Thursday, July 24, 2014

30 Word Thursday: Waves

Sparkling blue waves
Reach for clear cerulean sky
Bright sun glints from metal and glass

Reflective beams throw light and shadow
Perspective and reality skews

Warped river flows 
Upward Icarus

This week's 30 Word Thursday pic was taken right outside the J.W. Marriott hotel in Grand Rapids, MI.  I was struck by the unusual sculpture and had to take pictures!  It turns out that the sculpture was created to commemorate the addition of fluoride to the water about a weird subject for art.  As a health professional having seen some terrible teeth over the years, I appreciate the wonders of fluoride as much as the next guy.  Interestingly on a trip to Bend, Oregon last year the whole town was super excited about how they had just removed the evil toxins of fluoride from their water.  If I was a dentist I'd be moving out there right about now...

Check out the other contributors this week (or try it yourself!) at Erin's Treasures Found Blog.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Sour Tasting

John Hayes and Dan Norton from Enki Brewing recently approached me with some questions about sour beers.  Like many even fairly well educated beer drinkers they both felt that their knowledge and ability to judge the sours was not quite where they would like it.  As a BJCP beer judge I really appreciate those who know their beer shortcomings and want to improve on them!  I know several ranked judges who specifically request not to judge these categories of beer simply because they don't like me this is something they should work at and either learn to like them or at least recognize good from bad examples!

I had already been amassing a collection of sour beers after our recent Belgium trip, so this was a perfect time to break some of those out and see if I had the chops to teach others what I know of the sour styles.  I have been thinking of doing a BJCP prep class for the Western Suburbs in the next year or two and this would be a great way to test my skills.  And an excuse to have some great sour beers!

My friend (and sour beer aficionado) Andrew and his wife Janelle joined us for this and contributed some cool beers as well.  John, Dan, Dan's wife (who isn't a beer person at all) and Sj all showed up for the tasting.  We had a few cancellations, and luckily another friend, Jesse, was able to fill in at the last minute!

I tried to start with the more accessible beers, since those are often viewed as "gateway" beers for non-sour drinkers.  We would then move into the more extreme examples.

Flanders Red

We started the grouping with what many would consider the easiest sour beer to handle: Flanders Red.  This style is a mixed fermentation including traditional beer yeast, lactobacillus, pediococcus, acetobacter, and brettanomyces yeast, usually fermented or aged in wooden barrels or foedors.  Also known as the Bergundy of Belgium, these reddish hued ales combine cherry or other dark fruit flavors with a tart or sour bite.  Most of these beers use a blend of older/more sour beer with a younger/less sour beer to get the right balance.  One of the most commonly found examples of this style here in Minnesota is the Duchesse De Borgogne.  This one is very approachable since it's tartness is tempered by back-sweetening, resulting in a sweeter and easier to handle flavor.  I used to really like this beer, but now it seems way too sweet for my palate.  I still have plenty of friends who love the beer, and have no problem with that!

From there we went to a homebrewed example that I brewed up in 2009.  This one has continued to increase in tartness over time, and certainly has more than The Duchesse.  I've been brewing one of these each year since 2008, and my skills are slowly increasing.  With the need to age for such protracted time (a year or so) zeroing in on the right recipe and making changes can take a bit of time!  I haven't quite gotten to the point of blending myself but I'm starting to think this is the way to go!

The third beer we tried was New Glarus Enigma.  This one has aged several years and has more of a tart cherry pie flavor than I remember from when it was fresh.  Still nice, but overall people liked my version better (Eric pats own back here...)

The last beer was the Jolly Pumpkin La Roja that I brought back from our recent trip to Michigan.  This one is not entirely traditional for Belgium, but is very close in style for tasting.  The complexity in the beer is incredible compared to our previous two examples.  Initially most of the unseasoned sour drinkers in the group loved the Duchesse, but by the end of the tasting several liked the Jolly Pumpkin more.

Flanders Brown Ale/Oud Bruin

The Belgian sour brown is really an offshoot of the Flanders Red, but tends to be a bit more mellow and darker in color.  Often these will be back sweetened or blended to have just a touch of acidity or sourness to them.  These beers usually have more dark fruit, raisin, prune, and some caramel or toffee malt flavors to them than the Flanders Red.  These are also often aged for some time and may have a bit of oxidation or sherry character.  There are not many local examples of this style and it hasn't caught on as much with the American craft beer scene yet, though does often act as a base for fruit beers.  I discovered a paper wrapped bottle of Leifman's Goudenband at The Four Firkins that would do nicely here!  This one was a hit with its smoother sourness and I think everyone liked it well.  I have had the chance to try a 20 year old bottle of this beer when in Antwerp that was still amazing.


Gueuze is really usually a blend of three years worth of spontaneously fermented lambics.  I did get a chance to taste some of the young unblended lambic beers in Belgium, but trust me, they get much more complex when blended together with older and more tart beer.  Brussels is the epicenter for this style of beer, but they can be found elsewhere, and now American brewers like Allagash and Jolly Pumpkin are doing their own versions of these beers.  The hot wort is traditionally run into a large flat copper coolship where it cools overnight and gets inoculated with random brewery bacteria.  It is then added to used wooden barrels (where most of the real wild yeast and bacteria reside) and fermented for 1-3 years.

I started here with the Timmermans Oude Gueuze (also from The Firkins).  I had never had this beer before, and expected one that was fairly mellow, based on the sweetness and mediocre sourness levels of the Timmermans fruit lambics I've tried.  It came as a bit of a shock that this beer was incredibly tart, virtually bursting with lemon flavors that made it stand out as very unique amongst geuezes I've tried in the past.

We then tried Andrew's Girardin 1882 which is one of the better and more accessible examples of the style.  This one was more balanced and complex than the Timmermans and is one of my favorites (if I can't find a Cantillon!)  The group was a little more challenged by this style but several still enjoyed the lemon-crazy flavors of the Timmermans.

Fruited Lambics

What most people think of when they hear the word Lambic is slightly tart fruit beers.  The quintessential and most available of these is Lindemans.  They have several flavors, but the Kriek (cherry) and Framboise (raspberry) are the most popular and most traditional.  These, like The Duchesse use a sour beer base, but back sweeten to the point of being nearly syrupy and cloyingly sweet.  The New Glarus Belgian Red and Raspberry Tart are very similar American examples.  I do like these, but after having the more traditional tart versions of these beers I have a harder time dealing with the sweetness.  All of our group (except us seasoned veterans) really enjoyed this beer.  Again--I don't judge!

We moved on to the Boon Marriage Parfait--a more classic Kriek with a much more sour and tart finish.  I really like this beer and find it to have a better balance of cherry flavor, but without the overwhelming sweetness.  This one wasn't as big a hit as I'd expected it to be.

Lastly we tried Andrew's Lindemans Kriek Cuvee Rene.  I had not heard of this beer before, though have tried the base Geueze Cuvee Rene which is quite good.  This is a Kriek that is amazingly different from their above-mentioned sugar-bomb.  I really enjoyed getting a chance to try this rare beer and it proved to me that Lindemans is certainly a good sour producer--even if they make most of their money on overly sweet versions of their beer.

American Sours

This is where it gets weird.  As with anything Americans like to do their own thing.  Follow traditional brewing methods that have been around for hundreds of years?  Nah!  Let's do something different!  Some of our sours are made like in Belgium, but many push the styles into new territory either by methods, ingredients or trying something completely new.  Unfortunately some of these experiments are either ill-conceived or brewing mistakes that are unintentionally sour--giving the rest a bad name.  I've had American sours that are as good or better than some in Belgium.  I've also had travesties that are amongst the worst beers I've ever put in my mouth.  Paint thinner and silage are NOT good flavors in a sour beer!

One of the best examples of great American sours is Cascade Brewing from Portland, OR.  I went to their barrel house tasting room last year and that place blew me away!  Instead of the more common brettanomyces fermentations, they focus on the lactic or acidic/tart styles.  They do various fruit beers like Strawberry, Blueberry, Cherry, but also some unusual strong ales like Vlad the Impaler.  For this event I cracked a two year old Cascade Blueberry that had changed quite a bit since I had it previously.  A lot of the blueberry had faded and a strong smoky phenol flavor had shown up.  I still liked the beer, but it was an entirely different experience for me.  Reviews on this one were positive, but not the overall winner of the day!

We had more to try, but at this point were losing folks.  The guys from Enki ordered us pizza and we had a great time with this event!  I hope that this brought everyone closer to enjoying sours as a broad style--or at least taught them what styles to focus on for their personal taste.  Andrew and I didn't get a chance to crack a few of our other beers so ended up doing that later in the week...perhaps I'll write those up as well.

Friday, July 18, 2014

You Got Coffee In My Beer!

I seem to have accumulated several coffee beers in my trusty beer fridge recently.  Coffee in beer is by no means a new trend, but more breweries are using it these days and are certainly using it better than in the past!  I remember making a coffee stout back in the 1990's, where the recipe called for adding  coffee grounds to the last 15 minutes of the boil.  The resulting bitter and disgusting beer promptly turned me off of the idea for several years.  After learning of the cold-press technique of adding coffee to beers from the brewers at Surly (when tasting one of the first kegs of Surly Bender) I tried doing that myself.  One of my personal homebrewing high points was getting the chance to let John Maier from Rogue try my coffee infused sweet stout at the AHA conference when it was held in Minnesota!  I recently took another try at that recipe and made it to second round of NHC.  Unfortunately the coffee flavor faded by the time second round came along and I didn't win a medal.

I thought I would go through some of the commercial examples of coffee beers.

Lets get one thing straight before we begin--not everyone likes coffee.  I find that a good number of people do, and many brewers appreciate the differences in roast and bean variety, but a fair number of folks just can't stand it.  For many people this may be as simple as not liking that watery bitter brew that is served throughout diners, offices, and hospitals across the USA.  The equivalent in beer would be deciding that you don't like any beer because you can't stand Bud Light.  The variations in coffee can be intimidating but with some experience and education you can learn to appreciate the differences.  I actually roast my own coffee beans from time to time, after Andrew Klosinski did a demonstration for our homebrew club several years back.  I still order my beans from a friend named Sam who runs the quaint Coffee Tree & Tea Leaves in Chicago.  Sam has a blend of light and dark roast coffees named after himself that merges the best of both light and dark into one complex and wonderful brew.  Despite my coffee geekery, I also still appreciate flavored coffee and use cream and sugar in my daily brew.  Because of different tastes (or dislikes) regarding coffee, your agreement with my reviews may vary!  If you haven't had much experience with coffee beers, keep an open mind and maybe try some of my higher rated beers as a starting point.  I find that (like all beers) my favorites tend to be the well balanced ones where the flavors all compliment each other.  However I do enjoy a few that are a bit extreme…

Indeed Burr Grinder:  This is a lower alcohol beer, coming in at 5.1% ABV and 15 IBU.  Indeed has paired with local Northeast Minneapolis neighbor Dogwood Coffee to make this particular beer.  It is infused with ground Colombia El Meridiano coffee before being finished with cold brewed Dogwood NEON.  I've been pretty happy with Indeed's beers and love their Northeast taproom, so I was happy to get to try this one.  The namesake for this beer is the burr grinder, a coffee grinder thought by most coffee aficianados to be the best.  I have cheaper model at home and it certainly improves the coffee consistency versus the blade grinder I used to use.  The beer comes in a 750 ml bottle with an attractive design and wax-dipped top.

Aroma: Bright light roast coffee aroma up front with a bit of sweet malt and caramel.  No hop aroma.  Fairly subtle overall.
Appearance:  Pours a ruby to nearly brown color with excellent clarity.  A fine off-white head that is od medium size.
Flavor:  Strong coffee flavor at the start and really is present throughout the whole tasting process.  Some malt sweetness and toffee flavors balance the astringency of the roasted beans.  This is a lighter bodied beer with an off-dry finish. 
Overall:  A good use of coffee as the star of this beer.  The coffee is fresh and bright tasting without the burnt character that often accompanies the style.  A well balanced creation and very drinkable.  4 out of 5 for me.

Fulton War & Peace:  This is Fulton's Worthy Adversary Imperial Stout aged on whole dark roast coffee beans from Peace Coffee.  The regular version of the stout is O.K. in my book, but not in my favorites.    This is 9.5% ABV, so most definitely a sipper!  The day after Winterfest this year Sj and I hung around Minneapolis and ended up walking into Fulton's tap room randomly on the release day for this beer.  That was a happy experience and we were able to talk with one of the brewer/owners and also try samples of the Peace Coffee they were serving that day.  I bought my allotment of beers that day, but there are still some to be found around the twin cities right now.
Aroma:  Sweet cocoa and roasted dark grains are dominant.  I get a slight yeasty aroma as well.  As it warms I get more coffee and even some dark fruit aromas.
Appearance:  This is nearly opaque and black as night.  A fine tan head that fades quickly.
Flavor:  Sweet malted milk and chocolate up front that drifts off to a bittersweet chocolate off-dry finish.  Dark roast espresso coffee comes in on the second sip and lingers after the finish.  A hint of dark cherry as it warms and some caramel as well. Mouthfeel is a bit lighter than many RIS beers.  The end is nearly astringent.  Mild alcohol warming effect.
Overall:  For me this is Fulton's best beer by far.  The coffee flavors in this ratchet up the complexity and make this far better than the Worthy Adversary.  In a milder beer the dark roast beans would make this astringent and undrinkable, but I think they hit the balance just right for my tastes.  4.5 of 5.

Alesmith Speedway Stout:  This is a 12% ABV Imperial stout, brewed in 2013 and accumulated at Cassanova in Hudson, WI about a month ago.  They include Ryan Brothers Coffee in the beer, but I'm not sure where in the process they add it in.  The web page suggests food pairings and aging of the beer.

Aroma: Milk chocolate with a malty sweetness.  Roasted dark grains and mild fresh coffee aroma.  No hop aroma.  Minimal esters.
Appearance: Poured into a snifter glass (as suggested by the bottle), at 50 degrees F.  Pitch black!  Huge fine head that is nearly auburn in color.  Head is persistent.
Flavor: A burst of expensive dark chocolate up front with a slow fade to a professional coffee shop Mocha, with coffee and chocolate finish.  There is a slight roast bitterness, but this is balanced much more to the sweet side without being cloying.  Alcohol is mild and not distracting.  Mouthfeel is incredibly creamy and smooth.
Overall: This beer has wonderful balance and drinkability despite its high alcohol content.  The coffee is mellow and not the star of this beer, but does add complexity to the beer.  The mouthfeel on this is without peer.  I give this a straight up 5!

Emelisse Espresso Stout:  This is a beer from a craft brewery in Holland.  I tried this at the recommendation of the owner of Café Frape while staying in Maastricht, Netherlands this spring.  I was not sure what to expect but ended up with one of the most "American" style beers I had during my whole trip.  This was an Imperial Stout clocking in at around 10% ABV.  I don't know much about the beer since the website is in Dutch!  This one had a strong sweet Russian Imperial style base, with a lot of roast malt presence.  I could pick up dark roasted coffee, but it bordered on the astringent side.  A great beer, but the coffee could have been a bit more balanced with the beer.  4/5.

Flying Dog Kujo:  This is a 8.9% ABV Imperial Stout, brewed with Black Dog Coffee out of Summit Point West Virginia.  I have really not loved Flying Dog beers in the past, but one of the guys from the Four Firkins opened one for me to try and I'm a convert!   I brought a couple home for more intense "study". 

Aroma:  Cinnamon, milk chocolate, roasted grains.  Sweetened condensed milk and light roast coffee as it warms up.

Appearance:  Deep black in color.  Rich dark tan to brown head.  Head fades to sides of glass fairly quickly.

Flavor:  There is very bright and flavorful coffee up front in the beer.  The initial smack in the face of coffee fades to a semi-sweet chocolate flavor and a bitter finish.  There is a bit of grain sweetness, but the coffee is strong in this one and dries the beer out.  The roast seems lighter, with a zippiness and lack of burnt flavor I tend to note in darker roasts.  This beer has a rich and creamy mouthfeel. 

Overall:  This is outstanding!  An incredible use of coffee, where the beer is elevated by it and not over-run by it.  Also a great base beer.  5/5!

Evil Twin Imperial Doughnut Break:  This is a brewery that has only recently come the Minnesota market and I'm still trying to get a handle on their beers.  This is an 11.5% ABV Imperial porter with coffee and "natural flavorings".

Aroma: Dark, almost burnt coffee aroma.  Sweetness, chocolate, and a lot of alcohol.  Hints of cinnamon as it warms.

Appearance: Deep black and oil-like with legs on the glass.  Dark tan to almost full brown head that persists well for such a high gravity beer.  Opaque.

Flavor:  Sweet at first but not cloying.  Mild brown sugar and cinnamon flavors in the middle.  The finish is fairly dry and borders on too astringent.  The coffee flavor mimics the aroma--dark espresso, almost charred.  Mouthfeel is thick.  Semi-sweet chocolate at finish as it warms up more. 4/5

Surly Coffee Bender:  I couldn't do a coffee beer write up without including one of the most easily accessible (and one of the very first available) coffee beers in Minnesota.  As mentioned above, I remember tasting one of the very first versions of this at a Surly beer dinner at North Coast Restaurant nearly 7 years ago.  At that time they were adding coffee beans directly to a small keg of Bender and only serving it at special events.  Now they are canning this beer and one can find it all over.  Looking back at that first time--the incredible coffee aroma and flavors--I still smile!  Bender is a brown ale, brewed with oats, that doesn't quite fit any BJCP beer style.  Add coffee and it just gets more interesting.  My thanks to Derek Allmendinger for giving me this one--I actually haven't had one of these in about 2 years!

Aroma: Very strong medium to light roast coffee right away.  Earthy, smooth, roasted.  This strikes me as the aroma of cold-press coffee and is quite intense.  Light chocolate notes and a hint of sugar sweetness as it warms and the initial SMACK of coffee fades.

Appearance: Deep brown, but not black.  Ruby highlights at edges and clarity is slightly hazy.  Fine off-white head that fades slowly.

Flavor: Smack-you-in-the-face fresh cold-press coffee.  Almost like drinking a lighter iced mocha.  The coffee is quite strong up front, and continues through-out the entire taste--changing as it hits different areas of the tongue and palate.  There is some mild malt sweetness, but the coffee does dry this beer out compared to regular Bender.  There is a lingering coffee and dry cocoa flavor on the finish and a light astringency.

Overall: A very good beer that uses the coffee to its utmost.  The base beer gets lost a bit in this intense coffee flavor, but is a nice vehicle for it.  4/5

Thursday, July 17, 2014

30 Words: Shadow

The more I take photos,
the more I watch shadows.
 Absence of light
Play upon many surfaces.
Can I catch that fleeting moment?
Can I freeze that instant forever?

This week's 30 Word Thursday pic was taken along a river walk in Grand Rapids, MI.  As I was taking this shot another pedestrian stopped and commented on how cool those shadows were going to look in black and white.  He was correct!  Check out the other entries for 30 Word Thursday (including one from my wife Sj) at Erin's Treasures Found Blog!

Monday, July 14, 2014

NHC Days 6-7--The Finale

The last 2 days of NHC 2014...better late than never!

Running on fumes now...First the extreme St. Louis trip for the Perennial barrel aged Abraxas release, then one day to recoup and off for Grand Rapids and NHC!

The Saturday of NHC is the final official day of festivities.  I did manage to get up in time for Michael Tonsmeire's lecture: The Influence of Mashing on Sour Beer Production.  I was impressed with how crowded the room was at 9 AM after Club Night!  This was actually my favorite lecture this NHC, being full of useful hints and examples for real homebrewing use.  This was a good blend of supreme science geekiness and applicable methods for home use.  I'm glad I was able to get his book and look forward to reading it through soon.  Perhaps I'll do a book report on it!

After this Mike Lebben and I ended up catching most of the Experimental Brewing demo by Denny Conn and Drew Beachum.  They were fun and dynamic with great jokes and audience participation.  Just what we needed to keep us awake!  I look forward to their upcoming book based on this talk.

The guy who has brought mead to the next level!

After this, to kill some time we went back for one last gasp at the now slowing down Expo.  We had our first beers of the day including Lagunitas Sucks and New Holland Paleooza.  I lucked out by hitting Michael Fairbrother at Moonlight Meads during a lull and talked him into opening a bottle of Stilleto, a sweet mead with blackcurrants.  Man was that good!

We picked up Sj for lunch and she drove us to Perrin Brewing, a place that had been getting some buzz for having excellent beers.  This was a bit of a drive--maybe 20-25 minutes from our hotel, but not too bad.  This brewery is newer, and built to accommodate expansion in the future.  They are growing a bunch of hops up some trellises outside the patio that were really going to town already.  With a large indoor dining/drinking space and patio expansion room this place fit a lot of people.  It was busy but not insane when we arrived, allowing us to get a good table.  That day was the release of their first bottled beer called Quadwood, a Belgian Quad aged in new oak barrels, and we were able to each buy up to two bottles.  That beer was great and well worth bringing home!  Between the three of us we shared the entire sampler of their beer line-up of 22 beers.  This was not cheep, but a great way to try a lot of beers.

Perrin's beers are separated into tiers.

Tier 1 was their Perrin Gold--a pleasant light lager.  For the non-craft folks for sure.

Tier 2, their lighter beers were all solid with a very well balanced pils and a nearly perfect Call The Banners Scottish 70 Shilling.  The Liger (pretty much my favorite animal) was and interesting hoppy rye beer.

Tier 3 was mostly IPA and pale ales, and actually was our least favorite grouping.  I found many of the Perrin hoppy beers to be lacking something, but nothing was bad.  Grapefruit IPA is very popular around Grand Rapids, but seems a bit thin.

Tier 4 started to show some real promise!  The Kingdom of Tonga Vanilla Porter had nice balanced flavors. Wood Aged 1885 Kona was one of my favorites, being a 5.7% ABV porter aged in barrels that had previously held their bourbon barrel aged Kona Coffee Brown and BB aged 1885 Porter.  The beer picked up mild notes of bourbon, mild notes of coffee and was one of the most drinkable barrel aged beers I've ever had!

The Cooper's series gets really interesting--being all aged in new oak barrels without spirits.  Not may breweries do this so these beers really brought out the pure oak flavors and not the booziness one often gets from this style of beer.  The Hopwood DIPA was pretty good,, but not the best of the group.  Stoutwood was incredible, Quadwood was mentioned above.  Redwood was very pleasant, but not as good as Steel Toe Rainmaker.

And the best of the lot were the Special Tier beers!  BB aged Sustena-tor, a Doppelbock, was a HOLY CRAP beer for all three of us and we had a wrestling match to see who got to finish it!  The Rye Wine and Malted Milk Ball (very well named) Imperial Porter were all crazy good as well.

This brewery rocks!  We had a nice lunch there, bought some swag, took home some bottles and did not regret our choice to miss some lectures at all.

On our way home we stopped at Siciliano's Market to stock up on Michigan beers to take home with us to Minnesota.  This was a small liquor store that also stocked homebrew supplies, and had a great selection of local and imported beers.  We all stocked up on stuff from Jolly Pumpkin and Vivant while there, as well as some meads from B. Nektar.  This is a great place to pick up craft beer in Grand Rapids, but easy to spend a bunch of money!

After getting back to the hotel, we had some time to kill so Sj and I took a walk along the river and enjoyed a rare beer-free hour or so.  Things were winding down now.  We passed no less than 5 brides just on our walk and came upon one wedding in progress.  That wedding was hilarious, as a big group of people in beer shirts with nametags, taster glasses in hand, were lurking around the back of the official audience.  Back to the room and into our Jack Of All Brews club shirts to represent, and then to the convention center for the final hurrah of  NHC.

The culmination of the NHC experience is the Award Ceremony and Banquet.  A line to get in to the dining hall always forms about an hour or so ahead of opening time, so Sj, Mike and I gathered up around that time.  An old friend and homebrewer from the Chicago area, Eric Smith, and a few of his friends joined us in line.  Eric served us up some of his excellent barrel aged Belgian ale and I cracked a Surly Pentagram that I had brought along for just such an occasion.  Eventually we were let in and found our friends Denise and Ron who had held a table for all of us.

The banquet is usually a three course meal meal, prepared by Sean Paxton, The Homebrew Chef, to pair with the beers donated for the event.  All the previous years I've gone the beers were provided by John Maier of Rogue, but this year was Sam Adams.  I was a little disappointed in that, but at least they brought some of their better brews for the event.  Jim Koch had recorded a brief talk for us homebrewers that they showed on the big screen before the event really began, but the sound quality was so poor we couldn't really hear what he was saying.  We had a salad paired with the Stony Brook Red--a Flanders Red and probably my favorite Sam Adams beer.  We of course had Boston Lager...meh.  The main course was a huge hunk of tasty ham that had been marinated in beer.  We also had the Rebel IPA and the American Kriek with all this.  Overall the meal and the beers were not bad, but this banquet did not wow me.  Still I enjoyed the time spent with friends over food and beers, so this was still worth the time.


Soon the AHA folks gave speeches and started to announce the winners of the Second Round of the National Homebrew Competition.  Eric Smith continued to serve up some great sour beers that he had created and I opened up a Surly Seviin and two different vintages of Darkness to share.  Why not!

Funny story, apparently my bladder was perfectly calibrated to another guy's since each time I got up to visit the urinals, the same guy was heading there right in front of me.  The first time the guy tried to open the janitor's closet instead of the bathroom.  The second time he did the same thing but actually went into the closet before realizing he had made a mistake--again! I figured the third time he would probably just use the janitor's sink, but he eventually figured it out.  Good times!

Big room, rowdy drinkers, bad acoustics!

My category was the Spice/Herb/Vegetable beers and was near the very end, so I kept my fingers crossed but had no great hope of winning a medal amongst such tough competition.  You guessed it, I didn't win!  But still am pretty proud to get a beer to advance that far.  Several folks from Minnesota won medals so we shouted ourselves hoarse congratulating them.  By the time this was all finished it was late and we were tired out!

Day 7 of our entire week of beer travel was finally upon us.  Time to go home again.  Driving, Sj and I muled beers back for Mike, who had flown.  We listened to an entire Stephen King book (Doctor Sleep) on our trip, which has become a bit of a tradition for us.  Somehow, Sj did not nix my idea of slightly extending our drive home to go past Munster, Indiana for lunch at 3 Floyds.  We arrived there at about 11:30, the brewpub opening at noon.  As always there was already a line to get in, and we hit is just right!  Within 10 minutes the line extended wayyyyy back!  When they opened, we managed to get seats at the bar, next to a guy from Wisconsin who had been at NHC with us.  We ordered some food, shouting to be heard through the din of METAL! music.  I could tell Sj was not a huge fan at first, but after the food showed up I think she came around.  I got to taste a few half pints of beer, including the always amazing Zombie Dust and a great smoked beer.  The dry rubbed chicken wings I ordered were a thing of beauty, the best I've ever had.  With a quick stop at the shop and a few six packs of Robert The Bruce to go we were on our way back home.

NHC is amazing.  A fun and varied experience that centers around homebrew and commercial beers.  This is a group of thousands of people, who all have some of the same interests, can always find something to share or discuss with each other.  I always feel like I'm among friends at NHC and have met many folks who I will continue to see or correspond with.  If you have been waffling on the idea of going--You Should!  Next year is in San Diego.  I'm leaning toward going, but we will have to see how timing works out.  I'll certainly try to put beers into the competition of these days maybe I'll take a medal!  And thanks for reading along!

Friday, July 11, 2014

NHC Day 5: Club Night!

Day 5 of an epic trip to Grand Rapids, MI for the 2014 National Homebrewer's Conference!

I forced myself to get up at a decent hour this day, to take advantage of the cool homebrewing talks going on at the convention center.  Sj stayed in bed like a lucky slug.  My first lecture was Keeping It Simple: What Monks Can Teach Us About Brewing, by Stan Hieronymus.  I love Stan's books and have read Brew Like a Monk twice.  Because of my familiarity with the subject and having now traveled to Belgium twice, I feel that I probably didn't learn a ton from this lecture.  It was still entertaining and not a waste of time.

The second lecture I went to was Mitch Steele from Stone Brewing discussing herbs, spices and botanicals in beers.  Stone has been doing a ton of unusual spices and ingredients in the past few years so this was a cool talk.  I've used many of these ingredients over the years, but some have slipped my net!  I appreciated that he gave some hard numbers for amount to add as a starting place based on their experimentation at Stone.  He also had big bags of herbs in the back for people to take samples of, but I lacked anything to carry them in so left them behind.  Volunteers passed along pitchers of Stone Saison that includes lavender and habanero!

After this it was back the riot that was the exhibits hall/expo.  We drank samples of Moonlight Mead Last Apple and a cool sour beer  from New Holland.  Sj tried to win us a Fast Rack, but failed.  I didn't try since my sausage fingers would likely result in broken glass everywhere.  We gathered more stickers and bottle openers (I think I have hundreds now.)

The Bob

Meeting up with fellow JABber, Mike Lebben, the three of us headed across the street to have lunch at The Bob.  An acronym for Big Old Building, this is a large 1903 grocery warehouse turned into a strange collection of venues.  A small brewery lurks in the basement, Bobarino's pizza place is upstairs, a comedy club, dueling pianos, a steak house, and more!  The brewery was closed (they should have opened up for NHC!) so we went to Bobarino's instead.  We shared a sampler of their beers and those were all across the board: a nasty diacetyl IPA, but Crimson King Amber and Spaceboy Stout were both decent.  The food was also decent but not special.

Back to the exhibits for more free beer samples and to kill a bit more time playing ring toss with keg o-rings.  Then a lecture from Brett Vanderkamp and Jason Salas from New Holland Brewing, talking about using spirits barrels and doing sour beers in barrels.  This was a cool lecture, but so much of it was on a large production brewery scale that I don't know how much was directly useful to me as a homebrewer.  Still, some cool stories and background on the brewery though!  They also served us Dragon's Milk during the talk which made it all worth it!

After this it was nearing time to eat dinner, so we let the last lecture of the day go and headed to HopCat before the post-lecture rush arrived there.  We timed it just right, getting one of the last available outdoor tables (just under a fire escape populated by an angry pigeon by the way!)  We shared a rather expensive bottle of Rodenbach Vintage 2010 with dinner, but well worth it.

Back to the hotel for a quick rest and then back to the convention center for the peak of the whole NHC--Club Night!  Club night is perhaps one of the most fun beer events that I have taken part in.  Coming from a guy who has been to many festivals, beer dinners, etc, that is saying something!  The event was in the same space as the modified Pro Night from the previous day's festivities, but the place had taken on a whole new and crazy vibe.  The clubs who contribute will have jockey boxes, portable bars, MASH unit tents, and other background for their booths ranging from utilitarian to extravagant.  Many clubs dress up in outfits or have a theme to their attire.  Some clubs bring only great beers, others invite any member to contribute--as a result there can be a wide range of quality.  However, overall, I had much better beer at club night than the previous day!

I'll be honest the night was chaotic and a bit blurry.  I did not have my real camera and was busy drinking it all in (so to speak) so I didn't get many good pictures.  Some snippets:

1) The Carolina BrewMasters had a walnut Baltic porter that was one of the best things I had all night--the walnuts really came through!

2) A spicy and amazing poblano wit from someone in the Best Florida Beer supergroup.

3) Mike Lebben tasting a beer that he described as "Feels like someone shat in my mouth after they ate a bunch of aluminum fans!"

4) Having someone jump in front of me in line at the Mead Mamas booth and realizing it was Susan Ruud.  Since Susan is opening her own Prairie Rose Meadery I took this as a good sign that the meads were not going to strip the paint off my house and give my family a permanent orange aftro!

5) Susan and Sarajo getting molested by Hop Man!

Hop Man!

6) Travis Scrotch from MASH letting me try his great maibock and very Pliny-like double IPA.

7) The crews from Midwest and Northern Brewer all dressed up like enormous gnomes.

Sj and a drive-by gnoming...and getting photo-bombed by BrewToad!

8) The ANNiHiLATED booth from NJ serving up Poltergeueze--a two year blended lambic that was as good as nearly anything I had in Belgium.  I believe the brewer was Adam Juncosa.  I went back for several "samples" of that one!

9) Seeing the BrewToad mascot navigating the urinals in the men's room, while everyone laughed and tried to take pictures of his junk.

10) Mike Sutor (another long lost Facebook friend from Seattle NHC) sharing his homebrewed cherry sour that knocked my socks off!  Might have to drive to Wisconsin to try some more of his beers!

11) Watching one poor drunken sot trying to shove messy gloopy nachos into his mouth but getting them all over his face instead.

12) Finishing up the night with one last sampler of Poltergeueze and heading back to the hotel before things get messy.

Up Next: NHC Days 6-7 The End!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

30 Word Thursday: Reflections

Gazing at myself
By way of warped reflection
I see a life that's full
Wonderful spouse
Epic travel
Entertaining hobbies
Rewarding work 
Like rippled glass life is different than expected

This week's 30 Word Thursday picture was from and of the J.W. Marriott in Grand Rapids, MI.  Sj and I spent most of the week there for the National Homebrewer's Conference this past month.  When I travel I tend to get more introspective, reveling in the the new things but realizing how good my life is that I can do the things I want to.  Check out the other week's entries at Erin's Treasures Found Blog!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

NHC Day 4: The Chaos Begins!

The official NHC always starts on a Thursday.  The morning of that first day is the start of judging for the National Homebrewing Competition--the biggest homebrew competition in the world!  Some quick background on the competition:  Over the past few years there has been an explosion of homebrewing interest and the AHA (American Homebrewer's Association) has had to make some big changes in order to limit/make fair the entry into the competition.  In previous years they allowed many entries (20 or so) per person but cut that to less last year.  This year they actually started a lottery system to get in (after last year's internet stampede crashed their servers) and I managed to get 4 entries in.  Many people I know were disgusted by the new system and refused to attempt it at all.  The first round of judging is split into 10 regions and if you manage to get a medal in that round your beer moves on to the final round at NHC.  The total number of entries this year was a whopping 8,172!  My coffee stout actually took first place in our region and was in the running for the big prize this year, so that was pretty cool.

So Thursday morning, Sj took off to meet with a beading friend who lived in the area while I headed down to the convention center to help judge the second round beers.  In order to do this I had to wake up at 6:30 AM!  Please see my previous day's post to see why this was such a rough thing for me.  Guzzling gallons of coffee along the way I ended up making it in time for a free breakfast they had arranged for the volunteers.  Sated on bacon and caffeine, I was as ready as I'd ever be to judge in this epic competition!  I was judging the Scottish and Irish ales with a group of 9 other BJCP judges.  Not a bad category to judge in the morning, as malty beers are easier to drink for breakfast than say, Light American Lagers or IPAs.  I was a little intimidated at first.  I'm a National ranked judge, but this was the biggest competition in the world!  Who was I to tell these great brewers what was wrong with their beers?  What I discovered was that the group was very laid back and everyone was thoughtful, but trying to have a good time as well.  In Minnesota we have a large community of highly ranked judges and host the Upper Mississippi Mash Out which is as cutthroat and tough as any competition I can think of, so I figured this would be even more hard core!  The great part about judging second round was that there were no bad beers.  All of these beers had won a medal already so this was the cream of the crop, without poorly thought out recipes, infections and wrong category entries like many other competitions.

Once the judging was over for the morning I headed down to officially register for the conference.  I picked up my badge and was directed to pick up a big bag of mixed homebrew swag.  They also do one or more commemorative beers each year and I had to lug those around with me as well.  This year's were an Oak Aged Rye IPA from Founders and an all Michigan ingredient Barleywine from Bells.  Both were made in collaboration with homebrewers and were available to taste later in the conference.  I was able to bring our bottles home with us to share at the next Jack Of All Brews meeting.

From here I went just across the hall to the Homebrew Expo.  In previous years they have had a Hospitality Suite where a few vendors or sponsors display their wares and homebrew clubs serve up homebrew to thirsty conference-goers.  This year they have really expanded this to a large conference hall filled with around 70 vendors and plenty to look at and do.  I found myself returning here frequently in between events and lectures throughout the weekend.  I went ahead and bought Michael Tonsmeire's new book on sour beers right away since they were 40% off for AHA members.  They completely sold out of huge stacks of those by the next day!  Midwest/Northern Brewer both had a strong showing and I knew several of the cool guys working those booths.  Rahr/BSG were serving up some cool beers ranging from commercials to my friend Chris German's wonderful pilsner and Juniper beer.  Bells, New Holland and Lagunitas were constantly serving up rotating tap lists of great beer as well.  There was always a huge line for tastes of Michael Fairbrother's Moonlight Meads--I tried several and they were well worth the wait!  Morebeer had a few kegs of Pliny the Elder and that caused quite a stir!  Many of the display booths had swag giveaways and raffles, prompting us to sign our lives and e-mail addresses away for the chance to win some cool brewing stuff.

Met one of my Homebrewing idols, Randy Mosher in the Expo!

Wait, I'm here for the conference itself!  I broke the spell and with full taster glass I headed to the lecture halls for a talk on Obscure and Ancient Beers by Geoff Groff & Mark Pangle.  Having been involved in the Byggvir's Big Beer Cup (MN Renfest) for several years, where they have a special category for historic beers, I have been intrigued by these for some time.  The speakers did a pretty good job talking about sahti, gose and steinbeer.  Kudos go to them for serving up homebrewed examples of the first two!  Last year I brewed a gose (winning second place at Byggvir) and I have to say that mine was better.  But I still appreciate getting to taste along--and hey beer makes any lecture better!  I might need to try my hand at Kvass this year...

The next block of talks didn't wow me and I was tired by this point.  I walked back to the hotel room for a quick Disco-Nap.  Sj showed up shortly after and told me all about her meet-up and field trip to Virtue Cider (see her blog post on that HERE.)

Hoards of beer enthusiasts!

Our next stop was the Welcome Reception.  This seems to have taken the place of the old Professional Brewer's Night.  The event was in a large reception hall with terrible acoustics, and none of us could hear the official greeting toast.  Oh well, there was beer to be had!  They had a lot of local Michigan breweries represented, but apparently the beers had to be poured by the convention center staff.  Unfortunately those staff often didn't know how to pour beer well, struggling with jockey boxes and CO2 lines.  They also didn't have any info about the beers...something I miss about interacting with the brewers and reps at Pro Night.  We had several good beers like Calabaza Blanca from Jolly Pumpkin, Acadia Scottish Ale, Dark Horse Fore, and Mad Cow Milk Stout (I think from Blue Tractor.)  Some not so good ones were a peanut butter porter, a Belgian Quad, and a Kombucha beer.  I won't mention names on those.  Overall, most of the beers were average, but still cool to try lots of things.  Some iffy appetizers were available but not worth the lines to get at them!  There I met briefly with Jason McLaughlin, a guy I've been Facebook friends with since we met at NHC in Minnesota several years ago.  We also ran into a bunch of Minnesotans from back home!

As opposed to Pro Night, this swoire didn't run very late.  Mike, Sj and I all decided we needed some food after all that beer and with help from Yelp found a nearby tapas place called San Chez.  The restaurant had a small beer list but did have the pleasant Solitude Belgian style ale from Vivant.  We split a bunch of excellent tapas including dates stuffed with meat and topped with a very spicy harissa.   Also a wonderful dish of crawdad in cream sauce with red peppers.  Yum!

Apparently that was the end of the day!  A fun one for sure with a good mix of NHC events.  The next day things really get going!

Up Next:  NHC Day 5!

Monday, July 7, 2014

NHC Day 3: 4 More Michigan Breweries!

Day 3 of our trip to Michigan for the 2014 NHC started way too early in the morning for me!  Sj and I had to grab coffee and head down to a different hotel lobby and meet up with our second bus tour group.  This group was a little bigger and was going to take us to four of the bigger breweries in Michigan.  No problem, we had done 6 breweries yesterday, we could handle four more!

Our first stop was to be at Jolly Pumpkin in Dexter, Michigan, about a 2 hour drive from Grand Rapids.  The brewery has only recently moved locations and does not currently have a tasting room at the brewery itself.  We were actually to be their first official tour and since they were still working on things they did not want us to take pictures.  As a result I have no visual proof I was there, but plenty of good memories!  Since they were not able to serve us beers, our tour guides poured us small samples (for a $5 fee) into plastic cups.  Anyone who has had Jolly Pumpkin beers before knows that they are quite effervescent and combined with a moving vehicle and small cups this process got messy!  We sampled some foamy cups of these great sour and wild ales as the bus continued the trek to the small town of Dexter.  When we arrived in town our bus suddenly slowed as it neared a low arched stone bridge.  Wait a second...there was no way we were getting the bus through that!  With images of our bus stuck under a bridge like Winnie the Pooh stuck in the honey tree, we waited to see what would happen.  At this point a huge line of cars was stuck behind us and there was no where to go.  One of our tour guides hopped off the bus to go under the bridge and scout out how far away the brewery was--if it was close we could all walk while the bus driver figured things out.  It wasn't that close!  Eventually one of our tour group jumped off to start directing traffic and give us room to reverse.  A kind stranger stopped his car and offered to lead us through some back roads (some unpaved dirt!) to the brewery.  This was shaping up to be an adventure!  But time was wasting and there were breweries to visit!

Finally we arrived in an out of the way industrial park.  The brewery is not incredibly well marked at this point, but we figured it out!  Jolly Pumpkin actually shares a building with the North Peak Brewing, separated into separate halves to decrease the chance of cross contamination with wild bacteria.  Right away we were taken in two separate groups, ours led by owner/brewer Ron Jeffries, and the other by another of the brewers.  The large building is very industrial and utilitarian--not the most photogenic (even if I could take pics!) of breweries I've been to.  The number of wooden barrels and mish-mash of foedors, however, was amazing!  Ron was quiet and somewhat soft spoken, but was one of the most informative and educational tour guides I have ever had.  I learned a lot about his sour beer production techniques and history in a short period of time.  Having recently been to Belgium and The Night of Great Thirst sour beer festival, this was really a cool tour!  The brewery opened in 2004 and was the first brewery to use the "Artisan Ales" moniker.  It is the only brewery to use only all wood fermentation.  Our tour actually took longer than expected, but trust me, no one was going stop Ron from telling us all great stories of the early days of craft brewing!  He gathered several cool beers for us to sample on the bus and sent us on our merry way. 

Ron Jeffries telling us tales!

We tried several of the beers, including some from North Peak, on the longish trip to our next brewery.  My favorite by far was the La Roja which I haven't had in years since Jolly Pumpkin stopped distributing in Minnesota.  This is a very tart and complex version of a Flanders Red, that tastes more like the expensive and rare  Rodenbach Vintage ale than the sweeter Rodenbach Grand Cru.  One of our poor tour guides ended up getting "bus sick" from walking back and forth trying to pour us beer.  While on the bus our tour guide got word from Dark Horse that their power had just gone out--trouble just kept haunting this trip!

Eventually we arrived at Dark Horse Brewing in Marshall, MI.  I've been a fan of Dark Horse beers for years and was very excited to check out this brewery.  Luckily the power had returned and our quest for beer was not stymied!  Our tour was large and the tour had limited size, resulting in us splitting our group in half.  Sj and I, as well as Denise and Ron (a really nice couple from the Twin Cities) found ourselves in the brewpub first.  The space is small, with reclaimed doors as tables and tons of old posters on the walls.  Classic folk and rock music played over the loud speakers.  The entire low ceiling of the pub was lined with multicolored ceramic mugs, giving this place a close, but homey and rustic feel.  I wish I lived close and could have my own unique mug here!  While waiting for our tour I had some really good chili and sipped on the hoppy Smells Like a Safety Meeting.  I'm sure there is a good story behind the name for that beer!

Dark Horse is one of the more unusual breweries I've been to.  The pub itself is actually attached to a family owned store.  Outside there is a new outdoor biergarten, but it started raining the second we passed through that.  Next to the brewery are small buildings featuring a Harley shop and the General Store.  The General Store sold homebrew supplies, Dark Horse merchandise and skateboard supplies.  We eventually went on the tour for an extra $10.  There seemed to be a lot of unusual decorations (life sized Jack Skellington hanging over the bottling line, a fish tank table in the pub), and re purposed materials in use.  Everywhere there was something new to look at.

More than meets the eye!

We eventually ended up in a small but hot upstairs tasting room, where we had 6 samples included in our tour fee.  This was pretty cool since we were able to try some smaller batch stuff not on tap downstairs in the pub.  There was a disgusting cherry beer, but also an amazing maple aged brown ale and the bourbon barrel aged Plead the 5th Stout.  We chugged these down fast and headed back to our bus.  Overall this was probably my favorite brewery of the day, with a true independent spirit and vibe notable throughout everything these guys do!

Perfect timing!
Our next stop was back to Bells Eccentric Cafe.  This stop had been included on the previous day's tour so I'm glossing over it here!  Having had the two samplers yesterday we knew what beers we wanted right away.  I had one of experimental hop beers and Sj tried the Baroness--a Munich Dunkel.

As a finish to our tour we were dropped at Founders Brewing right in Grand Rapids.  With thousands of homebrewers converging on the city around now, the place was insane!  I was a bit disappointed that we didn't have any tour organized.  My thoughts on the tour for this day were less than perfect.  Now, while some of the issues (Winnie the Pooh) maybe couldn't have been foreseen, other things could.  I think that these tours would do well to include the price of the Dark Horse tour and the extra Jolly Pumpkin beer into the base price.  I don't mind paying, but I don't want to get nickel and dimed during the tour.  I also think that a longer stop midway for lunch would be ideal.  Trying to wolf down chili before our tour of Dark Horse was possible, but would not have been if I'd ordered something more complex.  Also I signed up for a tour of 4 places but could have walked to Founders from my hotel...Still a fun day and getting to hang with Ron, Denise, Wendy, Dave, and Mike Sutor was well worth it!

With the nutty crush of humanity and lack of seating at Founders, we decided to forgo the stress and just walked back to the hotel and had dinner across from our hotel at Z's.

Later we were invited to a small party upstairs at Founders by one of our friends and I did finally get to enjoy their great beers!  They actually had a special Juniper Rye ale brewed in collaboration with my friend Chris German on tap, and that was by far the best Juniper beer I've ever had.  I also really loved the smooth low gravity Oatmeal Stout and would love to buy some of that for drinking at home!  Founders is one of my favorite craft breweries and I really love what they do.  Thanks!

Super secret upstairs bar at Founders!

Up Next: NHC Day 4!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

NHC Day 1-2: Michigan Bound!

This has been a summer of beer-related travel for me and I have found myself doing several long travelogues about my trips.  Hopefully this has been entertaining (and maybe educational if folks plan on going to these places...) and not just me sticking my tongue out at my readers!  Recently Sj and I drove to Grand Rapids, Michigan for the National Homebrewer's Conference.  The actual conference goes from Thursday to Saturday, but many people like us head there early for preconference events.  The location of the conference changes every year and this was the perfect excuse for us to finally visit the state of Michigan and try some of the state's fantastic breweries.  I've broken this up into days to give a feel for how the basic flow of the week was, including brewery visits, lectures, parties and other events.  I am not a lush...

Day 1: To Michigan!

Our first day started with a slightly late start (is anyone surprised?) but we were in the car and rolling before 11 AM.  We started from Waconia, MN and drove through Wisconsin, past ludicrous traffic around Chicago, through some terrible roads in Indiana, and arrived at Grand Rapids in just over 12 hours.  Driving my Camry hybrid we made the whole trip on just one tank of gas, coasting into town on fumes and having to fill up at the world's shadiest gas station.  We checked into our hotel and immediately headed out for food!

I had heard good things about the HopCat brewpub and it has been rated highly in Beer Advocate and Ratebeer.  We made a quick walk through the darkening evening, seeing the bright yellow sign loom before us like a grinning beacon to beery goodness.  I love the black cat holding a beer logo for this place!  We were greeted inside by a large banner welcoming homebrewers--good to know that the town had been warned!  We were arriving late and the kitchen was only doing a limited bar menu, but we were so hungry that we didn't want to go looking for something else.  Besides, they had a huge beer menu!  They don't really do samples, but our waitress was great and brought me a taste of each of the house beers.  Those were mostly mediocre.  The Jerk beer had an interesting array of tropical and spicy flavors, but I wouldn't drink much of it.  The Blueberry Sour was quite disgusting (coming from a sour beer lover) with hot burning acid and enteric flavor.  I appreciate the effort, but ended up ordering a cask Oak Aged Hatter from New Holland.  It was only later that I noticed the huge bottle beer list on the back of the menu!  They had pricy but very rare Belgian beers on there for up to $40!  The bar food was decent, but not light!  I had the tasty but deadly (to my heart) Crack Fries with cheese.  I really liked the vibe in this place and the staff was great, but more as a beer bar than a brewpub.  After this it was off to bed!

Day 2:  6 Breweries in 1 Day!

Day 2 began with an awful early morning coffee from the ghetto Starbucks in the Courtyard Hotel.  One of the preconference events was a Michigan brewery tour, and we had signed up for it ahead of time.  We joined a crowded bus full of homebrewers and headed out for our first stop.  The bus tour was scheduled for 4 brewery visits from 10-6, making our stops pretty fast in order to keep a schedule.

Our first stop on this trip was the Old Mill Brewpub & Grill is located in the historic 1870 Sunshine Flour Mill building, at one point the second largest supplier of buckwheat nationally.  This is a newer brewery, located between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids.  I love the use of an old building that is full of character!  The owner, Scott, was an incredibly energetic and dynamic tour guide.  He would often jump up on chairs, tables, and ladders giving his talk in a rousing voice from such precarious positions!  Honestly this guy reminded me a lot of my friend Tim Roets, who is opening his own brewery here in Minnesota soon.  The brewer, Phil was there as well, but was much more reserved.  The day we were there, they were just upgrading from a tiny 1/2 barrel brew system and installing their larger 3 barrel system.  They have a large banquet hall on the second floor that I'm guessing does well for events.  They cater and have a full kitchen as well--we did try a nice bowl of chili and a salad while there.   They had four house beers on tap during our visit including the humorously named Crazy Beaver Cream Ale, and a wonderful oatmeal stout.  We even got to tour the creepy old basement which apparently was featured on a ghost hunting TV show in the past!

Always a showman!

Second stop on our tour was Latitude 42, a newer brewery in Portage, MI.  This is in a large building with a huge bar and several seating areas.  I can tell this place was built with the intention of having room to grow and is able to fit large crowds of thirsty beer drinkers.  We were lucky enough to get a tour by brewer Scott Freitas, previously of Maui Brewing.  A bearded and friendly chap, he was kind enough to share brewing with coconut secrets with me!  A bit of Hawaii entered into the brewhouse with some tribal designs on the stainless and a stuffed bust of a hammerhead shark on the wall.  We had just enough time to order a beer sampler, but even by splitting a sampler each, Sj and I were not able to try all the beers they had to offer!  All of the beers were solid and nearly everything was dry and easy to drink, even the 9.7% Double Chin.  My favorite of their beers was the Island Fever coconut stout--light, smooth, with subtle coconut flavors.  The Mango Mama was not mango-y at all and not nearly as good as Town Hall's mango IPA of the same name.  We didn't have a lot of time here, but I enjoyed what time we had. 

Back on the bus we headed for the newly built  Arcadia Ales in Kalamazoo.  The freshly minted building didn't even have a sign yet, just the celtic knot symbol of the brewery.  The place was spacious with a long bar and plenty of high tables.  Garage style doors opened up onto a large backyard seating area and the weather was perfect for that on the day we arrived.  Somewhere, a ball got dropped since the one bartender didn't know that she would be dealing with a huge busload of  beer geeks.  Most of us were also high maintenance and wanted samplers, making for a long wait until we had drinks in hand.  While I waited for our sampler, Sj headed over the small kitchen where they were serving up some of the best BBQ ribs and pulled pork I have had outside of Missouri!

Best chandelier ever?

I had never tried their beers before, but had heard of them.  I really liked every one of their beers that I tried, but even with two samplers I couldn't try them all.  Talk about a large tap list!  Everyone loved Big Dick's English Old Ale.  My personal favorite was the Deliverance barrel aged double porter--huge and complex with a boozy but not over-the-top finish.  Later in the Michigan trip I tried their Scottish ale and would seek that one out if you can find it.

Our final official tour stop was Bell's Eccentric Café, just down the road from Acadia in Kalamazoo.  If you haven't tried some Bells beers you might just be a hermit living in a cave.  The café itself is a small tasting room with loads of old beer signs, posters, and tribal art on the walls.  The small bar serves up many Bells favorites like Two Hearted (way better fresh on tap here than when it gets to MN in the bottle).  They also have several pub only smaller experimental batches on tap.  Sj and I ordered two samplers and shared so we could try as many as possible.  Just like Latitude 42 and Acadia, we still didn't try everything!  My favorite at the time was the Experimental Hop 2014 number 2 that had a bright melon-like flavor and a light and refreshing session feel.  They also have a small kitchen to fulfill your eating needs., but I didn't get a chance to try that out.

Sj looking happy, and Tom looking thoughtful...

Just around the corner is the Bells General Store where they had homebrew supplies, beer and plenty of swag to sell us.  As usual on this jaunt, our time was fleeting and I had to almost run over here to grab a sign and some other Bells items before our bus left without me!

Our official tour was about over, minus the drive back to Grand Rapids.  The tour was fun and got us to many places, but I felt that we didn't have quite enough time in each place to really enjoy it.  I would have liked either hitting one less place or ending our trip later in the day.  One could order food at any place we went, but there was short time and no official longer "lunch time" so many of us were ordering food, getting it 10 minutes before we were supposed to leave and then snarfing it down fast.  Just a small quibble, but the trip was certainly worth it.

Brewery Vivant!

One of the other pre-conference events was a beer and food pairing "experience" at Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids.  I had not signed on for this after being burned with a similar experience at Pike Brewing during the Seattle NHC.  At that one they charged $40, ran out of food and only gave us tiny samples of beers.  In retrospect (my friend Mike took part in this tasting and said it was fantastic) I wish I had done it!  A few on our bus were running late for this event and talked our driver into making a detour for them.  Sj and I decided to hop off there too and managed to get seated in a corner table for an early dinner.  Vivant is a newer brewery that focuses on Belgian styles of varying types.    The brewery is in an old funeral parlor and the bar is actually located in the old chapel, having a cool backdrop of stained glass behind it!  When we arrived my friend Chris was at the bar talking with a brewer and I got to spend a few minutes talking to them.

I really enjoyed the beers here, though some were better than others.  The Solitude was a very dry and pleasant Abbey style beer and I ended up buying a few cans to bring home.  Their flagship beer is the Big Red Coq--a hoppy Belgian ale.  Always fun to say the name of this beer!  We snacked on duck confit nachos as we worked through our samplers, reveling in the tastes and the surroundings.  Mike eventually finished his tasting outside and we all headed out for our hotel.

On the way home we passed very close to the centrally located Grand Rapids Brewing Co.  Could we really visit 6 breweries in one day?  Never one to pass up a challenge, I pushed to get us all inside and try out the beer.  This is actually the Midwest's first Certified Organic brewery and opened in 2012.  Only later did we find out that the owners of HopCat actually own this and two other local bars.  The place is huge and well appointed.  The clientele was mostly young and hip, frat boys, and some post-work suits.  The crowd was probably somewhat bigger due to the NHC folks trickling in but I don't think there were that many of "us" in there this evening.  The place reminded me a lot of a Rock Bottom, with a slick and well-planned out look and feel to it.  We tried a couple beers but had no room left for food.  Sj had the stout that was tolerable, but fairly watery.  I had the terrible plastic tasting maibock that I certainly did not finish.  Not my favorite brewery of the day for sure.

So six breweries in one day under my belt, it was time to head home for sleep and recuperation.  It was cool trying all of these places and only one was below par.  My favorite brewery of the day was probably Vivant, but Acadia was a close second.  I loved the passion of the brewer for Old Mill and the nifty old building.

Up Next: NHC Day 3--4 More Breweries!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Drunken Botanist

My wife, jewelry artist Sarajo Wentling, has a habit of getting involved in online jewelry design challenges.  This works for her and often acts as inspiration, sparking some of her more creative pieces.  I envy this aspect of her craft.  Check out her jewelry blog HERE if you want to see what I'm talking about. 

One interesting group that Sj has been involved with is the Inspired By Reading Book Group, started by the talented Andrew Thornton.  Like any book group, each month has an assigned book to read, but instead of just talking about it, these artists work the book into their respective artwork.  While the majority of the group are jewelry designers, other types of art are included as well. 

This month's reading was The Drunken Botanist, by Amy Stewart.  This book is more of an encyclopedia than a novel, including chapters on various spirits, mixed drinks and history of the flora and fauna that flavor those spirits!  While reading this book, Sj would frequently read aloud passages for me or fill me in on little snippets of information.  After a while I realized I just needed to read the book for myself!  Occasionally snatching the unguarded book from Sj's clutches, I would read a few passages.  I have still not read the entire thing, but the way the book is set up, reading bits and pieces works fairly well. 

If I had had more time, I would have used my main hobby of homebrewing to use some of these interesting herbs to make a gruit or herb-bittered beer.  But the discussion/blog-hop is already upon us and brewing would have taken a few weeks at the least.  Not to mention that no one but Sj and I could sample the results, since this is a virtual book club!  Wracking my brain, I finally realized that I could use my new camera and budding photography skills to attempt an entry for this challenge.  Much like Sj when she started to make jewelry, I certainly don't feel like an "Artist" yet, so it really didn't occur to me until late in the game.  Oh, well, why not give it a shot

Reading/skimming around the book, I spent a fair amount of time reading about the herbs, flowers and spices that were involved in many spirits and tinctures.  Saint Germain elderflower liqueur is intriguing, and I've even thought about doing an elderflower beer after tasting one in Belgium.  I have tasted saffron beers before but find I'm not very sensitive to that expensive ingredient so it just isn't worth the money.  This past weekend we were up at the family cottage on Ottertail Lake for a reunion weekend.  My cousin Kathleen is an amateur photographer as well and the two of us took off to find some likely things to photograph.  We were driving past Lake Country Gardens, a family run landscape and nursery place, when Kathleen suggested we see if they would allow us to take some pictures there.  The kind staff had no problem with us sneaking around with our cameras and even pointed us toward a nest of photogenic baby robins.  I discovered some bright, papery orange poppy blossoms on our little tour of the grounds.  As a physician I was intrigued by the storied history of the Opium Poppy and its use in cure-alls and Laudanum.  This was a perfect intersection of my hobby and the book! 

Later, while wandering the back roads around the cottage, I discovered wild pink roses growing in the ditches.  Wanting to get closer I discovered a huge and extensive patch of the three-leafed caustic pest: poison ivy!  So my picture of this one is more of an arty rural background piece than a close up of roses!  The book mentions roses being used in rose petal liqueurs, as well as rose water's use in cocktails.  I was intrigued by the little mention of rose hips as well and this makes me want to use that strange ingredient in my brewing...

Right turn Clyde!  

Hangin' out with Rosemary...
In the back of the book there are a couple of charts including many other ingredients in cocktails and Rosemary is mentioned briefly there.  I think this is my favorite picture from this particular challenge even if the tie to the book is tenuous!

After arriving back home in Waconia after the weekend, I went out to my own garden and took more pictures.  There I have a plant of Sweet Woodruff, another herb used in spirits, that I have been growing for use in a future medieval style beer.  I noticed that the author did not mention the use of violent green woodruff syrup in Berliner Weisse beers in Germany…  After reading about it in the book, it sounds like this can be toxic if not prepared correctly and now I'm a little more hesitant to try using it!  I was sad that while we were out of town the pretty little white flowers on the plant were almost all gone, so this one wasn't as photogenic as I had hoped!

Sweet Woodruff!

Of course I have a cascade hop bine growing in my yard for future use in beer, so I took a quick shot of the the active climber.  We just had some heavy weather this past week and the plant was battered a bit, but these fresh shoots are coming back quickly from the damage.  The hop cones themselves won't  arrive until later in the season.

Hop bine (not vine) spreading up my deck!

And of course there is a whole section in the book on berries!  Here is my ever expanding raspberry bramble.  The flowers are falling off and the fruit starting to form already.  I think raspberries will gracing my beer very soon!

This is a fun book with lots of educational and informative snippets that will make you more popular at cocktail parties for sure!  The book certainly sparked several ideas for herb or fruit based beers that I'd like to try out.  I was happy to get a chance to practice my photography and take part in this!  Later in the year they are reading Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane and I am already looking for perfect pictures to bring out that wonderful book.  Check out the Facebook site and read/look at the other contributors' entries for the month HERE.