Smoked, Grilled, and Sauced: A Beer and Wine Pairing Experience

Friday night I co-taught a wonderful class at Cooks of Crocus Hill in St. Paul. My co-presenters for the class were Chef Mike Shannon and Level III Sommelier Leslee Miller. Thirty-six guests were treated to a five-course meal of grilled and smoked delights each paired with either a beer or a wine. The final two courses were paired with both. As we ate and drank our way through the deliciousness the three of us traded off explaining the pairings, offering up knowledge, and weaving tales about our respective passions.

As we offered our introductions, guests enjoyed a light, sparkling, wine from Portugal. Famega Vinho Verde was a delicious white with a gentle touch of spritz and fantastic strawberry and pear fruit. I had to comment when Leslee mentioned that its 9.5% ABV made it a “low-alcohol wine that you could drink quite a bit of in an evening.” Coming from the world of beer, when we get above 8% we start talking about strong beers that have to be consumed in moderation.

The first dish that Chef Mike offered up was a twist on the traditional Cobb salad with lightly sauced pulled pork in place of the chicken. I paired this with Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier. Hefewizen pairs well with egg and cured meats, so it was a natural with the boiled egg and bacon on the salad. My main concern was that it wouldn’t stand up to the pulled pork. Guests however commented that the spicy yeast character of the beer really pulled out the flavors of the pork while the full wheaty/yeasty mouthfeel was able to hold its own against it.

The next course was a smoked salmon pizza with Asiago cheese. Leslee paired this with Croatian Korta Katarina Plavac Mali Rosé. This was another light, fruity wine with strawberry and rhubarb notes. It managed to stand up well to the assertive Asiago cheese and the smoked salmon brought out smoky notes in the wine that were not there when tasted alone.

The next course was mine to pair, a grilled Jamaican jerk chicken with a fruity/spicy Caribbean slaw. I paired this with Meantime IPA. The citrus and stone fruit flavors played well with the fruit of the slaw while the hops brought out the spice. This is a balanced English IPA with enough malt to knock heat back again on the way down.

After a short break we returned for the dish that I was really anticipating, a middle-eastern seasoned lamb chop with tomatoes and chick peas. Both Leslee and I took this one on and both pairings were possibly the best of the night. Leslee poured 2004 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino. This big, Italian red made with 100% Sangiovese grapes had intense dark fruity flavors and spice notes that stood up to the well-seasoned lamb, while tannins in the finish swept away the fat. I paired this dish with Ovni Ale Biére de Garde from Flat Earth Brewing in St. Paul. Caramel, toast, and spicy hops in this beer was another perfect match with the similar flavors in the lamb. Both the wine and the beer were perfect with the dish.

The desert was cheesecake with a sour cherry sauce. I went for Lindemans Kriek with this one. The sweet and sour cherry beer matched the cheesecake flavor for flavor. Leslee chose Schlink Haus Dornfelder, German Sweet Wine. Sweet, but not too sweet, and loaded with cherry fruit notes, this was another great match.

Three hours, five courses, and eight pours after we began a satisfied crowd filtered out of the upstairs kitchen space at Cooks. I had a blast and I believe the guests did as well. I hope to teach another course with Leslee and Mike soon. Thanks to all who came.

Local Brewers’ Beers of Spring

Spring arrived early this year. We lived through the first snowless March since records have been kept and April has been even better. Warmer weather and longer days call for a shift away from the heavy, dark beers of winter. Spring means lighter beers, but beers with enough body to tackle the lingering night time chill. Spring is when I begin to crave the bitter American Pale Ales, their citrusy hops flavor giving a bracing wake-up call to the senses. The traditional old-world beers of spring, German maibock and French biére de garde, have sturdy malt backbones supporting spicy hops and yeast character, contrasting flavors to match the seasonal temperature swings. Several of these springtime beer styles are crafted here in the metro by our great local brewers.

Minnesotans love hops, the source of bitterness in beer, and there are plenty of locally produced bitter brews to satisfy these springtime cravings. The most balanced of these is Sweet Child of Vine, the debut India pale ale (IPA) from newcomers Fulton Beer. Only available on draft, the floral hops flavor, moderate bitterness, and balancing caramel malt make this one of the easier drinking versions of the style. More bitter but still balanced, Lift Bridge Brewery’s Crosscut Pale Ale features subtle citrus notes from abundant Cascade hops and grapefruit zest added to the brew. St. Paul’s Flat Earth Brewing calls its Northwest Passage IPA the “bitterest beer in Minnesota.” A step up the ladder in bitterness, body, and alcohol content, Northwest Passage is bracing enough to snap one out of winter hibernation, but has enough warmth and comforting caramel to take the bite out of those sudden springtime temperature drops. Topping the list for hops intensity is Abrasive Ale (formerly 16 Grit), the double IPA from Surly Brewing Company. This nearly 9% alcohol bruiser of a beer is aptly named. The aggressive bitterness gives way to massive citrusy hops flavor that is supported by full-bodied sweet, grainy malt. This is one for hops lovers. Surly is making Abrasive Ale available in cans this year for the first time. The release date was April 12th, but don’t tarry, this one won’t last long.

For the traditional spring beers look no further than St. Paul for Summit Maibock and Flat Earth Ovni Ale biére de garde. Bavarians still celebrate the annual May release of maibock, a hoppier, lighter-colored version of the malty-rich bock style. Summit’s version is appropriately malt forward with grainy sweetness and a quiet toasty background. The sweetness is balanced by moderate bitterness and floral hops flavor.  Biére de garde, a traditional farmhouse ale from Northern France, was originally brewed in early spring and cold-cellared for consumption by farmhands as the weather warmed. Ovni Ale is another beer for malt lovers. On the sweet side for the style, it features rich caramel malt and hints of chocolate with low bitterness and only the lightest touch of spicy hops flavor.

The long-term forecast looks good, so grab one of these great local beers and celebrate spring’s return before summer creeps in.

Holiday Ales & Winter Warmers Recap

Last night the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club gathered once again, this time to celebrate Holiday Beers and Winter Warmers. Our host for the night was club member Rachel who is the only person to have attended EVERY club event. I can’t even claim that and I’m the organizer. Rachel’s condo was also the site of our very first meeting nearly a year ago. We had a record number on hand for the nearly sold-out event. As always great beer was tasted and great conversation was had.

Sam Adams UtopiasThe highlight of the evening was also the first beer we tasted; a bottle of 2007 Samuel Adams Utopias. For those who don’t know, Utopias is the gold standard of extreme beers. Made from a blend of several different beers aged in several kinds of wood and fermented to a whopping 27% ABV, Utopias is more like a spirit than a beer. It is un-carbonated and best served at room temperature in a snifter. I had tasted the 2007 previously, but it had been at least a year. The passage of time has served this beer well. Rich and warming with a complex blend of butterscotch, maple, sherry, and vanilla flavors, this was a real taste treat. Utopias was the nearly unanimous favorite for the night. Of course paying $12 for 1 ¼ ounces may have influenced people a bit.

From there we tasted our way through nine holiday beers from around the world, with examples from the United States, Great Britain, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, and Italy. We began in England with two very different examples of the classic British winter warmer, Samuel Smith Winter Welcome and St. Peter’s Winter Ale. Winter Welcome is the more traditional of the two, an excellent example of an English Old Ale. Falling somewhere between a strong bitter and a light English barleywine, this beer has beautiful caramel and toffee malt character with plenty of plum and citrus fruit to complement. While balance to the sweet side, there is enough hop bitterness and floral hop flavor to keep it light and drinkable. The St. Peter’s Winter Ale is a much darker brew, verging on a porter or brown ale. The malt has a nice nutty and biscuit character with a background of roast and deep dark fruits. Both were excellent beers, although the St. Peter’s suffered for having come after the Utopias.

Next we came back home with two classic American holiday beers, Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale and Anchor’s Our Special Ale Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale(A.K.A. Anchor Christmas Ale). To introduce the concept of holiday beers I explained to the group that it is a wide-ranging category. Whether spiced or simple, high or low gravity, a holiday beer is such because the brewer says it is. These two beers exemplify this concept. Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale is really nothing more than a great, hoppy, American IPA. While the hop flavor does emphasize the pine-resin notes of the American Cascade hops and the malt backbone is a bit heftier than some others, there is nothing specifically “Christmas” about this beer except the timing of its annual release and the holiday theme of the packaging. Anchor’s Christmas Ale on the other hand is the quintessential American holiday beer. A yearly tradition for nearly 35 years, the 2009 version is a dark and spicy beer with luscious fresh plum fruitiness underlying festive nutmeg and allspice flavor. One member said of this beer that it tasted just like the “old-time, traditional gingerbread” that he makes.

We straddled the Atlantic for the next beer, Van Twee, a collaboration between Belgian brewer De Proef and Bell’s Beer from Wisconsin. Van Twee is a mash-up of styles combining elements of a Belgian dubel and a porter, then adding fresh cherries and wild Brettanomyces yeast for a bit of barnyard funk. You can read my detailed tasting notes for this beer here. This brilliant brew inspired the quote of the night when one member stated, “This is like licking a cherry pony.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but everyone seemed to agree…in a good way. Van Twee was one of the favorite beers of the night.

St Bernardus Christmas AleNext we had three very different examples of the Belgian strong dark style all brewed in different parts of the world, Nöel from Birreria Baladin in Italy, Klosterjul from Denmark’s Ølfabrikken, and St. Bernardus Christmas Ale from Brouwereij St. Bernardus in Belgium. Nöel is a straightforward example of the style with rich dark fruits, bready malt, and the characteristic cotton candy Belgian sugar and yeast flavors. The bottles we had exhibited slight papery oxidation, but not enough to ruin the beer. While Nöel is a good example of the style, it doesn’t really hold up to some of the better Belgian versions that are available. Klosterjul is a strongly spiced version of the style with pronounced anise flavors. Yeast-derived green banana notes detracted from my overall enjoyment of this beer, but it is still an interesting example that reminds me in some ways of a Gruit. The best of the Belgians was the St. Bernardus Christmas Ale. Built on a base of the St. Bernardus Abt 12, one of the best examples of the strong dark style, subtle spicing adds cinnamon and clove notes to the ample bready and dried dark fruit character to make this resemble bottled fruitcake. This is one of the best holiday beers out there and it was a big hit with the club.

We finished off the evening with what is perhaps the world’s foremost holiday beer, Samichlaus from Austrian Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg. SamichlausSamichlaus is brewed one day a year on December 6th, St. Nicholas Day, and then aged for eleven months before bottling. It has been described as a doppelbock, but its 14% ABV puts it at nearly twice the strength of the typical beer of that style. However you wish to classify it, it is a world-class beer. Definitely a sipper, it is remarkably drinkable for its strength. Smooth, sweet, caramel and melanoidin malt is balanced by spicy noble hops and warming alcohol, with rich dark fruits and light chocolate notes forming a compelling undercurrent. While big and sweet, it still has the crisp, clean character of a lager. Samichlaus is a beautiful beer and a fitting capper for the official tasting part of the evening.

After the official tasting, we entered the usual “free-for-all” portion of the club meeting. I want to give a shout out to Flat Earth Brewing. Club member Cory brought a growler of Grand Design, the S’more infused version of their Cygnus-X1 porter. It made for a tasty desert. Huge marshmallow aroma was a teaser for the chocolate, graham cracker, and vanilla flavor explosion that filled each sip. I have never liked S’mores. This beer might lead me to reconsider.

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Autumn Beers Part I

View from my office on October 12th.It seems strange to be writing about autumn beers when the temperature is in the twenties and there are two inches of wet, heavy snow on the ground. At this very moment the snow continues to fall. But autumn it is! It’s only mid October, and while the trees on the west bank of the Mississippi River near my home have turned bright hues of orange and red, most of the trees are still sporting green leaves. We haven’t yet set the clocks back for the fall, an act that dooms those of us in the North Country to early afternoon darkness until spring. “It’s autumn, damn it!” I keep repeating to myself. “I didn’t miss my window. It isn’t too late to enjoy the great beers of fall.”

Autumn is an in-between time. There is a chill in the air, but it hasn’t yet turned brutally cold.Fall Color on the Mississippi The days are getting shorter, but it is still light at 4:00 PM. The leaves are turning colors and beginning to fall, but the trees are not yet the gray skeletons that they become in the winter. Most of the time fall is a beautiful season, the season of harvest. So what makes a beer appropriate for fall? Well, slightly higher alcohol for one thing, just enough to take the edge off the chill air. A little color would be welcome, amber, red, orange, and brown to match the colors of the season. A bit of spice is always nice and perhaps a wink and a nod to the fall harvest, be it of hops or pumpkins.

Fall is a great time for special seasonal releases including wet hop beers and pumpkin ales. Hops are harvested in the fall. The bulk of the hops harvested in the world are dried and pressed onto bales or processed even further into pellets that resemble rabbit food. The majority of beers produced in the world use these dried and processed hops. However, during the harvest season many craft brewers take advantage of the opportunity to brew with fresh, unprocessed hops. For these beers, huge quantities of “wet” hop cones are added to the beer often within hours or even minutes of picking. Now I have to say that I am not a huge fan of the wet hop beers. In most cases I don’t feel that the use of fresh hops adds any significantly different character to the already hoppy American pale ales. What it does sometimes add is vegetal or grassy notes that I don’t find altogether pleasant. That said, these beers are immensely popular at this time of year so you should try a few examples and make up your own mind.

Fresh HopsThere are several locally brewed examples of wet hop beers to choose from. Surly Wet is available on tap right now in several locations. I found this to be a one-dimensional beer with a muddy hop character and excessive bitterness. While you are greeted with a beautiful, bright, citrusy hop punch at the beginning, the bitterness just hangs on in a way that is oddly mouth-coating and throat-burning. The somewhat sticky malt in the background is not quite enough to balance. One of the things that I love about Surly beers is the articulation of flavors. Each flavor seems to stand apart while working together with the others to make a delightful whole. I missed this articulation of flavors in Wet. The boys at Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater are releasing their Harvestör Ale at the Happy Gnome on October 25th. Harvestör is brewed with hops grown in Lift Bridge’s own hop garden. I haven’t tried this year’s batch, but my notes from last year indicate a big American IPA with somewhat sweet caramel malt, bright citrus hop flavor, and assertive bitterness. Brau Brothers Brewing from down in Lucan, MN also brews fresh-hop beers using their own hops, this year including a Fresh-hop Lager. Town Hall Brewpub in Minneapolis will be releasing their Fresh-hop 2009 tonight (October 12th).

If you want to try some non-local fresh hop beers there are many to choose from. Founders Brewing from Michigan recently released their Harvest Ale, available in four-packs at better liquor stores. Another regional example is the Heavy Handed IPA from Two Brothers Brewery outside of Chicago. Sierra Nevada releases a line of fresh hop beers every year including the Southern Hemisphere Harvest Ale with hops from South America and this year’s Estate Ale, brewed with hops and barley grown on the brewery’s own land.

The other big fall seasonal beer is pumpkin ale. While I may not be a fan of the wet hop beers, I do love the pumpkin ales. Not some extreme invention of American craft brewers, pumpkin ale has been around at least since the early days of colonial America when thirsty colonists, lacking barley which is not native to the eastern US, needed an alternative source of sugar for making beer. Pumpkin beers are usually amber-colored ales with generous amounts of caramel malt, relatively low levels of hop bitterness and flavor, and aromatic pumpkin pie spices like cinnamon, clove, allspice, and nutmeg. The best of them will display at least some character from the squash, although some are more pumpkin pie spice beers than actual pumpkin beers.

I have made it a mission to discover the essential pumpkin ale. My favorite is Pumking from Southern Tier Brewing in New York. This 9% Southern Tier PumkingABV desert-in-a-bottle is rich and smooth with notes of buttered rum and cloves. The pumpkin fruit comes through loud and clear, complemented by overtones of hazelnut. If you can find this one, snatch it up. But good luck, it arrived on store shelves in mid September and sold out within days. There may still be a few bottles lurking around out there if you make some calls. My two other favorites are both Midwestern offerings that are not available in Minnesota. O’Fallon Brewing located outside of St. Louis and the St. Louis Brewing Company, who’s beer sells under the brand name Schlafly both make outstanding pumpkin beers. The O’Fallon offering is a low alcohol pumpkin session beer with surprising levels of great pumpkin and spice character. The Schlafly beer is bigger and richer with more caramel sweetness and alcohol warmth. For a locally brewed example look for Mummy Train from St. Paul’s Flat Earth Brewing. While I found this beer to be a bit over spiced, it does have nice pumpkin flavor and caramel malt. Mummy Train is only available on draft or in growlers purchased from the brewery.

Basically Belgian Recap

Basically BelgianLast Friday night the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club was at it again. Meeting this month at the home of club member Cory, we took a beer tour of Belgium in an event called Basically Belgian. Club members sampled nine different beers in nine different styles and still only scratched the surface of the deep variety that is the Belgian beer world. Belgium is often seen as a beer lover’s Mecca. It is home to brewing traditions that go back centuries, many of which reflect what beer might have been like all over Europe before the rise of light lager beers in the 19th century. One of the greatest things about the Belgium brewing tradition is its lack of adherence to any real tradition. While other European brewers focus on perfecting a relatively narrow range of beer styles, brewers in Belgium produce hundreds of local styles with a large degree of variance even between different beers of the same style. Belgium is truly a beer adventure.

We began our trek with the lightest of the light Hoegaarden Witbier. White beers were once brewed all over Europe. With increasing popularity of light lager beers through the 20th century, the styles have all but died out with only Belgian Witbier and Berliner Weiss remaining. The Belgian Witbier style would have died out as well had it not beer for Pierre Cellis who started the Hoegaarden brewery in his hayloft in 1966, single-handedly reviving the style. And what a good thing that he did. It had been a couple of years since I last enjoyed a Hoegaarden and I had forgotten just how great it is. Light and wheaty with abundant citrus and a typical banana and clove Belgian yeast character that is enhanced by a touch of coriander, this is a beautiful summer beer.

We stayed with summery beers for our next selection, Fantôme Saison. One of the best examples of the style, this beer is light, crisp, and Cheerseffervescent like champagne. Huge citrus fruitiness sits nicely on a bed of softly sweet bready malt, which gives way to a bone-dry finish emphasizing spice and bitterness. A shot of wild Brettanomyces yeast funk really separates this one from the crowd. This beer is so spritzy and refreshing, you would never guess at its 8% ABV.

The last of the Belgian session beers was Belgian Pale Ale from Flat Earth Brewing in St. Paul. I had wanted to select all beers from Belgium for this event, but no authentic Belgian Pale Ales are available in Minnesota. I like to feature local breweries in these events anyway, so Flat Earth it was. And their Belgian Pale is a good example of the style. Basically a Belgian take on the classic English Bitter, this beer features a caramel, toast, and biscuit malt profile supporting an assertive spicy bitterness and fruity/spicy Belgian yeast. Purchased in growlers from the brewery, we had both filtered and unfiltered versions to sample, although interestingly the filtered version was cloudier than the unfiltered. The differences between the two beers are small, but basically the filtered version features crisper flavors and mouthfeel with more pronounced bitterness and yeast derived fruit and spice, while the unfiltered version is softer and creamier with more subdued flavors. It is a bit like the difference between drinking a draft and a cask ale in a pub.

Great Belgian BeersOur next beer, Urthel Hop-it, was an example of what’s new in Belgian brewing. Like the United States a decade ago, Belgium is in the middle of a craft-brewing explosion. Small breweries are popping up all over the country making a variety of traditional and non-traditional beers. Many of these upstart breweries are taking inspiration from the US craft beer scene, making huge and hoppy beers that blend old and new while pushing the envelope on bitterness and flavor. Hop-it is a Belgian IPA with huge hop bitterness and spicy hop flavor combining with that unique Belgian yeast character. While many love this beer, I have to admit that the combination is not one of my favorites.

The next stops in our journey took us into the world of Trappist and abbey beers. The dubel, tripel, and quadruple are the beers that many people most closely associate with Belgium. While most believe these beers to be age-old traditional recipes, they were actually created in the 1930s as a response to the growing popularity of lager and government restrictions on the selling of spirits. To be called “Trappist” a beer has to be brewed on the grounds of a Trappist monastery under the supervision of monks, with a portion of the proceeds going to charitable acts. Abbey beers on the other hand need only have an association with or use the name of a monastery. We started this leg of the expedition with Orval, one of the most unique of the Trappist beers. In a class all by itself, Orval is cloudy orange colored beer with caramel malt character, peppery hops and complex light stone fruit flavors. Its high level of bitterness is accentuated by high carbonation. A shot of wild Brettanomyces yeast at bottling gives this beer an added barnyard/funky depth. I had to pick up bottles of this beer from different locations. As a result, we had two examples bottled several months apart, affording the opportunity to try a younger and a more aged version. The younger bottles had a more pronounced hop flavors and a subtle background of wild yeast character. The aged version was significantly funkier with more malt flavor and a drier finish.

From Orval we went to St. Feuillien Brune and Westmalle Tripel. The first is an abbey dubel with rich caramel sweetness and a restrained Belgian yeast character. It lacks the dry finish of some of the Trappist examples of the style, but is quite tasty nonetheless. Westmalle Tripel is the original beer of the style. Deep golden yellow in color, it sports a rich, creamy head that lasts a good while in the glass. Sweet malt flavors quickly give way to an intensely bitter and peppery hop. The finish is bone-dry and the yeast character leans decidedly to the spicy end of the spectrum. This is the benchmark for the style.

The penultimate stop on this Belgian beer tour was Duvel, the original example of the strong golden ale. This style shares many characteristics Happy Perfect Pinterswith the tripel. There is so much similarity and so much overlap between the styles that only broad generalizations can be made about what separates them. These general differences were on display when comparing Duvel to the Westmalle. Duvel was lighter in color and smoother with a less assertive bitterness. The yeast character is fruitier than the tripel and the finish a bit less dry.

Our final beer of the night was the Trappist Rocheforte 10. This is a big, mysterious, rich beer with very low carbonation. Sweet caramel malt and complex dark fruit flavors dominate with some hints of spicy hop. There is just enough bitterness to balance the sweet. The warming effects of the 11.3% ABV are apparent.

Basically Belgian was a superfeast of big Belgian brews and we didn’t even touch the sour beers. With so many beers and beer styles to choose from we had to miss a few. Once again it was great people tasting great beers. Thanks to all who came. If you are interested in attending a Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club event, click here for more information.

St. Paul Summer Beer Fest

A few thoughts following the St. Paul Summer Beer Fest

Last Sunday was the first St. Paul Summer Beer Fest. It hopefully won’t be the last. While there are several beer festivals through the year in the Twin Cities, it is good to have one smack in the middle of summer. The weather was perfect, if a little windy. The beer was great. And it seemed as though all in attendance were having a good time.

I want to give kudos to Mark and Juno, the organizers of the event. This was their first attempt at staging a beer festival and they did a great job. From my experience and observation it was very well run. The parking lot at Midway Stadium was a great location, providing ample yet focused space for people to form beer lines and just mill about. Picnic tables in the middle gave folks a place to sit down, not unwelcome when the whole afternoon is spent drinking beer. Booth access for brewers and vendors was super easy. There was enough food and the lines for food and toilets moved pretty quickly. All-in-all, well done!

Congratulations to Flat Earth Brewing for taking the People’s Choice award for their Sunburst Ale. The honor is well deserved. This apricot infused version of their Belgian Pale Ale has become one of my favorite local brews and was the best of the beers I sampled at the event.

Congratulations also to the folks who won the Perfect Pint beer tasting party in the silent auction. Give me a call or shoot me an email and we will set up your event.

I was working at the event representing A Perfect Pint, so my sampling was limited. I commented to someone that this was the most sober I had ever been at a beer festival. It made for some interesting people watching. I was fascinated as the lines formed and ebbed for both food and toilets. Particularly interesting was the shift in the lines from these two things to the breathalyzer machines as the festival drew to a close. The Perfect Pint table was next to these handy machines so I got to watch as festival attendees, having just finished a beer, blew .35 or more BAC. I also witnesses as one guy who had clearly sampled a good number of beers blew a 0.00 BAC. I don’t think he believed the machine either. Good thing. As the day went on the number of cheers that rose from the crowd as patrons dropped their tasting glasses increased.  It totally seemed like everyone was having a good time. The pinnacle for me though was the couple I spotted as the bagpipes played the event to a close, swaying to some unheard music with large brown stains all down the front of their white T-shirts.

There were a few breweries represented that I had never tried and a couple that I had never heard of. One of the latter was Gray’s Brewing Company of Janesville, Wisconsin. I tried their ESB and found it to be quite tasty. I’ll have to give some other of their beers a try. I was also pleased with both of the offerings from Founders Brewery. Their Red’s Rye P.A. was pleasantly hoppy with balancing malt and a nice touch of spicy rye character. While the cherry flavor in the Cerise was a little candied, I still enjoyed this tart, refreshing beer. [EDIT] I forgot that I had wanted to mention Minnesota Tan from Stillwater’s Lift Bridge Brewery. This was my first opportunity to try this, their newest release. A so-called lingonberry tripel, this is a tart, extra-dry beer with nice berry flavor and a bit of the Belgian fruit and spice yeasty character. I enjoyed it and would recommend trying it if you find it on a menu.

Once again, great job Juno and Mark. Please do it again next year.

This is one of my favorite beers…

A recap of the June Perfect Pint Beer Club meeting.

Happy Pinters Tasting Great BeerLast Friday a record number of Twin Cities Perfect Pinters gathered to taste “some of my favorite beers.” At past events members have mocked me (lovingly of course) for the number of times I say, “This is one of my favorite beers.” Because of this relentless ribbing, I decided to inflict my favorites upon them (lovingly, of course). It was fun to pick beers for this one as I could just go into the store, look around, and say, “Oh yes, that’s good. ” At the same time, when confronted with the chore of picking my favorite beers I had to face the obvious dilemma of where to start.

We started with Bluebird Bitter from Coniston Brewing in England. I have sung the praises of Bluebird Bitter to anyone willing to listen for some time. Light, refreshingly bitter but balanced with caramel and  biscuit malt and wisps of orange marmalade, this is simply a delightful beer. Bluebird Bitter is my “desert island” beer. Mentioning this to the group meant explaining the difference between a “favorite” beer and a “desert island” beer. To me a desert island beer is one that you can drink over and over for an extended period. It should be highly drinkable, meaning not too heavy or alcoholic. It needs enough complexity to keep it interesting, but not so much that it would overwhelm over time. Of course it needs to taste great. That to me describes Consiston Bluebird Bitter.

We followed up the Bluebird with Schlenkerla Helles Lager from Germany’s Heller-Trum brewery, famous for the Aecht Schlenkerla Nick and Corysmoked beers. The Helles Lager has the heart of a solid Munich Helles style lager with bready/grainy malt sweetness and balancing spicy hops. This version is enhanced by a subtle smoke that comes from being brewed in the same equipment as the smoked beers. The smokiness here is not as intense as in the true smoked beers, making it palatable even to those who don’t like smoked beers. Staying on the lighter side, we moved next to Sunburst Ale from Flat Eearth Brewing in St. Paul. One of the many infused ales offered by Flat Earth, Sunburst starts life as the Belgian Pale Ale. An infusion of fresh apricots turns it into an explosion of sunny fruity goodness. As one attendee said, “The name is absolutely appropriate. ” This beer paired beautifully with some sliced melon that our host Alex had prepared.

From there we stepped it up a notch, moving to beers with stronger flavors and higher alcohol, starting with Traquair Jacobite from Traquar House in Scotland. This rich Strong Scotch Ale features luscious caramel and chocolate malt with hints of herbs and spice from coriander in the brewing process. It it tasty and was a big crowd-pleaser, being called, “a beer you take home to meet your mother.” One of the first beers that stood out to me as being something really special, it had been a long time since I had enjoyed a bottle. I’ll try not to let so much time pass before enjoying another.

Bittersweet Lenny's R.I.P.A.I have a reputation in this group for being a “hop hater.” It is a reputation that is undeserved. I love hops. I just want some semblance of balance in a hoppy beer. I’m not a fan of excessively hopped and astringently bitter American IPAs and Double IPAs. There has to be some malt. If that malt has some complexity, that’s even better. To prove my point, we tasted three big, hoppy, American beers, Founders Centennial IPA, Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A from Shmaltz/Hebrew, and Maharaja Double IPA from Avery. Each of these beers expresses intense citrus or pine resin American hop character with assertive bitterness. However, in each one the bitterness is backed up by ample and complex malt that does a bit more than simply provide a hook for the hops to hang on. Each of these beers is world class and fits nicely among my favorite beers.

Next was a swing to the opposite extreme with two hugely malty beers. Koningshoeven Quadrupel, from the Trappist Bierbrouwerij de Koningshoeven in the Netherlands, is a beer that I describe as candy in a bottle, a description that others found apt. The focus here is on sugary sweet caramel malt with intense fruity and spicy cotton candy Belgian yeast character. It’s a big beer at 10% ABV, but remarkably light and oh, so easy to drink. We finished off the night with a special treat, ten year old bottles of J.W. Lee’s Harvest Ale barleywine. This English barleywine from J.W. Lee’s and Company in Manchester is to me what English barleywine is all about. Massive and complex malt with just enough bitterness to keep it from being cloying. The caramel, dark fruit, and sherry-like flavors of this beer were a big hit with everyone there. It is a beer that I find great when it’s young and even better with some age. This example held up well since 1999. It left all of us remarking about how much the world has changed since it was bottled.

To find out more about the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club click here.