Sunday, December 30, 2012

Steel Toe Lunker Release 2012

I missed the first year's release of Lunker Barleywine from Steel Toe Brewery and have been regretting it since.  A big and flavorful barleywine aged in Templeton Rye Whiskey barrels, this is an amazing beer.  Andrew did share a bottle at one of our brewclub meetings, but I wanted my own to treasure and hoard like some demented Smaug the Beer Dragon.

This year I was prepared.  Sj and I woke up too early on a Saturday, had coffee, then drove down to the St. Louis Park brewery.  This happened to be one of the coldest days we've had here in Minnesota this season, the mercury dropping to about 14 degrees F when we arrived.  Most of the people were still in cars trying to stay warm, so we followed suit.  There was one group of folks standing around tail-gating and sharing cool beers, but they must have been insane.  One lady was wearing shorts.  Shorts!  Insane I tell you!  Once we could see a line starting to form around the loading dock entrance to the brewery we donned our hats and gloves, zipped up our parkas and headed out into the bitter chill.  This was at about 9:30 AM.  Once a line starts at one of these events it seems to quickly hit critical mass and suddenly stretches into the icy horizon.  Keith joined us in line and I saw Dave back in line behind us.  Apparently Rob and Kent eventually got there but I must have been long gone by then.  Good that some of my friends were able to get some bottles.

Minnesotan beer geeks are cray-cray!

Right about where I couldn't feel my face anymore and my hands were clenched into creaky lobster claws, they opened the doors and let us into the blessed heat of the brewery.  They had it set up very slickly with someone at the door to check ID, then we were routed past the taps and given a small sample of the Lunker to try before we decided how many to buy.  Very nice feature!  Keith beat me to rating it on Untappd though.  I blame the frozen sausage fingers for my slow performance.  The beer itself was just how I remember from my taste last year:  Sweet, caramel, vanilla and a mild alcohol burn.  Very warming and perfect to get some sensation back in the frigid gullet.

After picking up our bottles we took a quick look at the in-process tasting room at the front of the building.  The bar is up and the lights are mostly installed.  Mostly some cosmetic things to do, but looking good.  I have some pictures of the before, during and will soon have after pictures to show the process.  I'll do that on another post in the future.  We did get a brief chance to talk to Jason, the owner and brewer on our way out.  It sounds like things have been pretty busy around the brewery between the build, Lunker release and the birth of a new baby for Jason!  Congrats and good luck.  And keep putting out amazing beers like this and there is no way to go but up!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Double IPA Smackdown!

My friend Rob was recently in California on a scouting trip for filming of the  Pliny The Younger release day for his show Limited Release.  He was kind enough to bring me back a couple bottles of Pliny The Elder, just about as fresh as you can get them--right from the source.  Named after the ancient scholar who first described hops, Pliny the Elder is probably the first true commercially available double IPA and has a cult following as one of the best beers in the USA.  Needless to say I've been looking forward to trying the beer for quite some time!  The green and red minimalist label extols the fact that you MUST not age this beer, but drink it fresh.  I always follow orders, so I had a couple friends over to the bar last night and we did a head to head tasting of Pliny against our local DIPA superstar Surly Abrasive.

I think I've mentioned Abrasive a few times in this blog, but for those just checking in, I'll give a quick run-down.  This beer was released several years ago as a limited run double IPA and called 16 Grit.  I got to try that batch once on tap and thought it was quite good, but not my favorite beer in the world.  Last year's batch was more widely available in cans and made with the "new" Citra hop.  This version was amazing and quickly became one of my top five desert island beers.  My brief review of the beer at that time even  made it into an issue of Zymurgy!  Initially Surly had planned on making the beer with different hops every year, but after an enormous amount of fan feedback they seemingly kept the Citra hops for this year's batch as well.  I stocked up on several cans of this when it released last month.  I want to drink this fresh too, though I did find one can of last year's vintage hiding in the back of my fridge about 2 months ago and it tasted surprisingly good.

So the big question is this:  Does Pliny hold my personal award for best DIPA, or can a young upstart like Surly outdo the originator of this now popular style?  I enlisted two good friends, Dave and Steven, who are well versed in this beer style to help me out with this challenge.  We could have tried to do this tasting blind, but all of us are familiar with Abrasive and I didn't think this would add much to our tasting.  I'm guessing that they were happy to take one for the team.  My wife watched on in horror, commenting on the cat urine aroma wafting from our glasses.  She is not a fan of IPA and hoppy beers.  To start out the event we had a calibration beer, the Squatters Hop Rising DIPA, just to get us in the hoppy mood.  That beer smelled and tasted oxidized and had less hop flavor and bitterness than expected for its 75 IBUs.  Not a great beer, but a good place to start. 

First up was Pliny The Elder in its oddly shaped bottle.  Popping the cap one gets a burst of grapefruit and orange aroma that expands as you pour into the tasting glass.  I chose fluted or curved glasses to help concentrate the aromas from these beers but I'm not sure it was even needed.  Excellent clarity with deep gold color and a fine white head.  The taste can only be described as heavenly: a complex mix of malt, citrus, and bitterness.  This is one of the most well balanced double IPAs I've ever had and I can see why it has such a reputation.  The dry finish makes this easy to drink and one could easily down a few and then have a tough time walking.  Dangerous but extremely tasty.  I give it a 5 of 5. 

Next on the agenda is Abrasive:  perched at the end of the bar in its brightly decorated and shiny 16 oz can.  This beer is normally served in 10 oz glasses at bars, but at home you must finish a true pint or risk wasting great beer.  Or I guess you could share...but that's crazy talk!  This beer pours a similar deep gold but with a hint of haze.  Strong tropical fruit/mango aroma dominates, but some citrus and catty aromas are present as well.  The taste is similar to the aroma, with a strong bitterness.  Also ends dry, but has a hint of alcohol burn that I don't remember from last year's batch.  I still give it 5 of 5, but last year's was even better.

The results?  Three of three chose the Surly Abrasive as the favorite of the night.  The powerful flavors and aromas in the beer slightly outshone the balanced wonders in the Pliny.  I am often one who complains about the extreme beers being out of balance, but apparently I'm a sucker for more hops and less balance.  Keep in mind there may be some bias here since we are all local Minnesota boys, but all of us were very excited to the the California superstar beer.  You will not lose with drinking either of these beers, but both are hard to come by.  Enjoy them when you can and drink them quickly before they lose their hop character.  Thanks to my expert panel for their input (and for drinking my hard-won beers!)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Have Yourself A Beery Beery Christmas...

Hello readers of the random rambling regurgitations of this here beer blogger!  A toast to you this fine Christmas Morning (OK afternoon, but go with it...) as we spend time with loved ones and family (hopefully not mutually exclusive) and most importantly open many carefully wrapped presents!

I have found that over the last several years I have been getting more and more beer related Christmas gifts.  This is not a bad thing at all!  Some I have asked for, like the new IPA book by Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing, and the digital temperature controller for improving my homebrew fermentation.  Others are truly surprises and ones that I know I'll love.  Don't get me wrong, I love getting other books and Blue Rays, chocolates and video games.  But this is a beer blog, so I'm focusing on liquid presents here.  My wife has learned to trick me by having me unwrap large clothing boxes, usually with real and necessary clothing inside, but I often I find a beer or some other prize nestled within.

This year I must have been a very good boy.  First off, several friends of mine dropped off beer gifts for me at the JAB holiday party.  These were unexpected but greatly appreciated and it makes me feel great that my friends care enough to do this.  And a bit guilty for not furnishing gifts for them!  I'll make it up to you by cracking some awesome beers next meeting guys!  I really love my Ommegang tap handle, and am looking forward to tasting the beers from the Tim Roets Holiday Homebrew Sampler.  I even received several beers and a Four Firkins gift card at work this year.

My wife really outdid herself this year on the present front.  We always spoil each other greatly at Christmas and end up in some sort of Holiday Gift Cold War, each of us wanting to make sure we bought the other an equal or greater amount of cool presents.  We might have a problem.  In my stocking this morning I found a small box with a folded piece of paper within it.  Best stocking stuffer ever!  This was a printed out add for a gift that was too big to wrap and fit under the tree.  This was a vertical tasting sampler for Rogue Brewery's Old Crustacean Barleywine (Old Crusty for short.)  Ranging from small 7 oz bottles to 12 oz to one ceramic 750 ML bottle, this included beers from 1998, 2002, 2004, 2010, and 2011.  I am greatly looking forward to doing this tasting and sharing with friends.  With the multiple bottles I can do one this year and maybe save some for another tasting in a year or two.  Based on tasting some of the old versions at Dave's barleywine tasting party a few years ago, I think this is going to be fun!  Apparently you can order this and other vintage beers directly from Rogue, but make sure you have someone over 21 to receive shipment.

I also found bottles of Rogue Voodoo Donut Banana, Peanut Butter and Chocolate beer. Yes I will crack one next JAB meeting so show up if you want to try it!  A sour sampler from Belgium including Monk's Red, Petrus Bruin and Petrus Pale ale looks fun, with packaging aimed at retro-loving hipsters.  And I'll probably try the Boom Island Yule beer tonight.  Yay beers!

Not to be only on the recieving side of things I made sure to get Sj some cool and unusual drinkable items as well:  A brett infused hard cider from Canada, some Honeycrisp cider from Wisconsin, and the Iceman eised cider from Angry Orchard.  I also managed to find a vintage 2008 bottle of Goose Island Bourbon County Stout for Sj's stocking.

I've got some serious drinking to do, or maybe I have to build an annex to the house for beer cellaring....Hmmmm....

To all of you this Christmas, I hope you have had a great year and are ready for another. Raise a glass of something tasty tonight and enjoy all that you have in life.  I know that's what I'll be doing this evening!

Freya loves Christmas!  

Monday, December 24, 2012

Republic Uptown

Over the last weekend Sj and I went to some of our old haunts, including Uptown.  We used to spend a great deal of time around that area, heading down for lunch and a visit to various used book and CD stores.  Many of the old places are gone or have moved, and there has been less to interest us around there recently.  We did find one new reason to head that direction again:  Republic's new location upstairs in Calhoun Square.  This mall has changed a lot since last time we were there.  The Kitchen Window has moved into a larger space; there is a gym upstairs; several new clothing shops.  Overall the previously failing mall looks hip and vibrant with room to grow upstairs. 

Republic opened its first spot a few years ago in the 7 Corners area, near the University, in the old Sergeant Preston's building.  Quickly becoming popular for a great beer list and good food, they just opened this new location in Uptown.  I think this is a great idea for them.  Uptown has a ton of young people and hipsters who are embracing the craft beer revolution (except those hipsters who ironically drink PBR tallboys...they do not count!)  So far there really aren't any good beer bars around that area of Uptown.  Bryant Lake Bowl is probably the closest, but still a good hike from Calhoun in the cold MN winter.

The new spot takes up a large area on the upper floor of Calhoun Square where The Independent lounge used to be.  I guess there weren't enough high society martini drinkers to support that place, or possibly they came too late to the Sex & The City scene.  The space is wide open with visible dark painted duct work and ceilings.  Lots of lighter woods and some strange large art pieces on the walls soften up the industrial look and make it more inviting.  There is an enormous open centered square shaped bar in the center of the restaurant with seating all around it.  Lots of space to belly up to the bar and order a pint of something awesome.  Large chalk boards in several areas announce the specials and new beers on tap.  Upon entry, the left side of the restaurant has more high-top tables for bar seating, and the right is the restaurant seating area.

We were seated by a very nice waitress in the restaurant side.  There was a pleasant view of the active Saturday afternoon Uptown streets from the windows.  They had a large and varied beer list, organized by style as well as about six or seven specials from the chalk board.  I love the fact that they do a three beer sampler to let you test more new beers.  I had the sampler with Alaskan Smoked Porter, Surly Smoke and Unibroue Tres Pistoles:  an amazing selection of very special beers.  And those were all from the specials list, I didn't even try any of the "regular" beers.  Sj had the St. Bernardus 12, Alaskan Smoked Porter and the Jolly Pumpkin Noel de Calabaza.  Yum!  We had brunch there that was tasty and quick.  My poached eggs over squash and potato hash with side of hanger steak was a great pairing with those smoked beers I was drinking. 

I would highly recommend heading here if you are in the neighborhood.  I do worry that folks won't know they are up there on the top floor, and hope that word gets out.  Hence my write-up here!  I want Republic to stay in business and continue to show us a wide selection of amazing beers. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Limited Release Ep. 3: Surly Darkness Day

Rob Wengler and Ron Johnson, some old friends of mine from High School, have been working on a web-based show called Limited Release over the last 2 years.  The idea is to get to some of the special release days for those incredibly hard to find and rare beers that most of us beer geeks only dream of getting to try.  Since most of these events require lots of time waiting in lines and often travel to other states, this is a great way to see what the fuss is all about without actually getting there.  The downside?  Not getting to actually the amazing beer they are talking about! (Follow the link above for the current episode and the website.)

What sets this show above a lot of podcast/blogs is the work that goes into each episode. There is a lot of post-production and prep to get these looking and sounding good.  The first episode's sound quality was a bit suspect, but that apparently was due to a computer crash causing a loss of the better sound files.  They have greatly improved that over the next two episodes.  Also included in each episode are some fun animations ranging in style from South Park to Atari computer graphics.

Rob and Ron always include a good amount of background info on the beers and the breweries, filming in places like my bar, The Four Firkins and The Bruery's Barrel Room.  They usually manage to organize an exclusive interview with the brewer, and in this episode they get to talk a bit to Todd Haug from Surly.

Hard at work or checking Facebook?

My favorite part of the episodes so far is where Rob lets me try the rare and expensive beer and give my impressions as a "Beer Expert."  I like the free awesome beer part, but always feel a little (a lot) weird about being on camera.  Last month Rob brought over his camera and a bottle of 2012 Darkness for us to try.  We filmed at my basement bar over a couple of hours, ending up with a clip about a minute long in the final version of the episode.  Post-production and editing can make anyone seem like they know their stuff!  There was a brief cameo from my cat Freya, and I think she handled being in the lime-light better than I.  During our filming she actually started licking the crap out of the Darkness bottle sitting on the bar, but we didn't get a good enough shot to use in the episode.

Freya enjoying her time in the spot-lights

The next episode is The Bruery's Black Tuesday (currently in post-production) and I'm hoping I get tapped as expert witness again!  They plan on heading out to film Pliny the Younger as a break from all those Imperial stouts, but since that one is draft only I might not get a chance to try it.  Dang!

I'm a big fan of these guys and what they do.  If you like what you see in the episodes like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.  In the past they have given away bottles of Dark Lord and Autumn Brew Review tickets as special prizes for their fans.  Share the links with your beer-geek friends too!  For now this is purely for fun, but they would love to be able to get some funding/sponsorship for the show to allow for more travel and better equipment, and the best way to do that is getting the word out.  Also tell us what you think!  What do you want more of?  What do you want less of? (and don't say me!)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Rock Bottom MPLS Holiday Brewmaster's Dinner 2012

Every year during the holiday season the folks at Rock Bottom in Minneapolis unleash their chefs and let them do a beer-pairing dinner extravaganza.  I have been to this dinner several times over the last few years and all have been a lot of fun.  I was really interested in this year's event because I wanted a chance to test out the new head chef (Raphael) and the new brew master (Pio).  Our Rock Bottom has had a lot of changes over the past couple years, being bought out by Craftworks being the largest of these.  Partially due to changes in policy at that time, the old brew master Bryon Tonnis left for greener pastures (Duluth).  Assistant brewer (and crazy vegan) Peter Mack stayed on and they brought in Sherlock's Home alumni Bob Mackenzie as head brewer.  Just when the two of them seemed to be hitting their stride, Bob left for Cold Spring/Third Street Brewhouse, and Peter ended up at Town Hall.  Like some kind of soap opera isn't it?  The new brewer is Tim Piotrowski, or Pio, originally from Wisconsin, but living in Colorado most recently.  I'm not sure who he angered to get sent out to the icy gulag of Minnesota, but he seems to be settling in nicely.

Back to Rock Bottom.  After the Craftworks buy-out there have been some changes.  All the Rock Bottoms have the same four flagship beers brewed to the same recipe but possibly different in taste due to the different water and equipment from brewery to brewery.  Beyond that it seems like the brew master has some free reign to do seasonals and experimental beers.  Recently the Mug Club card has been changed from on high as well.  Previously it was based on visits and one could accumulate growler cozies, hats, shirts and my own personal goal of the barbecue tool set.  Now all the progress one has made toward that goal is scraped clean and it will be based on how much you spend at the restaurant.  I believe that the rewards are no longer items, but gift certificates to the restaurant.  Probably makes more sense from a restaurant/corporate stand-point, but we beer folks like our swag.  I'm also sad that they no longer will be counting pints drunk towards getting your name on a plaque mounted on a big keg on the bar side. 

After the above mentioned changes I've seen some drop in interest for RB from the beer people I know, and have even had some such thoughts myself.  As a beer geek and homebrewer, I want variation and ingenuity in the beers I drink.  I want the brewer to make the beer he/she wants to make and not what a corporation thinks will be liked by more non-craft beer drinkers.  I view Rock Bottom as a brewpub, not a restaurant that happens to make beer.  On the other hand I realize that most brewpubs live or die by the food they sell, so that is a vital component of the business.

The beer dinner was a nice way to try some of the chef's new ideas and to taste a bunch of the new beers paired to contrast or compliment those foods.  I was at RB not too long ago, but several of the beers on tap were left over from the previous brewers and I wasn't sure which were from Pio and which were older.  By now, all the beers on tap are from Pio's hand and I got a good sampling of them over the night.  Sj and I were slightly late due to our one hour commute, but they caught us up quickly with a large glass of Kolsch and a lamb crostini on arrival.  We settled into a couple of open seats and met some very fun people over dinner.  Lots of homebrewers in the house!  We also got to sit next to Pio's girlfriend (dragged from the balmy land of California originally) who was very fun to talk to and hang out with.  She filled us in a bit while Pio was spending time socializing with the other tables.

The appetizer course came out next, consisting of amazing green mussels steamed with the RB White Ale and spicy jalapeno butter.  This was my favorite dish of the night and probably the best mussels I've ever had.  This should go on the regular menu.  The pairing was a good one since the beer was the base of the broth the mussels were served in.  I don't tend to drink wheat beers since they often give me migraines, so I didn't drink much of this one. 

Between each course Pio talked passionately about the beers and the thought behind the pairing.  He is a young man who obviously loves what he does and takes pride in his beers.  For me it makes all the difference getting to meet and discuss beer with a particular brewer.

A butternut squash bisque was next, made and paired with the Sunday Bloody Sunday Irish Red ale.  A good soup, and the pairing was nice.  The beer was quite dry but not in a bad way.  I find that style is often overly sweet and carmel-like and the dry finish on this made you want to keep drinking it.

Salad course was an enormous grilled Belgian endive served over a Nut Brown balsamic reduction with gorgonzola cheese and pickled red onions.  The endive was a bit too big and didn't really get soft enough from grilling, but the flavors were great.  The version of Big Horn Brown was significantly different from the old one.  It used to be sweetish with an English character, but now is dry and a bit roasty.  If I didn't know better I'd be tempted to call it a light porter.  Don't get me wrong here, I really liked it, but simply quite different from the old version.

The main course was a roasted duck breast and leg glazed with a Belgian IPA and orange glaze that really played well with the beer pairing.  I am a professed hater of the Belgian IPA style, but this one was restrained and among the better examples of this heinous travesty of beer style.  I did drink the whole glass which should tell you something.

The nemesis to my lactose intolerant gut came out next.  Beemster 18 month aged Gouda cheese.  Strong nutty flavor with crunchy crystals make this a wonderful and tasty cheese.  Worth the risk.  The pairing on this one was probably the best of the night.  Served alongside a vanilla flavored Winter Tartan Scottish Ale.  This one was a bit sweet, but not cloying. 

To cap off the dinner we had a chai molten lava cake topped with a cardamom whipped cream and salted caramel.  The pairing with the Coconut Chai Stout was very pleasant.  This version of the famed MPLS RB beer was different, but I think Pio did a very good job of making this beer his own.  Dryer than the sweet original, this one seems a bit more like an Irish stout.  That may have been accentuated by putting it up against such a decadently sweet dessert though.  I liked the mix of chai spice flavors in both the beer and the cake.

Overall this was a very nice way to spend a Tuesday night.  I would make it a point to get to next year's dinner, and hopefully Pio is here to stay for a while!  Here is looking for no more RB brewer upheavals over the next few years.  If you haven't tried out Rock Bottom since Pio and Raphael took over, I would recommend a trip out there.  I also hope that RB gets past its growing pains and the company will find a good balance between the beer/brewery aspect and the bar/restaurant portion.  You can't find a much better place to hang out for a pint after a show at the Orpheum or State Theaters. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Jack Of All Brews Holiday Party 2012

Since we started the homebrew club, we have been doing a Holiday party.  The first year was hosted by one of our early members, Brett S. at his home.  I believe that it was his idea to do a beer gift exchange and we have continued that tradition to the current day.  That first year was just a few of us (maybe six or seven) and a very small pot luck, but the relaxed feel and true happiness I felt at the time made me want to replicate that experience in the future.  Our club has grown greatly over the years, now boasting over 50 members; and while the make-up of the group has changed with time, the members are still a great group to hang out with.  We like to open this particular meeting up to spouses (though they are always welcome to regular meetings), to let them meet the guys and know what exactly we do every second Friday of the month.  I know I like to meet with my friends' better halves! 

This year I had been ill much of the week prior to the party and was concerned that I would have to cancel it.  Luckily I was feeling somewhat better by Friday, and had a bit of my voice back.  I did need to enlist others to do most of the "official business" talking for the meeting though.

Jim showing off his Sommelier chops

We started the meeting with a short presentation about home wine making by Jim T.  Jim has been making wines for the last several years and is our resident expert on the methods of doing this.  He had fancy pictures of the equipment and action shots of the process for us to see.  Most importantly he had a slew of wines for us to try, ranging from the disturbing (banana wine??!!) to the ghetto (Mogan James) to the fabulous (Libfraumilch.)  This was a great time to break out this demo since we had a lot of non-beer spouses in attendance.  This is the first time we have ever tried to have a presentation at the Holiday went very well, but perhaps got rowdy and loud before Jim could really finish.  I blame the strong wines!

Culinary debauchery: Minnesota style!

After the talk and some brief announcements about upcoming club events and competitions we headed upstairs to partake of the extreme Minnesota Pot Luck.  I do feel cheated without any cocktail weenies, but there were plenty of great things to try.  Forgive me if I don't remember a lot of details after the piranha-like feeding frenzy.  Tim's Pate made with stout and topped with double IPA aspic was an unusual surprise.  A corn pudding was quite tasty and filling.  And the Imperial Stout beer-a-misu was a wonderful way to cap off the meal.

Looks like Alpo; smells like Alpo; tastes like Yum!
After the feast our party-goers spread out between the upper level and the basement bar to talk and try an amazing array of beers.  Oh, and Tim brought three types of jello shots made with his melomel, stout, and spicy michelada.  Party!!!  Woooo!!

One thing I love about this particular meeting is the outstanding beers that come out to play.  Folks tend to bring their big-gun homebrews (Aaron's Galaxy IPA and Tim's Blueberry Lambic come to mind,) and some rare commercial brews are shared in good company.  We tried Deschutes Abyss 2008, Alesmith 2010 Anniversary smoked maple barleywine, Ithaca Brut, Surly Four, Steel Toe Wee Heavy, and many, many more.

"Works every time!"
Before people started to fade out of the festivities we made sure to do our gift exchange. Everyone who wanted to be involved brought a wrapped or bagged beer gift and put their name in a hat.  Sj and Sarah M. were our MCs and drew names for gift choosing.  We opted out of gift-stealing for ease of action, but that would have been pretty crazy considering some of the gifts on the table!  Gifts included rare beers like the Ommegang 15 in decorative tin, St. Bernardus sampler with glass, Surly Smoke in hand-made duct-tape carry case.  Perhaps the best gift was brought by Hassan: a six pack of root beer that was initially disappointing, until it was pointed out that one bottle in the pack was actually Westvleteren 12!  This is always one of my favorite parts of the holiday party, where else does everyone get a cool beer gift instead of socks?

That is NOT root beer!
Other than the aftermath mess to clean up, this is one event that I look forward to greatly every year and appreciate all the folks from Jack Of All Brews who make it so extraordinary.  Cheers to all of my friends who could make it and to those who couldn't get here this year!  Thanks to JAB and the JAB spouses for everything and here's to another great year with good beers and better company.

Duct tape crafts!

Monday, December 10, 2012

My Favorite Color, Cherry Red...

This weekend, whilst huddling indoors to avoid the persistent downfall of fluffy white snow, I decided to do some beer crafting that I had been avoiding.  About a month ago I brewed a Flanders red ale to commemorate my trip to visit Rodenbach Brewery in Roselare, Belgium.  That beer has been sitting in the primary, working on becoming a sour.  I have made this beer before, and my goal is to do one each year, until I really get the process down right.

For this particular batch of beer I wanted to spice things up a bit.  The biggest complaint I have had on reviews of previous batches was a lack of cherry flavor, so I figured I'd accentuate that perceived lack with some real cherries.  Now the BJCP style mentions intense fruitiness, with plum, orange, black cherry or currant flavors.  Having been to the source, I can say that the basic Rodenbach is pretty light, thin and has a tart but not especially cherry flavor.  The Grand Cru certainly has more of this character as it is blended with less young beer; and the Vintage is not blended at all, resulting in a lot more sourness and deep fruit.  Most of my batches have ended up tasting like a regular Rodenbach, which makes sense since I'm dealing with one batch and not blending old and new to get the roundness of character.  I just don't have the carboy space to take on the blending. 

My friend Jon grows sour cherries and had a surplus this year, so I lucked out in getting a hefty batch from him.  I decided on 10 pounds of these tiny tart cherries for the current batch of beer.  They were all frozen, so I pulled them out of the freezer in the morning and slowly worked on de-stemming them.  I'm not sure if this step was really necessary, but I worry that the stems in contact with the beer for most of a year will add a tannic astringency that might cut down on the smoothness and body in the finished product.  So I took most of the day working on this.  Being frozen or mostly frozen, this was chilly work.  I would pick for about 5-10 minutes until the hands were numb, take a break, then return for more.  In retrospect, I would pull the cherries out the night before and let them thaw more.  Though the stems pop off easier if the cherries are still firm and cold than warm and squidgy.  Let me tell you that ten pounds of cherries is a lot! 

Finally all my work was done.  Now the question is how to get those cherries into the small neck of the carboy.  Improvisation is key.  I found a large plastic funnel left over from my stove-top brewing days and rolled small amounts of cherries at a time through it.  When the cherries got stuck in the funnel I used the handle of a sanitized plastic spoon to jam them through.  Ghetto, but it works!  These are the logistical issues that the magazines and brewing books never cover.  One is simply told..."put 10# of cherries in the batch..."  This process took me about 30 minutes.  A plastic carboy bucket would have worked great for this, but too much oxygen will permeate that over the year this will sit.  The acetobacter that gives this style much of its sourness needs a bit of oxygen, but not that much.  I often use a Parafilm over the top of the carboy for a month or so to let in a limited amount of oxygen later in the process.

Why am I doing this in the laundry room instead of my basement brew area?  I am paranoid about mixing my sour process with my regular brewing.  I use all different equipment for sour beers and keep them sequestered in Tupperware containers in the garage when not in use.  I use the laundry sink for clean-up and even keep my carboys up in the laundry room (much to my wife's chagrin.)  Don't bother buying extra equipment for sours, just use your older equipment.  That carboy you have had for 10 years with a few scratches on the inside?  Sounds great for sours!  The Auto-siphon with the little crack in it?  Sours!  Old tubing?  You get the picture.

I have to say that the first taste of this beer is not thrilling.  Bitter and nasty.  I almost didn't add it to these hard-bought cherries.  But remembering previous batches tasting pretty "Blech" before aged made me take the risk.  Hopefully I don't waste a lot of time and cherries. 

Now it sits until next Fall, when I will taste it and transfer to a third carboy to get it off the cherry sludge.  Getting all those cherries out should be just as exciting as getting them in there.  Maybe more so.  Might have to take pics of that too. 

Up next on the brewing agenda is a 10 gallon batch of lambic.  I'll be putting the other 10# of cherries in half and my first big batch of frozen raspberries from my backyard bramble for the other half.  And another year of waiting begins.  I do have a 5 gallon batch of last year's raspberry lambic that still has a white pellicle on it that I might have to finally try blending with.  After my trip to Cantillon I really want to make some great lambics.  I have less spiders in my house than they do at Cantillon though...this might interfere with my process.

Friday, December 7, 2012

School II and Haskell's Chanhassen Scotch Tasting

A friend of mine (thanks Keith!) clued me in to this event out in my neck of the woods.  The Haskell's in Chanhassen apparently does weekly wine, beer and spirit classes on Wednesdays and is wanting to start some tasting events/dinners with local restaurants.  This scotch tasting was the first of these events.

I have to say that being able to spend 20 minutes to get to the location sure beats driving all the way to St. Paul or Minneapolis where most of the beer dinners are held!  School Of The Wise II, (or simply School II based on their sign,) is located right next to the movie theater in Chanhassen.  Entering the building, one is struck by a pleasant and homey feel.  Dark woods, low lighting and warmth are comforting, especially after coming in from the winter chill.  Our tasting was set in one corner of the bar side, with a film screen set up for power-point.  Seating was at our choice and several folks sat with strangers and made friends.  Sj and I both ordered a Big Eddy Baltic Porter to start and soon after were poured some scotch.  The restaurant had some appetizers set up at the back of the seating area.

Ed Kohl, the distributor of the spirits, was there to do a presentation.  Unfortunately for him, his microphone wasn't working and the restaurant became louder (the other end of the bar and music from the other dining room mostly,) as the evening went on.  Voice getting rougher from talking loudly, he was a trooper and got through his presentation.  I actually learned a great deal about the process of scotch making, and what factors change the mouthfeel, flavors and aroma of the final product. 

Sweet Cheesy Scotsman!

Our scotches were served in a Riedel scotch tasting glass that really accentuated the aromas in the spirits, and at the end of the night we were able to take them home with us.  I am pleased.  Most of the scotch was from the Isle of Arran off the Western edge of Scotland, and were not peaty at all due to the grains being toasted with gas fires instead of coal and peat.  The 10 year was a bit rough, but the 14 was much nicer.  There were versions finished in Sautern, Port and Sherry casks which really added some different character to the base scotch.  My favorite of those was the Port.  One from the Isle of Skye was a blended Scotch (the horror!) and was a fantastic blend of the smokiness of a Talisker and the sweet vanilla of a bourbon.  It was the cheapest and our favorite...that never happens!  I was also a fan of the over-the-top peat in the Kilchoman, but Sj was making so many gagging expressions that some of our fellow tasters had to stop their drinking in order to laugh at her.  Mark from Haskell's was there to answer questions and we talked at some length about beer and booze.  He was offering discounted rates on bottles of the scotches we tried that evening and I ordered the blend and the peat-beast.  I know Sj won't be drinking that!

The dinner portion of the evening was not quite what I had hoped for.  They had a nice spread of cheese, crackers and meats as appetizers and a salad and chicken alfredo pasta, all served buffet style.  Having lactose intolerance and no lactaid with me made this a tough meal for me.  Not the restaurant's fault, but I would have liked options.   

Over all a nice way to spend a cold evening.  I could tell that this was a first time event, as things were a little disorganized, but not in a way that ruined the fun.  I think some more dinner options (or a plated three course dinner) would do wonders for this type of higher-end event, and a working PA system.  I would certainly go to another of these, and would really like to see one done at Terra Waconia.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book Review: Bitter Brew by William Knoedelseder

For a change of pace I'm doing an old-school book report!  What did I read on my vacation to St. Louis?  Why, I read about beer of course!  Having been to the AB brewery on my trip, I was intrigued by the history and majesty of this brewing behemoth.  I was shocked that the enormous AB gift shop had no books about the brewery at all.  With the storied history of that place, a giant coffee table book with tons of old pictures and a positive spin on some of those sometimes controversial stories seemed like a no-brainer.  But the shop seemed to ignore much of the historic aspect of the brand in favor of Bud Light, and Shock Top.  Feeling let down, I discovered this book in the St. Louis airport and went to town on reading it.
The book is written by an author with a fairly respectable history in news and reporting, and from it seems that he did quite a bit of research to write it.  Between historical registries, court reports, old newspaper clippings and personal interviews there is a lot in information here. 
Strangely the first chapter of the book starts at the end of the story, covering the buy-out by In-Bev, then jumps to the repeal of prohibition, then goes back to the founding of the brewery and continues chronologically from there.  I found this a bit disorienting, and felt like the author would have done better to have a slow build-up to these momentous events, which would have fallen appropriately midway through the book and at the finale.   Continuing past the odd first chapters, the next third of the book covers the rise of the brewery and the Busch family to prominence.  To me this is the most interesting era, when one man could build an empire through luck, skill, crookery and sheer force of personality.  Some of the stories of the early years are interesting, but not quite fleshed out enough for my taste.
The following third of the book covers mostly Gussie Busch and his son August the III.  The book spends a lot of time on baseball, since Gussie bought the St. Louis Cardinals to prevent them from being sold to another state (and as a vehicle to sell beer of course!)  Not being a huge baseball buff, some of this was lost on me.  I'm sure most red-blooded American males will know all the names and history, but there wasn't enough detail to really make me feel like I knew who these stars were.  The high point of this section was the underhanded deposing of Gussie by his own son, showing quite the dysfunctional family dynamic.
The last third of the book mostly covers August III and his son August IV, having a very similar feel to the previous section of the story.  This part of the book spends a lot of time on IV's scandals, and is a bit sensationalized, putting much focus on the extreme drugs, partying, deaths and brushes with the law.  The descent of the man into Howard Hughes quality mania and drug use is almost difficult to read.  The finale of the book returns to the In-Bev buy-out and has a brief coda about how things have gone for the company since. 
I liked the book and felt that it had a nice mix of history, scandal and social commentary.  Even seeing the excesses of the Busch family and the Mega Corporation, I felt sad at the end.  Not being a fan of Bud or it's beer line-up I expected to feel happy that "The Man" had failed and now was on the run from Craft Beer.  In reality, I felt sorry for the state of August the IV and for the Great American Company.  I recommend this as a good read, but would have loved more pictures!  If anyone (local) wants to borrow it, just ask.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Four Firkins

For this post I thought I would do a review of Minnesota's first and only purely craft beer store, The Four Firkins.  I have been going to this place for years and they really were at the forefront of the local (and national) craft beer revolution.  A firkin is a quarter barrel of beer for those who wonder what the name means.

The shop was started by Jason Alvey, an Australian ex-pat with a great accent, whom I had known from a short lived but educational beer podcast called What Ales Thee?  Initially the store was located in a tiny storefront between a laundry and a car repair joint, with the world's worst parking lot.  It was a tough sell to get people to come to a small store that only sold wine, no liquor, no Budweiser or Coors, just craft beer.  In the first year there were limited hours and Alvey was the only guy working there, pulling long hours and scraping by.  Slowly the local craft beer scene changed, with more interesting beers to be found, and more and more media coverage.  Alvey has become a local beer expert, tapped frequently for news spots and articles, and bringing attention to his store as well as the craft beer boom.  Business picked up and new faces were seen running the store.  Special tasting events were held, but the tiny store could not hold more than 15 people at a time and this size limitation prompted Alvey to find a new space for the store. 

The new store is located just off HWY 100 and Excelsior BLVD in Minnetonka, and has a nice parking lot in back.  Still small and cozy, but more room to move around and display a lot more specialty beers.   The custom shelving is dark wood, filled with more beers than you can count, most have decorative old empty growlers or cool glassware perched atop them.  The centrally located cash register area is nearly an open gazebo made of matching dark wood, and easily accessible from either side for quick check out.  Large cooler cases line one wall for those who need to drink their beer right away.  An amazing array of brewerania lines the few open walls that aren't lined with shelving.

They remain the only all-beer store in the state, though they do have an expanding selection of hard ciders and meads.  They have a tiny glass case filled with spirits that are made by breweries such as New Holland and Rogue, but are very selective about what they sell.  That selectivity goes for all of their products as well.  They don't carry mass market beers at all, but have an amazing selection of craft beers, arranged by style.  Sections exist for Belgian, IPA, Strong ales, sours, etc.  There is a large wall filled with singles so one can make a mix pack of beers for those of  us with difficulty making decisions.  Special and limited release beers abound here, making it the first stop when looking for something cool and unusual.  My wife heads here for Christmas shopping, asking them to help her pick out something new and rare for under the tree.  The staff is always busy, but helpful and I believe that all are trained as Ciccerones or BJCP judges so they really know their stuff. 

The Firkins has become my way of keeping up with what beers are around.  They have embraced beer geek culture and social media, and checking their facebook status and e-mails often alerts one to special beers that sell out fast.  I'll often have to send my mom out to get those beers since they quickly disappear before I can get home from work! 

There is a small but well attended bar in the corner of the space where they have tastings of beers and often have distributors and brewers there for beer unveilings.  They also have a small selection of beer related books and magazines to fulfill all of your reading needs.

Not content to just run a beer store, Alvey has taken it upon himself to get involved in changing some of the historic blue laws in the state of Minnesota.  He was instrumental in getting a law passed that allows liquor stores to sell apparel, though he had to fight a long and difficult battle for this.  Now he sells truly humorous shirts and hats at the store, and the antediluvian law has been changed to fit with our modern time of advertising and product placement.  He is currently working on educating and encouraging liquor sellers to change the No-Beer-On-Sunday laws, pointing out that folks can drive across the border to Wisconsin and buy beer on Sunday.  So far he hasn't had a lot of backing from local sellers.  From my standpoint as a buyer, I am much more likely to take a trip out to the store on a Sunday when I'm not working than during the week after a long busy workday.  The Firkins was also involved with Midwest Supplies and Steel Toe Brewery in a large fundraiser this summer called the Beermuda Triangle.

Overall, The Four Firkins is certainly my favorite beer store and I really respect Alvey and the staff here for their knowledge and for their passion for craft beer.  If you haven't been there yet, you need to take a field trip here...try a Saturday morning and go over to Steel Toe for tastings and Growler sales after!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks

So, usually I keep this blog pretty innocuous and beer related.  I don't tend to go much into politics, religion, or really into my personal life.  Those things really need to be more personal for me, discussed with good friends over a beer perhaps.  But today, I want to do a post that is a bit more personal, as I reflect on the past year and the things I have to be thankful for.  Oh, and there will be talk of beer...this is a beer blog after all!

This year seems to have been a crazy one for us, not really in a bad way, just busy, busy, busy.  I've found myself too busy to check my e-mails, see movies in the theater (or on Blu-Ray for that matter,) call friends and family, and even my reading has fallen off greatly.  I can't really complain about these things, since much of my business has been fun-related, but it seems that the year has flown by us in a whirlwind.  For once in my life I'm actually looking forward to winter (yes, in Minnesota,) because that means less travel and less things going on...we Minnesotans tend to hibernate like bears, crawling out of our caves in spring and glaring blearily at the neighbors that we barely remember.

This year I had the best trip of my life: our 10 day jaunt to Belgium with two good friends on our organized beer tour.  I had two beers go to second round of the National Homebrew Competition.  Even though I didn't win, it was pretty cool to play with the big kids for a while.  Sj has continued to expand her jewelry making into not only a fun hobby, but a small business as well (she is having an open house in a couple weeks, and I'll be serving beer.)  My family is healthy, though I don't get to see my sister and brother much anymore.  Work is going well and keeping me quite busy during the day...and most importantly I love my job and the people I work with!  My Jack Of All Brews club-mates have really stepped up this year, hosting meetings and organizing trips and swag for the club.  I started this blog too.

The most important thing I can give thanks for this year is my beautiful-beyond-words wife of 11 years, Sarajo.  She is truly the yin to my yang.  She is quite the opposite to me in many ways: Talkative, where I am quiet; speaking her mind, where I am a stolid Norwegian Minnesotan with a penchant for passive aggressive methods; standing up for friends and family like an angered mother bear when she needs to be.  Yet she has had a great influence on me and I have learned to  more talkative and outgoing, speak my mind if it really means something to me, and to stand up for things and people.  I like to think that she has absorbed some of my traits as well, becoming a bit less fiery and more relaxed about things.  And though she would deny it, she is the sweetest wife I could ever desire.  I had to drag her all the way here from Alabama, (by way of Illinois,) but it was well worth it.

I am the cook in my household, and every year I do a whole Thanksgiving spread.  We enjoy hosting friends and family who don't have family nearby, but this year it was just the two of us, (and our three cantankerous cats of course.)  I thought I would do some beer pairings for this holiday dinner.  As I worked feverishly in the kitchen I noticed white fluffy snow flitting past my window.  It was around 60 degrees yesterday!  Scratch that bit from above where I said I was looking forward to winter!

I'm dreaming of a white...Thanksgiving?

For a starter I cooked up a red pepper and pumpkin soup using the last of our East Henderson Farm CSA produce for the year.  This was garnished with some fresh rosemary and toasted pumpkin seeds.  I served this up with our growler of Town Hall Brewery's Petunia's Pumpkin Ale that we had squirreled away for just such an occasion.  A fantastic pairing, with the sweet malty beer counteracting the more savory soup.  I'll make this soup again, but might add some chipotle pepper to give it a bit more zing.

The main event was filled with a bunch of old favorites.  The essential green bean casserole (or hot dish if you are from my area.)  The chilled jellied cranberries are essential for Sj's holiday enjoyment.  A stuffing made with pork sausage from our meat CSA True Cost Farm, and dried cherries is always a winner.  Mashed potatoes with tons of butter and sour cream...Sj did a great job this year!  And of course I had to do an outrageously big turkey for two...18.5# this year.  I tried out a new recipe for maple and smoked paprika glaze on the turkey, and it was fantastic!  I used wonderful local syrup from a colleague of mine, and I'd recommend you try it, but this year was hideously bad for maple syrup, so you may have to wait until next year's batch.  I should mention that the gravy, despite giving me a lot of stress, tasted very flavorful and tied all the components of the meal together.   We paired the main course with a beer Sj brought back with her from a recent trip: The Bruery's Autumn Maple.  This beer uses maple syrup, yams and molasses, really playing well with my maple flavored turkey and the other side dishes.  A complex Belgian style beer that was much better with food than on it's own.

Once the food coma had worn off a bit I set about making my own turkey stock from the carcass and drippings, for use later in the week with my annual post-TG spicy turkey tortilla soup.  Yum!  A bit messy and slightly gross, but it tastes a lot more interesting than the store bought chicken broth.  Some of the smoky paprika comes through in the finished stock.

For desert, since I don't bake, we had a rare French cider called Dupont Reserve.  This was made with 2010 apples and aged most of a year in their own Calvados (apple brandy) barrels.  It is about 7.5% ABV and certainly has a hint of oak and booze to it.  Very effervescent, more like a champagne, coming in a large caged and corked bottle.  There is some brettanomyces funky character coming through as well and I really liked this cider a lot!

To all of you who read this blog entry:  I hope your day was as fulfilling as mine, and if not, then may next year's be better!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Surly Abrasive Release at Old Chicago in Eden Prairie

Yippee!  Finally a special beer release out in the Western Suburbs of Minneapolis!  Every day I read about special tappings and releases by local and not-so-local breweries and nearly all of them are in Minneapolis, St. Paul or the inner ring suburbs.  I have noticed lately that more events are starting to trickle out to the hinterlands, such as the Top Brewer event in Maple Grove last month.  So yesterday Surly released their fantastic citra hopped double IPA, Abrasive at the Eden Prairie Old Chicago to much applause! 

The place was a zoo when we got there around 5:40, bustling with people in search of this sought-after seasonal ale.  The entry way was full of other folks waiting to eat, probably unhappy that there was a special event there that night.  I put our name in for a table at that point and got my pager.  We pushed our way through the sardine-can crowd and discovered that our friends Chris and Hassan (who went with us to Belgium,) were sharing a table with Mike and Keith, (other good friends from Brew Club.)  Small world.  Seated just beyond them in customary good spots at the bar were Dave and Kent.  Great to have a bunch of friends at this event, but I feel bad that I didn't get much chance to talk to our bar-sitting guys.  The restaurant had some free wings and pizza hidden in the hallway for attendees, which was a nice touch. 

After a while I got my glass of Abrasive, a brilliant light yellow color with fine white head, served in a tulip glass.  The aroma on this is mango, grapefruit, and a hint of alcohol and those go right through to the taste.  Ends dry enough to keep drinking more, but dangerously high in alcohol.   Yum!  This beer is in my top three desert island list, and I eagerly search it out each fall/early winter.  Interesting that while every other brewery puts out their malty and spiced beers this time of year, Surly puts out the hop-bomb DIPA.  I actually got quoted about this beer for Zymurgy magazine a couple years ago. 

Surly had several employees at OC, including Omar, Derek A. and Jim (Number 4.)  I talked to Derek for quite a while, a friend from beer judging circles, keeping him too long from his wife.  I'm happy that he is back in the cities after working in New Ulm for Schell's.  To come back and get to brew for Surly is a huge step!  I talked to the other Surly folks briefly and met a couple new people as well.  Abrasive is good for getting me to be more sociable!  Sj asked me who I was and what I had done with her real husband...

Overall a great beer, a great brewery and a great event.  We need more of these things out in the West, and based on the turn-out I think breweries should take notice.  With more and more new breweries fighting it out for the City territory, the outer ring suburbs are the next battle-ground for local beer domination.  Our bars and liquor stores out here still predominantly carry macro lagers, but are a huge potential growth market for Minnesota craft beers.  Oh and Abrasive is out in stores around the Metro as I write this, so stock up now!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Civil Life, Buffalo, 4 Hands: Breweries!

For lunch on this day we went to the extremely popular BBQ joint ,(rated the best in St. Louis,) Pappy's.  Fantastic ribs barely needing the flavorful sauces on the tables.  Usually this place has a line out the door and around the building, often completely selling out of food before dinner time.  We lucked out and hit it at just the right time.  On our way out I noted Buffalo Brewing right next door, and couldn't pass up trying a new micro-brew.  The place is small and has a lot of faux Texas decorations, including a stuffed armadillo on the bar.  The tap handles were home-made jobs in the shapes of coyotes, guns, and cactus.  We had the beer sampler to try 5 beers.  The Buffalo Gold was pretty skanky.  The Vanilla Porter and  pumpkin were not too bad.  Overall not great, and the feel of the joint was not amazing.

The same day we went on our epic tour of AB in St. Louis, we visited two smaller breweries, both about a year old.  These were the young punk upstarts trying to make a name for themselves in a town overshadowed by the quintessential Macro-Lager beer.  With the rise of craft beer as a legitimate movement and the take-over of AB by foreign companies, I think the city is ready for this revolution.  They may need to hide in the woods (and industrial areas of town,) and fight a guerrilla war to get noticed and fight The Man, but I believe these two have the right idea.

The first of these two breweries was A Civil Life.  They specialize in session beers and I think the highest alcohol beer they had on tap was 5.6% ABV.  They are trying to fit into a small niche amongst craft beer drinkers within a small niche amongst beer drinkers in general.  And seem to be doing a good job of it!  We first tried their brown ale at a pizza restaurant near our hotel and were fairly impressed.  Then a bartender at another brewery suggested we check them out.  The brewery is in an industrial area in an industrial building, with a nice metal gateway and sign on the way into the outdoor beer garden.  It being winter, the outside was closed down, but we noted that they have a drive-through style window from the tasting room inside to minimize servers having to run in and out.  Great idea! 

Coming through the main door you can see the open area where the brewing equipment is located to the left and there was a brewer in action while we were there.   To the right of the entrance is the tasting room itself, a long dark wood bar with a huge selection of glassware on matching shelving behind it.  There are a few tables as well, but this is the type of place you want to belly up to the bar and talk with folks.  Immediately on entering Sj and I felt at home here and it seemed warm and cozy after after the damp and cold evening outside.  Our bartender looked like a young Gary Oldman with astonishing handlebar moustache, and was incredibly helpful and friendly, probably adding to the relaxed feel of this bar.  They don't do samplers here, but our bartender let us try several things before we ordered.  You can buy half or whole pints served in style-appropriate glassware.  As you order the bartender puts a chalk mark for each half pint on a strip of chalkboard set into the bar itself. Half pints are $2.50 and pints are $5.   By the end of our stay here, we tried pretty much all the beers and there was not one that wasn't great to amazing.  The top of my ranking was the mild (never had better) and a German Alt.  Each of the beers was subtle, to style and perfectly balanced.  It takes some serious skill to do this many lower gravity beers and keep that level of clean ferment and balance.  Two local friends of ours met us here and have vowed to return frequently!  This would be my second home if I lived close by.  Probably for the best that I don't!

Our fourth and final brewery on our whistle-stop tour of St. Louis was 4 Hands.  This was in another more industrial area, but let's be honest, so is most everything in St. Louis.  Located in a large warehouse, it has a modern, clean and spare look.  You can see the brewing equipment through some glass behind the bar, very clean and modern looking.  The bartender here looked like maybe he belonged in a biker gang but was very helpful and friendly.  They have a double IPA called War Hammer and had a real war hammer up on the wall behind the bar.  I get the feeling that our bartender could easily use it on rowdy patrons.

They had 8 beers on tap and all of them were excellent.  The selection here was the exact opposite end of the spectrum from Civil Life, embracing tons of hops and spices and yams.  Our favorite was the Foundation, a strong but lighter tasting pale beer with ginger, lemon balm and peach juice.  I did manage to score a bottle to take home.  A very refreshing and tasty brew!  The best name goes to the smoked dark beer called Pigasus.  Along with beer they have a small menu of food including a nice charcuterie plate filled with meats and cheeses to compliment the drinks.  I really like the artwork on their labels, and most importantly the beer in the glass!

St. Louis has a new and vibrant beer scene and is well worth a visit for that if nothing else!  Breweries and brewpubs range from the gargantuan AB/In-Bev steeped in history and fizzy yellow beer, to older brewpubs like Morgan Street and Schlafly, to the new upstart niche breweries like Urban Chestnut and those mentioned above.  Oh I guess there are other things to do in town other than drink beer...but you can do both!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Anheuser-Busch Brewery St. Loius, MO

For a change of pace on our recent trip to St. Louis my wife and I took a tour of the biggest, baddest, brewing behemoth to be found in the USA:  Anheuser-Busch Brewery!  Let me first off explain my thoughts of AB.  I came to the beer scene late, (despite helping my mom brew when I was much younger,) I really didn't get interested in beer until I tried Pyramid Apricot Ale and Sam Adams Cherry Wheat.  Realizing that all beers were not pale fizzy flavorless macro-swill I tried my hand at homebrewing some of my own and really learned a lot about different styles by hanging out at Goose Island Brewpub and tasting all their concoctions.  As Goose Island grew, they tried new things like bourbon barrel aging and sour beers, and I continued to love these interesting new beers.  Not too long ago, my GI was bought by AB to the consternation of many of us beer geeks.  I have to say that so far the only change I have noticed is increased distribution and availability of their beers, and no big drop in quality.  AB has brewed many attempts at craft beers on their own, but they always seem to pull back and put out a product that is too sweet, too light, too flavorless to really appeal to the craft beer drinker, instead aiming at trying to get the widest audience.  I have viewed AB and the other macro companies as more interested in marketing and selling product than being concerned about actual beer quality.  So going into this tour, I had some serious preconceptions, making this trip almost an ironic one. 

On arrival, we entered through a large entry way decorated by a glorious wooden eagle symbol, seemingly made just for photo-ops.  Beyond this was an enormous open gallery area filled with cases of AB paraphernalia from the ages.  Cool old pocket knives, bottles, logos, and a full sized old beer truck.  Since we arrived early we had time to check out all this neat stuff, really getting a feel for the age and scope of one of the early and most successful breweries in the USA.  They had a collection of the old German style intricately decorated beer steins that were amazing to look at, and I'm still mad that they didn't have any replicas for sale in the gift shop.

We chose to do the Brewmaster's Tour for a more in-depth visit of the brewery than is given for free to the general public.  Our tour started promptly at 10 AM and consisted of us and one nice couple from Canada, obviously big fans and decked out in Budweiser gear.  Our Tour guide Jonathan was a very friendly guy and quite knowledgeable about brewing and the history of the place.  He started working there before he was legal to drink and was excited to finally be old enough to give the tours.  We started out in a cozy room with plush leather couches and a big TV.  There was a quick overview of the brewing process and looking at hops and malts.  I was passed a canister of Black Patent malt and snarkily asked what AB beer that was used in.  The answer was was just to show the potential differences in color of malts.  Maybe they should start using some...  We received an AB ball cap, protective eye wear and headphones.  Once we were all decked out in our gear we started the tour proper.

First stop were the glycol jacketed primary fermenter conicals.  These things boggled the mind.  I've seen all types of conicals ranging from homebrew 7 gallon to New Belgium's large tanks, but the monolithic nature of these tanks was insane!  I couldn't fit a whole fermenter in a picture!  It was also somewhat chilly in there.  We discovered why we had headsets since the background noise would overwhelm a normal tour guide...we simply turned up the volume and learned more about the capacity of those enormous tanks.  Do I remember any of that info?  Nope, my mind is like a sieve.

Next step was the secondary fermenters, smaller but still huge.  Very cold in here and I'm glad we had coats on!  They showed us the large stainless tea-ball apparatus filled with beachwood chips that help with clarification and fermentation of the beer.  These strips of wood are boiled to hell first so they don't impart any flavor to the final product.  One of the perks to the Brewmaster tour was getting to try a fresh sample of beer right off the fermenter.  That day we had Bud Light: brewed at about 8.5% ABV and unfiltered at this stage, it tasted like a cloudy Imperial Cream Ale.  Best Bud Light ever!  This would eventually be filtered and watered down to its final light beer status, and no longer taste like anything.

A word about the brewery grounds.  Massive.  That is the only word that describes it.  The complex takes up several city blocks and is made up of dozens of huge brick buildings, all of various vintages, shapes and sizes.  Some of the buildings are original from the 1890's, others from 1910, and onward.  The grounds themselves are very well-kept with gardens and trees abounding.  Even the trash cans and man-hole covers have the AB eagle symbol on them.  A large clock tower sits in the center of this complex, flanked by eagle-topped pillars.

Our next location was the brewery itself filled with gargantuan stainless mash tuns.  This is the fanciest brewery I've ever seen.  Two extensive hop bine chandeliers dangle over the brewing area, which is beautifully tiled and accented with gold leaf.  There are large and impressive paintings from one of the old World's Fairs in the building as well.  Scroll work metal railings look out from each floor into the central area and sky-lights let in what little light there was on this cloudy day.  I could have spend an hour in here taking pictures, but we were on a schedule.

A bit farther to walk and we came to the packaging building.  This was built just prior to prohibition and was initially meant to be used as a hotel if the brewery was threatened with failure.  Because of that, there is ornate tile work and fanciful light fixtures.  Each corner of the building boasts a large rock Bevo: the man-fox holding a mug and a chicken leg that became the mascot for AB's non-alcoholic malt beverage during prohibition.  Bevo also frolics amongst the tiles in the lobby of the building.  Upstairs is the bottling line.  Even with earphones turned up, it was very difficult to hear our guide inside.  They were bottling 40 oz Becks beers that day and I can't even imagine how many bottles there were zinging this way and that on the extensive and maze-like apparatus.  Labeling, filling, capping, boxing.  One lady was pulling off the low-fills and tossing them into a big dumpster.  Green glass littered the ground.  That is why they have about a thousand warnings about no open toed shoes in the literature and agreement for doing this tour!

From Bevo, we caught a cool old wood-lined Budweiser trolly to the Clydesdale stables.  They keep a few horses here for show as well as a bunch of the old tack and bridles.  The majority of the horses are bred and cared for at a large stable outside of town, and travel in air conditioned padded (and big) trailers to their other home and for special events like the Superbowl.  Much like the rest of AB's grounds and style these horses are freakishly huge.  They stand 6 foot tall at the shoulder, making me feel like a small child next to one.  All of the horses there that day were not cooperating with good picture taking and all I could get was a few pics of unusually large horse behinds.  They also had three of the red wood and sparkling brass beer wagons that are usually hauled by the draft horses.  Very neat, but the glare off all that brass also made for crappy pictures.

At this point it started to lightly rain, which I had been expecting for a while now.  We continued to walk between towering buildings that cut out most of the wind and rain.  We passed a white metal trailer covered with bio hazard symbols that houses the limes for Bud Light Lime.  I had no idea they actually used limes in that!  Not sure why they are so hazardous though... Just past there we saw a tanker truck filled with clam juice for the Clamato.  Our guide said that when they spill some of the clam juice it stinks up the whole complex.  Of note at one point in our walking tour a group of people hustled past us frantically donning yellow hazmat bunny suits.  Perhaps they were on their way to clean up a clam spill?  Or dealing with dangerous limes?

We came next to the chilly bright tanks, where they lager the beer before bottling it.  Our guide inserted a pig-tail into the grand tank and Budweiser began to spill onto the ground.  We were given AB tasting glasses with the eagle logo etched into the bottom for better bubble formation, and got to fill them directly from the tank.  Probably due to the cool factor of getting to drink directly from the tank, this was the best Budweiser I've ever had.  Don't worry, I'm not going to suddenly drop craft beer!

To cap off the tour we walked into the large tasting room.  Our guide led us through the room past all the coolers and taps and back to the room we started the tour in.  "We don't drink with those people," our guide commented.  Back in our comfy warm room with big leather couches we were shown to a mini fridge packed full of beers, and told that we had about an hour until the tour was officially over.  The regular tour gets two samples at the tasting room, but we could open whatever we wanted.  Pretty cool, but would have been cooler if the beers were better!  We tried the nasty Wild Blue, and a bunch of the Shock Top flavors...all of them just not quite getting the amount of flavor right to be called craft beer.  The Bud Light Lime was surprisingly good, I could see drinking it on a hot day with tacos.  Dangerous limes though...  The Lime-A-Rita sounded gross, but wasn't too bad.  Not a beer though.  The other guy on our tour really had no interest in trying the other beers, he just wanted his regular Budweiser.  This is one of the core difference between craft beer drinkers and macro drinkers.  Most people find a beer they are comfortable with and know it will taste the same wherever they are, sticking to it forever.  Craft beer people always want to try something new, but can still have favorites that they return to.

This was a great tour and a really interesting way to spend the morning in St. Louis.  Despite my thoughts of the beers in general and of the predatory practices of the big companies, I was pleasantly surprised with the trip.  To come full circle, like Goose Island being bought out, AB themselves have recently been bought by In-Bev, the Belgian based macro-giant.  Looking at the history of this place and the generations of brewers and workers that have been here, I regret that the company is no longer a true symbol of American industry.  Who knew I would ever feel bad for AB?