Alaskan Pumpkin Porter

Sure, it’s Thanksgiving Day. But while people complain about retailers like Wall Mart and Best Buy making their employees come to work, in many places liquor stores are also open (except in Minnesota, of course). So for those of you who somehow forgot to supply yourselves for the holiday meal, here is a last-minute, turkey-worthy recommendation.

Here’s my notes:

pumpkin_porter_bottle_pic-webbyPumpkin Porter
Alaskan Brewing Company, Juneau, Alaska
Style: Imperial Porter with pumpkin and spices
Serving Style: 22 oz. bottle

Aroma: Vegetal squash and pumpkin pie spices are way up front – allspice, ginger, cinnamon are what I smell, although that’s not apparently what’s in it. Black strap molasses. Graham crackers. Low-level dark chocolate underneath. You get the pumpkin filling and the crust.

Appearance:  Very dark brown, nearly black. Ruby highlights. Clear. Full head of creamy, ivory foam with good retention.

Flavor: Vegetal squash notes like acorn squash. Pumpkin pie spices – ginger especially, along with cinnamon. Ginger lingers long after the dry finish. Molasses grabs in the middle and also hangs on into finish. Low malt sweetness. Low-level, dry, chocolate-cookie roastiness. Bitterness is medium-low, but accentuated by dry finish and low-level of dry roast. Toast. Mellow coffee/chickory gets stronger as the beer warms. The pumpkin pie and the coffee to go with it.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium carbonation. Low creaminess.

Overall Impression: This is a lovely, unique, and complex beer. Crisp and refreshing, and yet dusky and mouth-filling. Spices are prominent enough to give the sense of eating a slice of pumpkin pie, but not so intense as to make the beer scream “SPICE.” The massive load of pumpkin used (11 pounds per barrel) really do allow for that vegetal squash flavor to come through. And at 7% ABV it’s just strong enough to call it “imperial” but not so strong that you can’t have another. It’s beautiful with a slice of pumpkin pie.

Lakewood Brewing Company at the 2013 GABF

“Internationally inspired, locally crafted beer.” That’s the motto of Lakewood Brewing Company in Garland, Texas. Founder/brewer Wim Bens was introduced to good beer while growing up in Belgium. Here in the US it was his love of Belgian beers that led him to American craft beer. His split influences are reflected in the beers that he brews at Lakewood. They layer an American sensibility onto a base of classic European styles.

In the lineup you’ll find a classic Pilsner, a Munich dunkel with pumpkin and spice, and a Belgian-style IPA among other Euro-marican brews. The crowning glory is The Temptress, a rich and chocolaty imperial milk stout that Bens calls “dessert in a glass.” The description is apt. It is one very tasty beer.

Mob Craft Brewing at the 2013 GABF

These are crazy times for beer. Breweries are popping up so fast that it has become impossible to track them. Believe me, I tried. From December 2010 until March of this year I was writing A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland, due out next May from the University of Illinois Press (really!). For those two and a half years I put considerable effort into keeping track of all the new breweries in four states. That was a fool’s errand. It ultimately got the best of me. In the interest of eventually actually producing a book I gave up.

I have to admit that since turning in the manuscript, I haven’t been tracking new breweries all that hard. I got burned out on the task. And so it is that I am continually learning about startups in the region. Perusing the list of breweries in the program of this year’s GABF I came across two that I had never heard of. One of them is Mob Craft Brewing in Madison, Wisconsin.

Mob Craft opened in June. The nano-sized brewery is using a crowd-sourced model for determining the beers they produce. Fans can submit recipes or suggestions on the brewery’s website. Drinkers then vote with their dollars by ordering the beers that they most want the guys to make. It’s an interesting concept; a drinker-driven beer lineup.

Excel Bottling Company at the 2013 GABF

As a writer I’m a storyteller. I like breweries that have interesting stories. They make my job easier. The story can come from anywhere. It might be the brewer’s career path or brewing philosophy. It could be the history of the brewery or the building in which it is housed. Or maybe it’s the beauty of the countryside that surrounds the brewery. A brewer can make the best beer in the world, but without a captivating backstory it’s terribly difficult to pen an interesting profile. I’m left trying to manufacture magic from the rather mundane reality of making beer.

Excel Bottling Company in tiny Breese, Illinois made my life very easy. The company was founded in 1936 when Edward “Lefty” Maier captured a bank robber and collected a $500 reward. He used the windfall to purchase a bottling machine and open the third soda making plant in Breese. The others have long since closed, but nearly 80 years later Excel is still making soda the old fashioned way. They use real sugar, natural flavorings, and returnable bottles. And those bottles are still filled on that original 1936 machine.

Excel started making beer in 2012. It was mostly a business decision says Paul Maier, “Lefty’s” son. Returnable bottles have to be ordered in massive quantities and they needed another product line to keep them all filled. The current boom in brewing  and a change in the law allowing small brewers to self-distribute made beer a likely choice. They hired long-time homebrewer and homebrew store owner Tony Toenjes to oversee brewery operations. Rod Burguiere, a former brewer at Stone Brewing Co. was taken on as assistant brewmaster. Burguiere was looking for a way to move back to his native Midwest and jumped at the opportunity to bring a West Coast sensibility to Southern Illinois.

Summit Union Series: Rebellion Stout

Summit Brewing Company just keeps cranking out new brews. Between the Union Series and the Unchained Series they have had by my count five new releases this year. The latest from the Union Series, Rebellion Stout, came out just this past week. It seems that it is an extremely limited-batch brew. My sources tell me that retailers got very small allotments, meaning that in many places it has already sold out. Will there be more to follow? We can only hope.

Rebellion Stout is an example of foreign extra stout. This strong stout style was originally brewed for export to tropical regions of the British Empire. The BJCP describes two different varieties of foreign extra stout – tropical and export. The tropical version has lower roasted malt character and higher levels of malt and fermentation-derived dark fruit notes. The export variety is drier and roastier with less fruit. Examples of the tropical version available locally include Lion Stout and Xingu. There used to be more examples of the export style available in the Twin Cities. Guinness Foreign Extra, brewed since the 1800s was here for a bit, but now is apparently no longer available. You can still find the old Guinness Extra Stout bottles that used to be the only variety of Guinness available. This lack of local availability makes Rebellion Stout, an export version, a particularly welcome addition to the Summit lineup.

The focus of the Union Series is the use of new and new-ish brewing ingredients. This beer is hopped entirely with Boadicea Hops, an English variety described as having light spicy and floral aromatics. They also used Propino malt, an Irish base malt created for porters and stouts that was recently released in the US.

Here’s my notes:

Summit Rebellion StoutRebellion Stout
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Foreign Extra Stout
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle

Aroma: Tangy, noble-like hops lead off – spice, black currant, lime peel. Reminds me of Tettnang. After the second and third sniff, malt takes over – chocolate, dry graininess and light toast. Subtle coffee notes. Low alcohol.

Appearance: Voluminous, creamy, dark-tan foam with excellent retention. Opaque black. Appears clear.

Flavor: As in the aroma, tangy, noble-like, spicy/black currant hops hit first on the tip of the tongue. Malt quickly takes over and leads the rest of the way. Chocolate is the main note – semi-sweet amd dry like an Oreo cookie. Low caramel, grainy, and toasty malt flavors add complexity. Malted milk balls. Although made with Black Patent malt, there is no harsh or burnt flavor. Hop bitterness is low, assisted by bitterness from roasted malt. Finish is off-dry with lingering molasses, licorice, and chocolate.

Mouthfeel: Creamy. Velvet silk. Medium-full body. Low carbonation. Slightly warming.

Overall Impression: Rich and roasty, but with no burnt malt flavors, this high-test stout goes down super easy. Maybe a little too easy, as it’s quite tempting to down a few. This beer was lovely with a mild blue cheese, but it would stand up quite well to a more pungent one. It’s a shame that it might be so hard to find.

Summit Brewing Company at the 2013 GABF

Continuing with the GABF video interview series, I visit Summit Brewing Company. I chatted with brewers Nate Siats and Jeff Williamson as well as Steve Secor from packaging. They gave me the low-down on expansion, new beers, and Jeff talks about making the transition from Flat Earth to Summit.

I think this one must have happened late in the session. I seem to be a little less focused than in some of the other interviews. It is GABF!

Scratch Brewing Co. at the 2013 GABF

Some breweries are just more interesting than others. This has nothing to do with the quality of the beer. It’s more about the brewery’s story and philosophy. One such brewery is Scratch Brewing Co. in the tiny, southern Illinois town of Ava.

Many breweries call themselves “farmhouse” breweries, but for Scratch Brewing Company the term is especially appropriate. The brewpub is located on a plot of forested land about five miles outside Ava. It is truly a farmstead that has been in co-owner Aaron Kleidon’s family for 25 years.

But “farmhouse” in this case also applies to the way they think about and brew beer. They follow an ethic that looks to back to a time when beer making was carried out on every farmstead using the ingredients at hand. They want Scratch beers to smell and taste like southern Illinois. The rustic flavors of their traditionally styled brews are enhanced by the addition of local ingredients, many of which are foraged from the property. These have included such things as nettle, elderberry, ginger, dandelion, maple sap, various roots, and cedar, among others. They grow some of their own hops and source others from Windy Hill Hops, a nearby grower.

The brewery itself is a mix of primitive and modern that reflects the different personalities of the owners. Aaron Kleidon is an expert forager who pushes a more primitive process that includes brewing in a copper kettle over an open fire. Ryan Tockstein represents the modern side of brewing seen in their 1.5-barrel Stout Tanks brewhouse. Foodie Marika Josephson fall somewhere in between and forms a bridge between the two.

While the character of Scratch beers leans heavily on unique ingredients, don’t look for them to be extreme. These brewers make beers to which modern palates will respond, but that are deeply rooted in older traditions. They look to their ingredients to complement other flavors already in the beer, not to overwhelm them.

I had interviewed Marika on the phone for my upcoming Midwest brewery guidebook, but hadn’t had the opportunity to visit the brewery or taste the beers. I was so excited to see them on the list at the Great American Beer Festival.

St. Paul Boy Makes Good: Bob Galligan of Hops & Grain Brewing in Austin, Texas

Most people are unaware that aside from organizing private beer-tasting events, I also own a theatre company. Don’t bother asking which one. Although it’s quite successful, you’ve never heard of it. We don’t do any public performances. GTC Dramatic Dialogues tours to college campuses all across the country doing interactive, dialog-based shows on issues like diversity, sexual assault, and substance abuse. That’s right; I am both a beer evangelist and a substance abuse educator.

Naturally, we drink a lot of beer while on tour. The actors who work for me know that if there is a brewpub in the town where we are performing, we will be eating there. They have no choice. Beer and Yahtzee is a typical post-show activity. Ah, the showbiz life!

Over the years I have introduced a lot of actors to really good beer. For some it has sunk in more deeply than others. One of those is Bob Galligan. I hired Bob pretty fresh out of the theatre program at the University of Minnesota. He performed with the troupe for two seasons before moving to Austin, Texas. Bob was fun to have on the road. His oddball sense of humor can be seen in this video created with friends for distribution to colleges.

Once in Austin, Bob realized that there was no acting to be done. What was an out of work actor to do? Go into brewing, of course. Within a year he worked himself up from tour guide to canning line, brewer, and finally head brewer at Hops & Grain Brewing. I caught up with him in the brewery’s booth at the GABF.

Hopps & Grain AlterationAlteration
Hops & Grain Brewing Company, Austin, Texas
Style: Northern German Altbier
Serving Style: 12 oz. Can

Aroma: Clean. Malt forward with subtle bread crust and light spicy hops to balance. Dark fruits – raisins.

Appearance: Moderate head of off-white, creamy foam that is moderately persistent. Brown with reddish highlights. Clear.

Flavor: Malt definitely leads. Bread crust maltiness with caramel-like melanoidin. Bitterness is medium to medium low. Spicy and floral hop flavors are medium to medium low. Hints of chocolate and dark fruits like raisins. Clean, crisp lager-like finish.

Mouthfeel: Medium body with some creaminess. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: I’m going to call this one a Northern German Altbier. The bitterness and hop flavors strike me as low for a good example of the Düsseldorf variety. Caramel and toast malt with touches of dark fruit are similar to Belgian dubbel, but without the yeast esters and phenols.

Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery at the 2013 GABF

I don’t think I am saying anything controversial when I submit that the Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery is one of the best, if not THE best, brewpub in the Twin Cities metro. The beers are well-made and often quite interesting. The food is always tasty. The atmosphere is comfy and inviting. Although I don’t get there as much as I would like, it’s one of my favorite places to drink in Minneapolis.

Town Hall has stood the test of time to become a Twin Cities fixture. Founded in 1997, it celebrates 16 years of beer and food this year. Town Hall has not only survived, it has expanded. With its two satellite locations, the Town Hall Tap and the Town Hall Lanes, doing well, owner Pete Rifakes is turning his attention back to the mother ship. Plans are in the works to renovate the 7 Corners brewpub and expand brewery capacity.

In this 2013 Great American Beer Festival interview Rifakes and brewer Mike Hoops talk beer, bowling, and building a better brewery. Just a warning, the planned renovation means the restaurant will have to close briefly sometime next year.

Ray Daniels of the Cicerone Certification Program at the 2013 GABF

Every year at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) I do interviews with local and not-so-local brewers and beer industry celebs. This year’s assortment includes chats with Mike Hoops and Pete Rifakes from Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery, a gaggle of guys from Summit Brewing Company, and Marika Josephson from Scratch Brewing, a new and very exciting brewery in Southern Illinois. I talked with Mob Craft Beer, a new “Heartland” brewery that didn’t make it into my upcoming beer guide. I got a very special interview with old friend and former employee Bob Galligan who moved to Austin, Texas a couple of years ago to be an actor, but ended up as head brewer at Hops & Grain. These and others will be showing up here in the coming days and weeks, with a shout-0ut of thanks to my great friend Tom Graybael who did the shooting.

I start the series with an interview with Ray Daniels, author of beer and brewing books as well as the founder of the Cicerone Certification Program. I first interviewed Daniels at the 2010 GABF. The Cicerone program was just getting its feet under it at the time. It has been grown with leaps and bounds in the intervening years, becoming the standard for beer-knowledge certification. In this interview Daniels talks about that growth and about education programs that have been put in place to serve those who desire certification. He drops some news about the newest training products that the program offers and projects where the program might go in the future.