Dark(ness) Days at Surly Brewing?

Marketing.

As the “craft” beer movement – industry, ask let’s call it what it is – continues to blossom, illness marketing is more and more the name of the game. In 2009 I toured the Lagunitas brewery in Petaluma, California. Someone asked the tour guide how large their marketing budget was. The response was a chuckled, “We don’t have a marketing budget.”

Fast forward to today and every brewery – new, old, large, small – had better have a solid marketing and sales plan in place if they want to thrive. As competition intensifies, I suspect they will need them to merely survive.

Many breweries now hire PR firms. At some it is next to impossible, even (or maybe especially) for media, to communicate directly with someone from the brewery. All communications go through the PR representatives.

Surly Brewing is a case in point. Once upon a time it was relatively easy to get a question answered by owner Omar Ansari or former head brewer Todd Haug. Nowadays, even simple questions directed to personal emails receive responses from representatives at One Simple Plan, followed up by second emails inquiring if the needed information had been received. Typically the answer is no.

I don’t fault them for this. As frustrating as it might be for me, it is as it needs to be for them. As Surly grows, their time becomes increasingly valuable. As I already mentioned, marketing is now the name of the game and PR firms are part of it.

It could be argued that much of Surly’s success has come from marketing. I’m not knocking the beer. The beer is great. If it weren’t, the marketing would not have worked as well as it did. But Surly’s cantankerous image and “do it our way” persona appealed to drinkers at the beginning of the current “craft” revolution. Drinking Surly made one a rebel. The image captured the zeitgeist in a way that I think surprised even the folks at Surly. But they recognized it early, manipulated it, and were able to capitalize on that oeuvre. It was savvy marketing that built their brand.

In a piece for Mspmag.com about Haug’s resignation from Surly and subsequent hook-up with Three Floyds, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl opined that many of Surly’s more recent beers are decidedly un-surly. I would counter that this has always been the case and that it was marketing that made them seem so over the top. Hell is one of the brewery’s top-selling brands. It’s a simple, golden lager. The now-retired Bitter Brewer was a slightly Americanized English Bitter – hardly an extreme style. Bender is a brown ale. And Cynic is nothing more than a traditional Saison – and a comparatively uninteresting one at that. Surly’s lineup has always consisted largely of beers that did not go to extremes. The “extremes” were mostly minor tweaks and an aggressive public image.

Even the more extreme brews aren’t so extreme when viewed in a larger context. Furious was fierce for the region at the time of its release. But according to Haug, it was modeled on West Coast-style red ales – now called American Strong Ales by the BJCP – that already existed in abundance elsewhere. Think Bear Republic Rocket Red or Stone Arrogant Bastard. Abrasive is one of many double IPAs. Even Darkness has its antecedents – notably Three Floyd’s Dark Lord, which Haug will presumably now have a hand in brewing. But image and branding made the Surly beers feel bigger, bolder, and badder than they perhaps really were.

Todd Haug’s departure presents Surly with a dilemma. In her piece, Moskowitz Grumdahl quotes Haug as saying, “They marketed the shit out of me.” Indeed, Haug was the public face of Surly. I’m sure many Surly fans couldn’t identify Omar Ansari if they saw him. But everybody knows Todd Haug. Although he is one of the kindest and gentlest men in brewing, his outward demeanor – tat covered, goat bearded, heavy metal axe man – personified the Surly image. He looked the part of the devil’s spawn. He exuded an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Todd Haug put a personal face on Surly’s marketing.

So what is Surly to do now? I have no concern for the future of the beer. There are plenty of passionate and talented brewers there to keep the taps flowing. But what will become of the image? As the brewery gets bigger, it will be difficult to maintain the bearing of rebellious upstart. As people and entities mature that stance starts to look curmudgeonly. Even Stone Brewing’s arrogant attitude has softened of late. And who will be the public face that makes the marketing a tangible, touchable thing?

The Surly crew is smart. They clearly know how to market. I’m sure they’ll figure it out.

As a last tip of the hat to Todd, I’ll take a look at his last batches of Damien, Darkness, and Anniversary beer.

Here’s my notes:

Surly Damien 2016Damien
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: American Black Ale
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
6.5% ABV

Appearance: Opaque black. Faint ruby highlights. Appears clear. Full, creamy, tan head with excellent retention.

Aroma: Toasted bread. Coffee. Light Oreo cookie chocolate. Medium-high Melon and tangerine hop notes provide bright contrast to deep, rich roast malt character. Moderate impression of sweetness. Low alcohol. Low dark fruit esters. Pine.

Flavor: Malt forward with ample supporting hops. Chocolate – semi-sweet. Low coffee. Smooth café mocha. Low caramel and bread crust. Vanilla. Melon and tangerine hops bring bright contrast to the roasted malt. Lifting. Bitterness is medium to medium low. Low alcohol. Low fruity esters. Something vaguely vinous. Finish is dry with lingering chocolate and melon/citrus/pine hops.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Creamy. Velvety. Medium carbonation. Not warming. Not astringent.

Overall Impression: Like a lightweight, less-intense black IPA. Smooth, velvety chocolate countered by bright tangerine/pine hops. Easy to drink and drink a few.

Surly Darkness 2016Darkness 2016
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Russian Imperial Stout
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
13% ABV

Aroma: Malt forward with moderate hop accompaniment. Coffee. Dry chocolate cookie. Licorice and dark fruits – raisins or dates. Alcohol is apparent – isopropyl. Moderate pine resin hops. Very low impression of sweetness.

Appearance: Voluminous, creamy, tan foam. Cascades in glass. Excellent retention. Black and completely opaque. Appears clear. Faint ruby highlights.

Flavor: Roast malt driven with subtler, malty sub-flavors and moderate hop support. Chocolate dominates – dark chocolate syrup with dry chocolate cookie at the end. Low coffee grounds. Caramel. Similar date/raisin dark fruits from the aroma. Licorice. Burnt black malt character in the finish, but not the primary roast note. Subtle undercurrents of vanilla and maple. Maybe even a hint of blackberries? Medium-high sweetness. Hop bitterness is medium-low. Tar. Medium-low, pine resin hop flavor. Alcohol is apparent – helps cut the sweetness without crossing the line to solvent. Finish is semi-sweet to sweet with lingering cookie-like, dry roast, dark fruit, and caramel.

Mouthfeel: Full body. Smooth and silky. Medium-high alcohol warming. Low carbonation. Not astringent.

Overall Impression: Okay, I’ll be that guy that I often deride. It’s not as good as last year. My notes from last year are much the same as this year. But last year the pine felt more intense, the overall feeling was less sweet, less heavy. At least in my memory. But I’m probably wrong. Still, this is good. Alcohol is high, but not quite intrusive. Love the chocolate syrup. And the satin texture is to die for. As always, whacks you in the head at first and then comes back to deliver lots of subtle complexity.

Surly TenTen
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Old ale aged on toasted sassafras
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
10.5% ABV
63 IBU

Aroma: Floral alcohol. Bread. Chocolate. Toffee and brown sugar. Dark fruits. Vaporous alcohol is the dominant note. Camphor. High caramel with background vanilla. Very light earthy/herbal hops. Dark fruit esters – date and cherry.

Appearance: Full, creamy, beige head with good retention. Reddish brown/mahogany with red highlights. Clear.

Flavor: Malt forward with low hop accompaniment and alcohol. Malt is the dominant flavor – caramel and vanilla prominent. Background notes of milk chocolate and dark fruits. Alcohol is definitely a component – floral and verging on solvent/hot. Hop bitterness is medium, but still remains subservient to the massive malt. Low herbal/earthy hop flavors. Dark fruit esters – dates and maybe candied cherry. Sweetness is medium-high. Finish is off-dry to semi-sweet with lingering bitterness, alcohol, caramel and cherry fruit. Chocolate covered cherry or Brach’s chocolate covered cherries. Wood impression is missing. Or is that maybe a little root-beer character in there?

Mouthfeel: Full body. Low carbonation. Medium-high alcohol warming, but not quite hot. Low astringency.

Overall Impression: Let it warm up for a long while. Complexity doesn’t come through until its temperature is up there. Alcohol is a bit of a distraction, would do well with some age perhaps. Try it again in two years. Where’s the toasted sassafras? Am I missing something? I admit that I don’t know what toasted sassafras tastes like, so maybe I am. But my Boy Scout experience with sassafras leads me to expect root beer flavors. A generally pleasant sipper, but think it’s one of those rare beers that could be better in a couple years.

Surly Brewing Co. #Merica!

Two things.

American lager wasn’t always bland and insipid.

The use of corn and rice in beer is not inherently bad.

In the mid-1800s, pills political upheaval in Germany caused a massive burst of German immigration to this country. Among the thinkers, stuff craftsmen, and businessmen were brewers – lots of them. Of course they started breweries to supply their compatriots with beer – the full-flavored, lager beer to which they were accustomed in the old country.

But there was a problem. American barley was not the same as that grown in Germany. American 6-row barley had a much higher protein content than the 2-row barley back home. Excessive protein makes for cloudy beer with a thick mouthfeel that is inappropriate for the refreshing lagers they were making. It had to be cut with something.

These resourceful brewers turned to another local and abundantly available commodity – corn and rice. Low in protein, these adjuncts supplied fermentable sugar while lightening the body. Their use wasn’t an attempt to cheapen the beer. It was a solution to a problem, one that improved the beer.

Through prohibition American brewers produced the full gamut of traditional, German lager styles. They made pilsner, helles, bock and doppelbock, as well as all the others. These beers were true to the style of the day, but with an American twist.

Then came prohibition. Spirits became the drink of choice, with mixers added to cover the harsh taste of bathtub booze. The new mixed drinks were light and spritzy. After thirteen years, that profile changed the American palate. The people wanted a lighter quaff.

When beer became legal again in 1933, brewers obliged with lighter brews. It didn’t happen all at once. Some surviving breweries continued in the old ways. But many reduced the alcohol, body and bitterness to satisfy the prevailing taste.

World War II furthered the trend. Faced with ingredient rationing, brewers cut their products even more. Beer in cans was shipped to troops overseas, who took a liking to the lighter brews. By the end of the war when the soldiers came home, another palate shift had occurred. Lighter adjunct lagers were now the norm.

The shift went even further in the 1970s with the mass introduction of “lite” lagers. “Tastes great! Less filling!” became the battle cry of calorie conscious beer drinkers. Thanks in part to heavy marketing, light beer picked up steam. It was lighter and it didn’t tax the taste buds. You could drink a lot of it. And you had to drink a lot of it if you wanted to catch any kind of buzz.

And so we arrived at the blasé beer landscape of the last decades of the 20th-century.

But there was a bubbling undercurrent. Emboldened by the legalization of homebrewing in 1976, regular people were pursuing bigger flavor in their basements, kitchens, and garages. Among their output was the resurrection of pre-prohibition style American lagers.

Once exclusively the realm of homebrewers, the style has recently gained popularity among commercial brewers. A few good examples have cropped up. Anchor California Lager and Coors Batch 19 are both available in the Twin Cities.

Now Surly Brewing Company has tossed its hat into the ring with #Merica! Their version is brewed with North American pilsner malt from Country Malt Group, flaked corn, and all-American Warrior and Willamette hops. It clocks in at 5% ABV. Surly doesn’t say what the IBU rating is. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 10 to 50. 50 is certainly too high. I think 10 is likely way too low. Call it somewhere in between.

Here’s my notes:

Surly #Merica!#Merica!
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Pre-Prohibition American Lager
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
5% ABV

Aroma: Bright lemon/lime citrus hops lead, followed by mellow, grainy malt and low corn. White bread. Spicy/floral hops come in later – licorice and mint.

Appearance: Pale yellow and mostly clear. Full, fluffy white foam with good to excellent retention.

Flavor: Malt and hops in balance. Malt is white bread with very light toasted grain flavor. Low corn. Bitterness is low to medium-low, but is enhanced by the high attenuation. It is balanced by a soft touch of sweetness. Spicy/floral hop flavors are medium-low with a high note of lemon zest. The finish is very dry with lingering bitterness, spice, and grain.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. High carbonation. Low astringency.

Overall Impression: A slightly more gutsy summer lager. Bitterness feels a bit higher than some others. Body is a bit fatter than others. But it still has the refreshing character that makes pale lagers so delightful.

New Summer Brews from Summit

Staying true to its promise of celebrating the 30th Anniversary right, sovaldi sale Summit Brewing Company keeps cranking out the new beers. The two newest are sure to cool you off as the steamy heat of a southern Minnesota summer sets in.

Zingiber Cream Ale is the 22nd release in the Unchained Series. Brewer Christian Dixon has whipped up a traditional American cream ale spiced up with organic ginger from Hawaii. His last unchained beer was the polarizing Herkulean Woods. That funky fall beer was one that folks either loved (like me) or hated. I suspect this offering will be significantly less controversial.

Keller Pils is the second release in the 30th Anniversary Series, following on the heels of the most-delicious Double IPA. This one is a light, summer-sippable, unfiltered, German pilsner that features heirloom German malts and new varieties of German hops.

There are definite similarities between these two brews – one all-German and the other all-American with a German influence. The base ingredients are similar but not the same. The flavor profiles follow suit – similar, but not the same. They should do nicely to fit the many moods of summer, while maintaining that sunny-patio drinkability.

Can_UN22Unchained #22: Zingiber Cream Ale
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Cream Ale with Ginger
Serving Style: 12 oz. can
5.3% ABV
35 IBU

Aroma: Bright, lemon/lime and spice hops over bread/bread-dough malt. Balanced. Yeasty aroma adds to the bread dough impression. Low sulfur. Low corn.

Appearance: Full, creamy-interrupted, just-off-white foam with excellent retention. Medium-gold. Brilliant.

Flavor: Malt forward with low to medium-low spicy hops and supporting ginger. Malt is white bread with very low toasted grain. Low corn. Low sweetness. Bitterness is low, but amplified by the low, zip and snap of ginger. Low to medium-low spicy hops with a touch of lemon citrus. Finish is dry with lingering ginger and lemon.

Mouthfeel: Light body. Medium-high carbonation.

Overall Impression: A light, refreshing, and balanced summer ale. Clean, crisp, sharp. Sulfury nose was a bit intense at first, but blew off. Ginger gives just a hint of spice and flavor without overwhelming the beer. It’s not a “ginger beer.”

Can_KellerPilsKeller Pils
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Pale Kellerbier
Serving Style: 12 oz. can
5.1% ABV
38 IBU

Aroma: Mix of bready malt and spicy-lemon-herbal hops with low yeasty sulfur. Malt is bready with low toasted grain. Combined with yeast it gives a slight impression of bread dough. Medium hops – spicy and herbal with low note of lemon.
Appearance: Full, meringue-like, white foam with good retention. Medium gold and mostly clear.

Flavor: Very much follows the aroma. Sweetness is low. Bitterness is medium-high, but gently lingers. Spicy/herbal hops balance the malt base of bread and toasted grain. Low yeastiness. Low green apple. Low lemon citrus. Finish is very dry with lingering lemon, herbs, and bitterness.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium-high carbonation.

Overall Impression: Light, sharp, and refreshing. A crisp and hoppy summer alternative with smoothing malt and yeast.

Indeed Brewing Lavender, Sunflower Honey, Dates

Never take tasting notes at face value – mine included. Palates are individual. There is as much as 30-percent variation in olfactory receptors between any two individuals. I have no information on the subject, but I would also expect such variation in taste receptors. We all have particular flavor sensitivities. We all have blind spots in what we are able to perceive.

Other subjectivities come into play as well. Mood, setting, time of day, brand expectations, last food consumed, and a myriad other circumstances also affect our experience of a beer. Notes recorded on one day might not look the same as those recorded on another. The veracity of notes also depends on the taster’s ability to express the things they sense. Imprecise language will yield misleading results despite the trueness of a person’s palate.

So it was with was my sampling of this year’s Lavender, Sunflower Honey, Dates from Indeed Brewing Company. I wrote two sets of notes. On the first sampling, my overall impression ended with the words, “I’ve had [this beer] other times and loved it. Right now, not so much.” There was a disconnect. Days later I took a second set of notes to verify my perception. Voilà, the beer that I’d so often enjoyed was back again.

Looking back through both sets of notes, the words were nearly the same. My sensory vocabulary is fairly decent. I’d accurately described the objective sensations I perceived. The description of the first beer matched the second. But somehow my subjective experience of it did not.

Had I stuck with my first set of notes, readers would have been left with a negative impression. Going with my second would have the opposite effect. What follows here is a combination of the two. The objective observations of aroma, appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel are mostly from the first night. The subjective overall impression is mostly from the second, with a wink and a nod to the first.

Here’s my notes:

Lavender, Sunflower Honey and DatesLavender, Sunflower Honey, Dates
Indeed Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Fruit and Vegetable Beer
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
7.2 ABV
20 IBU

Aroma: Flowers and toast. Lavender floats over the top, dominating early on. Dark honey character is clear and medium intensity – comes in the middle. Moderate impression of sweetness. Dates come low and late – forming a bottom to the aromatic tower. No hops. Low esters. Low alcohol that boosts the floral.

Appearance: Light to medium amber and brilliant. Full, creamy, off-white foam with excellent retention.

Flavor: Malty lead with other ingredients playing support. Sharp toast and caramel malt. Burnt caramel. Dark honey flavor and sweetness counters the sharpness. As with aroma, lavender forms a fluffy topper. Dates form a low, fruity middle. Bitterness is low. No hop flavor. Alcohol is noticeable – almost too prominent. It gives a slight burn. Low peppery notes come in late. Finish is off-dry with lingering honey, toasted malt, and alcohol.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. Medium carbonation. Medium alcohol warming.

Overall Impression: A potential train-wreck, this. But it avoids the crash. There is a lot going on here, but it all melds together nicely. The prominent alcohol is the one big detractor. It has a role to play in the overall profile, but steps just over the bounds that I would like for it to maintain. This is a beer that I have to be in the mood for and certainly not one that I would want to drink more than one in a sitting, but it’s a good one for late night contemplation

Grain Belt Lock & Dam Lager

I love a good lager. Grain Belt Premium Lager is arguably Minnesota’s beer. The brand is deeply connected with Minnesota brewing history. I don’t especially like Grain Belt Premium Lager. It’s too sweet for my taste. I want my lager to be crisp and refreshing. Grain Belt to me is sugary and mouth-coating. To each their own, ampoule though.

Then along comes Grain Belt Lock & Dam Lager. Now this is a Grain Belt that I can sink my teeth into. (Can one sink one’s teeth into a beer?) It’s crisp. It’s bitter. It goes down smooth.

There is precious little information available about this beer from the folks at Schell’s. Only a promotional one-sheet that talks about the history of the St. Anthony Falls dam being the power source for the original Grain Belt Brewery in Northeast. What was the inspiration? Is it some old Grain Belt recipe? Or maybe a beer culled from the Schell’s brewing logs? What’s the deal with this beer?

I turned to Schell’s head brewer Dave Berg for answers. “The inspiration was Hopfenmalz.” he says. “It’s not the exact recipe, prescription but it’s got a lot of similarities. Call it Hopfenmalz plus what I’ve learned in the past 7 years!”

Hopfenmalz was an amalgam of three styles, says Berg – Pilsner, Vienna lager, and pale ale. Lock & Dam follows suit. “It’s basically a Pilsner recipe with a bunch of Vienna malt that’s hopped like an old school pale ale. Just enough C-60 to give it a copper hue. The hop combination is new and old: Cascade, Smaragd, Calypso and Bravo. It’s 5% ABV and about 30-35 IBUs. It’s all-malt, by the way.”

There you have it.

Here’s my notes:

Lock & Dam LagerGrain Belt Lock & Dam Lager
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Lager
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
5% ABV
30-35 IBU

Aroma: Spicy and lemon citrus hops dominate. Low, bread-dough, grainy malt underneath. Low perception of sweetness. Low sulfur. Low corny DMS.

Appearance: Full, creamy, just-off-white foam with excellent retention. Dark gold and brilliant.

Flavor: Malt and hops in approximately equal balance. Medium-level maltiness – grainy, cracker, low toasted grain. Very low corny DMS. Sweetness is low. Bitterness is medium-low to medium. Hop flavors follow the aroma – lemon citrus and pepper/anise spice. Finish is dry with lingering toasted grain and hop spice.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light to medium body. Medium-high carbonation.

Overall Impression: Crisp, clean, and balanced. Toasted grain makes a delightful complement to the peppery spice of the hops. Not quite a pilsner or Vienna lager. Too hoppy for a helles. I’ll just call it a delicious summer lager.

Surly Xtra Citra Pale Ale

No fancy words. Just beer.

Here’s my notes:

Extra CitraXtra-Citra Pale Ale
Surly Brewing Company, no rx Minneapolis, look Minnesota
Style: American Pale Ale
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
4.5% ABV

Aroma: Hops lead with a fruity ester backing and low, grainy malt. Bright hop aroma – lemon/lime, tropical fruit. Moderate impression of sweetness. Low note of neutral grain. Medium-low fruity esters – stone fruits or cotton candy.

Appearance: Low stand of soda-like, white foam with poor retention. Medium-gold and clear.

Flavor: Hops lead with low backing malt that comes in stronger near the finish. Hop bitterness is high and the dominant note in the beer. Carries from start to finish. Hop flavor is also high – lemon/lime, lemon peel, almost acidic brightness. Very low sweetness and malt character that just barely offers support to the hops – neutral cereal grain character. Low esters. Finish is very dry with lingering bitterness and lime juice.

Mouthfeel: Light body. High carbonation. Low astringency.

Overall Impression: Super-light and refreshing, but I wish that there were a little bit more malt to back up the bitterness. This one is too focused on bitterness for my palate. Citra is a very sharp character hop with lime flavors that almost come off as tart. This serves to further emphasize the dry bitterness. A bit thin. Needs a touch more body and sweetness to balance the bitter and bright. Not my cup of tea.

Pabst Old Tankard Ale

There it is again, that old bugaboo word “craft.”

The marketing material for Pabst Brewing Company’s new brew Old Tankard Ale touts it as “the first craft beer offered in a can.” It was first released in the 1930s – in a can – and was the number two selling American ale behind Ballantine during the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The current iteration was brewed from the recipe in a 1937 Pabst brewer’s log. Pabst’s Master Brewer Greg Deuhs waxed historical about the beer, saying, “Pabst has a rich craft brewing heritage that dates back to the 19th-century. Old Tankard Ale was the first craft brew in the Pabst brand family, and it is an honor to revive its legacy.”

But is it “craft?” Was it “craft?” Can it be “craft?” Was there even “craft” beer in 1937, not to mention the 19th-century? Certainly the brewers of the day and those that preceded them before prohibition were skilled beersmiths who took pride in the product they produced. I would be loath to deny the German brewmasters of the 1800s – the men who built American beer – the designation “craftsman.” But does that mean that the beer they made was “craft?”

Was Pabst – once the largest brewery in the world – a “craft” brewery? Can we speak of any brewery existing before the beginning of the “craft” beer movement in the late 1970s as “craft?” Is Pabst a “craft” brewery today? It isn’t really even a brewery. It’s a holding company owning heirloom brands that are brewed by others under contract. But what if the brewery that actually makes the beer can be defined as “craft” in the modern conception, as seems to be the case with Old Tankard Ale, brewed apparently at Wisconsin Brewing Company under the watchful eye of former Capital Brewery brewmaster Kirby Nelson? Does some of that “craft” caché rub off on Pabst? If the beer that they produce for Pabst is full-flavored and well-crafted, as good as most and better than many beers from so-called proper “craft” brewers, does that make it a “craft” beer? (EDIT: Old Tankard is actually brewed at City Brewing in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. The video on the beer’s website was shot at Wisconsin Brewing, thus my confusion. Perhaps they did pilot batches there.)

Is Old Tankard Ale a “craft” beer? Does anyone really care? Does that term actually have any real meaning anymore?

Here’s my notes:

old tankard aleOld Tankard Ale
Pabst Brewing Company, Los Angeles, California
Style: American Amber Ale
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
5.8% ABV
35 IBU

Aroma: Very balanced between malt and hops. Hops take a slight lead with a European and English character – herbal, spicy, and low citrus. Floral. Lemon pickle. Unsweetened grapefruit juice. Low impression of sweetness. Malt is predominantly caramel with underlying toasted grain character. Low stone fruit esters.

Appearance: Full, creamy, ivory foam with excellent retention. Medium amber and clear.

Flavor: Follows the aroma, but malt takes the lead over hops. Malt is creamy caramel with low toasted grain notes. Sweetness mid-palate is medium, but dries out in the finish. Bitterness is medium, but enough to give balance. Hop flavor is medium-high and similar to aroma – floral, herbal, spicy, low citrus. Low, background, stone fruit esters. Finish is just off-dry with lingering caramel and peppery hops.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Creamy texture gives an added sense of fullness. Low alcohol warming. Medium-high carbonation.

Overall Impression: Whatever you want to say about Pabst, this is a nice beer. Very well balanced. Malty without being sticky. Hoppy – especially the nose – without being aggressive. It’s an everyday drinking beer. A brewer friend suggested that folks should try this in a blind taste test. I agree. I am betting that there will be some brand disparagement here. But give it a try when you don’t know what it is and you might be surprised by the results you get.

Rogue Ales Hop Family IPA Series

Hops are the spice of beer. The provide bitterness to balance the sweetness of malt. Their many essential oils bring seasoning flavors and aromas that range from bright citrus and juicy tropical fruits to thyme, and cedar, generic spices and flowers. The sheer numbers of hop varieties and the limitless possibilities for combining them gives brewers and extraordinary palette to work with.

Rogue Ales brewmaster John Maier has concocted a project to explore a small corner of this palette. The Hop Family Series of IPAs uses different combinations of the eight hops grown on the Rogue Farms – Liberty, search Newport, Revolution, Rebel, Independent, Freedom, Alluvial, and Yaquina. In Maier’s words, “It’s the entire Rogue hop experience in four bottles.”

Each of the beers – 4 Hop, 6 Hop, 7 Hop and 8 Hop – is a specially formulated recipe to showcase the unique hop blend. I conducted my tasting of the series blind, in order to focus more fully on the differences in hop character. The differences in the beers though are so pronounced that the blinding proved pointless. I quickly knew which beer was which. Personally, I think the experiment would have been more interesting if the base beer were the same and only the hops changed, but tasting them all is a fun trip nonetheless.

I attempted to find descriptors for the hops used. Most of them are proprietary to Rogue Farms and I was unable to come up with any information. I got tired of searching. I have listed the beers in order according to preference. My tasting notes are unedited.

Here’s my notes:

Color Lightest to Darkest: 4 Hop, 6 Hop, 8 Hop, 7 Hop

Body Lightest to Fullest: 4 Hop, 6 Hop, 8 Hop, 7 Hop

Perceived Bitterness Lowest to Highest: 7 Hop, 8 Hop, 4 Hop, 6 Hop

Hop Complexity Lowest to Highest: 6 Hop, 4 Hop, 8 Hop, 7 Hop

Favorite to Least Favorite: 8 Hop, 7 Hop, 6 Hop, 4 Hop

8_Hop_IPA8 Hop IPA
Rogue Ales, Newport, Oregon
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 22 oz. bottle
8.88% ABV
80 IBU

Aroma: Hop dominated. Melon is lead. Tropical fruit and kiwi. Orange. Cooling. Herbal. Huge floral notes when held away from nose. Soap. Low biscuit malt. Low esters.

Appearance: Moderate white head with poor retention. Deep gold/orange and slightly hazy. Third lightest color.

Flavor: Follows aroma. Pithy bitterness is high and lingering. Hop flavor is dominated by fruit – grapefruit, tropical fruit, strawberry, melon. Floral notes are strong – geraniums or tomato vines. Malt is secondary. Low sweetness with light caramel and biscuit flavor. Low alcohol. Finish is dry with lingering fruit, floral, and bitterness. Lingering bitterness has a slightly harsh edge.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium carbonation. Low astringency. Not creamy or warming.

Overall Impression: Perhaps the best balanced of the four. Just the right level of bitterness vs. sweetness. Malt character is there. Bitterness is a bit more refreshing. Hops have a nice blend of tropical, citrus and floral. My favorite of the bunch.

Hop Varieties: Liberty, Newport, Revolution, Rebel, Independent, Freedom, Alluvial, Yaquina

7_Hop_IPA_new7 Hop IPA
Rogue Ales, Newport, Oregon
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 22 oz. bottle
7.77% ABV
76 IBU

Aroma: Hops lead. All fruit. Tropical and citrus. Medium floral. Juicy. Low biscuit malt.

Appearance: Light amber and hazy. Moderate off-white foam with poor retention. Darkest color.

Flavor: Fuller malt. Mango, guava. Tropical fruit hop flavors are high. Darker tropical fruits. Juicy. Lemon/lime highlights. Grapefruit slice. Malt sweetness is medium – higher than 8 Hop. Bitterness is high, but better balanced by malt. Malt has low caramel and biscuit character. Floral hops are medium, but blend with other hop flavors. Low alcohol. Finish is just off-dry with lingering tropical fruit and bitterness.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. Medium carbonation. Not astringent. Not creamy. Low warming.

Overall Impression: Complex blend of hop and malt. Hop flavor is definitely favored over bitterness. Better balanced than the others. Great blend of citrus, tropical and floral hops. I like that the malt component wasn’t entirely forgotten. Almost has the feel of a DIPA. A little bit sticky. Goes just a little over the top to nudge it out of first place. Close though.

Hop Varieties: Liberty, Newport, Revolution, Rebel, Independent, Freedom, Alluvial

6-Hop-IPA6 Hop IPA
Rogue Ales, Newport, Oregon
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 22 oz. bottle
6.66% ABV
87 IBU

Aroma: Citrus hops dominate. Low floral, not as intense as 8 & 7. Grapefruit. Pineapple. Strawberries. Low biscuit malt.

Appearance: Dark gold and brilliant. Moderate, white foam with poor retention. Second lightest color.

Flavor: Bright hops dominate with high bitterness. Bitterness is high and lingering. Emphasis is on bitterness over flavor. Hop flavors are primarily bright citrus and citrus pith – grapefruit, lemon. Low floral notes. Sweetness is low. Very low malt flavor with neutral grain character. No alcohol. Finish is dry with lingering bitterness and lemon peel.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium carbonation. Low astringency. No warming or creaminess.

Overall Impression: Bright and lively, but feels and tastes thin. I want more substance and less emphasis on bitterness. This is more of an American Pale Ale than an IPA. A bit one-dimensional in comparison to 8 & 7.

Hop Varieties: Liberty, Revolution, Independent, Freedom, Alluvial, Yaquina

4_hop_ipa4 Hop IPA
Rogue Ales, Newport, Oregon
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 22 oz. bottle
4.44% ABV
55 IBU

Aroma: Super-fruity hops. Tangerine, melon. Juicy. Grapefruit slices. Low biscuit malt.

Appearance: Medium Gold and brilliant. Moderate to low, white head with poor retention. Lightest color.

Flavor: Hop flavor dominates with moderate-high bitterness. Bright citrus notes are there – grapefruit, citrus pith and lemon. They are joined by some juicy tropical fruit – guava or yuzu. Bitterness is high and lingers, but less than #3. Malt is almost non-existent. Low sweetness. Low, neutral grain malt flavor. No alcohol. Finish is dry with lingering bitterness and lemon peel.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light to light body. Medium carbonation. Low astringency. Not warming or creamy.

Overall Impression: A lightweight. This really does feel like it’s moving into APA range. Thin and one-dimensional in comparison to 8 & 7. Refreshing yes. Some interesting hop flavors – yuzu. But overall disappointing.

Hop Varieties: Rebel, Freedom, Alluvial, Yaquina

Surly Brewing Company – Todd the Axe Man 2016

Everyone gets excited about the next new IPA. But let’s be honest. One IPA is pretty much like the other. That’s true of beers of any style, cure but there is such a glut of IPA that this truth shines especially brightly. My own initial response upon tasting a new one is typically, pills “Yup. It’s another IPA.”

Oh, see I know there are differences. There are better ones and worse ones. There are those that focus on bitterness and those that emphasize hop flavor. And of course the plethora of hop varieties available lends each one a different character from fruity to spicy to “dank.” But with so many, they all tend to blend together in my mind. But maybe that’s just me.

I hate the descriptor “dank.” It’s completely inappropriate for the thing being described. It is neither a flavor nor an aroma. The definition of dank is, “unpleasantly moist or humid; damp and, often, chilly: a dank cellar.” I don’t want to drink that.

I believe the term was borrowed from weed culture. Hops are in the family Cannabaceae. They are related to marijuana. Some of them have a strongly resinous flavor and aroma. It is that, which is frequently described as “dank.” Why don’t we instead just say, “It smells like weed.” That would be more accurate.

But I digress.

Todd the Axe Man from Surly Brewing Company is not dank. Its emphasis is not the resinous essential oil myrcene. Todd the Axe Man is firmly focused on the fruity side of hops – compounds like limonene and citral. You can almost feel the juice running down your chin.

With limited release, Todd the Axe Man is in demand. But is it really that different from all the other IPAs? Only you can decide.

Here’s MY notes:

Todd the Axe ManTodd the Axe Man
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
7.2% ABV
65 IBU

Aroma: Big fruit hops – berries, tropical fruit lifesavers, tangerine, pineapple and lemon/lime. No malt. Medium fruity esters bolster hop fruitiness. Juicy. Medium-low floral alcohol.

Appearance: Moderate, off-white, creamy foam with poor retention. Dark gold/orange and very hazy.

Flavor: Hop flavor dominates – loads of fruit. Juicy and overripe. Tropical fruit, pineapple, blueberry, oranges and tangerines. Bright lemon/lime highlights. Low coconut. Low garlic notes. Bitterness is high, but balanced by medium malt sweetness. Not aggressive. Malt flavor is almost non-existent, neutral, 2-row grain. Medium esters bolster hop fruitiness. Finish is dry with lingering tropical fruit and low bitterness.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light to medium body. Medium-high carbonation. Very low alcohol warming.

Overall Impression: A super-fruity, American IPA that really pushes hop flavor over bitterness. A bright, juicy, fruit basket. Wet tropical fruits provide a darker base while bright citrus notes give a shining highlight. Tasty and light, despite 7.2% alcohol. An IPA that won’t destroy your palate after just one.

You can compare these 2016 notes with those from 2015 by checking out this earlier post.

Summit Unchained #21: Us & Them

Parti Gyle

For beer history geeks these words conjure up images of the great, malady old breweries of Britain – Barclay Perkins, treatment Bass, Whitbread, Ind Coope, and Allsopp. They give homebrewers tech goosebumps. But for the uninitiated it sounds like an act of festive duplicity.

Parti gyle is a system of getting two beers from one mash. If you aren’t up on the brewing process, the mash consists of steeping grains at a certain temperature – usually somewhere around 150 degrees Fahrenheit – for a period of time. This steeping activates enzymes in the grain that convert the kernels’ starch into simple sugars that yeast can ferment. The resulting sugary liquid is called “wort.”

Once the steeping is done, the wort is run off into the kettle to be boiled. A lot of usable sugar gets left behind in the grains. Typically they are rinsed with hot water, making a thinner wort which is also run to the kettle. But if that thinner wort is diverted to a different kettle, you have the basis for a second beer from the same mash. That’s parti gyle.

In the olden days, English brewers would use this system to make beers of differing strengths. For instance, they might make an X, XX, and XXX version of their pale ale. As many as three gyles would be run off from a particular mash and then the worts containing different amounts of sugar were blended together at different proportions to make the different beers.

Very few breweries still do this. There are a couple of breweries in England, I am told. Fuller’s is one. Anchor Brewing in San Francisco has done it, making their refreshing Small Beer from the second runnings of Old Foghorn Barleywine. Surly’s Damien is made from the second thread of Darkness.

Summit brewer Gabe Smoley has revived the practice for the latest Unchained Series beer Us & Them. This the 21st beer in the series is actually two beers. 1st Thread is an American-style IPA that comes in at 7.2-percent alcohol. 2nd Thread is a session IPA at 4-percent, made from a second gyle of the same mash. The kettle hopping regime is the same. The dry hops are different.

The results are remarkable. Like siblings that grew up in the same family, these are two very distinct beers, but with an underlying quality that ties them together.

Here’s my notes:

1st ThreadUnchained #21: Us & Them 1st Thread
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
7.2% ABV
90 IBU

Aroma: Hops lead – juicy melon and tropical fruit. Pineapple, mango. Faint herbal/floral notes. Low, grainy malt with moderate impression of sweetness. Low esters. Low alcohol.

Appearance: Full, creamy, off-white to ivory foam with excellent retention. Dark gold/orange and brilliant.

Flavor: Juicy hops with sturdy supporting malt. Bitterness is high and lingering, but amply supported by medium sweetness. Bitterness comes on stronger mid-palate. Hop flavor is high and juicy – tropical fruit, mango, pineapple, grapefruit, and tangerine. Sprite-like citrus. Malt flavor is low, neutral-grainy, with a faint biscuit character. Finish is off-dry with lingering bitterness and juicy tropical fruit.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: A super-juicy and slightly sweet IPA with restrained bitterness and bursting hop flavor. Perhaps a bit sweet in the finish.

2nd ThreadUnchained #21: Us & Them 2nd Thread
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: American Session IPA
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
4% ABV
55 IBU

Aroma: Hops dominate. Bright citrus – lime and tangerine. Apricots. Low, neutral-grain malt with light notes of toasted biscuit. Very low impression of sweetness. Low esters.

Appearance: Full, creamy, just off-white head with excellent retention. Medium gold and brilliant.

Flavor: Hops through and through with a low, grainy cushion. Bitterness is high, but smooth. Bright, lemon/lime-citrus hop flavors, almost acidic. Low floral and apricot back notes. Sweetness is very low. Malt has a dry, toasted biscuit character. The finish is very dry with lingering toasted grain, bitterness, and lime citrus.

Mouthfeel: Light body. Medium-high carbonation.

Overall Impression: Light and bright. Most session IPAs have bitterness levels that are too high for their weight. This one has nice balance. 55 IBU in a 4% beer is still bracing, but it isn’t tongue scraping in this beer. The dry, biscuit malt background is reminiscent of an English bitter.