Archive for the ‘Beery Thoughts’ Category

Observations from the 2014 Great American Beer Festival

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

GABF logo

Minnesota brewers racked up the medals at the Great American Beer Festival held in Denver, Colorado October 2nd through 4th. Summit’s often underrated EPA took bronze. Indeed’s Mexican Honey took silver. The barrel-aged Buffalo Bock earned a bronze for Town Hall. Bent Paddle took home a well-deserved bronze medal for 14° ESB. And Badger Hill and Steel Toe both won gold – Badger hill for their White IPA and Steel Toe for Wee Heavy.

Indeed, the Heartland region as a whole did well. Wisconsin garnered seven medals. Illinois took an impressive nine. And Iowa earned two. I’m thinking that our upper-Midwestern states will not be considered beer flyover country for much longer.

What is is it about beer people that makes them dress up?

Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association.

Trends

Hops are still king in American beer. India pale ale was the contest category with the largest number of entries for the umpteenth straight year. There was no shortage of hoppy beers in the festival hall. Nearly every brewery had a hopped-up pale ale, IPA or double IPA. White IPAs, black IPAs, red IPAs, Belgian IPAs, and session IPAs were also in abundance. The increasing demand for hops has led to rumors of an impending hop shortage, but there was no sign of it in Denver.

Hops may still be on top, but the number of sour beers in the hall suggested that a slow-building trend is now finally blossoming. Beers fermented with 100% brettanomyces yeast were easy to find. The number of all-sour breweries like Jolly Pumpkin or Trinity Brewing out of Colorado Springs is growing. There were barrel-aged sours, stainless fermented sours, and spontaneously fermented sours. They ranged in profile from delicate and vinous to aggressively funky. The lovely thing is that they were mostly very good. In past years at GABF tasting sours has been an exercise in dumping. The few good examples were overwhelmed by others loaded with foot-funk and vinegar. This year I only tasted one or two dumpers. At the Trinity Brewing booth the brewer told me that I would taste all of their beers. I countered that I would taste one or two. I tasted them all.

Saison was another big trend at this year’s festival. Suffice it to say there were a lot of them – spiced, unspiced, strong, black, and every other way. Through the course of the weekend I easily tasted more saisons and sours than any other styles.

Historical revivals? That trend is growing as well. Several examples of the salty-sour gose style were to be found. Berliner weisse with and without fruit was everywhere. And Austin, Texas based Live Oak Brewing Company had a very respectable Grodziskie, a smoked and slightly sour wheat beer style from Poland.

An unusual tidbit that I noticed was the use of blood oranges in beer. I had several beers made with this fruit from IPA to hefeweizen. My favorite beer of the festival was a blood orange gose from Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville, California. I went back for several samples of this beer during all three sessions that I attended.

Another burgeoning trend that I find particularly exciting is the use of foraged ingredients. A mini-festival held during GABF week called Beers Made by Walking was dedicated to foraged ingredient beers. Breweries like Scratch Brewing from Ava, Illinois or the newly opened Forbidden Root Brewery in Chicago are using a variety of botanicals like walnuts, sassafras, lemon myrtle, burdock root, and even mushrooms to flavor their beer. Scratch Brewing completely rebuffed the hoppy beer thing by bringing a lineup of all gruits. None of their beers contained any hops at all.

Photo courtesy of the Brewers Association

Not All Trends Are Good

But it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns at the GABF. There has been a lot of talk in the industry lately about a possible decline in overall quality as the number of breweries mushrooms. 2014 marked the second year in a row that I have noticed a large number of so-so and not-so-good beers in the GABF hall. My mode of operation in the hall is to sample beers mostly from breweries that I have never heard of. I want to know what’s going on out there beyond the big names. And to be completely honest, I don’t like to wait in line for beer, especially when there are 3000+ other beers available. I tasted a lot of beers that just didn’t cut it.

I made a special point of visiting new breweries in the states that I covered in A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland. Of the seven or eight regional newcomers, only one of them – Forbidden Root – was making beer that rose above the level of average homebrew. Fortunately that one was very good.

I was talking to a brewer friend who has judged beer at the competition for many years. He told me that he judged a lot of sub-par entries this year. I asked if this was the norm or something new. He said that this year was markedly different from past years. As new breweries continue to come on line, the industry is going to have to get serious about quality.

2014 Autumn Brew Review Preview

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Tomorrow is Autumn Brew Review day!

The Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild knows how to throw a beer fest. The three they stage are always the best of the year. While Winterfest is the hands-down winner as “Best Fest” in my opinion, it’s hard to choose between All Pints North and Autumn Brew Review.

In Brew Review’s favor, it’s a bigger festival with more breweries and more beers to sample. This year’s lineup includes 109 breweries. With each one offering an average of three-ish beers, that’s a lot of tasting. The setting at the majestic Grain Belt Brewery building gives the festival a palpable connection to the city’s mighty brewing past. But then again, it’s hard to beat Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth as a site beer fest site. Oh, it’s so hard to choose…

There have been so many new breweries opening in the state in the last few months that I haven’t even begun to sample them all. That’s one thing that I am particularly looking forward to at this year’s ABR. Among the brand-new brewers represented are Bauhaus Brew Labs, Fair State Brewing CO-OP, Four Daughters Cidery, Pryes Brewing Co., Tin Whiskers Brewing Co., Veteran Beer Co. and Bank Brewing Co. Bank has been around for a while, but they have only recently begun making their own beer. I’ve been to some of these, but it will be great to sample brews from some of the others.

Minnesota is also being flooded by brands from other states, many of which will be represented at the festival. I’m looking forward to visiting with Bull Falls Brewery from Wausau, Wisconsin and Finch’s Beer Company from Chicago, Illinois. I hit both places researching A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland. I’m glad to see their beer here at home. Others to hit are Fargo Brewing Co., Local Option, Stillwater Artisanal Ales, and Prost Brewing Co. Prost is a Denver brewery that makes German-style lagers. I was there a couple of years ago and loved it.

The program reveals that brewers will have some interesting beers on display. 2012 Alaskan Smoked Porter anyone? Or how about a preview of Dawn of Aurora “champagner weisse” from the Schell’s Noble Star Collection? Bent Brewstillery will be doling out something called El Guerrero Chilean Double Stout – undoubtedly something that brewer Kristen England brought back from recent beer-judging trips down south. Destihl Brewery from Illinois is bringing their awesome Gose. The Hoops brothers at Town Hall and Fitger’s seem to be trying to out-do each other with their fest selections. And Fitger’s Cherry Batch….

And speaking of cider…there are a lot of opportunities to sample the scrumpy this year. Cider makers at the fest come from both coasts as well as Minnesota. Among them are Wyder’s Hard Cider, Two Towns Ciderhouse, Schilling & Co., Angry Orchard Cider Co. and Ace Cider. Sociable cider Werks and Four Daughters Cidery are representing for the home state. I’m really into cider lately, so I’ll be hitting up most of these booths.

Things to remember at the fest:
– You don’t have to (read can’t) sample everything.
– Beware the “imperial.” A few of those and your day is done.
– Drink water.
– Hit up the food trucks. Food is good when drinking.
– Line up a ride home. Don’t be “that guy.”

The forecast for tomorrow is for low 80s and partly cloudy. You couldn’t ask for better beer fest weather. So hit up a hearty brunch (gotta get that base on), grab a bus, taxi or Über, and get your butts to Nordeast for a great afternoon of tasting.

Northern Lights Rare Beer Fest

Monday, March 31st, 2014

northern-lights-rare-beer-fest

For the last several years, the Denver Rare Beer Tasting has been one of the highlights of GABF week in Denver. The intimate event features 40-ish brewers from all over the country pouring rare and vintage beers for just a few hundred guests – fans and brewers alike. The one-of-a-kind event supports the Pints for Prostates organization, a beer-based charity to support prostate cancer research, founded by cancer survivor Rick Lyke. At $100 the ticket price is steep, but between the beer and the cause, the cost is worth it.

Now the Twin Cities can boast its own version of this auspicious event. The boys at Chop Liver LLC, the ones who bring you the St. Paul Summer Beer Fest among many others throughout the state, debuted the Northern Lights Rare Beer Fest last Saturday at the Minnesota History Center. It brought together 30 breweries for a celebration of brews exotic and hard to get.

The premise of the event was fairly simple. Each brewery was to bring at least one beer that is otherwise unavailable in the metro market; maybe a vintage example, maybe some tweak to a flagship. Some brewed small-batch beers just for the event. Every brewery was to have someone from the brewery in the booth to talk with attendees about the beers. Ticket sales were capped to keep it intimate and elegant. And like the original, this fest would support Pints for Prostates.

So how did it go?

First a note about the location. The Minnesota History Center is one of the best, if not the best, location for a beer festival in the metro. It’s elegant. It’s intimate. Multiple levels give it a sense of space. Gray and black polished granite elevate it way above the usual white tents and utility tables. It’s just lovely. I wish that the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild’s Winterfest had not outgrown it. I hope that Chop Liver will continue to utilize it.

Now to the fest. Overall, I would call it a success, especially for a first attempt. The beers were generally very interesting. The food was tasty. The musical entertainment was unobtrusive, but well…entertaining. The mood was festive. And best of all, it wasn’t crowded!

I know from talking to the organizers that they didn’t sell as many tickets as they would have liked (or perhaps needed to sell). I think the high ticket price scared many away. Chop Liver should have stressed the charitable cause thing a little more strongly. From my perspective though, the number of attendees was perfect. There was none of the shoulder-to-shoulder mass of humanity struggle that one typically encounters at indoor beer fests. It was intimate and airy. I don’t think I stood in a single line for beer. While a couple hundred more people probably wouldn’t have killed the vibe, it was quite pleasant as it was.

There was no shortage of amazing beer to sample. My biggest fear was that everything would be over 9% alcohol. There were indeed a lot of big beers, but thankfully some brewers were thoughtful enough to bring lighter-weight offerings as well. I was able to go back and forth between heavy-hitters and sessionable brews, which greatly extended my sampling capabilities.

What about the “rarity” of the beer? In some ways the Twin Cities can already claim a rare beer fest. At Winterfest guild-member breweries typically go out of their way to bring something extra special. I’m not sure the rarity factor at Northern Lights topped that, although there were extraordinary beers from regional and national breweries that would not be represented at Winterfest. That said, while some seemed to lack the imagination that the festival demanded, most breweries did break out the good stuff. There were too many to talk about all of them, so I’ll just list a few that stand out in my mind.

On reflection, my favorite of the fest was Eye Wine from Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery, a “well-aged,” wine-barrel version of their award-winning Eye of the Storm Honey Ale. Even with just a small sample pour this beer changed drastically from start to finish. The first sip was a honey-dripped barleywine; thick and sweet. Then came a wash of woody oak to cut through the nectar. Finally this same beer transformed itself into a light and sparkly, slightly acidic, glass of vinous goodness. This was only my third or fourth sample of the night. This metamorphosis wasn’t just some drunken illusion. It really happened. And it was verified by none other than beer historian Doug Hoverson.

Another favorite was the Wine Barrel Aged Breakwater White with Brettanomyces from the other Hoops brother up at Fitger’s Brewhouse. It was a Belgian witbier aged in a red wine barrel with brett. The resulting beer was tart and super refreshing, a welcome thing in a fest full of big-thick and super-hops. The dominant flavor was fresh-squeezed yellow grapefruit with a whole load of other citrus throw into the mix.

Icy Wheat IPA from Oskar Blues was another favorite. Wheaty, super-dry, and loaded with vinous Nelson Sauvin hops, it was just really good. A great palate cleanser for the fest.

Others worthy of mention were Barrel-aged Old Rasputin from North Coast, Huckleberry Sour from Grand Teton, and 16, the bourbon-barrel imperial stout made to celebrate Central Waters’ sixteenth anniversary. There were so many others worthy of mention, but I’ve just got to stop.

Mark and Juno promise the Northern Lights Rare Beer Fest will be back next year. For those who opted out this year, it might be worth it to reconsider next year.

Insight Brewing Company: Bringing the World of Beer to the Twin Cities

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

I first became aware of Ilan Klages-Mundt back in 2010 when I was a featured writer at the Hoppress on Ratebeer.com. He had joined the Hoppress team at the start of a year-long adventure traveling the globe to intern at some of the world’s great breweries. Along the way he penned several posts detailing his exploits. I recall experiencing a tinge of envy as I read about his work with Fuller’s, Kiuchi (Hitachino Nest), Mikkeller, and others. I mean, how great a gig was that?

Ilan’s posts stopped in February 2011. His journey of passion passed from my mind. But then I got score sheets back from a beer I had entered in a local homebrew competition. Ilan had judged my beer. I remember thinking, “What’s he doing here?”

Turns out Ilan is a native Minnesotan, hailing originally from Winona. After his world tour he returned to his home state and settled in the Twin Cities. And of course the answer to what he’s doing here is building a brewery.

Insight Brewing Company is currently in the process of securing startup funds and hopes to open in the first quarter of 2014. They’re looking at locations in Northeast Minneapolis, but won’t yet reveal exactly where. The name Insight is inspired by Ilan’s journeys. Working with some of the world’s greatest brewers, he gained deep insights into brewing process, the beer industry, and world beer cultures. With Insight Brewing he wants share what he learned with beer drinkers here at home.

Ilan’s craft-beer adventure began in 2007 when he was a music student at Lawrence University’s Conservatory of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin. A sample of Sand Creek Oscar’s Stout opened his eyes to the flavor potential of beer. He began tasting anything he could get his hands on. Armed with the Ratebeer Top 100 Beers list, he travelled to Denmark, eager to get his hands on some of the Danish beers he had read about. The store that he chose didn’t have any of the beers on the list, but it did have Westvleteren 12. That for Ilan was an epiphany. Upon tasting that beer he knew he wanted to become a brewer.

When he returned to the states he began a period of intensive homebrewing and self-study. His passion was noticed by a professor who encouraged him to apply for a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship offered by IBM. The expressed purpose of the fellowship was to allow students to pursue a passion that was not related to their major. Full of optimism, he applied and contacted brewers around the world, asking simply if he could come and be an intern. Many said yes. But then he didn’t get the fellowship.

Undeterred, he approached brewers again asking if in exchange for his free labor they would provide a place for him to stay and some meals. Again, many accepted. With $3500 in his pocket and the possibility of a little under-the-table work here and there, he set off for England.

His first stop was picking hops in West Kent, England. That was followed by time at the Fuller’s Brewery in London. From there he set off for Japan to work at the Kiuchi Brewery, makers of the Hitachino Nest beers. He worked at the Fanø Bryghus in Denmark doing contract brewing for the likes of Mikkeller. He was hired as head brewer at the Søgaards Bryghus brewpub in Aalborg, Denmark. He ended the experience with a bike and brewery tour of France and Belgium.

Ilan Klages-Mundt at the Fanø Bryghus in Denmark

Ilan says that the hardest brewery to work at was Kiuchi, starting with them forgetting to pick him up at the airport. When his ride did arrive it took him straight to the brewery where he began what would be a stint of 90 to 100-hour work weeks. The Japanese are known for their work ethic. They are also known for their respect of hierarchy. This meant that you started at the bottom regardless of prior experience. Ilan spent a lot of time doing basic brewery grunt work. It was difficult, but good experience for what’s to come.

Ilan says that the most important thing he learned while overseas was to keep it simple. “Homebrewers often throw too many things in and get a muddled flavor.” he says.  “Instead, let natural complexity come out by using only two or three malts.”

His other big lessons were about beer culture. “Beer around the world is so much more accepted than in the majority of the states. We’re growing quickly here, to where it’s becoming much nicer. But still in England, and London especially, everyone is drinking a beer with their lunch or a glass of wine. Here not too many people do that. Some do, but not too many. I think that culturally beer has a long way to go in the states. It is getting there. I mean we’re still at volume-wise 6.3% or something. It’s tiny. In England cask beer is in the 30s. So just a huge difference.”

Insight’s beers will be globally inspired; not just Belgian and not just English or German. They are rooted in classic styles, but some tweaks on those styles will be part of the lineup. I had the opportunity to sample nine brews during my visit. They ran the gamut from a 2.8% alcohol “Piccolo” IPA to a 26% barrel-aged, ice-distilled barleywine. All of the beers were quite tasty. I particularly noted the solid fermentation character. A high degree of attenuation left every beer crisp and refreshing.

Here’s a rundown of my favorites:

Lamb & Flag Premium Bitter – This is a classic English bitter that is named after Ilan’s favorite pub in Oxford. He had access to all of Fuller’s recipes, so this one is loosely based on London Pride. It smells awesome; neither malty nor hoppy, but balanced somewhere in between. A tinge of bitterness at the top is followed by toffee and biscuit malt. Bitterness returns at the end and hangs on into finish. Subtle orange-marmalade hop/yeast flavors fill in the background.

Piccolo IPA – The name is a nod to Ilan’s music background. The piccolo is one of the smallest instruments in the orchestra, yet also one of the loudest. This 2.8% IPA drinks more like 4%. It presents a delicate, citrus hop aroma. Bitterness is firm, but doesn’t blow you away, meaning you can drink a few without wrecking your palate. Citrusy lime, tangerine, and grapefruit hop flavors dominate with subtle grainy/biscuit malt to keep it balanced. It’s a great summer quaff.

Saison de Blanc – This celebratory saison is brewed with Sauvignon Blanc grapes giving it a vinous and almost grape-skin tannic quality. It’s fizzy and light like champagne, but never crosses a line to where it stops being beer. Floral and honey notes peek around the corners. I loved this beer as it is, but suggested that a version fermented with brettanomyces would be great.

The Yuzu – This was by far the most “interesting” beer in the lineup. It’s an American pale ale brewed with yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit. This one is a bit sweeter than the other beers and intensely citrusy with a mix of mandarin orange and grapefruit. The yuzu fruit provides a fruity flavor that is difficult to describe. Reaching for descriptors I came up with phenolic, but that isn’t really quite right. It is most unique and quite delicious. The Yuzu will be an Insight taproom exclusive.

Eric Salazar: New Belgium’s Maestro of Sour

Monday, June 24th, 2013

Eric Salazar of New Belgium Brewing Company

I first toured New Belgium Brewing Company in 2002 or 2003. At the time it still consisted only of what they now call Brewhouse #1. It was a small concern on the cusp of becoming the national brewery that it is now. When I drove past the brewery last year during GABF I was stunned by the size of the place. The small building that was once the entire brewery is now surrounded by what seem like acres of warehouse and cellaring structures. It’s huge.

That first visit was also my introduction New Belgium’s line of sour beers. It was probably my introduction to sour beers period. At the end of the tour we were given the choice between a sampler paddle of the six mainline beers or three funky beers; Frambozen, Transatlantique Kriek, and La Folie. I chose the latter. How could I not? The tour guide had mentioned something about “old cheese” as we overlooked the foudre.

Tasting through the flight, I was blown away. I wasn’t sure what to think. My palate was hit with an assortment of flavors that I had never experienced in beer. These beers were tart, earthy, and fruity. And yes, there was old cheese. I picked up a bottle of La Folie at the brewery and a six pack of Frambozen at the grocery store on the way out of town.

The brains and tongues behind these zesty beers are the two-person team of Eric and Lauren Salazar. Eric mans the cellars and Lauren is the blender-in-chief. I had the opportunity share a sour beer (or three) with Eric at the Happy Gnome during a recent visit to the Twin Cities. What follows is the full transcript of our half-hour interview.

A meeting of minds…or something.

During the interview we make reference to “Felix” and “Oscar.” It might be helpful to know who these characters are. The entire line of New Belgium sour beers is built on two base beers. Felix is a light beer. Oscar is a dark beer, basically 1554 with a touch less roast. Both are fermented with lager yeast before going into the foudres for acidification by the house culture of bacteria.

I first met you at the GABF in 2007 when you had presumably made Eric’s Ale for the first time.

No, we had a few batches before that that we released in kegs. That was the first bottled batch.

You were pimping it hard at the booth.

I bet I was. Sounds like me.

To start with, give me your path. You started at New Belgium in…

I started at New Belgium in 1995. I was an art student at the time in Fort Collins. I got a job at the brewery through some friends. Now of course, at 22 years old what’s a better job to have than at a brewery, especially New Belgium Brewing Company? New Belgium in those days, and it still is, was very nurturing. They’ll take anybody who wants to really make their own path. Whatever direction you want to go in you’ll be allowed to do it, but you’ll also be given all the tools to do it. So I’m a classic example of that. I started out in packaging. I was making what I considered not a lot of money, but enough money for a 22 year old guy in college. And I was working a lot of hours. I mean we worked long-hour days. We worked very hard, you know. Packaging. Hot conditions. The little train station we were in in those days, it wasn’t temperature controlled. There weren’t a whole lot of creature comforts. But we loved it. We loved what we were doing. We loved the beer that we were producing. We loved the company that we worked for. I think I was employee number 20 at that time. We’re up to 500 employees now. So, you know, I recognized the opportunity and recognized that New Belgium was a company that was going somewhere. I knew I was going to be a part of it. Not only that, I was doing something that I loved and something that was new to me. I did a lot of research. I did a lot of study. I asked a lot of questions. I made my way through the company. Within a year I was in the cellar, cold side brewing. And then within four years of that I was in the brewhouse. So I did that for a bunch of years. I was a brewer for a bunch of years. Peter Bouckaert (New Belgium’s Brewmaster) had come to the brewery in 1996, just one year after I started.  He immediately was like, “Okay, let’s start a sour program.” Of course that’s what I was interested in. Everybody at New Belgium loved sours. We loved that Belgian tradition of lambic beers. We loved the flavor profile of anything Belgian in those days, but we didn’t know how to make sour beers. It was something that traditional brewers have known for generations in Belgium, but you have to be…

It was kind of this esoteric thing here.

Yeah, in those days it was really kind of weird for us to even be doing Belgian-type beers or Belgian-style beers. So I made sure that I was next to Peter Bouckaert as much as I could be as we were developing this sour beer program and wood beer program. I would do anything, no matter how menial, to be a part of that. And even still to this day it’s still a matter of just doing the work. It’s still a matter of hauling around hoses. It’s a matter of setting everything up right. It’s a matter of knowing how much of each barrel goes into the blend. It’s still the same job that it was. And I think that’s what I like about my job nowadays is that I’m still doing the job in the manner that I learned how to be a brewer and a cellar person.

So you are now mostly in the cellar?

I am mostly in the wood cellar. I care for the foudres. I care for the beer in the foudres. Tasting, blending. Lauren Salazar, our main blender, our sensory specialist, I work closely with her. We work together to do these beers.

What got you interested in sour beers to begin with? Particularly since back in the day that would have been this weird, unheard-of thing.

New Belgium has always tried to bring everything they could to their employees. I mean we’re kind of one big family. We drink beer together. We travel together. We go to Belgium. New Belgium has a program where if you work there five years you get to go to Belgium and tour from bar to bar and brewery to brewery. You get a handle on the beer culture of Belgium. That’s essentially what we’re all about, you know. When [New Belgium founder] Jeff [Lebesch] went to Belgium the first time and came back with this idea of making this brewery, it was the culture he fell in love with. It was the essence of that brewing culture in Belgium that started New Belgium Brewing Company. So this is something that’s been a really important part of our culture since day one. So, you know, having been a part of that, having been with New Belgium from the early days, always trying new stuff and always drinking beers that we didn’t necessarily know how to make or even plan on making, that’s how I learned about sour beers. That’s what brought me to it. And when Peter started there I just made sure that I was part of it as much as I could.

How huge was that to get Peter Bouckaert, the Brewmaster of Rodenbach?

It was big. Yeah. It was big. I don’t know how the specifics of that worked, but it was really a big deal to us at New Belgium. We were blown away. And he was excited I think. From his standpoint, he was doing something new. There was no precedent for a brewery basically swallowing up the Belgian traditions and becoming that. And I think the fact that he came to us, came from Belgium and moved his whole life here, says a lot about what we were doing in those days. He was impressed with it, you know. And he wanted to take it further. He probably saw it as chance at a new thing, something that was going on. And I don’t think he was very popular for it at the time, to put it bluntly. He wasn’t very popular in Belgium for it at the time. Of course he’s Peter Bouckaert and he’s a very charismatic figure and he has lots of friends there, so I think eventually they started to realize – the Belgian brewers – that we’re bringing their culture and their beers. We’re not just copying them. We’re emulating them, yes, but we were also part of a revolution that brought the knowledge of those beers to the United States. Before that I don’t think there was much going on as far as the general public and their knowledge of Belgian beers. And so we tried to bring that to the general public. And of course we brought to it our own love and what we liked in beer. We weren’t necessarily trying to bring it to the people more than we were just trying to have good beer ourselves, you know. There were a lot of brewers here and a lot of people trying to do something different and that was our niche. And I think we did it well. We did it better after Peter Bouckaert came, for sure.

Eric chats with Kristen England of Pour Decisions Brewing Company

So let me ask you some specific questions about your sour program that you oversee.

Yeah, I’m part of it. Lauren Salazar and myself are the team that takes care of the entire cellar. I do a lot of the physical stuff. I do tasting with Lauren. She of course is the sensory person that runs the blending. I do all of the physical blending and care of the barrels. We’re a two-part team.

So one of the things that is interesting to me is that there are basically just two beers that form the basis for all of the sour program; Oscar and Felix. Why just two beers?

In the early days we tried many things. We had a lot of experiments going on. We would put fruit in beer. We would make different types of beer.  And we would age it in these barrels, but what we would come out with was this basic sour profile. So the conclusion we came to, and this is the type of thing that comes with trial and error, was that why put so many resources, why put so much time and thought into something that’s going to come down to just being a sour beer. Find the basics. Focus on those basics, and then use those basics as components in sour beers later on. So the way that developed with La Folie was that we had barrels that were developing well. They weren’t necessarily the barrels that we designed, but they just kind of came into being because of the bacteria. We blended those barrels together and then we tasted those barrels. Then we blended those barrels together. Then we blended those barrels together into large foudres and we just came up with this one beer. What we found was rather than trying to design the beer from the get-go and then sour it, you might as well take that beer and then blend it later. It really is a much easier process. It’s also a much more detailed process in terms of flavor profiling. Let’s use Tart Lychee as an example. So that is a beer that’s almost 50% strong golden. It has lychee juice, and then it has the sour portion, the Felix, added into it. Now if you think about yourself as a scientist in a lab and you’re mixing things, you know, and you’re using a little bit of this and a little bit of that and a little bit of something else, you can taste it right there. Rather than having to wait all that time to let the thing develop, you have all the components, you mix them right there, and then you taste them. So we found that only having two basics you can do that in the end. It’s much easier.

What struck me when thinking about that is that it’s really about the fermentation.

It’s about the aging process. It’s about the acidification of that beer. Yeah, exactly. So we can control that aging process and we can control that acidification without having to worry about whatever components are going to go into that beer in the future. And really that’s another part of this. We have this sour beer. It takes two years to age and develop. We don’t know what we’re going to develop two years from now. You know? Lauren comes up with lychee juice. Let’s put that in a beer. So we have already soured beer. We try it out. It worked out well. Who knows what’s going to happen in the future. Eric’s Ale worked out the same way with peach. The Le Terroir, which is the dry-hopped Felix, really you couldn’t have done that without knowing what the sour beer tasted like first, without knowing what you had to begin with. Then you dry hop it and you say, “Hey, that’s pretty good.” You know. When Lauren developed that beer, Le Terroir, I was kind of like, “I don’t know. That’s kind of weird. You want to dry hop a sour beer?” I was like, “I’ll do it. I’ll do it. No problem.” And so I did it and I had to eat my words. It was great. It actually was a really awesome beer. It’s an awesome beer. And I was like, “Okay, you’re right. You’re right.” She thought about it and she had it in her mind, but we really couldn’t have tested it out and tried it and proved it without having that sour beer already worked out, already processed and alive and running.

You reuse yeast. You have your own blend – it’s a multi-strain blend. Talk about how that came about.

It’s mostly really a bacterial soup, for lack of a better way of putting it. We have a lot of terms in this type of product that don’t sound real appealing, but you kind of say to yourself, “but in a good way.” So bacterial soup is the term I’ll use. It’s lactobacillus. Maybe a little bit of pediococcus. And probably some brettanomyces and wild yeasts in there, but for the most part it’s lactobacillus. Now in the early days what we did is – and this was Peter Bouckaert’s design – we blended those small barrels, only a few, and we put whatever we wanted into them. We put our cherry beer. We put some lactobacillus in some. We would put different types of yeast and we would just let those barrels develop. And we had a meeting on Thursdays where we would taste beers from Belgium and we would taste the barrels. And in the early days, I’ll be frank, for a long time they sucked. They would kind of start to develop and then they would go south. We learned a lot about the “sick phase” of barrels. In order to get to heaven you’ve got to go through hell, I guess the saying goes. So as these beers developed we would taste them and then we would also taste the beers we were going for; Liefmans, Rodenbach, and any lambics. We would discuss those beers and we would discuss what we had. Well, when the beers started to get better – the barrels that would get better were obvious and the ones that weren’t working out so well were obvious as well – we would get rid of those barrels [that weren’t getting better] and then we blended the barrels that were good and we’d let those age for a little while. Then we’d have the same discussions, the same parallel discussions with the traditional Belgian beers and what we were coming up with. And we’d have open conversations about what we were looking for. What we were looking for developed over time. It wasn’t necessarily like we were going for one thing from the get-go. But as we were doing this and as we figured out what we had and what we were capable of doing, that idea came about. Then we purchased some large-scale foudres. I think our first four were the 60-hectoliter fouders that we have. We still have those foudres, one of which is foudre 1 that we call “Sure Thing.” It has been a part of every single La Folie blend since we bought it. We bought that one in 1999 I believe. 1999 or 2000. That one barrel has been a part of every single La Folie, so it’s steeped deep with the flavor profiles and bacteria that we want. So same situation [with the foudres]. We’d blend those barrels together and as those barrels developed, we would develop what we wanted. And even still to this day, since 1998 when we put out the first one until now, sixteen years, I mean it’s still developing. It’s still a process. It still is about Lauren and I sitting down and sipping all the barrels, talking about it, talking about what we think about each barrel specifically. And each barrel can have its own personality. There are a lot of factors there. What time period of its development is it in? Where is the barrel sitting in the room? Is it in front of a window? Is it near the other door? How big is it? The smaller the barrel the larger the ratio of liquid to wood there is. A lot of little factors there. It’s all about us sitting down and tasting it. We’re still doing the same thing to this day as we always have done before.

So as you’re tasting each one of these barrels does that flavor that comes out of each one, that particular acidification profile, determine what you end up doing with that beer?  Whether it ends up in a blend of La Folie or goes into one of the Love releases? Whether you add lychee to it or something else?

So I’ll break that question down into a few different parts. Love is specifically a single barrel that we decide the moment that we taste it that it’s good enough to be Love. Now if that doesn’t happen, and it will [happen] because we have a lot of good barrels in there, but if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. If we didn’t have a Love barrel, we don’t mind. That’s fine. Love is really something that we’ll put out a little at a time. With the Peach Love that we are drinking today, that’s a barrel that we decided was good enough and then we put it into a peach whiskey barrel. We recently, this past year, April of 2012, we purchased and installed seven 225-hectoliter barrels. Now we knew full well that we had to inoculate those barrels. The best beer to inoculate those barrels with, of course, is the best beer that we have. Right? So we kind of let it be known that this year’s production of sour beer was going to be diminished a little bit because we knew that we were going to take this best beer. So there’s the decision right there. This beer is really good. Of course we want it to be part of this blend, but we also want it to carry us into the future with these new barrels. So last year that was a pretty heavy-duty decision. It was like okay, we need to produce this much La Folie. We want to have as much Felix for whatever, Tart Lychee or Kick or whatever we’re producing. We want to have as much of that as possible. But we also want to make sure that we’re taking care of these new barrels and that we have something for the future, especially when we’re expanding on this program. So within a year we already have sour beer being produced in these large barrels that have never before been used for sour beer or beer at all. They were wine barrels before that. They’re 30 years old. And they’re working out. So we know that we made the right decision by giving up some of our best beer to inoculate those new barrels. We still were able to produce a fair amount of La Folie. But now we know that we’ll see more in the future because those barrels are working out. We expanded our capacity, you know. All the right decisions were made.

What are you looking for in the blend?

Well, La Folie. We know as we’re tasting them that we have a lot of barrels to choose from, so we know that we can build it as a profile. If we have something that’s really tart, maybe kind of a citric tart, something that’s really sharp, maybe not very complex but still has a nice tartness to it, then we can balance it out with something that’s maybe a little bit younger or maybe something that hasn’t quite developed the…I hate to put it like that…but hasn’t quite gone as far in its sourness and its acidification process as this other one. We can rely on the two beers to balance each other. So we’ll get something that’s maybe a little bit sweeter, a little more malty and pair it up with this very sharp, very pointed sour beer. But then other flavor components can be cherry pit, even along the same lines as a plum skin. These are things that we like to discuss. So we’re looking for balance. We’re looking for these different flavor components that will play off of each other and balance each other out without being too overpowering. Now a lot of people would say that when they taste La Folie it’s going to be really sour, but what goes into that is a lot more than just sour. You could just make it sour and it would all be one sided. You won’t have that balance and I don’t think it will be as popular a beer. So maybe it is sour, but there are a lot more subtle nuances going on there then you would think about if you just tasted sour beer. With something that’s going into a blend, you have to consider the fruit. If it’s a fruit you have to consider the other bit that you’re blending it with. Kick is an example. Kim and Dick, Kim Jordan and Dick Cantwell, that was their baby. That was the thing that they blended, that they put together. They wanted a pumpkin beer, but they wanted a sour beer. It took them a few iterations to get that right. But they did it just like that. They took a little bit of this beer and a little bit of that beer and they blended it together until they felt like they had the right flavor profile. That’s nothing you can do on paper. You can’t just make that up as you go along. There’s no numbers that take care of that. You have to taste it. It has to be a physical process. It has to be on the spot. It depends on what you’re looking for with that, with the blending of non-sour beers with sour beers. Every beer is different.

So beer nerds love to age beer. I’m going to tell you my first experience with my first bottle of La Folie. I didn’t intentionally age it, but it sat in my basement for a while. And by the time I opened it, it was straight-up vinegar. One thing that really made me happy though was that the next time I visited the brewery I told them that story and they gave me a sixpack of 1554. But the first thing the guy asked me was, “Did you try and age that?” So just for the sake of people who get a sour beer and feel they want to age it, talk a little bit about that.

Well, I feel like sour beers in general…I mean on a basic level the pH is low enough that they can be considered bomb-proof at certain points. That being said, you know, the beer is already two years old. It’s already been aged. We’ve already tasted that two-year-old beer and specifically decided on that blend. So really, you know, the beer is ready to go when it’s ready to go. Aging is up to you. It’s interesting to age beer and then taste it across the board and do a flight. Go from 2002 to say 2012. Can we do that? Does anybody keep their beers that long? I think they do. Some people do. I don’t know how they do it, because I always end up coming home at 2 am with a bunch of friends and drinking that beer. But there’s also how you keep it, you know. The temperature has to be right. With those cork and cage bottles, if they’re sitting upright they have a tendency to dry out. That cork can dry out. You can get a lot of oxygen through there, even if you don’t recognize it when you open it. It still may be a little pressurized, but it can go through ebbs and flows of drying depending on the season and what not. So it’s tough because you don’t know where people are keeping their bottles. And it’s hard to say whether you should age that, because what’s your storage area like? Is it your garage? Is it 100 degrees out there? Is it your basement? Is it humidity controlled? So I like to say “drink that beer.” When you get it, just drink it. It’s already two years old. We aged it. We blended it. If you want to do that though, treat it right. Lay it on its side. Take care of the cork. Keep that temperature even and low.

When you’re tasting sour beers – and again this is going to differ from style to style – but if you could kind of generalize, what is it when you taste a sour beer that makes you say, “This is a great beer.”

Balance. Yeah, balance. I like to have many components and not just one. If it’s too far to one side then it’s no fun. It has to have many flavor components and it has to have balance in those flavor components. If you’re going for something one way or the other then fine, you can flavor it that way. But if is takes over and it tends not to let anything else through, then that’s no fun. You know, you have to have that balance. I think that’s true even if it is a sour beer. And people generally, depending on their threshold of sour, might be like, “Wow, that’s kicking my ass right now.” But if they taste further they’ll find that we’ve taken the time to balance that out. We’ve done this or that. We’ve thought about what that beer is going to be. We’ve thought about what we want this beer to be. Now with Eric’s Ale that was a big deal. I was looking for that peach to come out, but I didn’t want a peach flavor. I wanted peach to be the aroma. And I wanted when you put that beer up to your mouth that you more sense it on your nose than you sense it on your tongue. It was still part of the profile, but it was a component that wasn’t necessarily obvious right away. It was about balance.

What are the components you’re trying to balance?

In? Name a beer.

La Folie. A lot of people know that beer so let’s do that.

With La Folie, like I said, we’re looking for sour. We’re looking for something that’s going to offset that sour; a little maltiness. We found that in these barrels and with Oscar aging that we always get a little cherry component. It’s weird because there’s no cherries added anywhere in the process. There’s always this cherry component. And if it’s a tart cherry, a cola component is never a bad thing. I mean there are just these little details that I don’t expect anybody to actually sense or even focus on, or even say the words “cherry pit” or “plum skin,” but I still want it to be there. I still want it to be a part of the flavor profile. Again balance. It may be one of the most sour beers in the United States, but I challenge anybody tasting it to be, “Oh. What is this little tiny thing? What is this sweetness? There’s an acidic portion of this, but then there’s a fruit sugar I can’t quite put my finger on.” And that’s fun. Right? That’s interesting. That keeps it interesting for all of us.

I gave La Folie to a wine sommelier that I work with frequently and she drank it the whole rest of the night.

That’s great. That’s an ultra-compliment. That’s really cool. Right on.

So, you started out as an art student. I’m curious, because my background is in the arts, what was your medium?

I’m a painter.

Do you still do it?

Oh yes. Very much so. I love water color. I love mixing colors. I love it when there are almost so many colors that you can’t really see them all unless you look closely. So I’m lucky enough to have a job where I’m not necessarily doing that exact thing, but I still am doing that thing in a sort of a way. I’m blending these beers just like I would be blending colors.

You just led into my question. How do the arts play into making beer?

Just like that. I’m still allowed to be that artist that I always wanted to be. I didn’t necessarily know when I was younger that brewing would be my calling, but there it is. It plays perfectly with what I’ve always done my whole life, and that’s being a painter and being an artist.

 

Sam Adams Redesigns the Beer Can

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

A guest at a recent private beer-tasting event sent me into a rant. We were discussing the relative value of cans when he suggested that the reason some people might taste a metallic flavor in canned beer is that they are putting their mouth all over the top of the can. At that moment I was seized by the spirit of Ninkasi. “At least 85% of what you taste is actually what you smell.” I said. “If you drink from the can or bottle you smell nothing. You are cutting yourself off from the majority of the experience of the beer.” I ended with the admonition, “I don’t care what kind of glass you drink from. Just drink from a glass.”

Now the Boston Beer Company is telling people to drink Sam Adams Boston Lager from the can.

Well, not really. They still want you to drink it from a glass, but they acknowledge that sometimes that’s impossible. Maybe you’re hiking or canoeing far into the backcountry where glass is not allowed. Cans have long been touted as a solution to such situations. So should you just accept that you will only get 15% enjoyment out of that backcountry quaff? Ever the innovator in beer-service technology, Boston Beer says, “No.”

Following up on the Sam Adams Perfect Pint glass and the Spiegelau IPA glass, they have revolutionized the beer can. Called the “Sam Can,” the new package is the result of two years of “intensive sensory research.” It features a wider lid to allow more airflow into your mouth, a more centered can opening to bring the beer closer to your nose, and an extended lip to deliver the beer to the tip of your tongue.

I was skeptical. Really? These little changes were going to make a big difference? The Sam Adams press release did a good job of adding to that skepticism. Like the media reporting on the underdog in a presidential debate – “he just has to avoid looking like a complete idiot” – the materials stressed that the difference was “subtle, but noticeable.”  The bar was set low. Maybe they had learned a lesson from the over-hype of the IPA glass.

I was skeptical, but curious. So when the media package arrived at my door containing one regular can and one Sam Can, I had to give it a whirl. I opened both at the same time for a side-by-side face-off. Just for comparison I poured a bit from each can into a glass.

Of course the beer in the glass tasted the best. Really, drink your beer from a glass! But to my surprise, the Sam Can delivered on its promise, and then some. The improvement in flavor was more than “subtle, but noticeable.” I found there to be a significant difference in all three areas of sensory evaluation; aroma, flavor, and mouthfeel.

Aroma: In this area I won’t say that the difference was huge, but it was there. Aroma was non-existent when drinking from the regular can. While the Sam Can didn’t deliver the aromatic blast of drinking from a glass, hops and malt were noticeable.

Mouthfeel: The regular can delivered a beer that was unpleasantly prickly. Carbonation felt excessive, lightening the impression of the beer’s body. The Sam Can smoothed out the bubbles. The impression was more like that of a beer that has been poured into a glass and allowed to degas. Boston Lager isn’t a full-bodied beer by any stretch, but the reduced carbonation allowed the viscosity that is there to come through.

Flavor: The beer from the regular can was bland and sharply bitter. Spicy hops almost totally obliterated the malt, leaving only the faintest impression of caramel. The excessive carbonation mentioned above gave it a distinct carbonic bite that amplified the already harsh bitterness. From the Sam Can the beer was much more balanced. Bitterness was there, but kept in check by noticeable malt sweetness. Spicy hop flavors made their appearance, but malty caramel provided a welcome counterpoint. It was a much more pleasurable quaff. The cynical thought crossed my mind that they had perhaps put a different beer in each can, but poured into a glass the two were indistinguishable.

I went in a non-believer. I came out convinced. The Sam Can may not be an earth-shaking development, but the difference is real. Still, drink your beer from a glass.

A More Personal Description of the GABF Experience

Friday, October 19th, 2012

There is something to be said for nursing a pint in a quiet pub.

The Great American Beer Festival is a beast. This makes my fourth festival. Saturday afternoon marked my 13th session – a small number in comparison to some beer writers I know, but still enough to be able to form a few impressions.

GABF is an exercise in pleasurable self-abuse; too much beer, too many too late nights, and definitely too much heavy food. The weekend – or week if you go for all of the surrounding events – will beat you up. But you’ll have a great time taking the whupping.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the GABF. The hall is immense; rows of brewery booths and vendor stalls seem to stretch to the horizon. And then there are the 12,000 people that fill it and the noise that comes from the voices of that many drunken people. As attendees try to hear and be heard they talk louder. This raises the decibels, necessitating an even louder shout. The self-perpetuating crescendo gives one the sense of standing inside of a jet engine. The roar is punctuated by the scolding hoot that moves from one end of the hall to the other every time someone drops a glass. The noise alone is exhausting.  Add buckets of beer and unpleasant yellow light that is always just a bit too dim and you have a recipe for sensory overload, at least to a homebody such as myself.

People talk about having a plan of attack at GABF. Some focus on particular beer styles, others on hitting certain breweries. I made a plan the first year, but found that my plan disintegrated shortly after entering the hall, succumbing quickly to the “empty-glass” syndrome; “my glass is empty, I’ll just fill it at the nearest booth.” I guess I lack self-control. These days I take more of a free-for-all approach. I have some vague notions of places to go and beers to taste, but mostly I just wander the aisles until I see a beer or brewery that looks interesting. I tend to focus on breweries I’ve never heard of in search of undiscovered gems. I avoid the most popular booths – places like Dogfish Head and Russian River. They have perpetually long lines. I don’t believe in waiting in long lines for beer, especially when there are 2690 other beers available.

The most frequent question one gets asked at the fest is, “tasted any stand outs?” This is such a difficult question for me to answer. Pour after one-ounce pour makes it hard to keep track. Along with planning, taking notes was another first-fest casualty. But it’s not entirely a blur. There were a few beers that rose above attention deficit and overconsumption. All the German-style beers from Live Oak Brewing Company in Austin, Texas were great. They make a hell-of-a hefe. La Cumbre Brewing Company’s Elevated IPA paired with a mighty hunk of lamb at Friday’s media luncheon was fantastic. And Founders’ Blushing Monk paired to Buratta cheese with pear brulée and cranberry jam was a definite highlight of the weekend. There were others, but mostly they all sort of blend together – and that’s okay with me. The festival to me is really about enjoying beer, not about picking it apart and checking it off. I’ll do that in other settings that aren’t so mind addling. Or maybe I’m just a bad Cicerone…

I do better at the GABF when I have a task to do there. I’m like that with events in general; I’m more comfortable working an event than just attending one. Without a purpose I tend to feel a bit lost. On Thursday night our task was to shoot video interviews with brewers from the upper-Midwest. We shot a bunch; almost an hour of video. I caught up with Todd Haug of Surly, Dave Hoops from Fitger’s, Gabe Smoly and Eric Blomquist from Summit, Matt Potts the Brewmaster at DeStihl, Joe Barley from Solemn Oath in Naperville, Illinois, and a few others. Those will go on up on this blog at some point. Hopefully this year I’ll get that done sooner than the week before next year’s festival.

After a day of beer lunches and brewery tours, Friday night’s session was all about the Farm to Table Pavilion. This is a little piece of heaven. Off in a side hall, it is a welcome relief from the thunder of the main hall. And it’s all about great beer paired with great food. Brewers and chefs are teamed up to create miraculous combinations. Small plates and small pours – you just stay in there all night and revel in it. Where to even begin? How about Firestone Walker Pale 31 paired to lemon-roasted chanterelles with cannellini beans and chardonnay grapes? Or maybe Sun King Oktoberfest with butternut squash mousse, sesame beer brittle and toasted celery marshmallow is more your speed. And of course there were oysters – lots of oysters.  You couldn’t go wrong with any of the 24 pairings in the room. I didn’t want to leave.

Saturday morning we sat through the awards ceremony and then headed back into the hall. Here’s where that task-less confusion set in. After two solid days of drinking and eating I walked into the crowded hall and immediately thought, “Is this really where I want to be?” Of course after a few samples it was all good. But how to manage this my last session of the weekend? Sample all the medal winners? Without a written list, that was beyond my mental capacity at this point. And so I wandered, tasting as many of them as I could remember or as had signs indicating their medal status. And so it was that the official fest ended for me.

The drinking and eating of course did not. A fancy dinner Saturday night was followed by pints at Prost Brewing, a new Denver brewery specializing in German-style lagers. There I accidentally stumbled upon a meeting of beer writers from all over the US, as well as a couple of scribes from Canada and the UK. Interesting conversations did ensue. Look for a piece inspired by this meeting in the next issue of The Growler.

Ah, Sunday! Sunday is the best day at GABF, mostly because GABF is over. Everyone has left town. All is quiet. We always like to stay this extra day. It’s a day to unwind from the chaos with a long hike in the mountains. That’s always followed by beer. This year we took in Funkwerks in Fort Collins. A number of people who I respect had recommended this tiny brewery that specializes in saison. I had long wanted to visit. The beers didn’t disappoint. Every beer in the sampler was top-notch. An experimental witbier temporarily called Nit-Wit, a Berliner-weiss kind of think called Leuven, and a Green Tea Saison were particularly good. Finally a nightcap of beers and appetizers in the nearly-empty Falling Rock Taphouse.

There is something to be said for nursing a pint in a quiet pub.

 

A Few Takeaways from the 2012 GABF

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

The 2012 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) is over. The 31st installment of this showcase of the American beer industry was bigger and badder than ever before. 49,000 people attended four sessions that featured 2700 beers from 580 breweries. In a testament to how popular craft beer has become, those 49,000 tickets sold out in about 45-minutes – and we thought selling out 700 Winterfest tickets in under a minute was impressive. The festival and accompanying full week of surrounding events brings 7 million dollars of economic impact to the city of Denver.

The GABF competition is the largest such competition in the world. This year 185 judges evaluated 4,338 entries from 666 breweries. The upper-Midwest region fared pretty well in the medal count.

Minnesota

Category: 19 American-Style Sour Ale, 34 Entries
Bronze: Fitger’s Framboise, Fitger’s Brewhouse, Duluth, MN
Category: 30 Bohemian-Style Pilsener, 53 Entries
Silver: Summit Pilsener, Summit Brewing Co., St. Paul, MN
2012 Great American Beer Festival Pro-Am Competition
Bronze: Classic American Pilsner, Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery, Minneapolis, MN
Brewmaster: Mike Hoops, AHA Member: Kyle Sisco

Wisconsin

Brewpub Group and Brewpub Group Brewer of the Year
Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company, Madison, WI
Category: 4 Fruit Wheat Beer, 38 Entries
Silver: Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., Chippewa Falls, WI
Category: 5 Field Beer or Pumpkin Beer, 63 Entries
Gold: Whole Hog Pumpkin Ale, Stevens Point Brewery, Stevens Point, WI
Category: 23 Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Stout, 65 Entries
Gold: Fourteen Fourteen, Central Waters Brewing Co., Amherst, WI
Category: 42 German-Style Doppelbock or Eisbock, 19 Entries
Gold: Uber Bock, Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co., Madison, WI
Category: 37 American-Style Amber Lager, 45 Entries
Gold: Point Oktoberfest, Stevens Point Brewery, Stevens Point, WI
Silver: Staghorn Octoberfest, New Glarus Brewing Co., New Glarus, WI
Category: 34 American-Style Specialty Lager or Cream Ale or Lager, 34 Entries
Bronze: Mickey’s Malt Liquor, Miller Brewing Co., Milwaukee, WI
Category: 33 American-Style Lager, Light Lager or Premium Lager, 51 Entries
Silver: Miller Lite, Miller Brewing Co., Milwaukee, WI
Category: 30 Bohemian-Style Pilsener, 53 Entries
Gold: Hometown Blonde, New Glarus Brewing Co., New Glarus, WI
Category: 54 American-Style Amber/Red Ale, 87 Entries
Silver: Fixed Gear American Red Ale, Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee, WI

Illinois

Category: 3 Fruit Beer, 58 Entries
Bronze: Strawberry Blonde Ale, DESTIHL, Normal, IL
Category: 18 American-Belgo-Style Ale, 71 Entries
Bronze: A Little Crazy, Revolution Brewing, Chicago, IL
Category: 46 English-Style Summer Ale, 38 Entries
Gold: Cross of Gold:, Revolution Brewing, Chicago, IL
Category: 48 English-Style India Pale Ale, 54 Entries
Gold: India Pale Ale, Goose Island Beer Co., Chicago, IL
Category: 50 American-Style Pale Ale, 109 Entries
Gold: Brickstone APA, Brickstone Brewery, Bourbonnais, IL
Silver: The Weight, Piece Brewery, Chicago, IL
Category: 54 American-Style Amber/Red Ale, 87 Entries
Silver: Fixed Gear American Red Ale, Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee, WI
Category: 70 Belgian- and French-Style Ale, 68 Entries
Bronze: Domaine DuPage, Two Brothers Brewing Co., Warrenville, IL
Category: 66 South German-Style Hefeweizen, 70 Entries
Silver: Ebel’s Weiss, Two Brothers Brewing Co., Warrenville, IL

I sampled so many beers during the four days of the fest that it’s really pretty impossible to pinpoint a favorite. But there are a few general takeaways:

  • Hops are still big – The largest category in the competition was American IPA with over 200 entries. The festival floor was filled with lupulin-loaded pales, IPAs and Double IPAs. That’s not to mention black, rye, Belgian and wheat IPA.
  • Big is still big – High alcohol beers were very prevalent. That’s rough when there are over 2000 beers to sample. Though many sounded good, I left a lot of those on the tables.
  • Odd ingredients are big – Herb, spice and vegetable beer was the second largest category in the competition. Brewers are experimenting more than ever before. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not.
  • Barrels are still big – Whisky, rum, wine, new oak, you name it; beer at the festival was put into every kind of barrel. As with odd ingredients, often that’s a good thing.
  • Sour is bigger than ever – As I wandered the hall, it seemed that nearly every brewery brought a sour or “wild” beer of some kind. DeStihl in Illinois must have had ten taps of sours. I tasted several sours from breweries across the country. Some were deliciously tart and delicate – champagne-like. Others tasted more like foot. Just because you can call it sour doesn’t mean you should serve it.
  • While all of this experimentation is exciting, it’s also resulting in a number of beers of dubious character.
  • If you go to the GABF, spring for tickets to the Farm to Table Pavilion. It’s like heaven. Beers from selected breweries are sent to chefs for pairings. Some of the pairings this year were simply phenomenal. I got totally stuffed on small-plates. The pavilion is in a side hall and attendance is limited. It’s a quiet refuge from the deafening roar and hubbub of the main hall.
  • GABF gives one perspective on who’s hot nationally. Long lines formed in front of booths like Cigar City, Russian River, and Dogfish Head. It was interesting to go to a festival and not see a long line at the Surly booth. This isn’t to say that lines didn’t form there, but they were relatively short in comparison. But frankly, in a hall with 2700 beers on offer, why wait in line for that one-ounce pour?

2011 GABF Interview with Summit Brewing Company brewers Nate Siats and Sam Doniach

Monday, October 8th, 2012

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.

2011 GABF Interivew with Mike Hoops of Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery is my favorite brewpub in the Twin Cities. Not to knock all of our other great brewpubs; I just enjoy everything about Town Hall from the beer to the food and ambience. It’s all there for me. It’s also the source of some of the most inventive and interesting beers in the metro (or even the state for that matter). Aside from a great lineup of year-round beers, including the nationally sought-after Masala Mama IPA, Mike Hoops and his brew crew turn out a slew of seasonals and one-offs. There’s a beer release of some kind every week.

In this interview we are sampling one such one-off beer called LSD, a strange concoction made with honey, lavender and an assortment of odd-ball ingredients, created by brewer Josh Bischoff. Shortly after the interview was completed Hoops learned that the beer had won a silver medal in the GABF competition. Shortly after the GABF ended, Josh Bischoff left Town Hall to become the head brewer at Indeed Brewing Company. Just one example of the weird and wonderful things happening in the MN beer scene.

Additionally, I get Mike Hoops’ take on the direction the Midwestern beer scene is taking and the defining character of the region’s beer.