Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Butcher & The Boar Founder's Beer Dinner 2013

Having recently blogged about Butcher & The Boar, I had not planned on returning them to print for a while.  However, after their beer dinner last night, I feel obligated to spread the gospel of the amazing food and Founders beer we experienced.  My wife and I have been to a LOT of beer dinners, and only one in all that time was not great.  But sometimes a dinner just "clicks" and everything works synergistically to elevate the event to become more than its component parts should justify.  The first Butcher & The Boar beer dinner was one such event.

Our story begins about two months ago at the Great Lakes/Fulton Happy Gnome Beer Dinner.  At that amazing dinner we found ourselves sitting at table with the Owner/Chef and the Ciccerone from Butcher & The Boar, who were doing "research" on how to run their own beer dinner.  At that time Sj got the inside scoop about when the dinner was supposed to take place, but official word on the event was slow to come.  Sj did a great job of Facebook-stalking the restaurant until they quietly announced the dinner--getting us in right away.  This was a very small dinner, limited to about 25 people and filled up incredibly fast, so I feel fortunate to have been able to attend.  Even getting regular seating at the restaurant can be a challenge, and since Chef Jack Riebel has been nominated for a James Beard Award this year, that can only get more difficult.  A good problem to have for a fairly young restaurant!

We arrived at the restaurant after an epic hour of crawling along in rush-hour traffic from Waconia to Minneapolis.  Pulling up into the valet parking lot, one can see the beautiful Adam Turman mural along the entire wall of the restaurant.  We then were directed to a small and slightly sketchy two-person elevator to drop us into the newly opened basement crypts for the inaugural beer dinner.  Off to the left, we entered a small and cozy basement bar, filled with rich wood paneling and comfortable leather chairs.  The bar itself fits that theme, also of shiny wood with a treated leather top.  We were greeted by Ben, the Ciccerone (beer sommelier) for the restaurant, who poured us large glasses of the not-yet-released-in-Minnesota All Day IPA.  The beer is a great sessionable hoppy ale that was created mainly because the owners of the brewery wanted to be able to drink their own beers at home and not fall asleep before their children did. Upon the bar was a sausage and cheese platter as well as turkey liver pate to tide us over until the main event.  If they added a small gas fireplace to the room, I would probably never want to leave. 

More and more people arrived, including our friends Randy and Andrea whom we have met through Happy Gnome and Town Hall beer dinners.  Most of the diners were involved in the beer industry, so it was cool to hob-nob with them.  Michael, Alvey and Bryan from the Four Firkins were there, the latter two dressed in suits and fancy hats.  Always cool to see those guys, but strangely out of context!  Several of the folks from Fulton Brewery were there as well, staying involved in the local craft beer scene.  Where is my bottled War and Peace guys?  Former local craft beer distributor Corey Shovein has recently been hired by Founders and was lively and entertaining as always.  Brewery co-founder Dave Engbers was also present and made it a point to get to know everyone in attendance.  At first he seemed a bit reserved, but after he told us a few stories that impression was dismantled quite completely. 

This way to the subterranean torture chamber?  No, just the bar!

Next we moved down the hall past some industrial equipment, into a newly refurbished intimate dining room.  The walls were textured concrete with a deep copper staining that kept the area feeling close and rich.  The ceiling was bare concrete with piping and a more industrial basement feel, but had new light fixtures to soften it up a bit.  Marble topped tables were arranged close together in two rows for us to sit at.  I liked the tight quarters, as it allowed us to talk to the folks at neighboring tables with ease, but I'm guessing our servers were less thrilled with it!  Along one wall was a large bank vault style door the led to some other mysterious recess of the basement.  We were quickly served a small sample of the Founders Oatmeal stout served on nitro; paired with an amuse of a single lightly roasted oyster on the half shell.  I wanted more of each!  Dave said that this is the first time he had sampled that beer outside of their own taproom in Michigan.

The first course was a pheasant and rabbit terrine with veal sweetbreads, served along with some curried quick-pickled cauliflower and other veggies.  I really dislike cauliflower but I can quite honestly say that this was the best I have had in my life.  Terrines are basically a meat log made of the cast-off iffy bits of animals, held together by fat and gelatin, then sliced and served.  Sounds freaky and questionable, but done right the flavors in them can be outstanding.  This was one of the best I have ever had--and I'm the guy that always orders the charcuterie plate whenever possible.  The plate was paired with the Red's Rye PA, a beer that I loved when it first came out, but have had mixed experiences with since.  Apparently Founders has been having some issues with the Amarillo hop character dropping out too quickly, leaving the beer a bit too sweet, which explains my last underwhelming tasting of this beer.  They have just moved it to a seasonal tap only release schedule to keep the beer fresher and to better control the quality.  I think that is a good move and really enjoyed this fresh version of the beer again.

Dave sharing great stories with the class!

As an aside, shortly after starting this dinner, Corey and Dave told us an anecdote that changed the whole tone of the evening.  But in a good way!  Apparently an inebriated and heavily accented east-coast fan of the brewery had recently left a very long and rambling phone message in which he lovingly and repeatedly listed off his favorite Founders beers, followed by saying "F*@!# off!"  I know, this sounds wrong, but it was all in the inflection--making this a high compliment of sorts.  That message quickly made its way through all the employees like an uncontrolled wild fire and the next day in the brewery everyone was quoting it.  After hearing this rather aggressively told story, as well as having some great beers in us by then, the whole room seemed to relax and open up.  For the rest of the night the whole crowd continued to use that line as a very strange but hilarious toast.

Our second course was a squash bisque with sweet maple croutons and hog jowl bacon.  The mix of sweet and savory in the dish was perfect, with extra texture from the crunchy croutons adding complexity to the simple soup.  The beer going along with this was the malty and sweet Dirty Bastard Scotch ale, and actually seemed dryer and easier to drink than usual when paired with this sweeter dish.  This is the beer that saved the brewery from bankruptcy.  After unsuccessfully trying to brew more accessible beers, the founders decided to brew a high alcohol unusual beer that they would want to drink themselves.  And the rest is history!

As the evening went on we found ourselves sipping increasingly strong ales, the ABV creeping up from 4.6% to 6.6% to 8.5%.  Then the BIG beers started to show up!  The next beer was Curmudgeon (clocking in at 9.8% ABV), an old ale that was very drinkable and complex, even when fresh.  I have tasted a three year old version of this that was even better and recommend aging one for a bit.  The dish paired up with the Curmudgeon was a perfectly prepared pan roasted sturgeon served atop a smoked butter, raisin and pickled cabbage concoction.  Our table decided that this pairing was the best of the night, with both the beer and the fish improving when tasted together.

By this time the arrival of each new beer and dish was being greeted with an increasingly raucous round of "F*&#$ Off!" But delivered in a respectful and loving tone I promise! Our next big beer was the 10.2% ABV Backwoods Bastard, the bourbon barrel big brother of Dirty Bastard.  This was the best beer of the night by far, but I'm a sucker for bourbon.  The food for this round was simply amazing and the serving size enormous.  Prior to our dinner, Founders had sent the restaurant one of the Heaven Hill bourbon barrels that had briefly housed the Backwoods Bastard.  This barrel was dismantled and the bourbon and beer infused staves were used to smoke one of the most tender briskets I've ever had the pleasure to taste.  Served with a spicy sausage and the best cheesy grits you are likely to find north of the Mason-Dixon Line, this dish was incredibly satisfying and outrageously filling.

So Good!

By desert the small room was echoing with the music of laughter, shouts, "F%$# Off's", and loud conversation.  Bellies were filled to capacity, even before the arrival of the impressively green grasshopper pie, and Dave made sure to tell us that it was only a wafer thin.  Gotta love Monty Python humor!  I'm not a huge fan of mint and I was feeling a bit overstuffed by that point so I didn't eat much of it.  They also served us up both the 2012 and 2013 versions of the Founders Imperial Stout, so that became my favored desert.

For a first beer dinner I think Butcher & The Boar did an amazing job.  The combination of the attentive staff, intimate setting, incredible food and beer, and wonderful company combined to make this a near perfect event.  It was not a cheap dinner, but I feel that I received an experience that made this trip more than worth the price of entry.  I will certainly be setting Sj back on Facebook-stalk mode to make sure we can get into future dinners!  Make sure to check out this restaurant if you can get in.  And drink some Founders beers too!  They make one of the most consistently good portfolios of craft beers around and I can wholeheartedly agree with their biggest foul-mouthed fan:  "F&$#@ Off!  This is so awesome!"

Monday, February 25, 2013

Barleywine Fiesta!

This weekend I hosted a small group of friends to try out some barleywines.  This initially started as an excuse to try out a Rogue Old Crustacean Barleywine vertical sampler that my wonderful wife gave me for Christmas, but ended up being a bit more expansive than that. 

The AHA Club Only Competition for March is all barleywines, making this meeting fortuitous.  Most of the people I invited brought one of their home brewed versions and we started out with a blind tasting of 5 beers.  Sj did a great job of bartending for this, pouring beers like a seasoned professional, but neglecting to do the Coyote Ugly treatment of body shots on the bar...  For the COC, only one entry per club is accepted so we wanted both the best beer and the closest to style guidelines to be sent on.  These competitions are a great way to get your club some brewcred, and Jack Of All Brews has tried to place (making it to BOS at least once...)  a few times in the past, but hasn't placed yet.  This particular competition is being run by our friends from the Primary Fermenters in St. Paul and I really wanted to get an entry in this one!  We had one English and four American versions to try at this meeting, and it came out fairly close between the English and the fourth American.  In the end we opted to go for American, because in a head to head battle the higher hopping in the American version is more likely to stand out to a judge.  We shall see if we made the correct decision! 

After the official club business was done we moved into our vertical tasting of the Old Crustacean, (affectionatley called Old Crusty by fans), Rogue's American barleywine.  The main reason I wanted to keep this get-together small was the limited size of some of these bottles.  Several of them were 7 oz nip bottles and despite the strength, that much liquid doesn't share more than 7 ways.  By popular vote we started old and moved on to younger beers.  The first tiny bottle was a dusty old thing from 1998, with a twist-off rusty cap and the old beer logo.  The carbonation was nearly gone, but the complexity of flavor was amazing.  For several of us this was the favorite.  I was shocked at how little oxidation was present in this beer, and what little that was present added interest.  Too bad that bottle was so small!  For those who have not tried a 15 year old a few and start ageing them now!  Or find some beer geek friends who have been hoarding them.  Or do what Sj did and order them directly from Rogue's website.  We moved into 12 oz bottles of 2002 and 2003 next.  The 2002 was significantly oxidized with lots of cardboard and sherry notes.  Still drinkable but not nearly as complex and wonderful as the 1998.  The 2003 vintage, despite being only one year different, had very little oxidation and still had a lot of hop bitterness and flavor.  Our last was a 7 oz bottle of 2010--very hoppy and suprisingly fresh tasting, good but the older versions were enjoyed much more by all.  I did have one ceramic 750 ML bottle of the 2012 vintage, but based on the immaturity of the 2010 we decided to save this for a couple of years.  I still have at least one bottle of each vintage and plan on doing another of these tastings in a couple of years to see how they continue to age over time. 

I took this opportunity to crack a few other bottles from my dragon's hoard, and some of the guys brought bottles as well.  Barleywines are really meant to be shared, and since so many come in 22 oz bottles, I tend never to crack them on my own, making this a great opportunity to try some of these with an appreciative group.  High points were this year's Steel Toe Lunker and Town Hall Twisted Jim from last year, both bourbon barrel aged barleywines.  2011 Alaskan Barleywine and Kuhnhenn BBBW were very tasty as well.  Founder's Bolt Cutter and Three Floyds Behemoth were very tasty but were really more triple IPA's than barleywines, having way more hop flavor and bitterness than expected for the style.  Two disappointments were: the Herc C-130 from Flying Bison that tasted and smelled like freshly laid carpet; and the unintentionally sour Schlafly bourbon barrel aged barleywine.  Andrew's home brewed bourbon and oak version was as good if not better than some of the commercial examples we tried. 

Our tasting started at 3 PM, since I figured that people would still have all evening to get back to their families and be ready to get up early the following morning for work.  I learned something important during this experiment:  Barleywines are dangerous.  And evil.  And really tasty.  After a bunch of us took a post-tasting trip to the local Mexican restaurant, we played some PS3 and ended the evening's festivities around 10 PM.  Perhaps I am getting way too old for this.  This was a fun event and the small size made sampling and critically discussing the beers much easier than at a full club meeting.  Trying out the wide range of the style as well as vintage bottles made this educational as well as inebriating.  I love this style of beer, especially since I discovered how much they change over time with proper aging.  Since 2004 I have been buying a six pack of Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine and saving them for a future vertical tasting.  I would like to see if any of my friends have any older bottles stashed away to do a larger vertical tasting later in the year.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Book Review: IPA by Mitch Steele

For Christmas this year my sweetie gave me a fantastic book about one of my favorite beer styles to drink--IPA.  The Brewers Publications book is one of the newest in their Style Series, IPA written by Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing in California.   The book kicks off with a very good introduction by Matt Brynildson from Firestone Walker, briefly covering the trends toward hoppier beers and the personal history between he and the author.  Following that intro is another, longer, introduction from Steele discussing his history as a homebrewer, his work at Anheuser-Busch, and his eventual move back into craft brewing with Stone.  He also explains the path of his own interest in the IPA style, including his travels to England and much of the background research that he and others did in pursuit of writing this book.  I briefly met Mr. Steele at NHC in 2012 and went to his lecture on historic IPA at that time.  He covered some of the preliminary information from this upcoming book, and included a lot of cool photos and anecdotes.  That lecture (while drinking an endless supply of Stone IPA) was one of my favorites from that conference, so I had high hopes for this book!

The first third of the book covers the history of IPA in quite a bit of detail, digging deep into the storied past of the English IPA.  I found this section fascinating, as Mr. Steele debunks many of the myths surrounding the style and brings up new interesting theories of what this beer was really like.  It turns out that many beers were being exported to India, including porters and stouts, that did not require high hopping to survive the trip from England.  In fact the beer was being shipped in the 1700's for ages but was not truly called IPA until as late as the 1820's.  This is the kind of history I can get behind!  The  book spends a lot of time on the traditional roots of IPA, then moving to the changes occurring throughout the world until the current renaissance of the style by mostly American home and craft brewers. 

The next section of the book focuses on the different sub-styles of IPA:  English, American, Double, Black (Cascadian), Belgian, Triple, and White.  Most of this is very recent history with many of the styles arising just in the last few years.  He then moves on to cover the basics of brewing this style, from ingredients to mashing to boiling and fermentation.  The chapter on IPA hops has a lot of good information on hops and hopping techniques that I haven't seen gathered in one place before.  There is a lot of detailed information about the brewing and fermentation processes that is true for all brewing, not just for this style. 

The final third of the book is mainly recipes.  Steele has chosen to give as much detail as possible, but giving grain by percentages and hops by IBU/AA so that the reader can calculate the details needed for their particular pro or home brewing set-up.  At first I was disappointed, as I wanted a good 5 gallon batch recipe spelled out for me, but I get why he did this.  He has historical recipes that have been updated for modern ingredients and measurements and I am very excited to try my hand at one of these.  At least no one will be able to tell me it isn't to style!  The recipe for Ballantine IPA (the last hold-out of original IPA in America, now lost since 1960,) is taken from BYO, and my friend Mike Behrendt has brewed that with some success.  There are also many recipes for more modern craft beer IPAs, many with details and discussions directly from the brewers. 

There is a significant chunk at end of the book taken up by appendices, charts, notes and bibliography.  Steele has certainly done his homework on this book!  He even gives a bunch of resources for the reader to pursue their own research and learning about the style.

Overall this is the most readable and interesting beer book I have read so far.  Mitch Steele does a great job of toeing the the line between super-geek technical and layman's terms, so there is something to learn here for every reader.  He has hit that sweet spot in technical writing where the well researched facts and figures are balanced with anecdotes, stories and historical side-bars that keep the reader interested and on task.  I feel that new and experienced homebrewers will get a lot out of this book, as will professional brewers.  Highly recommended!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

DIY Beer Dinner!

For the last several years Sj and I have been going to beer dinners.  We started doing this with some of the first beer dinners in the Twin Cities, at Wyzata's North Coast Restaurant when the executive chef was the amazingly talented Ryan Aberle.  I remember having a Surly Dinner there that featured one of the first unveilings of Coffee Bender done on a one keg scale.  When Ryan left the restaurant, we were driftless until discovering the Happy Gnome.  I have posted several times about the beer dinners we have been to there, and will likely continue to do so.  Over about three or four years of these dinners we have made good friends of fellow Gnome dinner fans Chris, Hassan, Carol and Kevin.  I have talked big about doing my own beer dinner for years now and a few weeks ago I took the plunge and did it.  Of course when the day came, we had ice, sleet, snow and wind to make the trek out to my place all the more difficult.  Carol and Kevin were unable to make the treacherous drive, but luckily Matt and Anna were able to take their places as the table as last minute replacements!

Blood orange and hazelnut salad paired with Belgian Blonde ale

As a homebrewer I wanted to showcase some of my homebrews for this event.  I like to share the fruits of my labors and also have a lot of them taking up space in my basement and fridges.  There was one dish I wanted to prepare that I didn't have an appropriate beer for, so I used one commercial example for the dinner.  Having a theme is fun: All Belgians; all Brewery X's beers; etc.  If you want to involve your guests in the process, let them choose a couple of the beers and then you can attempt to pair dishes with them.  I have also heard of folks having the guests bring a dish and beer and doing this more family or pot-luck style, which might work better for people with less time and inclination to cook all day!  For me, I enjoyed the challenge and really wanted to duplicate the multiple course style that our group has grown accustomed to.  A nice touch is having a fancy tasting menu printed out for your guests to peruse.  It is always nice to have a meet and greet beer as well for people to sip on while everyone shows up and gets settled in.  You can use this time for last minute prep, or take advantage of the time to talk to your guests and relax a bit before the big dinner starts.  I did both!

Thai coconut, chicken, mushroom soup paired with Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold

There are a few ways of picking out your dishes.  One option is starting with the beer and working on a dish that you think will pair well based on complementary or contrasting flavors.  Since I had my beers already, this is the method I chose for most of the dishes I used.  I wanted to use my smoked Baltic porter, so I picked a strongly flavored dish of lamb stew and used the beer in a broth as well as pairing the beer with the dish.  Make sure the beer doesn't overwhelm the dish and vice versa.   I had an American barleywine and wanted to pair a cheese with it--I chose a strong blue cheese to stand up to the high alcohol and hops in the beer.  The alcohol and carbonation in the beer also cuts through the fat and clears the palate after a bite of the cheese.  I highly recommend checking out the Homebrew Chef website for recipes and ideas.

Cassoulet with truffle, paired with smoked Baltic porter

Another question is whether you plan on using the beers in the preparation of the food.  You don't have to do this at all, but I find that it marries the flavors a bit better and makes you take some risks in your cooking.  I used my Belgian pale ale in the vinaigrette for the intro salad and paired it with that beer.  I also added a bit of my Doppelbock to the cassoulet instead of the recipe's white wine to add some extra complexity.

Beer braised lamb over IPA mashed potatoes, with hazelnut citrus green beans.  Paired with Skeletor Doppelbock

Use dishes you have made before if possible.  You are trying to do a multi-coursed meal and time management is tough unless you know how long prep and firing is going to take on those dishes.  Don't mess around with untried recipes when all your friends are watching you crash and burn.  I have made all of these dishes before and been happy with them.  Also choose dishes in which most of the prep can be done earlier in the week or that morning, so you have less scrambling around in the kitchen.  You want a chance to sit down with your guests and eat with them!

RIS and maple gelato!

Much to Sj's chagrin I am not a big desert chef.  We were lucky enough to have Chris and Hassan in our group:  proprietors of the Paciugo Gelato shop in the Mall of America.  They masterfully combined a few bottles of my Imperial stout with a maple gelato, making a fantastic pairing with the same beer.  If you haven't checked out their shop yet, they have a ton of amazing flavors, and have done Surly and New Belgium beer gelato before!

Overall I think this was a great success and I am hoping to do another later this year with new victims (um, guests,) to test out my culinary skills.  My favorite dish of the night was the cassoulet (a dense stew made with white beans, chicken, bacon and sausage.)  The best pairing for me was probably the lamb with the smoked Baltic porter. 

With the rattle of sleet on the windowpanes and the howl of the wind on the eaves, six friends clustered around a table sharing beers, food and good stories.  By the end of the meal everyone was vociferously wishing they had worn elastic-waisted pants--the perfect sign of a cook's job well done!

Friday, February 15, 2013

New Albion Ale

Having been intrigued by beer history and culture for quite some time, even helping my mom homebrew back in the 80's and 90's, I had come across several cryptic comments from varied sources about New Albion Brewing Company.  This almost mythical brewery with its equally fanciful and fairy-tale name grew in my perhaps overactive imagination, where the craft beer movement sprang into life from nothing, then fading into obscurity and once again being lost to the mists of time and memory.  Notations from famous craft brewers about the forefather of craft brewing in America, Jack McAuliffe, and his fabled brewery sparked my interest and it stayed there lolling about in my subconscious mind, until one day when I would spot a small baby blue bottle sitting upon a shelf in the Four Firkins.  I was drawn to this bottle like a moth to a flame.  The art is retro, nay historic, looking hand drawn with an ancient ship in full sail coming into the California bay.  Fine light blue horizontal lines, again looking hand drawn, fill the rest of the space on the bottle, with a matching blue cap and rolling ship.  This was history in a bottle.

Jack McAuliffe started his small 1.5 barrel "micro" brewery in Sonoma in 1976, naming it New Albion after the name that Sir Francis Drake gave to the land that became Northern California.  Drake had come to this area aboard his ship Golden Hind in 1579, naming it "New Britain" in Latin.  McAuliffe's goal was to make ales, porters, and stouts and to educate people about different styles of beer.  Keep in mind that this was when 90 plus percent of beer in America was brewed by just 4 or 5 companies, and all were light adjunct lagers.  He obviously had a big impact on many of the next wave of craft brewers and his influence continues to this day.

Jim Koch of Boston Beer Company has obviously been a fan of this story as well, though he is quite famous himself for building on the New Albion's cornerstone and making a respectable place for himself in the annals of American Craft Beer history.  Jim somehow talked Jack into collaborating on this reboot of his original pale ale recipe.  There is a QR code on the bottle that takes you to a short webisode about the beer, and some of my info here comes from that video.  Seeing Jim Koch's eyes light up light up with wonder when he first holds the original bottle for New Albion Ale is priceless and clearly shows his deep seated devotion to craft beer.  Say what you will about the Sam Adams beer line up, but they were the first truly successful craft beer in our current era.  There is not much information to be found about the recipe used, but Koch describes it as "Beautifully simple."  I'm assuming American 6 row malt and perhaps some corn, with early American grown hops such as Nugget or Cascade.

My truncated BJCP style review of the beer itself follows.  I specifically held off on giving this a number value as I think this beer hard for me to rate outside of its historical significance.

Aroma:  Sweet grainy notes with a distinct corny aroma.  Very light orange/citrus aroma, becoming more noticeable as it warms. 

Appearance:  Very light gold in color.  Excellent clarity and quite sparkling.  Fine white head that fades fairly quickly.

Flavor:  Much like the aroma--sweet and corny with grainy bite.  Some bitterness at the end to balance the initial sweetness.  Some mild orange and earthy hop flavor present, but subtle, increasing as it warms.  Not very complex in overall flavor.

Mouthfeel:  Light in body.  A hint of creaminess at first, but between high carbonation and bitterness, this ends dry and crisp.  Very spritzy.

Overall Impression:  A mild and simple beer, lacking in punch and complexity.  As if a cream ale, a malt liquor and an American pale ale took part in a sordid 70's menage a trois and this was the mongrel offspring of that union. 

Is this beer worth drinking?  Of course it is!  I wouldn't want to drink a lot of it, but as a taste of history it is worth a sampling.  This beer was one of the very first "extreme" beers, and is a time capsule of the state of the art in 1976.  While you are at it, try a Sam Adams Boston Lager if you haven't had one in a few years--that beer had an insane hopping rate compared to just about anything commercially available at the time it first came out.  Look at Dogfish Head, Russian River, and Surly.  Would any of these breweries be able to market their beers without the ground being first broken by these brewing pioneers?  I think not.  Look to the past and you will appreciate the current state of American craft beer all the more.  And look to the future as well.  With all the brewing innovation and the education of current beer drinkers, perhaps in 30 years today's extreme beers will seem like mild and under classed dinosaurs. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Jack Of All Brews Meeting 2/8/13: Rahr Bierstube

I had originally meant to do a recap of each JAB meeting here on this blog.  That has not happened, as I'm sure you have noticed!  I've had a great time at every meeting since we began having them in 2006, but some meetings seem to be special.  One such meeting was this last Friday.  Member Chris German of Brewer's Supply Group/Rahr was able to get the Rahr Malting Bierstube in Shakopee for a new meeting place.  The private bar/tasting room is just a bit over a year old now and this is the second time we have been invited out there to enjoy the venue.  There is a very spacious bar with a combination of old world wood and new stainless steel, as well as ample seating and good acoustics.  Old brewerania line the walls and classic German steins populate the display area behind the bar.  They also had two homebrews and some great commercial Minnesota beers on tap.  Love the Steel Toe Size 7!

JAB members listening intently to Enki Brewing founders

Both times we have been to this amazing venue a huge proportion of the folks showing up were new or prospective members--we had seven or eight new people this time.  Of course this sets the bar high for putting on a good meeting in the future!  We had over 25 people at this particular meeting.  The owners of the upcoming Enki Brewing in Victoria, Dan and John, were there to talk a bit about their plans and get to know their future local supporters.  I'm very pleased that they seem to have embraced our club as a partner for the future, and hope we can do a lot of things together in the next few years.

The wonderful Chris German

There was a lot of other business to cover this month.  We started with a quick introduction of new folks and then moved into Brewcred and bling for the last two homebrewing competitions-- 9 medals for Mash Out and 1 for the Beer Dabbler.  Tim talked about our new Dickie's work shirts and took pre-orders for those.  If we can get over 50 shirts pre-ordered we plan on having the club cover the cost of embroidering names on the front.  I call "Doc!"  Tim also managed to get a bunch of candi sugar and free Belgian yeast samples to give out for our May meeting's Belgian Beer Brew Off event.

I did a quick style spotlight on Belgian Dubbels with commercial examples Westmalle Dubbel, New Belgium Abbey, and one from Choc brewing.  We then moved into a quick talk by Tim about the unusual but effective method of eising beers, meads and ciders.  He was able to give us some pre and post eis samples from his personal stock to show the difference in the resulting flavor and aroma.  That eised berry melomel was amazing and I can see why he won the coveted Eis Anything trophy from Mash Out for the second year running.  Minnesota winter is the perfect time and place to try this out!

Then the meeting quickly devolved into fun drinking and socializing.  I think we accomplished quite a bit considering how large a group we had.  I'm guessing all the new guys were quieter than they will be in the future!  It was great to hang out with old friends and some new.  One thing I love about our meetings is never knowing who might show up--it could be an old member from years past, or a brand new brewer just getting passionate about the hobby and wanting to up their game by joining a club.  Personally, joining this club was the best thing I could have done for my brewing, but also for my social life.  We tried a few good homebrews and Ben and Bob won the Golden Mash Paddle this month for their black IPA. 

Thanks again to the folks at Rahr, especially to Chris and Jeff.  We all had a great time this month and look forward to getting back here in the future! 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Ward 6 Restaurant & Bar Review

Whilst killing time and exploring the St. Paul side of things, my friend Jeff and I were instructed by Kristen England to try out Ward 6.  After a harrowing ride to the restaurant (I swear that once one crosses the river people drive exponentially worse...) we parked out back and headed in.  Located in a building dating back to 1885, the restaurant is long and narrow--which I'm sure drives the serving staff crazy.  The seating and the restaurant itself is a bit tight, but cozy rather than cramped.  Upon entering I immediately felt comfortable and was greeted with enthusiasm by our hostess.  The entire visit we had attentive and friendly service which is a necessity for a successful higher end restaurant.  The bar along one wall is amazing: built by the Hamm's Brewery in 1903 and made of old oak, it just looks classic and classy.

Food!  We did not eat a full meal here so I can't speak to the entrees but with a burger called the Fatty Melt I'm guessing they are tasty.  We did share a good charcuterie plate (I'm such a sucker for these!) filled with terrines, pate, pickles, rillet and head cheese.  I know mystery meats can be freaky, but these were very good.  Not quite as good as The Happy Gnome's but respectable.  Jeff got a plate of Poutine: the Canadian specialty of hand cut fries topped with cheese curds and gravy.  Coronary on a plate...Yum!  I recommend it.  I would love to come back for a true dinner, because I think these guys really know what they are doing.

Did I mention the beer yet?  I don't really blog about places with crappy beer, so you had to be waiting patiently for it right?  The entire beer list is Minnesota made beers, with the sole exception of Hamm's which is brewed somewhere else now, but needs to be served because Hamm's built that freaking awesome bar.  I had a Surly Abrasive and a Surly Smoke, served in appropriate stemware glasses.  They had about 16 taps of MN beers like Badger Hill, Indeed, Lucid, Surly Hell and Steel Toe.  Good job guys.

More like an upscale neighborhood diner, this place is also a great bar with fantastic beers on tap.  We met briefly with owner Eric Foster (also a BJCP beer judge) who seems very excited about his new endeavor.  Support him by trying the place out!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Brew In A Bag Homebrew Method

I have read about the brew in bag method of homebrewing, pioneered by the Australians,  over the last few years, but had never actually seen it in practice before.  A week or so ago my friends and fellow JABbers, Matt and Anna brought over their set-up to my place and showed me how it was done, while I simultaneously brewed an all-grain batch in my three-tiered system.  The idea of BIB is to skip the steps requiring an extra vessel for mashing in and possibly even for sparging.

It was very interesting to see the BIB in action and parts of the process were quicker, others longer.  I'll do a quick run-down here, but keep in mind that I was just watching this, not taking part.  They were using an all-grain kit from Midwest for a 1.052 OG beer.

The first step was setting up the brew pot (they had a 8 gallon, but plan to get a bigger pot in the future.)  Getting water up the proper mash temp is the next step.  Ideally one would have this plugged into a program like Beersmith to do all the calculations before-hand.  Based on your vessel, vessel temp and grain amount you should be able to calculate the goal water temp a few degrees above the desired mash temp, so upon adding the grain your temp hits right around your goal.  Getting this aspect consistent requires taking good notes and repetition before you can feel comfortable with your system.  Once you have reached your desired water temp, you add a large nylon bag to line the inside of the pot and then add the grain inside it.  With the top of the bag open, you can stir the grain as it absorbs the water and is turned into your mash.   Using a brewer's thermometer insert this into the middle of the mash and see if your temp is right.  If you need to make adjustments, you can do it now.  If too hot, keep the lid off and stir some more to cool it down (or add a bit of cool water if needed.) If too cold, you can add a bit of hotter water or even direct fire the pot for a short time to get it up to temp.  Once it is all of an equal consistency with no clumps or dough balls, you can tie up the top of the bag, or leave it open to give better access for stirring and temperature taking.  Put the lid on and let it sit for your usual mash time (about an hour typically)  checking temps occasionally to make sure you haven't dropped too much.  So far pretty much like every all-grain mash, just inside a bag.

Once an hour had passed, Matt demonstrated a technique he uses that simulates a batch-sparge.  He has some water heated up to about 170 in a separate pot sitting by.  He picks up the bag full of grain, letting it drain back into the pot, but not squishing it to avoid extracting too many astringent tannins.  The bag full of grain then goes into the pot of warm water to rinse the grain and also to raise the temp, like a mash-out step to inactivate the enzymes.  This stage is about 15 minutes long.  He then moves the bag to an empty smaller pot and lets it sit there a bit.  The "sparge" liquid is then added to the boil pot where most of the first wort is already on the flame and working toward the boil.  After a bit of time the grain bag is emptied/discarded, and the residual drainage wort collected in the empty pot is added to the boil as well.  Waste not want not!

The boil is pretty much the same as any homebrew batch from here on out.  With Matt and Anna's smaller pot it is difficult to do a full 5-6 gallon boil without massive boil-overs, so they have to add back some water to the carboy/fermentation bucket after the wort is chilled.

While watching this I was impressed by how easy it was.  One could potentially skip the "sparge" step and just end up with a first wort if you lacked a second large pot and save space and time, at the expense of efficiency.  They were done before my traditional brew was over, mainly because of the 45 minute sparge I was doing.  I believe their efficiency has been around 70, which is traditionally where most homebrew recipes are set as a baseline.  Supposedly BIB should be around 60%.  I'm guessing that the extra sparge step and the drained off final wort step have increased Matt and Anna's efficiency from classic one-container BIB.  Whatever your efficiency ends up as, if you can take notes and find out your usual number, you can increase your base grain amount in the future to get your OG levels to where you want it.  Overall this is a great way to do all-grain brewing without investing in a lot of extra equipment--make sure you really want to take the plunge.  I've seen several people over the years who either tried to start with a huge all-grain set-up or advanced to that method and then decided it was too much work or time.

Keep in mind this is a surface-level review from someone who hasn't actually done this hands-on, so I might have missed a few details.  Have any of you used this method and if so do you have advice for folks doing this?  If so please comment here and let us know!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Interview with Rock Bottom Head Brewer Pio

At the December Rock Bottom Holiday Brewer's Dinner I got to meet the new brewer Tim Piotrowski (or Pio for short.)  He is a very approachable and pleasant young man who obviously loves what he does.  At Rock Bottom I find that the brewer is often very much behind the scenes and thought that the Minnesota beer geeks would benefit from getting to know more about our recent addition to the local beer scene.  It doesn't hurt that he is putting out very tasty beers!  Pio was kind enough to take the time to respond to my interview questions:

EW:  Tell me a bit about yourself:  Where you grew up, and what previous training and brewing experience you have had.

Pio:  I grew up in Stevens Point, WI.  (Go Packers!)  Graduated from UW-Stevens Point with a Business Admin major and Camp Management minor.  I spent the next 4-1/2 years in California directing a YMCA Camp...and home brewing.  That's when I decided to sign up for the American Brewers Guild's education program.  I completed that training with an apprenticeship at Oskar Blues Brewery in Longmont, Colorado, and was hired on in packaging.  When I didn't see my future with that company, I interviewed and was hired by Rock Bottom.

I started by splitting time between the Walnut Brewery (the "first" Rock Bottom) in Boulder and the ChopHouse in Denver.  After about 6 months, I was transferred to RB Westminster full time.  I worked with Senior Brewer, Scott O'Hearn, to get as much preparation as possible for a Head Brewer role, and I realized that about a year later in Minneapolis.

EW:  How hard was it to transition over to the new brewhouse and take over after Bob left?  Were there any unusual circumstances or stories about getting used to your new equipment?

Pio:  After arriving in Minneapolis, I worked three of my hardest weeks ever.  The equipment was new, but that just took a little getting used to.  The big challenge was setting up the brewery, supplies, ingredients and processes in a way that made the most sense to me.  At the same time, we were in our busy season and I needed to keep house beers on tap and add some of my own new recipes.

I made it through that transition period, and I think we can all agree it's been quite the tasty experience!

EW:  I noticed that all the beers you served us at the Holiday Dinner were fairly dry on the finish, even the the historically sweeter brown ale and Irish red.  Is this part of your brewing philosophy/personal style? 

Pio:  Yes, I think so.  Sweet, thick beers tend to provide a one-and-done experience.  There is definitely a time and place for sweeter styles.  However, in a brew pub like Rock Bottom, I think that most customers enjoy having two or more beers over the few hours they spend with us.  A drier finish to the beer helps prevent taste fatigue, in my opinion. 

EW:  Did you start brewing as a homebrewer?

Pio:  Sure did.  I started in college, continued at camp in California on an off.  I always enjoyed the process of turning water into beer.  It's intoxicating!

EW:  Any bits of brewing advice you would like to spread to us homebrewers?

Pio:  Never stop trying new beers.  You'll always have your favorite brands or styles, but there is a whole world of beer out there.  (Having so much access to RB beer, I have to remind myself of that from time to time.)  New beers can provide just the inspiration you need for your next recipe.

EW:  Do you have any unusual beers in the works that we can look forward to? (Note: this interview was done earlier in the year so the beers may be long gone by now but Pio's take on these styles is worth fault entirely!)

-Big Horn Nut Brown is back.  I like the idea of paying tribute to the beers that got us to where we are and celebrating the amazing brewers that came before me.
-1/10, we're putting out a Belgian Grand Cru @ 7.8%
-1/16, tapping Double Down IPA @ 8.5% and 100 IBUs

Generally, unusual beers are not my style.  I much prefer to make amazing beers that guests keep talking about and coming back for.  I have found that in beers such as Paranoid IPA and Coconut Chai Stout.  

When a beer appeals to only a very small crowd, it sits in the serving vessel for long time.  I prefer fresh beers, changing styles frequently.

Thanks so much to Pio for talking with us!  I hope that you the reader has learned a bit about this "new" brewer and will check out what he is doing over at Rock Bottom Minneapolis.  

Next Up on JABlog:  Brew In A Bag

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Winterfest 2013

Winterfest is one of my favorite beer festivals, taking place appropriately in the dead of icy winter in Minnesota.  The idea behind this festival is to have a smaller venue and crowd to keep it a bit more intimate.  It is put on by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild and showcases only Minnesota breweries and brewpubs.  This was my fourth year at the festival and it has changed a lot in the last few years.  The first year I went was also the first time they used the Minnesota History Center in Saint Paul for a venue.  The organization and placement at that time was a little suspect, but we had a great time.  The amount of breweries this year compared to that first time about 5 years ago has about tripled...and the space hasn't increased in the venue at all!  The tickets sell out in seconds when they go on sale, and with the increased popularity of craft beer locally this has sparked some anger at Winterfest from those who can't get in.  Last year Sj and I had to get scalped tickets, but this year invested in the six-pack of Winterfest, All Pints North, and ABR tickets.

This year Sj and I took off work a bit early so we could beat the rush hour traffic and make the one hour drive to Saint Paul without issues.  Ha!  A blustery wind and 5 degree temperature was not enough--it had to start snowing as well.  Welcome to Winterfest!  Passing multiple spin-outs and multi-car pile-ups we inched our way from Waconia to Saint Paul.  About two hours later we landed at our hotel, with just enough time to drop our bag in the room and snag a cab to the nearby History Center.  Our cab driver was very nice but managed to get lost and the subsequent white-knuckle death-ride through the ice and slush was a bit harrowing.  Brown trousers time folks.  After throwing some cash at our driver and kissing the frozen ground we headed for a large tent that was plastered with Cargill signs.  This was a different set up from previous years, where the line was inside the entry to the building.  It turns out that the entry space was taken up by new brewery pouring stations, so they had us wait outside.  Did I mention the 5 degree weather?  At least we were out of the wind and snow.  Earlier this week I had somehow injured my left foot and have been hobbling around with crutches for the last two days.  Standing in this line, and losing sensation in my feet for 45 minutes was not a great idea.

Hardy Nordic Minnesotan Beer Geeks
As the tent filled up they shoved the head of the line into a small area of the building foyer, and kept cramming us in like sardines to try to get the poor back of the line people from suffering hypothermia outside.  Luckily we were near the front and got inside for the first wave.  I'm glad I do not have a fear of crowds.  Soon the bagpipers arrived--the traditional start to MN beer festivals.  At the sound of the pipes we were off!  Gather up your glass, check for cracks, and plunge headlong into the fray--there is beer to be sampled!  Speaking of glasses--this year's were very nice 8-10 oz stemware with the MCBG and Republic logos etched into them.  The larger glasses were a bit dangerous, as we kept getting pours that were filling at least half the glass...too much for some of these wickedly strong beers!  It hurts me to have to dump a great beer, but it hurts less than seeing that beer again the following morning.

The event is spread in the halls of all three levels of the History Center, a very cool backdrop.   I loved the signs up in the restrooms reminding people to wash hands and cover coughs with old turn of the century pictures of flu epidemics on them.  With my bum foot I staggered about before I'd had a drop to drink...not a good start.  Often Sj had to go rinse my glass for me or get refills while I propped up my weary carcass against a wall or railing somewhere.  We began with Town Hall Brewery and had one of the best beers I've had from them: the Manhattan--Belgian Grand Cru aged in bourbon barrels with cherries.  Yum!  They also had a carving station for sandwiches because you WILL need food during this event.

It is difficult to put the experience into words, but I'll do my best.  The place is crowded, but with limited tickets sold, it isn't uncomfortably close.  There were 38 breweries here to try, each offering between two to eight beers.  A lot of the beers at Winterfest are big winter beers like bourbon barrel barleywines and Imperial stouts, with the occasional IPA or session beer thrown in for good measure.  Most of the stands had the brewers serving their beers so we were able to ask questions of them directly.  That is one of my favorite aspects of this festival as opposed to the larger ones with more volunteer pourers.  The pouring stations/jockey-boxes for the breweries are very cool to look at as well: Indeed's rustic wood bar and Excelsior's impressive dock were my favorites.  I was blown away by the number of new or recent breweries and many were showing off some really good beers.  Several were just debuting their beers here, and I'm excited to seek them out when they open for business.

Ben pouring a cask beer from his dock!

Stand outs of the new breweries were 612's Winter IPA, Dangerous Man Coffee Porter, Pour Decisions Blackberry Acerbity Berliner Weisse.  The collaboration beer between Indeed and Northbound Smokehouse was very good but bordering on too smoky--Sj described it as a "campfire in the mouth."  An accurate description, but I liked it anyway.

The second wave breweries brought it strong as well, showing some maturity and improved craft from previous festivals.  Fulton had a wonderful passion fruit/mango bomb double IPA and a version of Libertine aged on local 2 Gingers Whiskey barrels.  Excelsior's Mr. Jimmy's Baltic Porter was quite tasty and appropriate to this cold evening.  My favorite beer of the night was Steel Toe Brewing's Dawn Juan--a one year old black barleywine infused with coffee.  Hands down the best coffee beer I've ever had, with sweet toffee, firm bitterness and so much complexity.  That was the only beer we tried to get seconds on, but they had already emptied the keg.

Jason pays the Piper!

There are always old standbys that we know to seek out.  Those breweries who have been putting out amazing beers for years and form the backbone of the Minnesota craft beer community:  Town Hall, Fitgers, Barley John's, Summit and Surly.  These guys showed their seasoned brewing chops and brought a lot of fantastic beers.  Town Hall brought the Manhattan as well as Czar Jack, and Twisted Trace (barleywine aged in Buffalo Trace barrels.)  Fitgers had Evil Rabbit (made with lychee puree and orange rind,) Edmund bourbon Imperial Stout, Mango Trail IPA, and the Spanish Fly (with peppers!)  Surly brought all sorts of cool beers and I got to talk to brewers Derek and Todd briefly about them.  Surly stand outs were:  The new batch of Pentagram; Damien (the Darkness' second-runnings beer); and the aptly named Fiery Hell.

Looking at my list of beers, I didn't even get close to trying a quarter of the available libations.  I didn't try any beers that I thought were awful, though there were some I didn't love.  The overall quality was great and I can honestly say that Minnesota has come of age as a great beer state.  Look out Oregon and Colorado, we are nipping at your heels here!

As with any beer event for me, a lot of what makes it enjoyable is the people.  The beer is great, but I consider it more of a social lubricant and a common ground for discussion than an end in itself.  Beside my wonderful wife, I got to talk to friends Chris and Hassan, as well as running into Scott and Emily Brink, Chris German, Doug Hoverson (of Land of Amber Waters fame,) and many people I judged beers with at the Upper Mississippi Mash Out last week.  I also got to spend a bit time talking with brewers Kristen England, Jason Schoneman, Pio from Rock Bottom, as well as Peter Mack and Mike Hoops.

Sj is the victim of a vicious drive-by gnoming

The end of the fest came too soon, with my last (full) pour being the cedar aged IPA from Fitgers.  Parting is such sweet sorrow my, dear friend Winterfest.  The end always comes too quickly to these events, but that is probably for the best.  Usually finding your way home from the History Center is a trial.  In the past (before Sj really got into beer) she would drive, but those times are gone.  We would often see very drunk people peeling out of the parking lot, so I'm fine with staying away from that area.  Cabs should be lined up for this event, but are usually as hard to find as an honest politician.  A few years back Sj just about started a fistfight with someone who tried to snake the cab we had called for.  This year, with not a cab in sight and hordes of drunken patrons milling about, we opted for braving the now sub-zero weather and snow and trying to walk the mile to the hotel.  Imperial stouts and barleywines help folks to make good decisions.  Remember my gimpy foot?  I was worried that someone would find our freezer-burned and dessicated bodies hunched over at the side of the road come the Spring melt-off.  But lurching like some demented peg-legged pirate, with Sj navigating on her iPhone using her nose to avoid taking off gloves, we successfully hobbled our way back to the hotel.

I hope to make it to next year's iteration of Winterfest...if the stars align and I get tickets.

Next Up on JABlog:  Interview with Rock Bottom's new brewer Pio!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Limited Release Episode 4: Black Tuesday!

Over the last two years my friends Rob Wengler and Ron Johnson (with help from some other cool beer geeks) have been putting together episodes of a web based show called Limited Release.  The idea of this show is to demonstrate the trials and tribulations of two men as they brave the elements, crowds, and drunkenness to get some of the most sought after beers in the world.  The first three episodes covered Kate The Great, Dark Lord and Surly Darkness, all amazing Imperial stouts.  I have been fortunate enough to have become their resident "beer expert" and they let me share their hard-won spoils for performing on camera.  I have always had a bit of social phobia, especially about public speaking, so I never in a million years thought I'd be talking in front of a camera.  So if I come off a bit strange in the episodes, bear with me!  The things I do for beer. 

This new episode is for The Bruery out in California during the release of their incredible bourbon barrel aged Imperial stout Black Tuesday.  I watched the rough preview of the episode a few weeks ago and thought it was looking good.  I guess some of the audio got erased during part of the episode, requiring them to use the lower quality camera mic audio instead, so there is a bit of uneven recording for that part.  I haven't seen my section yet so hopefully through editing they will make me not look like a crazed robot.

Please watch and share either this link or the video link with your beer geek friends.  The only way these web shows succeed is by lots of people seeing them!  Also check out the old episodes is you haven't watched them.

As of this writing Rob and Ron are currently waiting in line for Russian River Pliny the Younger and filming for the next episode...

Addendum:  OK I watched the whole thing and think they did a great job with it.  They even have the unedited version of my tasting notes as a separate area on the web page if you really want to watch me squirm.