Surly Darkness 2015

“Last year’s was better.”

I’ve written on a few occasions about the unreliability of flavor recognition memory. Without lots of practice and a well-developed flavor vocabulary, studies have shown that humans just aren’t that good at it. We don’t retain an accurate picture of how a thing tastes for any significant length of time. At best we remember generalities. It was sweeter. It was bitterer. It had a fuller mouthfeel. I liked it or I didn’t.

Context also effects our recollection. What we were doing, who we were with, and where we were while tasting a thing can spell the difference between a good and a bad experience of it. What we eat or drink before or after alters how it is received by our taste and olfactory receptors. The whole experience of flavor is a thing of the moment.

If we’re really being honest with ourselves, most of us don’t remember last year’s version.

And that brings me to Surly Darkness. It might be blasphemy to the beer-nerd few who actually read my posts, but I have never been a fan. I’m not that fond of imperial stouts in general, but this one in particular has never caught my fancy. Each year I satisfy myself with one glass in a bar somewhere, just to say I had it. And that is all I need.

Of course, I can’t say exactly what it is that misses the mark on my palate. I remember the first one feeling like a milkshake in my mouth. Sticky sweetness reigned another year. Maybe it was too hoppy once. I really can’t recall.

No, I’ve never been a fan of Surly Darkness…until this year.

Here’s my notes:

Darkness labelDarkness 2015
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Russian Imperial Stout
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
11.5% ABV

Aroma: Malt driven but with ample hop complement. Coffee. Bitter dark chocolate. A good deal of fruit – raisins and dark cherries. Licorice. Black strap molasses. Pine resin hops. Vaporous alcohol.

Appearance: Full, creamy, brown head with excellent retention. Extremely dark brown with ruby highlights. Appears black and opaque unless held to light. Appears brilliantly clear.

Flavor: Full-on dark-chocolate syrup. Licorice and low coffee grounds. Black malt roastiness is moderate, adding a dry-cookie quality to the chocolate. Some brown sugar or molasses sweetness. Sweetness is moderately high. Bitterness is also high, but the full-on malt keeps it in check. Still, it’s balanced. Not too sweet nor too bitter. Hop flavor is high – pine resin with hints of orange citrus. Fruitiness carries over from aroma – raisins and cherries. Alcohol is apparent – spirituous and at times overpowering. Finish is off-dry to semi-sweet with long-lingering chocolate, cherry and pine.

Mouthfeel: Full body. Medium carbonation. Warming.

Overall Impression: Definitely a sipper – a beer to carry you through the night. Big, but balanced. The pine and chocolate roast play off of each other nicely. Alcohol is a bit too much. Not a subtle beer, but full of subtle complexities. I have never been a fan of Darkness, but I’m really digging this. Has the beer changed significantly, or have I? That is the question.


Summit Union Series #5: Old Blaggard

My beverage BFF, wine sommelier Leslee Miller, and I have a joke between us. Whenever we’re teaching a class together, she will pour a wine and say something like, “It’s only 9 percent. You can drink it all day.” I on the other hand start talking about taking it easy on the strong beers at around 8 percent alcohol. Oh, the different perspectives of the beer people and the wine people.

But it just goes to show you how appropriate the term “barleywine” really is. It’s beer. It’s made from barley. But it has an alcohol content more common to the world of wine than beer.

Historically both wine and barleywine were served similarly as well. Wine wasn’t always served in the glassware to which we are now accustomed. Once upon a time guests were greeted with a much smaller serving, poured into a tiny little glass. My mother has a collection of these antique wine glasses. I always thought they were for cordials. English lords once served manor-brewed strong beers in similar tiny glasses. Nowadays the beer people have it better. We typically get a ten-ounce pour of barleywine. Five ounces is the normal pour for wine.

Old wine glass

Old wine glass

Old barleywine glass

Old barleywind glass

For Old Blaggard, the fifth beer in the Union Series, Summit Brewing Company has concocted a proper English barleywine. Like English pale ales and IPAs, English barleywines are less focused on hops then their American offspring. Being a lover of malt and yeast, this pleases me. The biscuit and toffee flavors of English malt are among the most pleasing in the beer vocabulary. And I’m quite fond of the orange marmalade notes of English yeast.

The Summit Union Series combines old styles and techniques with new ingredients. Old Blaggard is a single malt/single hop beer featuring Endeavor hops from England and Simpson’s Odyssey malt, both new, at least to this country. It also uses a bit of invert sugar, an ingredient familiar to English brewers for centuries. The sugar adds some color as well as boosting the potency without overwhelming the beer with the sweetness of unfermented sugars.

Here’s my notes:

Brews_BottleUnion Series #5: Old Blaggard
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: English Barleywine
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
10.1% ABV
50 IBU

Aroma: Malt and hops in approximate balance with low, floral alcohol. Malt is strong toffee and honey, giving a moderately high impression of sweetness. Very low biscuit notes. Hops give herbal and citrus notes. Moderately high fruity esters – overripe apricots, golden raisins.

Appearance: Full, creamy, off-white foam with good retention. Dark amber/mahogany and brilliant.

Flavor: Malt forward with low supporting hop bitterness and sweet alcohol. Malt sweetness is high. Flavors of toffee, caramel, and low biscuit. Hop bitterness is medium-low, just cutting through the sweetness. Hop flavors and esters bring high notes of orange marmalade and some darker, bruised stone fruit notes as well. Golden raisins. Some low earthy character. Alcohol is apparent. Finish is semi-sweet with lingering fruit, caramel, and alcohol.

Mouthfeel: Full body. Low carbonation. Warming but not hot.

Overall Impression: A fine sipper. Let it warm a bit to really allow the malt to come through, then pour it into a snifter. The combination of caramel malt with fruity hop and fermentation character is lovely. Alcohol is verging on too much, but doesn’t quite go over the top. It’s great to drink right now, but I’ll stash one or two of these aside and see how they taste in a couple of years.

Schell’s Apparent Horizon

Jace Marti just keeps cranking out winners with the Noble Star Series. Number eight in the series – Apparent Horizon – is made with 35% rye malt. Anyone who has brewed with rye knows that this is a lot of rye. Rye has no husk to create a filter in the mash tun. It turns gummy when steeped. It can make for a nightmare brewing session with an hours-long sparge. But when done well, the results are oh, so good. Rye beers take on the character of that great, German rye bread that I miss so much from my time spent in Germany. But rye bread with lemony, lactic sourness?

Here’s my notes:

NobleStar_ApparentHorizon_062915-150x430Apparent Horizon
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Rye Berliner Weisse
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
5.1% ABV

Aroma: Predominantly lactic acid with underlying barnyard. Low bready malt comes through with a hint of toast. Black pepper.

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

Flavor: Malt is forward with lactic tartness just behind. Sharp, spicy, rye bread. Peppery. Like German rye bread. Low toast or bread crust. Lactic acidity stays just below the malt with lemony high notes. Earthy, barnyard phenols merge nicely with the rye spice. Medium-low perception of bitterness. Finish is very dry with lingering rye and lactic tartness.

Mouthfeel: Light body. High carbonation. Mouthwatering acidity.

Overall Impression: The spice of rye is the star of the show in this one, lending the beer and elegant feel. It’s like drinking a nice bubbly. Put it in a Riedel chardonnay glass and go to town.

Surly Nein

Sometimes you get a beer that you really want to pay attention to. You want to dig into its nooks and crannies to seek out whatever might be lurking there. But that sort of attention takes time and often that time isn’t available. With most bottles that’s okay. I’ll open one in the morning, taste my sample, and then dump most of it down the drain. It’s just beer, right? But the kind of bottle I’m talking about is one that you anticipate wanting to finish. I’m not going to pop a 750ml of 10-percent alcohol beer in the morning. I have work to get done through the day. It won’t happen if I do that. And so, these bottles often sit in my refrigerator longer than I might like, waiting for that rarest occurrences, a free evening.

Such was the case with Surly Nein. The ninth anniversary ale from Surly Brewing Company is said to have been inspired by a trip to Bamberg, Germany, home of smoked beer. It’s described as an imperial smoked dunkelweizen. I love smoke. I love dunkelweizen. Imperial is often, but not always good. And did I mention wood-aging? I was at the very least intrigued. I wanted to give it the attention that I hoped it deserved. And so it waited several days until I had the opportunity. That day finally came.

Here’s my notes:

Surly NeinNein
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Smoked Beer
Serving Style: 750ml bottle
ABV: ~10%

Aroma: Smoke and dark fruits. Belgian-like. Low caramel and toast. Cherries, plums, low high note of lemon. Floral alcohol.

Appearance: Full, creamy, tan head with excellent retention. Dark mahogany, nearly black. Appears clear.

Flavor: Malt and yeast driven. Caramel that lingers into the finish. Dark cherries, plums, raisins, dates. Background of smoke that seems to get stronger through the glass. Low note of chocolate. Very low bitterness. Alcohol is apparent. Vanilla. Finish is semi-sweet with lingering caramel, vanilla, and dark fruits.

Mouthfeel: Full body. Creamy and smooth. Medium-high carbonation. Warming.

Overall Impression: So much fruit. The rich, dark malts and the strength of the beer coaxes a Belgian flair from the German hefeweizen yeast – lots of dark fruits and less banana and clove. The alcohol is a touch high, but that should smooth out with a little bit of time. It’s not a deal breaker. I love the lingering caramel. This is what I might expect from blending a smoky scotch ale with a Belgian dark ale. Yummy.

Pumpkin Beers – A Few Tasting Notes

My relationship with pumpkin beers has been one of ups and downs. As I was first getting into beer, I really loved them. I bought and drank them a lot. I tried fairly unsuccessfully to make a couple of them at home. Talk about a stuck mash! As time went on, my feelings changed. Pumpkin beers and I just grew apart. There was too much spice and too much squash. But now, things seem to have come full circle. The flame has been rekindled.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about pumpkin beers. My Star Tribune column published today with a rundown of a few good ones. The style profile in the current issue off The Growler is all about the beer de gourd as well.

If I’ve been writing a lot about pumpkin beers, that means I’ve been drinking a lot of them as well. I’ve sampled a lot of them in the last couple of weeks. Drinking so many in such a short time has reminded me just what it was that I used to love about them.

What follows here are my raw, unedited tasting notes for a few of the beers I tried.

pumpkin patchPumpkin Patch Ale
Rogue Ales, Newport, Oregon
Style: Pumpkin Ale
Serving Style: 750ml bottle
6.1% ABV
25 IBU

Aroma: Balance of malt and spice. Malt is graham cracker and caramel. Spices are allspice, ginger, and cinnamon. Maybe slightly spice forward. No hops.

Appearance: Medium amber/copper and brilliant. Moderate, mixed bubble foam. Off white. Good retention.

Flavor: Malt and spice in approximate balance. Malt is graham cracker and caramel with light toasted biscuit. Sweetness is low. Spices are ginger, nutmeg. Low clove or allspice. Bitterness is medium-low. Cuts the sweetness. Low fruity esters – orange. Finish is just off dry with lingering orange, graham cracker and spice.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium carbonation. Low warming.

Overall Impression: Good malt/spice balance, but spices do take the lead. Much more and it would be too much. Pleasant enough, but somehow lacking that essential interest factor.

New Belgium Brewing Company, Fort Collins, Colorado
Style: Pumpkin Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
6% ABV

Aroma: Melanoidin malt and spice. Subtle fruity notes. Malt is most prominent. Light caramel, melanoidin and low biscuit. Spices ginger and cinnamon. Orange peel fruitiness. Like a potpourri.

Appearance: Medium-light amber/orange. Cloudy. Moderate, creamy/mixed bubble foam. Off-white.

Flavor: Same potpourri effect from aroma. Fruit is very prominent. Orange peel, lemony citrus. Light floral notes. Cinnamon and nutmeg spice melds with the fruit. Malt is subtle – low caramel and graham cracker. Emphasis is on fruit and spice. Like mulled cider – slight acidic character. Lemony, lactic acid. Finish lingers on that acidity. Not dry, not sweet. Orange and lemon fruit carries over along with cinnamon spice.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium carbonation. Not warming.

Overall Impression: interesting sour take on the style. Very much like mulled cider – almost not beer like. Once I wrapped my head around that, the potpourri character didn’t bother me so much. I wish there was a touch more caramel to give a kind of caramel apple effect. Nice for a different approach, but I wouldn’t drink too much of it.

alaskan pumpkin aleAlaskan Pumpkin Ale
Alaskan Brewing Company, Juneau, Alaska
Style: Pumpkin Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
6% ABV
20 IBU

Aroma: Balance to spices with supporting malt. Ginger, nutmeg and allspice. Moderate level. Low cinnamon. Underlying malt is graham cracker and nutty. Low perception of sweetness. No hops.

Appearance: Light amber and clear. Full, creamy, ivory head with good retention.

Flavor: Spices lead. Cinnamon, ginger and allspice. Malt is low – with caramel and graham cracker character. Just supports spices. Moderate orangey esters bring a high note. Bitterness is medium-low. Not hop flavor. Finish is dry with lingering orange and ginger.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium carbonation. No warming. Not creamy.

Overall Impression: Nice balance of malt and spices, but spices are just a touch too much for me. Pleasant, but would only have one. Good pumpkin-pie character.

wick for brainsWick for Brains Pumpkin Ale
Nebraska Brewing Company, Papillion, Nebraska
Style: Pumpkin Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz. can
6.1% ABV
17 IBU

Aroma: Malt and spices in balance with brightening hop presence. Spices take a slight lead – allspice and ginger. Malt is lighter than many pumpkin beers – caramel, honey, low cereal graininess. Low perception of sweetness. Background of bright, citrus hops. Low fruity esters.

Appearance: Full, creamy, off-white head with good retention. Dark gold/orange and brilliant.

Flavor: Malt and spices in balance. Malt has caramel and grainy graham-cracker. Moderate perception of sweetness. Spices balance – allspice, ginger. Low notes of honey and some low red apple ester. Hop bitterness is low, but present – bolstered by spices. Finish is off-dry with lingering spices and caramel malt.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium carbonation. Low warming. Low creaminess. Not astringent.

Overall Impression: Lightest overall in this sampling. A bit “meh.” I like that spices don’t overwhelm. Most prominent “pumpkin” presence of all of them.

Summit Unchained #20: Sticke Alt

True story. A few days ago I had a dream about a new Minnesota brewery that made only German altbier. They made multiple varieties of altbier, most of which I had not even known existed. I was personally excited by this. I love altbier. But I remember telling the owner that his business plan seemed ill advised. Altbier is kind of an obscure style here in the US. And American consumers expect that breweries will make beers in a range of styles, unless the style that they make is overloaded with hops. In which case they can make as many variations of the same style as they want.

The notion of an all-altbier brewery did indeed seem strange in my dream. Yet, if you go to Düsseldorf, Germany, you will find not just one, but many breweries making nothing but altbier. It’s a whole city of altbier brewers.

“Altbier” in German means “old beer.” The term refers not to the age of the beer, but to the mode of production. Germans started making lager beers as early as the 1400s. Bottom fermenting yeast strains adapted for cold temperatures developed accidentally in the country’s south as a result of winter brewing and cave aging. Cold fermentation inhibited the growth of bacteria and other spoiling agents. Lager beers tasted cleaner than their top-fermenting counterparts. They had a longer shelf life and were therefore suited to wider distribution.

Over the period of a few hundred years, lager brewing gradually took over in the Garman-speaking realm. But a few cities clung tenaciously to their old (read “alt”) ale brewing traditions. One of those was Cologne or Köln, home of Kölsch, where in 1603 city leaders outlawed the making of bottom-fermented beer.

A little further downstream along the Rhine River was another holdout town, Düsseldorf. There are at least five altbier brewpubs located in the old city center (altstadt) of Düsseldorf. A number of other breweries making the style are located in and around the city outside the altstadt. They all brew beer that falls into a fairly narrow profile – amber to almost brown colored with assertive bitterness and complex, balancing maltiness reflecting kilned malt types. But each brewers imbues the beer with their own unique stamp. Some are bitterer, others lean more toward malt. Some are lighter, others more rich and filling. But these differences aside, when you are in Düsseldorf, altbier is what you drink.

Sticke (“secret”) Alt is a special variant on the altbier style that is brewed for special occasions, usually only twice a year. It is stronger, richer, and fuller-bodied than the typical altbier. Hopping rates are higher. 60 IBU is not unheard of for the style. But the malt profile is bolder as well. Sticke alt gushes with the nutty and toasty notes of kilned malt, occasionally overlaid with hints of bitter chocolate.

Summit brewer Mike Lundell has veered from his IPA track to create a Sticke altbier as the 20th installment in the brewery’s popular Unchained Series. The new beer hits the streets on draft and in bottles starting the week of October 12th. You can party with Lundell and the Summit crew at the Muddy Pig on October 14th from 5 – 7 PM.

Here’s my notes:

Sticke Alt BottleSummit Unchained #20: Sticke Alt
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Sticke Altbier
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
ABV: 6.3%
IBU: 55

Aroma: Malty with low supporting hops. Malt is bread crust with low nutty and toasty background notes. Hops are low – spicy/herbal, a touch of licorice. Clean fermentation.

Appearance: Dark mahogany and brilliant. Full, creamy, ivory to beige head with excellent retention.

Flavor: Malt forward but with ample hop balance. Bread crust, toast, caramel-like melanoidin, and a hint of dark chocolate and coffee. Medium-low sweetness. Hop bitterness is medium-high, but sharp and firm. Low spicy/herbal hop flavor – again with the hint of licorice, even mint. Clean fermentation. Finish is very dry with lingering malt – melanoidin and roast – and spicy hop flavor.

Mouthfeel: Medium to medium-full body. Medium carbonation. Some creaminess.

Overall Impression: Typically I’ll drink a first sample of a beer to form an impression and then write notes on the second. I’m writing these on the fourth sample. I like the first so much that it demanded another and another (not all on the same night). This beer hits all of my buzzers; lager-like fermentation, toasted malt flavors, malt-forward with ample supporting hops that are spicy, not fruity, in character. In short, it’s my kind of beer.

Surly Brewing Company – Todd the Axe Man

I find myself at a rare loss for words. At this moment, I have no stories to relate – no odd ramblings about styles or trends. My mind is preoccupied with other things, so I’ll cut to the chase.

Here’s my notes:

todd-the-axe-man-present-465-x-622Todd the Axe Man
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
7.2% ABV
65 IBU

Aroma: Hits your nose from a distance as soon as you pour. Hops dominate with little backup – citrus pith and geraniums. Pink grapefruit slices. Low pineapple background notes. Light and airy.

Appearance: Medium gold/orange. Hazy. Moderate, creamy, white head with excellent retention.

Flavor: All about the hops. Bitterness is high and lingers long into the finish with a citrus pith quality. Hop flavor is the main event – citrus, grapefruit, and floral. Low pineapple and tropical fruits come in midway. Lemony highlights. Low garlic note, but not distracting. Low alcohol that gets stronger as the beer warms. Low malt sweetness and background, neutral grainy flavor. Very dry finish with lingering citrus.

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

Overall Impression: Those who know me know that I’m not all about the IPAs. I can’t say that I will drink a ton of this, but if I want an IPA, I could do far worse than this one. It’s light, refreshing, and smooth. Although malt plays a very minor role, the bright hop flavors make up for it. Those flavors are expressed in delicate and clearly articulated layers. It’s really quite well done. If you are a fan of the hops, drink this.


Coney Island Hard Root Beer

As long as we’re talking about root beer…

We were talking about root beer, weren’t we? Judging from the response to my Not Your Father’s Root Beer post of a few days ago, apparently we are. We REALLY are.

Well, the Small Town Brewery offering isn’t the only new kid on the block. Coney Island Brewing Company recently released one of its own. The folks at Coney Island were kind enough to send me a sample for tasting.

Coney Island Brewing Company was founded in 2007 by Jeremy Cowan as a spin-off of Shmaltz Brewing Company. You can read my profile of Cowan in the upcoming issue of Beer Connoisseur Magazine. Cowan sold the brand to Alchemy and Science, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Boston Beer Company in 2013. The sale helped finance the expansion of the Shmaltz core lineup of He’brew beers and the construction of its new brewery in New York.

To extend the argument over whether these things are beer or not, the promotional material for Coney Island Hard Root Beer states, “Coney Island Hard Root Beer is a beer made with all natural, traditional root beer flavors. It begins with 2-row malt, caramel malt and European hops. It then undergoes a secondary fermentation with additional sugars and ale yeast, which is filtered to develop the perfect root beer base. From there we add the final all natural flavors from the best ingredients available, including Madagascar vanilla.” Sure sounds like beer, but it’s an FMB.

Here’s my notes:

Coney Island Hard Root BeerConey Island Hard Root Beer
Coney Island Brewing Company, Brooklyn, New York
Style: Hard Root Beer
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
5.8% ABV

Aroma: Wintergreen aromas hit the nose from 18-inches away. Refreshingly minty. Low vanilla. Faint anise background.

Appearance: Stout-like black, opaque. Low, soda-like, tan foam with no retention.

Flavor: Sharp. Peppery. Clove and spice. Wintergreen is still dominant, but with more of the anise and spice balance. Vanilla is low. Brown sugar or molasses. High sweetness, but the spiciness really helps to cut it. Low alcohol. Finish is moderately sweet with strong lingering wintergreen and gentler notes of anise, clove, and pepper. Slight alcohol aftertaste.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. High carbonation. Low warming. A bit cloying, like soda.

Overall Impression: A very botanical beverage. I like the sharper edge than NYFRB. I am a fan of root beer and this tastes like a good one to me. If you like root beer, then I think you will like this. If you don’t like root beer, then drink something else. This tastes like root beer. If you are going to get all pissy about whether or not this is beer, then just get over yourself.

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.