Firestone Walker Brewing Co., Paso Robles, California Style: Robust Porter
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle
Aroma: Chocolate and caramel with subtle roast. Light fruity notes, raisin. Oats. Appearance: Pitch black with a big and persistent tan head. Loads of lace. Flavor: Caramel coffee dusted with bittersweet chocolate. Light burnt raisin and burnt sugar/blackstrap molasses. Late in the palate an aggressive hop bitterness asserts itself with a pronounced citrusy hop flavor. Alcohol is noticeable. Finish lingers on hops and roast malt. Mouthfeel: Alcohol warmth. Creamy on the outset but an astringency sets in when the hops kick in. Medium carbonation. Overall Impression: A big and full bodied, roasty robust porter. I’d be inclined to call this a Baltic porter. The citrusy hops are a little too much for me and clash with the caramel/coffee flavors. Astringency also detracts.
Malted grain is the backbone of beer. Next to water it is the primary ingredient. Malt is the source of the sugars that are fermented by the yeast. It is a major contributor to every sensory quality of beer including flavor, aroma, mouthfeel, and alcohol level. Malted grain gives beer that wonderful sweetness and rich bready, toasty, roasty, nutty, caramel, coffee, and chocolate notes that make beer lovers swoon.
For this meetup we’ll focus on malt. We’ll enjoy the bready goodness of southern German lagers. We’ll taste the tantalizing toasty notes of the Bocks and savor the sweet caramel of Scottish ales. We might even revisit last month to revel in roast.
This will be the first in a series of three meetups in which we will explore the main ingredients in beer, malt, hops, and yeast. At each session we will taste beers that highlight one ingredient over the others to develop a better understanding the flavor and aromatic contributions of each ingredient.
Stone Brewing Company, case Escondido, remedy California Style: Belgian Strong Golden well hopped with American hops]
Serving Style: Bottle
Appearance: Light golden and clear with a big mousse-like white head. Aroma: Light fruit, peaches. Spicy clove. Alcohol. Flavor: Light fruit. Peaches, but like the syrup from a can of peaches. Pepper and clove spice. Hop bitterness is pronounced. Flavor seems more continental spicy than American citrus. Dry finish that lingers on a tart orange. Alcohol is a little hot. Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium-high carbonation. Very dry finish. Hot alcohol. Overall Impression: A nice version of a hoppy Belgian Tripel. Would benefit from a little aging to let the hot alcohol mellow a little.
I had escaped the cold and snow of Minnesota. The sun was shining brightly. The temperature temperature in the San Francisco Bay Area was hovering in the mid-sixties with a cool breeze blowing from the west. This was the perfect day for a drive north into the wine country of Sonoma County for a tasting. A beer tasting of course. Today the brewery of choice was Lagunitas in Petaluma. Known for big, brash, hoppy beers, Lagunitas was long one of those mysterious breweries who’s beers we in the land of the cold could not get. In the last year, however, these brews have become available in Minnesota and they are flying off the shelf.
The afternoon at Lagunitas began in the tasting room before moving on to the tour, which started at the bottling line and ended at the brewhouse. I am going to go in reverse. The brewery was much bigger than I expected and much bigger than the pictures on the Lagunitas website would indicate. It turns out that they have not updated the virtual tour on the website since installing a new brewhouse that has dramatically increased their output capacity. The old brewhouse was a 30-barrel system that would only allow them to brew one batch at a time. The new brewhouse is an 80-barrel system with separate mash and lauter tuns, allowing them to have three batches working at any one time. It is the biggest brewhouse that I have seen at a smaller brewery. Another thing that I found interesting about the brewery was that the fermenters are kept outside. They are glycol jacketed to allow for precise temperature control, as are fermenters in most breweries. The mild climate in Northern California allows them to operate efficiently outdoors in a way that more extreme climates would make impossible.
Now on the the tasting room. The tasting room at lagunitas is like a loft version of a fraternity house basement. Overlooking the bottling line, it is full of old overstuffed sofas and chairs, a foosball table, and a bar against one wall a row of with mismatched bar stools. We sampled six beers with fairly generous pours, Pils, Censored, IPA, Hop Stoopid, New Dog Town Pale Ale, and Gnarlywine.
What I know to be my favorite Lagunitas beer, the New Dog Town Pale Ale, was unfortunatley spoiled by the order in which the beers were served. This is a very drinkable American Pale Ale with a HUGE piney hop presence. It is not an extreme beer or a big beer, but it was one of the last two beers served. After sampling IPA, Hop Stoopid, and Gnarleywine I am afraid the Pale Ale was a bit overwhelmed. Because of that, my favorite beer at the tasting was also the one that struck me as the most interesting choice of brews from a brewery known for big hoppy brews. Lagunitas Pils is a wonderful example of a Ceczh style pilsner, with a full sweet/bready malt and loads of spicy/perfumy saaz hops. Easy to drink and tasty.
Hop Stoopid, soon to replace Maximus in the Lagunitas lineup, is described by the brewery as a Triple IPA. Aside from the 102 IBU bitterness rating, I don’t see what makes this anything more than a Double IPA. It’s modest 8% ABV certainly wouldn’t warrant the tripel designation. Whatever you want to call it, it is a nice beer, surprisingly more balanced than the IPA, it has a big grainy, caramel malt backbone to support the gigantic grapefruit hop presence.
The Gnarlywine, an 11% ABV barleywine style, was also nice. Less bitter than I expected, but still bitter enough to call it an American barleywine, this beer has a malty sweet richness that goes down easy. The alcohol presence is apparent, but not hot or solventy. While good to drink now, it will be even better with a year of age on it. Buy a bottle and lay it down for a while.
The Censored and IPA were my least favorite of the tasting. This is not to say that they are bad beers, I just didn’t feel that they held up to the others. I like balance in a beer and I find the Lagunitas IPA to be short on the malt character needed to back up the big hops. Censored, a red ale, just seems to fall a little flat compared to the others. Again, the hops were the dominant note with some toasty malt coming through as it warmed. Perhaps if I were drinking a pint of this beer without comparing it to five other Lagunitas hop bombs I would feel differently. It certainly is not a beer that I would turn away.
A visit to Minnesota’s smallest commercial brewery.
While in Winona, Minnesota on business for a couple of days, I did as I always do when on the road, I searched out places to find good beer. This is not exactly an easy task in Winona. The choices are rather limited. However, while eating lunch at Culver’s, I looked across the parking lot to see that the bowling alley sign also read “Wellington’s Backwater Brewing Company.” Back in my hotel room I looked it up online and sure enough, there is a brewpub in the bowling alley. Of course I had to check it out.
That night I went in for dinner. I immediately ordered a sampler of all the house brewed beers which included a wheat, a pale ale, and a nut brown ale. They also brew an oatmeal stout, but that was out. Sadly, with the exception of the wheat, the beers were all very dissapointing. Each had a slightly vegetal and stale taste that was not pleasant. So, I ordered the wheat to accompany my BBQ sampler platter. The menu says that the wheat beer is a Kolsch style. I think I would classify it more as an American wheat, as the body and overall flavor profile were not as delicate as I would expect from a Kolsch. Whatever you want to call it, it was pretty tasty and went very well with the fine BBQ. As I was getting ready to leave, I saw the brewer, Chris Gardner in the brewery and took a moment to introduce myself and arrange to meet with him the next evening.
The next night Chris filled me in on the history of the brewpub. The bowling alley had been started by Chris’s father in the 1960’s. The idea for the brewpub came in 1995. At the time Chris was homebrewing and working at a liquor store/homebrew supply store connected to the bowling alley. One day while reading the Midwest Brewing News, he saw an ad for a 1-barrel brewhouse that Bell’s Brewing was selling. He talked to his brother, by then the majority family owner of the business, about buying the system and adding house beers to the menu. This was at a point in history when brewpubs were popping up all over the place so it seemed like a natural. One year and a lot of money later, the brewery was operating. Chris, a graduate of the short course at the Siebel Institue in Chicago, has been producing four house beers and an occasional specialty ever since. He brews once a week for a total annual output of around 55 barrels.
I tried all four beers again on this visit. I must say, they were all much fresher tasting. Chris explained that he has a hard time getting the staff to run the beer out of the lines at the start of an evening. I suspect that the samplers I had were first pours that consisted of beers that had been sitting in the lines overnight. The stout, that Chris took straight from the bright tank, had a rich, creamy mouthfeel and nice chocolate and roast malt character. The pale ale tasted very fresh with a bright citrus hop character and underlying caramel malt. The brown was toasty and lightly bitter, but seemed a little on the sweet side for my taste.
I very much enjoyed my visit to Minnesota’s smallest commercial brewery and my conversation with Chris. While none of the beers are outstanding, if you find yourself in Winona looking for a decent beer, I would recommend a visit to Wellington’s Backwater Brewing.
Second Meeting of the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club
The Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club met on Friday the 13th for celebration of porters, stouts, and other black beers. What better night than Friday the 13th to delve into dark brews. Appropriately enough, thirteen people were on hand at the home of club member Kevin Butler to sample an array of eight inky ales and lagers. The evening started with Guinness Stout. Although this beer has become ubiquitous, you just can’t talk about porters and stouts without including Guinness. And besides, it’s a darn fine beer. Next was the first of two black lagers, the malty Kulmbacher Mönchshof Schwarzbier. More toasty than roasty, with touches of caramel and a crisp dry finish, this beer was a favorite of the group. We followed that with another classic, Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout. Rich and creamy with a malty sweetness and coffee roast, this beer remains one of my all-time favorites. Next was the Cygnus X-1 Porter from St. Paul’s Flat Earth Brewing. I like to support the local brewers at events, and the Cygnus porter with it’s deep coffee roast and hints of rye spiciness is one of my favorite locally brewed beers. Those who have been agreed that the Thursday afternoon growler sales at Flat Earth are worth checking out.
After the Flat Earth we moved into the realm of big beers with Lion Stout from Sri Lanka. The second lager of the night, this beer exhibited loads of dark fruit flavor under a thick roast malt center. While some found it too roasty for their taste, it was a winner for most. From there we moved on to an even bigger stout, Storm King Imperial Stout from Victory Brewing of Pennsylvania. I find this beer to be more drinkable than many imperial stouts. While full of flavor, it has a light body for the style and a relatively high hop presence. The group was about evenly split on this one, with many finding it to be too bitter for their taste.
Finally we entered the realm of specialty black beers with Smoke Jumper form Left Hand Brewing. An imperial smoked porter that weighs in at 9.2%, this beer melds coffee and chocolate roast, licorice, and a pronounced campfire smoke into what I found to be a delightful beer. The reaction was somewhat mixed, with many finding the smoke to be too much. To paraphrase one participant, “I didn’t dislike it as much as other smoked beers I have had.” Finally it was on to desert with Choklat from Southern Tier. Like bittersweet chocolate syrup in a beer bottle, this one was a real crowd pleaser. Those who did not care for it at first changed their minds once we added a scoop of vanilla ice cream to their glass. A chocolate stout float is one of the truly great desert experiences. The last black beer of the evening was Bell’s Expedition Stout. I had wanted to bring this for the event, but was unable to find it. Kevin, our host for the night, was generous enough to share two bottles from his own cellar. Thanks for that.
Thanks to everyone who came. It was a great evening. Everyone learned. Everyone tasted great beer. Sharing great beer with good company can’t be beat. Be sure to keep an eye out for the next event.
The theme for the February meeting of my monthly beer tasting group was “Category 23.” In the parlance of the Beer Judge Certification Program, category 23 is Specialty Ales. It is the catch-all category for any beer that doesn’t fit anywhere else, safe haven for the bastard step-children of brewing. It is here that one finds “imperial” versions of other styles, historical styles, beers brewed with unusual techniques or ingredients, and the cross-cultural twisting and blending of styles peculiar to particular regions. With beers in category 23 one enters the realm of adventure and experimentation where the only limitation is the depth of the brewer’s imagination and the level of the brewer’s skill.
The night began with on an equally adventurous gustatory note, a Crave Case and fries from White Castle. Although I really never eat White Castle, I did somehow manage to force down three or four jalapeno cheeseburgers in order to establish a good protein base for the beers that were to come. The hint of fiery spice that lingered after the beef(?), cheese, onions, bread and grease had slid away left me craving a quenching quaff of oddball beer.
The selection of beers, eighteen in all, was really quite good. As is to be expected with this category, there were a number of high alcohol beers, which made for a much louder evening at the end. The beers ranged from a gruit-like Danish ale to a Pilsner from Turkey. Among them were a few standouts. In my view the best beer of the night was Beatification from Russian River Brewing. This 100% spontaneously fermented ale (they call it a Sonomalambic) poured a brilliantly clear light gold. It was highly acidic, but not offensively tart, with bright pear and peach fruitiness and a background barnyardy funk. Delightful. Next on the list for me was an Oyster Stout from Hunter Beer Company of Australia. This was a rich, smooth chocolate and coffee stout with not a hint of acrid or bitter roast. I expected fishiness. There was none. Bittersweet Lenny’s RIPA, an imperial rye IPA from Shmaltz Brewing was another favorite with it’s “obscene” hop presence, huge rye spice, and big malt backbone.
One of the more interesting beers was Vildmoseøl from Danish brewer Wintercoat. The Wintercoat website describes this an an ale with peat-smoked malt, bog myrtle, and rowan berries. This beer had a huge spruce and spicy nose. The flavor combined a tangy swampiness (I mean that in a good way) with a lingering sugary sweetness. A most interesting and tasty beer.
The two most disappointing beers of the night, although not the worst, came from the same brewery, Southern Tier from New York. I find with this brewery that they either hit it out of the ballpark or swing and miss. Their Imperial Cherry Saison was heavy with an unpleasant smokiness and had very little cherry flavor. The Heavy Weizen, an imperial hefeweizen, was described variously by the group as “harsh”, “musty”, “alcoholic”, and “Lemon Pledge.” This was just an unpleasant beer. I thnk the worst beer of the night has to have been the Efes Pilsner. There may be a good beer underneath, but this bottle was so badly skunked and oxidized that is was impossible to taste much else. Fortunately it was the second to last beer of the night and our palates were probably already half dead.
Those in attendance were Mark Johnson, Chris Belsky, Al Boyce, Joel Stitzel, Gera Exire Latour, and Michael Agnew. The full list of beers tasted included Rose de Hibiscus from Brasserie du Ciel, Lake Superior Mesabi Red, Russian River Beatification, Southern Tier Imperial Cherry Saison and Heavy Weizen, Maple Oat Ale from Peak Organic, Hunter Beer Company Oyster Stout, Shmaltz Brewing Lenny’s RIPA, Rejewvenator, and Jewbelation 9, Flying Dog Imperial Schwartzbier, Lagunitas Cappucino Stout, Wintercoat Vildmoseøl, Neuzeller Porter from Neuzeller Klosterbrau, Wexford Irish Cream Ale, Efes Pilsner, Ettaler Klosterbrauerei Dunkeler Doppelbock, and Altenmünster Winterbier Doppelbock.
Last night the Four Firkins once again saw action in the fifth contest of the Battle of the Beers series, the Belgian Broil. A full house of nearly 35 people were in attendance to pass judgment on who makes the better Belgian style beers and Double IPAs, American craft brewers or a bunch of monks from Belgium. Six beers battled it out in three rounds pitting Dubbel against Dubbel, Strong Golden against Strong Golden, and American Double IPA against Belgian Double IPA. A winner was decided for each round by the masses gathered there to witness the carnage. In the end, one beer was selected to reign supreme above them all. When the battle was complete, the Americans had taken two rounds to the Belgians one, but it was a Belgian that took the top honor.
The results of the Belgian Broil:
Round One: Belgian Dubbel
Westmalle Dubbel vs. Ommegang Abbey Ale – Ommegang bested the Belgian! Round Two: Golden Strong
Duvel vs. Victory Golden Monkey – The chimp never stood a chance against the devil. Round Three: Double IPA
Southern Tier Gemini vs Urthel Hop-it – Americans invented the style and they still do it better. Gemini wins. Grand Champion Round
To quote a participant, “It’s not just the best beer of the evening, it’s one of the best beers in the world.”
Duvel wins the night.