Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Return of Bigfoot!


Now in my second year, A Whale A Week is my challenge to try (with an array of beer loving friends) a rare beer for every week of the year.  Last year I had a great time with this and have continued it for 2016.  Not every beer will be a truly "white whale" beer, but all are hard to find and a treat to try!  This week we try something different.  Tired of just trying out one beer (and lets be honest how can I really shrink my cellar at this rate) each week, we're going to break out a bunch of them!



This week we do the second of a two-part series on Sierra Nevada's classic Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale.  This is a beer that I first tried back in the 1990's and promptly spat out in disgust.  How and why would someone create such a bitter beast of a beer?  Sierra Nevada was really one of the first American craft breweries, and is still sitting pretty today as one of the biggest and still most popular.  Their Pale ale was one of the very first commercially available, and really set the guidelines for the whole category (local Summit Brewing was right up there though!)  Anchor Old Foghorn was released back in about 1975 so they held the lead on the modern American Barleywine, starting with a fairly English barleywine malt bill but jacking it up with American hops.  Bigfoot really took the style to new hoppy levels. Bigfoot was first released in 1983 and is now known as the default for what the style should taste like.

I invited over Dave Manley--one of the most barleywine-enamored guys I've ever known--for this one.  Discovering that Waconia Brewing's illustrious brewer Tom Schufman is a huge fan of this beer, I made sure he could take part as well.  For the second tasting we also brought in noted award winning homebrewer and beer judge Kevin Meintsma.  And of course my wife Sarajo helped out despite her lack of love for the hoppier beers.  With 19 years of beers to try, we decided to split this tasting into two parts.  I really wanted to try all of them together in order to better pick our favorites compared to each other--but barleywines are high in alcohol and even two tastings is pushing it!  If you want to check out the first round (1995-2006) you can read it HERE.  Without further ado, let's raise another glass to the crypto-zoologists of the world!




Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Vertical 2007-2015

Bigfoot 2007

Eric: Aroma--Cardamom, honey, oxidized citrus.  Appearance--Only slight carbonation, and a bit murky.  Flavor--Definite oxidation and a minty-fresh finish.  Reminds me of herbal tea with orange peel.  Astringent finish.  2.75
Kevin: Aroma--Oxidation!  Maraschino cherry.  Some hot alcohol.  Caramel.  Low plastic.  Appearance--Legs.  Flavor--Slick.  Malty-caramel and sweet.  Moderate sherry oxidation, not unpleasant.  Med-high body.  Sharp tang in the finish.  No carbonation.  2.5
Tom: Appears flat.  Oxidation!  Molasses, plum, caramel forward.  Bitter finish.  3
Dave: Love the malty aroma--caramel.  Slight oxidized, vegetal, but not close to the older ones.  Not a lot of hop aroma, but plenty of hop flavor and bitterness.  3.25
Sarajo: Something unpleasant in this one.  2.75
Overall Score: 2.85 (Very oxidized and a bit astringent.)


Bigfoot 2008
This is the first year that Sierra Nevada used a non twist-off cap.  This was also the 25th Expedition and had a different label than all the other vintages.

Eric: Appearance--Lighter in color.  Better carbonation than any thus far, but head still fades fast.  Aroma--Brighter hops, more orange peel and a hint of grapefruit.  Caramel.  Flavor--Much better balance than previous.  Front end is bright citrus hop and then notes of toffee.  Middle has a bit of earth and sherry cask tannin.  Finish is bitter but not overly so.  Carbonation is much improved.  3.5
Kevin: Aroma--Low oxidation.  Slight molasses/honey aroma.  Moderate alcohol.  Low caramel.  Appearance--Low head.  Very clear.  Flavor--Sharp oxidized malt flavor.  A bit unpleasant.  Burnt malt.  Some low molasses flavor.  Kind of smokey phenolic in the finish.  Low sweetness.  Good carbonation for an old beer.  2.5
Tom: Hoppier aroma--oranges?  Hoppy flavor.  Bitter finish with a hint of spice?  Sherry cask.  Nice.  3.5
Dave: Smells like a hamster cage.  Nice carbonation finally!  Less tannic than 2007.  Better flavor profile.  Definite hop finish.  3.5
Sarajo: Less hops as it warms up...or my tongue is getting numb... 3.25
Overall Score: 3.25 (We all like the carbonation, but Kevin is a hater.)

Bigfoot 2009

Eric: Aroma--Smokey phenol at first that reminds me of candied caramelized bacon.  Fades to a fleeting orange aroma.  Appearance--Deep orange color.  Fine off-white head is persistent.  Flavor--Sweeter than previous vintages this round.  Bit of a dreamsicle flavor with orange and caramel/vanilla.  Body medium.  Alcohol present and warming.  Mild oxidation.  Balance is nice.  Finish off-dry with slight bitterness from hops.  3.75
Kevin: Aroma--Low spicy hops.  Moderate caramel malt with slight molasses.  Moderate alcohol.  Citrus hops as it warms.  Low to moderate oxidation, some sherry.  Appearance--Low head clings to rim.  Flavor--Moderately high citrus hops--tangy orange rind with a light oxidized or burned note.  Low sherry-like oxidation.  Lingering caramel and a low plastic phenolic.  Thick/chewy.  Moderate to low carbonation.  Slick with big alcohol.  3.25
Tom: Nice carbonation.  Cherry, hoppy, black licorice in aroma.  Thinner mouthfeel.  I feel the tannic slight tart finish is back, yet still bitter.  3.25
Dave: After oxidation I pick up a spice aroma of rosemary or cardamom.  Hop bitterness more pronounced than others.  Minty, floral, malty.  I could get through a bottle of this.  3.5
Sarajo: I like this a lot better.  3.75
Overall Score:  3.5 (Spicy/herbal and a bit of phenol, but getting better!)

Bigfoot 2010

Eric: Aroma--Strong orange rind.  Hint of pine tree or juniper.  Honey notes.  Barest hint of phenolic.  Appearance--Good thick off-white head is persistent--best yet!  Flavor--Sweet start with a caramel and burnt orange peel flavor.  Carbonation is high with an almost creamy mouthfeel.  Finish is mouth-coating bitter oranges.  Less alcohol than '09.  3.5
Kevin: Aroma--Low earthy hops with citrusy support.  Malt is more subdued, some golden raisin oxidation.  Low sharp tang--probably aged/oxidized hops.  Flavor--Toasty/bready malt--very nice.  Some nice moderate toffee notes.  Hops are citrusy, bitter orange and little earthy.  Big hoppy finish, plenty bitter.  More complex.  Slick.  Not hot but big alcohol.  Moderate body and carbonation.  3.75
Tom: First time I've really noticed alcohol in the nose, along with spicy notes.  Caramel and hops (piney), candied orange rind with a firm, bitter finish.  3.75
Dave: Great carbonation--lifts the aroma, hits the tongue.  Can't place the hop aroma but it's nice.  Some maltiness/caramel in the aroma too.  3.75
Sarajo: I'm bitter enough on my own...  3.5
Overall Score: 3.65 (Carbonation is the best yet, more citrus hops present.)

Bigfoot 2011

Eric: Aroma rife with powerful fresh orange pulp.  Hint of caramel.  A hint of herbal-rosemary?  Flavor is fairly bitter from start to finish, but still pleasant.  Finish is a tad astringent.  Orange and malt in the middle--only really noted on the second or third taste once you get used to the bitterness.  Some alcohol warming.  The most bitter yet, but I like it!  3.75
Kevin: Aroma--Oxidized citrusy hops.  Low bready malt.  Tangy lightly burned orange rind.  Appearance--Light lacing, persistent head.  Flavor--Moderately toasty malt, immediately replaced by citrusy oxidized hops.  Nice supporting caramel and a low buttery diacetyl note--rather pleasant.  Sweet finish.  High bitterness.  Good balance.  Mouthfeel--Body pretty big--slick.  3.75
Tom: Bright hop nose, still orange in aroma.  Much less oxidized.  This actually tastes fresh and is fairly dry.  Molasses on finish with hops and bitterness.  3.75
Dave: Malt aroma more assertive each year.  Hops are fresher--piney and floral.  Bready malty flavor.  Hop bite in the end.  3.75
Sarajo: Too bitter.  I feel like I want to scrape my tongue off.  2.75
Of note: all four of the guys independently gave this the same score and mentioned that they almost gave it a 4.
Overall Score: 3.55 (Just on the edge of getting a 4, getting fresher and better balanced.)

Bigfoot 2012

Eric: Aroma--Bright citrus.  Leaf hops--cascade?  Flavor--Again bright and fresh tasting.  Tons of citrus flavor.  Balance is to the bitter side, but still has plenty of malt and flavor complexity.  Herbal/minty hop quality as warms.  Alcohol present, but not hot.  Balance is key here.  4
Kevin: Aroma--Big hops--citrus/orange rind, resin.  Light minty aroma as it warms.  Low oxidation.  Appearance--Head lingers, lacing is light.  Legs!  Flavor--Wonderful bready malt--toffee notes behind.  Bitterness exactly balances the malty--perfect!  Moderate alcohol.  Sherry notes in finish.  Very smooth.  Mouthfeel--Good carbonation.  Slick.  Fairly thick. 4
Tom: Aroma still orange (tangerine?) hoppy.  Way more malty than 2011.  Tangy finish.  3.75
Dave: Picking up candy sugar in the aroma.  Floral, less piney.  Metallic/phenolic flavor profile.  3.25
Sarajo: Better than the last one!  3
Overall Score: 3.6 (Very bright and citrusy, very well balanced.)

Bigfoot 2013

Eric: Aroma--Tangerine with a hint of oxidation creeping back in. Alcohol zip.  Pine as it warms up.  Flavor--Strong happy hoppy citrus flavors.  Maltiness and toffee is stronger in this vintage.  Good balance, making this very easy to drink.  Bitter but not astringent finish.  Honey flavors as warms.  4
Kevin: Aroma--Low citrusy/honey hops.  Tangy oxidized malt.  Resiny.  Light, pleasant molasses and sherry.  Appearance--Persistent head with lacing.  Flavor--Really nice malt.  Lots of toffe--raisin, cherry.  Bitterness mod-high, citrusy/resiny hops.  Still a little tang in the finish--bitterness lingers.  Pair this with a cheesecake!  Mouthfeel--Thick, sweet, clearn.  Good carbonation.  4
Tom: Dried orange peel, hoppy!  Citrus and spice.  Still dry, but malt really shining as it warms.  Smooth finish.  Well balanced.  4
Dave: Piney, floral, herbal, honey-sweet aroma.  Almost a mead sweetness.  Love the biscuity malt.  Hops hit at the end.  Bright.  Drinkable.  4.25
Sarajo: Would be OK with food.  3
Overall Score: 3.85 (The best of the lot yet!  More malt, but good balance with the hop bittering.)

Bigfoot 2014

Eric: Aroma--Strong pine and freshly grated orange rind.  Flavor--Even more fresh and bright orange flavors.  Some pine tree sap bitterness.  Bitter finish compared to previous vintages.  Biscuit maltiness present but almost as an afterthought.  4.25
Kevin: Aroma--Bright citrusy hops.  Low honey.  More fresh, but less complex aroma.  Flavor--Amazing malt!  Bread crusts, toffee, raisins, figs.  Sweet.  High bitterness.  Citrusy and minty hop flavors.  A little too bitter---less is more!  Low oxidation.  Still a tangy finish.  4.25
Tom: Minty, candy, orange, zesty?! hop aroma.  Nice cracker malt and caramel forward.  Complex!  4.25
Dave: Slight step back--a bit more alcohol hotness.  I like the malt complexity.  4
Sarajo: 3.5
Overall Score: 4.05 (Stronger hopping and better malt complexity.)

Bigfoot 2015

Eric: Aroma--Alcohol is pretty apparent.  Biscuit or cracker malt.  Grapefruit and mint.  Flavor--Malt forward and sweet honey flavors.  Orange marmalade--reminds me of the older vintages from pre-2007.  Strong alcohol--pretty hot.  Less hops than expected.  Mouthfeel is coating and creamy.  Needs more time.  3.75
Kevin: Aroma--Fresh citrusy hops but lower intensity.  Nice malt.  Alcohol.  Appearance--good retention.  Flavor--Light caramel malt, toasty, bready.  Hoppy bitterness is perfectly balanced.  Resiny hops.  Not very complex.  3.75
Tom: Less hoppy aroma than 2014.  More malty, but booze!  Firmly bitter, almost harsh.  A downgrade.  3.75
Dave: Might be the only one where the malt equals/exceeds the hops.  Piney/resiny.  Big caramel malt.  First one I've had that I've thought needs more time.  3.75
Sarajo: 3
Overall Score: 3.6 (Hotter alcohol and less complexity overall.)

Barrel Aged Bigfoot 2015

Eric: Aroma--Boozy!  Bourbon sharpness and oak tannin fades to a more vanilla as it warms.  Caramel.  Pine aroma but minimal orange.  Slight sulfur.  Appearance--Deep orange, darker than most vintages.  High carbonation with a wispy head.  Flavor-- Sweet orange, vanilla, brown sugar.  Fairly strong booze warming but not solventy.  More complex and smoother than most of these.  Reminds me of the 2002 from the previous tasting.  4.5
Kevin: Aroma--Light caramel.  Low woody oak.  Low resiny hops (no citrus).  Lots of vanilla, low sherry.  Appearance--Serious head.  Flavor--Really nice vanilla and bourbon flavor.  Faint oak.  Very low hop bitterness.  The characteristic citrusy/resiny hops are low. Balance to the malt in a big way.  Pair this with a creme brule.  Wonderful beer!  4.25+
Tom: Boozy-whiskey aroma at first.  Nice sweet malt character with hints of toast and vanilla.  4.25
Dave: Bourbon, toasted oak, marmalade, coconut aromas.  Coconut on flavor as well.  Bourbon sweetness compliments the hops.  Bananas Foster!  4.25
Sarajo: Still a little hoppy.  4
Overall Score: 4.25 (This was the winner of the night, but cheating a little since it was barrel aged.)

After all was said and done, this was a very fun experience!  Just getting a group of knowledgeable beer people around a bar and tasting beers is cool, but getting to try vintages of beer starting back as far as 1995 and going through 2015 was stellar.  This is the payoff for all that time cellaring these bottles away in the dark recesses of the basement!  The 2007 was still pretty oxidized but we had increased carbonation and drop in oxidation once they switched to pry-off caps.  Hop aroma and flavor increased from then on as well.  There were still some ups and downs year to year.  The 2015 we all felt could use some more time--and seemed higher in alcohol--even when compared to the 2015 barrel aged version!  Based on this data, I'd say the ideal age for Bigfoot is about 2-4 years old.



Monday, March 28, 2016

2016 Photochallenge Week 12: Still Life, Dutch Masters




At the end of last year I discovered Photochallenge.org.  This is a small group of photographers who set forth a weekly challenge to other professional and amateur photographers.  What I was drawn to with this weekly assignment is that is pushes you to try new techniques and get out and take pictures on a weekly basis.  I'm taking part again this year and will also do a quick blog post about each of them.  The rules of the challenge do require that these are new pictures, not from your back catalogue.  With my busy work schedule, I may not be able to get out each week and do this, so I will likely add a few of my older photos on the blog--taking the opportunity to look at the plethora of pictures I've taken and actually do some processing and weeding.

2016 Photochallenge.org Week 12: Still Life, Dutch Masters

This past week's Photochallenge.org assignment was to do a still life, taking inspiration from the Dutch Masters' paintings.  Here's an example below that appeals to my morbid sensibilities.


The idea with this challenge was to take one of the three main styles of still life from this period and work on lighting and placement of objects in a controlled setting.  This one really spoke to me and I've been meaning to mess around with this technique for a while.  The Dutch Masters were fond of realism and really worked to capture the effect of light on their subjects.

1) Vanitas:  The first of the main styles of still life in this period is Vanitas--focusing on the vanity of earthly life.  The picture above characterizes the subset quite well.



Here's my first attempt at the Vanitas style. I picked a creepy (fake) skull as a centerpoint.  I used my special edition of the movie The Evil Dead with its quasi-demonic illustrations to bring a little color in to this.  Some stacks of other books and my father-in-law's old dagger completed the tableau.  Yes this is a little evil looking but I kind of like how it turned out.  I used a black sheet draped over a table and up over the banister of the stairs for a backdrop, with a small LED table lamp above and to the left for lighting. I also desaturated this picture a bit and dropped the clarity to make it a bit more surreal looking and less warm than the base shot.  Since my mother-in-law reads this blog:  I am not summoning demons in my spare time, this is all just special effects!




Here's my second in the series.  I pulled out some questionable medical devices, a phrenology bust, and one of my wife's elixir bottles.  I like the look of this one and think it points out the frailty of man's body and perhaps mind (if you take the sprinkles of sea salt as something less wholesome).

2) Pronk:  This style focuses on excess--showing off basically!  The classics used rare imported foods, fancy china, luxurious textiles.  The painting below shows silver utensils and fancy glassware as well as rare foods.




My version probably lies somewhere between Pronk and Vanitas.  I aimed to have a feel of travel as the main thread in this shot.  Jules Verne was famous for his fantastical travel stories like Around the World In 80 Days, and the globe in the background accentuates that feel.  The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, fairy tales, and the dragon's egg (from Snobhog Studio) bring in an aspect of fantasy to it as well. I added a fine painting filter in Photoshop Elements to accentuate the look of this and give it a more timeless feel.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

Wabasha Brewing: Get Out Of Your Cave And Try It!


On our recent weekend field trip to St. Paul for the two day Winterfest beer festival at the Union Depot, my wife and I stayed downtown and explored the surrounding environs.  Coming from Waconia, we don't get to the St. Paul side of things very often, so this was a great excuse to check out a few of the newer taprooms in the area.  On the Sunday after the second night of Winterfest--we were feeling good--we went for another great breakfast at The Buttered Tin, followed by a trip to Wabasha Brewing Company.  We had tried two of their beers for the first time at the festival and been intrigued.  Our hotel was on Wabasha Avenue, so getting there was pretty simple--even for a directionally challenged guy like myself.


This was a Sunday, and the brewery opened at noon.  We were about the first ones inside and the place stayed pretty quiet while we were there.  The brewery is on the outside edge of town in an older neighborhood that borders between residential and light industrial--near the Wabasha Caves.  The building itself is pretty nondescript with small signs directing one into the parking lot--but hey, there was a parking lot!  A small picnic table patio area takes up a bit of space in the parking lot near the entrance to the brewery taproom, but it was snowing this morning and not looking like a great option!

Stepping into the very small taproom you walk down a small flight of stairs into a sunken area.  For those with mobility issues, they have a small lift (also used for moving kegs in and out of the brewery).  A few high tables and chairs fill the bright yellow painted room, as well as a tiny alcove with a couple of couches.  A twelve foot bar separates the taproom tasting area from the actual brewing space, but you can see all the equipment easily.  The brew system is 15 barrel (small but pretty big for this space) and the fermenters are 7 barrels each.  This is the opposite of most breweries I know of, who brew twice on a smaller system to fill a larger fermenter.  I'd hate to be the brewer for Wabasha since there is very little space between equipment and it looks like some mad contortionist skills might be needed for the job!



A very helpful and outgoing young lady named April was busy flushing taplines and getting everything ready for the day's festivities when we arrived.  She's been with the company since nearly the start of the taproom about a year ago and really seems to like her work.  I had her pour me a sampler of everything so I could get to work tasting and reviewing the beers.

A little background on me before we begin.  I'm a BJCP National ranked judge, homebrewer for over 25 years, and a serious beer geek.  I rate beers on a 1-5 scale with 3 being my default decent drinking beer, 4 being amazing, and 5 being my favorite beer of all time.  Sarajo tastes along with me but doesn't like to grade things with anything other than a smile or a bitter-beer-face.  April was happy to answer questions on the beers as we tasted through them.




1) Son of Eric Cream Ale--If I had a son, this would probably not be my spawn.  I get a nice maltiness up front.  Hint of corn.  Hopping is on the high end for the style, but adds some bitterness and keeps it in balance.  The description on this beer is "Nordic cream ale".  When I asked Sarajo what she figured that might mean, she thought for a second and responded, "It's repressed and won't admit how it really feels?"  Well done wife, well done!  3.75

2) West Side Popper--This takes the base beer of the previously mentioned cream ale and adds jalapenos that they smoke right outside the brewery.  Don't they know that the Nordic folk think that black pepper is too spicy?  Are they Mad??  I get a smoky, charred corn, green pepper aroma up front.  The flavor is pretty much the same.  Nice balance of malt, hops and spice dries this one out a bit.  Spicy but not overly so.  Solid beer.  4

3) Red Bonnet Amber--I'm not usually a fan of ambers, but this one is pretty good.  Not a ton of aroma to it--just a mild generic hop.  Flavor has light caramel notes, but not sweet.  Crisp more like a Vienna lager than an American amber.  Mild cherry notes.  Hint of smoke?  Asking about the cherry flavor April told me that they do add 13# of cherries to the batch--a small amount, but enough to explain it!  4

4) Snowblower Vanilla Porter--Aroma has roast, hint of smoke, dark chocolate, and vanilla.  Flavor is  quite malty. The vanilla accentuates the sweetness, but doesn't get to cloying territory.  Complex. For a 4.1% ABV beer, the mouthfeel is pretty good!  4.25

5) Implosion IPA--I get Sweet-Tarts on aroma.  Flavor pretty subtle with not much hop character.  Plenty of bitterness with a very dry to almost astringent finish. 3

6) Red Desert Red IPA--Plenty of citrus and malt in the aroma.  Flavor is malty but not sweet.  Orange flavors are strong.  Finish quite dry but pleasant.  Good beer.  4

7) Oak Aged Cave Stout--This is the brewery's strong stout.  It is aged in the cellar temperature of the brewery (not really in a cave, but at similar temps).  The version we had on this visit was in a firkin and had oak added.  Aroma sweet, mild roast, hint of oak tannin.  Flavors of malt, including plenty of roasted grains, and tannins.  Mouthfeel is a bit thin--probably accentuated by the oakiness.  Interesting beer and made smoother by the firkin.  3.5

Overall, I was pretty impressed with beers.  All were well above average to my palate and better than expected from a relatively small and new brewery.  I like the interesting things they are doing.  Other than the IPA, I think the balance and drinkability of these beers was stellar, and the use of adjuncts just added character rather than overwhelmed those beers.  The brewer has a subtle hand and knows his fermentation process.

I enjoyed our visit to Wabasha and they are hereby on my Beer Radar!  The taproom is pretty tiny and bare-bones, but does the job.  It looks like they are planning to move the taproom to a place with seating for 100+ people, so that may change soon.  For now, it's more about the beers.  Solid and interesting beers overall.  Both of our favorites were the Snowblower and the West Side Popper.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Whale A Week: The Manhattan Project


Now in my second year, A Whale A Week is my challenge to try (with an array of beer loving friends) a rare beer for every week of the year.  Last year I had a great time with this and have continued it for 2016.  Not every beer will be a truly "white whale" beer, but all are hard to find and a treat to try!  This week we try something different.  Tired of just trying out one beer (and lets be honest how can I really shrink my cellar at this rate) each week, we're going to break out a bunch of them!



This week we're doing something different!  I discovered that I had two beers in my cellar that were based on the Manhattan cocktail flavor profile and thought it would be fun to combine the two into one tasting.  But of course we would have to mix up an actual Manhattan to compare with right?  I contacted Gina Holman, one of the owners of our local Waconia distillery J. Carver, who is our resident expert on mixology to come help us out!  The other cast of characters fell promptly into place as well.  We had myself and my lovely wife Sarajo as always.  We also had Dan Herman--homebrewer with the Primary Fermenters and sometime bartender.  Heather McNabnay--who mixed up the first Manhattan I had ever tried.  And last but not least we had over local beer/food/spirits blogger Paige Latham and her husband Rick Didora.  With this highly skilled and educated crowd we dug into our work!

Paige wrote up her (and Rick's) impressions of this event for her fantastic blog Alcohol By Volume, so check it out HERE as well!

Cascade Brewing's Manhattan NW 2011

For those who don't know Cascade Brewing out of Portland, Oregon--you need to try their beers!  They focus on mainly barrel aged sour beers and are putting out some of the best in the country.  Sarajo and I visited the Cascade Barrel House a few years back and stuffed our suitcase with corked and caged bottles of this liquid manna--including today's special vintage.  Most of their sours are lactic, setting them apart from many others.  It was with great excitement that two weeks ago I discovered Cascade on shelves here in Minnesota.  They aren't cheap, but worth it if you like sour beers!   This particular beer is aged in whiskey barrels with pie cherries and apricot noyeax (an almond flavored creme liqueur made from apricot kernels).  Unlike many sours, this one is high-test and clocks in at 11.5% ABV! 

Aroma:

Eric: Strong lactic sourness up front.  I do sense some malt sweetness under there as well.  Slight funky barnyard brettanomyces character.  Cherry present and tart but pretty subtle.  Mouth starts salivating at the sourness in the aroma!
Gina: Muted nose, not getting fruit, but sour yes.  Getting more funk.
Heather (or Penelope as her "bar name"): Granny Smith apple.  Star fruit. Amaretto.  
Dan: Bretty and a little almond.  Little to no cherry.

Appearance:

Eric: Slightly hazy, gold to amber color.  Fine white head that fades to edge of glass quickly.
Gina: Golden, amber, medium, hazy.
Heather: Bit cloudy, amber.
Dan: Amberish, clear, little to no head.

Flavor:

Eric: Sweet on the front end--fades to a tart cherry and cherry pit flavor at the end.  Strong lactic acid sourness with a hint of pedio and certainly some funky brett.  Sweet and sour candy-like.  I do get almond or cherry pit strongly.  Body is medium with a creamy mouthfeel--unusual for sours.  Carbonation is high.  Very much stays with you after the sip is done.  4.5
Gina: Acid, lemon zest, cherry pit, skin, tart, nutty, funk, raw honey.  Lingering finish with a balance of acid.  Nice body.  Like an amaretto sour.  4
Heather: Lemon rind.  Amaretto.  Better than an IPA!  3
Dan: Highly effervescent, yet somehow still slick.  Acid.  Cherry is there, but way behind the acid.  Citrus peel on the finish.  4
Sarajo: Amaretto sour all the way!  4.75
Overall Score: 4.05


Town Hall Manhattan Reserve 2016

Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis has been one of my favorite breweries for years.  They remain a bit under the radar compared to a lot of the newer flashier brewery taprooms, but under the skilled hand of head brewer Mike Hoops, they've been putting out stellar beers for almost 20 years.  Dan and I are Pint Club members, getting access to free/discounted beers.  Their barrel program was one of the first in Minnesota and this beer is the culmination (for me at least) of that experience.  Sarajo and I first tried a version of this beer at Winterfest several years back and it has remained one of the best beers either of us has tried.  With the fairly recent Town Hall Barrel Aged Week events we got to try it again at the brewery, and our friends Randy and Andrea managed to get a couple mini growlers of it for us.  Thanks guys!  The beer is a strong golden ale (Grand Cru) aged in whiskey barrels with tart cherries.

Aroma:

Eric: Cherry is strong in this one!  Mixture of tart and sweeter Bing cherry.  Rye whiskey sweetness.  Tannin from oak mixed with a hint of cherry pit.  Malt present, but more honey-like.  Lots of complexity here.  Some mild Belgian esters.  
Gina: Inviting.  Jolly Rancher sour cherry!  
Heather: Cherries.
Dan: Bright estery Belgian.  A little alcohol burn but not much of a whiskey richness.  Nail polish.

Appearance: 

Eric: Excellent clarity.  Deep red to orange in color.  Very minimal head.  
Gina: Amber, clear, healthy.
Heather: Gorgeous color--like a Manhattan should be!
Dan: Deep amber. Same color as true whiskey.  Tight white bubbles dissipate and cling to glass.

Flavor:

Eric: Mild sweetness up front.  Middle is cherry pit, raisin, maraschino cherry.  Mild vanilla.  Oak tannin or sherry notes.  Whiskey very mild in this.  Slight Belgian esters peaking through.  Medium mouthfeel--slick?  End is off-dry.  Warming all the way down the esophagus.  4.75
Gina: Cherry fruit, chocolate cherry, wood, tannin, char, cocoa!  Bitter and inviting.  Lingering finish.  Light effervescence.  Creaminess.  Softer mouthfeel.  Crisp. 4.75
Heather: Caramel, young maple syrup.  Holds up after a real Manhattan!  4.9
Dan: Cherry and Belgiany sweet stone fruit.  Vanilla in the middle.  A little nail polish solventy alcohol--in a good way.  Sweet finish.  4.75
Sarajo: Still just delicious.  I love Mike Hoops!  4.75
Overall Score: 4.78
Gina mixing us up some magic!
J. Carver Rye Manhattan

To top off our tasting of these two amazing cocktail based beers, we had Gina mix us up an actual Manhattan! Using J. Carver's 3rd batch of Rye Whiskey as a base, along with Fee Brothers Aromatic bitters, Luxardo cherries, and sweet vermouth, she served us up a great cocktail.  By this time our ability to write things up was failing, but I still jotted down a few notes.  In the aroma I got spicy sweet rye, some oakiness and hint of cherry.  In flavor I tasted sweetness up front, followed by a spicy rye malt finish and a bit of dryness from the Italian "sweet" vermouth.  Mild cherry flavor, but adds complexity.  Hint of cinnamon and clove.  Heather and I both picked up a little smoky flavor as well.  A wonderful caboose to our beer tasting!  

Gina also let us try the newly released J. Carver Bourbon alone and mixed up in my other favorite drink--the Old Fashioned.  I was frankly impressed with both the Bourbon and Rye, both having more complexity and flavor than some others I've tried.  

This was a fantastic evening filled with good friends and great drinks! Thanks to everyone for showing up and making this a stellar event!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Barrel Adventures


In January of 2015, at the Upper Mississippi Mash Out, one of the biggest and baddest homebrew competitions around, I ended up talking to another beer judge Scot Schaar.  Scot is a distiller for the Mississippi River Distilling Company out of LeClaire, Iowa.  The distillery opened in 2010, and Scot has been bringing bottles of their spirits for the UMMO charity silent auction for years.  I've always wondered what the whiskey tasted like, but have never gone out of my way to look for it.  That year, I discovered that Scot had brought some small used oak barrels with him on this trip and that a few had not been claimed.  So I found myself in a chilly darkened parking lot hefting a heavy oaken barrel while my wife (giving me a significantly dirty look) handed this fine fellow a wad of cash.  On the barrel head so to speak...

The barrel is a 15 gallon oaken affair that previously held the Cody Road Rye Whiskey for approximately 14 months.  The rye grain for this spirit is grown in Illinois (my home state).  Typical larger producers of whiskeys and bourbons use 55 gallon barrels, but with the advent of smaller craft distilleries they've started using smaller barrels as well.  These are much more accessible to us homebrewers since we don't have to brew up 55 gallons of beer to fill one!  One reason distilleries use these smaller barrels is their increased surface area to volume ratio:  a smaller barrel has more spirit in direct contact with the oaken walls.  This results in faster color and  flavor transfer from the oak into the spirit.  Single malt Scotch is usually aged for 10+ years since they're using already "used" American bourbon or whiskey barrels.  So by using a smaller freshly charred barrel, distilleries can get a drinkable spirit out to market without waiting for 3-5 years.  This particular barrel was crafted at The Barrel Mill in close-by Avon, Minnesota from North American white oak.

What to use to fill this special barrel?  I went with an old stand-by, the only beer I brew every year: Olde Meconium Imperial Stout.  I've used oak chips and cubes in this beer before with mixed results, but have always wanted to try it in a genuine barrel to see if the results would differ.  My usual batch size for this beer is 6 gallons and it pushes the very limits of capacity for my 10 gallon brew system.  Olde Meconium is my most challenging beer to brew and I had no desire to brew it three times to fit in the barrel!  Luckily I managed to talk my friend and fellow Jack Of All Brews member Mike Lebben into helping me out.  Both of us did a modified version of the beer, adding some dry malt extract to the boil to be able to do an 8 gallon batch each.

This was the first time I had brewed since the previous November, and after new shelving had been built in my garage.  As a result, I spent a fair amount of time digging out equipment, refilling propane tanks, etc.  Not my smoothest or quickest batch ever.  I hit pretty close to my goal gravity though.  Fermentation went well, split between two carboys.  The 5 gallon batch I fermented with American ale yeast, and the 3 gallon batch with Nottingham ale yeast.  I've brewed this beer with both and thought combining the two might give me a flavor profile somewhere in between the two.  And I had those yeast already in my fridge, so why not?



One week in, Mike and I got together to fill the barrel up.  I found a spot for it under the stairs in the basement where it would be out of the way and have fairly consistent cool temperatures.  Both of our batches were still fermenting slightly with bubbles coming every 5-10 seconds, but I was concerned about how dry the barrel was getting and didn't want to wait much longer before filling it.  Once we added the beer--right up to the bung--it started to foam out at us!  I hooked up an improvised blow-off tube to avoid Imperial stout all over the walls!



After about 8 weeks in the barrel we tasted it and decided it was time to take out the beer.  The hardest part of that process?  Trying to lift the full barrel up high enough to siphon beer out of it!  My friend Rob Wengler helped me muscle it up on top of my kegerator for this event, risking hernia for the sake of beer!  Rob and I had actually brewed an English brown porter in the intervening weeks and that beer was ready to add now.  We moved the now lighter empty barrel back to its home in the closet and added our porter.  I did not rinse the barrel, wanting to keep what little whiskey character remained for this second and much smaller beer.  I regret that now!  Once the beer had been in the barrel for 12 hours it started to ferment again, bubbling over the airlock and making me hook up the blow-off tube again.  I'm not sure if there was some residual unfermented sugar in the beer, or if the quantity of healthy yeast left in the barrel just kicked back into gear, but it kept fermenting away for another several days before slowing down.

The idea was to leave this beer in for about a month and then fill it for the final time with the base beer for a lambic sour that would then sit around for 1-2 years getting funkier.  I did get my part of the batch brewed up, but had a hard time getting help for the second half.  Then life got busy with summer travel plans and time slipped away from me.  I eventually brewed up a second batch of lambic wort, but the porter stayed in there a bit too long.  When I tasted it, the beer had a strong oak tannin character as well as a hint of sourness.  Oops!  I ended up transferring the porter out into glass carboys and adding some dregs of Flanders red ales.  Those are coming along nicely now with a slowly developing complexity of sourness and creepy looking pellicle.

This time I dumped out the old yeast and rinsed out the inside of the barrel.  I quickly (before the staves could dry out and shrink) filled it again with my two batches of lambic.  I actually fermented the lambic wort in glass carboys with an American ale yeast first, but added 2 packs of Wyeast Lambic Blend yeast and some dregs from a bottle of Cantillon to the barrel.  I did get a kick-up of fermentation within 2 days that lasted for another week or so before settling down.  I just tried this beer and the sourness and brett character are starting to show up, but still pretty subtle.  This may live in the barrel for a year or longer.

The need to keep the barrel filled, and to plan ahead with brewing beers to fill it is the most difficult aspect of using it.  Since nearly all commercial barrels are big (most 55 gallons) you nearly always need help filling it and getting multiple people to brew according to a timeline is tough!  Even using a small barrel can be a pain, and requires some planning ahead and collaboration.




As a wrap-up, our first batch from this barrel--Barrel Aged Olde Meconium--won a gold medal at this year's Mashout!  Thanks to Scot for getting me that barrel, and to Mike for helping me brew this beast!  I do think this is the best beer I've ever brewed and the level of complexity from the barrel itself goes far above what I've been able to do with booze soaked oak cubes in the past.  This was an interesting experiment, and one I'd recommend, but taking care of a barrel is a bit of a chore.

Monday, March 14, 2016

2016 Photochallenge Week 10: Outdoor Brenizer Method


The end of last year I discovered Photochallenge.org.  This is a small group of photographers who set forth a weekly challenge to other professional and amateur photographers.  What I was drawn to with this weekly assignment is that is pushes you to try new techniques and get out and take pictures on a weekly basis.  I'm taking part again this year and will also do a quick blog post about each of them.  The rules of the challenge do require that these are new pictures, not from your back catalogue.  With my busy work schedule, I may not be able to get out each week and do this, so I will likely add a few of my older photos on the blog--taking the opportunity to look at the plethora of pictures I've taken and actually do some processing and weeding.

2016 Photochallenge Week 10: Outdoor Brenizer Method

This week was a tough one.  The challenge was to use a method of photography pioneered by Ryan Brenizer, a wedding portrait photographer.  The idea is to take multiple photos of the subject using a wide aperture, making the subject in good focus and the background somewhat fuzzy--imitating the effect of larger format cameras.  The smaller image sensors of most modern digital cameras have a hard time handling this, so by stitching together a grid of smaller photos in post processing you can fake it.  

Looking at the chatter on the Photochallenge facebook site, this one was tough on a lot of people, not just me!  I did get a lot of good advice and saw some examples of this method there that inspired me.  My first try was of some statues at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, but he day was overcast and these just ended up looking flat and sad.  I was then going to let the challenge go (lousy weather) until this past Saturday morning when sun came out and temps jumped up to 60!  While my wife was getting ready (we were going to the Orpheum Theater downtown) I jumped in the car and whipped over to Waconia's cemetery for one last try.  There were some amazing old grave markers here and I tried several subjects while I was there.  I would find a spot to stand and then do about 4-5 shots focused up the top of the marker, moving over just a bit with each shot.  Then I would aim down a bit and get the main structure with another 4-5 shots.  Then the base of the marker.  I had to do this all in manual mode to keep all my settings the same for stitching these together.




Above are two of the shots I took using this pattern.

Taking these photos home and importing into Photoshop Elements, I opened all the photos in the series into the editor.  My computer isn't robust, so this really slowed down the speed of the program to where at times I thought it had frozen completely.  In the future I will edit the photos and save them as smaller files first--but that was an extra step I didn't want to do this time out--especially not knowing if this was even going to work!  Using the Photomerge setting, I was easily (but slowly) able to stitch the photos into a panorama.




Above is the final product, cropped a bit since the panorama edges were a little wacky.  I do like how the effect shows the central marker with some clarity while the rest of the markers are a bit more blurry.  The whole thing also has a wide angle look that would be impossible to pull off with may current lens.  I might crop this a bit further to follow the rule of 3's and effectively move my main subject over a bit--but for now I wanted folks to see the whole thing!  


Thursday, March 10, 2016

In Search Of Bigfoot...Barleywine!


Now in my second year, A Whale A Week is my challenge to try (with an array of beer loving friends) a rare beer for every week of the year.  Last year I had a great time with this and have continued it for 2016.  Not every beer will be a truly "white whale" beer, but all are hard to find and a treat to try!  This week we try something different.  Tired of just trying out one beer (and lets be honest how can I really shrink my cellar at this rate) each week, we're going to break out a bunch of them!



This week we do the first of a two-part series on Sierra Nevada's classic Bigfoot Barleywine Style Ale.  This is a beer that I first tried back in the 1990's and promptly spat out in disgust.  How and why would someone create such a bitter beast of a beer?  Sierra Nevada was really one of the first American craft breweries, and is still sitting pretty today as one of the biggest and still most popular.  Their Pale ale was one of the very first commercially available, and really set the guidelines for the whole category (local Summit Brewing was right up there though!)  Anchor Old Foghorn was released back in about 1975 so they held the lead on the modern American Barleywine, starting with a fairly English barleywine malt bill but jacking it up with American hops.  Bigfoot really took the style to new hoppy levels. Bigfoot was first released in 1983 and is now known by most as the default for what the style should taste like.

Screen shot from the infamous Zapruder film...perhaps he's on his way to the pub?

I tried Bigfoot again at a cellared beer tasting by a member of our then-fledgling homebrew club, Brett Schneider. Tasting aged (and more mellow) versions of this hop monster really opened my eyes to the changes that can occur in a beer over time--some good and some bad.  That tasting was around 2006 or 2007 and I've been getting a pack of Bigfoot every year since.  A few years ago Brett moved out of the area and downsized his cellar of vintage beers, leaving me with a fairly epic collection of aged Bigfoot to add to my growing stash.  I've cracked some at brewclub meetings over the years, but this year I wanted to do a more controlled vertical tasting of the beer.  While this beer isn't as rare as some we've tried for A Whale A Week, getting to try a huge vertical going back as far as 1995 is pretty difficult to pull together.  Perhaps I should call this Sasquatch Of The Week?  Yeti Of The Week?  Abominable Snow Man Of The Week?

I invited over Dave Manley--one of the most barleywine enamored guys I've ever known--for this one.  Discovering that Waconia Brewing's illustrious brewer Tom Schufman is a huge fan of this beer, I made sure he could take part as well.  And of course my wife Sarajo helped out despite her lack of love for the hoppier beers.  With 19 years of beers to try, we decided to split this tasting into two parts.  I really wanted to try all of them together in order to better pick our favorites compared to each other--but barleywines are high in alcohol and even two tastings is pushing it!  The second half of the tasting is available to read HERE.  Feel free to crack any old bottles you have in your cellar and taste along with us!  Without further ado, let's raise a glass to the crypto-zoologists of the world!



Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Vertical Part 1

For this first tasting we started back in time...the 1990's!  All of us took notes and came up with a score for each vintage...occasionally going back and either tweaking our scores or retrying the previous vintages to compare.  Your results may vary!  Oh and all of these bottles have been stored in a cool basement out of the light and have twist-off caps.

Bigfoot 1995

Eric: Aroma--lots of sherry, borders on cardboard.  Some cherry and hops are mild.  Very little head--just  wisp.  Plenty of oxidation on the flavor.  Still some bitterness that I pick up as minty.  Still better than expected for its age.  2.75
Dave: Heavily oxidized.  2 sips are plenty.  Hops still present.  2.5
Tom: Peach notes.  Light CO2.  Deep caramel.  Low oxidation flavor, but high in the aroma.  3
Sarajo: Blech.  2.5
Overall Score: 2.67

Bigfoot 1998

Eric: More hops in aroma than 1995.  Earthy, almost musty basement aroma.  Carbonation still pretty dead.  Flavor is vegetal and fungus-like.  "Kids, grow mushrooms in your basement!"  Hopping present but comes off as English hops (EKG or Fuggles).  Bitter cardboard finish.  2.5
Dave: Some oxidation, less than 1995.  Aroma--caramel. Taste--about the same, just 3 years newer.  A bit of a flip from the '95 in that I like the aroma better than the taste.  2.75
Tom: Mold aroma, high oxidation.  Wet cardboard.  Higher CO2 than '95.  Flabby.  Sherry notes.  2.5
Sarajo: Yech.  2.5
Overall Score: 2.56

Bigfoot 1999

Eric: Minty hops mix with oxidation in aroma.  Caramel noted in aroma as well.  Slight carbonation rousable with swirling.  Flavor is getting better.  Caramel but not sweet.  Some sherry cask.  Bitter finish.  A bit aqueous on mouthfeel.  Dark fruit as it warms up.  3.25
Dave: Aroma getting better, flavor improves as well.  A bit fruitier, less caramel on the tongue.  This tastes more British.  3
Tom: Less cardboard, smells like 1998.  Somewhat tart.  Tannic flavors but hoppy finish.  3
Sarajo: 3
Overall Score: 3.06




Bigfoot 2000

Eric: Hoppy aroma--mild citrus--like an orange marmalade with oxidation.  Carbonation still super low, but up from previous vintages.  Caramel increased in flavor, but still not sweet.  Bitterness stronger in flavor.  Oxidation still present but dropping.  Hop flavors of cooked orange rind present.  3.5
Dave: OK, We're getting closer...  3.25
Tom: More plum and dark brown sugar, but yup, still oxidized.  Nice bitterness.  More rounded flavor.  3
Sarajo: 3.25
Overall Score: 3.25

Bigfoot 2001

Eric: More hops and some sherry aroma--increased oxidation from 2000.  Wispy carbonation, but more noted on mouthfeel.  Increased hop citrus flavor.  Bitterness on the end, but not overwhelming.  Brighter overall.  3.5
Dave: Can we get rid of the musty aroma already?  Other than that, starting to really dig it.
Tom: Minty.  Bitter.  Same beer as 2000.  3.25
Sarajo: 3.25
Overall Score: 3.31

Bigfoot 2002

Eric: Seems like less hop aroma this year.  Less oxidation.  Flavor brighter, more orange character.  Easy to drink this one.  Balance is better than any so far.  3.75
Dave: Now we're talkin!  3.75
Tom: Aroma has a hot alcohol note.  Solid malt profile.  Well in balance, but sweet.  3.75
Sarajo: Best of them. 4
Overall Score: 3.81


Bigfoot 2003

Eric: Seems sweeter and more caramel and prunes.  Figs?  Less hop bitterness than 2002.  Oxidation up from previous year.  Drop in score from 2002.  3.25
Dave: A little more oxidation from 2002.  Hotness.  3
Tom: Tannic bitterness is back.  Not much to say.  3
Sarajo: 3
Overall Score: 3.06

Bigfoot 2004

Eric: Sweeter aroma, not much hop.  Mild oxidation.  Flavor has more oxidation and dark fruit along with some hop bitterness to even it out.  More orange/citrus character.  3.5
Dave: Still some oxidation, a little less than the '03.  Still not as good as the '02.  3.25
Tom: Marmalade is back.  Still a bit astringent.  3.25
Sarajo: 3
Overall Score: 3.25

Bigfoot 2005

Eric: Hops are back in the aroma and citrusy.  Carbonation is better, prickly.  Milder oxidation.  More hop bite.  Carbonation improves the mouthfeel on this and makes it more dry.  3.75
Dave: Carbonation helps.  3.5
Tom: Hoppy aroma.  Best balance of the vertical thus far.  Cascade hop on finish?  3.75
Sarajo: 3.5
Overall Score: 3.63

Bigfoot 2006

Eric: Carbonation!!!  Still some oxidation present, but more of a wine barrel effect.  Earthy, piney hops.  This is the stuff!  Orange and pine hop flavors--candied kumquat.  Sweet and sugary, but not cloying.  Finish is off-dry.  Smooth and mellow.  Seems like a cross between and English and American barleywine.  4
Dave: Picking up some nice malt complexity--figs and raisins.  3.75
Tom: Nice carbonation.  Somewhat thinner.  Bright flavor.  More spicy and citrus notes.  4
Sarajo: 3.75
Overall Score: 3.88

This was a fun tasting.  Frankly, I had low expectations for the older vintages and that mostly played out as expected.  Still it was fun to try a beer from 21 years ago!  Heck one of these was probably that vintage I tried fresh back in the 1990's and spat out in disgust!  I enjoyed getting Dave and Tom to take part since both of them are big fans of this beer.  There was a distinct progression of slow loss of oxidation and improved carbonation from oldest to newest with the 2006 being the overall favorite of the bunch.  However, 2002 was an enigma, coming in second overall.  We are currently planning on our second tasting: covering 2007-2015, topped off with a bottle of barrel aged Bigfoot.  If any of my readers tasted along with vintage bottles, please comment on your findings here!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

2016 Photochallenge Week 9: Entropy Black & White


The end of last year I discovered Photochallenge.org.  This is a small group of photographers who set forth a weekly challenge to other professional and amateur photographers.  What I was drawn to with this weekly assignment is that is pushes you to try new techniques and get out and take pictures on a weekly basis.  I'm taking part again this year and will also do a quick blog post about each of them.  The rules of the challenge do require that these are new pictures, not from your back catalogue.  With my busy work schedule, I may not be able to get out each week and do this, so I will likely add a few of my older photos on the blog--taking the opportunity to look at the plethora of pictures I've taken and actually do some processing and weeding.


2016 Photochallenge Week 9: Entropy Black & White


Last week's challenge was to showcase entropy using black and white technique.  Entropy means something different to different people. As a scientist, I tend to see this as more of a scientific principle of thermal energy/randomness, however the more general definition is that things tend to decay into disorder.  Or to over-simplify: Things Fall Apart.  From a photographic perspective, looking at ordered creations of man decomposing with time and weather is a fantastic subject!  I was actually a bit surprised by how many people on the Photochallenge.org Facebook page seemed to be having trouble with the concept this week.  I'll admit I tend to look for this type of subject anyway so the challenge was right up my alley.  The biggest problem was that this week I didn't have much time to get out and take pictures or explore older areas of town.  




1) Peeling Paint.  I did get a chance to wander around the quaint and bustling down-town area of White Bear Lake last weekend on a crazy 50+ degree in February--in Minnesota!  Most of the city was in good repair, but I found this small store front that that had seen better days. The elements and time (probably 60+ years) had caused the wood trim to warp and the layers of paint to peel up in interesting patterns and textures.  It seemed like as good an example as I was going to find.  

I did look through some of my older pictures and converted a few to black and white to fit with this challenge as well.  




2) Fenceline.  This is an old simple wooden fence from up at my family cottage on Otter Tail Lake.  I remember climbing on this somewhat low fence when I was young.  When I saw it sagging into decrepitude and dissolving into moss and lichen I was struck by what age does to everything.  





3) Rusted equipment.  I took this in Asheville North Carolina this past summer.  I love the deep reds of the rust in the original shot, but wanted to accentuate the textures of the flaking rust and paint in black and white. 



4) Smokestack.  Probably my least effective attempt this week, but I still like it.  In color this is pure bright green with just hints of brickwork poking out.  In black and white it is more stark.  I loved this ivy covered abandoned building by the train tracks in Asheville, but none of my shots really did it justice. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Got Wood? Big Wood Brewery Review


Recently, my wife Sarajo and I spent a weekend in St. Paul for the epic two day Winterfest event at the Union Depot.  On that Saturday, after a wonderful breakfast at The Buttered Tin, we decided to try out Big Wood Brewery.  Located in White Bear Lake, this place has been on my radar but far enough from my Waconia home to make it less enticing to visit.  However, from downtown St. Paul the brewery is just a 20 minute drive!  Possibly the best part of our field trip was that temperatures (Feb in Minnesota!) were upwards of 55 degrees out and a beautiful bright sun shone in the crazy blue skies.  Driving into the center of town, I was surprised at how cute the area is, and with the sheer number of people out and about.  Like the white bear that emblazons road signs and nearly everything else in town, locals had crawled out of their caves, shaken the hibernation grogginess from their heads, and inundated the streets and shops of White Bear Lake!  Frankly, White Bear Lake surprised me with how quaint and active it was.  Olive oil shops, boutiques, independent book and toy stores, bakeries, all vie for one's attention.  And now a brewery!



Big Wood Brewery was founded by Steve Merila (Founder), Jason Medvec (President) and Ty McBee (Head Brewer).  They started out brewing at Cold Spring Brewery (along with 21st Amendment, Liftbridge, and more) for about a year and a half in order to build brand name and the capital to open their own brewery.   In February of 2014 they were able to open their own taproom.  We accessed the brewery via a cool little alleyway decorated with a strange and eclectic mix of outdoor furniture and lawn decorations from the next door shop.  Coming out of this fantastical alley, we discovered that there was a large (but full) parking lot right next to the tap room itself.  The building is big and brick, with a somewhat large but still understated "Big Wood" painted up near the top of the building wall.  Some big hunks of wood carved with the logo sit up against the building.  The outdoor patio area was full of people on this strangely warm day so we went inside.


Sarajo "Vogues" it up outside Big Wood

Stepping down into the ground-floor/basement of the building, I was struck by the rustic and woodsy feel of the place.  Bright sun filtered though the windows and open door, throwing lines of shadow and light through the whole place and accentuating the wood grain of nearly every surface within.  Heavy wooden chairs cluster around several high wood tables.  The bar top is made of a beautiful polished piece of solid wood (probably ash) that came from a windfall tree on WBL's own Manitou Island.  The place was busy, but we were able to find a table for 4 easily.  Two servers behind the bar were happy to take our drink orders and were great about coming around to deliver beers and refill water glasses for us during our stay.  Great service!

Taking a field trip around the place, I discovered a bench made of a half-log with a cribbage board incised into it (I didn't tell my wife about this for fear that she'd make me lose to her again.)  A second seating area (with ping pong table) that blended into the brewery itself was located down a short hall and through a cool round hobbit-hole door.  On the other side of the taproom is another solid dark wood door decorated with a sturdy weathered metal Green Man knocker.  Through this ominous doorway lies the copper and stainless steel brewery itself, along with the small Sabco 10 gallon brew system that started the whole thing off.  While I was sneaking around back there and taking pictures for this blog, I ran into the head brewer Ty McBee.  Ty was very passionate about brewing and was happy to talk brewing nuts and bolts with me for a while (despite being busy at the brewery that day).  I asked him the toughest question--which of his babies (beers) he likes the best.  His response: "That's just mean to ask!  If I'm still brewing, it will be something pretty light.  But all in all Morning Wood still surprises me.  I love it!"


The copper brewery lording it over the tiny Sabco pilot system...

Back in the taproom, my wife and I met up with some local friends Ron and Denise, whom we had met at NHC in Michigan a few years back.  Big Wood is their nearest taproom and they frequent the place regularly.  It was great hanging out with them while enjoying this beautiful day and sipping on a wide variety of beers!

You want me to talk about the beers?  But of course!

I've had Big Wood beers in the past, mainly at beer festivals and have not been a fan.  I found most to have astringency that was out of balance.  I've heard that things have improved, and our friends like the place, so why not give them another try in their own environment?  I'll give my brief impressions of the beers below.  I grade on a 5 point scale with 3 being an average drinkable beer, 4 being stellar, and 5 being something I'd hoard or drink every day if possible.  For my credentials: I'm a BJCP judge and homebrewer for over 25 years.  At Big Wood they had two samplers--one with the regular rotation beers and one with the taproom exclusive and seasonals.  I ordered both and made my friends and wife watch me sip, sniff, and tap into my phone!

1) Amigo Grande: Mexican Lager--I get a hint of sulfur, but acceptable in the style and fades after first whiff.  Crisp finish.  Very easy to drink on a 50+ degree day!  4

2) Thrice Shy: Belgian golden strong ale--Doesn't hide its high alcohol content well, comes off a bit hot.  Plenty of pilsner malt character and fruity esters to add complexity though.  Fairly sweet but not cloying.  Not a bad American version of Belgian ale.  3.5

3) Bark Bite IPA--This has a pleasant citrus aroma to it.  Flavor has plenty of hop citrus character as well.  The body is pretty thin and the finish is pretty astringent.  3

4) Jack Savage Pale Ale--Not a ton of hop aroma to it.  Flavor has caramel notes, but not overly sweet.  Some bitterness present, mild orange flavors.  Well balanced pale ale.  3.5

5) Bad Axe Double IPA--Better than last time I had this.  Malty notes at first, but very bitter finish.  Lots of pine hop character.  Some alcohol to it.  3.5

6) Big Black Wolf: Black IPA--I'm not a fan of black IPA's in general.  This one is very bitter with strong roast and smoke.  Roast malt adds astringency to an already hop bitter beer. 3

7) Udder Stout: Milk Stout on Nitro--Pretty sweet (as it should be). Coconut flavors.  Thick mouthfeel and very creamy.  Mild milk chocolate as warms.  This was Sarajo's favorite.  3.5

8) Morning Wood: Coffee Ale--Better than in the past (used to be unbearably astringent).  Light coffee and chocolate aroma.  Flavor similar to aroma and more mellow than remembered.  Possible hint of diacetyl, but OK in this beer.  3.5

9) Yule Wood: Holiday/Winter Ale--Strong allspice, orange peel and clove in aroma.  Sweet flavor and lots of spices present. Brown sugar.  Allspice is strong in this one!  Luckily I like that flavor!  3.75

10) Forest Fire: Smoked Rye--Sweet malt present.  I can pick up the spicy rye.  Phenols from the smoked malt come off a bit band-aid rather than bacon.  I tend to like smoked beers, but this one isn't quite right for me.  3

I frankly had not been overly impressed with Big Wood beers in the past, finding most to be very thin and astringent for my liking.  I had also been a little turned off by the Dude-Bro style marketing (Morning Wood anyone?).  However, having been to the taproom and partaken of the glorious wooden ambiance, extensive mix of beer styles, and great customer service, I've been pleasantly surprised.  I'm always impressed when one of my favorite beers in a place is their lager--that takes some skill!  I still find that many of the beers border on thin body and astringent finish, but this has improved (I bumped up previous scores of 2-3 on a few to above average) since my last tasting.  When I get a similar effect in many beers at one brewery I start to think about water treatment.  Big Wood does filter and treat their water for different styles but don't do reverse osmosis.  Knowing how hard most of the water is in the Twin Cities area, I think that may be accentuating the bitterness in the hoppier beers here.  From talking with Ty, it sounds like he's always tweaking recipes and trying to improve the finished beer, and I can tell this is the case.  I think the beers here are pretty good, but the overall experience we had during this visit has elevated it to more than the sum of its parts.

I'd easily be tempted to go back to explore White Bear Lake and make Big Wood a stop on my tour in the future.  I'd love to check out some of the cute shops and even a steam-punk looking cocktail bar in town (Alchemist!).  Oh, and Ty says that they'll be coming out with a new FINE IPA in 750 bottles at the brewery very soon, so keep an eye out for it!

Friday, March 4, 2016

Photochallenge 2016 Week 8: Depth of Field Blur


The end of last year I discovered Photochallenge.org.  This is a small group of photographers who set forth a weekly challenge to other professional and amateur photographers.  What I was drawn to with this weekly assignment is that is pushes you to try new techniques and get out and take pictures on a weekly basis.  I plan on taking part again this year and will also do a quick blog post about each of them.  The rules of the challenge do require that these are new pictures, not from your back catalogue.  With my busy work schedule, I may not be able to get out each week and do this, so I will likely add a few of my older photos on the blog--taking the opportunity to look at the plethora of pictures I've taken and actually do some processing and weeding.

2016 Photochallenge #8: Depth of Field Blur


I love macro photography which tends to take advantage of this method, focusing in on the star of the show and usually leaving much of the background as a blur.  However, this week I didn't have my macro lens with me and had to make due with a versatile lens.  On a rare 50 degree day in Minnesota, while visiting St. Paul for Winterfest (a crazy 2 day Minnesota beer festival) we set out to explore.  Most of the shots I took were architectural since St. Paul has a lot of unique old buildings and the riverfront.  Remembering this challenge I took a close up shot of large sandstone blocks that made up a stepped seating area by a small band shell on Raspberry island.  I focused in on a cracked section of the stone, leaving the surrounding stone a bit blurry.  Not quite as blurred out as I wanted, but it does the job of bringing attention to the sharper cracks in the shot.



I went through my back catalog and found another couple of shots that make use of this technique as well.



This close up of the fuzzy leaf texture uses the technique to draw attention.




This flower shot (about the size of a nickle in real life) also uses the blur effect.  Some would say that the blurry flower behind the central focus is distracting, but I kind of like it since it gives a sense of this being a cluster of flowers and not just a disembodied bloom.




And this is probably my favorite!  The sharper focus on the bee hard at work harvesting nectar from this large sunflower with the blurry edges make for a fun shot.  It also makes me look forward to summer!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A Whale A Week: Russian River Sanctification Batch 006


Now in my second year, A Whale A Week is my challenge to try (with an array of beer loving friends) a rare beer for every week of the year.  Last year I had a great time with this and have continued it for 2016.  Not every beer will be a truly "white whale" beer, but all are hard to find and a treat to try!



This week we try a rare (at least in Minnesota!) sour beer from the famed Russian River Brewing Co.  in California.  The brewery started as an offshoot of Korbel vineyards.  In 2003 Brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo and his wife Natalie took over the business. In 2004 they built/opened a new brewpub in Santa Rosa, and then expanded with a production brewery nearby in 2008.  Since then they continue to put out some amazing beers, but in small enough quantity that all of them are much sought-after.  The brewery is probably most well known for putting out what was possibly the first Double IPA Pliny the Elder, as well as it's incredibly rare tap-only cousin Pliny the Younger.  They were one of the first American breweries to start working with brettanomyces yeast and other wild/sour organisms in their beers as well.  This place is on my bucket list for breweries to visit.

I've tasted both Plinys as well as several of the sours over the years, thanks mostly to my mom muling some back for me from her trips out to Oregon.  I also received a few vintage bottles in a large cellar buy a few years back.

Sanctification is a fairly low gravity (6.75% ABV) golden beer that is fermented with 100% brettanomyces yeast.  The beer is bottle conditioned (initially with standard yeast, but now using brett for that as well).  The beer was first brewed in 2004 and was one of the first commercially available all-brett beers.  The brewery's website actually has some of the brew logs from the first several batches of their beers which is fascinating to see.  The first few years of this beer they added lactobacillus, then the third year they added some mixed wild culture to it.  In 2009 and 2010 they moved to pure brett fermentation for this beer.  I believe that it is fermented in stainless steel and has no oak contact.  I'm pretty sure that batch 006 came out in 2012, but batch 005 is the last one on the brew logs so I'm not sure of this.

This week's tasting panel was made up of: Me (Eric Wentling)--Homebrewer for over 20 years, BJCP National ranked judge, lover of sour and brett beers.  Beau Hammel--Homebrewer of tasty Belgian ales.  Sarajo Wentling--My other half.  We served this beer into tulip glasses.  We did do this tasting at the tail end of a couple others, so our write-up was a little shorter than usual... By this point Beau and I were perfectly calibrated in our judging.




Russian River Sanctification Batch 006


Aroma: 
Eric: Pineapple.  Tart apple.  Sweet honey and malt.  Light barnyard funkiness.  Some lemon-orange citrus character.
Beau: Acid.  Rotten hay.  Lemons.  Tropical fruit--guava.

Appearance: 
Eric: Very light straw to golden color.  Fine tight white head.  Excellent clarity.
Beau: Light golden.  Clear.  Medium head.

Flavor:
Eric: Very tart and dry apples.  Sour mango rind.  Slight sweetness, but that fades fast--like the first bite of an orange slice.  Body is light, but not thin.  No hop flavors.  Not incredibly complex.
Beau: Pleasantly sour with lemon flavors.  Slight funk of decomposed grass or hay.

Overall:
Eric: Very fruity. Dry and tart but not really puckering.  This is infinitely drinkable and refreshing.  Complexity is not crazy, but for what this beer is, it's near perfect.  I wouldn't mind a little more funk. 4.5
Beau: Very well balanced.  Nicely sour without being too dry or puckering.  Nice lemon and fruity flavors.  Nice complimentary funk.  4.5
Sj: (Too distracted to come up with a pithy comment this week...) 4

Overall Score: 4.33


Photo info:  I simply used a shot of the bottle label and did an overlay layer with another shot of Val Dieu Abbey (a brewery in Belgium but not actually run by monks).  The abbey picture was very underexposed and was almost a silhouette, so I just accentuated that before blending the two photos.