Saturday, June 30, 2012

Pyramid Alehouse: Seattle, WA

This was the start of my Second day of NHC pre-conference brewery tours, the smaller brewpub cousin to Pyramid Brewery, makers of Pyramid Apricot Ale.  That beer was the first beer I could tolerate the taste of, maintaining a special place in my heart, and prompting me choose this particular tour group.  Pyramid has been absent from the Minnesota beer scene for the last 4 years or so, just missing the local craft beer boom, so taking that first sip was like heaven. 

The alehouse serves up most of the usual Pyramid beers but also brews their own seasonals, so this is worth a try.  The food was pretty good too, and the ambiance was fantastic.  I love the combination of gleaming copper, stainless steel and heavy dark wooden beams in this place.  The brewer has recently stepped down from his position as head brewer of Redhook so he could get his hands dirty with actual brewing again, and his excitement shows in his new beers.  He gave a great tour and answered a lot of questions for us homebrewers.  The barleywine was to die for!  He also served up an interesting Scottish ale made with a hint of cherrywood smoked malt...not authentic,but pretty tasty. 
I picked up a tap handle for my collection, and totally spaced on my plan to get the brewer to sign it.  Oh, well!

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Pike: Seattle, WA

The Pike!
This is one of the very earliest craft breweries to open in the USA, founded in 1989 by Charles Finkel.  Charles has a long history of importing beers and wines into the US and had been "in" the scene for a while before starting the brewpub on the South end of Pike Place Market, very close to where they throw the fish around...

The beers here are fantastic, with a mix of traditional UK beers like Kilt Lifter Scotch Ale and Old Bawdy Barleywine as well as newer hoppy IPA's and pale ales.  Love the Bawdy, one of my favorites!  I did not have a beer that I didn't like.  The place is tight and crowded, withevery inch of the walls and bar area covered in signage and brewerania, I could just wander around here for hours.  There are also lots of cool glasses, books, and other barware for sale.

As a side note, I have been here before and wanted to go back, so I joined a pre-conference "Beer Pairing Dinner" that carted us over by bus.  When we arrived, they directed us to a large back room with some tables set up in the back corner.  Half the room was already full of people who were not in our paid tour group, so there was almost no where to sit and it was very loud and chaotic.  There were three hot and one cold food stations each sitting next to a pitcher of beer.  One was a bowl of warm pretzel bites, one was chicken wings, one was slices of sausage and the last was crab dip.  Most of these were empty or nearly empty by the time we showed up, and didn't get filled until almost 30 minutes later.  We milled around, wondering when they would seat us for the beer pairing dinner since we hadn't had nearly enough appetizers to go around.  After about 45 minutes we realized that this was it.  Keep in mind I love this place and love the beers, but it was hard not to get crabby after paying $45 and expecting something a bit more...filling.  A couple people wandered down to Pike Place to grab some pizza, and small group of us asked to be seated in the regular restaurant and be served a "real" meal there.  The halibut fish and chips was fantastic, but added more cost to my already expensive "dinner."  Oh well, you win some, you lose some.  I still ended up having a good time hanging out with Dave and Wendy from Wisconsin, so it wasn't a complete loss!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Airways Brewing Company: Kent, WA

Our third stop on the Washington beer scene was another departure, no pun intended.  First we had been at a fairly large production brewery with brewpub, then a midsized brewpub, and now arrived at tiny production brewery in a sprawling office park.  There was a tiny carboard sign out by the curb saying "Beer" with an arrow pointing to deeper amongst the rock-lined soulless walls of this park.  With a shrug, we entered this miniscule tap room and bellied up to the bar to try some beers, don't judge a book by its cover after all. 

We were greeted by ex-homebrewer Alex Dittmar and his wife Dione who served up some tasty samples and told us their story.  Despite this being the smallest brewery we saw on the trip, everyone was impressed by Alex and the similarity of what he was doing to expanded homebrewing, including mistakes and advice about how to make that jump.  He had started out his career as a commercial pilot, hence the name of the brewery.  The brewery even has an old Boeing nose cone over the boil kettle.

His first big "hit" with a beer was the Sky Hag IPA, named after the crusty and cantankerous old stewardesses who fly the not-so-friendly skies.  He was out of the beer, but opened up a spigot and served us some directly from the secondary fermenter where it was dry-hopping nicely.  Based on that sample I really want to try the finished product!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Camaraderie: fun, but hard to spell

Of all the places I visit and beers I drink on my tours, by far the best part is sharing those things with others.  When I drink a great Surly beer from my well-stocked fridge I enjoy it, but don't remember the experience later.  When I share a sample of Surly at the brewery with friends while listening to death metal blaring over the speakers, that memory will stay with me.  The combination of place, people and the social aspect of having a beer is the real reason I get so excited about this process.  As an anthropology major, I can tell you that the complexities of this social dynamic have been influential in the entire history of man and the agricultural revolution.

I saw so many places and tried too many beers to remember over the last week, but the things that stay with me are the people I met and spent time with.  Unfortunately I'm horrible with names and have left out some great people from this post...I loved hanging out with you, even if you are not mentioned here!  

I'm normally a fairly reserved and shy Norwegian Minnesotan, so going on this beer-mecca trip on my own was a little outside of my comfort zone, not knowing if I would have anyone to talk to or if I would be watching a lot of TV in my room.  However, the trip got off to the right start with meeting a couple of great guys on the plane from Wisconsin who were also headed that way.  By great luck I was able to meet up with them for breakfast before the flight home as well.  On the shuttle to the hotel I also re-met Mark, who I'd briefly met two years ago at NHC 2010.  I sat with a great couple (Tony and Kat,) at the Rock Bottom breakfast before the NHC kick-off toast and we shared brewing stories.  I'm hoping we can exchange some beers in the future!  I also had lunch randomly one day with Kiev, from Brew Your Own Magazine since we were both alone and didn't want to wait longer to be seated--thanks for the pint man!

One of my favorite people from the trip was a bloke named Paul who flew all the way from England to immerse himself in American beer culture, (though he gets most of his exposure through the Brewing Network so he probably thinks we belch and swear more than most of us really do...)  I ran into him on an early tour and ended up hanging out with him much of the trip due to his great sense of humor and attitude.  Oh, and I learned that "growler" has a far different meaning in the UK!  I'm guessing our new local publication of that same name would have a significantly different draw over there.

I have to mention the Primary Fermenters club out of St. Paul!  I've been friends with several of these folks for years, but this was a great way to spend some time with them and get to know other members I hadn't previously met.  They made me feel welcome and made sure I got my quota of partying in rather than escaping up to bed.  One day before Pro-Brewer Night we all went to an insanely crowded and authentic dim sum place and all ate way too many dumplings and sticky buns, and that dinner is a high point of my trip. Thanks guys!

To cap all this off, it was still nice to come home and be near my good friends in Minnesota.  On Monday night I was able to stop by Chris' house and sit on the deck drinking a great Gratzer beer while discussing the local beer scene and finally relaxing after my tiring trip.  It is good to be home.

So to all those who befriended me or improved my trip to Seattle, thanks and I'll buy you a round some time!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Harmon Tap Room: Tacoma, WA

The second stop in our first beer tour of the Seattle area was Harmon Tap House in Tacoma.  This place is very new, under two years old, and has a clean upscale feel for a small brewpub.  This is the third site for the company, with most of the commercial bottled beers being brewed in the original facility. They have a dark back room called the Harmon Underground where they often have live music.  There was a brief tour of the brewery by the head brewer, though I didn't think to record his name for this blog.  I blame all the good beers!  I think he enjoyed giving a tour to a group that actually had tough brewing questions for him, and not having to explain what malt is...

We had a lunch of spaghetti and a very nice salad whilst sipping on beer samplers.  I met some great folks on the bus and we shared beers in order to try them all.  One beer had some diacetyl, but otherwise all were very pleasant.  The stand-out was their Anniversary IPA, which was dry and balanced and remains one of the best of the style I had while on my trip.  Not too shabby for a small brewery surrounded by big guys!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Fish Brewing in Olympia, WA

From the website:
"From its home in beautiful Olympia, Washington, Fish Brewing Company has been hand-crafting ales of Northwest proportions since 1993. Founded by Crayne and Mary Horton and a few dozen local investors, Fish began operations humbly. With a 15-barrel brew house, two 15-barrel fermenters, and one dairy tank, we brewed for our neighbors up and down Puget Sound. Growing steadily since, Fish is now an award-winning craft brewer with distribution throughout the great Pacific Northwest and beyond."

Later the company moved to produce some of the first commercially available organic beers and are moving toward making all of the beers organic.  They also do some contract brewing for other brewers and have a line of ciders.  Interestingly the cider production has to all be done in a separate area of the brewery on separate equipment due to wierd alcohol laws. 

This was the first stop on my first organized beer tour in Washington state, and took about an hour on the bus from the Bellevue Hyatt.  On the way there, we had some beer trivia with homebrew prizes and exchanged brewing disaster stories, MC'd by a local homebrewess.  Our tour guides were actually investors in the Fish Brewery, hence were very knowledgeable about the place. 

Very cool artwork on the exterior walls
We started with a guided tour of the production facility, housed in a cool historic building.  The guide gave some pretty fun explanations of the brewing process and was quite animated for 10:30 in the morning!  The storage warehouse used to house a 50's sock-hop and had some pretty funny old grafitti that the company decided not to mess with. 

We had a few minutes to grab some sausage and beer samplers at the Fishbowl pub across the street, where the original small brewery was located.  The organic IPA was quite good, and all the beers were tasty.  I would certainly recommend a visit if you are in Olympia, but maybe not worth a trip all the way from Seattle. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Elysian Fields

Having arrived in Seattle, I was greated by two good friends Pete and Genevieve, who took me out on the town. Since I really wanted to return to the Elysian Fields Brewpub, we headed out there.

I really love the industrial-meets-arty-meets-big-fish-tanks look of this place. They had about 16 of their own beers on tap with some nice guest taps as well. The Avatar Jasmine IPA was really unusual and worth a try! I really liked a set of pale ales made with experimental as-yet-unnamed hops called Beaker and Bunsen. Meep!

The food was excellent, steak frites with blue cheese butter. I was jealous of my colleagues' lamb shepherd's pie though...

I have very pleasant memories of randomly being at this pub for their Great Pumpkin celebration a few years back, when they changed all their taps to serve pumpkin beers.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Rock Bottom Minneapolis

Rock Bottom has been a fixture in Downtown Minneapolis for many years, and has spawned several great brewers over that time.  The brewers from Surly started here, and even more recently Brion Tonnis, who is starting up a brewery in Duluth.  Last year the brewers were Bob MacKenzie (the guy from Sherlock's Home, not from Strange Brew...) and Peter Mack, both have since moved on.  I don't know much about the new brewer Piotrowski yet, but based on this most recent sampling of beers, I think he knows what he's doing.  I do know that he was sent out from Colorado, where he brewed at another RB.  Over the years and brewers the beers have certainly changed...for instance Erik the Red Ale was changed to a Vienna lager.

The food here is always good, with slightly upscale pub feel.  Service is usually good too, and most servers actually know about the beers they serve.  It is always funny to overhear newbies in the booth next to you asking servers, "Don't you have any regular beers here?"  In the past they usually have had a Christmas beer dinner, and I hope they continue.

The aforementioned Peter took our brew club on a tour of the brewery last year, and gave us a lot of insight into how the process worked.  That was a fun time!  I hope the new brewer embraces the local beer geek and homebrew communities.

It kills me to see this as a display and not filled with beer in my basement

Growlers filled from taps so drink them quick!

Since the chain was bought out by Craftworks there have been several changes, and that just might have prompted the switch in brewers.  The brewery now has four basic beers they have to brew and the recipe is the same for all the sites:  Red, Kolsch, Belgian Wit, and IPA.  The Kolsch is actually very good, better than last time I was here.  The brewer still has some lee-way in seasonals, so each site is still distinct.  The Molly's Titanic Brown was very nice and nutty, but the winner of the day was the Cocoa-Motion Porter served on Nitro.  Overall, I think this is a great place to stop before or after a show or a baseball game.  I should get to try a RB in Seattle next week and will be able to compare the two.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Town Hall Brewery

With the incredible explosion of new commercial breweries in the area over the last 2 years, it can be easy to forget about the pioneers in the field.  Town Hall Brewery, a small brewpub in the 7 Corners area near the University, has been around since the 1990's and has been frequently winning medals at the GABF for its amazing beers.  Since my friend Dave turned me on to this place about 5-6 years ago, it has become my favorite local brew-joint.

The menu is fairly typical pub food, but the 7 Corners Burger is my favorite in the Twin Cities, loaded with bacon, stout BBQ sauce and cheese.  And yes, I do always order the same thing.  The venue is in an old building with tin ceilings and has a relaxed vibe.  Patio seating is very popular in the brief MN summer months.

The beers are brewed on premises by Mike Hoops and his assistant brewers and are quite varied.  They have a set of 6 beers that are always on tap, including the fantastic Hope & King Scottish ale.  There are usually 5-6 seasonals on tap and rotate very frequently, often including a fruit infusion.  If you are lucky they will have one of their Imperial Stouts or Barleywines on tap.  There are also usually 1-2 cask beers on, which was unheard of around these parts until the last few years.  Since I don't get down there as much as I would like, I often get the seasonal sampler to test out all the new brews at once.

Earlier this year the brewery had a garage sale to sell of some old merchandise and make room for more offices and equipment, and I was able to get my grubby paws on one of their old brewery signs that was up for silent auction.  It now holds a proud place in my garage brewing area, since it was way too big to hang in my basement bar.  On my way out of the brewery with the sign it was pretty hilarious listening to all the people outside freaking out that I was stealing the sign in broad daylight.  Ah, good times!

Friday, June 15, 2012

NHC update

I am giddy with excitement about my upcoming trip to Seattle for NHC! I've got plans for a beer dinner at Pike Brewing, tours of breweries, a beer breakfast at Rock Bottom, dinner with a couple sets of friends, and more! The only disappointment is that my wonderful wife can't come with me to enjoy it.

My two beers that are going on to second round have been shipped to Seattle, quasilegally and have hopefully arrived in good shape. I had to input my recipes and send a picture of myself in case I win gold--then I would get both in the upcoming issue of Zymurgy magazine.

I'll stock up on lots of info and pics to post over the next few weeks, and maybe some posting from the event.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


I thought today I'd talk about the chilling it related to beer of course.  There are several methods to chill beer; drop your hot pot in an ice bath; a copper coil chiller that is dropped into the pot; and a plate chiller.  I have used all three and my favorite is the Therminator plate chiller from Blichmann Engineering.  The idea is to run cold water from the hose through the plates within the chiller and then also run the hot wort through it at the same time.  This counterflow results in heat from the wort being absorbed by the cold water and run out the exit hose, while the cold water also cools the wort.  With this process you can chill 5-6 gallons of boiling wort in 5-10 minutes, depending on your ground water temps.  Here in MN it works fast, but in the South it can require some prechilling of the water with ice. 

This gizmo isn't cheap, but has saved me about 30-45 minutes off my brew day.  The only issue I have with it is the difficulty in cleaning it.  I have a back-flush hose and run water through it each way after use, but I still remain paranoid that there is crap left in there.  I usually also run hot PBW through it for 10-15 minutes with my pump, then soak briefly in Starsan before each use.  Do not let this sit without at least flushing it right after use!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cream Ale

Quick one for today, as I'm busy as anything.  Jack Of All Brews' July beer style of the month is cream ale, so I figured I'd better get cracking if I want to take part.  Luckily this is a fairly quick beer to ferment out, so if I keg it up I think I can make it!

Recipe for 10 gallon all-grain batch with est. 78% efficiency

7.5# Rahr 2-row
7.5# Weyerman pilsner malt
1.25# flaked corn
0.75# corn sugar to boil
1.8 oz Liberty hops 3.9% AA at 60 min
0.8 oz Liberty hops 3.9% AA at 1 min
Wyeast American Ale smack pack without starter
Mash at 149-150 for 90 minutes (due to pilsner and corn adjunct)
Boil 90 min.
OG 1.052

Hit all the numbers well and ended up probably the lightest color of any beer I've made.
I've separated it into 2 five gallon batches, fermenting one half with classic American Ale yeast, with the other half using Saison yeast.  I might do some tinkering with the Saison half depending on how it tastes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Rahr! Where Does Brewing Malt Come From?

When you drink a beer do you ever stop to think where the ingredients for that beer come from?  If not, you should take a few minutes and do that!  Beer is a food product and comes from natural ingredients like barley malt, wheat, and hops.  The grain for malt is grown all over, especially here in the Midwest, where we have lots of great cropland.  I believe that Rahr Malting is the biggest single-site malting facility in the USA, and is located right in Shakopee, MN.  Several members of Jack Of All Brews Homebrew Club work at Rahr and Brewer's Supply Group and have been kind enough to give tours of the facility.  This place is enormous, with its own water treatment plant and railyard.

The unmalted grains come in from rail and are steeped in warm water to germinate, simulating wet spring conditions that encourage the seeds to start growing into plants.

After a couple of days the grain is transferred to these long beds that are periodically stirred up with gargantuan augers, and continue to grow rootlets and plump up.

After they have reached the right stage, they are transferred to the kilns and roasted to the specifications of the maltsters and brewers.  More time in the kiln results in a darker grain.  The majority of the malt coming through here is lighter 2-row or 6-row for the larger brewers, but more craft brewers are having specific malt or blends made from Rahr too.  Once the grains are fully dried, they are run on giant conveyor belts to the trucks or rail cars.  The amount of grain here is mind-boggling and the pictures lack the scale of this operation.

Think about the time, effort and skill it takes to create that basic ingredient in your beer.  Trust me, you will appreciate the final product all the more!  I use a lot of Rahr malt in my home-brews, and many of my favorite commercial beers use it, such as Summit and Magic Hat.

The best view of Shakopee, from on top of the facility

Let's get "arty"

Monday, June 11, 2012

Blackbird Cafe Belgian Beer Dinner

Beer style brought back from extinction in the 1970's

Our friends Carol and Kevin clued us into the third beer dinner to be done by the Blackbird Cafe in Minneapolis last night.  The two of them and our other friends Chris and Hassan were all able to make it out there and we had a blast!  The six of us met by being frequent fliers at the Happy Gnome beer dinners over the last several years and have started meeting for other beer-centric events since. 

This dinner was Belgian themed and we were greeted with a fantastic charcuterie plate (house cured meats, olives, pates, kimchi, etc.) and a bicep pumpingly huge glass of Hoegaarden Belgian Wit.  Not a bad start to dinner!

The dinner continued with tasty white asparagus and Belgian Endive salad paired with Orval...all three having a similar tart note.  A palate cleanser of blackberry and black pepper soup came in the world's tiniest tea cup with a doll-sized spoon.  Great flavors that I'm going to use in a beer sometime.

Next up was smelt fries (along with normal fries,) paired with Westmalle Dubbel.  Fishy but done perfectly, and a nice pairing.  Wonderful presentation as well.

A palate cleanser soufle was served up in a tiny canning jar and was a high point of the meal.  Not even mentioned on the menu!  Then came the main meat course with a perfectly done venison loin along with an amazing herb salad.  That was paired with Rochefort 10 and was certainly the best pairing of the night.  The cherry and sweet onion jam on the venison really brought out the dark fruit notes in the beer.  Yum!

Desert was a chocolate cake with ice cream, paired with Lindeman's Framboise.  Both were better on their own, but both tasty!  Overall we had a great time and enjoyed this quaint cafe.  We were able to take home our Hoegaarden glasses and also 10$ gift certificates to the cafe!  Oh we will be back...
Blackbird:  where hipsters and antlers meet

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Kegerator Time

I have finally upgraded my bar to include a four-tap kegerator system!  I figured I'd chronical my construction and hook-up of the process for posterity.  I'll admit I had a carpenter actually construct the wooden frame/collar that went on the top of the chest freezer, as well as the faceplate on the bar side, so I'm not spending much time talking details on those.

1) The faceplate on the bar side is the beautiful face of the tap system.  I got the idea from my friend Kent, who created a similar style of tap directly from his wall.  Beer...from the wall!!

2) The back section of this plate goes through the drywall and has a bracing back plate.  The tap shanks come through both plates and are tightened up with a nut.

3) Next we pull out the temp control gauge.  This lets you control the temp of the chest freezer to keep it warmer than a typical freezer should run.  I don't really want to serve beer flavored slushies.  This plugs into the wall, and the freezer is plugged into it.

4) The temp probe goes into the freezer through a small hole drilled in the wooden collar around the top.  When the temp gets colder than the set point on the controller, it breaks the circuit and the freezer shuts off until the temp warms up enough to warrant another chilling cycle.  I have connected the controller to the side of the freezer with velcro for easy movement.

5) Next we put some kegs in to see what type of room we have.  I have 3 full sized soda kegs and one shorty sitting on the ledge.  This leaves room for the CO2 inside the freezer, though some folks like to keep that outside the freezer for easier tinkering.

6) CO2 tank is hooked up with a gas line to connect to the gas manifold.

7) The tank fits nicely in between the kegs.

8) Gas lines come next.  I have installed a manifold with four outputs.  You can also see that there is a layer of insulation along the collar.  Many internet sources say you don't need this, but I thought it wouldn't hurt to keep temps correct.  It was a big pain to connect all the end pieces to the lines, but looks great when it is finished.  Top the gas line with the grey gas keg posts.  I did all my pieces with the unscrewable ends for easier upkeep.

9) Liquid lines to the wall shanks.  These connect with a nipple, washer and nut.

10) Next we go through the holes drilled into the wooden collar.

11) Put all the end pieces onto the liquid hoses and connect the black liquid keg posts.  Pretty much done now!

12) Finishing touches!  Tap handles and you are good to go.  Now I just need to fill some of these empty kegs to have four more beers on tap.