Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Limited Release Episode 9: Surly Darkness, Steel Toe, Fulton!

Here is a link to my friend's show Limited Release.  This month they visit Steel Toe and Fulton breweries, culminating in Surly Darkness Day!  Including a cool interview with one of the best MN brewers Jason Schoneman of Steel Toe, and with Alvey from the Four Firkins.  I'm not in this episode but you should watch it anyway! Catch up on old episodes if you haven't seen them yet!


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Fistmas!

Ok, so I've been radio (blog) silent for the past week or so--not typical for me at all!  I've been busy with the pre-Christmas holiday shopping, and very busy at work, so bear with me.  I have several longer homebrewing posts already in the can for the coming months and hope to continue my series of interviews for the upcoming year. 

So this week I thought I would talk about (and drink) a few holiday beers to celebrate!  I have always been a fan of holiday spiced beers, and look forward to this time of year.  One year I tried to do the 12 Beers of Christmas, but due to scheduling issues I didn't manage to have one each day.  Maybe I'll attempt that again next year.  Over the past few years I've noticed a lot of new holiday beers that are not spiced: many are double IPA's, Imperial versions of regular beers and just odd-ball beers that don't fit a category.  To some extent I think this trend is fine--as long as breweries are giving us good beers.  However, I'll admit I'm still a little morose when I find just another IPA or brown ale masquerading as a special holiday beer.  And let's not forget all of the Belgian Christmas beers that range from strange spiced concoctions to simply strong versions of regular Belgian style ales.

Ok, so here is where the Merry Fistmas comes in!  On a recent trip to Chicago I was able to visit Revolution Brewing and get the awesome big black fist tap handle pictured above.  I was sad that their fabled Christmas ale was not out yet, but then my best friend Bryan saved the day when he brought a couple cans for me at my birthday party!  This is really an aggressively hopped brown ale with definite spruce flavors...and very tasty.

Santa likes his malt liquor!

Last week Matt and Anna came over for a spirited game of Cards Against Humanity, and brought along a 2006 vintage Samichlaus.  This beer was originally brewed by the Hurlimann Brewery in Switzerland from the early 1980's through 1997.  At that point the beer was out of commission until it was resurrected by Schloss Eggenberg in Austria in 2000.  The beer itself is named after Santa Claus and is supposedly brewed every year on December 6.  It is based on a Dopplebock style, and for a while was the strongest commercially available beer, clocking in at about 14% ABV.  Because of its rarity and strength, this was one of the first popular beers to cellar.  Digging into my stash on this fine Friday evening, I found a dusty bottle of 1996 and 2000 to make a little vertical tasting for us.

The 1996 bottle was deep brown in color with almost no head at all.  Strong cardboard and sherry notes dominated the aroma--and the flavor.  Some alcohol was certainly in there.  The oxidation was a bit too much for me to really enjoy it, but trying a beer that is 17 years old is pretty interesting!  The 2000 bottle (from the new brewery) was very similar with more raisin character.  Still very little carbonation.  I think this was my favorite of the three.  The 2006 was much lighter in color and lacked the complexity that the previous beers had.  We felt that the recipe had been significantly changed somewhere along the line--but it was interesting that this did not happen on the first move to the new brewery in 2000!

Moving on to Christmas Eve's festivities.  I took this time to open last year's St. Bernardus Christmas Ale, and man that beer has aged nicely!  Belgian yeast character is pleasant, but not overwhelming the subtle dark sugar notes.  Carbonated to well above typical American Belgian ales, this beer ends very dry and drinkable for it's 10% ABV.   I then dug out a special bottle I've been holding onto since our 2012 trip to Belgium: Kerkom Winterkoninkske.  This is a dark strong that we bought during our tour of the brewery, and was already a year old at that time.  The flavors of this beer have changed a bunch since I had it last, with incredible notes of Belgian chocolate.  I'm sad we can't get their beer in Minnesota, but I did pick up another bottle the last time I was in Illinois!  To pair with this latter beer I cooked up a steak and lamb kidney pie with puff pastry topping.  This is a dish I used to love from Sherlock's Home brewpub and I haven't had a really good one since they went out of business.  Since I was able to buy a whole yearling lamb through True Cost Farm (our meat CSA) and had the required tasty organ meats, I thought I'd give it a try!  I was pretty close considering I cobbled together a few recipes from on-line and added some of my own ideas.  The pie was bursting with flavorful thyme gravy, cremini mushrooms and of course steak and kidney bits.  A good pairing, but after sharing those large two bottles of strong ale, Sj and I both fell asleep while trying to watch Iron Man 3.

Seriously, tastes better than it sounds!

For Christmas Day itself Sj and I followed our usual pattern of consuming much needed coffee and sweet rolls while unwrapping the presents in our stockings.  I got lots of Magic cards and candy in mine...along with a single much prized bottle of 2013 Bourbon County Stout!  Sj got lots of beads and even more candy.  Sj and I then got into the glory of tearing into our regular presents and flinging wrapping paper balls around for the cats to rampage in.  Not having kids, we tend to spoil each other at Christmas time and buy way too many presents for each other.  I'm not complaining!  I discovered some cool homebrewing equipment like the Fast Rack and the Big Mouth Bubbler hiding under the tree--more on those in a future post.  I also received a couple of really cool Belgian beers and a whole slew of new clothes.

Merry Christmas to me!  Thanks Sj and thanks to the Four Firkins for pointing her in the right direction!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Pumpkin Beers 2013: The Finale!

OK,  This is my last word on commercial pumpkin beers (at least for this season!)  For the past two months I have been slogging my way through as many pumpkin beers as I can, reviewing each to the best of my ability.  Please check out my previous posts on the matter if you haven't done so already. My total (pumpkin) head count was 35, 37 if you count both versions of the homebrewed Pumpacolypse Brau. Over the season of this strange experiment I have discovered a few things about said pumpkin beers. 

1) Quality: Like other beer styles, the majority of them are mediocre, with a few being disgusting and a few being amazing.  The old bell curve strikes again!  Having come into this experiment believing that I loved the style, I was a bit surprised at how many of the beers didn't really do it for me!  I've stated before that pumpkin beers are very polarizing: people love them or hate them.  I'm wondering if the haters may have tried some of the nasty beers and are basing their hatred on this. 

2) Spicing: This is really the key to the style.  My favorites of the season had recognizable spicing, but erred on the subtle and balanced side.  Too many of the beers I tried were over the top spiced and ended with a harsh bitterness that was off-putting.  So if you are going to try this yourself use a light hand on the spices.  Nutmeg dominates when combined with the other pumpkin pie spices of ginger, allspice, clove, and cinnamon, so maybe cut that down a bit to get a better rounded spice mix.  Top choices for doing this well were Wasatch, Brooklyn Post Road and Town Hall Petunia's.  Also some of the beers I tried had strange additional spices like lemongrass and cardamom--with varied results.

3) Malt:  The best of the beers were ones in which there was a malty backbone to balance the potential bitterness from spices and pumpkin itself.  ESB, Octoberfest, and Imperial's were all the best base styles for these.  I enjoyed a couple of the porters, but the roast malt astringency tended to exacerbate the bitterness from the spices.  Best of these was Town Hall, Terrapin Pumpkinfest, and Pumking.

4) Pumpkin:  Most pumpkin beers have little to no recognizable pumpkin flavor.  Some of the beers I tried had no actual pumpkin in them at all.  The few that I felt had true pumpkin flavor where Southern Tier Pumking, Terrapin, and Indeed Sweet Yamma Jamma (OK yam, not pumpkin for that one!)  From my own attempt at pumpkin beer, (tried before spicing,) I did get a hint of pumpkin flavor, but not much considering the huge amount of pumpkin we put into that beer!

5) Weird:  I enjoyed trying some different styles of pumpkin beer, like sours, cider and shandy--just to mix things up.  There is only so much you can say about the flavor of nutmeg and malt when judging pumpkin beers!  However, none of these unusual beers scored very highly in my final tally. 

6) Overall favorite?  Town Halls Petunia's Pumpkin, due to perfect balance of malt, mild spicing and easy drinkability.  Glad I have a growler of this in fridge right now!  Second place was actually The Punkacolypse Brau that Mike Lebben and I fought so hard to create.  Having tried so many commercial examples I was frankly shocked at how well this beer turned out.  I want to try brewing it again next year with a bit less pumpkin and a lot more rice hulls!

Crazy Mountain Rocky Mountain High Pumpkin Pie Beer: That is a mouthful!  Located in Vail Valley, Colorado this is a brewery I haven't really heard much about prior to this.  I had this beer the other night on draft at The Happy Gnome with a charcuterie plate prior to a Laphroaig tasting upstairs. 

Aroma: Nutmeg up front, followed by pumpkin and a hint of caramel.  Slight apple or pear ester to it.  Cinnamon as it warms up.
Appearance: Orange to copper color (but it was dark in the restaurant!) Medium sized white head that persisted well.  Small bubbles.  Excellent clarity with no haze.
Flavor: Malty but not overly sweet, a bit of caramel in flavor.  Strong nutmeg and allspice flavors really dominate this beer.  Medium body, but the residual harsh astringent and chemical burn from the spices make this seem to end thin.  Like sucking on a clove or allspice berry this has a tongue coating medicinal burning to it, even after done with the sip. 
Overall:  I like the aroma and initial taste, but that lingering harsh finish kills this for me.  Simply too much spice that isn't in balance with the base beer.  3/5.

Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin:  This brewery has been around Minnesota for a few years, but honestly has not really had much presence in the beer scene.  No special events, few rare beer releases, and what I see as a basic lack of support in this market.  Every once in a while I'll pick up one of the beers with mixed results--sometimes I love it (Tiny) and other times I don't (Double Simcoe).  This beer clocks in at 8% ABV, and is made with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom. 

Aroma:  Rich nutmeg and cinnamon on first whiff.  On deeper inhalation I get a lot of sweet sugar and some carmelized malt.  Hint of fruity pear and apple as swirled.  Slight earthy notes as it warms.
Appearance: Deep ruby in color.  Very clear with no haze.  Medium fine off-white head.
Flavor: Maltiness up front (unsurprisingly).  A hit of nutmeg and cinnamon after the initial malt bomb.  The finish fades to a strong cardamom flavor and astringency that stays with you.  Because of this the beer ends very dry and almost puckering.  There is some real pumpkin hiding in there.  Also some of the fruity esters from the aroma come through as it warms up.  Body is medium.  Very slight alcohol warming present.
Overall: The first sip is appealing, but the finish is just so harsh that this is difficult to keep drinking.  This is one that (to me) isn't worth the calories.  2.5/5.

Southern Tier Warlock: A pumpkin Imperial stout from the fine folks who brought you Pumpking!  I wanted to have both of these beers at the same time, but with both being higher alcohol beers, deemed it unwise.  So we tried this out after dinner, as a desert unto itself.

Aroma: Powerful roasted pumpkin flesh and vanilla at first, reminding me very strongly of Pumpking.  Ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg all play about in the aroma.  The combination of pumpkin with ginger and vanilla reminds me strongly of pumpkin pie with gingerbread crust.  Smells very sweet.  No hop aromas.  Very little roast malt.
Appearance: Deep brown with ruby highlights, not as opaque and black as most Imperial stouts.  Large tan head that is persistent.  Fine bubbles and lacing on glass. 
Flavor: Sweet vanilla and pumpkin/malt up front--like pie!  This initial sweetness fades to a ginger and alcohol heat on the palate finished with a mild roasty finish.  A slow updraft of nutmeg and cinnamon with lingering vanilla at end.  As it warms I get some lemon zing that might be hop character.  There is a definite bitterness to the beer, seemingly from hopping.  Medium bodied.
Overall: A very interesting beer, getting higher marks than expected due to its uniqueness.  I don't get as much of the dark malt and roasty notes that I expect in an Imperial stout and was a bit disappointed in that.  It seemed like a regular pumpkin beer brewed with a little debittered black malt to add color without flavor...like a schwartzbier.  The lemon and ginger really made this taste more like a gingerbread cookie than a true pumpkin beer.  Worth a try.  4/5.

Lakefront Pumpkin LagerThis is a fun beer from Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, WI.  I tried this last year when in town for my cousin's wedding and really liked it.  I'm happy to say that we now get Lakefront beers in Minnesota and I found a bottle at the Four Firkins.  They did put out a 25th anniversary Imperial version of the beer this year but I never found one to sample. 

Aroma: Surprise!  Nutmeg and cinnamon, with a light ginger aroma after some deep sniffs.  Mild pumpkin aroma as swirled.  Some sweet malt.  No hop aroma. 
Appearance: Light orange in color.  Brilliantly clear and sparkling.  Small white head with fine bubbles, mostly from the nucleation site on the bottom of my glass.
Flavor: Malty but not overly sweet, more like a Vienna lager.  A good mixture of nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger that is not overwhelming but does stay with you after the sip.  No astringency.  No hop flavors.  Finish is crisp and lagery with a hint of pilsner malt.  Mouthfeel is a bit light.
Overall: Not a bad beer.  I like the crispness of it and the well balanced spices.  3.5/5.

Jack-O Traveler Shandy: This is a shandy, half lemonade and half beer.  The Traveler Beer Company jumped into the scene a few years ago (possibly on the coat-tails of Leinie's Shandy) and has started putting out some seasonal varieties.  I believe that this company is owned by Boston Beer Company, but it does not say so anywhere in their on-line information (then again neither does Angry Orchard).
Aroma: Lots of ginger and lemon in the initial aroma.  A light nutmeg aroma arrives as this is swirled.  Sweet and tart battle it out on the nose.
Appearance: Deep orange in color.  There is a slight haze, but not much.  Large off-white head that persists well.
Flavor: A tart lemon flavor fades to a sweet classic pumpkin pie finish.  I get nutmeg at the back of the tongue and a dry sweet-tart finish.  No hop at all.  Mouthfeel is just a bit more than light.  The spicing is perfect--bringing out the pumpkin pie flavors well.  As it warms though, this beer gets a bit flabby and loses its edge.
Overall:  A good experiment that I didn't think would work.  Better than expected, and refreshing.  Drink it fast, though because it is best cold.  3/5.
New Belgium Pumpkick: This is a new seasonal offering from the always experimental New Belgium Brewing Company in Colorado.  This is an unusual beer that is made with pumpkin juice, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon, lemongrass, and cranberry juice. 
Aroma: Malty sweetness blended with nutmeg and allspice.  There is a tart zing in the aroma like lemon and grape tannin.  A bit of fruitiness, perhaps from hops.  As this warms I get more cinnamon.
Appearance: Deep gold to nearly orange in color.  A very mild haze is present.  Large white head that sticks around.
Flavor: Maltiness up front, but not really sweet.  There is a tart finish from cranberry and lemon that dry the end of this up.  A mellow nutmeg and cinnamon are left at the end.  Excellent balance between the sweet malt and the spices.  Not much true pumpkin picked up.
Overall:  This was a nice way to end my experiment in pumpkin beers.  This one has some unusual flavors, but everything is so well balanced that it rises to the top of my list.  4/5.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Kathy Stock Benefit! Bid High, Bid Often!

This is just a quick post to alert anyone who hasn't already heard about Kathy Stock's upcoming cancer benefit.  I met Kathy around 2007 or so, at a mead dinner at The Happy Gnome, along with her husband Curt and a bunch of other amazing mead makers.  Since then, I consider her a friend--as does nearly everyone who has ever met her!  Kathy and Curt are fixtures in the Minnesota homebrewing scene and seem to know everyone.  Both have always been welcoming to people getting into the hobby, and were instrumental in my entering into the local homebrewing and beer judging community.

Each year at the Upper Mississippi Mash Out Kathy and I get into good natured bidding wars at the silent auction, so this fund raising event really strikes me on a personal level.  I'll be donating some cool beers from my cellar (Goose Island Juliet, Bramble Rye, Bourbon County Stout, and Surly Darkness all from 2012,) for the auction in the hopes of raising some money for her.  I have seen a preliminary listing of the amazing beer and wine related stuff that will be available and plan on bidding strongly!  There will also be non-beer items in the auction, as well as some food, and good drink from some of the best homebrewers in the country.  I'm really looking forward to supporting the Stocks in their time of need, as well getting a chance to hang out with a bunch of friends.

Clear your schedule and make it out there!  And if you can't make it to the event, then feel free to just make a donation! 

Addendum 12/12/13: 

Sj and I trekked out in the -4 F temperature night to get to Kathy's benefit last night.  Our trip took a bit over an hour (in rush hour traffic) but was well worth it!  I was amazed at how packed that hall was with Kathy's work mates, family and tons of friends.  There was a large showing of homebrewers from many different clubs, (Tom and Nancy even drove all the way from Fargo, making my hour commute seem irrelevant!)  In a back room they had several jockey boxes full of homebrew and many, many dangerous meads available as well.  Chris Smith's meads in particular were wonderful...no wonder he wins so many medals with them!  There was a huge spread of snacks and sweets to munch on as well. 

There were so many silent auction items that it was difficult to move between the tables!  Some amazing stuff went for well above market price--a testament to the love people have for Kathy Stock!  Sj and I successfully drove up prices on several items, but actually got skunked on winning anything this time.  It looks like the silent auction from Mash Out this year may be going toward this cause as well, so I have a second chance next month! 

Keep Kathy and Curt in your hearts this Holiday season, and thank everyone for putting on such a wonderful event.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Blichmann Hop Rocket In Action

Let's do a product review today!  Two years ago Santa left a fine gift beneath out tree: the Blichmann Hop Rocket.  I was very excited at the time but admit that I didn't find a time to use it until the following summer.  I dug it out again this fall and decided to document the process. 

The idea behind this contraption is to mimic the whirlpool addition of late hops that many commercial breweries use.  This adds a bright hop aroma and a little taste to the finished beer, and is really only appropriate for hoppy beer styles like IPA and pale ales.  Since I don't tend to brew many of those, I don't break out this toy very often.  The secondary use for the rocket is to act as a secondary filter for your beer (through the leaf hops and screen) before entering your plate chiller or carboy.

1) Place the rocket upside down to begin the preparations.

2) Insert the filtering apparatus into the inverted rocket.

3) Add leaf hops.  This will fit from 1-3 ounces of hops, but not more.  Keep in mind that hops will expand when they soak up hot wort.

4) Add rubber gasket and cap off with the large stainless bottom piece.

5) Tighten with included tool.  (No wise cracks now...)

6) Turn upright and ready to hook up!

7) Hook up heat tolerant silicone tubing from the brew kettle --> the pump --> the Hop Rocket --> the plate chiller --> the waiting sanitized carboy.  Yes, you are going to need a pump to push that wort through the rocket!

8) Fill 'er up!  Note my need to prop up the silicone tubing so it does not kink.  The Rocket is pre-chiller so it gets very hot.  Make sure to use gloves for all of this. 

Final results were 10 gallons of IPA, heavily hopped in the last 15 minutes of the boil, then run through an ounce of Cascade whole hops.  I really should have used more but this was a thrown together brew with what I had in the freezer.  I ended up dry hopping in the primary once the fermentation was slowing as well.  Did the Hop Rocket really change the brew?  Hard to tell with all the other hop action going on in this beer.  It would be worth doing this again, but only running half of the wort through the Rocket and tasting the final beers side by side.  Next year!  I did note that far less trub made it into the carboys and this was certainly my clearest wort ever.  I also flushed very little debris out of my plate chiller this time, so much of the hop bits and trub were caught in the Rocket. 

One can also hook this up to a jockey box and use it as a Randall to infuse fresh hop character into a kegged beer, but I haven't tried it yet.  Has anyone else?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

James Page Reboot...Sometimes Dead Is Better

As most people know, in the late 1980's craft beer began its slow rise to prominence.  In Minnesota, Summit really led this trend, but another small brewing company started by attorney James Page also opened at that time, and made a name for itself.  James Page Brewing Company was very small and local, coming into its own in the early 1990's, like many other craft breweries at the time.  It was probably the first American brewery to sell a wild rice beer, and was one of the first craft breweries to can its beer.  I remember the Boundary Waters lager being pretty good, but didn't really try many of the beers. 

In 1995 the brewery fell victim to the dreaded craft beer bust that pruned down the then burgeoning craft beer scene.  That is a whole separate story, but the base problems were too many crappy breweries, too much contract brewing with fly-by-night labels, and too many get-rich-quick schemes by investors and business men who knew nothing about beer.  James Page ended up selling the company, which put a lot of money into marketing, but made some bad decisions over the next few years resulting in poor yield.  Apparently the draft beer was produced at the brewery, but the bottles were contract brewed at various other places (including Schells, who hadn't yet really embraced the craft style for itself).

In 2005 the brand was sold to Stevens Point Brewing in the Wisconsin town of the same name.  That company has a storied past beginning in 1957, brewing mostly American lagers, and is the 5th oldest continually run brewery in the country.  For those from Wisconsin and Minnesota they have a somewhat less than stellar reputation, (think Old Milwaulkee, Olympia, etc.)  A few years back they attempted to re-brand themselves with new packaging and some "crafty" beers that rode the line between mass-market and craft beers.  They did have a runaway hit with their Whole Hog Imperial Pilsner at that time, and recently have expanded the name into a series of higher gravity beers (mirroring fellow Wisconsin brewer Lienenkugel's Big Eddy series). 

As of right now the James Page brand has been re-imagined by Stevens Point and I was given three of the beers by a friend to try.  When handed the cans I had no idea what they were.  These have snuck into the local beer marketplace with minimal fanfare, and I was unaware of their existence.  The cans all sport colorful design and each have a bold statement of individuality at the top.  There is a small logo of JP's up near the top of the can, which seems like a waste of buying a known brand only to shorten it into obscurity.  Only by looking at the small print on the side of the can could I discover that this was James Page and brewed in Stevens Point.  Looking at the website, it mirrors the logo along with the tag-line "Adventurous brews with a twist." 

A white stout?  Ludicrous!

Casper:  Sporting a pretty cool looking white buffalo on the can with the words "Stand apart" rolling across the top of the can, I had high hopes for this one.  A self proclaimed white stout, this is the first such beer I've ever tried.  The website describes it "Distinctively golden in color with big pilsen malt flavor, and a touch of hops."  It clocks in at 6% ABV. 

Aroma: Lots of corn!  Corn and more corn.  Loads of corn.  Also a hint of noble hop as it warms.  There is some light cocoa and medicinal aroma as well. 
Appearance: Straw or light gold in color.  Huge foamy white head that takes 5 minutes to fall enough to drink.  Excellent clarity.
Flavor: Sweet malt up front that fades to a corn syrup based cheap candy sweetness.  Sj described the flavor as Necco Wafers--and I think she hit it right on the head.  There is an imitation (read chemical) chocolate finish that is interesting but fairly off-putting.  A bitter finish.  Mouthfeel is borderline creamy--slick feeling.
Overall: I was intrigued by this beer and really wanted to try something unique: a white chocolate stout!  But the flavors were not good in this at all.  The base beer honestly tasted like a malt liquor...and I have some personal experience with Mickeys!  The corn flavors may be from pilsner malt, but could also be DMS which can give a strong creamed corn flavor and a slick mouthfeel.  My suspicion is that both are involved here.   If they had used a wheat beer base this may have been better.  Maybe.  The imitation flavors are terrible.  Blech!  I give this a 1.5 of 5 stars.

Some things are best left undiscovered?

Yabba Dhaba: This is a porter spiced with a chai tea mixture of spices including ginger cinnamon, cardamom, clove and anise.  I have had a couple of homebrewed examples of this style while judging competitions and have been tempted to do my own version, but it hasn't hit my rotation yet.  With the tag-line "Discover" on the label, along with an adventurous fictionalized James Page exploring the wilds of India, this is also an attractive package.

Aroma: Lots of things going on in the aroma on this beer.  Lemons, cardamom, white pepper are strong.  There is a slight roasted grain burnt aroma.  Allspice and cloves as it warms up a bit.  Some sweetness from malt is present as well.
Appearance: Deep brown, but not black.  Held up to light you can see through the edges and clarity is excellent.  When poured has an enormous light brown head that fills the glass.  I poured this into 2 separate 12 oz glasses and foaming was such that I still had a third of the beer in the can afterward.  It was several minutes before I could get a legitimate taste of this beer.
Flavor: Not as sweet as expected from the aroma.  Very mild roast malt.  Spices are very strong in this one, and too much of that lemon flavor present.  A muddled mix of cardamom, liquorice and cloves.  The mouthfeel on this is a bit watery and thin.  There is a strange flavor in the finish that tastes a bit like imitation vanilla extract that stays with you.  To use a wine term, this is flabby.
Overall: This is pretty disgusting.  I have no idea where the lemon flavor was coming from, but it clashed horribly with the light roasted malt flavors.  Some of the spice flavors seemed very fake and medicinal, and the spicing in general was too over-the-top to leave a balanced beer.  The base beer for this didn't seem to have enough body, sweetness or mouthfeel to hold even out that extreme spicing.  2.5/5.

Ould Sod:  "A road less traveled."  Described as an Irish Red IPA, this beer uses high hopping rates of East Kent Golding, Fuggles and Hallertau hops. 

Aroma: This one has a lot of hop aroma--seems like a mix of cascade and the earthy English hops.  There is a bit of vegetal, green character that cuts down the citrus.  Light fruity esters are present, along with a sweet caramel malt.
Appearance: Deep orange to almost red color.  Huge tan head that persists, but not as extreme as the other JP beers.  Very clear beer.
Flavors: Strong hopping up front, hint of citrus and a fair amount of musty earthy hop.  Mellow caramel maltiness into the finish.  Ends with a bit of vegetal astringency.  Mouthfeel is aquous and not as pleasing as I would like. 
Overall:  The best of the three JP beers I tried, but still not quite right.  The watery mouthfeel hurts this one, I think a bit more here and this would be higher in score for me.  I like the concept of an English hopped red ale, and this was close to fulfilling that goal.  The vegetal character hurt it though, a risk with high hopping rates.  Drinkable, but I wouldn't order another.  3/5.
I try very hard not to be a hater.  I am usually of the camp that says "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it."  But I also like to be honest, so this sometimes puts me a bit of a conundrum.  Should I just not write up this beer/brewery/pub at all?  With this particular group of beers, I had some personal history with the brand and felt it would make a good story, so I decided to go ahead and give my honest opinion.  After trying three of the four new James Page (JP's) beers I spotted a couple of trends.  First off, the beers were all over-carbonated.  I'm not sure if this was a process issue (though Point has been canning beers for ages without problems) or intentional.  Second, all were perfectly clear--and when using extracts, dry hops and spices this is rare; so they are likely filtered.  Third, all were a bit disappointing, not living up to their potential.  I freely give this (hard-won) wisdom to all new homebrewers and pro brewers: start with a good solid base beer, then add odd ingredients and tweaks to your recipe.  You can't polish a turd.

I like the concept: take a known old brand and update it for modern times, appealing to the nostalgia crowd as well as the new-fangled craft beer crowd.  However there are some miss-steps here.  Why pay for the James Page brand and then not have that brand front and center on the can?  Then they fall into the major problem that most of the larger macro-breweries have--trying to appeal to the craft beer drinker without really having any understanding of what they really want out of a beer.  In mind of the executives behind this brand: "Crazy ingredients!  Check.  Unusual styles!  Check.  Funky art and labels!  Check.  Those craft beer drinkers won't know what hit them, and we'll be richer than our wildest dreams!"  However, craft beer drinkers now-days have changed from those wild-west 1990's folks who were just dipping their toes into the pool.  Now many of us are better educated about beer styles, beer and food pairings, even homebrewing.  We know how to spot a brand that is "Crafty" rather than "Craft."  This line is thinning with breweries like Goose Island being bought by AB-InBev and still putting out legitimate craft beers; but plenty of others still can't get it right.  In the end (for me at least) it is about taste and not about merchandising, focus groups, and appealing to the lowest common denominator. 

For me this re-boot is a pure fail.  Not an Epic Fail, but close. Could they fix it?  Yes, there are some easy changes to the beers that could improve them.  Will they?  I doubt it.  They will likely be confused as to why those craft beer suckers are not emptying the shelves of these beers.  If they put as much time and effort into the base beers as they did on the packaging, they really could have had something here. 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Punktastrophy: The Redemption!

Early this fall season I published a post about the cursed pumpkin brew that Mike Lebben and myself attempted to create on the night of the Harvest Moon.  Follow this link for a recap of our epic brewing adventures.  Though told in over-the-top style, everything in that post truly happened, and it seemed that the disgruntled pumpkin gods were against us.  Mike continued his overseeing of the 10 gallon batch of Imperial pumpkin ale over the following month. 

Mike served his spiced version of the tainted brew to thirsty parents on Halloween from a giant pumpkin with a spigot.  Take THAT disemboweled pumpkin! 

I finally had a chance to visit Mike at his Wandering Eye Brewery for an official tasting of the beer.  Let's just say I was suitably impressed with the results, especially considering how many things went wrong with our process that could have resulted in a terrible beer! 

First I had a taste of the un-carbonated and un-spiced ale my from my half of the batch.  Remarkably after as much pumpkin slurry as we had in the wort, this sample is crystal clear!  A deep orange in color to nearly brown.  In the aroma I noted an earthy or peaty smell with a hint of maple syrup.  The flavor was sweet without being cloying and had a lot of real pumpkin flavor.  I sensed a subtle maple flavor at the end of the taste.  I was very excited about the blank canvas I now had to work with! 

Mike next  poured me a sample from his kegged and spiced version for a comparison.  Here is my official review along the same lines as the other pumpkin beers I have been blogging over the past two months.

Mike's Harvest Moon Imperial Pumpkin Ale

Aroma: I get strong nutmeg and ginger in the initial whiff of this beer.  A more restrained cinnamon comes out with swirling, mixing with a bit of apple ester to give a spiced apple cider aroma.  No hop aroma noted.  Some sweet malt and very subtle maple is also gleaned from this sample.
Appearance: Very deep orange to nearly brown in color.  There is a slight haze which is most likely chill haze based on the crystal clear room temperature version I sampled prior.  Not any hazier than the other commercial pumpkin ales I've tried.  This sample had very little head when poured, but I could rouse some fine white head with swirling.
Flavor: Somewhat sweet and very malty up front, but not cloying in the least.  Some melanoidins giving a toasty flavor.  I can pick up distinct ginger, allspice and nutmeg in the flavors.  This ends somewhat dry with a slight astringency that is tempered by the maltiness.  Slight alcohol warming as it goes down, but pleasant not distracting.  Medium mouthfeel.  I do pick up true pumpkin flavor in this beer, lurking in the background behind the spices.  No hop flavors. 
Overall: A remarkably balanced beer, especially given its troubled past.  A high alcohol beer, this has a pleasantly malty mouthfeel and warming finish suitable to the cold nights in Minnesota's November.  A bit more carbonation would be welcomed, and is easily fixed by putting it on more CO2.  Mike did a great job with the spicing, (making a tincture of spices in vodka) and it really enhances the pumpkin flavor rather than overwhelming it.  This is in my top tier of pumpkin beers that I have tried this season!  4.25 out of 5 (down from 4.5 due to low carbonation.) 

Next up is my version:

Eric's Pumpacolypse Brau:  I picked up my half of the batch from Wandering Eye Brewery and took it home very carefully!  Tasting the un-spiced base beer was very interesting--I could really pick out the pumpkin flavor, as well as a hint of the dark maple syrup that had gone into the fermenter.  I made a tincture of Penzey's spices including cinnamon, allspice, clove, powdered ginger and nutmeg, soaking them in some cheap vodka that I usually use to fill my airlocks.  After 24 hours in the booze, I ran the whole mix through a coffee filter and into another sanitized jar.  I then slowly added this to the kegged (but not carbonated) beer, tasting as I went.  When the flavors seemed right I finished kegging the beer and put it on gas to carbonate.  The result was right where I wanted it, but I had reserved some of the tincture in case the flavors faded once it was carbonated.  Based on my likes and dislikes from all the commercial examples I've tried, I went for a minimal approach.

Aroma: A subtle mix of nutmeg, clove and cinnamon.  Sweet malt and pumpkin flesh is strong after the initial zap of spices.  A hint of maple syrup and caramel. 
Appearance:  Just a tiny haze in this deep orange colored beer.  Carbonation was a bit light, but brought out a fine white head with swirling.
Flavor: Similar to Mike's version (obviously) in malt forward notes.  I do pick up the maple flavor, but on the back of the tongue.  The spicing is mild, but I can pick up nutmeg, clove and some ginger off the bat, with cinnamon trailing behind.  Medium bodied with some pleasant alcohol warming effect.  A mild astringency at the finish, but balanced well with the maltiness.  Carbonation is still not completely where I want it, but still higher than Mike's version.
Overall: Similar to Mike's version, but spices are a tad less prominent.  I really like this beer and managed (to my wife's chagrin) get through most of the keg at my birthday party.  4.5/5

I am very impressed with the way this beer turned out, in the face of its troubled past!  I would love to do this one again next year, with some changes in process.  First off, cut down the pumpkin a bit--just too much in there.  Increase the rice hulls to a ludicrous amount.  Cut the recipe from a 12 gallon to a 10 gallon to leave more room for additional rice hulls, water, etc.  This batch really overwhelmed the capacity of Mike's system the way we did it. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Book Report: For The Love Of Hops, by Stan Hieronymus

Continuing my series of book reports about good homebrew and beer related books, this month I look at the recent publication For The Love Of Hops, by Stan Hieronymus.  This book is one of the Brewing Elements series from Brewers Publications, a division of the Brewers Association.  The series aims to publish a definitive tome on each of the major ingredients in beer, starting with Yeast, then Hops, and the recently released Water.  I've got the latter as well, but need time to dig into that meaty book.  This series is really aimed at professional brewers and includes a lot of chemistry, biochemistry and large-scale brewing advice.  However, with the lines between professional and hobbyist blurring from the advent of the Internet and better general beer knowledge, a lot of the information is useful to the homebrewer as well.  Thanks for the book Keith!

Our hoppy journey begins with a forward by Ken Grossman (founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing) about his personal history with the hop and the change in the hop industry over the years.  Having been at the forefront of American craft brewing, his take on things is valuable and interesting.  I won't ruin it for you!

Next up is a fairly lengthy introduction by the author that spends some time on the history of hop growing and then to the idea that triggered the writing of this book.  The gist I got was that even the "hop experts" still have a lot of questions and Hieronymus drew the short straw to try putting all the info currently available into one small publication.  Brave man!

Chapter 1 starts with aroma, probably since aroma is the first thing one tends to notice about hops.  There is a lot of heavy science in this chapter populated with aroma wheels and spider graphs.  The author sites a lot of studies, resulting in plenty of information, as well as the obvious fact that this chapter barely scratches the surface of the subject.

The 2nd chapter goes back to the history of hops in beer and farming, and is perhaps my favorite section of the book.  Gone are the complex scientific formulas and names--this is history folks!  Following this (too short) historic lesson is a chapter that focuses on the future of the hop--paying much attention to hop breeding programs in the current day.  If you don't know much about the subject, this is an eye-opening intro to the complexities of hop husbandry!  It is also interesting to learn how the process of selecting and breeding hops is handled.  Continuing in this vein, chapters 4 and 5 pay attention to the arts of hop farming and harvesting.

Chapter 6 is useful from a technical perspective, as it discusses differences in hop products like cone, pellet, and extracts.  There is also an extensive list of the currently available (some still new and rare) hops along with their acids, oils and backgrounds.  A good place to start for info on newer hops, but I wish there was a bit more about their aroma and flavor profiles included.

Chapter 7 is about IBU's and using the hops in the brewhouse.  Formulas, talk of kettle geometry and interviews with brewers cavort through this chapter!  This is the nitty-gritty for the serious pro brewer.  Following this section is one on dry-hopping, an essential discussion for modern brewing techniques.  Off flavors take the center stage in chapter 9 and explains how hops can go terribly wrong.

The final chapter is really a bunch of recipes from professional brewers around the globe.  These range from IPA's to Continental lagers from breweries like Firestone Walker, Fullers, Victory and many more.  If you need some clone recipes to try--this is a good place to start.

Overall I enjoyed reading this book.  For the serious home or professional brewer there is a lot of concise information in here.  One of the big things I discovered was that not even the big brewers and scientists know all that much about hops.  There is a ton of new information yet to be learned in the near future.  Think of this as more of a brewing textbook than an entertaining read.  While there are some good anecdotes, the main thrust of this book is hard science.  Even with my background in medicine (with plenty of chemistry classes lurking behind me) there are sections that my mind wants to shake off and ignore as too difficult to pay attention to!  For those just starting the hobby, read How To Brew or something a bit lighter to start.  But for those mega-geek guys like me who can never seem to get enough beer information, go ahead and try this out! 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Turning 40

This past week I celebrated my 40th birthday.  Strangely, where 35 freaked me out, this year's slow tick of the death-clock didn't seem to affect me much.  I'm guessing that the big-freak at 35 was because I didn't really even start my official career until age 30 and hadn't settled in for the long haul yet.  I'll also admit that since then I have gathered a fair number of friends who are older than me, and seeing them remaining cool and fun makes me feel like there is hope!  I worry a bit about becoming behind the times, but so far I can still talk video games, books, and music with the young folks.  I still have no comprehension of Twitter and hate songs with auto-tuning, so maybe this is the start of the drift to irrelevancy... Or perhaps just maintaining good taste! 

For my birthday week we did a lot of fun things to celebrate, and with all this fantastic stuff to look forward to I really had a great time! 

The festivities began on Tuesday with a Tyranena beer dinner at The Happy Gnome.  This is a small Wisconsin brewery that was ahead of the big craft beer boom curve, but that I've not really paid much attention to recently.  I did try their Painted Ladies pumpkin beer as part of my pumpkin beer blogging experiment, but that may be the only beer of theirs that I've had in 2 years.  I was pleased overall with the beer quality, and the well balanced drinkability of all of them.  The Sheep Shagger was one of the best Scotch ales I've had in a while...though the label design's shepherd with a lamb on his lap looks way too melancholy...  As usual we had a great time hanging out with our frequent-flyer beer dinner friends, as well as the wonderful staff of The Gnome.  The food was amazing as always!

On Wednesday, (my actual birthday) Sj had a meeting in the evening and my plans were to sit at home moping alone with a beer and my PS3.  My friends did not agree with this plan!  Mike Lebben, as well as Bryce and Elise came over to share beers and keep me company.  They all brought some cool beers for me, and I took this opportunity to crack a couple of rare beers that have been languishing in my cellar.  We had the incredibly tart and complex Cantillon Kriek, as well as a 2012 Black Tuesday to celebrate!  Lucky for Sj, I saved some of both for her tardy return!  It was fun just hanging out with friends on a school-night.

Saturday I went over to Andrew's place and we played Shadowrun, a game I haven't played since I was about 15 years old.  Its a roleplaying game from the 1980's in which the futuristic world is run by evil competing corporations who hire players for espionage, extortion, and various other misdeeds.  So the dystopian future of the 80's is really just the 2000's?  Though in the game, magic has returned to the world including elves, dwarves and trolls... I'm still waiting for that to happen!  This was a fun way to spend an afternoon--basking in the old-school geek glory of sitting around a table and rolling dice to kill things.

During this summer's CONvergence in Bloomington Sj and I donated money to Fearless Comedy Productions at a level that allowed for Courtney McLean and The Dirty Curls to play our event.  What event?  Well, why not have a 40th birthday party for me?  This was the ball that started rolling down the mountain, soon to become an avalanche ending in an amazing and crazy birthday bash.  Dan and John from Enki Brewing in Victoria kindly rented out their brewery for my nefarious deeds.  We had food catered through Chipotle, which seemed to be a big hit. 

Since the party was on a Sunday, and draconian Minnesota liquor laws don't allow taprooms to sell beer then, we were unable to drink Enki beer at the event.  I was able to furnish my own brews though and had six on tap using the JAB jockey-box.  The crowd favorites seemed to be the Mild Mannered, the JAB de Garde and the ill-fated Pumpacolypse Brau.  I managed to empty three kegs to make room for upcoming brews! 

Later in the evening, the band arrived and performed two sets of their deliciously raunchy music for our entertainment.  If you have not heard of them, you should check out their website here.  Watch a video and prepare to have your mind blown.  I'm amazed at how a group of (mostly) gals can sing such disturbing lyrics whilst maintaining a straight face!  I was a bit concerned that my friends and family would be horrified, but I think the band was a hit.  They sang one naughty serenade to Andrew and Janelle's 17 month old boy, who stood in rapt attention for the entire song.  They sang me a wonderful new birthday song that reminded me of the disturbing fact that my parents once had sex, and congratulated me on not being aborted!  Watching the crowd's reactions was almost as good as watching the band--I know I had tears running down my face from laughing so hard.

We're with the band...

The party turned out amazingly and I thank the band, the guys from Enki, and everyone who came to share the fun.  Special thanks to my best friend since Kindergarten, Bryan Keehl, who drove all the way from Chicago to take part.  Bryan gave a great speech that got both of us choked up and rivaled the one he gave at my wedding!  He also acted as my beer mule--bringing me some awesome Three Floyds beer from our field trip out there last month.  Thanks to all those who brought gifts (you really didn't need to, but I appreciate them) and cards.  My friend Marty the blacksmith forged me a heavy bottle opener in the shape of battle-axe that I carried around like a jaded king's scepter most of the night.

Both still ticking!

The point of this story you ask?  As I hit age 40 I find myself in the enviable position of having everything that I really want out of life.  I'm married to a wonderful woman who loves me and keeps me on track.  I have a busy job that I really love to do, and that provides me with the money to not worry about the little things as much.  I have a ton of great friends and a healthy family.  My hobbies of homebrewing and beer-blogging are an outlet for my creative side.  Now that I've reached this stage, I find that (for me) life is really about the experience.  Life is a series of experiences, some good, some bad, but all lead you along the road that becomes your history and your future.  Why do I love beer so much?  Each beer I have is an experience.  It will never be the same again, that special combination of company, location, food, etc.  Beer is meant to be shared--as are all great experiences like concerts, theater, sporting events, and even birthday parties.  The company and the event means more than the liquid in the glass.  This is the reason I continue my long-winded babbling about beer and beer events--I'm attempting to put into inadequate words the feeling that these things engender.  This is also a journal and remembrance of a series of (mostly) enjoyable events that make up the current chapter of my life.

To all my friends, family and other readers: Stop and enjoy those moments that make up your life.  Here's to another chapter and the next 40 years!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Pumpkin Beers: Imperial Punk!

In this issue I continue my slow slog through all the pumpkin beers I can get my hands on!  I've made my way through a large portion of my stash and will continue to chip away at it.  I'm getting to the tail end of the pumpkin beer season and some of these are no longer available at the store, (and some are from outside our distribution area anyway,) but keep these reviews in mind for next year's batch!  First up a couple of Imperial pumpkin beers!

Sam Adams Fat Jack: This is Samuel Adams' Imperial pumpkin beer, clocking in at 8.5% ABV.  Made with 28 pounds of pumpkin per barrel as well as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice.  They make note of smoked malt in the recipe as well.  This is unusual in that the brewery makes a regular pumpkin beer as well: check out my review of Harvest Pumpkin ale here.

Aroma: This beer has a strong malty aroma with a hint of nutmeg.  There is a subtle smoky note melded with a mild cinnamon.  Overall not as aromatic as many of the pumpkin beers I've tried.
Appearance: A deep ruby color with excellent clarity.  Pours with a huge off-white head that seems to last forever. 
Flavor: A pleasant malty sweetness at the start that settles into an off-dry, almost roasty finish.  I get some nutmeg and a bit of ginger, but pretty subtle.  There is a somewhat creamy mouthfeel.  I also get a bit of alcohol warming down the back of the throat.  Light cinnamon and smoky notes as it warms. 
Overall: This was much better than expected.  I don't pick up much pumpkin, but the malty backbone and creaminess of this beer is very nice.  The spices, dark malts and smokiness add a lot of complexity to this beer and makes you want to keep trying it.  I know you will be shocked by this, but it goes very well with pumpkin bisque (I used the last of my organic CSA pumpkins for this!) 4 of 5 rating.

Southern Tier Pumking: Another Imperial pumpkin ale at 8.6% ABV, probably the first of the style that I ever tried.  I have noted some variation year to year-with last year's being overly bitter and hoppy for my tastes. The bottle verbiage makes a big deal about the pagan roots of this Halloween and pumpkins, and is a fun read.  No mention of spices on the website or the bottle, but I can sure taste some in there!

Aroma: Powerful malty nose with a perfume-like vanilla and pumpkin-flesh aroma intertwined.  I actually smell pie crust!  Perfumy fruity esters present and a whiff of alcohol.  Possibly some nutmeg as it warms. 
Appearance: Light orange in color with crystal clarity.  Large white head with fine bubbles that lasts for some time.
Flavor: Strong malt that was noted in aroma, but not cloyingly sweet.  I get some hop flavor and bitterness in this beer.  The mouthfeel is medium, but the taste ends with a slight astringency from pumpkin and hop.  I do taste vanilla, nutmeg and cooked pumpkin.  Some alcohol warming as it goes down. 
Overall: Probably the best showcasing of the actual pumpkin flavor I've tasted.  The pie crust flavor really takes this to the next level.  The sweet flavors are well balanced by bitterness.  I really like this one!  4 of 5.

O' Fallon Pumpkin Beer: We used to find O' Fallon on our store shelves in Minnesota, but I haven't seen them in a long time.  I can't say I ever loved the one I tried, but they had a ton of unusual fruit beers.   I picked this up along our trip to Alabama.  5.6% ABV, and uses pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves per the website.  Interestingly also uses white wheat in the grain bill.

Aroma: Sweetness with a cooked corn aroma.  Smells creamy.  Hints of nutmeg and cinnamon.  Green apple as it warms.
Appearance: Dark gold in color, but not quite orange.  Large and fine lacy white head.  Slight haze.  Head does not persist long.
Flavor: Very sweet start.  Strong apples and cinnamon like old fashioned baked apple sauce.  Nutmeg trails after the apple pie flavor.  Light body but has a strange mouth-coating effect.  I taste corn in the flavor as it warms.
Overall: This beer tastes very corny, which combined with the slick mouthfeel is likely DMS from poor fermentation or incomplete boil.  My wife said it best: "This tastes more like a cider than a beer."  2.5 of 5, and both of us dumped it after it warmed up a bit.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Three Floyds Brewery

On a recent trip to Chicago, my childhood friend Bryan and his girlfriend Megan took me on a little field trip to the not-so-bustling town of Munster, Indiana for a visit to the fabled Three Floyds Brewery.  I've been a fan of their beers for ages, though I admit some of that may be the fact that I can't buy them in Minnesota.  In tone, the brewery has a lot in common with our home-team Surly Brewing: screw-the-man attitude, vibrant art style, irreverent beer names, and cult-like fan following.  All the things needed for greatness among the beer geek community.  And like Surly, they get by on more than attitude--they put out consistently good beer.


We arrived about 30 minutes before the brewpub opened to find a large line snaking into the parking lot from the main entrance.  This was no special event day, but apparently the place is always packed.  Luckily it was a balmy 50 degrees and sunny in small-town Indiana that day, but I wouldn't brave the elements in the middle of winter for it!  Squatting beneath the bulbous Munster water tower, the brewery building is essentially a large warehouse with an attached small brewpub.  There is a pub entrance and a second, smaller, door for walk in bottle sales.  A few minutes before official opening, an employee, using his best carnival barker's voice, explained the rules to those of us in line.  He explained the free tour times and allowed us to sign up for them.  Interestingly once in the brewpub, if your tour time comes up, they will save your seat for you until you return.  A nice perk since tables are hard to come by.  I do have to say, that the staff was great and despite being busy they really knew how to deal with crowds.

We were escorted to a small table near the rather minuscule bar and settled in for some great beers.  The bar itself is oddly decorated with a series of framed bottle art, Three Floyds event posters, and a mix of old toys and action figures.  Shelves of bottles, more toys and odd nick-knacks also surrounded the room.  Murals of Gumball Head the cat lined the walls near the restrooms.  Again I was shocked at how small the brewpub and bar is, with the popularity of the brewery such as it is.  Supposedly they had a recent expansion, but they obviously didn't go crazy with it! 

Bryan doing his "Robert The Bruce" impression!

They offer samplers of their four "regular" beers: Dreadnaught IPA, Alpha King Pale, Mild and Robert The Bruce.  All are good beers but RTB is far and away the best--a wonderfully malty and complex Scottish ale.  They had an extensive list of other beers, and offered most in full or half pints, though some were only served in 8 oz snifters (mostly double IPAs.)  Between the three of us we were able to sample many of the beers that fine day.  Still bloated from a huge dim-sum repast in Chinatown earlier in the day, we stopped drinking due to lack of room rather than too much alcohol.  I enjoyed the War Mullet and Permanent Funeral (both DIPAs) very much.  Bryan and I were very surprised that in addition to over-the-top hoppy, the brewery had several very restrained examples of classic Continental beer styles like and Oktoberfest (Munsterfest) and Schwarzbier (Das Kleine Schwarz Einhorn).  I wish there had been more time, and more room in my distended gut, to try everything, but we did fairly well.  Several of the beers on tap were collaborations with Metal groups, and similarly themed loud Metal music pervaded the pub.

We hit the free tour after our drinking was done.  You get what you pay for.  The entire tour took place in about 15 feet of warehouse space.  Our tour guide was good and knew his stuff, but this was a very fast tour that barely scratched the surface of such an infamous brewery.  I did like the artwork on the walls, including some old D&D art from the Dungeon Master's Guide of my youth.  Looking at the bourbon barrels filled with future incarnations of rare Three Floyds beer was intriguing.  They also had just received a large oak foedor as used by Rodenbach and New Belgium, but hadn't decided what to do with it yet.  I also spotted Brewers Supply Group malt shipments that my friend Chris is probably responsible for.  I was disappointed that we really didn't get close enough to look at the packaging line, or even the brew kettle, though I guess if you've seen one you've probably seen them all.

When done with our tour we joined the (now shorter) line for bottle sales and purchased some beers to take home with us.  They had a limitation to 2 cases of beer per person, and nearly everyone in line with us left with two big case boxes!  They did have a lot of t-shirts, but I was disappointed in the other brewery swag.  I would have bought a sweat shirt, or tin tacker or posters...but they were all out of those.  Pretty much beer, t-shirts and pint glasses only.  Come on guys, with your dramatic artwork and logo this is a huge area of potential money making for you!

I really did enjoy my trip out to the brewery, but have to admit I was slightly underwhelmed after the hype I have heard.  I wanted more grandeur and pomp!  I still need to get out there for Dark Lord Day one of these years (as seen on Limited Release in two separate episodes). 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Pumpkin Beer Extavaganza

I will get through all these pumpkin beers before November is out!  I WILL!  Here is the next batch, some are available around here and a few are gleaned from my recent travels outside of Minnesota.  I'll also talk about some non-beer pumpkin drinks...

Harpoon Pumpkin UFOHarpoon is a brewery that opened in Boston back in 1986, and has been making craft beer ever since.  This is actually the first beer I've ever tried from them, since they have no distribution in Minnesota.  Per the website, this is a beer made with German Munich and Vienna malt, and the brewery makes a big deal about it being unfiltered.  Pumpkins and unnamed spices round out the recipe.
Aroma: Nutmeg, cinnamon and actual pumpkin abound in the aroma.  No hop scents.  I get a slightly fruity ester profile that accentuates the sweet malt.
Appearance: Copper in color with a slight haze (as promised).  A bit of sediment despite smooth pour.  There is very minimal head to this beer and what is present disappears quickly.
Flavor: Sweet maltiness with a medium body.  I get some nutmeg and possibly vanilla in the middle of the taste.  As it warms up I taste pumpkin flesh and a hint of ginger.  Balanced to the malty side and lacks the astringency I see in many pumpkin beers.
Overall: A very well balanced beer.  This comes off as malt balanced but not overly sweet, with some pumpkin pie spices present.  Some complexity here, and I get a true pumpkin aroma and flavor to the beer--one of only three I've found so far in my tastings.  Low carbonation hurts it a bit.  I would happily drink more of this if I could find it!  4 of 5 score.

Redhook Out Of Your Gourd Pumpkin Porter:  This is a seasonal offering from Washington's Redhook Brewery.  Per the website: "Out of Your Gourd Pumpkin Porter is dark chestnut brown in color and is made with pureed pumpkin. Cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger are added to the whirlpool and maple syrup is added during fermentation. This full-bodied, rich roasty porter makes you want to eat turkey and watch football, or build a bonfire." 
Aroma: Nutmeg and cinnamon up front.  Some roast malt is present, but not extreme.  Some sugar and sweetness noted.  No esters or hop aromas.
Appearance: Opaque dark brown to nearly black in color.  Has a fine tan head that is easily roused.
Flavor: Roast malt and a hint of sweetness up front.  Fades to a ginger and nutmeg finish with a slight astringency.  Not a lot of malt in the flavor, and the body seems thin.  No real pumpkin flavor.
Overall: I like the concept of pumpkin porters, but this one falls short to me.  The spicing is not heavy handed, but the astringent finish and light body hurt this one for me.  I'd like a bit more residual sweetness and mouthfeel out a porter.  3 out of 5.

Terrapin Pumpkin Fest: This is a brewery out of Athens, Georgia that has been putting out flavorful craft beers since 2002.  I picked this up in Alabama at Wish You Were Beer.  Made with real pumpkin, ginger, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon.
Aroma: Plump real pumpkin aroma!  Sweet malty notes, followed by nutmeg and cinnamon.  No hops noted.  A hint of ginger as it is swirled.
Appearance: Deep gold color with a slight protein haze.  Rocky off-white head with large bubbles at edge of glass.  Very persistent head.
Flavor: Sweet and malty at first, but ends off-dry and very drinkable.  Not a cloying sweetness at all.  Strong nutmeg/allspice and ginger flavors after the first malt hit.  Cinnamon flavor trails behind but distinct.  I do taste pumpkin flesh and ends with a subtle astringency that I've come to associate with real pumpkin.  Medium mouthfeel, almost creamy.
Overall: A very good Octoberfest beer, that is well balanced in its own right.  The malty sweetness plays well with the spicing and evens out any of that astringency from spice and pumpkin.  Very drinkable!  4/5.

Woodchuck Pumpkin Cider: This is one of the "Private Reserve" series of seasonal ciders from Vermont's Woodchuck Hard Cider.  Sj loves the Granny Smith variety and that is her go-to drink of choice with many foods.  Most of the other varieties we have had from this large cidermaker have not been as much to our liking.  Seeing this one on the shelf prompted us to grab a bottle and see how it stacked up to the pumpkin beers we have been working our way through.
Aroma: Sweet cider apples, but mostly smells like baked apple pie.  Strong cinnamon and maybe some allspice.  Grape bubblegum as it warms.
Appearance: Deep orange color (this cider uses caramel coloring for that effect).  Almost no head.  Pettilant, with very mild carbonation, noted with swirling.  Excellent clarity.
Flavor: Very sweet apple that reminds me of cinnamon apple pie.  Possibly a hint of ginger burn at the finish.  No pumpkin flavor noted.  Not incredibly complex.  Cloyingly sweet on the tongue and makes me want a sip of water afterward.
Overall:  Way, way, way too sweet to be drinkable.  Mellow warm pie spice but more like apple than pumpkin.  We didn't finish this...not worth the calories. 2.5/5.

Blue Moon Harvest Pumpkin: I'll admit, I wouldn't be caught dead buying a six-pack of this.  My beer geek friends would disown me.  But the kind waiter at Old Chicago let me have a sample of it, so here it is on my list.  It is from a small sample glass and that may have affected aroma a bit.
Aroma: I get nutmeg followed by sweet caramel and then a hint of allspice.  Some corny aroma mixes with some fruity pear and apple esters.  No hop aroma.
Appearance: Deep gold in color with crystal clarity.  Fine white head, that seems to last.
Flavor: Fruity sweetness up front, followed by flavors of allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg.  No real pumpkin noted.  The apple and corn flavors make this taste more like apple pie.  Creamy mouthfeel, but ends somewhat flat.
Overall: Not a lot of complexity, but has the proper mix of spices.  Not as bad as I thought it would be--I've had worse this season.  I'm dying a little inside by giving this a 3.5 out of 5.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Beer Scene: Chicago (Musings From Chi-Town)

Continuing my travelogue of a recent trip to Chicago, and in no particular order, here are some more great places to try out if you love beer and food.

Revolution Brewing:  I have heard great things about this brewery over the past couple years, and my friend Chris suggested I check them out when in Chicago.  So I actually made this my first stop on our trip, dragging Sj with me into a somewhat shady area at night.  This is the main brewery site on Kedzie Avenue in a manufacturing district on the Northwest side, but they also have a more accessible brewpub site that I will visit on a future trip!  Upon arrival from our cab, we were not entirely sure we had found the right place, briefly worried we had been dropped off in The Hood--soon to be found rotting in a dark alley with empty pockets. 

The building is in a large warehouse with only a small, difficult to read neon sign above a small entry door to betray its identity.  Climbing a set of stairs past a wall mural that indicated we were on the right track, we came to a large open tasting room.  We arrived in the early evening and the place was pretty quiet at that point.  About half of the room was sectioned off for a private event for cyclists that was just starting, but there was plenty of space for all of us.  A large stack of bourbon barrels sat against one wall, filled with beer and awaiting their turn for bottling.  We could have just made a guided tour, but had an appointment with friends and couldn't linger too long...I was more interested in getting time to try all their beers than seeing more stainless steel fermenters!  From where we settled into the long bar, we had a nice view through glass of the brewery proper.  They are a pretty sizable brewery (60 barrel) and keg and can at the facility. 

Our servers were very helpful and gave me some light-hearted crap for not bringing them some Surly beers when they found out I was from Minnesota.  We were able to try individual sample glasses of all the beers, varying in price depending on the beer.  They had about 15 different beers on tap and we did not have the time (or capacity) to try them all...I was very impressed with the variety offered.  Beers ranged from Bier de Garde, to rauchbier made with 100% smoked malt, to several bourbon barrel aged concoctions.  I really enjoyed the Working Mom: an Imperial brown ale aged on Appleton Rum and Woodford Reserve Whiskey barrels--complex, sweet and boozy!  Also quite nice was the Red Skull Imperial Red ale and the Deth's Tar bourbon barrel aged Imperial stout.  We were able to pick up a bottle of the latter to take home with us!  I also picked up a large black fist shaped tap handle for my collection, that may have been the reason my carry-on bag was rechecked at the airport on the way home. 

Within 45 minutes of getting there, the large tasting room was getting crowded, loud and filled with folks wearing skinny jeans and touting ironic facial hair.  An old fashioned popcorn popper provided free sustenance to the hungry beer drinker (me).  We asked our server what the options were for getting a cab out of the area and he didn't outright laugh at us, but did offer advice on what streets to walk up to get back to civilization.  Hand on wallet we marched outside ready for a cautious hike.  Luckily a late-comer to the hipster bike event pulled up in a cab at that exact moment and we were able to both direct them to the proper entrance and snag their cab for ourselves.  I've become soft living in the country.

Swank bar at Fountainhead!

The Fountainhead:  This is a beer and spirits bar lined with tons of dark mahogany wood that conjures up feelings of old world pubs, but less cluttered.  My good friend Bryan took us here in between events.  The beer menu is freaking 14 pages long!  14 pages!  Whiskey and Scotch take up another 8 pages or more, so if that is your thing...drink up.  They have a small back Barrel Room for extra seating and events.  By all reports, the food is excellent as well, but we just stopped in for a drink.  I was impressed with the vibe of the place--comfortable and upscale, but not pretentious, everyone there seemed to be very relaxed and having a good time.  Service was very knowledgeable and quick when needed.  It took us a while to make our way through the huge beer list (which included tons of beers I'd never heard of) and eventually tried out some of the stranger ones.  There was a whole group of beers that had been collaborations with local breweries and chefs (including Stephanie Izard from Top Chef/Girl & Goat, as well Fountainhead's own Cletus Friedman.)  I would love to come back here again and strongly
recommend it to serious beer geeks.

The beer menu!

Bangers & Lace

Bangers & Lace:  This is a place that Shea and Kathleen clued us into, taking us there for Sunday brunch prior to our flight back to Minnesota.  We also got to meet up there with Michael, another friend and local librarian. This restaurant and bar specializes in (surprise!) sausage and beer.  They have 32 beers on tap a ton more in bottle to choose from.  Looking at the oh-so-subtle sign out front, I would never have even noticed this place much less stopped in.  They have an old fashioned long bar and a bunch of old poorly taxidermied animals on the walls, giving it a 1940-50's feel.  Tin ceilings and truck-stop stools complete the picture.  I tried a couple of great beers here, including two different Gose beers!  The brunch food was all amazing: can you say foie gras corn dogs?  And bacon sausage!  Sausage made out of bacon--the best of both worlds!  I would come back for the food alone, but the varied tap list would keep me here a while!  I was only sad that we had a flight scheduled and I couldn't hang out here as long as I would have liked.