A Sahti and a Gose from Sam Adams

Two soon-to-be-released beers in the Sam Adams Single Batch series reach back to lost or nearly-lost beer styles of the old country. Verloren – it means “lost” in German – is a gose (go’ zuh), a style that originated in Saxony, the area around Leipzig, Germany. The style had ceased to be brewed until a small brewpub in Leipzig called Bayerischer Bahnhof resurrected it. Gose is a wheat-based ale, typically brewed with coriander and a touch of salt. A bright, lactic acidity is usually present. It’s a tasty beer and the perfect accompaniment to nearly any thai food. Try gose with Thai beef salad. You will be amazed.

The second upcoming release is Norse Legend, based on a Finnish beer style called Sahti; a beer that in Finland is still brewed today much as it was 500 years ago. Anyone who has talked to me about homebrewing in the past couple of years knows that I am all about the Sahti. Once my friend Mark, a Brit who had been living in Finland, tossed down the gauntlet to make our own sahti I was hooked. We brewed three batches, trying to stay as close to tradition as possible given the realities of my homebrewing rig. We used loads of rye, filtered through juniper twigs, left the beer un-hopped , un-boiled, and un-carbonated, and we fermented it with bread yeast, once smuggling a cube of yeast back from Finland. We even hosted a special episode of Brewing TV to chronicle our process. Our results were mixed, and we never quite achieved the deliciousness of the commercial examples that Mark brought back from Finland, but the exploration was fun and I have gained a real fascination and love for this unusual style.

Sam Adams certainly got my attention with these two unusual beers, but did they pull them off?

Here’s my notes:

Norse Legend
Boston Beer Company, Boston, Massachusetts
Style: Sahti
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: Caramel, bread crust, raisins, and the herbal/spruce character of gin. There are hints of chocolate, but caramel is king. Some subtle fruity esters mingle with aromas of spice, like nutmeg or ginger.

Appearance: Deep mahogany and hazy. A splendiferous stand of creamy, ivory foam falls slowly and remains as a thick cap on the surface all the way to the bottom of the glass.

Flavor: Thick and creamy caramel floods the tastebuds right away. Interesting light fruit flavors like pineapple or sour apple come in long after swallowing and linger. Many flavors return from the aroma; the bread crust is there, raisins, and the piney gin flavor of juniper berries. The berries are there, but where are the twigs? Hint of roastiness and maybe a slight whiff of smoke make an appearance. Bitterness is low and I don’t detect any hop flavor. Noticeable alcohol reinforces the gin-like taste of juniper berries. Loads of fruit mid-palate; berries, orange, melon. Aaahhhh, there’s the twigs. They come in much later as the beer warms.

Mouthfeel: Thick and creamy, Medium-full body. Low carbonation. Warming alcohol.

Overall: This is closer to the commercial examples from Finland than any other American-made sahti I have tried. It’s a nice beer for sipping from a kuksa, a traditional Finnish wooden cup, on a winter’s night above the Arctic Circle – or from a tulip glass on a chilly spring evening in Minnesota. This so far is my favorite from the Single Batch series.

Boston Beer Company, Boston, Massachusetts
Style: Gose
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: Coriander and wheat. Light citrusy fruits. There’s an almost savory, herbal quality that makes me think of oregano, but it’s not quite that.

Appearance: Deep golden color, almost amber. Cloudy. The small, off-white head leaves lace on the glass.

Flavor: Very wheaty. Next to wheat, coriander is the predominant flavor, but not overwhelming. It’s all kept in balance. A background saltiness gives a savory sensation and sticks to the back of the tongue on the way out. Some orange citrus notes counter the salt.

Mouthfeel: Light body. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: First let me say that I really enjoyed this beer. It’s a refreshing, summery beer that perfectly complemented the chicken bouillabaisse I made for dinner. Taken for what it is, it’s delightful. I don’t like to be a style Nazi, but there is a point at which you have to say “this isn’t what you say it is.” Based on other examples I have tasted and readings on the style, I expect some lactic tartness. That was totally lacking in this beer. The fermentation character seemed very neutral to me. It was like an American wheat beer with coriander and salt.

SAVOR Flowers from Sam Adams and Dogfish Head

A most interesting beer crossed my path. SAVOR Flowers was a collaborative effort of Boston Beer Company and Dogfish Head. It was created for and exclusively served at SAVOR, the Brewers Association’s annual beer and food bash in Washington, DC. Flowers is a beer befitting the Kings of extreme. The press release says of it:

Jim (Koch) and Sam (Calagione) decided to tackle beer’s previously untapped ingredient – water – and, through and age-old distillation process, created a rosewater base to be used as the main liquid in the brew. The rosewater inspired them to continue to explore the idea of brewing with flowers. After experimenting with a range of varieties, they landed on dried lavender, hibiscus, jasmine and rosebuds mixed in during the brewing process to further enhance the beer’s botanical qualities. As well, on his annual hop selection trip to Bavaria last year, Jim learned about a new hop breed known only as #369, grown for its amped-up floral notes. He was able to obtain 30 pounds of this unique variety from the Yakima, Wash. growing region, adding another dimension to this complex brew.

After all that they aged it in “Barrel One – the same bourbon barrel Jim used to age the premier batch of the first ‘extreme’ beer, Samuel Adams® Triple Bock.” Wow! WTF. Here’s my notes:

SAVOR Flowers
Boston Beer Company & Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales
Style: Vegetable, Herb, Spice Beer
Serving Style: 22 oz Bottle

Aroma: Granny’s soap. Floral. Lavender, roses, and hibiscus. Like walking into a Body Works store at the mall.

Appearance: Cloudy. The color is a vaguely pink amber. Fluffy white head that was moderately persistent.

Flavor: This beer changed throughout the tasting. It started off sharp and planty; roses and lavender with light tart background notes of hibiscus. Bitterness was unexpectedly high, but then what led me to otherwise? High levels of herbal/floral hops emphasized the flowers. As it warmed a rich caramel maltiness crept in, underpinned by raisins and dark fruit. This didn’t reduce the botanical flavors in the least. It merely gave them something on which to rest. Still warmer, it took on almost Belgian cotton-candy flavors; sweet, but still finishing dry with hints of licorice and geraniums. I guessed around 8% ABV. Actually 10%.

Mouthfeel: Medium-high body. Somewhat syrupy as it warms. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: This was a most unique beer. Did I like it? “Like” is such a limiting term. I found it irresistibly intriguing. While I don’t know that I would run out to buy a bottle were it available, the beer’s complexity compelled me, almost against my better judgement, to finish this one. My initial impression was one of admiring the effort and creativity, but not so much the beer. But it grew on me. The endless layers of flavors that came in as the beer warmed grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go. But did I like it? Hmmmm……..

Samuel Adams Utopias 2011

I have somehow been fortunate in my life. Maybe I’ve just been a good boy. I have had the opportunity to taste every vintage of Samuel Adams Utopias. The super-strong, cognac-like extreme beer has been released every odd-numbered year since 2002. It is constructed from a blend of different barrel-aged beers some of which date back to the original vintage of Triple Bock from 1994. The strongest, naturally-fermented beer in the world, it weighs in at a hefty 27% ABV.

I won’t say that I remember every vintage. That would be absurd. But a few do stand out. 2003 was especially good in my memory, as was 2009. But maybe that was just the circumstances in which I tasted them. At any rate, I sampled this year’s version last night. Do I like it? I’m undecided. I guess I’ll just have to try it again. Here’s my notes:

Samuel Adams Utopias 2011
Boston Beer Company, Boston, Massachusetts
Style: ?
Serving Style: 22 oz bottle

Aroma: Thick butterscotch and maple candy with faint chocolate in the background. Port wine-like. Caramelized prunes. Layers and layers of smells. A big enough whiff reveals nostril-burning alcohol.

Appearance: Dark mahogany with flashes of blackness. Clear. Still. Ample legs drip down the side of the glass when swirled.

Flavor: Rich and creamy. The same butterscotch and maple candy carries over from the aroma. Chocolate comes lingers behind. Glints of sour cherry toward the end. Caramelized dark fruits. Alcohol is prominent, perhaps a bit too much so. Not hot, but boozy. It tingles the tongue and numbs the lips. Finishes long and sweet. Complex.

Mouthfeel: Thick and chewy. Alcohol warms all the way down. Creamy. Still.

Overall Impression: The caramel, butterscotch and maple is nice, but then the tart cherry comes in underneath and upends it. It adds layers of complexity, but that isn’t always necessarily a good thing. My impression changed from sip to sip, some exceedingly enjoyable, some less so. It would be nice to let the alcohol tone down a bit. Perhaps some age will help. I’ll give it another try in a few months.

Does Size Matter – Contemplating the Growth of Sam Adams

A recent article in the New York Times about the growth of Sam Adams has got me thinking. What is a craft brewer? And does size matter?

As the article states, Sam Adams is on the verge of growing beyond the legal and industry definitions of “craft brewer.” The federal government defines a small brewery as one that produces less than two-million barrels annually. A lower excise tax is levied on brewers who meet this criterion. Similarly, the two-million barrel limit is part of the Brewers Association (BA) definition of “craft brewer.” Sam Adams is set to exceed this mark by 2012.

But there is much more to the Brewers Association definition than annual output volumes. Besides being small, says the BA website, a craft brewer is “traditional” and “independent.” What is meant by these labels? According to the BA, a traditional brewer is one that “has either an all malt flagship (the beer which represents the greatest volume among that brewers brands) or has at least 50% of its volume in either all malt beers or in beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor.” This is clearly an attempt to differentiate craft brewers from the large brewing concerns that use high percentages of corn and rice adjuncts in the production of light lagers. Sam Adams certainly meets this standard.

An independent brewery, the site states, has less than twenty-five percent ownership in the hands of an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.  As a publicly owned company with 71% of shares held by institutions according to Yahoo, it is conceivable to me that Sam Adams would not be considered independent. But the BA limits this ownership restriction to alcoholic beverage industry members. Sam Adams can slip by on this one. But does the recent sale of the Anchor Brewery to the Griffin Group, an investment and consulting firm focused on alcoholic beverages, defy the restriction? Is Anchor no longer independent and therefore no longer craft? And what of the other once small and independent breweries that have been bought by the big boys. I’m thinking of breweries like Red Hook. Making no claims about Red Hook beers, assuming that these breweries’ beers retains their quality, have they stopped being craft brewers?

There is more to the Brewers Association definition. The website states that a “hallmark of craft beer and craft brewers is innovation. Craft brewers interpret historic styles with unique twists and develop new styles that have no precedent.” By my count, Sam Adams currently has thirty-three beers in their repertoire. These include unique interpretations of traditional styles, barrel-aged, sour, and imperialized beers. They invented the extreme beer genre in the 1990s with Triple Bock and have continued to push boundaries with Utopias. By the standard of innovation, Sam Adams is clearly craft.

The BA also says of craft brewers that they “tend to be very involved in their communities through philanthropy, product donations, volunteerism, and sponsorship of events.” How does Sam Adams stack up? They sponsor the Brewing the American Dream program to provide lower income entrepreneurs with support and advice in getting fledgling business off the ground. They sponsor the annual Longshot Competition that gives homebrewers a chance to have their creations produced and sold commercially by Sam Adams. Then there is the famous story of them selling hops at cost to struggling small breweries during the recent worldwide hop shortage. Other efforts listed on the Sam Adams website include work with the Leary Firefighters Foundation, the Hands on Network, the Sean McDonough Foundation, and the Neely Foundation. I would say this shows significant community involvement. Does this make Sam Adams craft?

Perhaps the most important part of the BA definition of craft brewer is integrity. The website states that craft brewers “maintain integrity in what they brew.” Despite their size, and despite brewing in multiple locations, Sam Adams brews to high standards.  Boston Lager is the same flavorful beer it was when it was a groundbreaker in the microbrew revolution during the 1980s. With some hits and misses, their beers stand up in terms of flavor and quality to most other craft breweries, though some will dispute this. Sam Adams has been slammed by some for selling-out with Sam Adams Light, but even this beer, when tasted side-by-side with the light products of the behemoth brewers, is brewed with greater care and character. And as a publicly owned company they do have an obligation to shareholders to maintain and grow the bottom line. Does providing for shareholders rob Sam Adams of too much integrity for them to remain craft? If so shouldn’t we hold the entirety of our publicly owned corporations to the same standards?

All of this leads me to one thought. As the craft beer industry grows, our beloved small breweries will unavoidably grow with it. It’s already happening. Once tiny businesses like Sam Adams and New Belgium have expanded to become regional and even national powerhouses. Stone Brewing is actively seeking a location in Europe, making them perhaps the first multinational American craft brewer. In the face of this growth how will craft beer drinkers respond? Will be embrace and encourage it? Will we rejoice in the success of our favorite brewers and commend them for spreading great beer to ever wider audiences? Or will our desire to retain the boutique mystique of the small lead us to reject them for becoming “like the macros”, an argument that I have already heard levied against Sam Adams and New Belgium.

How do we want to define “craft?” Is it a matter of numbers of barrels produced in a year? Or does it have more to do with the quality of the product. When the macro brewers start making good beer, which they are already doing, are these well-crafted beers somehow less craft than those made by smaller brewers? In short, does size matter?

Sam Adams® Latitude 48

Sam Adams is launching a new beer this summer, an India Pale Ale called Latitude 48. The beer takes its name from the northern hop growing region located around latitude 48°. The press release for the beer touts a blend of German, English, and American hops that create a “distinctive, yet not overpowering, hop character” balanced by a sweet honey malt blend. I am unclear whether this means they used honey or honey malt. [EDIT: They used honey malt, not honey.] Here’s my notes:

Sam Adams Latitude 48
Boston Beer Company, Boston, Massachusetts
Style: India Pale Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz. Bottle

Aroma: Citrus and grassy hops with undertones of sweet berries and pineapple. Lightly sweet and biscuity English-style malt. English yeast fruitiness opens up as the beer warms. Balanced.

Appearance: Amber and crystal clear. Moderate off-white head that persisted only moderately.

Flavor: Kicks off with medium-high bitterness that lingers long into the finish. This bitterness first had a harshness that smoothed out as the beer warmed. Hop flavors present an interesting mix of earthy, floral, and spice, with hints of lemony citrus. Sweet caramel and biscuit malt balances the hops and claims top placement mid-palate. Finish is dry, lingering on hop bitterness and flavor that sticks around long after swallowing.

Mouthfeel: Medium body with medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: An interesting take on a classic English IPA. The malt character and yeast fruitiness definitely reflects the English style. The hops present a blend of European, English, and American flavors that lend the beer some interest. Not the best IPA out there, but definitely one I would be happy to drink again.