here on this crazy world and how we need to enjoy the little things and make time for the big ones too.  There is still hope for all of us.  Please send out your prayers, good vibes, or whatever to Emma's family.  Give your spouse or children a huge hug.  Do something special for your loved ones or even just for yourself. 
My wife, Sj just posted a blog entry for a book club today prior to us finding out about this.  Interestingly and perhaps uncannily her jewelry designs embraced this sentiment with both of her pieces incorporating the words Carpe Diem into them.  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Byggvir's Big Beer Cup 2014: ITS A TRAP!

Every year I take part in one of the most unique of homebrew competitions: Byggvir's Big Beer Cup.  This competition takes place on site at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, a place I have been visiting since I was a child.  As a result of being on site, Byggvir's has some challenges involved: getting the beers and equipment into the festival grounds, the pervasive odors of food and smoke, loud crowds, strange weather conditions, etc.  But all that makes this such a unique experience that I just have to keep going back!  For the past few years I have helped run the competition, but this year didn't have the time to invest--I still signed up to judge.  Here is how my experience went this year...

Volunteering at the competition gets you into the grounds for free, one of the best perks of the event for many.  On Saturday, very early in the morning, Steven M. picked me up and we took the sun-dappled country roads from Waconia to Shakopee.  This is one of the few homebrew events that is actually out our direction, so we were happy with such a short commute.  We entered through the "back door" off highway 41, to the new Queens Gate parking area.  Over the past several years the rock quarry that surrounds the festival grounds has expanded like some massive progressive sinkhole bent on eventually swallowing the entire festival in one massive final gulp.  The regular parking lot has been almost entirely subsumed by the expanding pit of doom, requiring many people to park some distance from the grounds and get shuttled on old yellow school buses.  Each year we have done this event the cast/will call entrance location and process has been different--last year we were sent to no less than three entrances before eventually giving up and sneaking in a secret way!  This year's was a bit less stressful, but the will-call ticket booth had no list of us.  Luckily they were understanding and let us in with a minimum of fuss.

Entering into the festival grounds a few minutes before the cannons fire is a strange experience.  There is an odd ghost-town effect.  Most of the players are clustered at the main King's Gate to greet the incoming crowds, and the only people around are a few shop keepers frantically attempting to get their places in order before the influx.  Rather than a roaring crowd of costumed folk and patrons there is very little noise at all.  No lewd shouts from the pickle sellers.  No fiddle music drifting across the breeze.  No people being placed in the stocks to be ridiculed.  The experience is akin to seeing a supermodel in scrubby sweatpants without her makeup on.  A strange experience for sure to one who has been going to Fest for so long! 

This Saturday I was actually supposed to be spending the morning wandering the Fest with Sj, but she was sick and stayed home to wallow in her illness.  Steven's family ended up coming in the front entrance shortly after cannon fire announced the official start of Fest, so I hung out with them for a bit before striking out on my own.  I got my obligatory Scotch egg and glass of mead.  I had my camera, so took some pictures of the strange environs (and denizens.)  I had a great time trying to catch good shots of the camera-shy reptiles at the Royal Herpetological (not an STD) Society Cabin.  An essential part of any trip to Fest for me is to see The Dregs--a hilarious "Irish" band that sings songs of love, sea shanties, death, and zombies.  Check out their website here and see them in person!  Eventually, a smile on my face and an Enki beer in hand I headed back for judging.

Steven and I reconvened at the Blue Lion Tent for our afternoon of beer judging.  I've said this before and I'll say it again to anyone who will listen:  Byggvir is the most fun you will ever have judging beer.  When we arrived, the early shift was over and Todd was working on a demo brew for the spectators.  This year they have added a portable beer serving station at the tent, so we had to fight for space a bit with the beer swilling, turkey leg gnawing rabble!  I was judging Belgian strong ales, a great category that I have a fair amount of experience with.  I got to sample a good mix of Belgian pale ales, dubbels, tripels, and dark Belgian strongs.  Aroma was quite difficult to deal with between the strong smells of boiling wort, turkey smoking, cigarette and cigar smoking, privies, and spilled beer--but hey that is part of the fun!  Just like learning to blind-fight in martial arts, one must learn to accurately judge beers under the most extreme of circumstances!  I think the overall quality of entries was much better this year, perhaps a sign of improving homebrew information out there.

At the tail end of judging Ye Olde Cell Phone and darkening skies warned us of an impending cataclysmic rainstorm.  Steven and I high-tailed it back to his car and piled in just as the bottom dropped out.  The rain almost instantly turned to a deluge, dumping tons of cold water on the rapidly exiting crowds of festival goers.  We made it about 10 car lengths from our parking spot by the entrance before we hit a stop in traffic.  With the encroachment of The Pit, there is really only one main exit from the festival grounds.  The literal Perfect Storm of rapid patron exodus, limited traffic control options, torrential downpour, and apparently three accidents caused converged to trap hundreds if not thousands of people in a traffic line OF DOOM!  Festival goers streamed out past us on foot, soaked to the bone.  The fine red dirt and clay of the lot rapidly turned to a thick muddy morass that sucked shoes right off of running pedestrians and made the whole place turn into a wickedly messy Slip-N-Slide. 

Shuttle buses were trapped right with us so all of those who were parked a mile away were either stuck in a children's school bus or walking through the rain and mud back to their cars.  We were actually stopped on the firmer dirt roadway, but many cars became stuck in the mud pit that surrounded our high ground, blocking more traffic and necessitating tow trucks to navigate the chaos.  After about 45 minutes the rain slowed and eventually blew over, but the damage had been done. 

After the storm

A hint of blue sky peaked out from the retreating Doom Clouds but night was approaching quickly.  We were now camping, but at least we were in the relative comfort of Steven's car, listening to music on the radio and watching the **&^%-Show Nightmare that surrounded us.  Not knowing about the accidents near the exit, none of us had any idea what was going on or how long this might last.  Quickly the thin veneer of humanity dropped from us and we began to discuss cannibalism options...luckily we had a nut roll and hunk of beef jerky in the car to hold us over for the first hour or so.  As time went on we started to People began to exit their cars, smoking, raiding coolers, talking with "neighbors".  Regretting the beer and mead I had partaken of earlier, I began to think seriously about making the small Barley Johns growler I had won during judging into an upscale trucker-bomb. 

The truck in front of us died a slow death of battery drain.  The car next to us in the muddy ditch had jumper cables, but they had to get another car that was closer to the front to actually jump the truck's heart back to life.  Minutes later the car next to us went dead, requiring another car to jump them!  Darkness came upon us at this time, dropping like a thick veil over the muddy and bedraggled crowd that was trapped.  Now the red tail lights put a devilish crimson glow over everything.  Screaming infants, exhausted and hungry, wailed through open windows, adding to the bedlam that surrounded us.  Like a scene from a futuristic Hieronymus Bosch painting, the costumed fiends cavorted about in the dim bloody lights, awaiting their escape from this endless purgatory. 

We had entered our car at 5 PM.  When the traffic began to move again it was after 8 PM.  Tired, dehydrated, sweaty, and needing desperately to void my bladder, I staggered into my home at 9 PM.  Migraine ensued. 

And flip to 7 AM the next morning!  Dragging my still flimsy carcass out of bed, I donned my vest, pantaloons, and boots, ready to face the music again.  Strapping on my sword and leather mug, I headed out for another fine day of judging beer at the Renaissance Festival! 

Luckily the Sunday session was much less dramatic!  Driving in, I did have a little PTSD flashback to the night before as I passed stalled out or stuck cars still entrenched in the surrounding fields.  This cool morning I helped set up things for judging and then started out with Specialty Ciders for a nice liquid breakfast!  I was pretty impressed with them overall and we had a difficult time coming up with our overall winners.  After a eating a massive and drippy turkey leg, I judged Strong Ales for the afternoon session.  Again, a good set of beers! 

Despite the insane events of the previous night, the Sunday visit was much more reasonable.  As always, the competition and locale has left me with stories to tell!  What could possibly happen next year?  Check back here again and I'll surely have more tales!