For those of us who prefer beer to wine (I like wine, don’t get me wrong) toasting the New Year can be a frustrating affair. Champagne, champagne, champagne. I’ve never been a huge fan. But there are several champagne beers out there to do the deed in style.
On a recent visit to the Goose Island production brewery on Fulton Street in Chicago, I marveled at the barrel room. Row upon row of racks stacked with wine and whiskey barrels beckoned me to sample. Labels with hand-written brewer’s notes tempted me with seductive names like Juliet, Sofie, and Lolita. My heart raced as I read ingredients like “brett”, “lacto” and cherries. Sadly, their contents went untasted.
Last night I opened a bottle of the fruit of these barrels (and fruit is the appropriate word here), Madame Rose. Goose Island calls the beer a Flemish Brown Ale. After an initial fermentation in stainless, the beer is transferred into wine barrels for a long fermentation with wild yeasts and acid-producing bacteria. 40-pounds of cherries are added to every barrel.
Here’s my notes:
Aroma: Blush wine and balsamic vinegar. Tart cherry fruitiness with almond highlights. Earthy, mossy, woody. Brings to mind the smell of fresh cedar mulch.
Appearance: Light brown and clear. Small carbonation bubbles and color make this resemble champagne. Off-white head does not persist.
Flavor: Mouthwatering tart cherry. Vinous red wine vinegar combined with complex lingering malt flavors. Dark plums. Light almond, wood, and floral notes complete the picture. Finish is dry and light.
Mouthfeel: Light body, but with a velvety chewiness. Refreshing. Spritzy.
Overall Impression: Complex without being complicated. Delicate and delightful. This beer falls somewhere between a Kriek and a Flemish Brown. It has the residual malt character of a brown and the tart-cherry fruit of a Kriek. Less funky than a lambic, but funkier than an Oud Bruin.
I have a couple of beer classes upcoming at Cooks of Crocus Hill. Check these out.
ABCs of Beer
Monday, December 20th, 6-8 PM
What’s the difference between ale and 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.
Cozy Comforts Wine & Beer Pairing Dinner
With Sommelier Leslee Miller and Chef Mike Shannon
Thursday, January 6th, 6-9 PM
The weather outside is still frightful, but the wine, beer and tasty comfort food at Cooks are totally delightful! Snuggle up with Sommelier Leslee, Cicerone Michael and Chef Mike for a fun-filled new take on Minnesotan winter comforts.
Menu: Braised Winter Greens; Four-Cheese Macaroni and Cheese; Cornish Hens with Ginger-Apple Sweet Potatoes, Smore Pot de Creme.
In 1891 Prussian immigrant Peter Hand started a brewery in Chicago. The brewery’s flagship brands Old Chicago and Meister Brau carried the Peter Hand Brewing Company through prohibition and beyond, until it was sold in 1965 and renamed Meister Brau Inc. The brewery sold again in the 1970s, this time to Miller. I had Old Chicago cans in my childhood beer can collection. I drank more than my share of Meister Brau in college. But ultimately those once-strong brands were retired.
But classic (if you want to call Meister Brau a classic) beer brands die hard. Like others before it (think Schlitz, Grain Belt, and Pabst Blue Ribbon) the Old Chicago brand is rising from the grave. Craft Works, the parent company of the Rock Bottom and Old Chicago chains, has bought the rights to the brand from Miller and will be using it for a rotating seasonal series of in-house beers at the Old Chicago restaurants. This is a great idea…as long as the beer is good.
The first of the Old Chicago branded beers to debut in the Minnesota Market is good. Old Chicago Old Curmudgeon Winter Warmer Ale makes its debut today as part of the Winter Mini Tour at all Old Chicago locations. The beer is brewed at the Minneapolis Rock Bottom Brewery by Brewmaster Bryon Tonnis. It is apparently a tweaked version of a beer that has been in and out of rotation at Rock Bottom for a number of years.
Old Chicago Old Curmudgeon is a classic winter warmer in the English style. The creamy mouthfeel and malt-forward flavor make it smooth and easy to drink. Rich caramel and dark fruit sweetness is just barely balanced by subtle spicy hops. It has pleasing alcohol warmth that is surprising given its moderate 6.5% ABV. I was pleasantly surprised by this beer.
The full line-up for the Winter Mini Tour is a good one. In addition to the house beer are standouts like Chimay Red, Schell’s Hopfenmalz, Lift Bridge Chestnut Hill, Summit Winter Ale, and Odell Isolation Ale. Other decent beers on the list are Sam Adams Winter Lager, Blue Moon Winter Abbey Ale, and Bell’s Winter White. The one odd-ball on the list is Stella Artois. I was stumped by its inclusion until I learned that Stella was originally introduced in 1926 as a Christmas beer. You learn something new every day. While I’m still a bit stumped by its inclusion in an otherwise “stella” line-up, at least I know there is a logic to it.
While the Blue Moon Winter Abbey isn’t a bad beer, it was interesting to taste it side-by-side with the Chimay. These two beers of the same style are very different, and the Blue Moon version is clearly, and not surprisingly, the inferior. Whereas the Chimay is sharp, dry, moderately bitter, with multi-layered complexity, the Blue Moon Abbey is overly sweet and somewhat one-dimensional. I wouldn’t turn the Blue Moon away, but it really can’t stand up to the real thing.
On the menu, Schell’s Hopfenmalz is called “miracle lager.” Every year Old Chicago includes a “miracle” beer in the Winter Tour list. A portion of the sales of this beer go to support the Miracle Foundation, a charity that is involved in several causes including homelessness and breast cancer. For every glass of Hopfenmalz poured, Schell’s Brewery is kicking in 25 cents toward the Foundation. A Miracle Day event, staffed by volunteers from the Rock Bottom and Old Chicago restaurants is held on Christmas Day at the Minneapolis Rock Bottom. Homeless people from local shelters are invited for a huge meal, with Santa Clause delivering gifts for the kids. Drink up the Hopfenmalz. It’s a great beer and you get to support a good cause as well.
The Old Chicago Winter Mini Tour kicks off today, December 1st, at 6:00 PM at all Old Chicago locations. It runs through January 2nd.