No, we won’t be drinking Miller Lite, but when talking about session beers the often repeated advertising slogan is appropriate. A session beer is one that allows the quaffing of several beers without feeling the need to be wheeled from the bar either because of bloating or impaired coordination. Session beers invite another pint. They drinkable, flavorful, and low enough in alcohol that you won’t need to worry the next morning about what you might have done the night before.
For this meetup we will taste no beer above 6% ABV. We’ll return to the pleasures of small beer where simplicity, balance, and subtlety are the measure of greatness. We’ll lubricate our social interaction with beers that inspire conversation, not confrontation. So enough of the big, bad, boozy, bitter, bourbon barrel, monster beers. Let’s drink more of less.
(Don’t worry. We’ll get back to the monster beers in a later meetup.)
Victory Brewing, located in Downingtown, Pennsylvania is, in my opinion, one of America’s best brewers. They consistently produce high quality beers in a wide range of styles from straight-ahead Pilsner to super hoppy Double IPA and smooth, flavorful Belgians. They pride themselves on using traditional brewing processes in the production of their beers including the time consuming and resource intensive decoction mashing for their Prima Pils. Storm King is Victory’s version of an Imperial Stout. I often use it for Perfect Pint beer tasting events, but I have never published tasting notes for it. So…here’s my notes. Storm King
Victory Brewing Company, Downingtown, Pennsylvania
Style: Imperial Stout
Serving Style: 12 oz. Bottle
Aroma: Hops dominate with a huge smack of pine and citrus American varieties. Somewhere underneath all those hops lie rich coffee and chocolate roasted malts. Some alcohol is noticable, but not hot or solventy. Appearance: Enormous, creamy, tan head that sticks around a long time and leaves lace on the glass. Black and clear. Flavor: Pine resin American hops greet the tongue first. The bitterness level is quite high, but not harsh. Gradually the hops are balanced by esspresso-like roasted malt with just a touch of chocolate. Roasty, but without the roast malt bitterness that some big stouts exhibit. Some licorice and minty notes. Not overly sweet. Light alcohol. Mouthfeel: Medium-high body. Medium carbonation. Some alcohol warmth. Too hop bitter to come across as creamy. Overall Impression: Definitly an American version of the Russian Imperial Stout. The high level of hop bitterness and resinous flavors are barely balanced by the huge roasted malt. Many imperial stouts are too thick and chewy for my palate, I’m done with them after about half a beer. Storm King’s well attenuated lighter body makes it more drinkable than most.
New mid-year numbers for US craft brewers were just released by the Brewers Association, a trade and lobbying group for the craft beer industry. Here are some of the main points.
The number of US breweries is the highest in 100 years. There are currently 1525 breweries in the united states, up from 1498 in 1910.
Dollar growth for craft brewers increased 9% in the first half of 2009. Although this is down from the 11% growth during the same period last year it still isn’t bad considering the overall decline in the economy.
The volume of craft beer sold increased 5% through June. This is also a decline from 6.5% increase in 2008.
Craft brewers sold 4.2 million barrels of beer in the first half of 2009 compared to 4 million in 2008.
Given the overall state of the economy, things look pretty good for US craft brewers. You can read the whole press release here.
The folks at Summit Brewing in St. Paul have been busy this year. After not releasing any new beers for many years, onlinepurchase they have released two this year with another on the way. The first wasHorizon Red Ale, released in April. This week they are rolling out the first of their Unchained Series, a traditional German StyleKölsch. According to their press release we can look forward to the next beer in this series sometime in late fall.
I’m excited about the Unchained Series, which allows Summit’s brewers an opportunity to spread their wings and explore. According to the press release, “the inspiration for the series was to give the team of six full time brewers a chance to show off their skills and creativity and to have a little fun in the process. Each brewer will have an opportunity to choose their own beer style and manage the process from start to finish, from research and recipe development all the way to tasting the beer in the final stages to determine proper conditioning and filtration for the ideal flavor and aroma profile.” Not intended as license for brewers to get wild and crazy, the Unchained Series offers them the opportunity to explore seldom brewed styles using traditional methods.
The first in the Series is a Kölsch from brewer Mike “the Miz” Miziorko. The Kölsch style is an appellation protected by the Kölsch Konvention and use of the name is restricted to a few breweries in Cologne, Germany. It is one of the few remaining German ale styles, a holdover from the time before lager beers swept Germany and later the rest of the world. However, colder fermentation temperatures and a period of cold conditioning gives Kölsch a very lager-like character. Like a more delicate and slightly fruity Pilsner, it is typically a yellow to gold colored beer filtered to brilliant clarity. It’s light bodied and features a balance of pilsner malt and spicy European hops with a well attenuated dry finish. Kölsch is an easy-drinking and refreshingly light beer for summer. The Summit version is brewed with all imported ingredients using “traditional mashing and brewing procedures” that I’m told included a multi-step mash.
Here’s my notes:
German Style Kölsch
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Serving Style: 12 oz. Bottle
Aroma: Soft bready malt with slight DMS corny character of pilsner malt. Reminds me of the crust on a loaf of fresh-baked white bread. Malt is the centerpiece of the aroma with only the slightest hint of herbal hops and stone fruits. Simple and delicate, but still delightful. Appearance: Deep golden and crystal clear. Moderate creamy white head that dissipated quickly leaving lace on the glass and a film on the surface of the beer. Nice to look at. Flavor: Starts with a kick of bitterness and peppery and herbal hop flavors until balancing bready malt moves in. Well balanced between malt and hops. A bit of sweetness and the same light corny character from the aroma give some complexity to the malt. Mid palate brings very subtle stone fruit. The finish is dry with a lingering hop spice and light residual sweetness. Mouthfeel: Light body. Crisp and clean like a lager. Medium carbonation. Overall Impression: Light, delicate, crisp, balanced. This beer is everything a Kölsch should be. The bready malt has depth and reminds me of the great Helles beers of Munich. In the sea of überhopped, barrel-aged, high alcohol monster beers Summit Kölsch is a welcome reminder of the pleasures of simplicity and balance in beer. Nicely done.
The other night I had the opportunity to meet Hildegard van Ostaden, the brewer from Urthel, her husband Bas, the business and design half of the Urthel team, and Jim Ebel, one of the brothers from Two Brothers Brewery. They were at the Four Firkins touting their newly released collaboration beer Moaten. Moaten is a Flemish word meaning “friends” and represents the relationship between the brewers that led to this collaboration. Two Brothers were the first American distributor of the Urthel beers. This early business relationship led to a friendship and a mutual respect for each other’s brewing prowess. For this first collaboration, brewed at Two Brothers outside of Chicago, they chose a Belgian style Flanders Red Ale. According to Jim Ebel, they deferred to Hildegard’s expertise in formulating the recipe. She is, afterall, a master Belgian brewer and taught brewing in Belgium for many years. I got the sense from him that another collaboration is in the offing, this time an American style to be brewed in Belgium. I can hardly wait. Moaten is an oak aged Flanders Red Ale, a traditional sour ale from north western Belgium. It is typically a very wine-like beer featuring intense fruit character, caramel malt and a bright acidic sourness. The Urthel/Two Brothers version was fermented with champagne yeast and finished off with a dose of acid producing bacteria before being aged in spent whisky barrels. The barrels had previously been used for another Two Brothers beer, so the whisky flavors are all gone, leaving only a light oak. Here’s my notes:
Two Brothers Brewery, Warrenville, Illinois
Brouwerij de Leyerth, Ruiselede, Belgium
Style: Flanders Red Ale
Serving Style: 12.7 oz. Bottle
Aroma: Vinous. Blackberry and grape fruitiness with light caramel malt. Very faint sourness that is less than other versions of the style. Appearance: Deep reddish-amber and clear. Very small off-white head that stuck around in a thin layer of foam on the surface. Leaves some lace on the glass despite the small head. Flavor: An explosion of flavors that gets more intense as the beer warms. A definite champagne-like vinous quality from the use of champagne yeast. White wine grape, blackberry, and raisin. The intense fruitiness sits on a base of rich caramel malt with some light toasty notes. The malt remains quite flavorful despite a high level of attenuation. Some herbal/peppery hop flavors are apparent but subdued, as is the bitterness. Again, the acidity is lower than other examples of the style and only really comes out after the beer has warmed a bit. Some oak notes lurk in the background. Mouthfeel: Medium body, but with a rich and creamy malt. High attenuation leading to a dry finish. Effervescent carbonation. Overall Impression: The real star of this beer is the beautiful fruitiness brought about by the combination of malt and yeast. The use of champagne yeast makes this beer unique, taking an already wine-like beer style and pushing it one step further. But don’t be alarmed. This is definitely still beer, as the caramel malt will attest. My only wish was that the sour acidity had been higher. While Jim and Hildegard spoke of wanting a subdued sourness, I am a fan of sour beers, and of Flanders Red Ale in particular. I missed the pucker and funk. I bought an extra bottle to lay down for a while. We’ll see if the bacterial beasties continue to do their work.
August is my busiest month of the year and I am too booked up with other business to make a meeting happen. So we’re going to take a little breather. We’ll fall into the dog days of summer with a more relaxed theme.
The theme for the August meetup will be potluck. Everybody brings a beer to share. Something that sounds interesting that you have never tasted. Do a little research on the beer you bring so that you can talk about it and let everyone know what they are drinking. Bring a simple food item to go along with it; just enough for everyone to get a taste. That’s a beer club potluck.
I picked up this bottle of Red Frog Ale during one of my trips to San Francisco over the past year. I picked it up mostly because I had never heard of the brewery, Blue Frog Grog and Grill. I like those hoppy, west coast ambers, so it sounded interesting. unfortunately, I didn’t get to this one before the big move back. I’m afraid a few weeks in the back of a moving van or sitting in a warehouse probably didn’t serve it well. Here’s my notes. Red Frog Ale Blue Frog Grog and Grill, Fairfield, California
Style: American Amber Ale
Serving Style: 22 oz. Bottle
Aroma: Caramel and light resin/spicy hops. Hints of citrus. The label mentions dry hopping, but the hop aroma is very subdued. Appearance: Dark amber and clear. Huge off-white head that would not go away. Flavor: Loads of caramel malt with light toast. Medium-high bitterness is less than expected. Hop flavors follow the aroma, primarily resinous and spicy with licorice notes and hints of orangy citrus. Finish is moderately dry and lingers a bit on caramel. This bottle seems a little oxidized. Could be that sitting in a moving van on the way home from California didn’t serve it well. Mouthfeel: Medium body with high carbonation. The carbonation is a bit too high, giving it a bit of carbonic bite. Overall Impression: A solid, middle-of-the-road amber ale. Nothing offensive, but also nothing terribly interesting. The malt is nice, but not terribly complex, a bit one-note caramel. Bitterness and hop character is less than expected from a west coast amber and from the description on the bottle that touts the “generous addition of hops” and the “aggressive” and “wild” character of the beer. It was neither aggressive nor wild. Handling in the move from San Francisco may have dealt this bottle a blow for the worse as suggested by the oxidation flavors.
It’s summer in Minnesota! Really it is…even though it may not feel like it. It’s 63° and overcast as I type this, sales but my current reverie for summer beers goes on. It was in this dogged spirit that the Beer Geeks sat outside on an overcast and chilly evening last week to explore “summer”. Fifteen summer sippers (and maybe a couple of not so summery beers) were sampled before rain forced us to flee the picnic table and retreat into the relative warmth of the great indoors. As a reminder that it actually is summer, many of the geeks were otherwise occupied with ballgames and bike rides. We had a small but convivial group on this most un-summery of summer beer explorations.
American Lagers were in abundance for this session. The first and best of these was Minnesota’s own Grain Belt Premium. I’m not ashamed to admit that I don’t mind a “Primo” every now and again. Lightly sweet and corny with mild bitterness and some licorice hop flavor, it does go down easily when you are in the mood for something that doesn’t tax senses. Too bad about those clear bottles though. This example was a bit skunky, as are most that don’t come from a keg. The second best was Coors Banquet. Not the ubiquitous “Silver Bullet”, but the real stuff in the vaguely yellow can; the stuff Burt Reynolds smuggled to Georgia in Smokey and the Bandit (1977). Like Grain Belt, Coors Banquet is a cornbread lager featuring the sweet flavor of maize and light spicy hops. We all noted a peculiar gasoline smell in this example, but to be honest, we tasted this toward the end of the night, so it didn’t really matter that much.
Fruit beers were also popular at this event. The best of these by a long shot was Samuel Smith’s Organic Raspberry Ale. Described as “hopped raspberry soda”, this was a sweet and vaguely wheaty beer with huge tart raspberry aroma and flavor and a long sweet syrupy raspberry finish. Also noticeable was the typical Samuel Smith chalky mineral character present in all of their beers. I think that I was the most enthusiastic one in the group, but I would have been happy to drink this beer all night long. Next up was Berry Weiss from Leinenkugel. I don’t usually mind this beer, but coming right after the Samuel Smith it really didn’t hold up, tasting thin and artificial. We also sampled Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy. Cloudy yellow and quenching like liquid lemon drops this version of the classic English drink of beer and lemonade would have been great served ice cold on a 95° day. Unfortunately, that’s not the kind of day it was.
A couple of Belgian and Belgian-inspired brews were a welcome addition to our list. The standout here was Oud Zottegems Bier. I had done some research on this beer and seen it described variously as a Flemish Red Ale, a Flanders Brown Ale, and a Strong Golden Ale. In reality it is a very tasty Belgian Blond. Comparatively light at 6% ABV it has rich pilsner malt sweetness with huge candy-like honey and raisin character. There is plenty of spicy Belgian yeast that is accentuated by a dry finish lingering on spicy hops. The Limited Edition Tripel from Red Hook had a nice sweet candy orange malt character, but the sharp peppery hops and high bitterness were found to be harsh and overwhelming. Background medicinal flavors also detracted. Two Jokers Double Wit from the Boulevard Brewing Smokestack Series was universally disliked. An object lesson in “more is not always better”, this beer is so heavily spiced, especially with lavender, that one member of the group described its flavor as “old lady soap.”
Two other beers met with near unanimous condemnation from the group. The first was Sun Rye from Red Hook. The cotton candy aroma promises something rich and tasty that the flavor just doesn’t deliver. What you get is a somewhat sweet ale with light rye spiciness and then a whole lot of nothing; a middle-of-the-road rye. The other was Schell’sZommerfest. Called a Kolsch, this beer lacks any of the delicacy of that style. I would describe it as an over-hopped wheat beer or an over-wheated IPA. Whatever you want to call it, we all felt it to be sharp and abrasively over-bitter.
The beers tasted were Grain Belt Premium, Lakefront Organic ESB, Summit Hefeweizen, Samuel Smith Organic Raspberry Ale, Leinenkugel Berry Weiss, Leinenkugel Summer Shandy, Red Hook Sun Rye, Oud Zottegems Bier, Red Hook Limited Edition Tripel, Paulaner Salvator, Boulevard Smokestack Series Two Jokers Double Wit, Schell’s Zommerfest, Mickey’s Malt Liquor, Coors Banquet, and Point Lager. Those in attendance were Michael Agnew, Chris Belsky, Wilbur Ince, Gera Exire LaTour, and Timothy Swanstrom-Stage.