Coffee stouts and porters for me either work or they don’t. Mostly they don’t. Far too often the combination of coffee and roasted malts comes off as green pepper. I’m not alone in this, seekdoctor I know others who taste it as well. When that happens, there green pepper is all that I can taste.
But every once in a while a good one comes along that has enough sweetness to balance the bitter bean and enough complexity that I don’t feel like I just stopped at Starbucks for a cup of burnt. I recently had a run-in with Victory at Sea, the strong, Imperial Porter from Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits in San Diego. I’ve liked this brewery’s other offerings, so I was eager to give it a go.
Here’s my notes:
Victory at Sea Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits, San Diego, California
Style: Imperial Porter with Vanilla and Coffee
Serving Style: 12 oz. Bottle
Aroma: Rich and malty. Coffee is a secondary note to the vanilla. Dark chocolate – dry like Oreo cookies. Low, black-malt roast. Licorice. Low, herbal hop and floral alcohol overtones.
Appearance: Very dark brown, almost black. Ruby highlights. Full, creamy, tan head with excellent retention.
Flavor: Very chocolaty – dark chocolate. Vanilla is prominent. Coffee comes more clearly than in the aroma, giving a slight bitter edge that amplifies the medium-low hop bitterness. No hop flavor. Low, black-malt roast. Caramel. Dark fruit notes – raisin, plum, cherry, berries. Low alcohol. Sweetness is medium-high, but dries out in the finish. Lingering chocolate.
Mouthfeel: Full bodied. Creamy, rich and thick. Carbonation is medium to medium-low. Moderate alcohol warming.
Overall Impression: Great balance of bitter chocolate, creamy vanilla, and coffee. This doesn’t come off as a “coffee beer.” Coffee is just one element in a very tasty mix. They say it on the bottle. It’s not a coffee porter, it’s a “porter with coffee and vanilla.” Rich and warming for the lingering cold of a Minnesota spring.
The eightieth annual Firkin Fest at the Happy Gnome happened last Saturday, medical April 4th. Okay, online it wasn’t really the eightieth, but it has been going on for some time now. I went to my first in 2010 and it was a couple of years old by then.
For those who haven’t been, Firkin Fest is a celebration of “real ale” – that is beers that are naturally re-fermented in the container from which they are served and poured from the keg using gravity instead of being pushed with CO2. The result is a smooth, creamy-textured beer with relatively low carbonation that is served at cellar temperature of around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Real ale or cask-conditioned beer is the traditional beer service of England.
Firkin Fest has seen its highs and lows over the years; great beers mingled with serious over-crowding and too few porta-potties, exquisitely well done casks of straight-up beer and monstrosities with added extras like Peeps or mushrooms. Cringe-worthy cask abuse has been common as pourers turn the firkins on end in an attempt to squeeze out every last drop and end up pouring glasses of yeasty sludge that drunk festival goers lap up like nectar.
This year saw some changes to Firkin Fest. While in the past the firkins have come from breweries across the country and the globe, this year every brewery represented was Minnesota born and bred. This meant fewer breweries and fewer beers than previous years, but there were also many fewer attendees. I don’t know whether the lower attendance was intentional. Marketing doesn’t seem to have been all that good for the event. I didn’t even get a press release and I get press releases for EVERYTHING from brewery openings in the UK to announcements for the Hay and Forage Expo. Whether it was intentional or not, it was certainly welcome. This event has historically crammed so many people into the small tent that getting from one booth to the next was an unpleasant chore. That was not the case this year and that made me happy.
Firkin Fest has always been a place where brewers see what kinds of craziness they can stuff into a cask. Sometimes these experiments work. Sometimes they just seem ill advised. This year felt to me like there was less experimentation. That’s not to say there weren’t some crazy casks. Wasabi and pickled ginger, anyone? But for the most part infusions were limited to things like coffee in stouts or citrus zest in IPAs. Many of the casks were simply dry hopped. This also made me happy. Sometimes simplicity is best.
There were a few standouts.
My personal best-of-show was Schell’sStarkeller Peach, which will be the next installment of the amazing Berliner weisse series. Tart lactic acid and sweet, sweet peaches were what this beer is all about. Yummy! Jace Marti says it will be bottled in the next couple of weeks for release later this month. I can’t wait to try it with the proper level of carbonation.
Summit also scored high with an El Dorado dry-hopped version of the new Hopvale Organic Ale. In a tent full of heavyweights, this light, refreshing, hoppy brew was a treat. The added hops gave a nice, citrus boost to its already hoppy aroma.
Staying on the hoppy side, Triple Hop Size 7 from Steel Toe was a treat. Size 7 IPA is already the best IPA in the state. Add a healthy dose of dry hops in the cask to boost that heady hop aroma and you have a recipe for hop heaven.
On the other end of the spectrum was Sideburns Chocolate Milk Stout from Lyn Lake Brewery. This already rich and creamy brew was conditioned on chocolate and vanilla that added extra layers of velvety smoothness. The beer’s sweetness was amplified, making it a delicious, drinkable dessert.
If you like cocktails, the go-to beer had to be Cobra Commander from Lift Bridge. Their 12.5% ABV Commander barleywine was casked with citrus zest and Falernum and rum-soaked oak. It truly was like drinking a rum cocktail. And a good one at that.
We can hardly get over the excitement about Tour de Oregon. But now I am super-psyched to announce the second Grains & Grapes Adventure Tour with my Certified Sommelier, mind wine-buddy Leslee Miller at Amusée. GERMANY!
Tastes of the Rhine River will be an extravagant exploration of one of the most famous beer and wine regions in the world – the Rhine River Valley in Germany. Kölsch breweries in Cologne. Altbier brewpubs in the Altstadt of Düsseldorf. Vinyards along the Rhine and the Mosel rivers. A Rhine river cruise. A couple of castles (including Neuschwanstein Castle, which is really a don’t-miss destination). And it all wraps up at the biggest beer fest on earth, the Munich Oktoberfest!
This really is going to be the trip of a lifetime.
When: September 29 to October 6, 2015 How Much: $3399*
Not all that long ago beer dinners in the Twin Cities were a rarity. Now you can hardly turn around without tripping over one. Despite their current ubiquity, thumb there is still something deeply satisfying about sitting down with friends to a fancy meal paired to great beer. I’ve interviewed hundreds of brewers, treatment but I still love listening to them introduce their beers and brewery with each new course. The chef emerging from the kitchen to explain each dish just adds to the elegance of the affair.
It’s especially exciting when the dinner is the brewery’s first, troche as was the case at Fire Lake Grill House in downtown Minneapolis last Tuesday. Five-month old Insight Brewing was feted in a five-course meal prepared by Chef Jim Kyndberg and his crew. Founder/brewer Ilan Klages-Mundt was on hand to unravel each beer and tell the tale of his world-wide journey of brewery apprenticeships. It’s really no secret that I’m a fan of Ilan’s beer, so I was excited to be able to attend.
Fire Lake is really trying to ramp up its attention to the local beer scene. They have held beer dinners in the past with Lift Bridge Brewing Company and Big Wood Brewery. In addition to showcasing Minnesota beer, these beer dinners allow the kitchen staff to flex their culinary muscles a bit. The menus feature dishes that wouldn’t ordinarily appear on the Fire Lake menu. One thing that impressed me is that Chef Kyndberg assigns a dish to each member of his lead kitchen staff. The dishes don’t all revolve around him.
It is clear though, that they are fairly new at this. I chuckled a couple of times listening to Chef as he talked about the difficulty of pairing beer with food – especially dessert. In my own experience, beer presents so many options to go with any dish that the difficulty is often choosing which direction to pick. Some wine sommeliers will even admit – at least in private – that beer is the more food-friendly beverage. And dessert is my favorite course to pair. But if the broad flavor palate of beer is not as familiar, I can understand having to put some extra thought into the pairing process.
That said, they did a good job. The food was excellent and the pairings were generally good. On a couple of dishes they were extraordinary. The ambience of the private room was elegant and yet congenial. I do think that we were over poured. (Did I really just say that?) There were five beers and the pours were big. I had a pretty good buzz going by the time the dinner ended. Fortunately I had taken the train downtown. It might have been an Uber night otherwise. Also, brewer Ilan’s name was misspelled on the menu card. It seems important to me to get your guest of honor’s name correct. That attention to detail matters.
On to the pairings!
Starters – Paired to Lamb & Flag Bacon Wrapped Quail Legs, Pork Belly and Scallop Skewers, Bacon Popovers in Beer Cheese Soup. Not bad, but the smokiness of the quail legs and the scallop skewers overwhelmed the light, English bitter a bit. The bitterness of the beer clashed. A maltier brew would have paired better. The popover pairing, however, was brilliant. The smoke was there, but tempered by the beer cheese soup. The beer’s bitterness cut through the creamy soup. The popover dough and bacon brought out the beers subtle malt.
Fish Course – Paired to Yuzu Pale Ale Miso Marinated Char, Furikake Rice, Red Curry Broth This was one of my favorite dishes of the night. The fish was perfectly prepared and the curry sauce had a flavorful, spicy zip. The impulse to use the Yuzu fruit infused pale was understandable. I probably would have gone there too. Unfortunately the beer’s bitterness amplified the curry spice to the point that the delicate fruitiness of the yuzu was overpowered. The very thing that makes the beer special was lost.
Poultry Course – Paired to Curiosity IPA Applewood Smoked Beer Can Chicken, Chipotle Rub, Black Bean Salsa Best pairing of the night. The dish was delicious. The spice was just right. Acidity in the salsa offered a bright, cutting contrast. Curiosity is perhaps my least favorite beer from Insight. It’s not bad, but it’s kind of just another IPA. Nothing special. The dish really brought out its best points. The fruity hops really popped. Its relatively modest bitterness didn’t over-amp the spice. The combination brought out the chipotle smoke.
Meat Course – Paired with Saison de Blanc Pretzel Crusted Pork Rillette, Gribiche Sause, Pickled Carrots and Beets Saison de Blanc is a Belgian-style saison made with Sauvignon grape must. The dish had the feel of Provence that worked well with the farmhouse ale. Herbal and herbal notes spoke to one another. The acid from the wine grapes cut through it all. The really magical part for me though was the acid/acid mix of the beer with the pickled vegetables.
Dessert – Paired with Door County Cherry Saison Lefse and Dark Chocolate Stout Sauce, Mascarpone, Apricots Door County Cherry Saison is Saison de Blanc with a pound per pint of tart, Door County cherries. The dessert was like an upper-Midwest tiramisu. You can’t go wrong with chocolate and cherries and between the glass and the plate there was plenty of both. The beer had enough acidity to cut through it all and the apricots added a nice touch to pull out some of the other fruity notes of the base saison. This was the second-best paring of the night.
Cheers to Insight and Fire Lake for a successful and enjoyable night.
In the early days of lager brewing in the United States, before the advent of mechanical refrigeration, the first thing a would-be brewer had to do when building a brewery is dig a cave. Caves provided the cool and constant temperature needed for the fermentation and conditioning of lager beer. With ice harvested from the frozen rivers and lakes in the winter brewers could not only achieve moderate temperatures, they could maintain near-freezing conditions all summer long.
In 1870, S. Liebmann’s Sons Brewing Company in Brooklyn, New York became the first American brewery to install a mechanical refrigeration system. Brewing was the first industry to make wide use of the technology. By 1891, nearly every brewery in the country had a refrigeration machine. The old lagering caves became disused and forgotten, relegated to storage rooms or junk heaps.
Like every other brewery of a certain age, the August Schell Brewing Company has such abandoned cellaring caves beneath it. But Schell’s brewmaster Jace Marti has brought them back to life, returning them to the purpose which they once served. The ninth release in the Schell’s Stag Series – Cave-Aged, Barrel-Aged Lager – was aged in the caves for three months in wooden barrels the way it was done 150 years ago. But there is one difference. These barrels once held whiskey.
Aging beer in used barrels isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Schell’s. To my knowledge they have only done it one other time, with the Stag Series #1: Barrel Aged Schmaltz’s Alt. That one was aged in Pinot Noir barrels. Schell’s is much better known for their traditional German-style beers. But why not barrel aging? They do the other stuff so well, from straight-ahead pilsner to funky-sour Berliner weisse.
Stag Series #9: Cave-Aged, Barrrel-Aged Lager is described as a dark lager aged in American whiskey barrels. Although they don’t call it this, for the sake of providing a stylistic comparison I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s a doppelbock-like brew – rich, malty, and slightly warming. Did they pull off the whiskey aged lager?
Here’s my notes:
Schell’s Stag Series #9: Cave-Aged, Barrel-Aged Lager August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Whiskey-Barrel Aged Dark Lager
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
Aroma: Low roasted malt. Oak and vanilla. Old wood. Musty. Low cocoa. No overt whiskey. Dried fruit – raisins, plums. No hops. Floral alcohol aromas are prominent, but pleasant.
Appearance: Very dark brown, nearly black. Ruby highlights. Brilliant. Moderate, creamy, beige foam with moderate to good retention.
Flavor: Fruit is forward – dark and dried, raisins, cherries, plums. Malty – caramel-like melanoidin. Low cocoa. Toasted malt notes in finish. Musty, old wood carries over from the aroma. Whiskey is subtle but noticeable. Caramel and vanilla. Low bitterness. Very low spicy hop flavors. Finish is off-dry with lingering dark fruits. Malt forward. Low alcohol. Medium sweetness, but dries out in the finish.
Overall Impression: Such a lovely beer. Like a doppelbock aged in barrels. Multiple layers of complexity. Strongly overt flavors of malt, melanoidin, caramel and dark fruit. But if you pay attention the subtler layers take your mind in alternate directions. It doesn’t taste of “whiskey” so much as the flavor components of whiskey – caramel, alcohol, vanilla. Not a huge fan of whiskey, I like that about this beer.
In June 2014, Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont wrote a sarcastic piece on his Blogging at the World of Beer blog titled Every Beer is Now an IPA. In it he bemoaned the proliferation of variants on the India Pale Ale – variants that often have nothing to do with that style except an overload of hops. Beer drinkers are subjected to black, white and red IPA, Belgian IPA, rye IPA, stout IPA, Cali-Belgique IPA and any number of others. IPA is such a popular style that brewers slap that acronym onto any hopped-up ale or lager they produce instead of going to the trouble of calling it something else. If it’s an IPA people will buy it.
The one that bugs me maybe the most is the “session IPA.” What the heck is that besides an oxymoron? The whole idea of an IPA is super-hoppy and high alcohol. Indeed the style’s mythical origin story is all about brewers upping the alcohol content on beer shipped to India so that is wouldn’t spoil. IPA was never intended to be sessionable. We have a style category for sessionable pale ale. It’s called “pale ale.”
So what is a session IPA and why isn’t it just called pale ale? A quick survey of a few of them shows alcohol content ranging from 4.3% to 5.1% ABV. Using the BJCP guidelines as a standard (because that’s the standard we’ve got) that puts all but one of them squarely in the range for American pale ale. And the one is under by just .2%. As for bitterness, they range from 40 to 65 IBU. Of the eight that I surveyed, only three were outside the American Pale Ale guidelines, one by an insignificant 2 IBU. I would argue that these beers are all just heavily late and dry-hopped pale ales.
But two of the examples that I looked at had significantly higher bitterness than is specified for an American pale ale. Stone Go To clocks in at 65 IBU and Summit Hopvale Organic Ale at 55 IBU – both square in the range for an IPA. So perhaps the definition of session IPA – if we have to call it that – should be a lower-alcohol, highly-hopped, pale ale with the bitterness of an IPA.
I don’t like the label, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like the beers. Given my preference for malty beers, these often thin and aggressively bitter beers should not be to my taste. There is really nothing about them that I should like. But I happen to love them.
Did I mention Summit’sHopvale Organic Ale? The newest year-round beer from the steadfast St. Paul brewery is being unleashed on the public today (April 1st. No really. It’s not a joke.). Summit seems to have studiously avoided the session IPA moniker in the marketing for this beer. Thank you Summit! They say merely that it has the “hop character of a full-strength IPA, but the drinkability of a low-gravity bitter.” But at 4.7% ABV and 55 IBU it fits neatly into the pigeon hole. It’s made with all organic ingredients and just a touch of lemon peel to give it a citrusy high note.
Here’s my notes:
Hopvale Organic Ale Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Session IPA
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
Aroma: Huge hop aroma. Melon, tropical fruit – mango. Herbs. Grapefruit. Lemon peel. Malt offers only a low impression of sweetness. Neutral character. Low esters – orange. Hint of sulfur. It all combines into a fruity, almost powdered sugar aroma.
Appearance: Medium gold and slightly hazy. Full, creamy, off-white head with excellent retention.
Flavor: Full blast of hops with low, supporting malt sweetness. Hop flavors are similar to the aroma – melon, tropical, grapefruit, pine. Lemon comes through more strongly. Bitterness is medium-high to high, but smooth, not overwhelming. Malt sweetness supports. Low biscuit/toast malt flavor. Light and refreshing. Hops are the star. Malt is barely there. Finish is very dry with lingering bitterness and hop flavors.
Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium-high carbonation. Very low hop astringency.
Overall Impression: Hops rule the roost in this beer. Malt is almost an afterthought. Almost, but not quite. And oh, what hops they are. Full of rich, fruity and resiny flavors. And then there is that bright spot of lemon peel. This is one of those beers that I shouldn’t like, but do. This will be great in the summer, but it’s a year-round so you can drink it all the time.