2012 GABF Interview with Summit Brewing Company

A lot has happened at the Summit brewery since I interviewed their brewers at the 2011 GABF. A pilot brewing system was installed, allowing their brewers to test recipes and get a little experimental. The taproom has opened for business and is going gangbusters. Ground was broken on a massive cellar expansion that will allow them to nearly double production. In this interview with brewers Eric Blomquist and Gabe Smoley at the 2012 GABF we talk all about these changes and what it might mean for the future of Summit.

As I was editing the interview I realized that I kept referring to the pilot system as the “toy brewery.” It made me laugh, but it also made me wish that I had explained myself. It almost sounds as if I am mocking the new mini-brewhouse. I meant “toy” as in a really cool thing that allows the brewers to play, much as a 1965 Mustang might be a “toy” to a car enthusiast. The Summit pilot system is REALLY cool. I want one in my basement.

2012 GABF Interview with Surly’s Todd Haug

2012 has been big for Minnesota beer. It’s quite possible that as many as 17 new breweries will have opened their doors by the end of the year. That’s right, SEVENTEEN! Crazy!

It could be said that Surly Brewing Company was the start of the boom. When it rolled out the first kegs of Furious and Bender in 2006, Surly was the first new brewery in the state since 2002 when the Minnesota Brewing Company ceased operations in the old Schmidt building. Surly quickly gained an almost fanatical following as their outrageously-bitter Furious became an unlikely gateway beer that brought a whole new generation into the craft beer fold. Surly’s opening was followed quickly by Flat Earth, Lift Bridge, and an ever accelerating proliferation of budding beer-makers.

I pinned down Surly brewer Todd Haug for an interview during the opening minutes of the Great American Beer Festival in October. In the interview he talks a bit about site selection for the planned “destination brewery” and has some things to say about the current Minnesota brewery boom.

Schell’s Chimney Sweep and Snowstorm 2012: Bière de Noël

A while back I wrote a piece in the Growler magazine about beer tickers. In it I discuss how the relentless quest for what’s rare and new is shaping today’s beer market.

Gone are the days when it was enough just to make good beer. Now brewers have to constantly innovate to garner attention. Fail to do so and they become passé, regardless of how good their standard line-up may be. Old-school brewers whose reputations have been built on solid examples of classic styles find themselves pushed to produce boutique beers or risk irrelevance.

And so it is that a 150-year-old brewery – the second oldest family owned brewery in the country and a pioneer of American craft beer – releases no less than four new brands this year.

The brewers at Schell’s have been busy. Spring saw the release of a new full-time beer, the hopped-up Emerald Rye, and Czech Dark Lager, the fifth beer in the Stag Series lineup. Fall brings another Stag Series Beer – Fresh Hop Citra Pils – and another full-time release – Chimney Sweep. That’s in addition to the annually-altered seasonal Snowstorm.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand Schell’s regular lineup is great. Theirs is one of the best Pilsners available. The seasonal Hefeweizen is phenomenal. Firebrick is a go-to beer for me. With such a solid stable, they shouldn’t really have to constantly introduce new brands to keep beer lovers’ attention. On the other hand, Schell’s makes great beer. More brands mean more great beers to enjoy. It’s a double-edged sword.

At any rate, the brewers at Schell’s have been busy. Chimney Sweep and the 2012 Snowstorm hit shelves just in the last couple of weeks. I finally had the chance to give them a try.

Here’s my notes:

Chimney Sweep
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Smoked Schwarzbier
Serving Style: 12 oz bottle

Aroma: A little bit of chocolate. A little bit of spice. A little bit of smoke. It’s not the bacony smoke of a traditional rauchbier. It’s more of a campfire smoke; that smell of your jacket after a night by the fire pit.

Appearance: Full, long-lasting, rocky, beige head. Dark brown and clear.

Flavor: Malt dominates with bittersweet, dark chocolate and campfire smoke. The smoke is prominent, but not at all overwhelming. Moderate pilsner-malt sweetness is perfectly balanced by moderate bitterness from both hops and roasted grains. There is some floral and citrus character from Sterling and Liberty hops – my two favorite varieties – but it is subtle. Super balanced. Finishes with a flourish of hop and roast bitterness.

Mouthfeel: So creamy. Medium body and medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: I tasted this last night and as I type up my notes right now I find myself craving a glass of it. Alas and alack, it is only 8 am. Too soon to start drinking when there’s work to be done. Chimney Sweep is wonderfully balanced and easy to drink, and yet so full of flavor. If you’re a person who doesn’t think they like smoked beers, this might be the one for you. It’s smoky, yes, but subtle.

Snowstorm 2012: Bière de Noël
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Bière de Garde
Serving Style: 12 oz bottle

Aroma: What an interesting aroma. So much going on. Bread, herbs, honey, and brown sugar. Multiple fruits – green banana, red grapes, apples, a touch of fig. Belgian yeasty cotton candy. Horehound. Brings to mind the candied fruit in a loaf of fruit cake (I like fruitcake). Complex, layered, and changing.

Appearance: Medium-dark amber/orange and crystal clear. Good stand of rocky, off-white foam that falls quickly leaving a lace around the edge of the glass.

Flavor: The flavor follows on the aroma. It’s malt-forward and sweet, but with a dry finish. Bread crust, dark honey, and a bit of biscuit. Belgian cotton-candy sugar and yeast character. Loads of herbal notes – almost like a gruit. Touch of tartness comes in in the middle, but it’s not acidic. Bitterness is low. So much fruit – red-skinned Apples and orangy citrus. Cinnamon. White pepper traces in the finish.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. Medium-high carbonation. Some alcohol warming.

Overall Impression: What a festive beer! This screams the holiday season – sugar, spice and everything nice. It’s more Belgian yeasty than most bières de garde I have had, but that’s a-okay. To me it falls somewhere between a dubbel and a quadruple; it’s too full and fruity for a dubbel, but not strong or sweet enough for a quad.

Schell’s Stag Series #6: Fresh Hop Citra Pils

Fall is fresh-hop season. Sometime in September the store shelves burst with super-citrusy IPAs that are loaded with unprocessed hops. They’re typically big, bright and a little bit grassy. I find the fresh hops impart subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) undertones of chive. By mid-October they’re mostly gone. There are still a couple lingerers as I type this, but the pickins are slim.

But just as the others disappear from stores, a new one from Schell’s suddenly appears. It’s a lager, so it had to cellar for a time before it could be released. That bottom-fermented identity is something that separates this one from the rest of the pack. Pilsners are the original hop-showcase beers. That perfumed Saaz-hop aroma is their claim to fame. Despite that, pilsners aren’t beers that most people think of as “hoppy.” Picking a pilsner to display the freshness of the new hop crop is an interesting move. It’s a choice that is perfectly in keeping with the Schell’s tradition of brewing great German-style lagers. It’s also in keeping with the somewhat hop-averse taste of Head Brewer Dave Berg.

Here’s my notes:

Stag Series #6: Fresh Hop Citra Pils
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: German Pilsner with fresh citra hops
Serving Style: 12 oz. Bottle

Aroma: Bright citrusy hops – lemons and limes – do a delicate dance atop a base of graham cracker sweetness. Very yeasty. Malt and yeast dominate. Hop character blows off quickly.

Appearance: Light golden and hazy – reminded me of a witbier going into the glass. Mousse-like white foam that lasts and lasts – also sort of witbeir like.

Flavor: Yeast and malt hit first, giving the impression of bread dough. Bitterness is moderate, but hangs on into the finish. It’s a very delicate balance between malt and hops. The hop flavor is also delicate, but definite – revealing at varying moments lemons, limes, and ripe musk melons. At times the limes are almost tart, like Starburst candy. Hints of fresh-hop grass and chive occasionally poke their heads out in the background. Those lemons and limes linger long after swallowing.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body, but with yeasty fullness, like a witbier or a weizen. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: Everything about this beer says that I should love it. Pilsner is my perfect beer. I love a good Zwickelbier (unfiltered lager). Citra is one of my favorite new hop varieties. But there is something here that doesn’t quite fit for me. I think it’s that the doughiness of the still-suspended yeast fights for supremacy with the super-delicate flavors of the hops. It comes off a bit like a yeasty Radler. It’s not that I don’t like it, I do. I would drink a few pints. I just don’t love it. Now if it had been filtered…..