Beers of the British Isles (take two)

The July Meeting of the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club

When: Friday, July 30, 2010
Cost: $25
You must be a member of the club to attend. Go to the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club to join and RSVP.

Great Britain has a long and storied beer history. Its brewers invented porter and then made it the first mass produced industrial beer. It is the origin of IPA. Baltic Porter and Imperial Stout were both born here, as were Irish stout, milk stout, and oatmeal stout. And what would life be like without the traditional Bitters? And its beer culture is still going strong today in pubs across Britain, where real ale is still pumped from casks the old-fashioned way.

English ales were the original inspiration for the American craft beer movement and the reason many a craft brewer on this side of the ocean began brewing in the first place. Most of them still include at least one traditional English style beer in their line-ups.

For this meeting we’ll sample our way through the beers of the British Isles from subtle bitters to big imperial stouts. We’ll taste the wares of brewers from over there and from over here. We might even do a blind tasting or two to see who does it best.

Van Rompuy ESC – An Emerging Style?

The Eurovision Song Contest was first broadcast in 1956. In the age before satellites, the simultaneous linking of television outlets across all of Europe was a stunning technological achievement that foretold the future of the broadcast industry. It was also the beginning of a wonderfully peculiar and uniquely European institution.

The pan-European celebration of musical nationalism that is the Eurovision Song Contest happens yearly, an annual display of fabulous frippery.  The finals, now beamed across the globe, get music fans everywhere tapping their feet and singing along to a blend of cheesy europop, fantastic costumes, and bizarrely over-the-top staging. While we in the US have our own quirky cultural phenomena (anyone seen Americas Got Talent?), it is hard for me to imagine oddball extravagance on the scale of the Eurovision Song Contest happening here. Lady Gaga’s got nothing on these folks.

So what does the Eurovision Song Contest have to do with beer you ask? Van Rompuy is the answer.  (Read More…)

2010 St. Paul Summer Beer Fest Recap

So what’s the deal with beer, kilts, and bagpipes? I have never quite understood this. While I love a good Scottish ale as much as the next guy, I don’t consider Scotland to be a world beer Mecca. And yet, at any beer event in the country you will see more kilts per square foot than perhaps any place else in the US. And bagpipes are the traditional starting bell of nearly every festival. I remain bemusedly baffled.

And so it was at the second annual St. Paul summer beer fest. At precisely noon the pipers piped to signal the start for those lucky enough to have snagged early entry VIP tickets. This year’s fest was bigger than last year, making it perhaps the largest beer festival in the Twin Cities, if not the state. Once again it was well managed and just crowded enough to be exciting but remain comfortable in the large expanse of the Midway Stadium parking lot. I only wish I had remembered sunblock. Last year I got burned to a crisp as well. You would think I might have learned.

And that brings me to one of the better beers at the event, Minnesota Tan from Lift Bridge Brewery. Minnesota Tan aptly demonstrates that an easy-drinking summer beer doesn’t necessarily have to be a small beer. This Belgian Tripel style ale is light and refreshing with lively tartness from the fermented lingonberries. First released last year, this year’s version is better balanced and less pink. It goes down easy. Almost too easy, because at 9% ABV it won’t take too many of these to mess you up under the hot summer sun.

San Francisco’s 21st Amendment was pouring two versions of their Hell or High Watermelon Wheat from watermelons. The first was the straight-up watermelon wheat. I have always enjoyed this beer, but soaking it in a watermelon upped the fruity flavors, making it a great summery ale that reminded me of seed spitting fights as a kid. The other version was infused further with cucumber and jalapeño. I am not a chili beer fan, so I was hesitant. The watermelon and cucumber gave this one a wet coolness that was followed by a gentle pepper burn on the way down. I liked it.

I had a great time sampling experimental IPAs with Aran Madden, the brewer at Furthermore Beer. He was in town a while back for a Brew with the Brewmaster event at Vine Park that I wrote about in an earlier post. At the fest we tasted four of six India influenced IPAs that were brewed that day. Very unique. Think English style IPA with curry. None were bad, some were better than others. You can expect more about these beers in a future post.

I finally had the opportunity to taste Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch Belgian IPA. It has been around for a while, I know. I just never got around to trying it. I’m not normally such a fan of the Belgian IPAs. The Belgian yeast phenolics clash with the high level of hops on my palate. I didn’t really mind this one though. It seemed well balanced and didn’t strike me with the same harshness that others tend toward. Or maybe I was getting delirious under the hot St. Paul sun.

My long conversation with the young guys from Tall Grass Brewing Company out of Manhattan, Kansas was a highlight of the day for me. Only four years old, the brewery is growing fast with an output of nearly 5000 barrels a year. Their brewery currently shares space with a limo service garage, so you might say that they are brewing in the underbelly of luxury. I particularly liked their Oasis Double ESB. Nice English style malts with bracing and sharp bitterness in a 7% ale. A good one for sipping of the patio as the cooling of a Minnesota evening starts to set in. Tall Grass beers will be showing up in Minnesota stores in the next couple of months.

I sampled a number of other very nice beers, including Goose Island’s Pepe Nero black pepper dark saison, and Geary’s Hampshire Ale and London Porter. The winner of the people’s choice best-of-fest beer was Great Lakes Nosferatu Imperial Red Ale. Unfortunately I did not try this one, so I have no comment.

Once again Juno, Mark, and crew did a great job putting this one together. The St. Paul Summer Beer Fest is a fantastic addition to the Twin Cities beer scene.

All Photos by Mark Roberts.
For more on the fest and the National Homebrewers Conference that also happened this weekend check out my Hoppress Blog.

A Pair from Weyerbacher

Weyerbacher Brewing Company is one of the latest in a rush of new breweries coming into Minnesota. Out of Easton, Pennsylvania, Weyerbacher specializes in full-bodied, full-flavored ales. Big beers, in short. I sampled their Double Simcoe IPA and Merry Monks Tripel last night for a Weyerbacher double-feature. Here’s my notes:

Double Simcoe IPA
Weyerbacher Brewing Co., Easton, Pennsylvania
Style: Double IPA
Serving Style: 12 oz Bottle

Aroma: Citrusy hops dominate the aroma with lemon/lime and grapefruit pith. Some earthy, resinous notes hang in there as well. Sweet, syrupy malt forms a base, complemented by stone fruits and alcohol. Nice orange notes come in as the beer warms.

Appearance: Dark amber and clear. The huge, rocky head lingered on and on.

Flavor: Bitterness is the key word for this beer. Sharp bitterness starts it off and finishes it up. The bitterness comes across as a bit astringent. Hop character is mostly citrus with hits of earth and pine resin. A bit grassy, perhaps from dry-hopping. There is a menthol-like cooling effect from the intense bitterness, hop flavor, and alcohol. The grainy sweet and syrupy malt is almost enough to balance, giving brown sugar and light caramel character. The fruitiness from the aroma makes an appearance with the same orange coming through as it warms. Sweet caramel lingers after swallowing.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. Medium carbonation. Somewhat astringent. Definite alcohol warming, although not hot.

Overall Impression: This is certainly one for the hop heads. A bit too bitter for my taste, it struck me as a bit harsh. However, the malt is full and sweet enough to make it drinkable and enjoyable. I do love Simcoe hops.

Merry Monks
Weyerbacher Brewing Co., Easton, Pennsylvania
Style: Belgian Tripel
Serving Style: 12 oz Bottle

Aroma: A Belgian fruit basket. Lemons, banana, apricot and other stone fruits. Some sweet malt lurks behind. The typical “cotton candy” of Belgian yeasts. Alcohol and cloves keep the fruits and candy in check.

Appearance: Gigantic, mousse-like white head that lasted nearly to the end of the glass. Golden color with a slight chill haze that disappeared as the beer warmed.

Flavor: Fruit, candy, spice, and sweet pils malt. The malt provides a sweet and slightly bready base. The fruity and spicy character of the yeast gives off masses of banana, stone fruits, and pears. This is countered by spicy hops and yeast-derived black pepper. Alcohol is a bit hot. The finish is very dry with an intense blast of bitterness on the way out.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body, but mouth-filling in the way of a German wheat beer. High carbonation. Slightly hot alcohol.

Overall Impression: This is a very nice tripel. Has the dryness and intense bitterness of Westmalle, but with elevated fruitiness. A bit rough around the edges, not quite as refined as some of the Trappist versions of the style, but still quite tasty. I had this with a chicken and kohlrabi soup spiced with cinnamon, coriander, and saffron. It went quite well.

Does Size Matter – Contemplating the Growth of Sam Adams

A recent article in the New York Times about the growth of Sam Adams has got me thinking. What is a craft brewer? And does size matter?

As the article states, Sam Adams is on the verge of growing beyond the legal and industry definitions of “craft brewer.” The federal government defines a small brewery as one that produces less than two-million barrels annually. A lower excise tax is levied on brewers who meet this criterion. Similarly, the two-million barrel limit is part of the Brewers Association (BA) definition of “craft brewer.” Sam Adams is set to exceed this mark by 2012.

But there is much more to the Brewers Association definition than annual output volumes. Besides being small, says the BA website, a craft brewer is “traditional” and “independent.” What is meant by these labels? According to the BA, a traditional brewer is one that “has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.” This is clearly an attempt to differentiate craft brewers from the large brewing concerns that use high percentages of corn and rice adjuncts in the production of light lagers. Sam Adams certainly meets this standard.

An independent brewery, the site states, has less than twenty-five percent ownership in the hands of an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.  As a publicly owned company with 71% of shares held by institutions according to Yahoo, it is conceivable to me that Sam Adams would not be considered independent. But the BA limits this ownership restriction to alcoholic beverage industry members. Sam Adams can slip by on this one. But does the recent sale of the Anchor Brewery to the Griffin Group, an investment and consulting firm focused on alcoholic beverages, defy the restriction? Is Anchor no longer independent and therefore no longer craft? And what of the other once small and independent breweries that have been bought by the big boys. I’m thinking of breweries like Red Hook. Making no claims about Red Hook beers, assuming that these breweries’ beers retains their quality, have they stopped being craft brewers?

There is more to the Brewers Association definition. The website states that a “hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.” By my count, Sam Adams currently has thirty-three beers in their repertoire. These include unique interpretations of traditional styles, barrel-aged, sour, and imperialized beers. They invented the extreme beer genre in the 1990s with Triple Bock and have continued to push boundaries with Utopias. By the standard of innovation, Sam Adams is clearly craft.

The BA also says of craft brewers that they “tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy, product donations, volunteerism, and sponsorship of events.” How does Sam Adams stack up? They sponsor the Brewing the American Dream program to provide lower income entrepreneurs with support and advice in getting fledgling business off the ground. They sponsor the annual Longshot Competition that gives homebrewers a chance to have their creations produced and sold commercially by Sam Adams. Then there is the famous story of them selling hops at cost to struggling small breweries during the recent worldwide hop shortage. Other efforts listed on the Sam Adams website include work with the Leary Firefighters Foundation, the Hands on Network, the Sean McDonough Foundation, and the Neely Foundation. I would say this shows significant community involvement. Does this make Sam Adams craft?

Perhaps the most important part of the BA definition of craft brewer is integrity. The website states that craft brewers “maintain integrity in what they brew.” Despite their size, and despite brewing in multiple locations, Sam Adams brews to high standards.  Boston Lager is the same flavorful beer it was when it was a groundbreaker in the microbrew revolution during the 1980s. With some hits and misses, their beers stand up in terms of flavor and quality to most other craft breweries, though some will dispute this. Sam Adams has been slammed by some for selling-out with Sam Adams Light, but even this beer, when tasted side-by-side with the light products of the behemoth brewers, is brewed with greater care and character. And as a publicly owned company they do have an obligation to shareholders to maintain and grow the bottom line. Does providing for shareholders rob Sam Adams of too much integrity for them to remain craft? If so shouldn’t we hold the entirety of our publicly owned corporations to the same standards?

All of this leads me to one thought. As the craft beer industry grows, our beloved small breweries will unavoidably grow with it. It’s already happening. Once tiny businesses like Sam Adams and New Belgium have expanded to become regional and even national powerhouses. Stone Brewing is actively seeking a location in Europe, making them perhaps the first multinational American craft brewer. In the face of this growth how will craft beer drinkers respond? Will be embrace and encourage it? Will we rejoice in the success of our favorite brewers and commend them for spreading great beer to ever wider audiences? Or will our desire to retain the boutique mystique of the small lead us to reject them for becoming “like the macros”, an argument that I have already heard levied against Sam Adams and New Belgium.

How do we want to define “craft?” Is it a matter of numbers of barrels produced in a year? Or does it have more to do with the quality of the product. When the macro brewers start making good beer, which they are already doing, are these well-crafted beers somehow less craft than those made by smaller brewers? In short, does size matter?

Blue Nile’s Battle Belge 2010

Last night was the first night of Battle Belge 2010 at the Blue Nile Ethiopian restaurant in Minneapolis. Bar manager and beer maven Al McCarty matched Belgian and non-Belgian versions of popular Beligan beer styles in head-to-head combat. Styles include saison, strong dark ale, Flemish sour red, tripel, dubbel, and strong golden ale, with two example of each to compare. Ten dollars buys a flight of four 4-ounce pours.

I only did straight comparisons of a couple of the styles, opting instead to sample mostly those beers on the list that I had never tried. The few direct match-ups that I did try showed that while the non-Belgians make some fantastic beers, they generally don’t quite stand up to their Belgian brewing counterparts.

Surly Cynic stood up reasonably well to Dupont Vielle Provision, but it’s hard to go up against the benchmark of the style. Both Unibroue Trois Pistoles and Gulden Draak strong darks were tasty, but the Gulden Draak had more depth and dimension when compared side-by-side. Tripel Karmeliet crushed  Nøgne Ø Tiger Tripel, which was by far the most anticipated and disappointing beer of the night. Tiger Tripel was a murky, muddy mess of a beer that made my doubts about that Norwegian brewery even stronger.

The one category in which the Americans bested the Belgians was strong golden ale. Weyerbacher, a Pennsylvania brewery that is brand new in Minnesota, brought it strong with Merry Monks and took the wind out of Delirium Tremen‘s sails.

The overall winner of the night, and going strong as my best beer of the year for 2009 and 2010 was Cuvee des Jacobin Grand Cru Rouge, better known in this country as Ommegang Rouge. While making comparisons between styles is like comparing apples and oranges, in my opinion nothing else in the line-up came close. Next to Rouge, New Belgium’s La Folie, a beer that I love, seemed overly sour and clumsy. Al bought up all the kegs of this great beer in Minnesota. Sadly the last one blew last night. If you missed it, it’s gone.

Battle Belg continues tonight (Sunday, June 6th) starting at 4:00 PM. Be there!

Boulevard Zōn

If you want a great summer beer you can’t go wrong with a wheat beer. One of the lightest, most refreshing, and maybe tastiest of these is the Belgian Witbier. The white beer style, once popular in various forms all over Europe, nearly died out. The last witbier brewery in Belgium had closed in the 1950s. That changed when Pierre Celis opened the Hoegaarden Brewery in the 1980s and singlehandedly revived this almost lost beer. Now several breweries both in Europe and the United States brew the style.

Witbiers are brewed with a large percentage of unmalted wheat, giving them a fresh cracker and white bread malt flavor and a cloudy appearance. The starch haze is accentuated by yeast that stays suspended in the beer, adding fruity and spicy notes. The real character of a wit comes from the additional flavoring ingredients. The traditional ones are bitter orange peel and coriander, but enterprising brewers have used other spices like chamomile and lavender.

Zōn (Flemish for “sun”) is Boulevard Brewing Company’s summer seasonal interpretation of the style. Here’s my notes:

Boulevard Brewing Co., Kansas City, Missouri
Style: Belgian Witbier
Serving Style: 12 oz. Bottle

Aroma: White bread and yeast. Banana and clove character of a German hefeweizen with subtle orange and citrus character. Very light coriander floral way in the background.

Appearance: Light straw-colored and cloudy. Fluffy white head that was moderately persistent.

Flavor: The flavor very much follows the aroma. Bready wheat malt with banana, clove, and yeast flavors rounding it out. Nice orange and lemon citrus notes with only the slightest hint of flowery coriander. Low bitterness. The dry finish lingers lightly on wheat and citrus. Light and refreshing.

Mouthfeel: Light body, but with the mouth-filling richness that wheat and suspended yeast bring to a beer. Spritzy carbonation.

Overall Impression: This is a solid representation of the witbier style. Light and refreshing, it invites another bottle. I like that the coriander character remains subtle, allowing the yeast and orange flavors to shine. I had this with dinner and it brilliantly complemented my garlic scape and asparagus pasta with white wine butter sauce. Really a great pairing.