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

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:

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.

Wabasha Brewing Company – A First Look

Wabasha Brewing CompanyTo find Wabasha Brewing Company head south across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Paul then continue up the hill past the Wabasha Street Caves. Tucked on Wabasha Street is a non-descript, two-story storefront. A sign on the sidewalk out front suggest that this is where you should enter, but drive around back to find the taproom. The building’s rear is even more non-descript, but the orange door and newly established hop vines suggest that something more interesting is going on inside.

wabasha-3Entering the taproom is a bit like stepping into someone’s home. It’s tiny – maybe cozy is a better descriptor. Cream-colored, brick walls and wood tones give it a warm, comfortable feel. It is a bit like a living room turned bar. I was reminded of intimate, cellar bars that I frequented in Germany.

Wabasha-1The brew house is crammed in behind the bar. There is only room for a couple of fermenters. The plan was to start big with the brewery, easily the most expensive piece of equipment. Brewing capacity is ensured from the start. When planned expansions occur fermentation tanks can be added as space allows.

The taproom’s intimacy encourages friendly interaction. I’m actually not the most social person, but I chatted up everyone seated with me at the bar. It wasn’t terribly crowded on the Thursday night of my visit, but I can see how it could get tight on a busy Friday or Saturday. And there is only one restroom for a bunch of people drinking a bunch of beer. Did I mention that expansion is planned?

The beer at Wabasha was a mixed bag – varied both in style and in quality. Nothing was terrible, but some were better than others. A couple of cloudy ones suggested to me that not enough conditioning time was given to let them settle. But it could also be that cloudy was the brewer’s intent.

Wabasha-2My favorite was Peter Wheat. Don’t let the name fool you, there is no wheat in this beer. It’s named after a comic book character created in the 1940s to advertise bread. Peter Wheat the beer is a Germany-style Kristal weizen made with corn instead of wheat. It’s got a creamy mouthfeel and light sweetness with faint, corny overtones. The banana, clove, and bubblegum notes of German, wheat-beer yeast are present, but remain fairly subtle. Higher than expected alcohol gives it a pleasant warming.

Lawnmower porter is a tasty, low-alcohol brown porter with a lovely chocolate brownie character. Low caramel and toast background notes round out the profile. It finishes dry, making it a good summertime dark beer.

West Side Popper was a surprise. I really don’t like pepper beers. I want my food as spicy as you can make it, but not my beer. This light, jalapeno infused cream ale gave a light bite on the finish, but was not overwhelming. It was amply balanced by a smooth, malt sweetness. The pepper flavor was kept to a minimum as well.

Red Bonnet Amber – a cherry infused amber ale – was indistinct – like it couldn’t quite decide what it wanted to be. A touch of caramel was there. A hint of tart cherry was there. But neither was really able to assert itself. Both were muddied by some unwelcome yeasty flavor that was foreshadowed by the murky appearance.

429 Wabasha St S
St Paul, MN 55107
(651) 224-2102

Thursday – Friday: 3:00 pm – 11:00 pm

Sidhe Brewing Company – A First Look

Sidhe Brewery LogoIreland is dotted with small, earthen mounds called Sidhe [pronounced Shee] said to be the homes of the mythical folk called the Aos Sí [pronounced ees shee]. Part of Gaelic and Scottish mythology, these supernatural beings are believed to inhabit an invisible world that coexists with the world of humans. This otherworld is seen to be closer during the hours of dusk and dawn. The Aos Sí are fierce protectors of their abodes. The modern term Banshee derives from “Bean sídhe,” a particularly fearsome female spirit. In Gaelic folk belief and practice they are often appeased with offerings and are rarely referred to directly, but rather spoken of as “The Good Neighbors”, “The Fair Folk”, or simply “The Folk”.

Sidhe is also the name of one of St. Paul’s newest breweries. The name is appropriate. This is Minnesota’s second women owned brewery (at least as far as I know). It is also the state’s first Wiccan brewery – although not the only one to have a somewhat pagan slant.

With its grand opening in May, Sidhe Brewing Company added another facet to the quickly-developing, foodie-focused, Payne-Phalen neighborhood in East St. Paul. It is a neighborhood in transition. Higher-end food joints like Ward 6 and Tongue In Cheek coexist side-by-side with old-school, storefront taquerias. A multi-cultural mix of people can be seen on the streets and in the seats. For co-owner and head brewer Kathleen Culhane this sense of place is important. She sees Sidhe as a gathering place for the neighborhood’s diverse inhabitants – an “awesome, cool place for Eastsiders and others to hang out.” Culhane’s plan is to have a stable of six house beers with a small, rotating selection of seasonals and specialties. She is experimenting with reduced-gluten beers for those with sensitivities.

Sidhe Brewing EntranceThe brewery and taproom occupies the rear part of an interesting marketplace that includes a Mexican restaurant and several small vendor booths. The building is built into a hillside, which means that entering the taproom feels like you are headed to the basement. The entryway from Jenks Avenue affords a nice overview of the whole operation before you descend the stairs into the taproom.

The taproom space itself is simple and relatively unadorned. A set of paintings on the east wall hint at the Wiccan influence. Shelves of games – including to my delight Rock-‘Em Sock-‘Em Robots – insures patrons have plenty to occupy their time while sipping the suds. On the west end of the building is a stage that will host live music. The comparison isn’t totally apt, but while sitting there I kept thinking that the place has a kind of “your-uncle’s-basement-bar” vibe.

Sidhe Brewing BeersThe beers on my visit were a bit problematic. Apparent under-attenuation left each of them tasting overly sweet and a bit sticky. This impression was heightened by low carbonation. Beers that should have been dry and crisp were anything but. The 84 IBUs of Hopped Up McGonigal IPA were nearly completely overwhelmed by sugar. Culhane indicated to me that she was aware of the issues and was taking steps to rectify them. Hopefully she can get that figured out.

Of the selections available, the Best Kissed Cream Ale was my top pick. It was better attenuated than the others, giving it a more refreshing profile. Low, grainy malt flavor was accentuated by a touch of corn. Bitterness was almost just enough to balance. Light, spicy hop notes added a bit of zest. After my sampler flight I had a pint. It was an enjoyable pint.

Next for me was Greenman’s Harvest American Nut Brown. It too was a bit less sweet than the others. Rich and malty, it featured notes of caramel, chocolate, and a faint background of roast-malt bitterness that helped cut the sweet. Hop bitterness was moderate, with low, citrusy hop flavors riding gently over the top.

990 Payne Ave
St. Paul, MN 55130
612-424-1KEG (1534)

Thursday & Friday: 4-11 PM
Saturday: Noon to 11 PM
Sunday: Noon to 7 PM

Northgate Brewing Company – A First Look

The last time I visited Northgate Brewing Company they were still a few weeks from opening. No beer had yet been brewed on their tiny, five-barrel brewhouse crammed uncomfortably into an 800 square-foot, industrial space in Northeast Minneapolis. It was hard to find. I had to call for directions that cold, dark, winter night, even though I was just on the other side of the building. I remember thinking, “How are they ever going to do growler sales if no one can find the place?”

Northgate Brewing Then & Now

Northgate Brewing Then & Now

A lot has changed since then. Last October the brewery moved into a brand new building, tripled the size of their brewhouse, and opened an actual, easy-to-find taproom. Tucked off Broadway on Harding Street, a little west of Highway 280, they managed to remain just on the edge of Northeast Minneapolis. The taproom is an Olympian stone’s throw from the core Northeast brewery district at Broadway and Central.

So why did it take me seven months to visit the new spot? One reason is time. I know it’s kind of my job, but I find it almost impossible to eke out free evenings for hanging in taprooms. I don’t know how you people do it.

But I’ve got to be perfectly honest, there was another reason I stayed away. I was never a fan of Northgate beers. I should have been. They specialize in English styles, which are some of my favorites. I wanted to like them. I repeatedly came back to their brews to give them another chance, but was always disappointed. English yeast can throw some buttery notes that become overwhelming if not handled properly. I found these to be consistently present. I even picked up some medicinal, phenolic flavors once or twice. But I hadn’t tried them since the move.

I entered the taproom this time with trepidation. I left with a changed mind.

I sampled eight beers in all – everything on tap at the time. While the little bit of butterscotch that gives pleasing roundness to well-made English ales was present, nothing crossed the line to unpleasant. And there was not a phenolic note to be found.

Parapet ESB was a standout to me. It was dry and moderately bitter with complementary grassy/earthy hop notes. The bitterness was balanced by biscuity and toffee-tinged malt with a low level of sweetness. The orange marmalade fermentation esters that I love so much were in abundance. If not for the fact that I still had two more taprooms to hit, I would likely have ordered a pint.

The Northgate guys said they would never brew an American-style IPA. And yet on the list was not just an IPA, but an 8.1 percent alcohol double IPA, loaded with quintessentially American Simcoe and Citra hops. Here’s Your Frackin’ IPA was remarkably delicate for its elevated strength. I would never have guessed its potency. While the big, citrus and tropical fruit hop flavor was all-American, the bitterness was on a more moderate English scale. No excessive tongue-scraper this, despite the 100 IBU claim.

There were two takes on Stronghold Robust Porter available – one with coffee and a cask-conditioned version with cherries. I’m not generally a fan of coffee beers and this one did not suit me. The underlying porter was nice, delivering dark, bitter chocolate roast and light sweetness. The coffee though tasted unpleasantly bitter, like that pot that sat on the burner in the office break room all day. The bitter dregs taste lingered long in the finish.

The cherry version on the other hand was delicious. The sweet cherry stayed unobtrusively in the background allowing the base beer to shine. Combined with the beer’s bitter chocolate, it tasted like a liquid Mon Cherie candy.

20150604_190014My companion aptly described the feel of the taproom as “coffee shop with a small nod to an English pub.” It is relatively unadorned and retains an industrial space ambience that is fairly common among local taprooms. Some color on the walls would do a lot to warm it up a bit. It was quiet when we arrived, but by the time we left the crowd had filled the room, bringing with it a din that was not terrible, but louder than I prefer. I’m like that. I like quiet.

783 Harding St NE
Minneapolis, MN 55418
(612) 354-2858

Taproom Hours:
Wednesdays: 4pm – 10pm
Thursdays: 4pm – 10pm
Fridays: 3pm – Midnight
Saturdays: Noon – Midnight
Sundays: Noon – 8pm

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

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.


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.