Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Whale A Week: Firestone Walker 16th Anniversary

This time on A Whale A Week, we break out a special Anniversary beer from California's Firestone Walker Brewery.  I've been a huge fan of this brewery for years, but alas, distribution into Minnesota is still a no-go.  I've really liked every beer I've tried from the brewery.

In 2006 the brewery put out their 10th anniversary beer, a strong ale aged in barrels.  Since then, taking a cue from the local wine makers, they've started a program of blending several different batches of their strong ales into a special anniversary release.  The bottle I had was from their 16th anniversary and was brought back for me by Rob Wengler when he went to the release event.  For this batch they blended 226 barrels of 8 different beers into the final blend.  The brewery hosts a small group of local winemakers in to help them out with the beer blending!  The final product for this year is 13% ABV.  It has a rating of 95 on Beer Advocate and 100 on Rate Beer.  Here is the very complete info from the website:

The following are descriptions of key components with their original code names:
Velvet Merkin (8.7% ABV)  - Aged in Bourbon barrels 
 -Traditional Oatmeal Stout (23% of final blend)
 OG= 15P FG=5.5 IBU=32.5 Color= Black / 15% Oats / Hopped with 100% US grown Fuggles

Stickee Monkee (12.5% ABV) - Aged in Bourbon and Brandy barrels
 -English Barley Wine (22.5% of final blend)
OG=27P FG=5.4P IBU=45  Color=28 / Brewed with Mexican Turbinado (Brown) sugar

Double Double Barrel Ale (14.2% ABV) - Aged 100% in retired Firestone Union barrels
-Double strength English Pale Ale (20.3% of final blend)
OG=25.0P FG=5.1P IBU=30 Color=16 / A Double version of our flagship created by Ali Razi

Parabola (13% ABV) - Aged in Bourbon barrels
-Russian Imperial Oatmeal Stout (10.8% of final blend)                                                                                                
OG=31P FG=8.5P IBU=80  Color=Black / Hopped with Simcoe, Bravo, Styrian Golding and East Kent Golding

PNC (13.0% ABV) - Aged in Tequila barrels 
-American Strong Buckwheat Stout (8.1% of final blend)
OG = 25P FG = 5.0P IBU = 80 Color = 100 / Brewed with Buckwheat

Helldorado (11.5% ABV) - Aged in Bourbon Barrels and Brandy barrels
-Blonde Barley Wine (5.4% of final blend)
 OG=24.7P FG=4.5P IBU=24 Color = 8 / Brewed with buckwheat honey & 100% El Dorado hops

Bravo (13.4% ABV) - Aged in Bourbon and Brandy barrels
-Imperial Brown Ale (5.4% of final blend)
OG=26.5 FG=7.7 IBU=35 Color=32 / Hopped with 100% US grown Fuggles

Wookey Jack (8.3% ABV)- 100% Fresh, Dank & Hoppy 100% Stainless Steel 
-Black Rye India Pale Ale (4.5% of final blend)
OG= 18P FG = 3.0P IBU = 80 Color =black  / Extremely hoppy double dry hopped BIPA

For this tasting I had over Toby Schneider, a local craft beer enthusiast previously of the beer-crazy Pacific Northwest.  He is also the owner of LocalBrewSwag, a new company aimed at partnering with local breweries to produce brand-related swag using a co-op model, as well as social media marketing.  As always, my wife Sj was in the background making jewelry, drinking the beer, and making salty comments.

Firestone Walker 16th Anniversary

Aroma: (In which Toby tries his hand at describing beer aroma.)

Eric: Deep toffee and caramelized sugars (dark brown, demerara, molasses).  Sweet alcohol leading to a nasal tingle.  Mild oxidation (paper/wood).  Very little hop aroma.
Toby: Coffee.  High alcohol.

Appearance: (In which Toby sees a disturbing vision of Jason's mask in his bubbles...)

Eric: Deep brown in color--darker than copper.  Very fine off-white head that fades rapidly to almost nothing.  Slightly murky.
Toby: Iced coffee.  Hazy, clearer at top.  Looks dense.  Mahogany color.  Looks like Jason...

Flavor: (In which Toby gets more stout and I get more barleywine.)

Eric: Much like aroma--sweet toffee and crust from a nice creme brulee.  Vanilla is strong at first as well.  Has some bitterness and roast to balance the sweetness though.  Hint of licorice root.  Mouthfeel medium--not as thick as expected.  Mild oxidation flavors as it warms up of oak, paper, raisins.  Alcohol warming is pleasant.  Has a dry, almost chalky finish.  Minimal hop flavors.
Toby: Stout.  Chocolate, coffee.  Sweet.  Chalky.


Eric: Very different from previous tasting over a year ago.  At that time this reminded me more of a complex DIPA and now much more like an aged English Barleywine. Very complex and tasty! 4.5
Toby: 4
Sj: Licorice flavors don't belong in beer.  3.75

Overall Rating: 4.083

It was interesting looking at the blend information after tasting the beer.  I got much more of the Barleywine (Stickee Monkee, Helldorado) when I was tasting this, while Toby picked up much more stout character (Merkin, Parabola, PNC.)

Photo details: For this picture I took a shot of the empty bottle label, then cropped most of the rest of the shot out.  I struggled with what to do in this photo since anniversary numbers weren't very exciting to me, then I realized I could play off the lion and bear Firestone Walker seal.  I superimposed a picture of a stone lion to the upper left.  Next step I took a macro shot of a toy bear and superimposed that on the right upper side.  Done!

Monday, September 28, 2015

J. Carver Distillery Review

Way back in August of 2014 I wrote up a short piece in this blog about J. Carver Distillery that you can check out HERE.  At the time I got a short tour from Bill Miller and Gina Holman, and was very excited about what they had planned.  They had just put in the dark wood bar, and had received their fermenters, but still had a lot of work to do on the place.

Fast forward to now and they've been up and running for some time, with spirits for sale around the Twin Cities.  There was some delay in having taproom hours due to some complicated old national and local laws about samples of spirits and I had wondered if they would ever get to open it!  Happily though, they just recently opened up the tasting room to the public and it was finally time for my wife (Sj) and I to get out there to check it out.  The distillery building is in an old auto dealership just a short mile from my house, making this an easy commute!

The industrial front of the building certainly hearkens back to its previous life, but now you can see the coppery glow of the stills through the large glass windows, beckoning one in to see what wonders lurk within.  The new taproom is well-lit but still intimate.  The long bar is immaculate with rows of shiny beautiful bottles and mirrors on the walls behind.  Gina was at the bar when we arrived and greeted us warmly as always, making us feel immediately at home.  The feel of the place is very different from the other local bars and watering holes, with the upscale and classy look of a cocktail bar.  We had signed up online for one of the tours, which costs $10 per person and takes about 35-40 minutes.  Part of the tour price includes either a taster of three spirits or a cocktail.  Gina quickly built some fancy cocktails for us to have in hand during our tour around the building, crafting them with speed, grace, and skill.  I ended up with a tasty Gin Old Fashioned (made with their barrel aged gin, rosemary scented honey, and vanilla cherry bark bitters.)

Cocktails in hand, we met up with Dan Niesen (one of the distillers) who took us all over the distillery to explore the nooks and crannies.  It was fun to see the whole process from local grains to the glass in my hand.  They do truly try to source most of their ingredients as local as possible--Dan seemed needlessly apologetic that some of their rye came from a little farther away (but still in Minnesota!)  They're also making good contacts with suppliers of local produce for some of their other products like grappa in collaboration with Waconia's Sovereign Estate Winery.  I'll admit I didn't love the grappa, but I'm more of a bourbon or Scotch kind of guy.

J. Carver's pot still

During the tour we got to ogle the three stills that they have for different projects.  I especially like the tiny experimental still that they use to do smaller batches without risking a much larger batch not turning out.  This can also come in handy if they get access to a smaller amount of a local fruit or other fermentable.  Dan took us through the whole process and really gave us a great tour!

We also got to check out the growing barrel room where whiskeys and gins are aging in climate controlled hibernation, becoming much more than the base spirits they began life as.  I'm excited about when those whiskeys come to fruition!  Already, the barrel aged J. Carver Gin is a treat--mixing the herbal spicing of a gin with the tannin, structure, and complexity of time in a barrel.

Tour over and drinks empty, we returned to the tasting room.  The place had filled in a lot since we left, now bustling with other folks dropping in for a drink or tour.  We found a high-top table in a corner where we would sample the other spirits.  Each of us had three coming, so by sharing we got to try most of the available products.  It was cool getting to test these, but other than bourbons, I'm not used to sipping hard liquor straight, so this was a little challenging.  Our favorites were the Barrel Gin and Grimm's Farm Gin.  The vodkas were OK, but like I said, I'm not used to straight up vodka, so this was difficult to judge.

One can buy a 375 ML bottle at the distillery, or they can send you with a one-day-only coupon for a discount at one of our local liquor stores.  Sj and I ended up taking our coupon to Legacy Wine & Spirits in Waconia to buy bottles of the Barrel Gin and the Grimm Farm Ultra-Premium Gin.  Time to get working on some cocktails at home!

I'm excited about what these guys are doing right in my own backyard.  With the addition of three wineries, two breweries (Waconia and Schram), and now a distillery, Waconia is really starting to become a destination for craft alcoholic beverages.  No longer do I need to drive to Northeast Minneapolis to try out something unique and local!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Whale A Week: Toppling Goliath Assassin

This time on A Whale A Week we take a look at one of the most popular breweries in the country. The rapid rise of Toppling Goliath, a small brewery in the equally small Iowa town of Decorah, has been nothing less than amazing over the past few years.  They have become the poster child for the Midwest craft beer explosion.  Known initially for their Pseudo Sue Pale Ale (really a tropical fruit bomb IPA) they have continued to innovate and gain traction in the beer scene.  I'll admit that was one of the best beers I tried last year and was sold on their brewing chops.

Earlier this year there was some controversy around the brewery when the head brewer left and the brewery moved a large portion of it's production out of Iowa and into Florida. They ran several one-off beers during that time that some of us viewed as being possible mistakes in trying to reproduce their core beers.  The brewer has since returned and things seem back on track.  However, I will say that the Pseudo Sue I've tried from Florida is not as good as that I had in the past.  I'd take a Surly Todd The Axe Man over it for sure.

Toppling Goliath Assassin 2013

Moving on to the beer in question. Per the website information:
After endless hours of scorching in heat, brewing in turmoil, fermenting in angst, the Assassin’s journey has just begun. In the shadow of the temple, he lies in wait, maturing his plot to perfection. He emerges merciless, dominated by darkness, his bite laced with the charred remnants of his victims. No man dares to cross his path. They will forever sleep with one eye open, in fear of the Assassin’s hot kiss of death.

I believe the first version of this beer released in 2012, with 2013 being the second in the series.  I've seen this going on the black market for upwards of $200.  The beer is a Russian Imperial Stout aged in rye whiskey barrels.  Beer Advocate gives this a 99 and 100 on RateBeer.  I got my bottle from good friend Jason Tuttle, who went to the special release at the brewery to pick up the bottles.  Thanks man!

For this tasting I had over the BeerDust crew.  The bottle is wax dipped, ABV 12.8%.  Poured into Steel Toe and Surly snifter glasses.
Me: BJCP judge, beer geek, amateur photographer.
Keith Brady: Our resident scientist, brewer and winner of MN State Fair Blue Ribbon in IPA this year! An Iowan native.
Mike Lebben: Brewer, small business enthusiast.
Sj: My wife and beer-taster.

Aroma: (In which we are transported to a place where s'mores are made over a warm fire.)

Eric: Thick malty sweetness.  Chocolate--dark and rich.  Mild vanilla and cinnamon.  Roastiness present but more subtle than expected--more like a coffee and espresso aroma.  Whiskey notes for sure and some alcohol.  No hops.  Has a red wine or fortified wine character as it warms up.  Aromas blend nicely.
Mike: Bourbon, vanilla, raisin, chocolate.  Smells like it will be awesome.
Keith: Dark chocolate, prunes, port.  Subtle bourbon barrel.  Slight cherry.

Appearance: (In which we gaze into the Abyss.)

Eric: Black as anything.  Completely opaque.  Very very small deep tan head that fades to nothing quickly.  Looks like oil.  Black Blood of the Earth.  Small legs on edge of glass.
Mike: Dark roasted coffee color with lacy brown head.
Keith: Black hole-ish.  Low lace carbonation.

Flavor:  (In which we taste a range of dessert-like flavors.)

Eric: Powerful prune and raisin oatmeal cookie flavors.  Vanilla strong right away.  Mild tart zing like a sour dried cherry.  Dark chocolate covered pomegranate seeds!  Tannic bite at end that dries out the beer slightly.  Mouthfeel creamy and thick like a milkshake.  Alcohol present and warming but a mellow glow rather than a burn.  No real hop flavors.  Gets sweeter as it warms.  Carbonation higher than expected from appearance.  Complex and well-aged.
Mike: Warm chocolate taste with marshmallow fluff mouthfeel.
Keith: Tastes like diet Utopias.  Chocolate syrup.  Big mouthfeel.  Roasted marshmallow.  Medium hop bitterness.

Overall: (Where we lament not drinking this sooner...)

Eric: Well aged beer.  Some oxidation resulting in dark fruit.  Pleasant and easy drinking high alcohol beer.  Wonderful right now, but I would hesitate to age it longer. It's glory has faded a bit since I tried it last year. 4.5
Mike: I typically share bottles of barrel aged Imperial stouts because of next-day headaches.  I could drink this whole bottle and look forward to the headache as a reminder of how great this beer is. 5
Keith: Hoppier/more bitter than I remember, but in a good way.  Massive chocolate, bourbon, syrup.  A sipper.  Dried fruit with cream.  It is a great beer but not as good as the last time we tried it.  Not like it was brewed in Florida or anything...4.5
Sj: Super sweet--like someone just poured a little Hershey's syrup into it. 4.5

Overall Score: 4.625

I do love this beer and hope to try another vintage at some point.  I'm also jonesing to try their Mornin' Delight coffee RIS if anyone would like to share!

Photo Details: For this shot I set up in a dark area of the basement with only a small side light.  I set a long 15 second exposure and then slowly moved a sword through the shot. I had to try this many times to get it looking good.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Photo Challenge Week 38: S-Curve

A short one this week--but I'm getting this out in time for once!  The weekly mission was to take a photo utilizing or showcasing the S-Curve.  So far I've seen folks use terrain (twisty roads, rivers, etc) and also s-shaped items.

This week I took down my trusty saber and made good use of it's S shaped hilt and guard.  I'll be wearing this around in a couple of weeks when I'm at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival judging beers for Byggvir's Big Beer Cup!

I went dark and contrasty on this shot.  I wanted the reflective curve of the guard to be highlighted against a darker background.  Initially I took this directly on the floor but the angle wasn't right and I added my copy of Lord Of The Rings as a prop.  The color photo shows off the bright red leather of the book well, but it draws attention from sword itself. I took this in a ray of afternoon sun coming into the dining room (I had to roust my lovely cat Willow from this choice spot).  I added a bit of vignette around the edges as well to focus attention into the center.  I'm just learning so any feedback is helpful!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Photo Challenge: Macro Plastic

This week's challenge is to take macro (close up) pictures of something made of plastic.  The idea is to take something common-place that we would normally not notice and see what it looks like blown up and close.

I took a little walk-through of my home and discovered that I have many plastic toys, trinkets, etc. sitting around on my copious shelves.  So I gathered a handful of these pocket-sized models and got to work taking some portraits!

First up was my model of Brandon Lee as The Crow.  This was one of my favorite movies (and graphic novels as well) during my college years and I've been hanging onto this little trinket since then.   I did my best to get his face in some shadow during the shoot.  I changed the tint to a blue cast to match that of the movie, then added a vignette to focus more on the face.  I think it turned out pretty good considering it this guy's face is about a half-inch in size.

Next up is a plastic miniature of a mummy.  I painted this little inch-tall fellow when I was about 15 years old.  Mostly these old miniatures were for playing Warhammer tabletop battles, and they now sit in boxes or in a small display case on my study wall.  I miss the days when I had time to do this intricate work and then spend 8 hours with friends trying to get through a whole game...

Here's a size reference picture...

Next I pulled out my old dice bag from decades of playing Dungeons & Dragons and many more role-playing games.  I don't get much use for these anymore, but can't get rid of them.  This was a good excuse to put them on display again!  These little bits of plastic and I have been through many a vicious battle with dragons, werewolves, and more…

And last but not least was to showcase the new meeples I ordered for the amazing board game Lords Of Waterdeep.  The game was designed in part by my old schoolmate Peter Lee and is one of the most fun games I've played in years.  You should buy it now.  In an attempt to be a little more like the European board games, the player's hirelings (wizards, clerics, rogues, fighters) are represented by different colored wooden tokens--usually called "meeples" by gamers.  Nothing says "fighter" like an orange block!  My wife refuses to call them by name and instead calls them carrots.  So I purchased a pack of tiny meeples shaped like the characters!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A Whale A Week: The Bruery's Chocolate Rain 2013

The Bruery has been bringing amazing craft beer to Orange County, California (known as a beer wasteland for years compared to the Bay area and San Diego) since 2008.  They are known for smaller batch and experimental beers and are much sought-out in the beer trading community.  The Bruery is probably known most for their annual release Black Tuesday, a barrel aged Russian Imperial stout that is destined for a future A Whale A Week entry of its own.  Chocolate Rain began (I think) in 2009 at the brewery as a one-off version of Black Tuesday with vanilla beans and San Francisco based TCHO Chocolate cocoa nibs. The beer first released in bottle 2011 after it had already gained a huge cult following by beer geeks.  Currently they take a select few of their barrels of bourbon aged Imperial stout, age them with the above ingredients for several months, and then blend them to get the final Chocolate Rain.  The beer has a rating of 96 on Beer Advocate and a solid 100 on RateBeer.  The 2013 vintage has an ABV of a whopping 18%!

My memory is hazy of when I first tried this beer (perhaps because of the 18%) was either with Andrew Gieseke or Rob Wengler--I know we tried it with both of them at some point. My wife and I both fell in love with the beer immediately.  The Bruery is not distributed here in Minnesota, but Andrew was a member of their Reserve Society--allowing members to get first crack at their rare beers--however that requires that you have a mule to pick them up and send them to you!  I later accumulated a couple of bottles in a bulk cellar buy from a cool local guy with a crazy amount of rare beers that he had to pare down.

Sj and I did a chance to get to The Bruery's taproom in Placentia (not placenta) California when we went on our anniversary trip to Disneyland last year.  That place is insane with at least 20-30 of their own beers on tap and even more in bottle.  We were glad we took a cab so we didn't have to drive back.  Though apparently none of the local cab companies could find us, since it took about an hour to finally get out of that place!  There are worse places to be stuck.  We brought back a whole case of bottles for later use...  It pays to travel with an empty wine shipper!

For this particular A Whale A Week tasting I finally had my friend Garret Davis over to the bar.  This one was on his list of untasted whales and I felt it was time to share the wonder that is Chocolate Rain--as it was once shared with us.  Garret is a homebrewer and Jack Of All Brews member, known for his love of IPA.  He was kind enough to share a Sixpoint Resin double IPA with me that was stellar!  Sj wanted no part of that hoppy beast.  Breaking open the thick wax easily with my Hopsecutioner opener (thanks Martin!), I then poured this into snifter glasses.

Chocolate Rain 2013


Eric: High alcohol, vanilla, and chocolate are all right up front and in your face!  Light wood char.  Very sweet smelling.  Notes of wood or oxidation as it warms (paper, oak.)  Lots and lots of bourbon.
Garret: Chocolate.  Rubbing alcohol.  Bourbon.  Vanilla.


Eric: Very dark brown, but not black.  Fine light tan head that fades quickly.  Slight copper glow when held to light.
Garret: Reddish/black.


Eric: Crazy powerful sweetness!  Vanilla is very strong and amazing--accentuating the sweet flavors.  Not much malt flavor to this--more like a honey and booze sweetness.  Strong bourbon notes.  Lots of alcohol warming, but not quite a full burn.  Chocolate comes in after a few sips when the palate gets used to the vanilla and bourbon but is subtle.  Raisin as it warms up.  Almond or cherry pit flavors at finish.  Mouthfeel is thick and almost syrupy, but carbonation is high enough to even it out a bit.
Garret: Cinnamon, brown sugar.  Very sweet, sticky.  Thick and oily mouthfeel.


Eric: Incredibly sweet and boozy.  Not as chocolate-forward as I remember it.  Complex beer and borders on cloying but just barely misses that spot.  I feel a bit like going to bed now.  Would love to sip this under a starry night by a fire pit in the fall.  4.5
Garret: Delicious!  Very boozy, but I would not change a thing! 4.75
Sarajo: Sooo super sweet and delicious.  I love to drink dessert.  4.5

Overall Score: 4.58

Yup, this one is tasty!  This is a beer to share for sure, since I can't imagine drinking more than a snifter of it.

And for an added Easter egg here is your moment of Chocolate Rain by Tay Zonday:

Photo details:  For this shot I took a photo of the bottle label, then another shot of a cluster of packaged chocolates, then superimposed them using Photoshop Elements.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Bang! Brewery of Few Words, Many Beers

On a recent trip to St. Paul (someplace I don't tend to visit often) I finally had a chance to visit Bang Brewing.  I first went to Urban Growler Brewery since they serve food and I was famished, but then discovered that Bang was only about 50 feet away!  Of course in the time it took me to eat my lunch and have a half-pint of beer the skies had decided to dump a ton of cool and heavy rain upon me.  I ran across the intervening distance, becoming drenched with rainfall, to the circular metal silo building, unsure if they were even open, or where the entrance was located.

Eventually finding the entrance on the opposite side from which I was scrambling, I dove into the shelter provided.  The brewery is simply one large circular open space, with the brewing equipment and fermenters located along the external wall.  A very small stainless steel bar seating 7 was arranged near the center of the building, with a glass-ware washing station and taps behind it.  A portion of the building behind the bar was walled off (covered with an attractive mix of reclaimed woods), featuring a tiny bathroom and probably hiding much of the brewing gear.  Everything (minus the wooden wall) within the space was of bright, reflective metallic tones.  A scattering of 14 camp stools in the center of the space provided some seating for patrons.  Despite the weather, the place was fairly crowded and vibrant with activity.  Americana and country music played over hidden speakers, accentuating the fact that we were drinking beer in a 42 foot diameter metal grain bin!

I made myself a spot at the end of the bar for a closer look at the process.  I dripped more water onto the shining surface of the bar to join condensation rings from freshly poured cold pints.  The owners, Jay and Sandy Febbo, were serving at the bar, cleaning glasses, changing kegs, and everything else that needed to be done.  This is a two person show.  After talking to Sandy and discovering that little gem of information, several of the questions I'd come up with prior to the visit were answered.  No wonder they are only open Friday and Saturdays!  With only two people to do everything needed to run a brewery and taproom on a commercial scale, I totally understand the slow/relaxed style and vibe of the brewery.  They have a 10 barrel brewing system which is fairly small in the grand scheme of things, but not minuscule.  They do provide beers to about 10 or 11 draft accounts--mostly upscale eateries like Heartland, Tongue in Cheek, and Ngon Bistro.  The brewery uses only organic ingredients and they seem happy to take a small niche within an already small niche market of craft beer.

But what about the beers?  When I sat down I asked about samplers.  Sandy was happy to give me samples of the beers, but served (a small splash) in full pint glasses--I hadn't realized that they didn't really have a "sampler tray" of the beers.  I appreciate getting to try them all though!

1) Neat--Described as a sparkling bitter, this was a tad unbalanced to the bitter side for me, but still good.  They also serve up Bloody Neat with organic heirloom tomato juice for that bloody Mary vibe.

2) Dave--An American lager brewed in collaboration with Dave's Brewfarm.  This had a sulfury lager note that concerned me, but also a strangely pleasing and crisp finish that I enjoyed.

3) Good--A well named and humble beer!  4.2% ABV, 42 IBU.  Somewhere between and English bitter and an American pale ale, I found this very drinkable.

4) Nice--STP Dark Ale.  This was my first choice but was crossed off the list when I first entered the taproom.  Jay came out of the back a bit later, poured one, tasted it, then started pouring for folks.  I ordered a short pour of the version with cold press coffee added.  I found it to be very roasty and just the pick-me-up I needed on this dark and stormy day.  I would like a hint less bitterness and more body to be perfect, but still a very good beer.

5) Boss--Hoppy Strong Ale.  Well described, this one was very hoppy and bitter, a bit out of balance for me.  Not really a classic IPA or DIPA though--something in its own class.

Overall, I was more impressed with the beers than I had expected to be.  There was certainly a house style--most things were fairly dry and perhaps a bit high on the IBU scale.  However, everything was cleanly fermented and no major flaws jumped out at me.  By personal taste my favorite was the Nice.  I also appreciate the concise nomenclature and lack of pretentiousness in the beers.

One thing I noticed during my lurking at the bar was that the owners were actually having a good time, not just working and selling beers.  They were really enjoying talking to people and providing folks with the fruits of their labors.  This is a small brewery and taproom that seems to have a relaxed and comfortable personality.  Organic without being militant or tree-hugging-love-fest.  Fun without being forced.  The one thing I might recommend to the owners would be working a bit on the marketing side--perhaps a more robust website and more swag for us consumers to buy.

I would highly recommend checking out the place.  Bang is certainly one of the most interesting taprooms you are likely to see and the beers are worth trying.  Make a Friday or Saturday afternoon of it and visit Urban Growler as well--there's room enough for both places on your schedule!

The view from below!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Photo Challenge: Architecture Religious/Church

This week's challenge was to take a picture of a church or place of worship, since so many of these places have interesting architecture.  The goal was to try including the entire church in the shot to show off the whole building.

I've actually been eyeing this tiny church along my route into the Twin Cities for well over 2 years--even before I bought my first "real" camera.  Picturesque, old, and yet immaculately kept, this tiny church building just sparked something in my brain.  I've been meaning to stop and take pictures for some time, but just never got around to it.  This challenge was the perfect excuse to actually head over and try it.  There is only a one way small rutted track into the grounds which winds behind the church and into the graveyard behind it, eventually heading you back out the way you came.  When I first arrived a couple was visiting a grave-site and I respectfully held back until they were done before lugging out my tripod and camera.

The morning had been overcast and ominous clouds hung in the sky, but by the time I had set up my camera, the clouds had mellowed and a deep blue took over.  I had planned on a creepier, moody feel but ended up with a positive and classic shot.  I took photos from several angles, including some of the remarkable gravestones behind the building.

Coming home I did a little research on the building itself via the Carver County Historical Society.  This is the Zoar Moravian Church and Cemetery, built in 1863.  The Zoar congregation disbanded in the 1940's, many moving to the Waconia Moravian Church which then took over the upkeep of the building and cemetery.  They do still use the church building for special services.

I ended up trying a new technique (for me anyway) of opening up three versions of a RAW file (one well exposed, one over by 2 stops, and the last under by 2 stops).  I combined these three to get a sort of ghetto HDR effect where you get a more balanced picture with a good mix of highlight and shadow.  I tried to do separate shots to combine but the wind made the composite slightly blurred and the flapping flag looked very odd.  I thought about cropping this a bit to focus more on the church but I liked the graveyard and the clouds too much to cut them out.

Here is a close-up on the steeple from an odd angle.

And a close-up on some lichen atop one of the older grave markers.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Whale A Week: Central Waters Fifteen

Last week we covered Olde Hickory's The Event Horizon as a tasty barrel aged Imperial stout.  This week we move back to the Midwest for a special release from Central Waters Brewing Company.

Central Waters is a fixture in the Wisconsin brew scene since the late 1990's, growing steadily and building a strong reputation for good craft beers.  I'll be honest, when they first started distributing in Minnesota a few years ago I was not impressed with their basic beer line-up.  People kept telling me how amazing the beers were, but all the ones I had tried were merely OK.  What I didn't realize until much later was that most of my beer-freak friends were really talking about Central Waters' barrel aged series.  Once I got a taste of their Peruvian Breakfast Stout I was sold on them.  My wife and I were able to get to a Central Waters beer dinner at The Happy Gnome earlier this year and were blown away by the fact that all but one beer they served us was a special release.  Oh and the food was awesome as always!

On to today's brew!  I managed to get a bottle of Fifteen in a large cellar buy-out about 2 years ago.  Brewed for their 15th anniversary in 2013, this beer is a big Imperial stout aged for 26 months in 14 year old bourbon barrels (I believe Heaven Hill).  ABV is about 11%.  Beer Advocate places this at 94, and RateBeer at 99.  I was excited to get to try this beast after loving the 17 we got to try at that beer dinner.

For this whale tasting I had a few friends over.  The bomber bottle was 2013 vintage and served into snifters.  This week's panel was:

1) Me--BJCP judge, beer geek, actual geek, fan of bourbon.

2) David Grilli--Award winning homebrewer, member of the Primary Fermenter's brewclub, also a geek involved in the D&D podcast 20-Sided Death: check it on iTunes HERE.

3) Mike Lebben--A Whale A Week alumni back for more!  Winner of a blue ribbon at MN State fair, part-owner of BeerDust.


Aroma: (In which we smell booze...)

Eric: Mild bourbon and vanilla.  Light roast coffee.  Some sweetness and a burn of alcohol on deep inhalation.  Not a ton going on in the aroma.
David: Boozy, whisky aroma.  Not pungent.  Slightly malty.  A tad bit of smoke or char?
Mike: Booze, hot liquor.

Appearance: (In which we all wish for more head...)

Eric: Dark brown--not as dark as most RIS.  Not opaque, but slightly cloudy.  Very little mid-tan head that fades quickly (whisky will do that to you...)  No legs on glass.
David: No head retention.  Brown in color and opaque.  No lacing.
Mike: No head.

Flavor: (In which we burn out our taste buds on hot hooch.)

Eric: Strong boozy bourbon hits you in the mouth violently.  This eventually fades to a sweet marshmallow and vanilla flavor.  Powerful alcohol warming that is almost as strong as actually sipping a fine bourbon neat.  Burns going down and clears the sinuses.  Not a lot of roast and coffee.  Body seems thinner that expected, possibly from the high alcohol.  Carbonation is actually a bit high, but no head retention.  Some tannins add complexity but also a bit of astringency.  Unbalanced.
David: Thick, woody char, vanilla, bourbon up front.  Alcohol hotness.  Sharp toffee.
Mike: GASP--HOT BOOZE.  Vanilla, dried plum.  Highly carbonated with small bubbles.

Overall: (In which we are all a bit disappointed.)

Eric: Just not a complex beer--one note of hot booze.  This seems almost like a flavored bourbon rather than a bourbon flavored beer.  The elements that make a Russian Imperial stout are overwhelmed (roast, chocolate, coffee.)  Booze.  Booze.  More Booze!  Just too hot.  I think this spent too much time in the barrels.  3
David: Needs more time to age.  Solventy, alcohol warmth and strong bourbon, vanilla flavor--not balanced with the roast malt. 3
Mike: Boozy. 3

Overall Score: 3

So we really didn't love this one.  Too bad, but glad I shared it and wasn't the only one who thought it was not stellar.  I do have a 16 in the cellar for a later A Whale A Week and hopefully it fares better!  David was kind enough to serve us a bottle of his MN State Fair ribbon winning Aberrant Russian Imperial Stout on this visit--It was one of the best things we tried all night!

Next up:  Chocolate Rain!

Photo Details: This week I was a little stumped on what to do that would be fun for the fairly plain-brown-wrapper appearance of the bottle label for 15.  I ended up superimposing a shot of a calm river in Belgium and then inverting the image for a funky and more interesting effect.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

PhotoChallenge Long Exposure

Last week's official (Week 35) was to take a long exposure outdoors and attempt to add a "ghost" to it.  This was a fun challenge and forced me to try something new, but I had very mixed results with my outdoor shots.  In order to do this technique one must have the shutter open for at least 10 seconds.  In the daylight, even with my aperture as tiny as I could get it and an ISO of 100, I ended up with washed out white mess as a result--even on a very overcast day.  To really do this outside I discovered that you should use an ND filter which will darken the whole shot and let you have longer shutter speeds--also useful for taking pics of waterfalls.  I didn't have a chance to buy one, but I'll probably do so the next time I get to National Camera.  Another method would be to take this at night or dusk, but just about every evening I was free this week it was raining or very windy--causing motion blur of my background greenery.

I gave up and tried it indoors at the last minute.  I set up my tripod in the basement aimed at my bar, then sat down in the shot.  Starting with a glass of homebrew up to my lips, I triggered the remote for my camera and waited 5 seconds.  Then rapidly, I set down the beer and dove out of the shot…letting the last 5 seconds of the exposure tick down.  The result was pretty cool, but required several attempts to get it right.  My wife--calmly making jewelry at the nearby table--would just shake her head and continue to work.

The resulting picture was cool, but I wanted more style.  In Photoshop Elements I altered the hue to a sepia effect.  Then, to add more old-timey texture to the shot, I added a new and partially transparent layer of a shot of rust on a staircase that I took in North Carolina earlier this summer.

And the final effect is this:

A cool old-fashioned picture of ghostly me drinking at the bar!  So there you go, hopefully you like it.

Next week's challenge is to take a picture of a church or place of worship.  I've already been working on this one so stay tuned.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Photo Challenge: Odd Numbers

Earlier this year I set myself the goal of doing a photography challenge every week to push myself a bit further with my budding photography and photo editing skills.  I did a great job until we took a couple of trips and I fell behind.  I've been finding myself searching for new things to try and not resting on my laurels.  I recently discovered which is a weekly challenge to try new things.  I like the idea a lot and there are certainly new techniques to try out.  However, some of the challenges are very specific (pictures of a state animal/bird comes to mind) or require special equipment I don't have yet.  So I'll be taking part in some of these, but not all.  I'm going to try to do something else on the off weeks just to keep myself trying new things.  For those who read my blog purely for my beer/homebrew postings and don't like photography, you can just skip on to my next beer posting!

Last week's challenge was to break the mold of even numbered subjects.  The eye tends to find even numbers to be more pleasing and organized so classic paintings and photos tend to group things/people in this way.  But rules were made to be broken right?

My attempt at this was to take this picture of three dead flowers at the MN Landscape Arboretum.  I took plenty of pictures of pretty flowers as well, but this one just jumped out as a sign of impending fall.  As Ned Stark would say: "Winter is coming."

For this shot I chose to focus on the middle flower, leaving the other two partially out of focus in the fore and background.

So there you go!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Whale A Week: Olde Hickory's The Event Horizon

Olde Hickory Brewing

For this A Whale A Week tasting we head to The South, for a rare beer from North Carolina.  Located in Hickory, NC, (north of Charlotte) the brewery opened in 1994 and has been very popular ever since.  Being a Midwest guy, I had never heard of Olde Hickory Brewery prior to getting a mysterious bottle of The Event Horizon in a trade.

The Event Horizon is a Russian Imperial Stout brewed with local honey, then aged in a variety of bourbon barrels.  Keep in mind that bourbon comes from not too far away from the brewery!  The resulting brew is actually blended after barrel aging, resulting in a more balanced bourbon character.  The brewery released this each year as a special release. Beer Advocate has this at 96 and RateBeer has it at at a solid 100.  This is a well-thought-of beer!

On our summer trip down to Asheville, NC, I discovered some of this year's vintage in Bruisin' Ales and bought two on faith that the beer was as good as people say.  I had hoped to get to the brewery, but it was really too far for us to venture on that trip.

On a personal and geeky note, the very first movie that my wife and I went to together was Event Horizon, the disturbing but flawed space horror flick starring Sam Neil.  I don't remember much about the movie itself, as I focused on the nervous ball of cute girl clutching my arm in a death-grip.  So maybe not the most romantic of first date's but in terms to snuggle-time it worked for me!  And holy crap that that came out in 1997!  Where has the time gone?  We just celebrated our 14th anniversary yesterday!

For this whale tasting I had a few friends over.  The bomber bottle was 2012 vintage and wax dipped.  Served into snifters.  Since we are in peak MN State Fair time, this week's panel is well be-ribboned from that competition!

1) Me--BJCP judge, winner of 4 ribbons at the MN State Fair this year, beer geek, actual geek, sci-fi and horror fan.

2) David Grilli--Award winning homebrewer, member of the Primary Fermenter's brewclub, winner of one ribbon at the MN State Fair, also a geek involved in the D&D podcast 20-Sided Death: check it on iTunes HERE.

3) Mike Lebben--A Whale A Week alumni here for more!  Winner of a blue ribbon at MN State fair in the past )and co-brewer with me for one of this year's ribbons), part-owner of BeerDust.

My attempt at combining the beer and the movie!

The Event Horizon 2012 Vintage

Aroma: (In which we smell sweet bourbon goodness...)

Eric:  Very strong bourbon and vanilla aromas.  Hints of honey (buckwheat?) sweetness and caramel.  Cocoa and coffee are present as the booze blows off.  Hint of spices--cinnamon.  A bit of soy sauce as it warms up.
David: Bourbon up front.  Dominates.  Vanilla hints.
Mike: Boozy.  Toffee.

Appearance: (In which we find that Mike may be colorblind.)

Eric: Huge legs on glass.  Deep black color and opaque.  Very dark tan head that is almost brown ochre.  Head fades quickly.
David: Black, opaque.  Brown head that dissipated quickly.
Mike: Dark Amber.  Not much head.

Flavor:  (In which we all agree for once!)

Eric: Sweet flavors of caramel, malted milk, and cocoa.  Some honey sweetness on the finish, but then the final word is a dry cocoa nib or baker's chocolate flavor.  Because of that finish the end is surprisingly dry for the big booze on this.  Moderate to almost thick mouthfeel. Alcohol warming but not rough and hot.  Middle of the drink has dried cherry to almost cranberry flavor and tartness.  Boozy but not overwhelming.  Some vanilla as well.
David: Bittersweet chocolate and plum.  Vanilla from the barrel is present and in good balance to the chocolate.  Slightly roasty but takes a back seat to the chocolate.
Mike: Malt on chocolate up front with a lingering mocha and raisin.

Overall:  (In which we give a balanced review...)

Eric: Compared to many bourbon aged beers this one is well balanced and has aged quite well with minimal oxidation. 4.5
David: Well balanced Imperial stout.  Vanilla and bourbon balance well with bittersweet chocolate.  Aroma enhances the flavor profile.  Mellow.  No flaws.  4.25
Mike: Nicely carbonated.  Balanced.  Very good.  4.25

Overall Score: 4.3333333333333333333333333333333...

So we liked this one a lot!  I'm happy I have two more of these in my cellar, but I think I'll let them mellow a bit for now.