Thursday, October 31, 2013

Even More Pumpkin Beers!

In this post I continue my self-assigned goal of tasting and commenting on as many pumpkin beers as I can get my hands on.  I'm running later into the season than expected due to a lot of travel (see my entries on a trip to the South, and upcoming write-up on Chicago) and other business. 

Brooklyn Post RoadThis is a seasonal pumpkin beer from Brooklyn Brewery.  They have quite a bit of info on the website, including food pairing options.  Hopped with English hops, it comes in right around 5% ABV.  It looks like they only add nutmeg instead of the usual mélange of pumpkin spices.

Aroma: Spicy notes up front, mostly nutmeg.  I get some malty to grainy character.  Not as aromatic as many of the beers I've been trying.  No hop aroma.
Appearance: Suitably orange in color with excellent clarity.  There is a fine bright white head that fades very quickly.
Flavor: Not a sweet beer, comes off as dry throughout the taste.  Subtle to nearly absent spices in the flavor--hint of nutmeg and possibly cinnamon.  I get a tingle from spice on the tongue.  Has a bit of herbal astringency, coming off as medicinal but not overwhelming.  No hop flavors. 
Overall: Not a bad beer.  Very drinkable, but the body is a bit light.  Not a ton of spices here, but present.  This may be a good gateway beer for those who don't like pumpkin beers since it is very restrained. 

He SaidThis is a collaboration between 21st Amendment and Elysian breweries.  Elysian is known for making several pumpkin beers, and I've actually been to the brewpub during their Great Pumpkin Festival (where they put something like 12 or more pumpkin beers on tap.)  The two brewers decided to each make a different 8.2% ABV pumpkin beer and release a 4 pack of cans containing two of each.  There is a bunch more info on the link above.

The first I'll review is the Baltic Porter, brewed with pumpkin, Vietnamese cinnamon, and caraway seed. 
Aroma: Strong anise aroma, followed by some sweet cinnamon.  I get a woodsy or herbal note as it warms.  A bit of roastiness and some malty sweetness as well.
Appearance: Deep brown in color with ruby highlights--not totally opaque.  Fine tannish head, that fades fairly quickly.
Flavor: Very strong spicing up front--gingery, liquorice or anise (probably the caraway, but I didn't know that was an ingredient at the time...)  Some earthy, almost vegetal or peaty flavors.  Ends somewhat roasty and dry, almost burnt coffee--more like a dry stout.  Not much body in here for such a big beer.  I get a bit more sweetness as it warms up.
Overall: A bit thin and dry for a Baltic porter.  The combination of roast and spice with thin body lead to an astringent finish that I don't love.  Spices are very strong in this one.  3 of 5 rating.  I wanted so much more from these guys!

Second up is the Belgian Tripel brewed with pumpkin, tarragon and galangal (Thai ginger.)
Aroma: Mild banana and clove phenols from Belgian yeast.  Mild herbal ginger character, but restrained.  Some sugary sweetness present.
Appearance: Deep gold in color with a slight haze.  White Belgian lace on the edges of glass, but fades soon after the pour.
Flavor: I get sweet malt and sugar up front.  Nutmeg or clove flavors mixed with herbal allspice/or anise.  Body is light to medium.  This beer ends dry but not astringent.  I do get some minimal pumpkin flavor/earthy finish as it warms.  Spicing is very subtle in this one.
Overall: A nice tripel first.  The quiet spicing plays well with the esters and phenols from the yeast.  A well balanced and drinkable beer to pair with fall foods.  4 of 5 rating.

Shipyard Pumpkinhead: Made with 2-row English pale, malted wheat and light Munich malt, as well as Hallertau and Willamette hops.  Uses an English ale strain.  I don't find any note of which spices are in the beer, so will have to trust my senses! 
Aroma: Lots of ginger in the nose, followed by strong cinnamon.  Some fruity esters combine with the spices to make this smell like apple pie!  Possibly some vanilla.  No hop aromas.
Appearance: Light gold in color.  Fine white head that fades quickly to edges of glass and then gone.  Perfectly clear.
Flavor: Hints of cinnamon and ginger up front, followed by a mellow sweetness.  Ends with a somewhat flat and bland finish, though crisp.  Very light mouthfeel.  No hop flavors.  A bit of apple ester here as it warms up.
Overall: A pretty weak beer.  Little body and flavor here to work with, overwhelmed by the spices.  As Sj and I drank this we eventually poured out the last of it to make way for another beer.  2.5 of 5.

Indeed Sweet Yamma Jamma:  This is the second year of this unusual yam beer from Indeed.  I really wanted to try it last year, but missed it before it was gone.  I was happy to find a can at The Four Firkins this year, and might have to try to find more!  Made with pulverized sweet potato and candied yams, as well as a mysterious spice mixture (per the website.)
Aroma: Sweet malt dominant, but has some earthy/musty notes.  Cinnamon and ginger, but subtle.
Appearance: Deep copper color.  Large off-white head that is very persistent.  Small bubbles.  Very clear beer.
Flavor: Very sweet initially with strong vanilla notes.  I get some cinnamon at the tail end.  I can actually taste the sweet potato or yams!  Ends off-dry but no astringency.  I get some caramelized melanoidin flavors.  Body is medium, with a pleasant creamy mouthfeel.
Overall: Very well balanced.  This beer reminds me of the marshmallow topped candied sweet potato casserole of my youth--in a glass!  I think this is one of the more characterful beers I've tried in the quest to drink all these pumpkin/yam beers.

Next Up: Drinking and eating your way through Chicago!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Fire Trucks & Friar Tuck's: Champaign-Urbana, IL

This is the finale of my recent road trip to visit as many family members as possible in the shortest length of time.  On the way down to Tennessee we stopped off very briefly in Champaign, Illinois to stay the night with my dad.  Growing up, I spent the long cold winters in Minnesota with my mom, and most of the summers with my dad in Champaign.  When I was a kid, there wasn't a whole lot to the town other than the area around the U of I campus.  I could ride my bike in just about any direction and reach corn fields.  Things have changed a lot over the years.  Now there are several fine dining restaurants, cool bars and even a few breweries.

We arrived fairly late in the day, but had time to go out to dinner in town.  We gathered up my dad and met up with our friends Kathleen and Shea, then headed down to the Black Dog Smoke & Ale House.  This is my favorite restaurant in Urbana and has made the top 10 lists as one of the best smokehouses in the USA.  They have a small but frequently rotated list of craft beers and often serve cask ale as well.  The place is tiny and they do not take reservations, so there always a big line outside waiting...but it is so worth that wait!  While lurking outside awaiting our turn and smelling the heavenly aroma of smoked meats waft from the doorway, Shea brought us out a beer sampler tray shaped like a dog bone.  We were able to try a bunch of cool beers that are not all available in Minnesota, including the Schlafly pumpkin ale.  When finally seated, we all dug into our plethora of smoked meats and gorged ourselves until disgustingly full.  A great place to visit for food and beer.  We ended the night hanging out with our friends and testing out Shea's beer stash and putting his mixology skills to good use.  Early the next morning we headed South (see my entries on Nashville, Huntsville and Birmingham for my take on the beer scene in those cities.)

On our way back from Alabama we were able to stop off longer in Champaign.  Arriving at night again, we met up with my dad, his girlfriend Kelly and my little brother TJ at Radio Maria in downtown Champaign.  We have been going to this restaurant for many years and it is one of my favorite places to return to when coming back home.  An upscale but not hoity-toity place, they serve good quality food and tapas in a setting surrounded by found art.  They have a great coffee encrusted fillet served atop a vanilla sauce that is out of this world.  The restaurant always had a good bottle list (I remember accidentally ordering a 750 ML bottle of Avery Beast (17% ABV!) here early on and having a difficult time walking out of there,) but have expanded the tap selection greatly since adding a bar side.  They offer samplers of beers as well, so I was able to try even more unusual beers.  They offer a trip around The Wheel for $40--a sample of every beer they have on tap in their wheel shaped tap tower.  I still have to do this some day, but probably need my sister Kimmy there to help me out!

After dinner I dragged my family down the street to the Blind Pig Brewery.  This is the smaller sister to the Blind Pig pub and is often called The Piglet by locals.  They usually have 2-4 house brews, brewed on the tiniest professional brew system I've ever seen (1 barrel?), about 8 other rotating craft beers, and a ton of bottles. The place was hopping, but we managed to snag a small table near the door for our group.  I shoved my way to the bar and brought back a sampler of all four house beers to share with our group.  All of the beers were very good, showing a lot of improvement from the last visit.  The coffee stout was amazing, and the IPA was spot-on.  I could tell my party was flagging, so we finished up our sampler and headed for home and much needed rest.

The next day we had lunch at Zorba's, a college staple serving up fantastic gyros since the year I was born (1973 if you must know.)  The restaurant actually burned down a few years ago and thankfully rebuilt, so I can still visit on my rare trips through town.  This restaurant more than any other reminds me of my past--walking in at nearly 40 and having the exact same gyros and fries as I did when I was 5 is oddly comforting.

Nice wheels, bro!

It was really fun hanging out with my dad and brother on this brief visit.  TJ and I are separated by nearly 20 years and have not had much time to spend together.  Now that he is all grown up, I found that we had a lot more to talk about: gardening, grilling and smoking, etc.  Since he was 12 TJ has been buying and selling things on-line, starting with cell phones and moving up to cars.  Over the years he has owned a full sized limousine, a small school bus (yes he drove the short bus) and several other unique vehicles. We took a trip out to The Car Dealership That Time Forgot in Mahomet to check out TJ's newest acquisition: a 1975 decommissioned fire truck.  He took me for a joy-ride in this smoke belching beast of a vehicle, showing off it's crazy loud air horn and air brakes.  And when it stalled out in the middle of an intersection...who's going to complain--its a fire truck!  I was unaccountably joyous during this little jaunt, I guess the car loving gene didn't totally pass me by.  I'm waiting to show up one day and find out that my brother has bought some sort of combat assault vehicle like a tank or troop transport.  Maybe I shouldn't give him any ideas...

Action shot...

After our Sunday drive around rural Illinois in a 1975 fire truck, we headed out to Savoy, another growing suburb of Champaign area.  Our first stop there was one of my favorite beverage stores in the State: Friar Tucks.  This is a small chain of liquor stores in Illinois and Missouri that have an enormous selection of spirits (and most notably beer!)  With different distribution patterns than Minnesota, I can find a lot of beers here like Lost Abbey, Jolly Pumpkin, and a bunch of unusual Belgian imports.  They also have a homebrew section of the store, but doesn't compare to Midwest and Northern Brewer back home.  I picked up a few key beers to bring home, but had already loaded up the car with strange ones from the South and didn't have much space left in the car. 

My beer hoard

After stocking up on bottles for Minnesota, we traveled all of a half-mile to the newest brewery in the area: Triptych Brewing.  Named for the three brewers who came from separate paths of life, this is a small brewery located just a few buildings down from the dojo my family used to go to.  I never in a million years would have guessed that this rural "suburb" of a college town, known mainly for its airport and golf course, would develop its own brewery.  The world is a-changing...and only for the better if you are craft beer fiend like me!  The brewery looks like a small office building or warehouse from the outside.  Upon entering, the brewery is to the left--showing off a small system and stainless steel conical fermenters.  Straight ahead from the doors is the long bar, with a seating area to the right of that.  They serve no food, but do have a snack machine for some available munchies.  I also spotted a couple of Four Roses Bourbon barrels aging in the tasting room...what boozy secrets might they be hiding?  My family and I all bellied up to the bar and we split a sampler of all the beers (mostly Sj and myself.)  The beer menu was unique: three large TV screens above the bar with a listing of the beers that rotated through each beer and gave brewing, ABV% and hop details on each.  I would have loved to talk to one of the brewers/owners, but they were all off at GABF in Denver that week.

I liked a lot of the eight beers I tried at Triptych.  My favorite was the Dirty Hippy, and English style low alcohol mild--I could have a few pints of this and be very happy.  Second on my list was an apple beer, made with cider from the local Curtis Orchard, where I used to visit in my childhood.  They have been doing a series of single hopped beers called Hop School, and they Centennial was on tap during my visit.  I found it a bit harsh and vegetal, but like the idea of trying this type of thing commercially.  Sorry I missed the Citra version!  I also found the Double IPA to be a bit rough--I wonder if the water profile out there is hurting their hoppier beers.  Overall well worth a trip to visit, and I feel like they will continue to grow as a brewery over next couple of years. 

That evening Kelly fixed us an amazing dinner of apple and goat cheese topped salad and mushroom stuffed pork chops.  She set me to pairing beers with it, so I put some of our spoils from Friar Tuck to good use.  I decided on some great Belgian beers that I discovered on last year's trip to that wonderful country.  The Dupont Foret Organic Saison's fruity esters paired well with the light vinaigrette and apples in the salad, and Dupont Moinette Brune did wonders with the earthy mushrooms and pork.  This was a perfect end to a great day.

While some things stay the same in the Champaign-Urbana that I (at least partially) grew up in, a lot of things are changing.  Rather than just being a transient college town, it is becoming much more varied.  I'm very happy to see lots of options for my favorite hobbies (such as eating and drinking,) and was sad to head back to my real home in Waconia.  I had a great time with my family and seeing some of the old haunts...I'll be back!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Beer Scene: Huntsville, Alabama

To finish up our tour of the Deep South, we ended up in my sweet wife's hometown of Huntsville, Alabama.  Having visited new breweries in Nashville and Birmingham, I had already been pleasantly surprised by the rise of craft beer south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Nothing could have prepared me for the changes I would find in Huntsville.  The last time I visited the area was probably about 3 years ago.  At the time, there was one recently opened brewery called Old Town that served a couple of understated quasi-craft beers in a few local bars--and despite going the way of the dodo, they seem to have paved the way for what was to come.  Let me refrain: three years ago I could not find a craft beer on tap in this town to save my life.  At the time of my current visit there were nine breweries in (and around) the city!  For background, Huntsville is the fourth largest city in Alabama and had roughly  395,645 citizens as of the 2008 census.  Many of the people in the area have come for work in the aeronautics industry (NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the United States Army Aviation and Missile Command,) and as a result the city has a more cosmopolitan feel than many Deep South cities.

On my first night in town, having a late dinner at the hotel Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, I was able to have a Straight To Ale Monkeynaut served to me in a proper beer glass with absolutely no strange looks from our kind server.  Speaking of the aforementioned beer--the can art for this beer is one of the wackiest I've seen: named for the monkey-manned early space flights back in the 1960's.  The beer itself was a boldly hopped IPA, that had a bit too much alcohol heat to make it into my favorites...but this was a legitimate local craft beer!  Rubbing my fingers together eagerly, I began to plan my trips to further explore this unexpected change in the area. 

A bit devilish for Alabama...

The following day, after fighting with my mother-in-law's ancient modem and 4 power-strip plug octopus for hours, I was finally free to visit Straight To Ale Brewing.  Hidden behind a large gym, and located in an unassuming warehouse off the beaten path, we had a difficult time finding the place.  A metal sign with their devilish logo hanging off the front of the building is all the notation they apparently want or need.  There was no visible entrance at the front of the building, but not to be distracted from my goal, I walked around to the side.  A small door with an even smaller Straight To Ale stencil on it (looking like an un-official worker's only entrance) yielded to my attacks and allowed us access to the tiny tasting room.  A very small bar across from the entrance boasted a friendly server, a television and a glowing crimson brewery symbol.  One other patron sat at the bar sipping at a drink and gazing at the television's blue glow.  A large rocket hung from the ceiling, piloted by two stuffed monkeynauts.  Posters and framed can artwork for the brewery were placed sporadically upon the walls.  My personal favorite (also playing off Huntsville's NASA past) was the Wernher Von Brown Ale.

Rocket City here I come!

We tried all the beers, served to us in trippy hand-made rocket shaped wooden sampler trays.  All of the beers were good to very good.  I especially liked the Lilly Flagg Milk Stout and the Brother Joseph's Dubbel: fine examples of their styles.  The lagers were a bit less perfect--perhaps fermentation temperature issues--but still drinkable.  I spent a nice and relaxing hour here with my wife and her older sister, talking and trying out these local beers.  Not until heading out did I realize that they had a small arcade with old fashioned pinball machines in a room around the corner.  Our server suggested looking for their recently released bourbon aged Laika Russian Imperial Stout (named after the Russian dog sent into space in 1957) and I did find a bottle the next day to bring back to Minnesota.  I haven't tried it yet, but have high hopes!

The next day I spent more time in battle with ancient technology, hooking my mother-in-law's old tube TV's to cable boxes and finishing an upgrade to a wireless home network.  I also spent a bit of time out in the muggy Alabama air tearing apart a rotting and now dangerous wooden ramp in front of her house.  Beneath that aged ramp were a good number of enormous cockroaches, primitive looking two inch hopping camel crickets, and a petrified possum.  Yech!  After a much needed shower we headed out to continue our exploration of the city's beer scene.

Our next stop was Blue Pants Brewery, located within a warehouse in the suburb of Madison.  The building isn't much to look at, but has size in its favor with plenty of room for them to grow into it.  I guess that this is a recent expansion and I got the feeling that they haven't quite settled in fully yet.  There wasn't a lot of branding/signage on the outside nor the inside of the tasting room, but I knew we were in the right place when I saw the Blue Pantry Food Truck parked outside.  The brewers started out as homebrewers (not surprising now days, especially in a town filled with science geeks!)

Sj and I ordered the full sampler so we could try everything.  I saw funny blue-pants shaped wooden sampler trays on display behind the bar but we didn't get one so no good pictures for you my reader.  Our beers were served in plastic cups with the names written in Sharpie by our pleasant bartender.  The laminated cards describing the beers were a little sticky and gross, so I didn't look too close at the details.  One of my favorites was the Workman Common, a hoppier take on a classic Steam beer.  Most of the others were fair representations of the style (Pale Ale, Double IPA, Black IPA) but none of them really wowed me.  A few--like the Highwater Hoppy Tripel--had some fermentation flaws that detracted from my enjoyment.  Their special release cabernet barrel aged Belgian Red was served from a wax-topped bottle and had quite a bit going on.  I actually picked up a bottle of this to take home when I ran into it later that day.  The brewery's tag line is: "We like to make unusually good beer."  I think they are close to that description, but perhaps not quite there yet.  I will certainly check them out next time I'm in town to see how they have improved. 

Our bartender at Blue Pants was very good and pointed us toward our next goal:  Wish You Were Beer.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Madison had its very own all beer store!  Just down the road from Blue Pants, we headed out.  Located in a small strip-mall, the store front itself lacks bells and whistles, but has a large easy to see sign on the façade.  With fingers crossed I stepped into what became one of my favorite places we visited in the city.  Founded in June of 2012, (but only opening for business a few months before my trip in Fall of 2013) by owner Damon Eubanks, the store aims to sell only craft beer, cider, and meads.  Damon was at the store and I had the chance to talk to him a bit about his new store.  He is a Cicerone Beer Server and is currently studying to become a Certified Cicerone, also encourages his staff to also seek certification.  Interestingly he modeled (at least in part) his store after The Four Firkins in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.  Our own Jason Alvey was breaking new ground by opening an all beer store in Minnesota and continues to show other people how to do it across the country! 

Can I live here?

The front of the store is small, but the wall shelves and center stacks are packed with local and regional micro-brews.  With different distribution than Minnesota, there were many beers that we can't find back home like Stillwater Artisanal, and Oscar Blues.  Large coolers host even more beers--most local.  Damon sells most of his beers in singles as well, so one can try more beers without having to settle on a full six pack.  Unlike The Firkins, Damon can actually sell pints of beer in his establishment.  I was happy to taste the local Salty Nut Brewery's brown ale, as well as have a full pint of Avondale Brewing's Vanillaphant while perusing the store.  They can also fill growlers from the taps for you take home and drink at your leisure.  We are unable to do either of these things back in Minnesota due to old Blue Laws that are still on the books.  The store also sells a limited amount of homebrew supplies, now that Alabama has finally legalized my favorite hobby.  Damon told me the story of an un-named liquor store in Birmingham that got in trouble with the law over that last year.

I stocked up on a bunch of Alabama brews to take home with me, including several special releases like the bourbon aged Laika and the Blue Pants Belgian.  I love the concept of the store and I was intrigued with what Damon has been able to do with the place already.  Once people find out about Wish You Were Beer, I think he will be able to expand his line-up even more and start having special events.  If you are anywhere in Huntsville and like craft beer this is a must-visit place!

As a wrap-up from my visit to the South, I wanted to touch on some of the big changes I've seen in just the past 3 years.  Traditionally the Southern states have not been big into drinking alcohol in the first place, and many people I know down there either don't drink at all or drink only in private where fellow church members won't see them.  When folks do drink beer, they tend to go with American macro-lagers.  From a craft-beer waste-land, the region has started to blossom with small breweries, beer stores and craft beer bars.  They still have a ways to go to catch up to Minnesota (they are about 6 years behind by my reckoning) but are on the right track.  Strangely, many of the stubborn post-prohibition era laws that plague us here in Minnesota are absent down in the Bible Belt state of Alabama.  Really, I can buy a sixer of craft beer on a Sunday in Alabama, but not in progressive Minnesota??? 

Regional differences in palate are easily apparent with most breweries having sweeter brown ales and porters in their portfolios, and big hoppy beers are just starting to trend up.  On this trip I could literally taste how these brewers are experimenting with higher hopping rates--some pulling it off and others needing more trial and error yet. 

Local restaurants and bars seem to be embracing these new local beer options and nearly every place I went for food (minus having intolerance-chicken at Chick-fil-a) had at least one local beer available.  I'm exited and proud of those craft beer pioneers, breaking trail and braving the wilderness for the good of the craft beer movement in The South.  Since I have written this, The Salty Nut has already opened a tap room in the Huntsville area...and more breweries are sure to follow.  This is a truly untapped market that seems ripe for the taking.  I look forward to the new options to be discovered on my next trip down.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Beer Scene: Birmingham, Alabama

On my recent trip down South, we spent a day in Birmingham, Alabama for my niece Anna's birthday.  We arrived in town around 1:00 in the afternoon of a sunny and summer-like day (despite it being late fall and cold back home in Minnesota).  Anna was still taking a test when we arrived, but at her suggestion we stopped in at Rogue Tavern for lunch until she was able to meet up with us.

The concrete outside the tavern...

This was in a large old brick building, surrounded by other eating and drinking establishments and even an old curio shop that my mother-in-law Sally fell in love with instantly.  They frequently have live music and the large space certainly is conducive to that.  We sat at a high-top table and ordered some of the better-than-typical pub food: I had fried green tomato BLT sliders that were very nice.  I was most impressed with the beer list.  I didn't count them but think there were 20+ tap beers and a good number of bottles as well.  The beer menu was pretty hilarious too with descriptions of Angry Orchard as "alcoholic apple juice."  Besides the obligatory beers, they had a lot of local and regional beers like Good People, Beer Engineers, Thomas Creek, as well as Belgians and other unusual imports.  While the minimalist setting isn't awe-inspiring, these guys are putting a new fresh and crafty face on beer and pub culture for the Deep South.

Inside the Good People Brewery

After spending some time looking at junk (or treasure if you are my mother-in-law) next door, we headed to pick up Anna at her Old-Birmingham 1900's house.  From there (at my urging and against her will) she took our little party over to Good People Brewing Company.  Located, as many breweries are, in a somewhat run-down and industrial area, the brewery is in a large warehouse.  There is a small front bar at the entrance, but we were directed to the right and into the main building area.  There is a large semicircular bar in the corner, where we promptly sat down and ordered a sampler to share.  Brewers were at work at the other end of the building, listening to loud music that made it somewhat difficult to hear...not Sally's favorite!  They also had a small swag shop in the corner where I bought a tin tacker shaped like a licence plate for my basement bar.  Large wooden cable spindles were placed on their sides for additional seating and a small stage took up another area.  An open garage door led out of the building and to the side with additional seating, green space and even the old battered yellow truck that is their mascot.

These guys have been selling beer in Alabama since 2008, and have recently expanded to Tennessee as well--showing a growing need for craft beer in the South. 

A chalk line lay across the top of my sampler tray with the names of the beers scribbled in.  The beers were all above average.  I really enjoyed the brown ale and the Mumbai Rye (a very hoppy and spicy rye ale.)  The pale ale and IPA were respectable but not quite as balanced as some of my favorites from Surly, Steel Toe, Odell, etc.  The Bearded Lady wheat was fairly tasty as well.  My bill was served to me in a Good People IPA can--very fun.  I liked my visit to the brewery and would recommend trying them out as a shining example of a craft brewery carving a space in a difficult and traditionally non-craft market.  They can their beers, so I found a few later to bring home with me for later use.

Avondale Brewing

We didn't stay at Good People for too long, but headed out for another locale: Avondale Brewing Company.  Located in a historic building in the city/suburb of Avondale, the brewery opened in 2011 and has been putting out fairly traditional style beers since.  They have taken Miss Fancy as their mascot (a local elephant from the Birmingham Zoo in the 1920's that is famous for drinking confiscated hooch during prohibition).  All of the beers are named after local history and the brewery takes pride in its neighborhood connections.  The Brothel Brown, for instance, was named after the illicit house of ill repute that was once upstairs in the brewery building!  The brewery itself is quite small, and much of the fermentation is actually done in open fermenters--something I have seldom seen in America much less the Southern states!  

Avondale sampler

A small and dark bar (manned by Brock when we were visiting) serves up 12 or more different house brews and I got to try them all.  These ranged in style from the amazingly balanced Vanillaphant Porter, to a solid IPA.  The only one of these that I didn't love was the strawberry saison--just not enough fruit to make it work.  Otherwise all of the beers were very drinkable and clean. 

Sally went out back for some air and dragged me out to see the rest of the property: the brewery has a second outside bar and taps (not manned at 4 PM on a weekday) as well as a large stage where they host outdoor live music.  Elephant art graces the walls inside and out.  If you have a chance to stop into this place you will not be disappointed.  Trunks Up! 

Overall, my whistle-stop beer tour of  Birmingham was very enjoyable.  The South is really starting to come along in craft beer, just like the rest of the USA.  I was also very happy to get to see my niece, her roommate Laura, and her parents Doty & Greg for a very fun dinner at a local Italian place.  

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Pumpkin Beer Roundup

I had planned on doing pumpkin reviews every few days through the fall months, but travel and work have interrupted my schedule of release.  So I'll take this time to catch up on a few more pumpkin beers I've tried over the past week.  As I taste these, I find that my descriptions are often pretty similar--mainly because most pumpkin beers have a limited flavor if you get bored with my ramblings you can just enjoy the pictures!

Alaskan Pumpkin PorterOne of the Pilot smaller batch series, this beer touts 11 pounds of pumpkin per barrel, as well as brown sugar, spices and hint of alderwood smoked malt.

Aroma: Subtle cinnamon, and nutmeg in the aroma.  I get brown sugar or molasses sweetness as well.  A light roasty or coffee aroma as it swirls.
Appearance: Deep brown to nearly black in color.  Has a slight haze and is nearly opaque.  A dark tan to brown head that is fairly persistent.
Flavor:  Up front spices (nutmeg and cinnamon especially) followed by a molasses or treacle sweetness.  Some mild roast, but not much of it here, leaving this more malty.  I might pick up a hint of smoke, but very subtle.  I get an allspice burn at the finish that is warming and pleasant.  Medium bodied, but ends off-dry.  No astringency in this beer, but has some light earthy notes in the finish.
Overall: Well balanced porter with a well blended mix of spices, where none are overwhelming but all are apparent.  I could drink this all day.  4 of 5 for final grade!

Dangerous Man Imperial Pumpkin Ale:  Going local, Sj heard that Dangerous Man had an Imperial pumpkin on tap and prompted me to drive to Nordeast for a try.  She loves pumpkin beers even more than I do!  Twist my arm lady... I don't know many details on this beer, but here are my impressions during a very loud and busy visit to the brewery taproom.

Aroma: Nutmeg and allspice are strong, but not overwhelming.  A powerful malty sweetness to the aroma.  Also has a hint of alcohol/spice sting on the nose.
Appearance: The color is a very deep orange with a minimal haze.  A fine white head is present, that fades fairly soon after pouring. 
Flavor: Very intense maltiness without being cloying sweet.  Reminds me of a light colored bock or Imperial Octoberfest.  Nutmeg and cinnamon in the flavor, but second fiddle to the malt and grain.  Some alcohol warming, but does not detract from the beer. 
Overall:  A very good version of an Imperial spice beer.  I'm not sure if there is actually pumpkin in it, but I suspect there is based on the haziness.  It reminds me a lot of Pumpking from Southern Tier, but a bit less aromatic.  This is one for sipping from a snifter in front of a fireplace.  4 of 5 for me.

Town Hall Petunia's Pumpkin Ale:  I'm not going to lie, this has been one of my favorites in the past few years since discovering it, so I may be biased here.  But I try to take that into account with my reviews.  Last year's was very good, but a bit more hoppy than expected.  This beer sells out fast, and growlers sold out within 2 days of release.  We were lucky enough to find that they had filled a few more growlers on the day we visited (though they were not on the board and Sj had to shed to tears to get them for us).  They should really make more of this.  I have also had a version in the past that was aged on cocoa nibs and was heaven in a glass. 

Aroma:  Subtle malt and grain aroma.  A hint of nutmeg, but not a lot of other spices to pick out. 
Appearance: Excellent clarity, perhaps the clearest I've seen yet.  Fine white head that fades quickly to the rim of the glass. 
Flavor: Like a crisp but malty Octoberfest.  Rounded flavors of nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger.  Ends smooth with a light sweet touch.  Has none of the astringency I've come to expect with this style. 
Overall:  While this is certainly not the most extreme or flavor-packed pumpkin beer I've had this season, it is the best balanced.  So far this is the best example of restrained spicing and a perfect base beer I've tried.  4.5 of 5 (I save 5 for things like Bourbon County Stout and Cantillon).  You must try this--even if you dislike pumpkin beers--it may change your mind.

Cisco Pumple DrumkinThis is the first beer I have tried from Nantucket's Cisco Brewers (sorry Kyle, the name is already taken...).  I don't know much about the brewery and there isn't much info on their website--they seem to have snuck into our local beer market with minimal fanfare.

Aroma: Nutmeg and ginger are present along with an earthy almost rotting bark-like aroma.  Some maltiness present, but not a lot. No hop aroma.  Slight fruity esters as it warms.  Overall mild aroma for a spiced beer.
Appearance: Gold to light orange in color.  Has a fine but large white head.  Very good clarity.
Flavor: Initial malt flavor but lacking in sweetness.  Quickly turns to a bitter harshness.  Has a very thin body and ends with an astringent and metallic finish.  Not much spice is tasted beyond those off-putting flavors.
Overall:  This beer is not good.  To be honest it has the harsh and metallic flavors that I associate with old-style homebrew (before we really understood the need for fresh ingredients and sanitation...)  Sj and I had to pour this out after a couple sips.  Not a great start from this brewery, but I'd still try another of their beers before boycotting them.  Scores a 1 out of 5 for me.  Yech.

Samuel Adams Harvest PumpkinThis is Sam Adams' version of a pumpkin ale, and may actually be the first commercial example of this style that I ever tasted.  There is actually a lot of information on the website including a tasting video, tasting notes and good ingredient list.  Hopped with EKG and Fuggles, this beer's recipe looks like and English ale base with allspice, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and actual pumpkin added.

Aroma: I get ginger, allspice and nutmeg in the aroma--all are distinct and I can pick them out at different times.  No hop aromas.  Has a light fruitiness--possibly yeast driven.  Malt sweetness is present.
Appearance: A reddish coppery hue with excellent clarity.  The beer has a thick white head and is quite pretty to look at.
Flavor: Malty up front, but not especially sweet.  Has a lighter body than expected but still has some malt going for it.  Cinnamon and allspice in the middle, but I don't get as much of the nutmeg that came out in the aroma.  Has a dry finish with a somewhat woodsy tang--but not overly astringent. 
Lingering notes of ginger after the sip is done. 
Overall: A well balanced beer, that has all the necessary ingredients and flavors needed for the style.  My only gripe is the light body.  This would improve with a bit more malt complexity and mouthfeel.  Like many of Sam Adams' beers this is a decent beer, but doesn't take any risks.  I will be trying the Fat Jack (their Imperial pumpkin ale) soon and it will be interesting to see how that one stacks up.  3.5 of 5.

JAB Cider Pressing

Having just arrived back in Minnesota after a long trip down South, where Summer is still in full bloom and 80 degree days still the norm, the sudden transformation into full-blown Fall was a bit of a shock.  Tim Roets, Jack of All Brews' Secretary, had organized a cider pressing event at Sponsel's Minnesota Harvest Orchard in Jordan for us prior to my departure, and I was able to get out there on Sunday the 13th of October.  In about 2007 our club bought an old wooden cider press that would look at home in an 1890's museum.  In my opinion this type of shared purchase is one of the best things about belonging to a homebrew club.  We had one organized pressing at Deardorff Orchard shortly after that, and then smaller group and family pressings since.  I haven't used the thing since that first year and was happy to get another chance to see it in action.

The day broke with a startling fiery red sunrise upon the horizon.  The air was a sharp 53 degrees against my skin as I settled into my car for the drive to Jordan--about 30 minutes from my home in Waconia.  The country warble of Fred Eaglesmith twanged from the speakers in my car, singing about old cars, bootleg hooch, crazy women and (of course) trains.  Yellow leaves flitted across my windshield, blown about by a light, crisp breeze.  Over the river into Belle Plaine, past old firehouses, churches and 60's era maintenance shops.  Then onto Old Highway 169, aged and nearly empty, but still flat and picturesque country road.  On the left: an abandoned filling station with a single sad child's stroller parked on the trash littered concrete of its parking lot, throwing a long shadow against the faded and boarded up building.  Soon I was winding up a wooded hill and then following hand-painted wooded signs for the orchard--promising pumpkins, apple picking, petting zoo, and most intriguing: apple catapult!  I wound my way into thick forest canopy, yellow and orange leaves glinting in the early morning sun and swirling from road in my wake.  Old Fred continued to sing of lost love and Blue Tick hounds.  The trip up to this point had a surreal feel to it that is hard to convey--a feel of rural life, age, and the death of yet another Summer.

When I found myself on the orchard grounds, I felt that I had stepped into Fall incarnate.  The cool air, the smell of dry leaves and earth, the woodsmoke from the BBQ food truck, the flash of orange from an enormous mound off pumpkins--all assailed the senses at once.  I parked in the already busy grass parking area, and headed to a large white event tent that was set up for my crew.  Kent, Joe and Bob (and spouses) were already setting up the antediluvian press when I arrived.  A large pallet of Haralson apples had been left for us, as well as an empty to collect our apple leavings for the farm's goats to gorge upon.  A line of empty carboys, including my own, cried out to be filled with the sweet and sticky nectar of the apple.  In order to get the most juice from a apple it has to be ground into chunks before crushing, and somewhere along the line one of our men had hooked the ancient wooden press up to a motor for more efficient apple grinding. 

Not really Tidy Cat...

With a trickle of JAB members coming in over time we expanded our process, eventually finding a rhythm and a job for everyone to do.  Two to three people would dunk the sometimes muddy groundfall apples into buckets of water to rinse them off, then cut out any glaringly bad spots before throwing them into a collection bucket for the grind.  The water was bone-chillingly cold, leading to icy and numb fingers.  By the end of the day most of us were wielding our short and shining knives like miniature elven blades.  Rinse.  Scrub.  Stab.  Rotate.  Plop in the bucket.  Repeat.  Sarah and Debbie were like whirling dervishes with those knives.

Two men would run the ghetto motor and drop the cleaned and pared apples whole into the whirring grinder.  This part of process brought to mind visions of Stephen King's The Mangler, a story about a cursed industrial laundry press that gets possessed by a demonic entity and results in multiple "accidents."  Thankfully all digits remained in place at the end of the day's work.  A spray of white apple chunks would squirt and thump out the bottom of the grinder, into the waiting mesh-lined wooden bucket. 

When the bucket was filled and flattened, the wood top was placed over it and the hard work began.  With an old carved wooden pole placed atop the press, the press-gang would wind the huge screw down onto the waiting filled bucket and soon sweet brownish apple juice would trickle from between the wood slats into a waiting flat box.  When the whole wooden press would start to creak its outrage at this treatment, they would stop cranking and let the cider flow for a few minutes.

Catching the cider in a large tub, we would then run it into a carboy or bucket after passing it through a strainer to catch larger chunks, debris and yellow-jacket wasps (thankfully not many of those on this cool day.)  Each bucket of apples led to a bit under 1.5 gallons of cider.  We checked the specific gravity and it came out to around 1.056.
The bag of apple pomice (crushed apple guts) was then emptied into our apple graveyard, which was entirely full by the end of the day's pressing.

Periodically groups would head out on foot with a red wagon, or hop on the tractor to find more distant game--looking for sweeter apples to tone down the tartness of the Haralsons we already had.  The kids in the group had a great time doing this and helping out in myriad other ways, making this a full family affair.

This particular day was incredibly busy, striking me as the result of some twisted pairing between the Renaissance Festival and an apple orchard.  Thousands of people milled about the grounds, buying pumpkins, hopping on tractors to pick apples, and just enjoying the fine day.  The country strains of Willie Nelson (or at least a fantastic facsimile) floated from the main building.  Our cider pressing operation soon attracted groups of the milling throng, ogling our progress and asking many questions.  Several of the JAB members took turns fielding questions and demonstrating our process, as well as talking up the club and handing out flyers.  Still a bit exhausted from my recent trip, I sat back a bit more than I probably should have as president of the club.  Later in the afternoon Brent and Randy from Midwest Supplies arrived and brought their fancy technologically advanced stainless steel bladder press along with them.  At that point we had two presses going at once, one nearly unchanged from the 1800's and the other using space age technology.  Ours was more fun to watch!  I'm glad those guys showed up and helped us out or we never would have made it through the whole batch!

High Tech

Sooner than expected, our 5:00 PM finish time arrived, corresponding to running out of apples and topping off the last of Shawn's carboy.  I had expected to stay a few hours, get my cider and then head home.  Instead I spent nearly 7 hours lugging buckets, picking and cleaning apples, and more.  Though I wished Sj had been there with me, I had a remarkable day among friends and strangers.  This was certainly the most effort and time-consuming batch of cider I'll ever make, but well worth it.  With a sore back and a smile on my face, I hauled my carboys of sloshing raw cider to my car and headed back toward Waconia.  Now the sun was lowering and shining through the half-denuded trees with a startling orange glow.  A large bald eagle launched itself from a tree beside the road and swooped so close to my car that I could see the dying sunlight glint from its yellow reptilian eyes.  A magical moment.

Closer to home I discovered the price for driving on dirt and less traveled roads.  As I drove back through Belle Plaine, my car's tire sensors went off, alerting me to a tire pressure of 28 psi in the rear passenger tire.  The wonders of modern technology continued to demonstrate a slow and steady drop in pressure as I desperately tried to get all the way home before the tire completely went out on me.  27 psi as I left the outskirts of town.  26 psi as I made my way past desolate corn fields.  25 psi as I entered the outskirts of Cologne.  24 psi as I pulled into my driveway in Waconia.  Wiping cold sweat from my brow, I chocked the tires and pulled out the jack.  With superhuman effort (requiring me to literally jump up and down on the lug wrench) I managed to get the lug nuts off, and then throw on the donut from the trunk.  Not a perfect end to an otherwise perfect day, but that is often the way life is.

Thanks again to the fine folks at Minnesota Harvest Orchard and Midwest Supplies!  And special thanks to up-and-coming professional brewmaster Tim Roets!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Visit With Gentleman Jack

After leaving Nashville we headed for an adventure that I have been eagerly awaiting for many years: a tour of the Jack Daniel's Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee.  Having gone to college at Emory (Atlanta, GA) and made the trek there and back many times; then the many trips to Alabama to visit Sj's side of the family--I had always been intrigued by the signs for the distillery.  While only recently being trained in the tasting of distilled spirits, I have always been interested in the history and process of making them.  This time we set aside plenty of time on our trip for a tour.

Taking rural "scenic route" highways and roads to get to the small town that Jack built, we passed decaying and decrepit farms, rolling farmland just hitting the fall harvest, old oak forests, and plenty of other classic and timeless heartland scenes.  The distillery itself sprawls over a large parcel of land in a valley (or holler if you are from the South) with a humid mist clinging to everything--giving it a land-that-time-forgot feel.  We arrived around 20 minutes before the next free tour, but the new pay tasting tour was sold out and we would have to wait another hour to get into the next one.  With the tour taking over an hour, this would have slowed us down too much to make it into Huntsville before dark.  With bowed head and a tear in my eye, I acquiesced to take the regular free tour.

A water tower for dousing the burning coals

After waiting a while in the well decorated and wood floored visitor center, our tour guide arrived waving a JD fan with our tour number on it and we followed him into a small theater to watch a short promotional movie.  After that we headed out of the building and onto an old wooden porch at the back of the building to get our picture taken, then onto a bus and a short ride across the property.  Our first stop was up a hill to the Rickyard where they make the charcoal to filter the the whiskey--a key step in differentiating Tennessee whiskey from bourbon.    The immense hoods used for this process were an impressive sight and I would have loved to see the fires going for this process.

We finished the rest of the tour on foot from here.  We next traveled to visit the two old fire trucks (including an REO Speedwagon) that were in charge of firefighting on the grounds and the city before being retired for parade use only.  These were pretty cool and apparently do still run.

The Fire Brigade
Time for me to fly...

Our next stop was the spring from which JD gets its water.  The stream exits from a deep cave in the limestone rock with a sheltered overhang above, making this an ideal place for Jack Daniel to start his initially small scale distilling.  A slightly larger than life sized bronze statue of him (he was apparently about 5'2" tall) stands in front of the spring.

Where all the JD in the world begins

A trip to the old office building and then we were off to visit the distillery and the aging tanks.  The size of this operation is massive and much of the equipment including the boil kettle is very old.  We could not take pictures or use electronics in most of the buildings due to risk of igniting the vaporized spirits in the air, so I have only outside pics for this part of the post!  Walking into the barrel aging building and seeing the stories of stacked and aging oak barrels was something that can only be experienced first hand.  At one point the aroma of whiskey in the air was so powerful that you could actually taste it!  We were offered the chance to come to the distillery and choose your own single barrel to be bottled up for you--only 8-9 grand!  Though it is tempting....

This was a spectacular tour taking over an hour, and our drawling tour-guide really loved his job!  I would recommend it highly for anyone interested in the process of distilling as well as the history of the place.  After the tour you are directed into a tavern that serves free lemonade but no booze, and has access to the bottle shop.  Since Jack Daniel's is located in a county that went dry before prohibition, and still boasts of that dubious honor, you are not technically able to buy liquor there.  I guess there is a technicality that allows them to sell you a highly priced commemorative bottle while the resulting liquor inside is a gift from the distillery!  I bought a bottle of the Single Barrel, going on faith that it would be good.

By the time we were finished with our noon tour, we headed into the small town of Lynchburg (walkable from the distillery) for a quick look.  The central square is dominated by the painted red brick City Hall, surrounded by several small curio shops.  The largest of these is Lynchburg Hardware & General Store--a multi-level place that sells every possible JD branded item you could think of.  I finally picked up a cocktail shaker for my bar and replaced my decrepit Guinness wallet with a fresh Jack Daniel's one.  They even throw in a free shot-glass for purchases more than $10 if you went on the tour.  I am a sucker for merchandising!

Despite my lack of tasting at the tour, I eventually had a chance to sit down and taste some Jack Daniel's.  The first I tried was the Old No. 7 (the quintessential Jack Daniel's Tennessee Sipping Whiskey) in the form of an airplane bottle given away at my cousin Susan's wonderful wedding in Nashville.  This was actually the first time I've ever tried this American classic, unless maybe I've had it in a mixed drink somewhere along the way.  I found it a bit hot and harsh compared to some of the nicer bourbons I've tried recently, but not terrible.  I think I'd leave this for mixed drinks in the future, since it didn't have quite the barrel complexity I like in whiskey.  I might soak some oak cubes in the rest and use it for a JD aged Imperial stout or barleywine.  Next I tried the Single Barrel that I received at the bottle shop.  The color was several shades darker than the Old No. 7 and the aroma much more complex.  The flavors were mellow and included plenty of vanilla and Rainier cherry.  I'm pretty pleased with my purchase on this one!  I could buy a whole barrel of this?  Go to the distillery; sample and pick between three different barrels; get all my bottles and also the sanded down and branded barrel to take home?  My 40th birthday is coming up my friends!  I'll share!