“New sells.” is the response I got from one Minnesota brewer when I asked about the plethora of new brews our legacy brewers are pumping out. Indeed, in today’s market it’s not enough to stand on your laurels. Innovation is the key to staying relevant.
Enter the Union Series from Summit Brewing Company. Union Series beers will be released “every so often” according to the brewery’s press release. For this series the Summit brewers are exploring the innovations being made in other sectors of the industry – malting and hop farming. Each beer will make extensive use of “new (and sometimes rare) hops and malts.”
Meridian Session Ale is the first beer in the series. As concocted by Head Brewer Damian McConn, it is a Belgian-style single (think a sessionable version of a Belgian tripel) that is brewed with Concerto malt and Meridian hops. Concerto is a pale malt from Norfolk, the prime barley growing region of Southeast England. It is said to deliver bready and toasty qualities. Meridian hops were discovered accidentally by an Oregon hop grower attempting to resurrect an older sister variety to Willamette. They are said to bring flavors of lemon and fruit punch.
Here’s my notes:
Meridian Session Ale Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Belgian Single
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
Aroma: Full-bore nose emphasizing grainy and sugary malt and yeast blend with tantalizing toasted notes. Malt dominates, but hops lend a wisp of lemony citrus and herbs, underscored by hints of stone fruits.
Appearance: Deeply golden with a slight haze. Dense head of fluffy, white foam that sticks around and around.
Flavor: A delicate balance of malt, hops, and yeast. Malt gives sugary sweetness and dry toast. Bitterness is moderate, but accentuated by the desert-dry finish. It tarries a while after swallowing. Hop flavors stress lemon zest. Tropical fruit punch comes in the middle and it really does taste like fruit punch. Belgian-yeasty, cotton-candy character and spicy black pepper rounds things out. Sometimes each flavor stands out alone. Others times they all meld into one.
Mouthfeel: Light body. Medium carbonation. Slight astringency.
Overall Impression: Very refreshing, but with intriguing depth. Will be a nice springtime beer if spring ever arrives. If I had any criticism it’s that it could maybe stand a touch more carbonation. This is a great beer to pair with spring veggies like asparagus and ramps.
Gabe Smoley is one of the newest brewers at Summit Brewing Company. Unchained #12: 100% Organic Ale is his first entry into the Unchained Series. He went all out to make a certified, 100% organic brew. Says he, “Most USDA certified organic beers on the market are about 95-99.9% organic because it is extremely difficult to find ingredients like organic yeast. This beer is made with 100% organic ingredients including malts, hops and yeast. Summit microbiologist James Fetherston and I worked together to create our own certified organic yeast strain to do this, as there are virtually no organic strains available from laboratories.”
The aim was to craft a light, yet bracing beer appropriate for spring; a move away from the heavy beers of winter, with a hoppy kick to mimic the lingering cold. Drinkers who are too tied to the style guidelines may take issue with calling this an IPA, but they do say “sessionable IPA.” Just drink it and enjoy it for what it is, whatever that may be.
100% Organic Ale launches this week with meet-the-brewer events at bars around the Metro.
March 12: Release Party/Meet the Brewer – House of Pizza, Sartel, 5-7 pm
March 13: Meet the brewer – Brasa St. Paul, 6-8 pm – Brasa St. Paul and Minneapolis will also feature Unchained 12 food pairings from 5-9 pm
March 14: “Hoppy Meals” pairings – Republic Uptown, 4-6 pm; Republic Seven Corners, 7-9 pm
March 15: Firkin Friday with Organic Ale cask – Grumpy’s NE, 4 pm
March 21: Meet Gabe and sample Organic Ale – Four Firkins, 6-8 pm
March 28: Flight Night at Ginger Hop featuring Organic Ale. Flights include four Summit beers total.
Here’s my notes:
Unchained #12: 100% Organic Ale Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: “Session” IPA
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
Aroma: Big aromatics from a fairly small beer. Hops hit the nose first – floral and citrus. Biscuity malt comes in shortly to offer support. Nicely balanced between the two. An undercurrent of candied fruit throughout.
Appearance: Dark golden color and clear. The off-white head is full, creamy, and very persistent. Settled after a long while to a sustained film on the surface.
Flavor: Light and refreshing. Very dry with pithy bitterness that lingers well into the finish. Floral and lemon-lime citrus hop flavors carry through from beginning to end. Some peppery spice in there as well. The malt fills in lightly underneath with a biscuit character that brings a vaguely English flair. It offers enough sweetness to temper the hops, but not quite enough to balance.
Overall Impression: This one leans a bit more to hops than I would like, but then that’s kind of the point of the beer. It’s close, but a hint more malt to back up the bitterness would have been welcome on my palate. Brewer Smoley says to drink this around 40°F. I would suggest a higher temperature to bring out more of the malt. While style-sticklers will have issues with calling this an “IPA,” it fits the brewer’s description of “sessionable IPA” quite nicely; light like a pale ale, but with a bigger hop load.
Summit Brewing Company and Smashburger are pairing up to bring beer and burger pairings to the Twin cities. The collaboration could be seen as a partnering of pioneers in a way; Summit an original in Minnesota’s better beer scene and Smashburger the leader in what they call “better burger” restaurants.
Actually the Denver-based burger franchise has introduced some interesting innovations to fast food fare. They use all Angus beef, for one thing. Their menus allow for regional inspiration. While there are some standard sandies across the chain, each location creates special burgers tailored to local foodways, such as the Twin Cities burger with garlic-grilled onions reflecting the regional love-affair with the onion. I didn’t know that we had a love affair with onions, but that’s something I learned during a special media tasting prior to the pairings launch. In terms of the beer and burger program, the company is working with a different brewers in every city to create pairings that are unique to the market.
Smashburger takes its name from their process of smashing the burgers onto the griddle while cooking them. This creates a caramelized crust on one side and seals in the juices, according to founder Tom Ryan. They do make a juicy patty. I’m not sure how innovative the burger smash is. It seems to me Steak & Shake has been smashing since the 1930s. But Smashburger does it with a patent-pending, cookie-cutter-like gizmo as seen in this video of Mr. Ryan making a burger.
Ryan worked with Summit Head Brewer Damian McConn to come up with eight pairings for the Twin Cities stores. How did they do? Well, let’s take a look.
Classic Smashburger & Extra Pale Ale: A pairing of classic with classic. This one didn’t do much for me. Both beer and burger are good. I’m a big fan of EPA and I like a plain ‘ol burger, but together they were just sort of “meh.” I also think that the burger overpowered the beer a little bit and made it seem bitterer than normal. Maybe it was the smash sauce – a combination of mayo, mustard, relish and lemon. I’ll say this though, the burger had ketchup on it. I hate ketchup and always have. It didn’t really taste like ketchup. Nice!
Mushroom Swiss Burger & Great Northern Porter: This was lovely. The combination brought out an earthiness in each part and there was umami on top of umami. Caramel malt spoke to caramelized beef crust. This was probably my second favorite combination. I was happy to learn that the mushrooms are crimini mushrooms, sliced fresh for each order.
BBQ Bacon and Cheddar Burger & Horizon Red Ale: This is the best pairing of the bunch. The caramel and citrus in the beer play very well with the tangy BBQ sauce. The pairing emphasized the hops in the beer, making it seem almost IPA-like. And again there’s that caramel to caramel handshake. And who doesn’t love bacon and beer?
Avocado Club Burger & Pilsner: This was one of two pairings that were described as difficult to deal with. That’s because they really needed Summit Hefeweizen, which has been discontinued. The sliced avocado, smoked bacon, and ranch dressing on the burger would have been splendid with a hef. The pilsner brought out the bacon and cut through the fat, but spicy hops clashed a bit. It was the best pairing with the Summit lineup, but it wasn’t quite wonderful.
Twin Cities Burger & Extra Pale Ale: Between caramelized onion, caramelized meat crust, and loads of cheese, this is one rich burger. The EPA did the job cutting right through it. All that caramelization brought out the maltiness in the beer, giving a more balanced impression than with the Classic burger. This pairing really worked.
Spicy Baja Burger & Saga IPA: Do hops amplify or dampen chili pepper heat? That’s the age old question in the beer-food pairing biz. I happen to think they do both; amplify first and then clear away. This burger is all about peppers. The heat of pepper jack cheese, chipotle mayonnaise, and raw jalapeno slices gives it a real kick that is tempered a bit by creamy guacamole. Saga IPA was up to the task and the hops did just what they do. The citrusy flavors offered a nice contrast to the savory and spice of the burger. My mouth was left with a nice level of lingering heat.
Cucumber and Goat Cheese Chicken Sandwich & Pilsner: This was the other sandwich that needed the hefeweizen. Let’s face it – chicken, spinach, goat cheese and cucumbers – a hefeweizen would have been great with every element of this sandwich. Pilsner again was the best choice from the Summit lineup, but it just didn’t quite do the trick. This was one of my favorite sandwiches though.
Crispy Buffalo Chicken Sandwich & India Pale Ale: Spicy buffalo sauce and blue cheese paired with a balanced, English-style IPA. The beer is bitter enough to stare down the buffalo, but ample caramel malt keeps the combination from overheating. And blue cheese with English IPA simply can’t be beat. This was my third favorite pairing of the night.
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.
If you do a search online for Kentucky Common, you don’t turn up much. There are a couple of homebrew forum discussions, a Wikipedia page, and a reference to the 1901 Wahl & Henius Handy Book of Brewing, Malting, and Auxiliary Trades. The Handy Books is the only actual period reference, and it doesn’t tell you a lot. It says that Kentucky Common had a grain bill of malted barley and about 25 to 30 percent corn. Some sugar color, caramel or roasted malt was added for coloring. It had an original gravity of somewhere around 1.045, translating to around 4.5 percent alcohol under normal fermentation conditions. Hopping was moderate at one-half pound per barrel. It wasn’t fined or filtered, leaving it with a “muddy” appearance.
This lack of information is one thing that lead Summit brewer Eric Harper to select the Kentucky Common style for his second entry to the Summit Unchained Series, Old 152. Asked about this choice he said, “Nobody makes it. Nobody knows anything about it. You can’t have any preconceived notions about what it is. You can’t say I did it wrong, that’s for sure.”
Harper’s approach to the style was to take the scant historical information and riff on it. As the beer was originally made in Kentucky, he took a cue from the bourbon makers and used a mash of corn, rye and distiller’s malt. A portion of caramel and Victory malt added color and some toasty notes. He hopped the beer with Cluster hops, a variety that is native to the US and that 19th-century brewers would conceivably have used.
Some descriptions of the style make reference to a “sour mash,” another nod to the bourbon industry. Harper says that part of his mash was sour. “At a whisky distillery they are fermenting the entire mash.” he explained. “And then they take a portion of that fermented mash that’s got yeast and whatever bacteria and they add that back to the next batch. So that portion is the sour mash, and they are using that as a ph adjustment. We don’t ferment on the grain, and even if we did we don’t have an old batch of this beer around.” Given that limitation, Harper lowered the ph of his beer by adding acidulated malt, malt that has been treated with lactobacillus, an acid-producing bacteria that is found naturally on malted barley. This lowered the ph of the mash to far below the norm at Summit. “There is some confusion when I talk to people about it that the beer is going to be sour.” he added. But this notion of Kentucky Common as a sour beer is not borne out in the historical literature, and Harper’s version is definitely not sour.
So is Old 152 “to style?” Who knows? You’ll have to judge that for yourself. Release events started yesterday and run all week long.
Here’s my notes:
Old 152 Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Kentucky Common
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
Aroma: Toast and caramel with tootsie-roll chocolate notes. Vague hints of spicy and catty hops add some high notes. Like a delightful baked good.
Appearance: Reddish amber with a slight haze. Good stand of off-white foam that sticks around in a thick layer on top of the beer.
Flavor: Toast and tootsie roll lead off with a bit of caramel adding sweetness. Rye spice comes in the middle. Bitterness is moderate, with spicy hop flavors that are almost prickly on the tongue. Light citrusy (lime?) and almost-lactic-tart notes peek furtively in and out of the background. Layered. Finishes quick and dry with lingering toastines, like toasted bread crust. Clean, crisp, and Lager-like.
Mouthfeel: Medium to medium light body. Medium carbonation.
Overall Impression: What a tasty, easy-drinking beer. The toasty malt at the forefront puts this one right in my wheelhouse. It’s Altbier-like, except with the wrong hop flavors. It’s a winner in my book.
Summit Brewing Company. What more really needs to be said? Summit was one of the pioneers of craft brewing, not just in Minnesota, but in the whole Midwest. Since turning 25 last year they have been making a lot of changes at the brewery. Old brewers have left for other opportunities and new ones have come on board. They released Saga, a new American-style IPA to accompany the original India Pale Ale, an English version of the style. A pilot system was installed in the brewery that allows the brewers to experiment with small-batch releases or test new recipes. And on September 28th they had the official opening of their long-awaited taproom.
At last year’s GABF I caught up with brewers Nate Siats and Sam Doniach (one of the brewers who has moved on). In the interview they talk about some of these changes; at the time still changes-to-be. While in Denver they were researching other breweries’ taprooms to get ideas for their own. They were also eagerly anticipating using the new small-batch system. It’s fun to look back.
Summit Brewing Company’s Unchained Series hits a milestone today with the release of its tenth beer, Belgian Style Abbey Ale. It’s a Belgian Dubbel style beer brewed by Summit brewer Nate Siats, who also brought us the fifth beer in the series, Imperial Pumpkin Porter. Belgian styles are sometimes hard to pull off for American brewers. Many domestic renditions don’t quite live up to their Belgian models, often ending up too sweet or too boozy. Did Siats do justice to the dubbel? Here’s my notes:
Belgian Style Abbey Ale
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Belgian Dubbel
Serving Style: 12 oz Bottle
Aroma: Bread crust and subtle dark fruits; dates. Prominent banana and sugary cotton candy (as I call that Belgian yeast character). Background of pepper and allspice.
Appearance: Clear amber/red with some chill haze early on. Creamy, ivory head with very fine bubbles that was moderately persistent; a ring of creamy foam remains around the edge of the glass all the way to the bottom. Nice lacing on a clean glass.
Flavor: Herbal hops kick things off, but quickly give way to bread crust and melanoidin sweetness. Dates, pears and raisins join in and linger into the finish. Highlight notes of sour fruit, like tart cherries. Moderate cotton-candy Belgian yeast character. Alcohol is apparent, but not hot. Dry and slightly tannic in finish with lingering notes of tea leaves.
Mouthfeel: Light-medium body. Effervescent high carbonation. Warms on the way down.
Overall: I love bread crust malt flavor in beer and that is the predominant flavor in this beer (at least on my palate). You have to let this beer warm just a bit to let that flavor come through. In fact, there is a tight temperature range for this beer; too cold and it comes off harsh and slightly sour, too warm and the flavors become murky. The tannic character that I get in the finish detracts a bit, but overall it’s a nicely balanced beer that is dangerously drinkable in the best Belgian tradition.
I don’t often drink dunkelweizen. I like dunkelweizen, so I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because there aren’t many of them to be had in the Twin Cities. Those that are available are mostly imports, and German wheat beers, whether light or dark, are best consumed fresh. The long trip across the ocean and then halfway across the continent doesn’t always treat them kindly.
Or perhaps it’s the near-overwhelming diversity of beers available these days. Whether you know too much or you don’t know enough, a trip to the beer store can leave you locked in a paralysis of indecision. Distracted by all the “bright and sparklies” on the shelf it’s maybe difficult for me to find my way back to the two bottles of dunkelweizen gathering dust amid the pilsners.
Whatever the reason, I just don’t often think about dunkelweizen.
I should think more about dunkelweizen. It’s a great beer to pair with food. Like its lighter sister it is great with salads especially those with more substantial flavors like candied walnuts. Toasty-caramel melanoidin flavors make for scintillating combinations with the darker flavors of Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes with mole or roasted Poblano peppers. Pulled pork anyone? Okay, now I’m craving Tex-Mex and beer, but it’s only 9:30 am…
I really should give dunkelweizen more consideration.
Summit Brewing Company has pushed the style to the front of my crowded brain with the release of Unchained #9 – a dunkelweizen created by brewer Eric Blomquist. So now there are three examples on the shelf. But one of them is made in St. Paul. For those of us in Minnesota, it can’t really get much fresher.
Here’s my notes:
Unchained #9 – Dunkelweizen
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Serving Style: 12 oz bottle
Aroma: A balanced blend of banana and clove that leans just a bit more heavily on the spice. Bread and caramel form the base with raisiny fruit filling in the cracks. Overtones of lemon citrus pop out of the glass like the tiny fizz splashes on soda pop. And do I detect the subtlest hint of smoke?
Appearance: Beautiful to look at. It pours dark amber to mahogany; murky and opaque. The long-lasting, fluffy, ivory head falls slowly to thick foam on the surface that lasts all the way to the bottom of the glass. Effervescent bubbles rise from the bottom of the glass.
Flavor: Let it warm up just a bit. Fresh from the fridge it is surprisingly bitter with a citrusy hop-like flavor that sits in the middle of my tongue. As the temperature rises, so does the flavor of melanoidin; like burnt brown sugar. And there are those raisins re-visiting from the aroma. The yeasty banana character steps to the background, allowing clove to come to the fore. The citrus from early on backs off toward the end, but leaves a final calling card at the back of my throat on the way out.
Mouthfeel: Light bodied, yet thick and chewy – pillowy. Effervescent – tingly on my tongue.
Overall Impression: A good beer for the kind of weather we’re having; not quite the summery quaff of a hefeweizen, but not as dark, rich and wintery as a weizenbock. It’s a delicate in-between. Let it warm a bit before you start drinking to let the malt character that makes if a dunkelweizen come through. Dark fruit and toasted brown sugar flavors work wonders with the yeast.
Unchained #9 comes out in bars the week of March 5th. Check the Summit website for details of release events. Bottles will appear the week of March 19th.
Whether you call them Black IPAs, Cascadian Dark Ales, or American-style Black Ales, bitter, hoppy, black beers are becoming more and more popular with brewers and beer fans alike. What had been a fringe phenomenon has become a true emerging style. Production breweries and brewpubs are turning them out all over the country.
Honestly, it is a style that I have had difficulty embracing. The combination of high-level bitterness, intensely-citrusy American hop flavor, and acrid, roasted malts creates an unpleasant partnership in my mouth. There are a couple examples that I like – 21st Amendment’s Back in Black comes to mind – but in general, these are not beers that I am likely to pick up at the store or order at a bar.
Unchained #8: Black Ale Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Black IPA
Serving Style: 12 oz bottle
Aroma: Light chocolate and roast underlie citrusy orange and grapefruit hops. A bit of bread crust.
Appearance: Ample, creamy, tan head that sticks around, maintaining a foamy layer from start to finish. Very dark brown to black.
Flavor: Sharply and somewhat astringently bitter, with intense grapefruit and orange hop flavor. The hop bitterness is enhanced by the bitterness of roasted malt. The malt character is primarily coffee-like roast with light sweetness that increases as the beer warms. The finish is dry, lingering on coffee and juicy grapefruit. The bitterness grabs hold at the start and is the last thing to let go.
Mouthfeel: Medium body with prickly carbonation. A touch astringent.
Overall Impression: This beer has that particular combination of bitterness, black malt, and citrusy hops that sits uncomfortably on my tongue. The high level of attenuation enhances that. I could do with more malty sweetness to balance the hop and roasted-malt bitterness. A hint of chocolate would give the citrus a pleasing foil. As it is, it is a well-made beer, just not one that suits my tastes.
At the Summit Silver Anniversary party on Saturday I had a most interesting conversation with one of the hard-working and talented Summit brewers. While exchanging pleasantries over compostable plastic cups of Silver Anniversary Ale, I said that I was glad to see EPA, the old comfy-blanket of many a Minnesota beer nerd, brought in to the new millennium with this recipe. Many people have the impression that while Summit makes great beer, they have been making the same great beer since 1986. Things like the Unchained Series and Anniversary Ale are helping to polish up the brewery’s image. That’s when things got interesting.
This brewer revealed that Summit is taking delivery this week on a two-barrel pilot brewery specially designed to mirror their big system. This new toy will give the brewers a place to play. What interesting new Summit flavors will come from that?
One plan is for regular special/limited releases following on the tails of Silver Anniversary Ale. When I proposed the idea of small-batch, big-bottle beers this brewer said, “That is a possibility, hypothetically speaking of course.”
I look forward to seeing what the next few months and years will bring.