Summit Frost Line Rye

February 4th, 2014

“Spring,” if you want to call it that in Minnesota, is my least favorite time of year. I grew up in St. Louis. With the arrival of March came warmer weather. Not so here. Winter grinds slowly on – March, April, May… Right now as I look out the window of my office, the sun is shining and I hear birds singing. If I don’t look directly I can almost imagine 70 degrees. But then the thick snowpack reminds me that the temperature hasn’t even cracked zero.

Summit Brewing Company is trying to give us some relief. Their new in-between-seasonal Frost Line Rye is meant to fit in this interminable gray zone that falls between winter and summer. Richly malty and bracingly hoppy all at once it keeps one foot in each season. Five kinds of rye give it a spicy bite that would be refreshing in warmer weather, but seems warming in the deep-freeze.

Here’s my notes:

Bottle_Frost-Line-RyeFrost Line Rye
Summit Brewing Co., St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Rye Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle

Aroma: Hops dominate with pine, citrus, and noble-hop like spiciness. Malt stays just underneath – brown sugar, biscuit, hints of cocoa. Light orangy esters.

Appearance: Medium-amber with reddish tint. Brilliantly clear. Full stand of creamy, off-white foam. Excellent retention.

Flavor: Malt and hops are nearly in balance with malt having a slight edge; grain, cocoa, brown sugar, toffee, and biscuit that gets bolder as it warms. Rye adds a dry, spicy bite that accentuates the medium-level bitterness. Hop flavors bring orange and tangerine citrus as well as some spice. Orangy esters. Well attenuated for a dry finish, lingering on a complex mix of bitterness, toffee, and rye.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium carbonation. Slightly creamy.

Overall Impression: Layered and clean. This is a good in-between beer. It’s not quite an IPA (closer to a pale, but still not quite). Not quite a malty beer. A rye-tinged American amber ale. It’s brisk and yet comforting.

Announcing the Alliance for Beer Education

January 30th, 2014


For the past several months I have been semi-secretly working out the details of an educational collaboration with Rob Shellman at the Better Beer Society. I’ve worked with Rob on past events, most recently hosting the fall semester of Better Beer Society University at Republic 7 Corners. This new project stems from our desire to see the education that happens at Minnesota beer festivals achieve the same level of quality as the festivals themselves.

With that in mind, A Perfect Pint and Better Beer Society are excited to announce the “Alliance for Beer Education (ABE)”, a new joint project aimed at providing quality education programs for Minnesota’s beer festivals.

The increased attention to craft beer in the media has brought with it a blossoming of enthusiasm among consumers. New palates are being brought into the fold every day, many of them at beer festivals that happen through the year. Educating these new consumers has never been more important.

Rob and I are both Certified Cicerones® with a combined 11 years’ experience as beer educators. Our credits include the Better Beer Society University, BBS Brown Bag Blind Tastings, The University of Minnesota Department of Continuing Education, Cooks of Crocus Hill, Kitchen Window, and Betty Crocker, as well as countless corporate and private events.

Minnesota’s beer festivals are second to none, and we applaud festival organizers for incorporating education into their events. We look forward to bringing our passion and high level of commitment to beer education tents statewide, beginning with the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild’s Winterfest.

If you are going to Winterfest, please do check out the great programming at the education area. We’ve got some fantastic speakers lined up to cover some really interesting topics.

7:15:      Michael Agnew & Rob Shellman – Beer Basics
Where do beer styles come from? How do I get the fullest taste experience from beer? What kind of flavors am I looking for and where do they come from? Is there a right way to serve beer? Rob and I will lay out the basics to help you get the best enjoyment from every beer you sample at the fest.
7:45:      Josh Havill – The Mighty Hop
Josh Havill is an Undergraduate Research Assistant at University of Minnesota, working primarily on the University’s hop research program. He’ll be outlining the utilization, history, and botany of hops, as well as discussing the U’s research on hop growing in the Midwest.
8:15:      Gary Muehlbauer – How Beer Saved the World
Gary J. Muehlbauer is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor and Department Head in the Department of Plant Biology at the University of Minnesota.  He will be discussing the history of barley and relating it to the Discovery Channel documentary How Beer Saved the World about all the good that beer has brought, from the birth of civilization to the development of automated manufacturing.
8:45:      Michael Wagner – “The art of selecting: Choosing the right beer for you”
Michael is the Manager of Strategic Imbibing a the Four Firkins Specialty Beer Store in St. Louis Park. The world of craft beer can get a bit overwhelming with new choices arriving on local shelves literally every day. Michael will discuss the trends and changing tides of taste preferences. He’ll dispel some myths and discuss how he goes about curating choices specifically for individual people at the Four Firkins. When it comes down to it you should drink what YOU like.

An educated beer drinker is a better beer drinker, and we look forward to expanding your palate and understanding of the world’s finest beverage.

Cheers! We hope to see you at an upcoming fest.

Hacker-Pschorr Hubertus Bock and Sternweisse

January 27th, 2014

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Barbara Degnan, the international director of sales for the Paulaner brewery in Munich. Paulaner is also the brewer of the Hacker-Pschorr brand. Over a delightful breakfast at The Freehouse she filled me in on some of the things Paulaner has been up to, including the release of four new-to-the-US beers.

Like so many breweries in the United States, Paulaner is having a hard time keeping up with demand. Work on a new and larger brewery in Munich is nearly complete. It was important that the brewery be situated within the city limits so that the beer could still be served at Oktoberfest. The new brewery is a testament to the importance of water in the brewing process. Paulaner is laying pipe beneath the streets of Munich to bring water from the old location to the new. This might say something about the importance of beer to the Bavarians as well.

Import brands are also not immune to the vagaries of the current US beer market. Just like with American brewers, constant innovation is a must to keep brands front and center in the minds of consumers. With this in mind, Paulaner is bringing in four new, limited-release, Hacker-Pschorr brands spread seasonally through the year. Only 320 kegs of each will be available nationwide. Packaged beer will come in eye-catching, half-liter, swing-top bottles. While these beers aren’t new to the brewery, they are new to the US. The first, Hubertus Bock will be available in March. This will be followed by Sternweisse, Festbier, and Animator Doppelbock.

Hubertus Bock is a blond bock beer that comes in at 6.3% ABV. It’s described by the brewery as having a “robust maltiness, and a well-balanced, slightly sweet hoppy finish.” Sternweisse – which translates as “wheat star” – is a full-bodied, unfiltered, hefeweizen that is a bit darker than the well known Hacker-Pschorr wheat. I had the opportunity to sample both.

Here’s my notes:

Hubertus BockHubertus Bock
Hacker-Pschorr Bräu GmbH, Munich, Germany
Style: Blond Bock
Serving Style: 16.9 oz. bottle

Aroma: Bread and lightly toasted bread crust come even before I raise the glass to my nose. Malt dominates, but spicy hops nearly balance – licorice, mint, lemon, hints of currant and cat. Brisk and refreshing.

Appearance: Deep gold and brilliantly clear. Full head of just off-white foam. Excellent retention. Falls slowly into a dense, creamy cap.

Flavor: Like the aroma, malt is on top. Rich, with medium-low sweetness. Bread and light bread-crust flavors. Hints of honey. Hops bring spicy edge of black pepper, with undertones of blackberry. Bitterness is medium to medium-high and is accentuated by the high degree of attenuation. Finishes dry and crisp. Some alcohol is noticeable and lingers into finish along with honeyed bread and spices.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. Mouth filling. Warming. Medium carbonation. Creamy.

Overall Impression: Big, but still delicate. Has the feel of a beer slightly bigger than its 6.3% ABV, and yet remains light and refreshing. This would be equally at home with roasted game hens or honey-dripping baklava. Why is my bottle empty?!!?

Hacker-Pschorr Bräu GmbH, Munich, Germany
Style: Hefeweizen
Serving Style: 16.9 oz bottle

Aroma: Sharp, wheaty malt. Orange/lemony citrus acidity. Yeast. Bread dough. Banana and clove yeast character is subtle overall, but leans more to the spicy than the fruity. Light floral hops.

Appearance: Medium amber/orange. Nearly to dunkelweizen darkness. Quite cloudy. Opaque. Full stand of mousse-like, off white foam. Excellent retention.

Flavor: Flavor follows on the aroma. Bread crust carries over and is delightfully prominent. Subtle caramel. Yeast character is again subtle and leans to clove and spice, with banana in a supporting role. Bright, lemony acidity grabs the middle of the tongue and stays into the finish. Bitterness is medium-low, but high attenuation gives the beer a sharpness. Refreshing and crisp. Finish is very dry and lingers on lemon, wheat, and clove.

Mouthfeel: Medium to medium-light body. Pillowy and mouth filling. Some puckering acidity. Very high carbonation – effervescent.

Overall Impression: Outstanding! Delightful, citrusy wheat. I love the bright, lemony overtones. This falls somewhere between a hefeweizen and a dunkelweizen. Nice summer patio beer, but enough dark depth to be pretty darn good on a winter evening as well. Wish I had another bottle.

Day Block Brewing Co. & Destihl Brewery

January 25th, 2014

There is a lot of excitement right now around the multiplication of new Minnesota breweries. They are coming so fast and furious that I am having trouble even going to check them out. The Freehouse opened just a short while ago on Washington Avenue. I haven’t yet been to Sociable Cider Works, which started pouring at just about the same time. I still haven’t made it out to Victoria to see the guys at Enki, despite the fact that they have been open for some time. Burning Brothers will start putting their gluten-free beers on the street any day now.

Day Block Brewing Company

Day Block Brewing Company will open its doors on Monday, January 27th at 3pm. Day Block managed to snag Paul Johnston, formerly of Harriet Brewing and Lucid Brewing, as head brewer. I was under the impression that Paul had left the Twin Cities for opportunities elsewhere. I was happy to learn that he was still in town. Joe Williams from Punch Pizza is running things in the kitchen. He’s responsible for Day Block’s small but intriguing menu of specialty pizzas.

I attended a soft opening last night and had the opportunity to sample the beers and taste a pizza. The crew is working extensively with local hop growers to source ingredients for the beer. Hippity Hop Pale Ale is made with organic Cascade hops from Hippity Hop Farms in Forest Lake, Minnesota. Northern Discovery IPA uses rare Northern Discovery hops grown only on a mysterious, unnamed farm in Wisconsin. My only beef with these beers is that they needed more hops, an unusual thing for me to say given my preference for malty beers. I was told that this was because the brewery hadn’t received their full allotment of hops. That’s fine, but why Paul didn’t adjust the recipes to account for this, I don’t know. I look forward to trying future versions of these beers.

My favorite was Frank’s Red Ale, a malt-forward American amber ale. The caramel malt was nicely balanced by moderate bitterness and light citrusy hop flavors. I also liked the Day Block Porter – a little roasty, a little chocolaty, with some nice earthy and spicy background hop notes.

I had the Commie pizza (I just liked the name), a cheeseless pie with bratwurst, kimchi, and hoisin sauce. It was tasty, but the kimchi could have used a bit more zip. They said that they are still working out the kimchi recipe. The Banh Mizza was highly recommended by several people in attendance. It’s kind of a pizza version of the Vietnamese pork Banh Mi sandwich. All of Day Block’s specialty pizzas are very unique. It was difficult to choose.

Out of State Breweries

It’s not only Minnesota breweries that are causing a buzz. There are also new and exciting brands coming in from out-of-state. Oscar Blues from Lyons, Colorado debuts today at the Beer Dabbler Winterfest. Destihl Brewery from Bloomington, Illinois celebrates its Minnesota launch on Tuesday. I am particularly excited about the latter.

Destihl BreweryDestihl started as two, upscale-concept brewpubs; one in Normal, Illinois and one in Champaign. I visited both while researching my upcoming Perfect Pint’s Beer Guide to the Heartland. I was impressed by the sleek and elegant décor, the stepped-up variations on standard brewpub fare, and the well-crafted beers. Last year Destihl built a 25-barrel production facility in Bloomington that enabled them to package beer for distribution.

Destihl is especially and deservedly recognized for its St. Dekkera Reserve line of sour beers. These tart and funky creations are spontaneously fermented, unblended, single-barrel brews that stay in oak barrels from one to three years. They have won numerous medals from the Festival of Barrel Aged Beers, The World Beer Championship, and the Great American Beer Festival. I’ve had the opportunity to sample several in the line and they are good.

Destihl beers will initially be available only on draft in Twin Cities market. Sixpack cans will follow soon. St. Dekkera sours and other specialty brews will see sporadic availability, but they will be worth watching for. Destihl’s launch event is happening this Tuesday, January 28th at Smalley’s Caribbean Barbeque and Pirate Bar in Stillwater. I chatted with Destihl brewmaster Matt Potts at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival.

Traveler Beer Co. Chocolate Covered Strawberry

January 16th, 2014

Blended beer drinks have been around forever. The American colonists did it. The Brits do it. Even the purist Germans do it. One such blend of stout with hefeweizen is sometimes called Cream of Wheat. Shandy makers Traveler Beer Co. are recommending a twist on this drink – a blend of Irish stout and shandy. In particular, for Valentine’s Day they are pushing what they are calling a Chocolate Covered Strawberry – a blend of Irish stout with their Time Traveler strawberry shandy.

Like a black and tan, the lighter stout floats on top of the denser shandy, creating that black over gold layering. The mix of sturdy, wheat-beer foam with creamy, nitro-stout foam gives it a head that just won’t quit. And who doesn’t love chocolate covered strawberries?

I gave it a whirl. Here’s my notes.

Chocolate Covered StrawberryChocolate Covered Strawberry
The Traveler Beer Co., Burlington, Vermont
Style: Black & Tan made with dry stout and strawberry shandy
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle & 16 oz. can

Aroma: The strawberry very much dominates. Low, wheaty grain. Faint notes of coffee roast. Don’t see how it can be so low since the stout is floating on top, but there it is.

Appearance: Full stand of creamy, white foam. Nitro-foam cascade halfway down the glass. Excellent retention. Top layer is black and opaque – appears clear. Bottom layer is pale straw and quite cloudy.

Flavor: Strawberry fruit hits first with a bit of dry roast coming a second later. The roast gradually takes over from the strawberry with a dry bite at the top of the mouth, but that strawberry is very persistent. Bitterness is medium-low, coming mostly from the stout. The stout’s dry, bitter roastiness emphasizes and clashes with a tart acidity in the shandy. Other impressions include bitter chocolate, acrid black-malt roast, low wheat malt, and Lemon. Finish lingers on chocolate and strawberry.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium-high carbonation. Acidity grabs at and dries out the tongue.

Overall Impression: I don’t mind either the stout or the shandy by themselves. Together they are a bit of a sledgehammer of flavors. Mostly a murky mish-mash. The promo material from Traveler recommends a 50/50 split of Time Traveler shandy with a dry, Irish stout. I recommend something more like a 70/30 stout to shandy ratio. The strawberry is much subtler, making the chocolate/strawberry effect clearer. This was interesting to try once, but I’m not sure I would do it again. Nor would I necessarily recommend that you do it once. Some things just aren’t meant to be.

Bent Brewstillery’s Bartley Blume on the Merger with Pour Decisions

January 13th, 2014


On January 2nd, Pour Decisions Brewing Company and Bent Brewstillery shook the Twin Cities beer scene with the announcement that they had merged. The Pour Decisions brand was gone and the new conglomeration would henceforth be called Bent Brewstillery. Gone too, it seemed, were the Pour Decisions beers. The new marketing pushed only Brewstillery brews. I think very few beer drinkers anticipated this development. More than a few were wondering exactly what was going on.

After a more than rocky start, Roseville-based Pour Decisions launched at the State Fair in 2012. They had initially announced their existence on April 1st, 2011, but problems with municipal regulators led to a delay of more than a year before they were actually able to open. Led by multiple-award-winning, St. Paul homebrewers Kristen England and BJ Haun, Pour Decisions specialized in tweaked versions of classic styles, many of which were based on historical recipes gleaned from old brewer’s logs from some of England’s most revered breweries. They were also known for their excellent revivals of nearly extinct styles like Berliner Weiss and Gräzter. Always extraordinarily well-made, the Pour Decisions lineup was perhaps a bit esoteric for the average beer drinker.

Bartley Blume introduced the Twin Cities to his Bent Brewstillery beers at the 2013 St. Paul Summer Beer Fest. He wowed the crowd with Ghostface Fatha, a version of his strong, black ale infused with ghost peppers, the world’s hottest chili pepper. Blume’s beers were brewed under contract by Kristen at Pour Decisions. The contract arrangement was later changed to an alternating proprietorship as Bent Brewstillery became better established. Blume was in the process of adding a still at the brewery for the production of distilled spirits when the merger was announced.

The taproom at the brewery is currently closed for renovation. I’ve seen the new floor-plan and relatively big changes are coming. The taproom area will be expanded with additional tables to allow for more seating. The still will occupy a space at the front of the brewery near the taproom. The plan is to have the taproom open again in March.

I sat down with Blume at the brewery to get the low-down on the merger and the plans for Bent Brewstillery.

You come to the merger with a set of Bent Brewstillery beers that seem to be the focus of your marketing right now. I know there are a lot of fans out there of some of the Pour Decisions beers. I personally think that Patersbier was one of the best beers being made in the state. How many of those beers are going to stick around?

You know, that’s undecided as of right now. Patersbier, yes, is one of the ones that is going to stick around. It will be renamed into something else. That’s something that Kris and I agreed on as far as the name of it. It will be a patersbier; because that is really a style of beer more than it is a name of a beer. So we’re going to come up with a new name for it. It will be branded, of course, under Bent Brewstillery, but it will continue to be made.

That makes me happy.

I’m sure it makes a lot of people happy. I mean, they’ve got a really big fan base for that beer. The last thing we wanted this merger to do was piss off all the fans of Pour Decisions. So were going to definitely keep that one and who knows really what else. But that was the first and foremost decision made was that we’re keeping Patersbier; keeping that same recipe and moving forward with that.

There are others, too. Maroon & Bold will continue to be a seasonal release. It’s another great beer. We’re uncertain about Infidelity at the moment. Uncertain about St. Whatshername. The experimental stuff like that will still continue to go on. I mean a lot of the stuff that Pour Decisions has made in the past has been one-offs, never to be made again. That is the same sort of thing that we’re going to continue to do, unless it turns out to be something that’s really great and that we want to keep around. Then that turns into a year round beer, too.

Some of the sours, like the Berliner weiss?

The sours are staying around. Which ones I’m not sure. One of the things that I want to do is focus a little bit and start making larger batches of some of these great sours so that we can get them out there on shelves. Put them in 750s or even into 22s and get them on liquor store shelves, and bring them to bars and restaurants, and get them out there to more people as opposed to just being able to get it here in the taproom.

Between me and Kris we have so many ideas. The biggest challenge is pairing them down to what we want to do first, second, third and all that. That’s the beauty of having the taproom and someone who is so experienced, like Kris, as the head brewer. We will be able to make all these experimental things and try them out. Put them in the taproom and see how we like them, and then make our decisions based on that. So we’re really leaving a lot of this stuff open for basic development. As we go we’ll just feel it out and fly by the seat of our pants in this regard. That’s what keeps it exciting. It keeps it new. It keeps it fresh. It makes it interesting and keeps everyone happy.

Let me back up. How did you get into this? I don’t mean this merger. I mean this business in general. How did Bent Brewstillery come about?

About six years ago my wife bought me a Mr. Beer kit for Christmas. I brewed my first batch of beer and I was instantly obsessed. Up until then I enjoyed cooking. So I’m used to putting flavors together and that sort of thing. I’m not formally trained or anything, it’s just a natural ability to put different flavors together to make something different. Even my ravioli, it’s poured out of a can, but it doesn’t taste like ravioli out of a can when I’m done with it. I sauté onions and garlic first and dump it on top of that. I throw in rosemary and basil and all these other herbs and spices and make it something completely different. Even something as simple as that has helped fuel my desire to create beer.

After the first couple of batches of cutting the cans open and dumping stuff in I started saying, “It’s got to be harder than this.” So what’s the next harder step? That’s when I went to all-grain. I started doing all-grain batches knowing that this could potentially be preparation for a career. Not that I had made the decision right there, “I’m going to be a brewer.” It was just, why don’t I take the necessary steps that I would do if I were to become a brewer without buying a brewery and everything like that; without spending a huge amount of money.

What were you doing?

My past life? Well, my education is an electrical engineering degree from Auburn University down in Alabama. So with that I worked with NASA for quite a while. I worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs for a while. What brought me to Minnesota was a job at an aerospace company called Aero Systems Engineering. The company builds high-speed, aerodynamic test facilities, like wind tunnels and jet engine test cells. Things like that. So I started with that company as an electrical engineer and from there was promoted to a business development position with the company. I spent the last twelve years of my life as a business development manager for this aerospace and aerodynamics company. So that gave me a lot of the business background that you need to start a business like this and to grow it into what it needs to be; the exposure, the networking, the sales, the marketing, and all that sort of stuff that you need.

Engineering is one of the big three or four careers that brewers come out of.

It is. Yeah. Absolutely. And I can see why. The creativity gets stifled so much in the engineering field. And there are so many engineers who are creative and who want to have an outlet for that creativity. You think of engineers as being 100 percent right brain. A lot of them are. But the ones who have some of the left brain, some of the freedom and creativity, want to do something other than just engineering. And this is a great way to express that, because you’ve got both. You’ve got process control and the creativity in altering that process that changes the flavor of the beer. It really is the perfect segue into this sort of career. So I did that for many years and I just decided about two years ago that I was going to do this. I had done everything that I can do. My recipes are developed to the point that I think they are just right for the public. The only thing left to do besides incorporating, which I had already done, was to find a space and start building out an extremely small…at that time my business plan was to build extremely small brewery slash distillery with a very small taproom.

So how did distilling come into this?

You know, I picked up a book. I read a book. That’s exactly how it started. After that I was hooked. I read a book about it and I saw all the additional complexities to it. I saw so much room for interpretation of that process. I said, “No one is doing this here in this state.” They are all over the east coast and west coast and places like Colorado. There are all these craft distilleries. How come there are none here in Minnesota? So I look at that as another canvas to paint on. The beer canvas has been painted all over. It’s getting harder and harder to find a blank area that hasn’t been painted on already. So I saw this as another way to get out there and be creative and put some more of my ideas into the market and see what other people thought. To me it’s two things that go hand in hand. I mean really, you need a brewery in order to distill. You can’t have a distillery that doesn’t have half of it that’s a brewery. So to me it seemed like two businesses that should always be hand in hand. The scientific-ness of it, the complexity, it was just great. Brewing is cool. Everybody knows brewing is cool. But distilling, that’s sexy.

This is something that I’m not familiar with. I’ve familiarized myself pretty much with the laws around breweries and brewing. What are the legal issues with connecting a brewery and a distillery?

There are no laws against it, except that they are separate spaces. As long as the distillery proper is separated from the brewery proper, that’s really the only legal requirement. How you do that is really up to you and what your TTB (Tax and Trade Bureau) agent approves. My TTB agent approved me having an eight foot high security fence around the distillery. That was the plan here when I was going to build it in the back corner. After several months of talking with the Pour Decisions guys and telling them my woes of finding my own place for a distillery, BJ said, “Why don’t you just build it here?” So I was going to lease a little bit of space, like 500 square feet, and build my distillery back there. And talking with the TTB, as long as it’s separated and lockable, it’s fine. A lot of people read the regulations that say it has to be separated and they automatically assume the worst. They think you have to have a separate entrance, and walls, and all this other stuff. That’s really not the case. As long as it’s separate, it doesn’t have to be a separate building, or a separate door, or a separate entrance, or anything like that. It just has to be separate.

There is a brewery in Iowa that’s in a winery. It shares the space with a winery. It’s separated by a four foot chain link fence.

Exactly. That’s something that I wouldn’t mind doing as well. I would like to have the trifecta. Brewery, distillery, and winery. Why not? There’s no reason why not. What the heck. Make a little bit of everything. I make several ciders that I think are phenomenal. But it’s something that I can’t make as a brewer or distiller.

How did you initially get hooked up with Pour Decisions?

Well, originally my business plan was to have my own tiny little taproom and brewery, and to have another larger company contract brew for me for distribution. What I made on my own little, tiny, 1000-square-foot premises would only serve the taproom. The distilled products of course would be sent out because that’s the Minnesota law right now, they have to be distributed and you can’t serve them at the distillery. So the idea was I would make just enough for the taproom and I would have another brewery make the beer for distribution for bars and restaurants.

Well, I came in here soon after they were opened and started talking with Kris about it. First it was, “No. Not interested.” I come back in a couple days later or the next week. “Nope. Still not interested.” I came in a couple of weeks later and he was like, “You know what? I was talking to BJ about it the other day and he thinks maybe it’s something that might work. But we’d have to talk about all the details. It would have to be financially beneficial to us to take time out of our schedule to brew beer for you.” So that’s when it started.

We started brewing beer and things were going good. We changed to an alternating proprietorship as opposed to contract brewing. And then we had another alternating proprietorship agreement for the distillery. I just got so integrated here. Everything was good. The relationship was good and everything was rolling along pretty well. And then BJ brought up the idea, hey why don’t we merge and become one company? It’s beneficial to both of us. We don’t compete against each other now. And I think I bring a lot to the table that they were looking for. They needed an outside guy, someone to be out there, to do the promotions, and the marketing, and all that sort of stuff.

What went into the decision as to which name to take?

It was an offer on their side for me to come into this and call it Bent Brewstillery. And I agreed. I was looking for my own company. That was the thing. This is what I’m building. This is what I’m creating for my brand, my image, the distillery and all that stuff. I think they knew that was where I was going to go and they felt like it was probably best for them too to bring it not only under the brand of Bent Brewstillery, but also under my leadership. I’m the President of the new-formed – well it’s not really a new-formed company – but of the rolled-into company of Bent Brewstillery. That was another thing that was to everyone’s advantage, to have someone with business acumen become the leader of the company, become the president. Being that I already had my brand and image and everything, to roll it in under my brand just seemed to be the most logical way.

That business acumen an important part of running a brewery that some don’t have.

Very often when you have friends come together – homebrewers who want to make a business – you have to have complementary people, not similar people. You have to have someone who is logistical, someone who can do the day to day operations, and you have to have someone who will do all the other stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with brewing beer. That’s definitely one of the things that’s required in running a business nowadays. And a lot of people don’t understand the fact that a brewery isn’t just a bunch of people running around brewing beer and drinking it up. To tell you the truth, we don’t really drink that much anymore because we’re so busy doing the things that we need to get done in order to run a business. I’ve been asked that question several times, “How is it that you’re just not drunk all the time?” Well, I’m kind of too busy. I’m running a business. To tell you the truth, I’ve cut down quite a bit since all this happened. It’s a good thing, of course. I don’t miss it. I get my chances in every once in a while. There are always functions that you go to and you have a couple of beers. Things like that.  But to me this is just so much fun. I’m enjoying the hell out of it, being creative on my side of things and Kris being creative on his side of things. It’s just a blast.

This is always a hard question because I’m asking you to pigeon-hole yourself, but if you could define the overarching concept, or character, or profile of Bent Brewstillery as it is now, what would you say?

There have been several things that have been thrown around. Bent Brewstillery’s central theme has always been defying the classification of normal beers. Everything we make is a bit of a hybrid. Pour Decisions was “Innovating the traditional.” Kris has been brewing a lot of these beers that haven’t been around for years, decades, centuries; bringing some of these things back to life. So how we’re going to put those two things together is something still to be figured out. But one of the things that we like to say is that we are rebels against style. I’ve never like to be pigeon-holed. That is our pigeon-hole, that we’re not pigeon-holed. If that makes any sense.

Both of our current beers, Nordic Blonde and Dark Fatha, are hybrid beers. Somebody with a lot of experience like yourself or Kris could probably take Nordic Blonde [described as a pale ale/blond ale cross] and find a classification for it. But we like to keep it simple and make it easy to explain. Everyone knows what a pale ale is. Everyone knows what a blond ale is. You start getting into some of the more obscure classifications and people don’t really know what you’re talking about. Same for the Dark Fatha, it’s probably classifiable somewhere, but when I first brewed it I didn’t think about classification. I thought about the things I like about certain beers and combined them into what I thought was a good beer. And that’s really all we’re interested in doing is making good, drinkable beer and not being restricted or feeling like we have to be in a box around a specific style guideline. We’ll be doing the same thing with our IPA. Our IPA will be very different than other things that are out there on the market right now. At least we hope so. But that’s kind of the thing is that we don’t really want to be defined by anything in particular except that we are making beers that really aren’t defined.

I primarily write about beer and I don’t even really drink spirits except gin, but I am interested in what’s going on in the distillery side of this. Talk a little more about your plans for that part of it.

We’re going to be coming out with a whiskey [called Unpure] to start with and a gin. Those two are going to be the first two releases. In the meantime, we’ll be putting bourbon back for long-term aging. Long-term is a relative term. Whether it’s six months or twenty years, we won’t know until we start tasting it after the first few months and see what it tastes like. It’s ready when it’s ready. It’s like brisket. I cook a lot of barbeque. Brisket is done when it’s done. You don’t just stick it on there and say you’re going to take it off in thirteen hours. You take it off in six if it’s hot enough and tender enough. That’s what you’re really looking for, is when it’s done. But the whiskey is going to be an un-aged, pure-malt whiskey. We’re taking the same concepts that craft brewers use – high quality ingredients, highest care in production, not as concerned about efficiencies, but more concerned about flavor – and putting that into a spirit. I think that’s the way you get a spirit that is minimally aged and yet still tastes good and doesn’t taste like white whiskey.

Will it be a clear whiskey?

No, it won’t be.

If you’re not aging it, how are you getting color?

Good question. What I’m going to do is filter it through charred oak and charred apple wood. Both of these woods, as it’s filtering through, are going to impart color as well as filter out some of the impurities. And once it gets to the apple wood, the apple wood is going to impart some sweetness into the spirit as it comes through. So you’re going to round out the edges of a rough spirit, as well as give it the proper color that it should have. But the color really is a psychological thing. It’s a byproduct of aging in a barrel. But it’s something that’s important. It’s supposed to have the right color. It’s supposed to be pleasing, visually appealing. So we’re going to filter it through the two woods like that and get a spirit that’s drinkable right off the bat. I mean, I say un-aged. It’s going to take probably two weeks without the filtering. The filtering will probably take about a week for it to filter through all of the stuff and get to the bottom. And then also there’s a period of settling to get anything that’s in suspension settled out. Then we’ll rack off of that and into bottles. So it will still be a three week or so process.

And what about the gin? Like I say, gin is the only spirit I drink and I really like gin.

You like gin because if the juniper berries?

I like a really herbaceous gin.

Well then you might like this one. Our gin is going to have a minimum of twelve different botanicals in it besides juniper berries. We’re going to focus heavy on the aromatics. Without giving away all of my recipe, lavender will be included in our botanical list. Some citrusy things like lemon peel, grapefruit peel, that sort of stuff. A little something to help sweeten it a little on the flavor side, some Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans. We’re going to add a little bit of spiciness with some tellicherry black peppercorns and things like that. Lemongrass. Ginger. That’s a very small portion of the list of things that are going into this gin create something that’s smoother, something that’s not so focused on the juniper berry, and something that’s crafty. Just juniper in a gin isn’t quite as crafty as it could be. You can get so much more creative than that. We’re going to experiment around with that one too. We’ll probably end up aging some in a barrel. That’s something new actually. I wish I could say that I thought of that originally, but I’d heard of it happening in other places and I thought that’s a great idea. There’s just none made here yet. So getting crazy with the gin is something I’m really looking forward to.

And besides the Unpure being pure malt, it’s going to be smoked malt whiskey, so it’s going to have a fair amount of smokiness to it. It’s not the peat-smoked malt like you get from scotch. It’s going to be more of a cherry-wood, apple-wood, oak-smoked flavor from that. My recipe for bourbon is top secret at the moment, but it is also something that is off the beaten path. By definition it has to be 51 percent corn, but that’s really the only requirement. After that, go crazy with the cheese whiz. We’re going to do something a little bit different than other people do with their bourbons.

So kind of maintaining continuity with the philosophy of the brewing side.

Yes, absolutely. It would be very easy to add hops to the Unpure mash bill and create a beer out of it. We want to be true to our roots of brewing and make something that’s beer inspired. That’s where the bourbon is going to come from. The rye whiskey, we’re going to have something very different for the rye as well. We’re going to experiment will all different types of aging processes and things like that. I hope to make a brandy as well. We’re even talking about making rum out of some local sugar beets. About the only thing we can’t make is tequila. There is no natural source of agave around here. I do want to stick with local things that you would find here. If we were further south in Texas or something it would be great to make tequila, but I just don’t think it fits…

We’re in Minnesota.

Right. We’re in Minnesota. I doubt I’ll ever make vodka either.

Vodka doesn’t taste like anything. There is no point to vodka.

Exactly. That’s the way I feel, too. There’s no point. Nothing against people who make artisanal vodka, but if your goal is to make something with no color, no flavor, and no aroma, where’s the creativity? It’s what you put back in it that makes it interesting.

Magic Hat Heart of Darkness Stout

January 8th, 2014

It’s winter. It’s been really cold outside. It’s good stout-drinking weather. That’s all I’ve got to say.

Here’s my notes:

Magic Hat Heart of Darkness StoutHeart of Darkness Stout
Magic Hat Brewing Company, South Burlington, Vermont
Style: Stout
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle

Aroma: Medium-level, dry, black-malt roastiness. Licorice and black coffee. Some light-molasses and brown sugar sweetness balances the roast. Low, toasted-bread notes fill in the background. No hops.

Appearance: Black, nearly opaque with ruby-red highlights. Appears clear. Moderate head of creamy, beige foam with larger bubbles interspersed. Moderate retention.

Flavor: Creamy dark chocolate kicks things off with some black-malt, dry roastiness that comes in midway. A touch of caramel sweetness tempers the roast. Bitterness is medium-low from both hops and roasted malt. Low earthy hop flavors with light citrus overtones. Secondary notes of coffee grounds, licorice, dark fruits, and berries. A hint of roasted malt acidity. The dry finish lingers on roast.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium carbonation. Low creaminess.

Overall Impression: A smooth stout that falls somewhere between BJCP styles. It’s not quite sweet, not quite dry, and not hoppy enough to be called American. I like the light, background toasty-bread notes of Munich malt. I’m munching on some cheese as I drink this. What I’m missing though is a good, mild, blue cheese. It would be very good with this beer.

Pour Decisions Maroon and Bold

December 30th, 2013

I’m going to make a confession. I’m getting tired of beer. Not the beverage itself, but the current hype surrounding it. I’m tired of the Facebook pages on which people post gloating pictures of the hyper-rare beer they are drinking in order to make others feel envious. I’m not really all that interested in this or that brewery’s new release. Beer festivals hold less and less appeal. The rate of brewery openings has become exhausting. I long for the day when drinking a beer was just that, and not some monumental event that had to be contemplated, documented, and elevated to the status of “experience.”

It was in this mindset that I pulled a bottle of Pour Decisions Brewing Company’s Maroon and Bold from my refrigerator. My intent was to just drink it while watching episodes of Green Acres on Hulu. Indeed, episode 17 of season 2 had already begun when I took the first sip. This was not a typical imperial IPA. Pour Decisions claims to “innovate tradition.” That’s just what was going on here. The flavor was so familiar, and then again not. Damn! I was going to have to contemplate.

Here’s my notes:

Maroon and BoldMaroon and Bold
Pour Decisions Brewing Company, Roseville, Minnesota
Style: Imperial IPA
Serving Style: 22 oz. bottle

Aroma: Malt plays a big role. Toffee and a bit of toasted biscuit. Caramel, but more dry than sweet. Next to that and in almost equal balance (but not quite) are citrusy hops. Estery – oranges and maybe even raisins. It has an English kind of funk.

Appearance: Dark amber with a reddish cast. It is actually kind of maroon. Brilliant. Moderate, rocky, just-off-white foam with good persistence.

Flavor: There’s that malt again. Toast, toffee, caramel, biscuit. Malty, but not sweet. Like the aroma, the malt is in near equal balance with the hops – citrus, pineapple and pine resin. Super-high attenuation accentuates the bitterness, which has a sharp, stony character. That English yeasty funk carries over from the aroma, leaving nice orange marmalade overtones.

Mouthfeel: Medium to medium-full body. Medium-high carbonation. Crisp, not creamy.

Overall Impression: I wasn’t going to write this beer up, but drinking it made me want to take some notes. It’s unique for a DIPA, not typically my favorite style. Malt has clearly been given equal attention with the hops. That’s my kind of DIPA. This would be a great hoppy beer to pair with desert. I could see drinking this with raisin spice cake.

Schell’s Stag Series #8: August’s Bock

December 18th, 2013

The folks at August Schell Brewing Company have been busy little brewers. They’ve released a bevy of new bevis in the last little bit. I’m having a hard time keeping up. Seems I totally missed out on the fresh-hop brew this year. I did manage to snatch a couple bottles of the Stag Series #8 and Snowstorm. Now if I could just stay home a night or two so that I could taste all this beer.

Schell’s Stag Series #8: August’s Bock is a collaboration brew with the Brauerei Gold-Ochsen (Golden Ox Brewery) in Ulm, Germany. There some interesting commonalities between these two breweries. Both are family owned by fifth generation decedents of men named August. Then there is the obvious Ulm/New Ulm connection. Between them they have nearly 570 years of brewing experience. Gold-Ochsen was founded in 1597 and Schell’s in 1860.

The beer is brewed in the Heller Doppelbock style. The recipe was worked out collaboratively by the brewmasters at each brewery. Each one brewed the beer using their local base malts, but the same specialty malts from Weyermann Malting in Germany. The hop bills were the same – Tettnang, Saphire and Smaragd hops from the Tettnang region of Germany located near the Gold Ochsen Brewery – except for the dry-hop additions. Gold Ochsen dry hopped their version with Mandarina Bavaria hops and the Schell’s Brewery used a German variety, Polaris.

Here’s my notes:

Schell's Stag Series #8: August's BockSchell’s Stag Series #8: August’s Bock
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota & Gold Ochsen Brewery, Ulm, Germany
Style: Helles Bock
Serving Style: 12 oz. Bottle

Aroma: Thick pilsner malt sweetness with tones of honeyed bread and faint stone fruits. Medium hop aromas – spicy and floral. Cinnamon and fancy soap. A bit of marijuana. Alcohol is apparent.

Appearance: Deep gold with an orange tint. Brilliantly clear. Moderate head of creamy, off-white foam with moderate retention.

Flavor: Very balanced between malt and hops. Malt leads slightly – again with honeyed bread character. Light red apple notes. Hop bitterness is medium, with a sharpness that catches on the way out. Floral and spicy hops flavors offer contrast that cuts the sweetness of the malt – cinnamon and flowers. Maybe a tad catty. A hint of alcohol. Finish is off-dry with lingering floral and honey flavors.

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

Overall Impression: A lovely balance of rich, honey-like malt and flowers. So much floral hop flavor. Almost too much for me. Almost, but not quite. I want that malt to come through. Big and yet still light and refreshing. The enhanced hop bitterness and flavor cuts the sweet to keep it that way.

Geoff Larson of Alaskan Brewing Company

December 12th, 2013

alaskan logoJuneau, Alaska is a forbidding place to open a brewery. It is accessible only by plane or boat. It stays mostly dark for half the year. And then there is the cold. But that is exactly what Geoff and Marcy Larson did. And not only did they open a brewery in Juneau, Alaska, they founded Alaskan Brewing Company in the early 1980s, a time when the whole idea of “craft” brewing was an anomaly. What were they thinking?

I vividly remember the first time I tasted Alaskan Amber Ale. It was several years ago while on tour with my theatre troupe. That beer was on the list at the restaurant where we were eating dinner. The first sip was an “oh my god” experience for me. It was so creamy, rich, and full of caramel. I immediately became a fan of the brewery, even more so when a couple years later I finally got to try Alaskan Smoked Porter, a beer with a reputation that made it seem legendary. I’m still a fan. Alaskan Winter Ale is one of the winter seasonal brews that I wait for every year.

I actually did this interview with Geoff Larson in November, 2011. You know, sometimes you get busy and things just slip by. We sat at Republic (was it still Sargent Preston’s then?) sipping Alaskan Winter and eating sausages. Over the course of our hour-long conversation we talked about the history of the brewery and of the beer industry in Alaska. He revealed how over 2000 pounds of spruce tips are collected to make Winter Ale every year. And just as a warning, we got pretty geeky about smoke. The interview may be two years old, but it’s as relevant today as it was then.

Geoff & Marcy Larson

Geoff & Marcy Larson

You opened Alaskan Brewing at a time when small breweries were still fairly rare, and in a place where they were even rarer. What made you think that was a good idea?

The experience I could draw from was the openness, and support, and almost “can do” – I hate to be cliché in that way – attitude that most people in Alaska have. You are living in the last frontier. You get a feeling of the last frontier. You’re exposed to what were, in the very recent past historically, really unbelievable pioneering stories that were successes. So I think there is a predisposition for people to say, “Yeah, that sounds like it can be done. Go for it.”

It tapped into the spirit of the place, in a way.

Yeah. And the mean age at the time was 27. Half of the population was younger than us. I mean, that’s just amazing. We were living in an extraordinarily contemporary, youthful, optimistic environment. It wasn’t necessarily all optimistic at the time. When we started interest rates were at sixteen percent. Sixteen percent is what our first bank loans were for inventory. That was the mid-80s. But I would say that once we started talking about the idea, in Alaska there was a lot more support. There wasn’t anybody that just laughed and walked away saying, “Well that’s stupid.” There was a real supportive feel towards young people.

I can see how that would tap into the spirit of the place. Like you said, until very recently it was pioneer.

Yeah. You know in 1900 Juneau was just coming into its own because they found gold there. And it is a dynamic place. I think there are those elements of hitting something insurmountable, unbelievably large challenges, and saying, “Yeah, we did that.” You know, a mine opening up in the back country. “Yeah, we’ll do that.” I’m going to go climb McKinley. “Okay. You can do that.” I’m going to go fishing and catch a 200-pound halibut. “Oh, okay. I wouldn’t mind a little bit of that.” I was kind of raised that way, in many ways. My parents were always really supportive of what we did as kids. Not towards the brewery. Both Marcy and I come from somewhat teetotaling families.

How did they feel about you opening a brewery?

Oh, I think they would have preferred us choosing a different focus in life. But I think really what was part of that step-wise transition towards getting into the industry was meeting people in the industry who had this reservoir of respect and feeling of being part of something larger than themselves. When we were about to move to Alaska I would swing by a brewery in New York, FX Matt Brewing Company, and FX Matt III spent an entire day with me. Here I was 24 years old. And this is 1982 or 1983. He didn’t sit there and say, “You’re 24. Get out of here. Get a job.” But he did say, “If you do start making beer commercially, make the best beer you can, because you reflect on all brewers.” I thought that was kind of a distillation of what he was talking about. At this place in our history, you are representing all those that came before you.

I think that is still good advice now. If you look at the boom that’s happening right now, some of it is great beer, some of it isn’t very good beer. And it does reflect on everybody.

And definitely in the 1990s you saw that manifested in consumers. Because consumers say, “Well I’ve got to try this category.” And there were a lot of people producing anything. Put it in a bottle and it will sell. And they were right. But it would sell once. The problem was the consumer was ignorant, and would taste this and rightfully so say, “I don’t like this.” And then they judge the whole category. But I have to say those steps towards the feeling that there’s more to it than just making beer really were kind of an interesting genesis.

What were the challenges of opening a brewery in Juneau and what are the challenges now of running a brewery in Juneau, being as it is a place that you can’t reach except by plane?

What were the challenges? Well, it was more a challenge of the times, because it was still a very novel concept. “Oh, you’re going to make a beer and it’s going to be cheap. Great.” And they are thinking price, but I’m seeing implications of low-quality ingredients, price, and low-quality beer. And I was like, “No, we’re going to do something totally different.”

There is an interesting dichotomy in Alaska. There are a lot of alcohol issues that occur in the native communities. They are going through a cultural change away from a totally subsistence lifestyle. And part of that transition is coming into the social norms of what would be reasonable use of an adult beverage. So there was a fairly significant part of Health and Social Services who were concerned about, “Oh, we don’t need a whole bunch of cheap beer being put forth.” So we reached out and talked to those folks and said, “Hey, this is what we’re going to do. What can we do so that we don’t inadvertently do something stupid? What do you see as something that we could avoid?” Open dialogue.

Back then, finding equipment was tough. There was no real infrastructure to supply it. There was stuff that you could pull together. But my background was chemical engineering. I understood how to do things. I knew the right way. I think up front we kind of knew that we weren’t going to have a lot of forgiveness where we are, so we at least need to do things correctly and as efficiently as possible. It’s not like we can just get in the car and drive to get a rebuild kit for a motor. So I’d say we probably invested in some pretty good equipment up front to overcome some of those challenges.

Other challenges? I’d say supply chain. You order today it’s not going to ship and get there until seven days later. That’s still a problem, but in that problem there was a little bit of a benefit. We always had to make sure that we knew the logistics of getting stuff and plan ahead. So again, the challenge created more of a systematic approach. It wasn’t like we could go, “Oh hell. I’ve got to order today.” No, it was, “I’ve got to order for next week.” So it was some training early on that made our lives a little easier down the road.

Once again it’s that Alaskan self-reliance.

But fast forward to today and some of those challenges are still there. But I would say we are in a small community. We’ve always been in a small community. We’ve always been really attuned to our impacts. Early on we talked to the city water department, telling them our expectations for the next five years. “Is this going to cause any issues or growth challenges for you? Because obviously if you can’t supply us, we ain’t growing.” And every five years we try to say, “Okay, this is our forecast.” to our water utility.  And I’d say that we’re mindful of that even in the equipment that we buy. We exercise an awareness of how we fit into the larger fabric of our community.

You just talked about something that led me to one of the questions that I had. You have this whole focus on sustainable practice. Where did this desire to emphasize sustainability come from?

We moved to Alaska because we love the out-of-doors, and the out-of-doors in Alaska is pretty breathtaking. And there have been many times in the backcountry when we really have gotten that maybe mythical feeling. “My god, I could be the first person here.” I say that and I have images of specific times I’ve been in that zone. I’ve been to places where I know that no one has been in many years. We have a lot of land coming back from glacial recession, so there are areas where we were camping and it’s really a very fragile environment. You can’t help but think, “We made an impact.” No matter how careful you were, you made a big impact. But I think that sense of connectivity is really part of our state. Subsistence lifestyle is something that people talk about because there is truly a very significant part of our population who live off the land. So when you talk about sustainability it goes back to that, just walking in the woods. We live there because we love it, and I think that there is a certain sense of husbandry and nurturing that comes to you from the get-go.

As far as the brewery itself, I think sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. You know? If you’re wasteful, guess what, you’ve got to buy more of things. You’ve got to ship more of it, and you’ve got to get it up here. So sometimes it’s just common sense. But I think another element that drives Alaskan Brewing is that we’re in a place that challenges the standard way of doing things. You have to say, “Okay, that’s what everybody else does. Is that what we’re going to do?” Sometimes innovation just all of a sudden occurs. Innovation is a departure from the norm; a departure from the norm to improve something. Sometimes the norm has already created those little boundaries of your perception. I’m going to build a square box to live in as a house. Well, what about a yurt? If all you saw around you were square boxes, you wouldn’t even think about a round structure. How do you make round structures with 2x4s? That doesn’t make sense. They’re square. So I think that’s part of it, too. It’s just that we’re in a challenging environment and maybe what other people do we just can’t do. Or maybe we just don’t think about it that way. For instance, our recovery of the carbon dioxide off the fermenting beer when we were at a very small size was unheard of in this country.

That’s something that a lot of people do now.

A fair amount do, but I’m surprised at the craft industry. I think there are only like one or two of the craft breweries that do it besides us. It really surprised me. But we did it just a few years into our operation. One advantage that it creates is that we know the CO2 source. The primary CO2 source that people buy CO2 from is all fossil fuel. They’re burning fossil fuel and then purifying it. It’s really hard to purify it totally when you’re starting with hydrocarbons burning. So the fact that our CO2 comes from fermentation, you know what? It’s pretty easy. Not to say that you can’t have off flavors. You can have DMS and stuff like that coming in from the CO2, so you go through the purification process. But you’re still dealing with naturally occurring yeast by-products, not a whole bunch of aromatic hydrocarbons or other sort of cross links. Petroleum products.

How else has location influenced your brewing?

Marcy did a lot of work looking at some of the historical breweries before prohibition, mainly as kind of a pictorial essay – her training is in photojournalism – of where does beer lie and why is it even relevant in Alaska. It was really an interesting side trip that we took. What we found was that there were a lot of breweries in Alaska before prohibition. And obviously most of the brewing traditions came from the influx of white men going in for the gold. The gold rush attracted people from all over the world and they brought in brewing traditions. But they had additional challenges, many of the same challenges we face today. They had logistical issues. They had environmental issues.

How do you overcome the water or the temperature etc.?

Absolutely. So I think that was another little bit of inspiration for us. We looked at history as a guide to remain relevant today. Why are we in Alaska? Why brew beer in Alaska? Why not brew it down south and ship it to Alaska and call it Alaskan? We have a fundamental ethos that we’re going to brew it in Alaska. That’s one of the most common questions that we get is, “Where are you brewed?” And there’s incredulity in their eyes when we say, “Well we brew it in Juneau, Alaska.”

There were five operating breweries in Juneau at the turn of the century. There are a lot of photographs of them. But one of the breweries, the brewmaster was interviewed and he talked about his trials and tribulations of keeping the fermenters warm enough so that the ale could ferment fully. And that gave us insight into the cold fermentation of our ale. And then we got a phone call from a fellow by the name of Nick Nichols. He was a collector and he had bar tokens. And those were the coinage of the realm because they didn’t have a lot of coins. You know, you would bring in your gold nugget, they’d weigh it, and you’d get 50 tokens. So there is a lot of token collecting up there. But he had a treasure trove of files from the Douglas City Brewing Company, including shipping invoices for raw materials. So we could put together the raw materials with the interviews to try and emulate what might have been the beer that was brewed.

See this is interealaskan ambersting, because I didn’t realize this until I was prepping for this interview that Alaskan Amber was inspired by the history of the Alaskan brewing industry.

Obviously we’re challenged. We couldn’t say that we have his yeast and all that. We could give ratios of crystal malt and pale malt, but what’s crystal malt? Back then they didn’t say 20 Lovibond, 40 Lovibond, 60 Lovibond. You get verbal descriptions of hues, but those are subjective descriptors.

That’s always a problem when trying to recreate historical recipes.

Right. But even the beer we’re drinking right now (Alaskan Winter Ale) is inspired by Captain Cook, 1778. Captain Cook was very meticulous. His journal entries are phenomenal. He’s quite a remarkable man when you think about what he did. But he was also an adamant brewer on board. We had a chance to work with one of our local historical societies and they helped us do a lot of research into what Captain Cook said in his journals about brewing on board. We found fourteen references to where he used spruce in making beer on board. Not all of them were successful. He had a couple references in his journals in regards to literally his “mutinous” crew not being very satisfied with his beer and refusing to drink it. But that particular batch was where he used the boughs of a spruce tree. He was taking whole limbs of the spruce tree, chopping them up, and throwing them in there. So they proWA-bottlepint-smbably did taste like turpentine. And then there was one reference where he talked of his crew being especially appreciative of the beer that he made. It was from the new growth of the spruce tree. And that first growth, the spruce tips, really is that first flush of nutritive, high sugar content sap. I’ve tasted blue spruce. That’s not as tasty in the spring. But Sitka spruce, literally I’ll be going through the forest and I’ll be munching on the tips. They’re very citrusy. There is a tartness to them. And then there’s also a real floral character to them. But anyway, our Winter Ale is a kind of old ale – old as in “olde” – but with spruce as a component in its spicing. Captain Cook used the spruce tips as a replacement for hops. Because of course he’s going out there on the ocean for a long time. What’s interesting about spruce tips is that they are very high in vitamin C. And of course in beer you have the whole vitamin B complex from the yeast. Today you can brew any beer, any place, any time, but it’s kind of fun to sit there and rediscover that which is relevant to your past. I think we’re living in extraordinarily amazing times as consumers of beer. But I think it’s all been rediscovered.

So a question crossed my mind as you were talking. I don’t know how much Winter Ale you make, but how do you possibly get enough spruce tips to make enough of this beer?

Very good question. It’s actually a really interesting process. When Marcy and I moved to Alaska we lived in a town called Gustavus. We have a friend there who has a processing plant for mainly fish, for smoking fish and stuff like that. So we’ll send her the number of pounds of spruce tips we’re going to buy for brewing that year, and we’ll buy them at the spot price for hops. She puts out a little sandwich sign. It coincides with about when school lets out for the year, so these kids go out and start picking spruce tips. We have a little descriptor of how they should pick them for the health of the tree. You are pruning a tree, so it actually is healthy for the tree. It has to be on private land. It can’t be on public land because we have a lot of national parks and a lot of forest service land, so it has to be on private land. So they go out and pick. It’s wild. I went over there to visit and she says, “I’ve just got to show you this box.” It’s a little 3 x 5 box of cards. So she takes out one of her clients. It’s a kid, so she has the entries of his pickings. The first entry is like three ounces. Spruce tips are very small. They’re tiny. And he’s out there working away. The next week it gets up to be a pound and a half. By the end of the week it’s like four and a half pounds in a day. We’re talking hops are five to ten bucks a pound, so this little kid is getting twenty bucks. The next week, six pounds. Eight pounds. The spruce tips are getting larger. And by the end of the week what’s happening is that the amount we’re buying is going down rapidly, but the amount of poundage coming in is going up rapidly. By the end he was bringing in 15 to 20 pounds. I’ve had so many parents come up and say to me that it’s amazing. Kids get out of school, and all of a sudden there’s a three week stretch of absolute entrepreneurial, I’m getting outside, I’m getting up early in the morning and going out picking spruce tips. They said it sets the tone for the entire summer. The kids are like, “what can I do outside?” But that’s how we get the spruce tips. And we get a lot more than 2000 pounds. We get a lot more. And we’ve been doing this for a number of years. It’s hilarious. I go to Gustavus and I know the yards that have been picked from.

alaskan smoked porter

So Alaskan Smoked Porter. I have to tell you that one of the greatest beer experiences of my life was at the Craft Brewers Conference in Chicago a couple years ago. At the reception before the World Beer Cup awards banquet there is this huge trough of beer from all over the world; all of the World Beer Cup entries. As if that weren’t enough, I’m standing at the trough trying to decide what I want to try when a woman next to me pulls out a bottle and says, “That will work.” It was 1998 Alaskan Smoked Porter. It was awesome. But it’s counterintuitive that that beer should age as well as it does. It’s not an 11% barleywine, it’s a 6.5% porter. It should stale. Why doesn’t it?

Well, you know smoke has been used for ages as a preservative. Now maybe indirectly people would say that it’s the drying process where you’re concentrating the salts, which are also a preservative in meats. But actually there are a fair amount of interesting characteristics in smoke. It’s a pretty complex substance. There are a lot of phenols, furfurals…I could go on. My background is chemistry, so I could really go off on a tangent on that one. But a lot of them are bacteriostatic. Not necessarily bactericidal, but they tend to inhibit all growth. They don’t necessarily kill bacteria. But with bacteriostatic – the Latin root “static” means “staying” – it doesn’t allow growth. But there is also a class of compounds that are antioxidants. There is a characteristic oxidation that takes place in the smoked porter, like kind of the dried fruit character of ports and the like, you know, plums, dried cherries and whatever, that comes through in the oxidation of the roasted malts. But I really do think a lot of its age stability is from those smoke compounds that are antioxidants that prevent it from becoming like cardboard. The ugly side of oxidation.

But I have to admit, when we first made that beer – the first year we released it was 1988, December of 1988 – we said, “Well we can’t put 1988 on it in December. By January it’s going to be 1989, people are going to say, ‘Well it’s old.’” So we put that first release as 1989, because beer is best when fresh. We were really fixated on, “This is a porter. It’s not a barleywine. It can’t age.” So we were of the same mindset.

But of course, we’re passionate about what we do, so we keep the beers around. We crack one every once in a while. And after a few years it was like, “Wow. These older beers are good.” So it was at GABF 1992, I got a few people together in my room where I could actually go back to 1989, which was actually the 1988 vintage, and taste a series of beers and ask their opinion. I had the opportunity to have Michael Jackson in on the tasting with Fred Eckhardt, Charlie Papazian, and some others. It was a pretty heavy-hitting group. But I asked them, “What do you think?” And I had them taste the beers and there was a rounding endorsement. “This ages elegantly.” Actually Michael Jackson later said to me, “One thing you might want to think about. Don’t filter out the yeast. Leave the yeast in. It’s a living beer, so let life stay there.”

Which also helps curb oxidation.

Right. So from 1993 on, we stopped filtering that beer. And we kept a library at the brewery, so we have beers all the way back to 1993. And it’s interesting, because obviously the dynamics of flavor change is, simply put, you have smoke that’s actually kind of diminishing over time, but not at a real rapid rate. Maybe it’s really rapid for the first year. There is a real sharp decline of certain characteristics of the smoke that first year. You’ll find that even in Bamberg where they try to keep the same smoke characteristic throughout the year. They can’t smoke malts in the summer, so during the summer they will actually add more and more of their smoked malts to get the same sort of smoke character in their beer. But what happens is that after years the smoke diminishes, so when I do vertical tastings I always recommend that people go from the oldest to the youngest. The aromatics of hops will disappear. That goes fast. In 18 months to two years it will be really hammered. The bitterness also decreases over time. But then you have some of the unique oxidation components that elevate over time. So there is a real dynamic and it’s really fun. It wasn’t intuitive that it could age. But it did.

I think when you said it ages elegantly, that’s a good way to put it. I did have the opportunity at GABF to taste through a three year vertical sampling. Older is better. Not that the new isn’t perfectly good. But older is better.

The Brewers Association asked me to write a book on smoked beers. They got me together with Ray Daniels to write this book. What an experience. I had an experience that was truly life impacting. I called up the Library of Congress and asked them, “I’m writing a book about smoke flavored beers. Living in Alaska, how would I go about getting research information from the Library of Congress?” So I got the culinary science research librarian. Of course, they have such. And he said, “Quite frankly the library of Congress is probably not your best resource. But there are three collections that you are looking for, that have been sold and are probably in the public domain. But we don’t know where they are.” He gave me the name of these three collections and I went to the one that they had record of and I tracked it down. It was called the Hurty-Peck Collection. The wealthiest beverage manufacturer in 1900. He’d been making soft drinks for 100 years. He was extraordinarily wealthy and he decided to collect every book ever written in the English language having to do with any beverage. So he had this collection of English books. It was the University of California-Davis that had finally bought it. So I went there and spent three days immersing myself in this collection of books. I was in awe. I was holding texts that were written and printed in the 1600s. The 1500s. I’m going through and I’m looking for references to smoke. But there was a research librarian that was asking me what I was writing about and he said, “You are the first person who has ever asked for this collection. We’ve had it for three years. When it came into our shop it had the most intense, sickeningly sweet raspberry smell.”

Soda maker.

Soda maker, but from 1900! How in the world did it hold the smell that long? A hundred years! But this librarian said, “You have to put yourself back in that time and you have to be understanding of what they’re writing about and how they’re writing.” He says, “For example, you’re reading texts from the 16th-century, the 17th-century, and the 18th-century. In the 16th and 17th-century for sure, who was doing all the brewing? And where were they brewing?” Well, it’s going to be on farms. Farm brewing. “Well who was doing it?” And I was like, “Well…brewers.” He says, “Women. The women were in the kitchen brewing. But women weren’t taught to write. So who was writing these books? It was men. So were men being real attentive to how women were brewing in the kitchen? Possibly not. So you have to be very careful about what you take as far as research and how much credence you put into it.” And I was like, “Oh, got it.” It was like, “Aha!”

But I was kind of frustrated because I couldn’t find positive references toward smoke in these texts. If they had a reference toward smoke it was usually negative. Well, I’m not going to write a book about bad things about smoke. Well in 1600 or 1700 you walk down any street and what did you smell? Smoke. You go to any kitchen and what do you smell? Smoke. Everything had smoke. The reason they mention smoke is when it is unusually intense. Even when we made the Smoked Porter originally, too much of a good thing wasn’t pleasant. So really there’s a balance; hedonistic balances about hitting that threshold where it’s really very appealing but not going overboard.

Pleasant and not oily.

Yeah. And they talked about specific woods having different character and specific sources of heat that they used to dry out the malt that were very pleasant or not very pleasant. But that’s the other thing that was very interesting too is the flavor association thing. Alder is the wood that we used to make the smoked beer in Alaska, because that’s the hardwood that’s available. Many of the breweries in Juneau were brewing and malting companies. They malted their own. So really the smoked porter was again a touch of the history of our locale. But each wood has its own signature. And I would often get asked about the fish flavor of the smoked porter. We clean the smokehouse really well. There is no fish involved. I would go to the tenth degree of being defensive about that. I didn’t get it until a friend of mine, Greg Noonan from the Vermont Pub & Brewery told me his story. He was using hickory in his smoked porter. And he said, “People always thought I used ham. I finally got so sick and tired of that I started to go to maple. Then they started thinking that I was using sausage. Jimmy Dean’s Maple Smoked Sausage.” And that’s when I was like, “Flavor association.” Smoke is not the same from one wood to the other.

No, it’s absolutely not the same. If you think of the beechwood smoke from the Schlenkerla Rauchbier, all the Bamberg rauchbiers, that to me is like bacon, or it’s got that kind of oily ham thing. Cherrywood smoke is really popular now and that to me is char. That’s the best way that I can describe it. It’s not meat related, it’s char. I had a cherrywood smoked bock at the Goose Island Brewpub in Chicago and if I didn’t know better I would have sworn they used chipotle in it. It had that kind of a flavor without the heat. So how would you describe the flavor you get from the alder wood?

Well, my god. There’s a lot that goes on in the pyrolysis of wood degradation.

That’s your chemistry background coming out.

(Laughs) Well you have the hemicellulose, and the cellulose, and the lignin. And each of them creates a specific class of compounds. But because it’s a hardwood, there’s less lignin.

I’m just looking for flavor.

But interestingly enough, the types of phenols that come out from burning wood, there is some eugenol, which is clove. There is a fair amount of guayacol, which is the phenol from a lot of the traditional German wheat beers. But there is also a whole other set of compounds. There are a lot of vanillins. You get that with a lot of fresh, toasted oak. It adds the flavor impacts on any beverage that gets exposed to it. Even on bourbons and stuff you’ll get the vanillins.

That’s a really tough question… I would say the alder has a…It’s a less acrid set of flavors. Greg Noonan talked about it, and he was really familiar with hickory. He talked about it being much more phenolic in character, much more of that sharper kind of eugenol character.  I wouldn’t have said that, but hell, he’s around it more than I am so I’m going to trust his opinion. But I would say that the alderwood works really well just because of its tendency not to be so overbearing in some of those acrid notes. I also think there isn’t a huge amount of aftertaste. You talked about it being oily and it just overwhelms. But I think alder doesn’t do that as much. You can get it there, but…

That’s a tough question. I will pose that to my gang. How would you describe the character of alder smoke?

With my company A Perfect Pint I do beer tasting events and beer education. I’m always looking for ways to describe flavor. What does this taste like? How is this flavor different from that flavor?

Of course we all know that there are arguably four or five taste sensations in your palate. I guess it’s no longer arguable. They talk about umami being the fifth one. But aromatics, that’s where flavor is. And I’ve seen gas chromatograph readouts of various smokes, and we’re talking four, five, six hundred individual peaks. The primary one in wood burning, the largest peak other than water from pyrolysis is acetic acid. So when people ask me for advice on how to smoke grains, one of the pieces of advice that I’ll always give is that you’ve got to make sure that you dry the grains out totally, because what you want to do is drive off the acetic acid. Otherwise you will get acetic acid, which is typically really easily discerned and not necessarily pleasant. If you dry the grain totally the acetic acid will be gone. It will volatilize off. No problem.

I would not have associated acetic acid with smoke.

I was smoking malts out the wazoo. I was using corncobs for smoking malts. We brewed a whole bunch of different beers with different smoke sources. Corncob. Sassafras wood. All sort and manner of smoke sources. Straw. So we were just trying to get a different flavor. Ray (Daniels) and I were trying to discern sensory-wise is every smoke that different? Can somebody just pick it out? Ray set it up so that I would smoke the malt. I’d send it to him. He’d brew the batches of beer and he would send me dual trials. He wouldn’t tell me what it was. Then we would have our panel taste it. And our panel would look for what was the same. It wasn’t necessarily what was different, because it was all smoke character, but which two are the same and which is the oddball. He sent us seven sets and we nailed each one. So I’m convinced. Every source of wood is going to put out a different characteristic smoke that can be easily discerned.

One last question. What turns you on about making beer?

You know, originally I would say that it was an undiscovered flavor platform. People had no idea that there was something more than just this blond, wet beverage that was called beer that would give you more than just that sort of experience. And then having exposure to all these other imported beers and our homebrew really kind of gave me a great platform to talk about flavors. In the past I often would talk about how it’s easy for people to describe Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. You can do it verbally. You can do the swirls, the paint, the yellows and blues in the background. There is the little village nestled in the mountains. Whatever. Everybody is thinking the exact same thing. You see it in your mind. But when you talk about flavors, when you describe that very powerful sensory organ that we have, we have kind of relegated it to just being, “Oh. I’ve got to eat. I’m gonna stuff it down my throat.” It’s an ignored sensory platform. And here we are creating something to be able to appeal to that sense hedonistically. It’s just a wonderful little playground of creative reward that you get from your consumer.

And I have to admit, some of the most extraordinary experiences are going into halls and people are coming up to me – they don’t know me – and saying, “Have you tasted this? You’ve got to taste this.” And having personal experiences where it’s like, “Oh wow. That’s just beautiful. That’s elegant.” So I would say that those are the experiences that rewarded me early on. And you know, I still get those. So in some ways it’s still those magical canvases of flavors that are still being discovered. I still get a kick out of that.

I get a kick also from just thinking back on history. We’re rediscovering something that was as pleasurable back then as it is today. We suffer under a misconception that we are living in times that are unique and different than any others that go before us. I look at some of the technological feats of some of our predecessors in Alaska and what they did back then. We ain’t that great. But at the same time, it doesn’t diminish our own pleasure.