Summit Unchained #19: Make It So

As I sit here typing, I am sipping on a cup of hot, Earl Grey tea. It is one of my greatest pleasures in life. Hot tea in general, actually. I am a person of rituals. Every day I have two cups of coffee in the morning and then drink cup after cup of hot tea through the rest of the day – even in the summer. The first at 10:00am give me a nice mid-morning break from work. Then there is one after lunch, one or two through the afternoon, and finally, one after dinner.

Another great pleasure in my life is English beer. Bitters, porters, and stouts with their earthy/herbal hops, toasted biscuit malt, and funky, buttered-marmalade fermentation flavors are soothing to my soul. German lagers have taken over the top spot in my hierarchy of beer styles, but English beers still hold a place of very high esteem.

I wouldn’t call myself a Star Trek geek, but I have been an avid follower of the show. I watched the original in first run. (I just dated myself?) I hated Deep Space 9. It sucked, admit it. But I watched the others religiously. I dug Data, had a crush on Seven of Nine (who didn’t?), and I do love me some Jean Luc Picard. Wait…that came out wrong.

New Summit Brewer Nick Hempfer has combined all three of these things in the newest Unchained Series beer Make It So. It’s an English Extra Special Bitter brewed with Earl Grey tea, Captain Picard’s favorite sip.

Tea beers aren’t new. There are a few of them out there. Funkwerks Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado had a winner with Leuven, a green tea-infused, brettanomyces-inflected saison. Japanese Green Tea IPA from Stone Brewing is another one worth checking out. They can work quite well if you get the balance right. Star Trek beers have also been done. Stone Brewing did Farking Wheaton W00TSTOUT with actor Wil Wheaton who played Wesley Crusher on Next Generation. Someone even came out with Klingon Warnog and Vulcan Ale in cans.

But I do believe that young Nick Hempfer is the first to bring together all of these things in a truly coherent conceptual package. Earl Grey, ESB, and Jean Luc Picard. It all makes sense.

Here’s my notes:

Brews_Can_MakeItSoUnchained #19: Make It So
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Extra Special Bitter with Earl Grey Tea
Serving Style: 12 oz. can
5.3% ABV
40 IBU

Aroma: Fruit and buttered toffee. Notes of herbs and orange citrus. Iced tea. Toffee malt with low perception of sweetness. Iced tea lingers in the nostrils.

Appearance: Medium amber/orange. Brilliant. Full, creamy, ivory head with excellent retention.

Flavor: A bit malt forward with soothing, English toffee and toasted biscuit character. Bitterness is medium and lingers long into the finish. Hop character is low – herbal. Some subtle, orange-citrus esters and low butterscotch. The Earl Grey has a presence mid-palate – blends with hops and brings a light iced tea quality similar to that from the aroma. More the black tea flavor than the bergamot that defines Earl Grey. Some black tea tannin joins in the finish to grab the sides of the tongue.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Low carbonation. Light tannic astringency. Low creaminess.

Overall Impression: Lovely. The tea makes a subtle addition, blending nicely with the hops, the yeast, and the malt. Like spice in a good Belgian ale, it adds depth without calling itself out. The Base ESB is solid. Wonderful toffee malt and English fermentation character. One of my favorite beer styles with one of my favorite kinds of tea. This is all that I hoped it would be.

The official release party Make It So happens this evening (8/1/15) at the Summit Brewing Company beer hall at 5:00 pm.

Not Your Father’s Root Beer: My Strange Visit to Small Town Brewery

I didn’t care about Not Your Father’s Root Beer. I didn’t read any of the many articles being written about it. I was oblivious to the controversy surrounding it. I successfully ignored it as it repeatedly appeared in my Facebook feed. I certainly wasn’t going to make an effort to taste it. Writing about it was even lower on my list of priorities. Why would I? It’s an alco-pop like Smirnoff Ice and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. I don’t do those. Despite all of the publicity, I had managed to stay only vaguely aware of Not Your Father’s Root Beer.

And then I got an email from Andrew Gill, host of the Chicago-based beer podcast Strange Brews. They were doing a story on Small Town Brewery in Wauconda, Illinois, a suburb north of the city. The hosts had read my profile in A Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland and were intrigued by the account of my visit. They wanted to talk. Little did I know, they wanted to talk about Not Your Father’s Root Beer.

I had indeed tasted an alcoholic root beer when I visited the Small Town in January of 2012, but I hadn’t made a connection between that odd little brewery and the fastest growing alcoholic beverage in the nation. The root beer ripping up the marketplace is a mere 5.9% ABV. The one I sampled tipped the scales at an astounding 20%. It tasted like a decent root beer spiked with vodka. It was darned delicious though. I finished my sample and almost asked for more. Owner/brewer Tim Kovac wove tales of bar owners pleading for more.

Of the 236 brewer interviews that I did for the book, my conversation with Kovac was certainly one of the most interesting and perplexing. In the Small Town profile I write, “I must confess that, having spent an hour with Kovac, I left the brewery feeling less clear about what he is doing than when I arrived. It’s obvious to me that his understanding of the brewing process and history are limited at best. With simple brewing calculations, it is impossible to re-create the beers he is making using the methods he describes.” That was true in 2012. Re-playing my recording of the interview, it remains true today.

Small Town’s origin story is an interesting one. Kovac wanted to spend more time with his son and suggested homebrewing as a way to do that. When a vacation was cancelled due to “some volcanic eruptions in Ireland” (I think he meant Iceland), the pair compensated by brewing every day, sometimes multiple batches. They also made root beer. The beer and root beer were apparently so good that soon-to-be business partner John Dopak approached Kovac about starting a brewery together.

Kovac’s mother had long spun tales about a great, great, great grandfather (one great has since been dropped in the marketing copy) who was a ship’s captain ferrying colonists to the Americas in the 17th-century. When Kovac told his mother of the brewery plans, she revealed a part of the story that had hitherto been kept secret. This ancestor was also a gambler. He won a brewery in a game of cards and became a brewer. Kovac told me that it was this relative who discovered that giving passengers and sailors beer on shipboard instead of water kept them healthier and happier. After revealing this bit of family history, Kovac’s mother pulled a dusty, leather-bound volume from under the bed. It was a document from the 1600s containing recipes for beer. This manuscript is the well from which Small Town’s recipes spring.

It was difficult to get an interview with Kovac. He wouldn’t return my emails and calls. When he did, he seemed reluctant to have me visit. But I was writing a book, gosh darn it. And the story on his website was compelling. I persisted. He relented.

Tim Kovac with his rig

Tim Kovac with his rig

Small Town was located in the second floor of an old warehouse building. If memory serves, the first floor was occupied by a woodworking shop. The Small Town floor had been an indoor sports/recreation facility of some kind. Making our way to the small corner that the brewery occupied, we wound through a labyrinth of defunct batting cages and possibly an indoor mini-golf course. I recall it being a little bit creepy.

Although expansion plans ultimately had the brewery filling the entire floor, at the time it fit in just two small rooms. The “aging” area where full kegs were stored wasn’t even finished. It was framed, but no drywall had been hung. That space is where they planned to install a distillery. The brewery was in a small, but finished room with a cold box to one side.

The brewhouse consisted of two, 50-gallon, Groan soup kettles – the kind you would see in a commercial kitchen – and two 100-gallon plastic fermenting tanks. The various pieces were linked together with white PVC pipe (cue the sound of brewers cringing). In the cooler was a row of small, stainless steel conditioning tanks. An apartment sized stove served to stew vanilla bean and other spices that went into the root beer.small town (1)

It was on this rig that Kovac claimed to make the magic of 20% root beer happen. It was here that my confusion began. Kovac said that his root beer was made with barley malt, the way it was made in the 1600s. He was using a brew-in-a-bag method, which according to him was how brewers would have done it in the 1600s. I’ll dig into historical accuracy later. For now let’s focus on the feasibility of his claim. Using brewing software, I attempted to recreate his process. I could not make it work.

The brew-in-a-bag method involves conducting the mash with the crushed barley malt in a big mesh bag. When the mash is complete the bag is simply removed and drained. This allows the brewer to mash and boil in the same vessel. It is a fairly inefficient method, meaning that the brewer extracts less sugar from each pound of grain than with other more conventional methods. Some brewers sparge, that is they rinse the grains with hot water to remove additional sugar, which would increase efficiency. But when Kovac talked me step-by-step through his process he made no mention of this. With this in mind, I based my calculations on an assumption of 65% mash efficiency, which without a sparge step is maybe a bit generous.

Kovac told me that he was making all-grain wort, using 100 to 110 pounds of grain for each 50-gallon batch. He reported a starting gravity for the root beer of 1.200. By my quick and dirty calculations, 100 pounds of grain gives a gravity of 1.055. He would need more like 400 pounds of grain to hit 1.200, which would vastly exceed the capacity of his kettle. I assumed then that he was using malt extract or some other sugar to boost the gravity of his wort. When I asked about that, he insisted that he was not using extract, but admitted that he was using “malt powder.” So…extract. I estimate that he would need approximately 165 pounds of dry malt extract to go from 1.055 to 1.200. Again, there would be no room in his kettle for liquid.

Then there is the matter of fermentation. It isn’t impossible to get yeast to ferment up to 20% alcohol, but it is terribly difficult. Although yeast creates alcohol as a by-product of fermentation, that alcohol is poisonous to it. As the alcohol level increases, the ability of yeast to do its job decreases. Beyond around 15%, our favorite fungus starts to sputter and die. It takes constant babying to get beyond that. Kovac claimed he was doing just that, rousing and re-aerating the beer to see the yeast through a seven-day fermentation. Having seen his setup, I find it hard to believe that he was accomplishing this feat with any degree consistency and without creating some pretty terrible off-flavors.

And so, I found Kovac’s process description to be confusing at best, suspect at worst. But he really didn’t seem like a guy who was out to intentionally deceive. Without having actually seen what he was doing, I could only take him at his word.

17th century brewery

17th-Century Brewery

And then there’s the history part. Brewers actually had breweries in the 17th-century; breweries that worked essentially like the breweries of today. They weren’t huddled over wooden vats steeping grains in a bag. Also, Kovac says that his barley-based root beer recipe is authentic to the 1600s. The only references I can find suggest that fermentable sugars for various types of root beer at the time came from tree sap and molasses.

Confusion and mystery aside, it seems our boy Tim Kovac and his business partners have done well for themselves. They secured a deal to contract brew Not Your Father’s Root Beer at City Brewing in La Crosse, Wisconsin. There appears to be some squishy relationship with Phusion Projects LLC, the makers of such delights as Four Loco, Moskato Life, and Signature Cocktails. The brand has apparently been sold wholly or in-part to Pabst Brewing. I’m sure the Small Town guys made a pretty penny on the deal.

Does this mean that Small Town Brewery is finished as an entity? Who knows? Besides the root beer, Kovac also made beer. I sampled a brown, an amber, and a Christmas beer, among others that I don’t recall. I remember the beers being unremarkable, but Kovac indicated they were in high demand, with one bar owner apparently pleading to pay full price for a partial keg of year-old English brown ale. I know, I didn’t believe him either. He also spoke of plans for a concoction called Grandpa Gone Wild with label art showing “grandpa doing grandma from behind and she’s using a walker.”

So about that Not Your Father’s Root Beer. Apparently it was originally non-alcoholic. Kovac explained that when he and his son made the first recipe it was so good they wanted figure out how to make an alcohol-free version. He asked brewers for advice and was told to boil the alcohol away. And that is what he did. When I asked why he started leaving the alcohol in he replied, “Well, the whole point is saving a step, to be honest with you. I don’t have to boil it off and I can charge more. So that’s even better.”

Here’s my notes:

Not Your Father's Root BeerNot Your Father’s Root Beer
Small Town Brewery, La Crosse, Wisconsin
Style: Hard Root Beer
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
5.9% ABV

Aroma: Highly aromatic. Caramel. High vanilla. Wintergreen. Like wintergreen lifesavers with an undertone of vanilla. Low clove-like spice.

Appearance: Low, fizzy, soda-like head with no retention. Dark brown with red highlights. Brilliant.

Flavor: Sweetness is high. Caramel and vanilla are both high. Wintergreen is there, at first a bit more restrained than in the aroma. A low hint of alcohol, but like distilled spirit. Similar clove spice from the aroma. Strong wintergreen on the way out. A hint of anise. Finish is sticky sweet. Lingers on caramel, wintergreen and vanilla. Vanilla and wintergreen are the high notes. As I sit with it, the alcohol becomes more apparent, but still with that distilled character rather than fermented. A bit burning.

Mouthfeel: Medium-high carbonation. Like soda, but a little lower than most. Medium-full body. Cloying. Some alcohol warming.

Overall Impression: Aroma is really quite enticing. I might not guess there is alcohol if I weren’t told. It’s a decent root beer base, but I do wish that it weren’t quite as sweet as it is. I know that Kovac says he made it with grain, but there is nothing in the flavor that makes me think of grain. No roastiness that the color would indicate. No grainy bread crust. Only caramel and herbs. The low amount of alcohol taste is just enough to be a distraction. Not solvent, but more peppery spicy. On the whole, this is not bad, but the sweetness has me not wanting to finish the glass. It’s soda. Put it in a glass with ice. The cold helps cut the cloying sweetness.

July 30th Addendum

Based on a few Facebook comments, I want to clarify a couple of things.

– He is not producing the current quantity from this 100-gallon system. As I wrote above, NYFRB is contract brewed by City Brewing in La Crosse, WI.

– I believe at the time of my visit he was making everything in house. There was no bottled product yet. There was beer in tanks, not-great beer to be sampled, kegs in the aging room, and yeast being propagated. There was no indication of any connection to anything larger. I think Kovac just found a way to sell the product he developed and make some money on it. There is nothing wrong with that.

– I never had the sense that Kovac was intentionally deceiving me. That’s what made this visit so confusing. He seemed absolutely genuine about what he was doing. I simply couldn’t make sense of what he was telling me. Sure, he may have embellished the history story a bit, but that’s marketing. He struck me as utterly sincere, and frankly sort of geeky. The whole thing was way too elaborately quirky to simply be a front for Phusion Projects.

Indeed Brewing Company Dandy Lager

When I first really got into beer, I went through that phase of seeking out ever more intense flavor experiences. I craved the big hoppy ales, the oddball ingredients, the blackest of black stouts. Then one day that all changed. I just wanted a pilsner.

I remember two moments in that transition very clearly. The first came in 2007 at my first trip to the Great American Beer Festival. Midway through one of two sessions – I was almost certainly a bit buzzed by this time – I had had enough of the hops and booze. I craved something lighter to clear my palate. I searched the hall without much luck. Then I hit the Trumer Pils booth. At that moment, it was the elixir of my soul.

The second was a year later in 2008. I was doing an extended project in St. Louis and had hooked up with a local homebrew club. I was being shown around some local beer spots, again focusing on the monster brews. As we were crossing the Mississippi into Illinois I said to the others in the car, “I just want a pilsner.”

I have lived for German lagers ever since. They are my wheelhouse. Crisp, clean, and non-palate-wrecking, they are the beers I love most. As I have written and said many times in many venues, pilsner is the perfect beer. A really good one is a thing of beauty.

The current revival of sessionable beers has brought with it a revived interest in German-style lagers. If you scan the store shelves today, you’ll find that many well-respected brewers of often-extreme beers are putting out a pilsner. Hell has become one of Surly’s biggest sellers. Even American-style lagers are seeing a craft-beer comeback. I’ve died and gone to heaven.

Dandy Lager from Indeed Brewing Company is one such beer. I got some. I drank it.

Here’s my notes:

DayTripper_6packDandy Lager
Indeed Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Pale Lager
Serving Style: 12 oz. can
5.4% ABV
40 IBU

Aroma: Medium pils-malt sweetness with moderate, corny DMS. Low floral/spicy hops with a light, tangerine overtone.

Appearance: Light gold and clear. Full, creamy, white head with excellent retention.

Flavor: Slightly malt forward. Pils-malt toast and light corn. Medium-low sweetness. Bitterness is medium. Floral and black pepper hop flavors with a hint of citrus or peach. Subtle lemony high notes. Finish is off-dry with lingering floral/citrus hops and light residual bitterness.

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

Overall Impression: A lovely, sunny lager. A bit hoppy for a Munich helles, not quite malty enough for a Bohemian pilsner, and not quite dry and bitter enough for a German pilsner. They call it a pale lager. I can live with that. Whatever it is, it’s delicious. It can take me a while to get through a sixpack of a given beer. This one was gone in a matter of a few days.

Schell’s One Five Five and Starkeller Peach

Schell’s turns 155 this year. It seems like just yesterday that they were celebrating 150 years with a whole line of what’s-old-is-new-again, limited-run beers. But if you look back on the changes to the Minnesota beer scene since that time, it almost seems like a lifetime ago. What a difference five years can make.

There were only a handful of breweries in the state in 2010. I don’t recall the actual count. I reckon near 100 have opened since. Nearly all of those breweries have taprooms, something that was illegal in 2010. And they can sell growlers on Sunday. Only a handful of bars and restaurants had good taps then. Now it’s hard to find one that doesn’t have at least a couple. During those five years, the city’s first dedicated craft beer store, the Four Firkins, ascended to its height of glory and then faded and died.

The 155th birthday isn’t as big a deal as the 150th in our imaginations. Rather than an assortment of beers to celebrate the day, Schell’s is only doing one. One Five Five is described as “a complex, medium-bodied red lager.” Its malty profile is achieved with a mix of 2-row, Munich, Victory, and three different crystal malts. Cascade and Mandarina Bavaria hops provide a bright, bitter cap.

As long as I was tasting Five One One, I decided to catch up on another Schell’s beer that has been lingering in my fridge. Starkeller Peach is the latest (the 7th I think) addition to the Noble Star Collection of Berliner Weisse style beers. For this one Jace Marti took Dawn of Aurora his, strong “champagner” weisse, and aged it on a whole bunch of peaches.

I was in New Ulm for a visit not too long ago. The old cypress tanks in the new Starkeller facility are almost ready to hold some beer. Look for a whole lot more of the Noble Star Collection coming soon.

Here’s my notes:

Schell's One Five FiveOne Five Five
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Red Lager
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
5% ABV

Aroma: Malt and hops in almost equal balance. Malt is rich caramel and low toast. Hops ride brightly on top – mandarin orange, floral. Moderate perception of sweetness.

Appearance: Medium amber/copper. Brilliant. Full, creamy head of off-white to ivory foam with excellent retention.

Flavor: Balanced malt to hop, with a nice hoppy overtone. Malt follows the aroma with caramel and toast. The toast comes more forward here. Sweetness is low. Bitterness is medium and comes mid-palate to carry through to the finish. Bright hoppiness on top – again mandarin orange and floral. Lager fermentation give a crisp and clean profile. Finish is dry with lingering bitterness and citrus hop flavor.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. High carbonation. Slightly creamy.

Overall Impression: The individual flavors are there and are lovely. But somehow I couldn’t get passed the feeling that the whole is missing something. Was I longing for a rounder ale fermentation character? Maybe I wanted even more follow-thru with the hop character? I don’t know, it’s in the realm of those intangibles that separate the good from the great. I’m not saying it’s not good. It is. But it doesn’t leave me wishing for that second pint.

Schell's Starkeller PeachStarkeller Peach
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Peach Berliner Weisse
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
7.2% ABV
5 IBU

Aroma: Loads of peaches – fresh and canned. Low perception of sweetness. Medium lactic acidity. Low barnyard Brettanomyces character. This is really all about the peach.

Appearance: Medium copper/orange. Cloudy. Full, creamy, off-white head with medium-low retention.

Flavor: High lactic acidity. Very fruity. Peaches follow – crushed fresh fruit. Overtones of lemon. Low barnyard Brettanomyces character. Bitterness is low. No hop character. Some malt sweetness survives fermentation, like the crust of a peach cobbler. Some fruity sweetness seems also to survive. Finish is very dry with long-lingering lactic acid tartness.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. High carbonation. Mouthwatering acidity.

Overall Impression: So much fruit. Like a tart, peach cobbler. A lovely summer refresher with a little bit of a kick. This would be great with desserts or a spinach salad with dried apricots, goat cheese, and a citrus vinaigrette dressing. One of my favorites of the Noble Star Collection.

Burning Brother Brewing IPA

Sometimes I pity those who really want to drink beer but can’t tolerate gluten. I know they don’t want my pity. But seriously, historically the options for good flavor have been severely limited. In 2013 when I wrote about gluten-free beers in the Star Tribune and the Growler, I was hard pressed to find one that I actually wanted to drink.

But things are looking up. With growing demand has come a new flock of brewers who are finding ways to cover up or alleviate many of the less pleasant characteristics of sorghum and the other alternative grains used to make gluten-free beer. One such brewer is Dane Breimhorst at Burning Brothers Brewing in St. Paul. A sufferer of Celiac disease himself, he has applied the flavor-balancing skills he learned as a chef to making beer that he himself wants to drink. And he is largely successful. I have often remarked how beer-like his beers really are.

I know that every time I say this I probably send a slight twinge down Dane’s spine. He doesn’t want his beers to be judged as “gluten free.” He doesn’t like it when people say things like, “That’s pretty good for a gluten-free beer.” He is aiming for beers that approach the quality and character of normal beers. In examining this taproom-only IPA I have tried to take that approach.

Here’s my notes:

BurnBrosBrew-logo_rgb_blkIPA
Burning Brothers Brewing, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Gluten Free America IPA
Serving Style: 750 ml growler

Aroma: Fruity – apple, pineapple, citrus, stone fruits. Some floral/grassy hop notes. Low toast. Slight cidery character and low butterscotch.

Appearance: Dark copper and moderately hazy. Medium, white head with mixed bubbles. Low retention.

Flavor: All about hops. High bitterness. High resin and citrus pith hop flavors. Sweetness and malt flavor barely balances bitterness. Low toasted and grainy malt flavor that increases as it warms. Typical cider/floral/almond alternative grain flavors are absent at the start, but increase as the beer warms. It’s not all together unpleasant, bringing a light melon/floral background. Medium butterscotch and background orange esters. Finish is very dry with lingering bitterness and alternative grain character.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Low astringency. Low alcohol warming. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: To my palate this beer could use more sweetness to balance bitterness. Bitterness is very high verging on astringent. Additional malt character would also add fullness to the mouthfeel. Some lingering alternative grain flavor leaves it with a less pleasant aftertaste. Some might find the bit of butterscotch objectionable. I kind of like it. All told, I would drink this. In fact, I did drink the whole 750 ml growler. And I did so happily.

Schell’s Cypress Blanc

The bottle of Cypress Blanc arrived at my house at the end of April. With great anticipation I placed it on the top shelf of my refrigerator – the shelf with all the beer. The Noble Star series beers from August Schell Brewing Company have all been so good. I couldn’t wait to pop the cork on this, the sixth in the series.

Fast forward to June 1st. I look at that top shelf of my refrigerator and there the bottle still sits. It’s been there taunting me for over a month; its plaintive cries of “Pick me! Pick me!” ringing in my ears with every bottle removed. I wanted to drink it, but I’m so seldom home in the evening. Most of my at-home beers are consumed late at night when I’m not really in the mood to pay close attention. I wanted to give this one its due. And so there it sat.

There is sat until last night. Finding myself with a rare evening off, I finally indulged.

I like the idea of Cypress Blanc. My background is in theater. I like to think about aesthetic nuances. This beer offers layers and layers of conceptual satisfaction. There is old-world meets new-world as the essential born-in-the-USA style, American Lager, meets the very-old, pre-lager traditions of Germany. There is tradition married to innovation as Jace Marti takes the brewery’s historic flagship Deer Brand Lager to places that the historic brewery has only recently ventured. And yet that avenue to innovation is itself a tradition that is hundreds of years older than the 150-year-old brewery. And of course there is the fact that Deer Brand is being tweaked in tanks that were once used to condition it straight.

Conceptual follies aside, what about the actual beer in the bottle? The Noble Star beers seem to be getting better with each release. But American lager weisse? How would this one hold up?

Here’s my notes:

Cypress BlancCypress Blanc
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: American Lager/Berliner Weisse
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
7.4% ABV
4 IBU

Aroma: Faint corn. Tart acidity. Low barnyard. Very fruity – apples, Lemons. Low sulfur. Fresh-cut grass.

Appearance: Pale yellow and hazy. Moderate, mousse-like, white foam with moderate to low retention.

Flavor: Balance of corny, malt sweetness and tart, lemony acid. The acidity is not overly puckering. So much apple – I picture a green and red striped fruit. Other fruits also appear – pineapple. It’s hard to tell where the fruitiness of Hallertau Blanc hops stops and that from fermentation begins. Low barnyard. Low sulfur. Grassy notes. Finish is very dry with lingering acid and some low malt flavor. Residual apple.

Mouthfeel: Light body. Spritzy. A bit of pucker.

Overall Impression: So refreshing. Does it get more summery than this? If only the weather would get as summery as this beer. I like that hints of sulfur and corn from Deer Brand survive the lacto-brett fermentation. The 7.4% ABV is surprising. It sneaks up on you. I feel like Cypress Blanc is a little less complex than the earlier Noble Star beers, but then it is built on an American lager base. Less complex perhaps, but nonetheless satisfying.

Seattle Cider Company Semi-Sweet and Dry

I have been getting deeper and deeper into cider. I really love the stuff and really want to learn more about it. I’m early enough into my cider love-affair that I am going through a cider-snob phase, just as I did with beer early on. Talk to me about Newtown Pippin, Gravenstein, and Espopus Spitzenberg apples and I’m all ears. Give me acid, tannin, bitterness, and vinous apple flavor (is that a thing?) and my salivary glands start a flood in my mouth. I pooh-pooh the use of culinary apples and am generally quick to eschew what I perceive as overly-sweet commercial brands. I know just enough to be dangerous, but not enough to really know what I’m talking about.

I admit it. When it comes to cider, I have become the kind of person that I hate in the beer world. It’s a phase. I’ll get over it.

A new crop of cidermakers might help me hasten that transition. They are using culinary apples to make ciders that aren’t just syrupy fruit juice. Through careful blending and high attenuation, they are crafting more complex and refreshing ciders that have the bitter and acid edge that I crave. And some of them come in cans.

One such producer that just entered the Twin Cities market last week is Seattle Cider Company. They kicked off here with three varieties – Dry, Semi-Sweet, and Citrus. All of them use Granny Smith, Fuji, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Gala apples. They are fermented to dryness with white wine yeast and then in some cases back-sweetened with cane sugar. The Citrus is infused with grapefruit, lemon, and orange peel. Seattle Cider does have some limited-release brands that are made with those heirloom, cider apples with the cute names, but these are not currently available here.

The cider snob in me is inherently suspicious of new, commercial ciders. But I was anxious to give these a spin. I got hold of the Dry and Semi-Sweet. Do they stand up to my unreasonably harsh judgement?

Here’s my notes:

semi-sweetSeattle Cider Semi-Sweet
Seattle Cider Company, Seattle, Washington
Style: Apple Cider
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
6.5% ABV

Aroma: Sweet-tart green apple. Low peppery spice and citrus pith. Pear. Slight sulfur character.

Appearance: Pale straw. Brilliantly clear. Effervescent bubbles. No head.

Flavor: Medium-high sweetness with a sharp, bitter, mineral edge to balance. Moderate acidity. Apple Jolly Rancher. Low peppery spice. Grapefruit citrus and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Finish is off-dry, not too sweet. Tart apple and low mineral taste lingers.

Mouthfeel: Light body. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: When I read “semi-sweet” on a domestic cider, I usually anticipate the sticky, mass-market profile. This one is less sweet than expected. There is some residual sugar, but the bitter, mineral edge keeps it balanced. It should please those who like a sweet cider, but it’s crisp and refreshing enough for those who don’t.

seattlecider_dry_hardciderSeattle Cider Dry
Seattle Cider Company, Seattle, Washington
Style: Apple Cider
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
6.5% ABV

Aroma: Vinous. Red apple. Low sulfur. Grape. Lemon peel. Powdered sugar.

Appearance: Very pale straw. Slight haze. Effervescent bubbles. No head.

Flavor: Tart. Puckering. Tear-inducing and mouthwatering acidity. Bright, sour, green apple. Faint orange and lemon citrus. Pears. Sweetness is very low. Low sulfur. Medium-high tannin. Finish is very dry with acidity lingering on the back of the tongue.

Mouthfeel: Light body. Medium-low carbonation. Puckering.

Overall Impression: For fans of dry cider and sour beer, this one is for you. The tart profile reminds me of a good Berliner weisse, right down to the lemony highlights. A decent, dry cider can be hard to find. Here it is.

These ciders may not be up to the level of an E.Z. Orchard or Farnum Hill, but they are pretty darn satisfying, nonetheless.

Ballast Point Victory at Sea

Coffee stouts and porters for me either work or they don’t. Mostly they don’t. Far too often the combination of coffee and roasted malts comes off as green pepper. I’m not alone in this, I know others who taste it as well. When that happens, green pepper is all that I can taste.

But every once in a while a good one comes along that has enough sweetness to balance the bitter bean and enough complexity that I don’t feel like I just stopped at Starbucks for a cup of burnt. I recently had a run-in with Victory at Sea, the strong, Imperial Porter from Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits in San Diego. I’ve liked this brewery’s other offerings, so I was eager to give it a go.

Here’s my notes:

Victory at SeaVictory at Sea
Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits, San Diego, California
Style: Imperial Porter with Vanilla and Coffee
Serving Style: 12 oz. Bottle
10% ABV
60 IBU

Aroma: Rich and malty. Coffee is a secondary note to the vanilla. Dark chocolate – dry like Oreo cookies. Low, black-malt roast. Licorice. Low, herbal hop and floral alcohol overtones.

Appearance: Very dark brown, almost black. Ruby highlights. Full, creamy, tan head with excellent retention.

Flavor: Very chocolaty – dark chocolate. Vanilla is prominent. Coffee comes more clearly than in the aroma, giving a slight bitter edge that amplifies the medium-low hop bitterness. No hop flavor. Low, black-malt roast. Caramel. Dark fruit notes – raisin, plum, cherry, berries. Low alcohol. Sweetness is medium-high, but dries out in the finish. Lingering chocolate.

Mouthfeel: Full bodied. Creamy, rich and thick. Carbonation is medium to medium-low. Moderate alcohol warming.

Overall Impression: Great balance of bitter chocolate, creamy vanilla, and coffee. This doesn’t come off as a “coffee beer.” Coffee is just one element in a very tasty mix. They say it on the bottle. It’s not a coffee porter, it’s a “porter with coffee and vanilla.” Rich and warming for the lingering cold of a Minnesota spring.

Schell’s Stag Series #9: Cave-Aged, Barrel-Aged Lager

In the early days of lager brewing in the United States, before the advent of mechanical refrigeration, the first thing a would-be brewer had to do when building a brewery is dig a cave. Caves provided the cool and constant temperature needed for the fermentation and conditioning of lager beer. With ice harvested from the frozen rivers and lakes in the winter brewers could not only achieve moderate temperatures, they could maintain near-freezing conditions all summer long.

In 1870, S. Liebmann’s Sons Brewing Company in Brooklyn, New York became the first American brewery to install a mechanical refrigeration system. Brewing was the first industry to make wide use of the technology. By 1891, nearly every brewery in the country had a refrigeration machine. The old lagering caves became disused and forgotten, relegated to storage rooms or junk heaps.

Like every other brewery of a certain age, the August Schell Brewing Company has such abandoned cellaring caves beneath it. But Schell’s brewmaster Jace Marti has brought them back to life, returning them to the purpose which they once served. The ninth release in the Schell’s Stag Series – Cave-Aged, Barrel-Aged Lager – was aged in the caves for three months in wooden barrels the way it was done 150 years ago. But there is one difference. These barrels once held whiskey.

Aging beer in used barrels isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Schell’s. To my knowledge they have only done it one other time, with the Stag Series #1: Barrel Aged Schmaltz’s Alt. That one was aged in Pinot Noir barrels. Schell’s is much better known for their traditional German-style beers. But why not barrel aging? They do the other stuff so well, from straight-ahead pilsner to funky-sour Berliner weisse.

Stag Series #9: Cave-Aged, Barrrel-Aged Lager is described as a dark lager aged in American whiskey barrels. Although they don’t call it this, for the sake of providing a stylistic comparison I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s a doppelbock-like brew – rich, malty, and slightly warming. Did they pull off the whiskey aged lager?

Here’s my notes:

Schell's Stag Series #9Schell’s Stag Series #9: Cave-Aged, Barrel-Aged Lager
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Whiskey-Barrel Aged Dark Lager
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
7.7% ABV
40 IBU

Aroma: Low roasted malt. Oak and vanilla. Old wood. Musty. Low cocoa. No overt whiskey. Dried fruit – raisins, plums. No hops. Floral alcohol aromas are prominent, but pleasant.

Appearance: Very dark brown, nearly black. Ruby highlights. Brilliant. Moderate, creamy, beige foam with moderate to good retention.

Flavor: Fruit is forward – dark and dried, raisins, cherries, plums. Malty – caramel-like melanoidin. Low cocoa. Toasted malt notes in finish. Musty, old wood carries over from the aroma. Whiskey is subtle but noticeable. Caramel and vanilla. Low bitterness. Very low spicy hop flavors. Finish is off-dry with lingering dark fruits. Malt forward. Low alcohol. Medium sweetness, but dries out in the finish.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. Rich and lightly creamy. Medium-low carbonation. Low alcohol warming.

Overall Impression: Such a lovely beer. Like a doppelbock aged in barrels. Multiple layers of complexity. Strongly overt flavors of malt, melanoidin, caramel and dark fruit. But if you pay attention the subtler layers take your mind in alternate directions. It doesn’t taste of “whiskey” so much as the flavor components of whiskey – caramel, alcohol, vanilla. Not a huge fan of whiskey, I like that about this beer.

Summit Hopvale Organic Ale

In June 2014, Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont wrote a sarcastic piece on his Blogging at the World of Beer blog titled Every Beer is Now an IPA. In it he bemoaned the proliferation of variants on the India Pale Ale – variants that often have nothing to do with that style except an overload of hops. Beer drinkers are subjected to black, white and red IPA, Belgian IPA, rye IPA, stout IPA, Cali-Belgique IPA and any number of others. IPA is such a popular style that brewers slap that acronym onto any hopped-up ale or lager they produce instead of going to the trouble of calling it something else. If it’s an IPA people will buy it.

The one that bugs me maybe the most is the “session IPA.” What the heck is that besides an oxymoron? The whole idea of an IPA is super-hoppy and high alcohol. Indeed the style’s mythical origin story is all about brewers upping the alcohol content on beer shipped to India so that is wouldn’t spoil. IPA was never intended to be sessionable. We have a style category for sessionable pale ale. It’s called “pale ale.”

So what is a session IPA and why isn’t it just called pale ale? A quick survey of a few of them shows alcohol content ranging from 4.3% to 5.1% ABV. Using the BJCP guidelines as a standard (because that’s the standard we’ve got) that puts all but one of them squarely in the range for American pale ale. And the one is under by just .2%. As for bitterness, they range from 40 to 65 IBU. Of the eight that I surveyed, only three were outside the American Pale Ale guidelines, one by an insignificant 2 IBU. I would argue that these beers are all just heavily late and dry-hopped pale ales.

But two of the examples that I looked at had significantly higher bitterness than is specified for an American pale ale. Stone Go To clocks in at 65 IBU and Summit Hopvale Organic Ale at 55 IBU – both square in the range for an IPA. So perhaps the definition of session IPA – if we have to call it that – should be a lower-alcohol, highly-hopped, pale ale with the bitterness of an IPA.

I don’t like the label, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like the beers. Given my preference for malty beers, these often thin and aggressively bitter beers should not be to my taste. There is really nothing about them that I should like. But I happen to love them.

Did I mention Summit’s Hopvale Organic Ale? The newest year-round beer from the steadfast St. Paul brewery is being unleashed on the public today (April 1st. No really. It’s not a joke.). Summit seems to have studiously avoided the session IPA moniker in the marketing for this beer. Thank you Summit! They say merely that it has the “hop character of a full-strength IPA, but the drinkability of a low-gravity bitter.” But at 4.7% ABV and 55 IBU it fits neatly into the pigeon hole. It’s made with all organic ingredients and just a touch of lemon peel to give it a citrusy high note.

Here’s my notes:

Brews_Can_HopvaleHopvale Organic Ale
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Session IPA
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
4.7% ABV
55 IBU

Aroma: Huge hop aroma. Melon, tropical fruit – mango. Herbs. Grapefruit. Lemon peel. Malt offers only a low impression of sweetness. Neutral character. Low esters – orange. Hint of sulfur. It all combines into a fruity, almost powdered sugar aroma.

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

Flavor: Full blast of hops with low, supporting malt sweetness. Hop flavors are similar to the aroma – melon, tropical, grapefruit, pine. Lemon comes through more strongly. Bitterness is medium-high to high, but smooth, not overwhelming. Malt sweetness supports. Low biscuit/toast malt flavor. Light and refreshing. Hops are the star. Malt is barely there. Finish is very dry with lingering bitterness and hop flavors.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium-high carbonation. Very low hop astringency.

Overall Impression: Hops rule the roost in this beer. Malt is almost an afterthought. Almost, but not quite. And oh, what hops they are. Full of rich, fruity and resiny flavors. And then there is that bright spot of lemon peel. This is one of those beers that I shouldn’t like, but do. This will be great in the summer, but it’s a year-round so you can drink it all the time.