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.

The Brewer’s Table Kitchen at Surly

20150519_151107There are a lot of restaurants that do beer and food. Some of them do it very well. Most of them though, are working with an ever rotating set of taps from an ever changing array of breweries. The beers change faster than the menu, meaning that the food is curated for beer generally, without a focus on particular flavor parings. Brewpubs have the luxury of working with a set list of beers made on premises, but in my experience, most of them don’t seem to put much thought into how the menu and the brews might work together. Pub grub is generally the rule.

But what happens when you give a talented and adventurous chef the opportunity to create an entire restaurant from scratch that is centered on the flavors of a single brewery’s lineup. The Brewer’s Table Kitchen at Surly is what. Opening this Friday, May 22nd, the second-floor, fine-dining venue at Surly is a foodie-friendly laboratory for beer and food pairing.

Given the sophistication of the beer hall menu I had lofty expectations for the Brewer’s Table. Chef Jorge Guzman had set the bar high. Judging from the samples offered at a recent media preview, he has deftly met the challenge. The menu is loaded with items, the descriptions of which make me say, “Oh, I want to try that.” Tantalizing treats like a Reuben made with beef heart, octopus with romesco sauce and chorizo, or lamb sweet breads immediately set my salivary glands atwitter. The dishes we were served not only offered layers of flavor to explore, they were pretty to look at as well. Like colorful paintings on a plate, they were almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

Beet Salad paired with Pentagram

Beet Salad paired with Pentagram

I love beets, so one of my favorites was the beet salad. Guzman likes to use ingredients in multiple ways in each dish. This one has beets roasted, charred, pickled, and pureed. On top is fois gras that has been cured, passed through a tamis, fortified with beet gel, frozen and then shaved. It looks almost like wood chips or pencil shavings on the dish, but eats with a luscious, creamy richness. The pairing with Surly’s sour, wild ale Pentagram was surprisingly good. The interaction of acids in the dish and the beer toned down the sour, but still let the beer cut the richness of the fois. Earthy notes from the Brettanomyces fermentation bridged nicely to the earthy beets.

Tea Egg paired with Cynic

Tea Egg paired with Cynic

The Tea Egg was another favorite. A five-minute egg is cracked and then poached in tea and truffle powder to give it a tie-die appearance. It’s served on a bed of sheep’s milk cheese, puffed quinoa, and black garlic puree, with marinated asparagus. There is a lot going on in this dish, which makes it a particular pairing challenge. Which flavor element do you aim for when selecting a beer? Guzman went with Cynic, which he called the “easy” route. Easy or not, it worked. The soft sweetness and spicy/fruity yeast notes of the beer at least touched on nearly every layer of the dish.

Pork Jowl  paired with Todd the Axeman

Pork Jowl paired with Todd the Axeman

If you are looking for something rich, the Pork Jowl is the way to go. Guzman envisions this dish as a taco. This gorgeous hunk of meat is cured, sous vided, and roasted to fatty, pink perfection. It’s layered on puffed amaranth and a black bean puree made with Mole’ Smoke beer, and topped with a hazelnut vinaigrette. A picadillo sauce of the type used for empanadas completes it. This one was paired with Todd the Axeman, a West Coast-style IPA brewed in collaboration with a Danish brewery. It’s the hoppiest beer Surly makes, but the focus is on flavor and aroma instead of overly-aggressive bitterness. It cut through the richness of the jowl without taking out your tastebuds or preventing the subtler flavors from coming through.

Guzman and crew encourage diners to explore their own pairings, but they are happy to make recommendations if desired. For those who want to turn it over entirely to the whim of the chef, a Chef & Brewer pairing menu will take you through a five-course meal with a pairing for each course.

20150519_150435The décor of Brewer’s Table is in keeping with the rest of the building – sleek and elegant, yet not too stuffy. The long, kitchen bar would be my choice for seating, but I love to watch chefs at work. In the summer the outdoor patio overlooking the beer garden would also be very nice. Reservations are available and recommended. Bar seating is first-come, first-served. The Brewer’s Table is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5-10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5-11 p.m.

20150519_150540

Octopus paired with Overrated IPA

Octopus paired with Overrated IPA

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.

Altbier in Düsseldorf

In the days of old, before the advent of railroads, freeways, and automobiles, people traveled less. The distances between the cities and towns felt further than it does today. Commerce did occur, of course. But generally, each village was a semi-isolated community where residents identified more strongly as citizens of the town than of the nation or state.

This relative isolation led to the creation of local specialties – crafts, cheese, cuisine, and even beer. Brewers brewed beers that were adapted to locally available ingredients and water supplies. Einbeck had bock beer. Dortmund had Dortmunder lager, a strong-ish, balanced, golden, lager with a pronounced hop presence. There was the weissbier of Berlin and the altbier of Düsseldorf. It’s not that these brewers set out to create a “style,” they just made beer the way it was made in that particular place.

Düsseldorf’s altbier wasn’t always called “alt,” the German word meaning “old.” It was once just called “beer.” Through the 1800s the new-fangled lager beers were on the rise. The crisp, clean, cold-fermented brews caught the imagination of beer drinkers and quickly spread across the land. But there were a few holdouts. In places like Düsseldorf and Cologne brewers clung to their old-style, top-fermenting ales. And so the term “alt” was applied to differentiate them from the rapidly encroaching “new” beer.

Altbier is an amber-colored, malt-forward style that features the warm, nutty, toasted bread flavors of German, kilned malts. Bitterness can be assertive, but is never harsh. Low notes of spicy, German hops complete the picture. It’s a crisp, easy-drinking beer designed to enhance social gatherings.

Zum Uerige

While it was originally a wider regional specialty, altbier is now heavily associated with Düsseldorf and especially with that city’s Altstadt or “Old City.” The city center was mercifully spared bombardment during World War II, leaving its cobblestone streets and medieval structures intact. With over 300 bars, the Altstadt is known in Germany as “the longest bar in the world.” It is the historical and cultural heart of the city.

Im Füchschen

The Altstadt is also the heart of modern altbier. Many of the brewpubs that have defined the style for our age are located there within a few hundred yards of each other, including the famous Zum Uerige, Im Füchschen and Zum Schlüssel. The oldest altbier brewpub, Schumacher, is only a 10-minute walk. It opened in 1838. There are bigger altbier breweries, but these quaint, old pubs where beer is poured from wooden casks, are the best place to get the true feel of the style. A relaxed stroll from one pub to the next is a great way to spend an afternoon.

Altbier is drunk from distinctive, straight-sided glasses in 0.2-, 0.3- or 0.4-liter sizes. When your glass is empty, waiters will quickly set a new one down in front of you, making a mark on your coaster to keep track of how many you’ve had. The beer will just keep coming until you tell them to stop.

The Altstadt of Düsseldorf is one of the stops on the Grains & Grapes Adventure Tour – A Taste of the Rhine River. We’ve teamed up with Altbier Safari to give you guided tours and samplings at five Altstadt brewpubs – Zum Uerige, Im Füchschen, Schumacher, Brauerei Kürzer, and Zum Schlüssel. You’ll taste the best that altbier has to offer in the place that it was meant to be experienced.

In addition to altbier in Düsseldorf, A Taste of the Rhine River will take you to a kölsch brewery in Cologne, and wineries on the Rhine and Mosel Rivers. We’ll visit castles, cruise the Rhine, and end up at the greatest beer festival on earth, the Munich Oktoberfest. It’s going to be a great trip.

To learn more or to sign up visit our friends at Defined Destinations.

Cooking Spring Hop Shoots

New Spring Hop Shoots

Spring is finally here and the hops in my back yard are crazily sprouting. It can take three years for hops to really establish and mine are in their third year. These bines were pretty productive last year. The sight of bright green cones dangling from my pergola was beautiful. This year the early shoots are much more vigorous and numerous that in the past, so I am expecting great things from them come September.

When growing hops it’s common practice to snip off the first growth and go with the second. The initial bines grow super fast and can end up hollow and weak. They can be less productive and less able to withstand the winds that can whip them around on their string trellises. I’ve not snipped mine for the past two years, but with them coming on so strongly this year, I decided to do it right.

Now, I hate to see anything go to waste. I could have composted the sprouts in my backyard bin, but lately I’ve been reading quite a lot about eating them. I’m an adventurous eater and I love to cook, especially new vegetables. And hop shoots supposedly taste like asparagus, one of my absolute favorite veggies. Why not give it a go?

Chopped and Ready

One recommendation I have read was simply to sauté them with a little garlic and butter. This sounded quick, easy, and delicious, so that is the route that I chose. I clipped my bines, chopped them into smaller chunks and got to work melting butter and chopping garlic. Into the pan they went.

Into the Pan

I had let a couple of the bines get a bit too long, I think. They were woodier and more fibrous than the shorter shoots. In order to soften these up a bit I opted midway to braise. After tossing them in the garlic butter for a few minutes, I added a quarter cup of water, covered the pan, and lowered the heat. I let them simmer there for five minutes and then cooked off any remaining liquid. I added a bit of salt and pepper and they were done.

After the Braise

The bright green shoots looked great on the plate. I served them with a mashed mix of red and sweet potatoes and simple grilled chicken thighs made the way my dad used to make them – cooked over coals and brushed with a butter/Worcestershire glaze.

And onto the Plate

Those who say that young hop shoots taste like asparagus are right. They are lightly sweet with that vegetal/chlorophyll flavor that makes asparagus oh-so delicious. From the texture of the raw shoots, I expected them to be more fibrous and prickly. With the exception of the couple that I let grow a little too long, they braised up nice and tender. And not a prickle in the bunch. The tougher ones though did suggest that it’s better to cook them earlier than later. I would recommend not letting them get more than four or five inches long before you snip and eat.

I only have two plants, so cooking hop sprouts is a one-meal deal for me. But I can say with confidence that I will do it again next spring.

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.

2015 Firkin Fest at the Happy Gnome

The eightieth annual Firkin Fest at the Happy Gnome happened last Saturday, April 4th. Okay, it wasn’t really the eightieth, but it has been going on for some time now. I went to my first in 2010 and it was a couple of years old by then.

For those who haven’t been, Firkin Fest is a celebration of “real ale” – that is beers that are naturally re-fermented in the container from which they are served and poured from the keg using gravity instead of being pushed with CO2. The result is a smooth, creamy-textured beer with relatively low carbonation that is served at cellar temperature of around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Real ale or cask-conditioned beer is the traditional beer service of England.

Firkin Fest has seen its highs and lows over the years; great beers mingled with serious over-crowding and too few porta-potties, exquisitely well done casks of straight-up beer and monstrosities with added extras like Peeps or mushrooms. Cringe-worthy cask abuse has been common as pourers turn the firkins on end in an attempt to squeeze out every last drop and end up pouring glasses of yeasty sludge that drunk festival goers lap up like nectar.

This year saw some changes to Firkin Fest. While in the past the firkins have come from breweries across the country and the globe, this year every brewery represented was Minnesota born and bred. This meant fewer breweries and fewer beers than previous years, but there were also many fewer attendees. I don’t know whether the lower attendance was intentional. Marketing doesn’t seem to have been all that good for the event. I didn’t even get a press release and I get press releases for EVERYTHING from brewery openings in the UK to announcements for the Hay and Forage Expo. Whether it was intentional or not, it was certainly welcome. This event has historically crammed so many people into the small tent that getting from one booth to the next was an unpleasant chore. That was not the case this year and that made me happy.

Firkin Fest has always been a place where brewers see what kinds of craziness they can stuff into a cask. Sometimes these experiments work. Sometimes they just seem ill advised. This year felt to me like there was less experimentation. That’s not to say there weren’t some crazy casks. Wasabi and pickled ginger, anyone? But for the most part infusions were limited to things like coffee in stouts or citrus zest in IPAs. Many of the casks were simply dry hopped. This also made me happy. Sometimes simplicity is best.

There were a few standouts.

My personal best-of-show was Schell’s Starkeller Peach, which will be the next installment of the amazing Berliner weisse series. Tart lactic acid and sweet, sweet peaches were what this beer is all about. Yummy! Jace Marti says it will be bottled in the next couple of weeks for release later this month. I can’t wait to try it with the proper level of carbonation.

Summit also scored high with an El Dorado dry-hopped version of the new Hopvale Organic Ale. In a tent full of heavyweights, this light, refreshing, hoppy brew was a treat. The added hops gave a nice, citrus boost to its already hoppy aroma.

Staying on the hoppy side, Triple Hop Size 7 from Steel Toe was a treat. Size 7 IPA is already the best IPA in the state. Add a healthy dose of dry hops in the cask to boost that heady hop aroma and you have a recipe for hop heaven.

On the other end of the spectrum was Sideburns Chocolate Milk Stout from Lyn Lake Brewery. This already rich and creamy brew was conditioned on chocolate and vanilla that added extra layers of velvety smoothness. The beer’s sweetness was amplified, making it a delicious, drinkable dessert.

If you like cocktails, the go-to beer had to be Cobra Commander from Lift Bridge. Their 12.5% ABV Commander barleywine was casked with citrus zest and Falernum and rum-soaked oak. It truly was like drinking a rum cocktail. And a good one at that.

Grains & Grapes Adventure Tour: Taste of the Rhine River

Beer trips! Wine trips! Beer and wine trips!

We can hardly get over the excitement about Tour de Oregon. But now I am super-psyched to announce the second Grains & Grapes Adventure Tour with my Certified Sommelier, wine-buddy Leslee Miller at Amusée. GERMANY!

Tastes of the Rhine River will be an extravagant exploration of one of the most famous beer and wine regions in the world – the Rhine River Valley in Germany. Kölsch breweries in Cologne. Altbier brewpubs in the Altstadt of Düsseldorf. Vinyards along the Rhine and the Mosel rivers. A Rhine river cruise. A couple of castles (including Neuschwanstein Castle, which is really a don’t-miss destination). And it all wraps up at the biggest beer fest on earth, the Munich Oktoberfest!

This really is going to be the trip of a lifetime.

When: September 29 to October 6, 2015
How Much: $3399*

Trip Highlights

  • All ground transport in Germany
  • Beer tours in Dusseldorf & Cologne Germany
  • Winery visit on the Rhine River
  • Rhine River Day Cruise
  • Heidelberg Castle
  • Oktoberfest in Munich
  • Neuschwanstein Castle
  • 2 nights in Cologne, Germany
  • 2 nights in Rudesheim, Germany
  • 3 nights in Augsburg, Germany
  • 15 Meals including Daily Breakfast

Check out our travel partner Defined Destinations for more information and registration.

Hop on board! Leslee and I can’t wait to see you in Germany!

Prost!

*Cost does not include airfare to Cologne

Rhine-River-Flyer-web

Insight Beer Dinner at Fire Lake Grill

Insight Fire Lake

Not all that long ago beer dinners in the Twin Cities were a rarity. Now you can hardly turn around without tripping over one. Despite their current ubiquity, there is still something deeply satisfying about sitting down with friends to a fancy meal paired to great beer. I’ve interviewed hundreds of brewers, but I still love listening to them introduce their beers and brewery with each new course. The chef emerging from the kitchen to explain each dish just adds to the elegance of the affair.

It’s especially exciting when the dinner is the brewery’s first, as was the case at Fire Lake Grill House in downtown Minneapolis last Tuesday. Five-month old Insight Brewing was feted in a five-course meal prepared by Chef Jim Kyndberg and his crew. Founder/brewer Ilan Klages-Mundt was on hand to unravel each beer and tell the tale of his world-wide journey of brewery apprenticeships. It’s really no secret that I’m a fan of Ilan’s beer, so I was excited to be able to attend.

Fire Lake is really trying to ramp up its attention to the local beer scene. They have held beer dinners in the past with Lift Bridge Brewing Company and Big Wood Brewery. In addition to showcasing Minnesota beer, these beer dinners allow the kitchen staff to flex their culinary muscles a bit. The menus feature dishes that wouldn’t ordinarily appear on the Fire Lake menu. One thing that impressed me is that Chef Kyndberg assigns a dish to each member of his lead kitchen staff. The dishes don’t all revolve around him.

It is clear though, that they are fairly new at this. I chuckled a couple of times listening to Chef as he talked about the difficulty of pairing beer with food – especially dessert. In my own experience, beer presents so many options to go with any dish that the difficulty is often choosing which direction to pick. Some wine sommeliers will even admit – at least in private – that beer is the more food-friendly beverage. And dessert is my favorite course to pair. But if the broad flavor palate of beer is not as familiar, I can understand having to put some extra thought into the pairing process.

That said, they did a good job. The food was excellent and the pairings were generally good. On a couple of dishes they were extraordinary. The ambience of the private room was elegant and yet congenial. I do think that we were over poured. (Did I really just say that?) There were five beers and the pours were big. I had a pretty good buzz going by the time the dinner ended. Fortunately I had taken the train downtown. It might have been an Uber night otherwise. Also, brewer Ilan’s name was misspelled on the menu card. It seems important to me to get your guest of honor’s name correct. That attention to detail matters.

On to the pairings!

Starters – Paired to Lamb & Flag
Bacon Wrapped Quail Legs, Pork Belly and Scallop Skewers, Bacon Popovers in Beer Cheese Soup.
Not bad, but the smokiness of the quail legs and the scallop skewers overwhelmed the light, English bitter a bit. The bitterness of the beer clashed. A maltier brew would have paired better. The popover pairing, however, was brilliant. The smoke was there, but tempered by the beer cheese soup. The beer’s bitterness cut through the creamy soup. The popover dough and bacon brought out the beers subtle malt.

Fish Course – Paired to Yuzu Pale Ale
Miso Marinated Char, Furikake Rice, Red Curry Broth
This was one of my favorite dishes of the night. The fish was perfectly prepared and the curry sauce had a flavorful, spicy zip. The impulse to use the Yuzu fruit infused pale was understandable. I probably would have gone there too. Unfortunately the beer’s bitterness amplified the curry spice to the point that the delicate fruitiness of the yuzu was overpowered. The very thing that makes the beer special was lost.

Fish-Course

Poultry Course – Paired to Curiosity IPA
Applewood Smoked Beer Can Chicken, Chipotle Rub, Black Bean Salsa
Best pairing of the night. The dish was delicious. The spice was just right. Acidity in the salsa offered a bright, cutting contrast. Curiosity is perhaps my least favorite beer from Insight. It’s not bad, but it’s kind of just another IPA. Nothing special. The dish really brought out its best points. The fruity hops really popped. Its relatively modest bitterness didn’t over-amp the spice. The combination brought out the chipotle smoke.

Poultry-web

Meat Course – Paired with Saison de Blanc
Pretzel Crusted Pork Rillette, Gribiche Sause, Pickled Carrots and Beets
Saison de Blanc is a Belgian-style saison made with Sauvignon grape must. The dish had the feel of Provence that worked well with the farmhouse ale. Herbal and herbal notes spoke to one another. The acid from the wine grapes cut through it all. The really magical part for me though was the acid/acid mix of the beer with the pickled vegetables.

meat-web

Dessert – Paired with Door County Cherry Saison
Lefse and Dark Chocolate Stout Sauce, Mascarpone, Apricots
Door County Cherry Saison is Saison de Blanc with a pound per pint of tart, Door County cherries. The dessert was like an upper-Midwest tiramisu. You can’t go wrong with chocolate and cherries and between the glass and the plate there was plenty of both. The beer had enough acidity to cut through it all and the apricots added a nice touch to pull out some of the other fruity notes of the base saison. This was the second-best paring of the night.

dessert-web

Cheers to Insight and Fire Lake for a successful and enjoyable night.

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.