Monday, March 30, 2015

Photo Challenge #16

After playing along with Erin's 30 Word Thursday weekly challenge on her Treasures Found Blog for the past year I have finally taken the plunge and started taking photography more seriously.  Starting with my iPhone, I soon found that the limitations of that device were getting to me.  Upgrading to a Canon Eos Digital Rebel SL1 camera, I've started experimenting more with technique.  I have also invested in Photoshop Elements 12 and most of my post-production on photos will be from that program.  As a way to force myself to try new things, I'm doing a weekly photo challenge--each week focusing on a different photography or editing technique.  Some of these may be simple and others more difficult.  I encourage any of my readers to take part in the challenge!

OK, I finally missed one week's challenge.  I blame illness that interfered with my photo taking, editing, and posting.  Oh well, I eventually got here!

JABlog Photo Challenge #16: Photo Journalism

This week's challenge was to document an activity, sport, job, or something else in photo form.  I thought this was a good one to do to get me back into actively taking pictures instead of just using old ones from last summer.  The trick to taking pictures like this is to convey meaning without words to describe what you are seeing.  The other challenge is that you are taking these pictures on the fly without the ability to control the surroundings and lighting as much as you would in some other types of photography.

I recently realized that I only had a few pictures of my homebrewing set-up, and none that have been taken recently.  All the shots I did have available were from my iPhone.  I took this as an opportunity to document my main hobby.  And yes, I will describe what things are for the novice!  The biggest trick to doing this was trying to take pictures and actually do the brewing--the most interesting active parts of the job, I was unable to document well since I only have so many hands!  It was also very cold and I had to do this in the dimly lit and steamy garage.  Oh well!

First step is to take the base grain (Wyerman Pilsner) and measure out how much I need for the full batch.
Next up is to grind that grain using a power drill (or by hand if you want a work-out!)

What makes up 90% of beer?  Water!
Add heated water to the mash tun equipped with a false bottom
Now we have warm gloppy cereal!  Let this sit for an hour and let those enzymes break down the sugars for us...
Drain the final product (wort) into the brew pot, get to a boil and add hops...

And collect the cooled wort into a carboy!  All that is left is adding yeast and oxygen and giving it time to ferment!

So there you go, the best I could do!

Next week I want to try to emulate the solarization, or Sabatier Effect, where dark and light are reversed in a photo.  This makes for a strange effect, but should be fun to mess around with!  

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Insight Brewing Review

What's the deal with this new brewery Insight?  Suddenly I spot them on tap all over the Metro area and realize that I have not been to the brewery yet!  Well, this must be rectified...

I actually got a chance to visit Insight Brewing a little over a month ago for the first summit of Minnesota beer journalists (organized by the wonderful Paige of Alcohol By Volume) and enjoyed my visit at that time.  Since I was there on a Sunday evening, and busy socializing, I didn't really get a chance to take good pictures or have the time to really focus on reviewing the beers.  So I ended up making a separate trip out there on a Sunday afternoon with my wife, Sj, for a more "official" review.   I give them extra credit that they are one of the few taprooms to be open all week long, giving a far-west suburb guy like me options to come visit at more convenient (less traffic) times like Tuesdays or Sundays.  Get on board other Minnesota taprooms--we beer geeks like to drink on days other than Friday and Saturday!

The brewery opened in the late Fall/early Winter of 2014.  Founder Ilan Klages-Mundt became enamored with beer and breweries after tasting a Westvleteren 12 while in Denmark.  (You can read my official review of that great beer HERE.)  Thereafter he traveled extensively and worked at breweries in England, Denmark, and Japan.  Returning to Minneapolis, he found some partners willing to take a chance on opening a brewery.

Garnering a few odd looks (more than I usually do anyway) as I wandered around outside and in snapping pictures, I explored the extensive environs of the brewery.  Located in what looks like an old brick warehouse in Nordeast Minneapolis, the brewery actually has a good sized parking lot--a rarity these days.  The building itself is quite large (20,000 square feet!), with what looks like plenty of room to grow for brewing capacity.  This is one of the largest new breweries we have seen in the state, so these guys are not messing around.  It also explains why they have been able to reach so many markets across the Twin Cities in such a short time period.

But wait, they didn't harvest these hops in the fall?

The taproom entrance is right off the parking lot and as you enter the building you see the side of the large wooden bar to your left.  The place is big.  Really big.  3000 square feet big!  High ceilings, widely spaced seating, and plenty of floor space give this taproom a very different feel from many of the tighter and more claustrophobic Northeast taprooms.  Seating ranges from tall booths, to high and low top tables, to some couches and low tables in the back corner, giving lots of different options yet without seeming slapped-together.  With the size of the place, each of these areas almost seems like a different room or area.  Open duct work on the ceiling and interesting industrial light fixtures and table legs enhance the reclaimed warehouse feel of the place.  Photographs and paintings by local artists line a few of the walls, adding a bit of softness to the hard mechanical feel.  One can see the brewery equipment itself behind some large glass windows off to the right of the bar.

While we were there, larger groups shared stories and pints at the high-tops.  Smaller groups and twosomes came and went.  One pleasant group of guys were working at playing the epically difficult Arkham Horror board game while sipping on beers from the bar.  One nice couple noticed me taking pictures and struck up a conversation with us, offering good advice on what other breweries we should visit in the area.  I will get to Bauhaus eventually, I swear it!  Overall, everyone here was relaxed and having a good time hanging out--just what I expect at a good taproom.

While they don't serve food, both times I have been there they had a local food truck present.  They also have many special events at the taproom like firkins and special infusions of their beers to make it worth stopping in frequently.

Ok, so I really like the taproom itself.  What about the beer?  Sj and I split a sampler so we could try everything.  One can also order full pints and smaller 8 oz glasses as well, giving options for what kind of thirst you have.  I slowly worked my way through the sampler, taking some notes in my Untappd check-ins so I could revisit them later.

A very photogenic group of beers!

Lamb & Flag: A nice sessionable English bitter.  I'm pleased with the low ABV on this, as I could drink a couple of pints over time and still walk afterward.  However, there is a bit of an astringency to the finish that knocks off a few points for me.  Sj thought it was too bitter for her.  Smooth it out a bit and this would be stellar.

Chiswick Porter: This is an English style porter, and based on the first taste I had during my previous visit, I would have put this as the best I've tried in Minnesota.  However, this second tasting was different--very murky appearance and a strong yeasty bite to it.  I think this one was perhaps rushed from the fermenter before it had settled out.  Still pleasantly roasty in flavor and aroma, but muddled compared to the precious time.

Yuzu Pale Ale: This is an interesting take on the classic and often uninspired pale ale.  By using Yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit that combines characters of lemon and lime, they have accentuated the citrus character of the hops without going too far astray from the base beer style.  I really enjoyed this and actually went back for a small glass of it when I was done with my taster.

Saison De Blanc: A take on the Belgian farmhouse style of beer.  There is certainly a lot of Belgian yeast character in this one, perhaps too much.  While the style doesn't preclude some haze, this one like the porter was very cloudy and had too much yeast flavor for my tastes.  As a homebrewer I'm used to a little extra yeast in my bottled beers, but as served this one might put some people off.  Not bad, but just not quite right.  I believe this beer also includes some white grape must-but I didn't really taste much of that over the yeastiness.  Also had a bit more harsh finish than expected.  I'm currently working on a blog entry about grape/beer hybrids and would like to try this again and add it to my write-up.

Gravity Well: A bold beer for a young brewery to put out, but appreciated!  This is a strong Russian Imperial stout aged in Cognac barrels.  It doesn't taste as boozy or as thick as I would have expected for its 11% ABV, but this makes it fairly easy to drink.  A very pleasant RIS that I would go back for.

A little H.P. Lovecraft inspired gaming to go with your Insight beer?  Yes please!
Overall, I feel that Insight Brewing really does stand out from being just another brewery in NE MPLS.  From a large and comfortable tap room, to an unusual grouping of beer styles featuring ingredients from varied countries and cultures, they fill a different niche.  Both times I've been here have been fun experiences that make me want to come back.  With more open hours than most local taprooms, they also give more options for when to visit.  The beers were all decent (the lowest score I gave was a 3), but many had a house flavor of sorts--a bit of astringent finish, that while not extreme, was enough to cut my final scoring on most of them.  I'm wondering if this is due to water, since they are obviously using multiple yeasts in their line-up of beers.  For only being open a few months, I think these guys are already making a good name for themselves and are poised to grow very quickly.  The only advice I would offer would be to make sure the beer quality doesn't suffer from rushing them out to market too quickly.  I have seen several other breweries fall into that trap over the past few years, local and even nationally.

If you haven't checked them out yet, I would make the effort!

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Whale A Week: Cantillon Fou' Foune

Last week on A Whale A Week we tasted the rare 2012 vintage of FiftyFifty Eclipse aged in Old Fitzgerald barrels.  During that tasting, which became a somewhat epic bottle share among a small group of us, we ended up cracking some other whales.  Not to miss the opportunity, I made everyone work for it and write out their descriptions for use in the next couple of weeks.  The goal of this series is to force me to actually drink some of these rare beers that are lurking in my cellar, rather than just gaze upon them in adoration.

Cantillon Fou' Foune 2014

For those who don't have experience with sours, the lambics are sour beers, and often have fruit added to balance the tartness of the brew.  Cantillon is THE lambic producer that all others bow down to.  They still produce the beers in traditional manner in Brussels, Belgium by pumping the hot freshly boiled wort into a large flat copper vat called a coolship.  The coolship is located in the attic of the brewery, and louvers are opened in the roof to let in random wild yeast and bacteria from the surrounding area as the beer cools overnight.  Having been to Cantillon twice now (seriously the coolest brewery ever...) and seeing the dust of ages and cobwebs all over everything, I'm still boggled by how good the beers are!  The real magic happens in the process of aging the beers in oak barrels and blending the young and old beers together to get just the right character out of them.  Sours are not for everyone, and are often an acquired taste, but are well worth giving a shot.  Cantillon lambics tend toward the more tart/sour than many of the easily available sours in America (Lindemans, Boon, etc.)

Fou' Foune is one of Cantillon's more sought-after fruit lambics. The beer has a rating of 100 on BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, putting it in the upper echelon of beer geek love.  The story goes that Cantillon owner Jean Van Roy was having a fine dinner with a local apricot grower named Francois Daronnat in 1998, when he mentioned that he should brew a beer with those apricots.  Promptly forgetting about this comment, it was a surprise when later that year at harvest time Jean discovered a shipment of 300 Kg of Bergeron apricots waiting for him at the brewery.  That initial batch was quite popular and they have been making it yearly ever since in limited production. The apricots are stoned by hand and soaked in 2 year old lambic for 2 months.

Fou' Foune, like most traditional lambics is a lower alcohol beer, coming in right around 5% ABV.  I have tried this beer several times over the past few years, getting the chance to bring home a bottle directly from the brewery back in 2012.  And I'll make no bones about it, I love it a lot. While many sours continue to develop with age, the apricot flavor fades relatively quickly, and the beer ends up more sour than fruity over time.  With age the beer is still amazing (having tried a 3 year old sample) but not as unique and fruity.  The bottle we have is from 2014, so still somewhat fresh.  The label on the bottle was done by Julie Van Roy featuring a moonscape with a floating apricot moon.   Also for more information than you needed to know, apparently fou' foune is French slang for lady-parts.  Ah, those French.

For today's tasting we gathered a panel of experts...Ok, people who like beer.  Included were:  Me--Homebrewer, BJCP judge.  My wife Sj--Fan of Imperial stouts.  Dave Manley--JAB member, homebrewer, cellared beer expert.  Jim Stroner--Beer enthusiast and photographer.  Rick Spaulding--Also beer enthusiast, biker, and photographer.  With this varied dream team assembled, after a light palate cleanser of Eclipse, we continued our search for amazing and rare beers.

Eric: Tart apple.  Apricot and pear.  Distinct sourness--almost sour patch kids sourness.  Slight hint of malt as it warms up.  All bright and zippy.
Dave: Beautiful sour.  Tangerine, pear.  Mild funk.  White grape must.
Jim: A lot going on--complex.  If anything leads it is apricot.
Rick: Lemon rind

Light orange to golden color.  Slightly hazy.  Large, fine white head, but fades relatively quickly.

Eric: Sour and sweet!  Fresh apricot pulp or nectar.  Marmalade.  Light, tart and spritzy.  Carbonation very high which results in more effervescence and liveliness on the tongue.  Body is light, but not watery.  Finish is bone dry, but with lingering fruit flavor.  Puckering, but not astringent or overwhelming sourness.   Some earthy, barnyard brett character.  Slight apricot pit flavor.
Dave: Sprightly carbonation--tart.  Citrus, tangerine, grapefruit, slight toasty malt, lemongrass.
Jim: Again--complex.  Hard to describe.  A little earthy and light fruit apricot.
Rick: Lemon zest/citrus rind, dried apricot, tart, refreshing. Nice carbonation.  Light body.

Eric: So refreshing!  Bright, fruity, sour all at once.  This is what most fruit lambics aspire to be when they grow up. 5
Dave: 4.5
Jim: Very refreshing. 4.5
Rick: 4
Sj: 4.5

So there you have it our score overall is a 4.5 out of 5.  I should weight this score based on the fact that my score of 5 is the correct one...but I'll let these folks have their low-ball scores for today.  Just kidding!  All of beer tasting is subjective and personal taste and experience have a huge impact on one's enjoyment of a beer.  Sours can also be quite challenging to taste and to describe.  This beer is one of my favorites of all time and I would gladly drink it every day of the week.  That being said, we all agreed that Fou' Foune would be at its refreshing best sipped out on a deck under a bright summer sky.  With friends of course!

Next week I'll post our review of Lift Bridge Barrel Aged Silhouette, so stay tuned!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Whale A Week: Fifty Fifty Eclipse 2012 Old Fitzgerald

A Whale A Week is my attempt to force myself to not only drink some amazing rare beers I've been hording, but share and blog about it.  I welcome folks to play along and link up their pages/blogs if you have one of these beers to try yourself.  Last week my intrepid friends helped me study and savor the smooth flavors of Westvleteren 12.  For this Whale A Week we move to Imperial Stout territory with...

Fifty Fifty Eclipse Old Fitzgerald 2012 Vintage

Fifty Fifty Brewing Company, is a smaller brewery and restaurant located in the somewhat remote Truckee, California.  They are most famous for their Imperial stout called Totality, which has won three GABF medals over the past seven years.  Not bad for a small brewpub!  Until 2014, their brewer was Todd Ashman, formerly of Illinois' Flossmoor Station Brewpub.  Interestingly, I got to Flossmoor after Todd had originally left it and the "award winning" beers we had there were pretty mediocre at best.  Todd has since returned to his former haunts in Illinois to help open Flossmoor's production facility.  This past year his protege, Alyssa Shook took over as head brewer for Fifty Fifty.  I have not tried their beer since the change, so I can't comment on current quality.

I spent some serious time working on this photo for my weekly post!

For the production of Eclipse, they brew a 300 gallon batch of Totality around March or April, and age it in a mix of used oak barrels for at least 6 months.  They mostly use whiskey or bourbon barrels, but have been known to throw in some rum barrels and other surprises as well such as coffee versions.  Each version of this beer is then hand-dipped in a different color of wax for future reference.  There is a Style Guide on their website with a list of the colors so you can figure out what you have lurking in your cellar.

Eclipse was first brewed in 2007 and aged in Old Fitzgerald barrels.  I have several versions of this beer in my cellar, but decided to go back to the beginning and try the 2012 version of the Old Fitzgerald aged beer.  According to the Internet Old Fitz was pot distilled in Kentucky during the 1870's for the rail and steamship trade, and released to the general public around 1900.  During prohibition, Old Fitz was one of the few bourbons allowed to be used for "medicinal purposes".  At one point the brewery was bought by the now incredibly famous Pappy Van Winkle, and is currently owned by Heaven Hill Distillery.  With that much history behind it, it must be good!

Each year, for the special release of Eclipse, the brewery hosts a small ticketed event to celebrate.  There, one can try all the versions of the beer and buy bottles.  Entry isn't cheep and is hard to come by, as demand for this beer is off the charts!  In 2013 my friends Rob Wengler and Ron Johnson, of the web-based beer hunting show Limited Release, were able to gain entry to the event for the show.  Later that year Rob hosted a tasting party at his home on the day of a crazy ice storm and we tried all of these beers at one sitting.  Wow!  At that point these beers were amazing, but still young.  I haven't tried once since...until now!

I received this bottle in a mass trade from a local guy looking to weed his cellar a bit.  He had stored this in a cool basement out of the light, so it looks like the beer has been treated well over the past few years.  On Beer Advocate it is currently ranked a 94, and RateBeer gives it a solid 100.

For today's tasting we gathered a panel of experts...Ok, people who like beer.  Included were:  Me--Homebrewer, BJCP judge.  My wife Sj--Fan of Imperial stouts.  Dave Manley--JAB member, homebrewer, cellared beer expert.  Jim Stroner--Beer enthusiast and photographer.  Rick Spaulding--Also beer enthusiast, biker, and photographer.  With this varied dream team assembled we got to work!  Twenty minutes later, after I had hacked my way through the incredibly thick and tenacious layer of blue wax on the bottle, we finally got to try the beer...

Eric: Notable bourbon and wood character of vanilla and even toasted coconut.  Roasted malts.  Chocolate milk.  Honey?  No hop aroma.
Dave: Molasses, sweet bourbon, sticky toffee, black licorice.
Jim: Dark Fruit, faint booze
Rick: Dark fruit, molasses, bourbon, vanilla.

Very dark brown, but not as black as expected for Russian Imperial stout.  Not opaque--can see through at edge of glass with ruby highlights.  Fine, wispy, tan head that fades quickly.

Eric: Very sweet.  Strong flavors of vanilla, molasses.  Light toasted coconut.  Milk chocolate.  Body is medium, but I expected more fullness.  Not creamy. Slightly astringent finish but not too distracting.  Not as much dark fruit as I expected but hints present.  No hop flavor, but certainly some bittering going on.  Slight sherry from oxidation, but not much for the age of the beer.  Fair amount of alcohol to it but not overly "hot".  Carbonation is slightly low.
Dave: Molasses.  Reminds me of my grandma's gingersnap cookies.  Not hot.  Fig newtons.
Jim: Light booze.  Sweet.  Molasses, dates, faint tobacco.  Soft mouthfeel, not much carbonation.
Rick: Dates, figs, rootbeer barrel candy, brown sugar, toffee.  Decent amount of heat.  Soft, medium body.

Discussing this as a group, we all got plenty of complexity and interesting flavors.  For a Russian Imperial, the body is a little low and the color is a bit light--more like an Imperial porter.  A very tasty beer overall.

Grades: On a 0-5 scale
Eric: 5 "Really great!"
Dave: 4 "Very nice."
Jim: 4.5 "Yummy!"
Rick: 4
Sj: 4

Has anyone else tried this beer?  What do you think?  And more importantly, has anyone tried the beer from 2014?  Is it still up to par?

I have some more bottles of the other versions and may open them up as the year goes by for a future A Whale A Week so stay tuned!

Below check out the 13 minute Limited Release show about the trip out to Tuckee for the Eclipse release party in 2013!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Photo Challenge #15: Olde School

After playing along with Erin's 30 Word Thursday weekly challenge on her Treasures Found Blog for the past year I have finally taken the plunge and started taking photography more seriously.  Starting with my iPhone, I soon found that the limitations of that device were getting to me.  Upgrading to a Canon Eos Digital Rebel SL1 camera, I've started experimenting more with technique.  I have also invested in Photoshop Elements 12 and most of my post-production on photos will be from that program.  As a way to force myself to try new things, I'm doing a weekly photo challenge--each week focusing on a different photography or editing technique.  Some of these may be simple and others more difficult.  I encourage any of my readers to take part in the challenge!

Photo Challenge #15: Olde School

This week's challenge was to do a sepia effect on a couple pictures to give them an old fashioned look.  Looking through my pictures, I found that the ones most appropriate for this challenge were scenes and objects that would fit in back in time.  I found plenty of pictures in my batch from Belgium last spring, but many of the pictures were already fairly monochrome so the change didn't jump out as well as I would have liked.

1) Wheels within wheels.  This photo was taken at one of the small stables at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival this past summer.  It seemed to work well with the old fashioned theme!

I used a similar picture for a previous challenge--so sue me!

2) Bridge.  I like the timeless feel of this edited version.  The contrast in the trees isn't quite as good as I would have liked, but the sky was overcast on that day.  This one was taken at the small hotel (pictured above) in Chiny, Belgium.

3) Museum.  This was actually a museum in Ireland, taken with my old iPhone in 2011.  I'm actually not sure which version of the picture I like the most.  The contrast of the blue sky in the original is pretty cool, but I feel like the light shining off the top of the building is more noticeable in the sepia toned photo.  Oh, if I had had my Canon with me...

For any budding (or professional for that matter) photographers who want to play along, just post a link to your page/blog below.

Next week, we are going to take advantage of the improved weather.  I want documentary photos.  Take pictures of an action, a job, or activity.  Get a feel for what is going on by using different ways to capture action and ingredients.  I'll be homebrewing a batch of lambic to fill a barrel, and will likely use that as my muse...

Monday, March 16, 2015

Jack Of All Brews March 2015 Meeting Wrap-Up

JAB March 2015 Meeting!

This month Mike and Kristin Lebben were willing to open up their basement bar and brewing area for our meeting.  Thanks guys!  Here is a recap for those who couldn't make it, or who wanted more details...

Upcoming Events:

1) Lucid BFD contest--Register Feb 26-April 4.

2) Judging first round of NHC April 10-11

For those who haven't renewed dues for 2015, now is the time!  At least one of the local homebrew shops has been checking dates on cards and last year's is expired...Also please buy our hoodies so I can get them out of my house.  If you want one contact me or Steven!!!!

Review of JAB survey results: 23 responses

1) 60% wanted more field trips
2) Make-up of club: 65% intermediate, 21% expert, 14% noob
3) 40% would be willing to do BJCP class--however Primary Fermenters are working on one as well...
4) People expect to get to anywhere from 2-all of the meetings (average 5) with special occasions, work, and kids being the biggest barriers.
5) For mash paddle categories 52% want broader categories.  This certainly widens the options for bringing more beers and winning.  However this does cut down our ability to focus on specific styles of beer for learning/education purposes.
6) Involvement:  Not a lot here guys!  A couple people said they could host meetings once basements were finished--so just say the word when you are ready!  I think it might not be a bad idea to have one of our members give a short (2-5 minute) talk about a beer style monthly.  People learn by doing and by teaching, so this may be a way to get more involvement and teach our members who don't consider themselves experts...
7) Communication:  100% want to communicate via Facebook group.  We are letting JAB@thebarn go, since that has been not functioning well for us this past year.  We will look into an alternate e-mail list with only 1-2 monthly reminders of meetings or events--if people are interested.
8) Club funds:  Not a lot of interest in swag this year.  Split between larger club items like beergun and brewing equipment vs. food/beer for meetings.  We will come up with a plan for providing food at some of the meetings...the big issue is we never know if there will be 8 people or 30 showing up.
9) Mike Lebben suggested a mentorship program pairing more experienced brewers with less experienced ones.  65% of the group said they would be interested in this.  Thoughts?
10) Monthly social events: 82% of the group are interested in monthly social meetings of the club.  These would be more informal hang-out events at local breweries and pubs.  We will start our first one this month.
11) Several people mentioned concerns about homebrew taking a back seat to commercial beers at meetings, as well as the focus being more on drinking than education.  I think these are legitimate concerns.  I certainly think that we should limit commercial beer tasting to take place after all the homebrews are sampled--except if we are tasting commercial examples of the style of the month.  I do want to organize our mash paddle tasting to be a little more regimented, but do not want to take the "fun" out of our meetings.  However, I personally like the chance to share some rare beers with other beer geeks, so maybe we make that all happen in the "meltdown" time after all our official business is done.  

Whew!  I probably spent too much time on this at the meeting, putting everyone to sleep.  However, I felt this was important since it is a snapshot of what the club is interested in.  As always we want the club to be responsive to our member's desires, but in the end the decisions are made by your elected board members.  If you have concerns or questions, please talk to us.  Or run for office yourself next year and get more official power to use for good or evil!  

Talk on Brew Sculptures: 

Joe attempting to bring order from chaos...Or giving a talk at a brewclub meeting...

Joe Lushine was kind enough to give us a fairly extensive talk about brew sculptures.  He covered from basic to expensive store-bought devices.  If I didn't already have a sculpture, I would be itching to get/make one after that talk!  We were also able to ogle Mike's Sabco system in the basement as a nice reference.

Style of the Month:  Irish Red

I did a quick review of the style guidelines from BJCP and we tasted a commercial example of the beer (Smithwicks) thanks Mike B. for bringing that!  Mash paddle was a small sample size this month with only Anna's Irish Lass and my Craic Kills as the contenders.  I would be willing to say that both of our beers were better than the Smithwicks.  The voting was tight with SawBones Brewery getting 9 votes and Irate Princess Brewing getting 7.  

We also tried other homebrews from JAB members, but we had less than usual available.  Mostly we drank a lot of Mike's excellent beers from his huge and well-stocked Keezer.  Professional brewer Tim Roets also brought along some test batches of mead and cyser for feedback, that were quite tasty!

This meeting we waited until the homebrews were all finished before cracking into more commercial beers and I think that worked out really well to cut the chaos and make sure everyone got to try the homebrews.

Overall, a great meeting with a lot of education!  Next Month we get a talk about high gravity brewing from Mike Lebben, and Open Mash Paddle category!  

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Whale A Week: Westvleteren 12

A Whale A Week is my attempt to force myself to not only drink some amazing rare beers I've been hording, but share and blog about it.  I welcome folks to play along and link up their pages/blogs if you have one of these beers to try yourself.  This week we take a little field trip to the literal Holy Land of beer: Belgium!

Westvleteren 12

I had planned on waiting for this until later in the series, but this beer has been sitting in my fridge...taunting me...winking it's golden cap at me each time I crack that door to decide what to open.  So taunt me no more you Warlock!  I'll drink you and blog about it!  Oh, sorry did that seem a little crazy and paranoid to you?  No worries, we're feeling much better now!

Westvleteren 12 has been described as "The Best Beer in the World" in several places over the years.  Part of the popularity is the mystique of the beer being made at a small Trappist monastery in Belgium.  Images of silent robed monks wielding wooden mash paddles and tankards of ale flit through one's mind when contemplating this beer.  It is also incredibly rare, available only at the brewery, and even then in very limited quantities.  One can show up at the new brewery tap room/restaurant and hope that they have some available.  If lucky, you can get just one box to take with you.  When they run out, you are out of luck.  In the past, for distribution, one can arrange to pick up one case at the brewery per car, per month.  Because of this, even in Belgium you are going to pay a crazy premium for this beer.  Westy (as I affectionately call him) 12 has a rating of a perfect 100 in RateBeer and BeerAdvocate.

Let's talk about where this rarest of all beers is made. The Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren is located out in the countryside of the Flanders region of Belgium.  This small monastery was founded in 1838 and currently hosts about 30 Trappist monks.  The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance began in the 1600's as a stripped down and modest response to the excesses of the Catholic church.  The monks of the order live in seclusion and quiet where they are able to pray and contemplate with a minimum of interruption.  Contrary to popular belief, they are able to speak--but usually keep this to essentials.  Many Trappist monasteries provide home-made goods for sale to support daily needs and upkeep of the location itself.  Many of the old monasteries did make beer, but the modern sale of Trappist ales is a much more recent event: starting after World War I.  Westvleteren itself started selling beer to the public in 1931.

In 1946 the nearby St. Bernardus Brewery in Watou started brewing under the Saint Sixtus name.  In the early 1990's St. Bernardus started making their own similar beers, and production of Westvleteren 6, 8, and 12 returned to the abbey itself.  Many people believe that the St. Bernardus 12 is basically the same beer as Westvleteren 12, and this history would certainly make that a possibility.

Interestingly, the beer itself has been made in the same quantity (60,000 cases per year) since 1946.  Unlike all the growth seen in the beer industry, these mellow monks have not changed their production (despite high demand) in almost 70 years.  They do not advertise.  The bottle doesn't even have a label, just an understated color coded and numbered cap!

The first time I had this beer was in 2012, in an incredibly tiny and cozy pub from the 1400's called Au Bon Vieux Temps in Brussels, Belgium.  At the time, after an insanely long plane flight, fighting jet-lag and exhaustion, clustered into a tight huddle with my wife and our friends, this was truly one of the best beers I had ever had.  Later in the trip we got to try it again for exorbitant prices, and it was still something special.

Superimposed Westy bottle and the heraldry outside the abbey...

The next time I tried the elusive Westy 12 was in 2014.  It was at In de Vrede, the the official restaurant and shop just outside the Saint Sixtus Abbey grounds.  We arrived at the restaurant fairly early (before 11 AM) and they were still selling some 6-packs of Westvleteren 8, the lower alcohol but tasty younger brother of the 12.  Our traveling companion, Hassan, and I both bought some to share for the rest of our trip, but were sad that no 12 was available to take home.  There, I had a wonderful light lunch of pate made with beer from the abbey, and we all shared glasses of the 6, 8, and 12 among our small group. Yup, still a great experience with this beer, but as previously this was much flavored by location and expectations.

A few years back the abbey needed repairs, so the monks allowed a small amount of the beer to be sold as gift packs (including glassware) to be sold through a distributor.  When these beers made it to Minnesota, they sold out fast.  Really fast.  Many of the sellers were actually opening the packs and selling individual bottles for a huge profit.  I sincerely hope that the monks got their fair share of money from that madness, but I kind of doubt it.  The bottle we opened to taste this time comes from that particular batch--one can tell because of the screen-printed lettering on the bottle.  I'm pretty sure this was from 2012.  I received this particular bottle in a mass cellar buy-out earlier this year, and it was stored in a dark, cool basement.

For this tasting, I had Steven Mathistad, a fellow JAB member, over.  As usual, my wife, Sj was also taking part.  I have a Westvleteren chalice glass from my first trip out there, and I served my share into that for proper Belgian flair.

Westy 12

Eric: Sweet Malt and sugar.  I get pear and maybe a hint of apple pie and cinnamon spice.  Some caramelized sugars are present.  Definite alcohol zip in the aroma.  Not as much phenol as I expected.
Steven: Malt character and alcohol on the aroma.  Minty?  Dark fruit?

Eric: Deep amber in color.  Tight fine off-white head with Belgian lace.  Head persists well in my glass (probably because I have the appropriate logo'd glass...).  A few small floaties despite a very careful pour.  In fact a good 1/4 of the bottle was left behind due to a huge amount of sediment in the bottle.
Steven: Dark amber in color.  Thin head dissipates fairly quickly.

Eric and Steven: Like in the aroma I get sweet sugar and caramel up front.  Some light fig and pear flavors.  Almost a coconut flavor as it warms.  Medium body with a creamy mouthfeel.  Alcohol certainly present and warming, but pleasant.  End is very dry with a lingering sugar taste--but not cloying sweet.  No hop flavors.  Slight astringency at the tail end.  Carbonation is very high and spritzy.

This beer is wonderful.  One is aware of the 10.2% ABV, but it adds to the experience rather than detracts.  This is not as complex as one would expect--but has simplicity and balance down to near perfection.  Not too sweet, not too dry.  This is the quintessential Belgian Quadrupel that all others wish to be.  Many American versions end up much sweeter than this.  We decided on a group score of 4.75 out of 5--mainly because of our accessory beer tasting below.

St. Bernardus Abt 12

To make things interesting, I bought a bottle 2014 St. Bernardus 12 at The Four Firkins to taste along with the Westy 12.  This is not a fair side-by-side tasting, since the Westy has had several years in the cellar to mature, but should approximate the fresh versus aged effect of these beers if this is really a similar recipe.

This beer has slight fruity esters and malt on the aroma, but not a lot going on.  Body was light/medium.  Very smooth for so much alcohol.  Sweet but not cloying.  Well balanced, but definite alcohol warming.  No dark fruits in this.

We could totally see this being very much like the aged Westy 12 given a couple years in the cellar.  Collectively we gave it a score of 4.

Rochefort 10 

We finished our tasting with a 2012 vintage of the similarly styled Trappist beer Rochefort 10.  I figured this would give us the effect of age (same vintage) when comparing to the Westy 12.

The aroma in this beer is much more malty and sweet, containing dark fruit and complex esters.  The flavor is amazing, bursting with blackberry and caramel flavors.  Body is medium and carbonation is high.  We gave this beer a collective 5, resulting in us cutting down the Westy to a 4.75 in comparison.

In Conclusion

So our Belgian Quad tasting had a surprise result: we enjoyed the aged Rochefort 10 more than the aged Westvleteren 12.  Your results may vary, but buying a couple Rochefort 10's and aging them will be a lot cheaper than importing Westy 12!  That being said, Westy is still a very special beer.  Sj said it best when she explained that it was impossible for her to taste the beer without associating it with that dark little pub in Brussels surrounded by friends and the wonder of visiting a new country.  If you get to Belgium, you do need to seek out the Westvleteren 12.  But in the end, you will find Rochefort 8 and 10 nearly everywhere and probably drink many before your trip has ended.

Next week A Whale A Week continues with a tasting of Fifty-Fifty Eclipse...stay tuned!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Photo Challenge #14: Welcome to the Funhouse

After playing along with Erin's 30 Word Thursday weekly challenge on her Treasures Found Blog for the past year I have finally taken the plunge and started taking photography more seriously.  Starting with my iPhone, I soon found that the limitations of that device were getting to me.  Upgrading to a Cannon Eos Digital Rebel SL1 camera, I've started experimenting more with technique.  I have also invested in Photoshop Elements 12 and most of my post-production on photos will be from that program.  As a way to force myself to try new things, I'm doing a weekly photo challenge--each week focusing on a different photography or editing technique.  Some of these may be simple and others more difficult.  I encourage any of my readers to take part in the challenge! 

Photo Challenge #14: Welcome to the Funhouse

This week I mess around with the Liquify Filter from Photoshop Elements.  I get the magazine Photo Elements Techniques bimonthly and the first article this month demonstrates using this why not try it out?  With the Liquify filter you can Warp, Twirl, Pucker, Bloat, and Shift Pixels.  Liquify can give some cool fun-house effects, but can also be used more sparingly to edit photos.  You know which tack I'm going to take!

This is my friend Al.  He and I got the chance to make mead commercially with Tim Roets at the Minnesota Harvest Orchard this fall after hours.  Al decided to be complicated and make a Black Currant Mead which required hand crushing and blending a veritable ton of red drippy fruit--and resulted in him looking like he had just committed a gory murder.  Al is a ham and foolishly posed for this picture.  The room was very dark and picture quality is very full of noise, but I did my best.

So, what better than to make Al look even more insane?  Yes please!  I used several of the Liquify Filter effects on this shot.  You may have to look at the original to see the difference (once you get past the overall Zoom Burst effect.) First I took the Twirl setting and made his squinted eye a bit more uneven and strange looking.  Next I used the Bloat setting and made his open eye bloated to a larger size--making it look very unnatural and protuberant.  And finally I used the Warp setting to push the edge of his mouth out of shape even more to give him a proper undead rictus.

One thing I discovered when using this filter was that the maximum brush size didn't get big enough for me to alter large areas of the picture, so this is more useful to change smaller areas of the photo. One can take these techniques and use them for good instead of evil.  If you have a portrait where your subject is squinting slightly, you could use the Bloat to widen the eye a bit.  You can also use the Warp to give a hint of a smile to a more serious look.  But I prefer to make my friend look even more like a terror zombie…

I didn't have much time to do more this week, so I'll cut this one short.  Feel free to play along by linking your own page with the tool below.

Next week we go back to basics with Sepia Tone!  Let's make a picture or two look olde fashioned by changing them to sepia.  Bonus credit if you can make one look beat up or otherwise actually old looking!  

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Whale A Week: Lost Abbey Angel's Share 2013

Hey folks, time once again for A Whale A Week!  Last week we tested out Goose Island Madame Rose 2012 and enjoyed it quite a bit.  This week we move from sour to sweet with the much sought-after Lost Abbey Angel's Share.

Lost Abbey Angel's Share 2013 Vintage

Lost Abbey is a brewery with an interesting history.  The brewery itself was started as a mostly Belgian oriented offshoot of the famous Pizza Port Brewery in California.  Brewer Tomme Arthur is famous for pushing the boundaries of craft brew in our country and is usually mentioned in the same breath as Sam Calagione and Vinny Cilurzo as rockstar brewers.  We still don't get Lost Abbey beer in Minnesota, so any of them are a rarity here.  One of their more famous brews is the Angel's Share. Named for the evaporation that occurs while barrel aging spirits, the "angel's share," it is an early example of barrel aging in the USA. This is a strong 12.5% ABV English style barleywine (think J.W. Lees or Thomas Hardy) that is then aged for a year or more in Bourbon barrels.  There is a large description on the website of the aging shed where the whiskey is rested for year HERE, but no information as to what distillery that may be.

This beer comes out in limited quantities every year--sold on tap and in small 375 ML bottles that make this a hard one to want to share.  Beer Advocate has a current rating of 95 for this beer, and RateBeer puts it at 100.  Not too shabby!  

I picked up my bottle in Champaign, Illinois at Friar Tuck's back in 2013 while visiting my dad.  I was shocked at the time to find it there, but happy to pay the cost and cart it back to Minnesota with me.  I have stored it in a cool dark cupboard in my basement since then, waiting to crack this gem of booziness.  

Recently I had a diverse group of friends over to play the geeky Pathfinder card game and drink beers.  Over a long evening of gaming we had started with Ommegang Three Philosophers (2012 and 2003 vintages), then moved to the Bruery's Smoking Wood, then to Fulton War and Peace.  All good beers, except perhaps for the overly oxidized and chunky 2003 vintage.  Then, realizing I had a captive audience who would appreciate a special beer I pressed them all into helping out with A Whale A Week!  Included were Anna, John, and Brian.  Sj missed this one since she was off galivanting on a cruise.

Poured into four Belgian chalice glasses we shared this beer and each wrote down our impressions before discussing.  For background: I'm a National ranked BJCP judge.  Anna is a seasoned brew-in-bag all-grain brewer.  Brian is also a homebrewer and has won awards for his beer (but doesn't brew enough these days).  John is a seasoned beer drinker and apparently is very good at describing beers…

The angel sneaking a sip at the brewery...

Eric: Strong Bourbon booziness and sweet vanilla.  Very malty and caramel-like.  Plenty of alcohol even on the nose.  Smells like it will be overly sweet.
Anna: Faint.  Caramelly and rich.
Brian: Fruity, (date/raisin/prune/fig?)
John: Light Scotchy, warm, malt.

Appearance (combined):
Brown or caramel color.  Hazy or cloudy.  Dirty brown.  Not overly pretty.  Tan head that fades fairly quickly.

Eric: Strongly flavored beer.  Sweetness is dominant, but not cloying--this is actually well balanced.  Vanilla is strong, as is caramel and toffee.  Alcohol certainly present, but pleasantly warming and not "hot".  Dark cherry and prune as it warms up more.  Slight oxidation--more like a nice sherry than cardboard.  Carbonation is better than I expected from the head.  Body is thick and mouth coating, but not syrupy.
Anna: Incredibly well balanced.  No acidity.  No burn.
Brian: The same fruits as in the aroma.  Sweet but not syrupy.  Warm, but no burn.
John: Very balanced malt.  Hint of sweet Scotch.  Incredibly balanced.

Eric: So smooth!  This is a perfectly melded aged beer and makes me happy I held onto it for so long.  I will call this Booze Candy!  5/5
Anna: Hello Mr. Barry White...'cause this beer is smooth!  Lingers nicely. 5/5
Brian: Wonderful and very smooth. 5/5
John: A wonderfully well balanced and proportioned beer.  The sweet Scotch hits early and softly, quickly balanced by an exceptional malt taste.  Like a grown-up malt shop.  Brought a smile to my face! 5/5

So there you go!  Everyone picked up pretty similar aromas and flavors in this beer and to all of us it was incredibly well balanced.  We all gave it the top score and I think this is one of the best beers I've had so far this year.  I apologize to my wife for drinking this without her, but she was off drinking fruity fruity cruise drinks and left me to my own devices…

Fancy photo work...
According to Princess Anna: If this beer was a person, it would be Barry White....

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Photo Challenge #13: Ortonize It!

After playing along with Erin's 30 Word Thursday weekly challenge on her Treasures Found Blog for the past year I have finally taken the plunge and started taking photography more seriously.  Starting with my iPhone, I soon found that the limitations of that device were getting to me.  Upgrading to a Cannon Eos Digital Rebel SL1 camera, I've started experimenting more with technique.  I have also invested in Photoshop Elements 12 and most of my post-production on photos will be from that program.  As a way to force myself to try new things, I'm doing a weekly photo challenge--each week focusing on a different photography or editing technique.  Some of these may be simple and others more difficult.  I encourage any of my readers to take part in the challenge! 

This week we will be working with The Orton Effect!  This is a technique originated by Michael Orton in the 1980's where he would sandwich two slides together--one in sharp focus and the other underexposed.  This process results in a strange and possibly dreamy or trippy effect.  Nowadays most photo editing programs can do this easily.  The trick is to find the right picture to use this on.

So here is the original photo.  I took this at Rochefort Abbey in Belgium.  We had a wonderful French/Belgian lunch in town paired with the heavenly Rochefort 6, 8, and 10 beers made just around the corner from where this shot was taken.  This was a special holiday in Belgium and the place was completely deserted.  I'm not entirely sure if we were "allowed" into this little church, but since no one was there to tell us no, we quietly and quickly entered and took some pictures.  The entire place was so peaceful and quiet that one felt like whispering.

Here is the same shot (straitened slightly) with the Orton Effect added.  The slight blur adds a dreamy effect that actually brings across the feel we had when we were on the grounds.  I like how bright colors in this effect will bleed outside their boundaries a bit: see the red from the leaves on the right side of the shot.  My wife really dislikes when I mess with photos like this (she's a photo-realistic gal) so this one goes out to her!

Next up, from the same trip, but in The Netherlands, we have the world's dirtiest swan.  This photo session was actually only the second time I had really used my camera, so I had no clue when it came to lighting, settings, etc.  It was also overcast and intermittently raining on that day, but every once in a while the sun would peak out.

For this shot I used the Orton Effect to cut the somewhat harsh look of the photo!

For next week I'm going to try using the Liquify Filter from Photoshop Elements.  I get the magazine Photo Elements Techniques bimonthly and the first article this month demonstrates using this why not!  With this filter you can Warp, Twirl, Pucker, Bloat, and Shift Pixels.  I'll either pick out one photo to demonstrate, or look for particular shots that would benefit from this effect.  Liquify can give some cool fun-house effects, but can also be used more sparingly to edit photos.  You know which tack I'm going to take!