Rye on Rye 2014 from Boulevard Brewing Co.

Boulevard Brewing Company in Kansas City, try Missouri is an example of both the past and the future of the industry. Founded in 1989, ambulance it was a pioneer among small brewers in the Midwest. Boulevard started small, ed with a business plan that foresaw eventual expansion to 6000 barrels of production annually. As was the case with small breweries in the “olden days,” growth was slow, but steady. By 2006 the brewery was able to expand into a custom-built facility adjacent to the original brewhouse, growing production to 600,000 barrels, making it the largest craft brewer in the Midwest and the 12th largest in the country. In addition to the 150-barrel brewhouse, packaging lines, and administrative offices, the new building also boasts several event spaces. It’s quite a facility and worth a visit if you are in the area.

So how does Boulevard represent the future? Last year the brewery was sold to Belgian beer maker Duvel-Moortgat. Purchases of this kind are going to become more frequent, I believe. First, they represent a growing interest on the part of large brewing companies to get a slice of the growing craft-beer pie. Another example of this is AB-InBev’s purchase of Goose Island and Blue Point.

Also, such purchases are a reflection of the aging of the first generation of craft brewers. Old-school founders such as Boulevard’s John McDonald reaching retirement age. They are looking for a way out. The companies they built are too large for other small brewers to purchase. Lacking a clear exit strategy, they are turning to larger concerns that have the wherewithal to do the deal. The same was true in the case of Anchor Brewing when Fritz Maytag sold it to a group of investors a few years ago. While some may decry this as a negative trend, I see it as a sign of a successful industry.

Boulevard built its reputation on a solid lineup of beers brewed to classic style. It has supplemented that with its Smokestack Series of specialty brews and a newer collection of barrel-aged, sour beers. Rye on Rye is produced annually as part of the Smokestack Series. It’s a 12% ABV rye ale aged in barrels that once held Templeton Rye whiskey.

Here’s my notes:

Brand_Rye_on_Rye2014 Rye on Rye
Boulevard Brewing, Kansas City, Missouri
Style: Barrel-aged Rye Ale
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle

Aroma: Bread crust and whiskey. Soft background notes of oak, vanilla and toffee. Whiskey and toffee aromas blend nicely, leaving it unclear where one ends and the other begins. Some alcohol is apparent. Dark fruity notes – dates.

Appearance: Medium amber/red. Hazy. Full, stiff, creamy head of off-white to ivory foam. Excellent retention.

Flavor: Alcohol is evident from start to finish – just shy of being hot. Caramel and toffee malt is the dominant theme, with spicy, bread-like rye gaining intensity mid-palate and lingering into the finish. Rye whiskey and wood places a close second. Date and orange citrus fruitiness fills in the cracks. Raisin comes in as the beer warms. Hop bitterness is medium-low, but supported by the spicy bite of rye. The finish is dry with lingering alcohol, toffee, rye spice, and dark fruits.

Mouthfeel: Full body, but well attenuated. High carbonation. High alcohol warming. Light astringency in the finish.

Overall Impression: Rye on Rye is a full-throttle sensory assault. It’s packed with complex flavors, but my problem is that is lacks nuance. It seems to hit me all at once like a brick wall. It becomes like the white noise static on an unoccupied television frequency. There is a lot going on, but I’m missing layers to explore. That and the high alcohol make it a one-and –done beer for me. I’ve never allowed a bottle of this to age. I wonder if that would smooth it out a bit and bring more dimension.

Locally Brewed: Portraits of Craft Breweries from America’s Heartland

locallybrewed

The Midwest is the historic center of the American brewing industry. While brewing in this country may have begun on the East Coast, discount it was the mid-19th century German immigrants who settled in places like Milwaukee and St. Louis that built it up from a collection of small businesses into an industrial juggernaut that wielded significant economic and political clout. Names like Frederick Miller, pharm Joseph Schlitz, Valentin Blatz, Frederick Pabst, and Adolphus Busch are still legendary for their achievements. Theirs were among the first truly national brewing concerns. The agitation of the men (and it was mostly men) who worked for them was foundational in the formation of the American labor movement. The significance of the early Midwestern beer industry cannot be overstated.

For the last few decades though, the position of the Midwest has been viewed in a mostly negative light by fans of better beer. The region remained a powerhouse, but of a much diminished industry. The smaller, regional producers mostly gone, Miller and Anheuser-Busch dominated the market producing hundreds of millions of barrels of beers that were largely indistinguishable. Their marketing budgets and market leverage made it difficult for the new craft beer movement to gain a foothold.

And so, in what had been the beer capital of the nation, craft beer was slow to get going. Like so many fashion trends, the movement came in from the coasts. That’s not to say that there weren’t significant pioneers in the region. Breweries like Summit, Schell’s, Boulevard, James Page, Capital, Goose Island and others worked hard to create a solid foundation upon which later-comers could build. But the real wave has only recently arrived. It corresponds with the boom that is happening across the country, but here in the nation’s symbolic beer center the result has been particularly exciting. Both in terms of the pace of growth and the quality of product, the Midwest is once again assuming a position of importance.

Anna Blessing’s new book Locally Brewed: Portraits of Craft Breweries from America’s Heartland does a good job of tracing this return to prominence. Blessing gives revealing profiles of twenty breweries in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. The profiles are arranged chronologically according to the brewery’s date of founding, allowing the reader to follow the development of the region’s craft beer scene. The portraits reveal the transformation of the hurdles each brewer faced from one of building a consumer base into a struggle to keep up with demand.

Blessing says that her passion is finding and learning about the people who do what they love practicing their craft. Her last book, Locally Grown: Portraits of Artisanal Farms from America’s Heartland, showcased Midwestern farmers at the center of the local food movement. For her a book on small, local brewers was a natural follow-up. She says that beer is in her blood. She was raised in Portland, Oregon, perhaps the craft beer capital of the nation. She is a distant descendant of the owners of the Stenger Brewery that operated in Naperville, Illinois in the 1800s.

Blessing’s easy to read and engaging profiles tell the story of each brewery’s beginnings and then go on to describe some interesting tidbit about the place, be it the history of Three Floyd’s Dark Lord Day or Jolly Pumpkin brewer Ron Jeffries’ insights on brewing sour beers in the US. Mostly the book is about the people behind the breweries, as they describe their experiences founding and running their operations.

If you go into any brewery you are likely to hear music blaring over the din of fork lifts, bottling lines, and brew kettles. Music and brewing are almost inseparable. Blessing pays homage to this by including a brewery playlist in each profile, a touch that gives a unique glimpse into the psyche of each place. One element of the book that I didn’t quite understand was the “Get a Pint” sidebar for each brewery. A complete listing of where to find each brewery’s wares would be impossible. As she only lists one to four for each, I fail to see the point. Perhaps they are in her view the best places to find the beers. I’m just not sure.

Three Minnesota brewers are featured among the profiles; August Schell, Surly, and Steel Toe.

Overall Blessings book is a quick and entertaining read that provides and interesting insight into craft beer in the heartland. It’s definitely worth a read. And as a selfish plug, it makes a great companion to my own A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland, a guide to breweries in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois that is due out this spring from the University of Illinois Press.

Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale

With the sheer number of new brews and breweries entering the state – both local and non-local – it gets harder and hard for me at least to get excited about them. It gets harder and harder to even know about them, frankly. I don’t envy the people who do the marketing. It must be a difficult task to get your beers front and center in the minds of beer drinkers.

But once in a while a brewery enters the market that piques my interest. Sometimes it’s the brewery’s reputation that recommends it. Sometimes I think it’s just that those marketing people have done their job well in bringing the beers to my attention. Sometimes it’s both.

Oskar Blues is case in point. The 17-year-old brewery has a solid reputation. It opened in 1997 as a tiny brewpub in Lyons, Colorado, brewing beer in the basement. By 1998 it was already winning medals at the Great American Beer Festival. Oskar Blues started the canned-beer revolution. In 2002 it was the first US craft brewery to can its own beer to put its beer in cans. It started canning its beer in 2002, making it among the first US craft breweries to put its beer in cans. Equipment upgrades made it the largest producing brewpub in America by 2006, and the medals just kept on coming. 2008 saw the opening of a larger production facility, further increasing capacity and distribution capability. In 2012 Oskar Blues became one of the first craft breweries to open a second brewing facility, this one in North Carolina. And the medals continued to come.

In addition to this reputation, both the brewery’s PR machine and the Twin Cities distributor Original Gravity worked overtime to publicize the local launch. For anyone who pays attention to such things, it was hard to miss.

I’ve had nearly all the Oskar Blues main-line beers over time. They have been available in Wisconsin for some time, and I’ve been to the original Lyons pub. The quality has never been in question. I was interested though in giving them another shot and paying closer attention. The flagship Dale’s Pale Ale, the one that pretty much started it all for Oskar Blues, seemed a good place to start.

Here’s my notes:

Dale's Pale AleDale’s Pale Ale
Oskar Blues Brewing Company, Longmont, Colorado
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 12 oz. can

Aroma: Hops dominate – citrus, tangerine, fresh grapefruit, stone fruits. Some orangy citrus esters. Biscuity malt provides a counterpoint. Light caramel.

Appearance: Medium to medium-dark gold. Clear. Full head of creamy, white foam with larger bubbles interspersed. Excellent retention.

Flavor: Very balanced. Bitterness is medium-high, balanced by medium-low malt sweetness. Bitterness is the focus of the hops, but tangerine, grapefruit, and stone fruit hop flavors do make an impression. Malt provides a solid base of caramel and dry, English-like biscuit. Low orangy esters. The finish is just off-dry with lingering citrus-pith bitterness.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium-high carbonation. Low astringency.

Overall Impression: A very balanced IPA. Falls somewhere between English and American styles. The malt is all English. The hops are all American. I would have liked a bit more emphasis on hop flavor over bitterness, and a little less of the lingering, astringent bitterness in the finish. But that’s just how I like my IPAs. Overall a quite tasty brew.

Crabbie’s Original Alcoholic Ginger Beer

Every once in a while I write about a beverage that’s not beer. It might be cider. It might be… Well, no rx actually if it’s not beer it’s always been cider. But this time it’s going to be something different – Ginger Beer.

“But wait!” you say. “That’s beer!” Well, healing maybe sort of. It’s more like ginger infused, fermented soda-pop. The story of Crabbie’s Ginger Beer reportedly goes all the way back to 1801 when Scottsman John Crabbie “set sail from the port of Leith, Edinburgh, in search of the finest spices and ingredients from far-off lands.” He brought back ginger from the Far East. He steeped a fermented brew with that ginger for six to eight weeks creating a spicy and refreshing alcoholic bevi. Although the John Crabbie & Company has only been making the drink since 2009, they report that they still use the same process that Mr. Crabbie originated over 200 years ago. It’s made, they say, with four secret ingredients and steeped on fresh ginger for six weeks.

So why am I, a devoted beer writer, writing about ginger beer? It just sounded tasty.

It is recommended that Crabbie’s Original Ginger Beer be poured over ice and served with a slice of lemon or lime. I opted for lemon. Here’s my notes:

Crabbies Ginger BeerCrabbie’s Original Ginger Beer
John Crabbie & Company, Edinburgh, Scotland
Style: Alcoholic Ginger Beer (4.8%)
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle

Aroma: Fresh ginger. Lemon and lemon peel from the slice. Light sweetness. Faint floral notes.

Appearance: Medium golden color with a kind of sepia tint. Clear. Fizzy. Full and lively head of just-off-white foam with excellent retention.

Flavor: High degree of sweetness that is cut by carbonation and spice. The dominant flavor is fresh ginger – strong and piquant. Spicy. Zippy. The faint floral notes carry over from the aroma. Lemon peel mid-palate and tart lemon acidity on the way out. Finish is sweet and spicy, lingering on sugar and ginger.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. High carbonation.

Overall Impression: Poured over ice with a slice of lemon, this makes for a peppy, refreshing quaff. The ginger tastes fresh and has a pleasant spiciness. I’m not typically much of a soda drinker – too sweet. The ginger really helps cut the sugar in this. And of course there’s alcohol. I suspect that this would make a great mixer for cocktails. And indeed, the Crabbie’s website has recipes.

3700 Breweries and Growing

growth chartI received an interesting press release this morning from the Beer Institute, a national trade association for the American brewing industry, representing both large and small brewers, as well as importers and industry suppliers. According to the release the US added 948 new brewing permits in 2013, bringing the total number of “active ‘permitted breweries’ overseen by the Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB)” to a record smashing 3699.

This is a staggering number of breweries and extraordinary growth for any industry in one year. But I questioned the numbers. In January the Brewers Association released preliminary figures for 2013 putting the total number of breweries at 2722, an increase of nearly 400 over the previous year. That’s a difference of more than 1000 breweries from the Beer Institute report. That’s not something that can be put down to statistical error.

I also questioned the Beer Institute numbers because they list 73 active permitted breweries in Minnesota. This is true if you include contract-brewed brands and all of the Granite City locations where beer is fermented onsite, but not actually brewed. The number is considerably less if those are excluded.

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I contacted the Beer Institute to find out what was going on and got a quick response from Megan Kirkpatrick. They get information straight from the Federal Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) about issued brewing permits. “This is a list we receive from the TTB that includes any brewing location that has received a permit to brew beer.” she explained. This includes breweries-in-planning that are permitted, but haven’t yet started producing. It also includes brewing companies that have multiple breweries, such as Boston Beer Company, Lagunitas, and Sierra Nevada, as well as the mega-brewers. She was unclear as to whether the number includes beer companies whose product is contract brewed by others.

However you slice that number, it’s big. And most of the growth has occurred in just the last couple of years. Kirkpatrick pointed out that the start of the growth curve corresponds with the passage of the Small Brewer Tax Credit passed by congress in 1977. According to the Beer Institute press release, “under the existing tax structure, small brewers (defined by U.S. Tax Code as those that produce up to 2 million 31-gallon barrels per year, or the equivalent of 110 million six-packs) receive a substantial break on federal excise tax, paying only $7 per barrel on the first 60,000 barrels. The regular tax rate is $18 per barrel, which is paid by all brewers of more than 2 million barrels, all beer importers regardless of size, and on every barrel produced by small brewers beyond 60,000. More than 90 percent of permitted breweries today produce less than 60,000 barrels annually.”

The release goes on to say that “beer puts more than two million Americans to work, from farmers to factory workers, and brewers to bartenders. The combined economic impact of brewers, beer distributors, retailers, suppliers and other inducted industries was calculated to be $246.5 billion in 2012. The industry paid $49 billion in federal, state and local taxes that same year.” That’s a rather large economic impact.

While this news is exciting, I still get a slight nauseous feeling every time I hear about a new brewery opening. I know the question has been asked a billion times, “Is this a bubble? Will it burst?” I guess only time will tell, but to me this current rate of growth seems crazy. What’s that term they use in the stock market? “Irrational exuberance.”

You can read the full Beer Institute report here.

Summit Frost Line Rye

“Spring, treatment ” if you want to call it that in Minnesota, capsule is my least favorite time of year. I grew up in St. Louis. With the arrival of March came warmer weather. Not so here. Winter grinds slowly on – March, April, May… Right now as I look out the window of my office, the sun is shining and I hear birds singing. If I don’t look directly I can almost imagine 70 degrees. But then the thick snowpack reminds me that the temperature hasn’t even cracked zero.

Summit Brewing Company is trying to give us some relief. Their new in-between-seasonal Frost Line Rye is meant to fit in this interminable gray zone that falls between winter and summer. Richly malty and bracingly hoppy all at once it keeps one foot in each season. Five kinds of rye give it a spicy bite that would be refreshing in warmer weather, but seems warming in the deep-freeze.

Here’s my notes:

Bottle_Frost-Line-RyeFrost Line Rye
Summit Brewing Co., St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Rye Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle

Aroma: Hops dominate with pine, citrus, and noble-hop like spiciness. Malt stays just underneath – brown sugar, biscuit, hints of cocoa. Light orangy esters.

Appearance: Medium-amber with reddish tint. Brilliantly clear. Full stand of creamy, off-white foam. Excellent retention.

Flavor: Malt and hops are nearly in balance with malt having a slight edge; grain, cocoa, brown sugar, toffee, and biscuit that gets bolder as it warms. Rye adds a dry, spicy bite that accentuates the medium-level bitterness. Hop flavors bring orange and tangerine citrus as well as some spice. Orangy esters. Well attenuated for a dry finish, lingering on a complex mix of bitterness, toffee, and rye.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium carbonation. Slightly creamy.

Overall Impression: Layered and clean. This is a good in-between beer. It’s not quite an IPA (closer to a pale, but still not quite). Not quite a malty beer. A rye-tinged American amber ale. It’s brisk and yet comforting.