Specialty Beer or Just Plain Beer?

I was nearing the end of a long, thumb snowy drive home from Kansas City the other day. I hit a spot where I couldn’t pick up NPR and clearly needed something to occupy my brain. I passed a billboard advertising a liquor store somewhere in southern Minnesota. The sign bore the proud declaration “Specialty Beer.” At that moment this sight filled me with mixed emotions. On the one hand I was happy to see a small town store advertising and selling better beer, stuff although I have no idea what kind of selection they might actually have. On the other hand I found myself wondering how long the craft beer industry will be saddled with labels like “specialty” and “craft.”

Think about it. When you go into a liquor store they don’t have a separate section for wines that don’t come in a box. They don’t put a special label on the single malt scotch to suggest that it is anything other than scotch. I don’t believe I have ever seen a store, advice even those selling small artisanal labels, advertise “specialty vodka.” Wines and spirits may be organized by type, region, or even price, but seldom is the better stuff called “special.” Contrast this with beer where it is not uncommon to see the “beer” section brimming with twelve-packs of pale lagers and a physically separate “specialty beer” section with its rows of 22 oz and 750 ml bottles. I found myself wondering if this segregation was a good thing or a bad thing for the industry.

In the short term labels like “craft” or “specialty” draw attention to better beer and let consumers know that it isn’t the same old pale, tasteless brew that they may think of as beer. In the long term, however, I think it may serve to scare people off. Segregating craft beer from the rest of the beer universe makes it easier for those who haven’t yet stepped up to say, “Oh, that’s too dark for me” or “I don’t like that strong stuff.” It serves to alienate potential craft beer drinkers from a product that they may very well like. Or it might lead some to see it as something to be consumed only on special occasions. Separating it physically in the store from other beers certainly makes it easier for the casual beer drinker to overlook. I would bet that there is a whole set of beer customers at a store like Surdyk’s or Zipp’s in Minneapolis who are totally unaware that there is a special aisle for specialty beers.

If you think about it, the majority of craft beers available today are simply beer as it was up until about World War II when resource rationing and changing palates began the slide to the corn and rice lagers of today. In other words, it’s just beer. A pilsner or Munich dunkel in Germany is just beer. A bitter in England is just beer. Bottled versions of each would sit on store shelves alongside other beers without need of special categorization. I wonder how long it will take for Americans to see domestic craft beer and better imported beer as just “beer.” How long will it take for Lagunitas Pils to take its rightful place in the cooler somewhere in the vicinity of the other light-colored lagers instead of being relegated to the short-bus ghetto of the specialty aisle? When will we normalize the consumption of quality beer in the same way that we have normalized the consumption of fine wine and spirits?

The Saint from Crispin Cider

A few days ago I posted about a Crispin Cider dinner I attended at A25. One of the highlights of that event was a pre-release sampling of The Saint, the new artisanal reserve release from Minneapolis based Crispin. I enjoyed it that night, but felt I should give it a proper tasting before writing more formal tasting notes. I know this is a beer blog, but many beer fans also like cider and this one is fermented with trappist ale yeast. Seems appropriate to me. Here’s my notes:

The Saint
Crispin Cider Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Hard Cider with Trappist Yeast and Organic Maple Syrup
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: Fresh fruit. Tart apples and pears. Hint of bready yeast. Light cotton candy/herbal Belgian yeast phenolics.

Appearance: Color is light straw and quite hazy. Be sure to rouse the yeast off the bottom of the bottle before you pour this one. Forms a light head on pouring that dissipates immediately into nothing.

Flavor: Sweet red apple skins with hints of pear as in the aroma. Tart apple rides the sides of the tongue in the middle. Towards the end the maple kicks in and lasts long after the swallow. The maple sweetness balances the tart apple. The flavor is there but not overwhelming. Throughout the Trappist yeast gives very pleasant marshmallow/herbal/vanilla notes. Light alcohol.

Mouthfeel: Gently sparkling. Medium body but with a mouth-filling roundness. Smooth and drinkable.

Overall Impression: Quite delightful. An easy-drinking mix of tart apple and maple sweetness. Intriguing yeast-derived flavors set it apart from other commercial ciders. Puts me in mind of some of the funkier French ciders, but not quite. If you like cider and Belgian ales then give this a try.

Brewdog/Schorschbräu Beer War Continues

The silly battle of the booze continues.

Having seen their 31% Tactical Nuclear Penguin shot down by Schorschbräu’s 40% eisbock Schorschbock 40 and suffering the additional humiliation of Schorschbräu’s email offer to sell Brewdog the secret to achieving such stratospheric alcohol levels, the boys at Scotland’s Brewdog announced that their retaliation would be swift and severe. They have come back with a new WORLD’S STRONGEST BEER, a 41% IPA called Sink the Bismark that is reported to be brimming with American hops. Not known for subtlety, they have announced their triumph in this video from their blog.

Sink the Bismarck! from BrewDog on Vimeo.

Brewer Collaborations

Collaborative brewing is the new big thing in the craft brewing world. American craft brewers are partnering with others both foreign and domestic to create some unique (and some not so unique) new beers. I talked to brewers here and abroad as well as consumers to get to the bottom of the trend. Read the results in my latest article at the Ratebeer.com Hoppress.

Beer 101 at the U of MN

That’s right, a beer class at the University of Minnesota!

I’ll be teaching a course called A Perfect Pint: The Basics of Beer Tasting and Appreciation for the Compleat Scholar program at the College of Continuing Education. The course meets four consecutive Wednesday nights starting April 7th. Classes will be held at the University Club of St. Paul. Tuition is $160 and there is a $40 fee for beer. Follow the link to register. Here’s the course description:

Most people readily accept the notion that wine is a beverage worthy of contemplation and consideration. Recognition of the subtleties of varietals and terroir is firmly established. After 50 years of a market dominated by light lagers, the same cannot be said of beer. For most people beer is a pale-yellow, fizzy liquid with very little flavor and hopefully even fewer calories. But good beer never went away and is currently enjoying a worldwide renaissance driven by the emergence of small craft breweries throughout the United States. Well-crafted beer rivals wine for flavor and complexity. Join the instructor, a certified BeerCicerone, or beer adviser similar to a wine sommelier, for a course on the basics of beer tasting and appreciation. During each session you will learn about beer styles, ingredients, brewing processes, and history through presentations and tastings. You will gain an understanding of how ingredients such as hops, barley, and yeast contribute to the overall character of particular beers, as well as how regional, historical, and economic forces contributed to the emergence of particular types of beer.

Wild Beers

The March Meeting of the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club.

When: Friday, sovaldi March 12, cialis 2010
Cost: $35
You must be a member of the club to attend. Go to the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club to join and RSVP.

You only thought the beer club was wild. We’re about to get really wild. I’m talking wild fermentation, baby.

Sour beers were once enjoyed the world over. Even English porter was once a blend of fresh beer with “stale” or sour beer. Guinness still adds a small amount of soured stout to their beer to give it a slight acidic tang, a holdover from that earlier time. Over the years sour beers dropped from favor until only a few examples remained, centered mostly in Belgium where old brewing traditions die hard. The traditional lambic breweries of the Senne Valley have continued to hang on despite declining consumption at home. Enter the American craft beer scene. The discovery of sour beers in the United States has spurred a revival of these styles. American beer fans now provide the main source of support for those very same traditional Belgian breweries, and dozens of American craft brewers are turning up the funk in home-grown barrel-aging programs.

Sour beers are among the most mind-blowing, uniquely complex and delicious beers in the world. These are beers that will forever shatter your notions of what beer is. Acidity, not normally a component of beer evaluation, is what these beers are all about. They inspire flavor descriptors like “horse blanket”, “barnyard”, “old cheese”, and “dirty socks”. Tart, cidery, vinous, fruity, funky and delicious, these are some of the best beers in the world.

For this month’s meetup we’ll dig deep into the wild and wooly world of wild and spontaneous fermentation. Get gaga for gueuze. Luxuriate with a lambic. Delight in a lightweight Berliner Weiss (I may even be able to locate some raspberry and woodruff syrup to drink it the way the Germans do). We’ll do fruity Flanders reds and full-on funky 100% brett fermented beers. With fermentation agents like brettanomyces, lactobacillus, and pediococcus how can you go wrong? Bring a roll of Rolaids and let’s get funky.

And take my advice – learn to look beyond the sour.

Crispin Cider Dinner at A25 Sushi & Sake Bar

Snowstorm be damned! Monday night I slogged through the mush to attend a Crispin Cider dinner at A25 Sushi & Saki Bar on Nicolette. When I heard about this event my first thought was how well cider would pair with sushi, viagra sale and the pairings on offer confirmed my hunch. The intimate group in attendance was treated to four courses from the recently reconfigured and re-visioned A25 (formerly Anemoni Sushi) each paired with Crispin Cider or a custom Crispin cocktail devised by A25’s resident mixologist. Crispin’s owner Joe Heron was on hand to greet guests and answer questions. So as outside snow fell and cars were towed, try we sat comfortably inside enjoying a great meal and great conversation.

Upon arrival we were greeted with a sneak preview of Crispin’s newest Artisanal Reserve cider, The Saint. I was told that this was the first public pouring of this new cider. The Saint is made from a blend of fresh-pressed apples with maple syrup added. The real kicker is the Belgian Trappist ale yeast used to ferment it. The result is a cloudy cider with moderate apple flavor and acidity. The maple syrup adds some balancing sweetness and subtle flavors while the Trappist yeast give a nice herb and spice phenolic edge. The yeast character is more subtle than you would find in classic Trappist ales, but it’s still enough to call this a “Belgian” cider. It was refreshing and fruity on ice, but I preferred it straight up for a more intense flavor. Look for more complete tasting notes for The Saint coming later.

The first course was sea bass with black bean sauce on a bed of bak choi. This paired excellently with the first Crispin cocktail called Original Sin, consisting of Crispin Brut, Ketel One Citron, lemon juice, diced ginger and ginger simple syrup. This concoction was another highlight of the night for me. I ordered another at the end of the meal. The wonderful floral, citrus and ginger flavors of Original Sin brought out similar spicy ginger notes in the black bean sauce. The fish was nicely prepared and attractively presented.

Course two, a sashimi sampler with Crispin Honey Crisp, was the best food of the night and the best pairing. The plate was beautifully arranged with an assortment of very fresh sashimi. The light carbonation and acidity of the cider cut the fat of the fish, while the vinous sweetness and body was bold enough to stand up to wasabi.

The third course was crispy pork tenderloin paired with the second Crispin cocktail called Intelligent Design. This course was the least successful in both the food and the pairing. While the pork tenderloin wasn’t bad, it didn’t stand out like the previous dishes. The presentation was uninteresting, just the sliced tenderloin on a white plate with a small timbale of white rice. Had I not known it was “crispy” pork tenderloin I’m not sure that’s how I would have described it. Again, it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t at the same level as the other dishes. Similarly, the cocktail, consisting of Honey Crisp, lemon juice, Plymouth Gin, honey water, and Parfait Amour orange liqueur was tasty, but not as seductively delicious as the first and it didn’t do all that much to complement the dish.

Desert, a sweet rice and cheesecake roll with a cider, honey and ginger reduction ended the meal on a high note. The fried roll had just the right amount of sweetness and the reduction was like a caramel apple dipping sauce drizzled on the plate. It worked very well with the Honey Crisp cider that I had left from the earlier course.

I was lucky to sit at a table with Joe Heron so we spent the evening talking cider and beer as I tried to tease out what we can look forward to from Crispin. He hinted at more experiments with yeast and revealed that they are opening up several new markets in the coming weeks. The best bit of news for me stems from Crispin’s recent acquisition of the Fox Barrel Cidery in California. Fox barrel produces three wonderful ciders, a hard cider, a pear cider, and a black currant cider, that I tried on recent trips to the Bay Area. Joe says we can look for these great products becoming available in the Twin Cities in the coming weeks.

Winterfest 2010 Recap

Friday night saw seven hundred Minnesota beer fans assemble at the Minnesota History Center for Winterfest 2010. The annual winter beer festival presented by the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild is a showcase of all things beer in the land of lakes. Seventeen Minnesota breweries and brewpubs were on hand pouring over seventy-five beers. The arrangement of the History Center was much better this year than last, cialis sale spreading out the brewery tables to prevent crowding of the narrow hallways and allow easier movement and more comfortable imbibing. The only downside to the arrangement was that it was sometimes a challenge to find the particular breweries that I was looking for. Another plus this year was the plentiful food. In past years the food was usually picked over and nearly gone by the time I felt the need to refuel. This year there was still food to be had at multiple feeding stations right up to the end of the event. One of the greatest things about Winterfest is the presence of the brewers behind the serving tables. The only missing faces this year were Jeff and Cathie Williamson from Flat Earth who just welcomed their new daughter Heather into the world a couple of days ago. I guess they can be excused for missing. Beer was flowing, no rx kilts were on display (though fewer than in previous years), search and it seemed all festival goers were having a great time.

So what about the beers? In general I found the beer selection to be wanting in comparison to past Winterfests that I have attended. The variety of styles was a bit limited, lots of heavy stouts and big IPAs. It seemed like the brewers brought fewer special beers this year and there were fewer that stood out in the crowd. That said, there were some real winners and a few that were not so great as well.

For my money, Town Hall Brewery had the most interesting and consistently tasty selection of beers at the event. If the lines at their table are any indication, I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Nearly everything that I tasted from Town Hall was wonderful. Especially noteworthy for me was LSD, an ale brewed with lavender, honey and dates. It has a wonderful floral aroma and a flavor that starts out dry and hoppy only to explode with honey and raisin sweetness mid-palate. I loved it at Autumn Brew Review and still love it now. Also impressive were Twisted Jim, an American barleywine aged in Jim Beam barrels, and Russian Roulette, a huge, rich, chocolaty imperial stout served on cask.

Recounting my top-five of the fest, starting at number five is Smoked Porter from Rock Bottom Brewery. This smoked porter is made with 25% cherry wood smoked malt for a char-pit kind of smoke flavor that is totally different than the familiar meaty smoke of the classic Rauchbiers of Germany. A year ago I had a cherry wood smoked bock at Goose Island in Chicago that blew my mind. Ever since, I have been searching for another cherry wood smoked beer that works as well as that one did. I have tried many, including a couple others at Winterfest. Most have failed. While it didn’t blow my mind, the Rock Bottom Porter really worked.

Number four goes to Flat Earth’s Winter Warlock Barleywine. I have always loved Winter Warlock. Lacking the intense caramel and dark specialty malts of most English barleywines, this golden barleywine finds layered depth in simplicity, just English base malt and sugar. The 2009 batch is good now, but will be even better next year. While I am talking about Flat Earth, let me move on to my number three pick, the Grand Design S’more infused porter. This was the Great Snowshoe best beer of the festival winner this year as chosen by the attendees. I hate s’mores, but I really do like this beer. Built on the base of one of my favorite local beers, Cygnus X-1 porter, it explodes with vanilla, cocoa, and graham cracker sweetness that really does remind one of flaming marshmallows on a stick by the fireside.

My number two beer is the above mentioned LSD from Town Hall. I described it briefly up top, so suffice it to say here that it is a floral and fruity delight. A truly unique beer.

For my personal best beer of the festival I chose Unoaked Rosie’s Reserve from Barley John’s. This is a huge and hugely complex beer. While others opined that they preferred the oaked version, I am somewhat tired of bourbon barrel aged beers. I’m not that fond of bourbon to begin with and I think they have been overdone. The lack of bourbon and vanilla flavors in this 15.5% beer allowed for the discovery of delicious caramel and dark fruit without a trace of hot alcohols. Another beer that coaxes complexity from simplicity.

A few other beers deserve mention. I enjoyed the Winterye Mix and Blackwatch Oat Stout from Great Waters Brewing Co. Surly Mild was delightful as always and Four was tasty, but I want to reserve judgment until I can actually taste more than a couple ounces. It took on a kind of chalky, charred flavor that annoyed me slightly the more of it I drank. Winter Wheat from Rock Bottom was a great palate cleanser to end the evening.

A couple of beers for me missed the mark. Fitger’s Undertow Pilsner seemed a bit thin and flavorless. It could be because I had been sampling the endless number of imperial stouts and barleywines before I arrived there, but normally I like to seek out a pilsner as refuge from the huge. This one did not provide it. Great Waters’ Vulcanus Rex cherrywood smoked beer took the char pit smoke to an unpleasant level. The Smoked Doppelbock from the Herkimer Pub & Brewery, another cherrywood smoked beer, promised greatness with the aroma and then failed to deliver. The worst disaster of the evening in my view was the Chipotle Wee Heavy from Town Hall. All I can say is what a waste of their great Wee Heavy.

Beer Classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill

A Perfect Pint is excited to announce these upcoming beer classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill, taught by Cicerone Michael Agnew.

ABCs Of Beer
Friday, March 26, 6 – 8 PM, $55
What’s the difference between and ale and a Lager? What’s the best glass for my favorite beer? Which beers can I cellar and which ones should I drink young? Join Certified Cicerone (the beer expert equivalent of a sommelier) Michael Agnew as he shows you all the basics and then some. You’ll learn how to taste, select and care for beers of all types and styles. Includes a selection of Craft Beers from around the world representing basic styles and light snacks.

Smoked, Grilled and Sauced: A Wine and Beer Pairing Experience
With Chef Mike Shannon and Sommelier Leslee Miller
Friday, April 30, 6 – 9 PM, $75

Summer’s coming, and that means it’s time to fire up the grill. Join Chef Mike, Sommelier Leslee and Certified Cicerone Michael for a celebration of suds, smoke and vine. The chef will work the grill while our wine and beer gurus pour perfectly matched libations. Explore your palate and learn how to create great pairings for your upcoming summer soirées. Includes Pulled Pork Cobb Salad, Smoked Salmon Pizza, Grilled Lamb Chops with Tomatoes and Chick Peas, Jamaican Chicken with Caribbean Slaw, Cheesecake with Chocolate Almond Crust and Tart Cherry Sauce, as well as an assortment of fine beers and wines.

Cheese and Ale: Pairing Beer and Cheese
With Fromager Ken Liss
Monday, May 17, 6 – 8 PM, $55

Join Fromager Ken Liss and Cicerone Michael Agnew for a satisfying session of sipping and nibbling. You’ll start with fromage fundamentals – types, textures, flavors, shopping, storing and serving – then discover how to choose beers that complement each cheese. Includes cheese and beer from around the world.

I’ve worked with Ken, Leslee, and Mike. They know their stuff and know how to present it with passion. All three of these classes should be filled with fun and excellent eats and drinks. You can sign up or learn more about the classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill here.