Schell’s Chimney Sweep and Snowstorm 2012: Bière de Noël

A while back I wrote a piece in the Growler magazine about beer tickers. In it I discuss how the relentless quest for what’s rare and new is shaping today’s beer market.

Gone are the days when it was enough just to make good beer. Now brewers have to constantly innovate to garner attention. Fail to do so and they become passé, regardless of how good their standard line-up may be. Old-school brewers whose reputations have been built on solid examples of classic styles find themselves pushed to produce boutique beers or risk irrelevance.

And so it is that a 150-year-old brewery – the second oldest family owned brewery in the country and a pioneer of American craft beer – releases no less than four new brands this year.

The brewers at Schell’s have been busy. Spring saw the release of a new full-time beer, the hopped-up Emerald Rye, and Czech Dark Lager, the fifth beer in the Stag Series lineup. Fall brings another Stag Series Beer – Fresh Hop Citra Pils – and another full-time release – Chimney Sweep. That’s in addition to the annually-altered seasonal Snowstorm.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand Schell’s regular lineup is great. Theirs is one of the best Pilsners available. The seasonal Hefeweizen is phenomenal. Firebrick is a go-to beer for me. With such a solid stable, they shouldn’t really have to constantly introduce new brands to keep beer lovers’ attention. On the other hand, Schell’s makes great beer. More brands mean more great beers to enjoy. It’s a double-edged sword.

At any rate, the brewers at Schell’s have been busy. Chimney Sweep and the 2012 Snowstorm hit shelves just in the last couple of weeks. I finally had the chance to give them a try.

Here’s my notes:

Chimney Sweep
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Smoked Schwarzbier
Serving Style: 12 oz bottle

Aroma: A little bit of chocolate. A little bit of spice. A little bit of smoke. It’s not the bacony smoke of a traditional rauchbier. It’s more of a campfire smoke; that smell of your jacket after a night by the fire pit.

Appearance: Full, long-lasting, rocky, beige head. Dark brown and clear.

Flavor: Malt dominates with bittersweet, dark chocolate and campfire smoke. The smoke is prominent, but not at all overwhelming. Moderate pilsner-malt sweetness is perfectly balanced by moderate bitterness from both hops and roasted grains. There is some floral and citrus character from Sterling and Liberty hops – my two favorite varieties – but it is subtle. Super balanced. Finishes with a flourish of hop and roast bitterness.

Mouthfeel: So creamy. Medium body and medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: I tasted this last night and as I type up my notes right now I find myself craving a glass of it. Alas and alack, it is only 8 am. Too soon to start drinking when there’s work to be done. Chimney Sweep is wonderfully balanced and easy to drink, and yet so full of flavor. If you’re a person who doesn’t think they like smoked beers, this might be the one for you. It’s smoky, yes, but subtle.

Snowstorm 2012: Bière de Noël
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Bière de Garde
Serving Style: 12 oz bottle

Aroma: What an interesting aroma. So much going on. Bread, herbs, honey, and brown sugar. Multiple fruits – green banana, red grapes, apples, a touch of fig. Belgian yeasty cotton candy. Horehound. Brings to mind the candied fruit in a loaf of fruit cake (I like fruitcake). Complex, layered, and changing.

Appearance: Medium-dark amber/orange and crystal clear. Good stand of rocky, off-white foam that falls quickly leaving a lace around the edge of the glass.

Flavor: The flavor follows on the aroma. It’s malt-forward and sweet, but with a dry finish. Bread crust, dark honey, and a bit of biscuit. Belgian cotton-candy sugar and yeast character. Loads of herbal notes – almost like a gruit. Touch of tartness comes in in the middle, but it’s not acidic. Bitterness is low. So much fruit – red-skinned Apples and orangy citrus. Cinnamon. White pepper traces in the finish.

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

Overall Impression: What a festive beer! This screams the holiday season – sugar, spice and everything nice. It’s more Belgian yeasty than most bières de garde I have had, but that’s a-okay. To me it falls somewhere between a dubbel and a quadruple; it’s too full and fruity for a dubbel, but not strong or sweet enough for a quad.

Schell’s Stag Series #6: Fresh Hop Citra Pils

Fall is fresh-hop season. Sometime in September the store shelves burst with super-citrusy IPAs that are loaded with unprocessed hops. They’re typically big, bright and a little bit grassy. I find the fresh hops impart subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) undertones of chive. By mid-October they’re mostly gone. There are still a couple lingerers as I type this, but the pickins are slim.

But just as the others disappear from stores, a new one from Schell’s suddenly appears. It’s a lager, so it had to cellar for a time before it could be released. That bottom-fermented identity is something that separates this one from the rest of the pack. Pilsners are the original hop-showcase beers. That perfumed Saaz-hop aroma is their claim to fame. Despite that, pilsners aren’t beers that most people think of as “hoppy.” Picking a pilsner to display the freshness of the new hop crop is an interesting move. It’s a choice that is perfectly in keeping with the Schell’s tradition of brewing great German-style lagers. It’s also in keeping with the somewhat hop-averse taste of Head Brewer Dave Berg.

Here’s my notes:

Stag Series #6: Fresh Hop Citra Pils
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: German Pilsner with fresh citra hops
Serving Style: 12 oz. Bottle

Aroma: Bright citrusy hops – lemons and limes – do a delicate dance atop a base of graham cracker sweetness. Very yeasty. Malt and yeast dominate. Hop character blows off quickly.

Appearance: Light golden and hazy – reminded me of a witbier going into the glass. Mousse-like white foam that lasts and lasts – also sort of witbeir like.

Flavor: Yeast and malt hit first, giving the impression of bread dough. Bitterness is moderate, but hangs on into the finish. It’s a very delicate balance between malt and hops. The hop flavor is also delicate, but definite – revealing at varying moments lemons, limes, and ripe musk melons. At times the limes are almost tart, like Starburst candy. Hints of fresh-hop grass and chive occasionally poke their heads out in the background. Those lemons and limes linger long after swallowing.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body, but with yeasty fullness, like a witbier or a weizen. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: Everything about this beer says that I should love it. Pilsner is my perfect beer. I love a good Zwickelbier (unfiltered lager). Citra is one of my favorite new hop varieties. But there is something here that doesn’t quite fit for me. I think it’s that the doughiness of the still-suspended yeast fights for supremacy with the super-delicate flavors of the hops. It comes off a bit like a yeasty Radler. It’s not that I don’t like it, I do. I would drink a few pints. I just don’t love it. Now if it had been filtered…..

Schell’s Stag Series #5: Czech Dark Lager

Do you know someone who says they don’t like dark beer? Put a blindfold on them and give them a taste of Czech Dark Lager, the newest Stag Series beer from August Schell Brewing Company. Although it’s nearly stout black, this beer has a pilsner-like character with just the slightest hint of roast. They’ll never know what hit ‘em, but they’ll like it when it does.

Czech-style black lagers are seldom seen in this country. I would wager a guess that they are seldom seen outside the Czech Republic. Probably the most famous version is the house beer at the 15th-century brewpub U Fleku in Prague. Not too dissimilar from a German schwarzbier, these lagers are deceptively dark, and the perfect example of why beer color is only a modest indicator of what a beer will taste like. As I am fond of saying, “Dark is not a flavor. Don’t be afraid of the dark.”

Here’s my notes:

Stag Series #5: Czech Dark Lager
August Schell Brewing Co., New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Czech Dark Lager
Serving Style: 12 oz. Bottle

Aroma: Subtly aromatic. A bit of bready pilsner malt provides a substrate for gentle roasted character. Floral hops just float over the top. Lager freshness.

Appearance: Dark mahogany or garnet. Clear. A modest, rocky, off-white head forms and then falls, remaining as a ring of foam around the edge.

Flavor: Pilsner-like with a kiss of roast. Low levels of bready-sweet pilsner malt. The roasty flavors start out dry, like roasted barley and take on a bit of bittersweet chocolate as it warms with faint woody notes in the background. Bitterness is medium, about to the level of a good Czech pilsner. Floral hop flavors add the finishing touch. It goes out dry with a bit of lingering sweet perfume.

Mouthfeel: Sharp and crisp at first, it takes on a creaminess as it warms a bit. Carbonation is medium to medium-high.

Overall Impression: At nearly 6% the ABV on this is much higher than I thought. Not that 6% is high, but this drinks much lighter. What I love about lagers is their subtle complexity. They don’t hit you over the head. They make you look for it, but reward your effort. This beer does all that. It’s light and easy to drink like a pilsner, but the touch of roast adds an extra layer of depth and intrigue. While I think I still prefer Schell’s Pils, this Czech Dark Lager is definitely worth seeking out.

Schell’s Stag Series #4: Burton Ale

It’s hard to know what a real Burton Ale might have tasted like. The style, once among the most popular in England, pretty much died out 60 years ago. One is left with only old descriptions and brewer’s logs to try and piece together a facsimile. That is exactly what Dave Berg at August Schell Brewing Company did to create the fourth beer in the brewery’s Stag Series.

I’m not going to load this post down with a lengthy history of Burton Ale. You can read what British beer writer Martyn Cornell had to say about the style on the Zythophile blog.  Or you can really geek out about it with brewer’s logs and recipes on the Shut Up About Barklay Perkins blog. I’ll let those guys do that. I’m just going to tell you my impression of the Schell’s version and leave it at that.

Here’s my notes:

Stag Series #4: Burton Ale
August Schell Brewing Co., New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Burton Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz Bottle

Aroma: Sweet and toasty malt takes center stage with overtones of caramel, figs, and just the slightest suggestion of citrus. Earthy hops remain in the background.

Appearance: Clear. Dark amber to mahogany colored. Good stand of rocky, beige foam that persisted reasonably well.

Flavor: The main event is sweet malt, redolent with flavors of molasses, brown sugar, caramel, figs and raisins. A light impression of chocolate enters midway through. Earthy and citrus hop flavors seem to float on another layer along with prickly, minerally bitterness. The bitterness balances, but sweetness rules. The finish is spectacular, well-attenuated, but sweet. It seems to go on forever with successive waves of molasses, figs, raisins, and even anise.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. Thick and smooth. Medium carbonation. Light alcohol warming.

Overall Impression: Man, what a finish!! It was great in my mouth, but still I could hardly wait to swallow every sip. The flavor layers are clearly articulated. Some may find this beer too sweet, but I love malt and this really showcases malt. It’s a bit like an overly-hopped, English Doppelbock.

Schell’s Stag Series #3: Rauchbier

The first time I had a beer brewed with cherry wood smoked malt was a couple of years ago at the Goose Island Brewpub in Chicago. It was a bock beer, and it was awesome. I downed many a pint during my two-month Chicago residency.

I’ve had a few other cherry wood smoked beers since. Most have failed. Cherry wood smoke has a sharper, BBQ pit character than the meaty beechwood smoke of traditional Bamberg Rauchbiers. I call it “char-pit”, but it reminds me of mesquite or chipotle peppers without the heat. That sharpness requires a reasonably sweet beer to balance it. When that balance is achieved, it’s amazing.

A couple of things got me excited when I learned that Schell’s Stag Series beer #3 was to be a classic Rauchbier. First, I love rauchbiers. And I love Schell’s beers. The combination was bound to be good. Second, they were using a blend of beechwood and cherry wood smoked malts. That really caught my interest.

I finally managed to pick up a bottle and give it a shot. Here’s my notes:

Stag Series #3: Rauchbier
August Schell Brewing Co., New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Rauchbier
Serving Style: 12 oz bottle

Aroma: Sweet toasty/caramel melanoidin with an overlay of subdued meaty and campfire smoke. Not so intensely smoky as Aecht Schlenkerla, but that’s okay. More like Spezial. Fresh. Just the faintest hint of herbal hops.

Appearance: Moderate, ivory-colored and persistent head. Crystal-clear. Dark amber color with ruby highlights. A treat for the eyes.

Flavor: Balanced interplay of caramel melanoidin malt with meaty, char-pit smoke. Like a charcoal grill after the cooking is done. The chipotle character from the cherry wood is very well expressed, and the beer is sweet enough to carry it. Hints of vanilla and raisins in the background. Finish is dry, with a sharp bitter kick that’s a bit astringent at first, but becomes less so as it warms. Spicy hop notes come in late and accentuate the spicy, cherry wood smoke. It leaves you with a lingering blend of cool hops, sweet raisiny malt, and wisps of smoke.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Crisp and clean. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: This is a well made beer that seems to gain intrigue as I continue to sip it. Great balance of malt and smoke. Nice blending of smoke flavors. It’s great to taste another beer that carries off the cherry wood smoke this well. Nicely done.

Schell’s Stag Series Barrel Aged Schmalz’s Alt

As the August Schell anniversary celebration in New Ulm approaches, I am getting toward the end of my own celebration of all things Schell. I finally got to try this year’s Oktoberfest the other day. I had it at the Renaissance Festival, so I don’t have formal tasting notes (aroma: turkey? Or is that sheep dung?). But I did find it tasty. Appropriately balance toward the caramelly Munich-type malt, but with a balancing spicy bite.

Today I post notes for the first in the Stage Series of specialty and experimental beers. This is a new direction for Schell’s and one that I’m excited about. While I am a devotee of the classic styles, it’s always fun to see a brewery stretch their muscles. For this first Stag Series beer they aged a small batch of one of their earliest specialty beers, Schmaltz’s Alt, in Pinot Noir Barrels. The base beer is one of my favorites from Schell’s and the idea of barrel aging it sounds great. The thing about experiments is that they don’t always work. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be done.

Here’s my notes:

Stag Series #1
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Barrel Aged Northern German Altbier
Serving Style: 22 oz Bottle

Aroma: Toasty, Caramel malt and vinous fruits. Vanilla oak character underlies.

Appearance: Dark brown with ruby highlights. Clear. Ample, creamy, beige head that stuck around for a while.

Flavor: Caramel and melanoidin malt with hints of chocolate roast. Subtle herbal hops with moderate bitterness. Vinous fruit flavors; grape, cherry. Vanilla and wood from the oak barrel. Light, tart acidity in the background.

Mouthfeel: Medium body, but struck me as a bit thin. Medium-low carbonation. Creamy.

Overall Impression: This one didn’t quite work for me. I love Schmaltz’s Alt on its own. In this case, however the caramel and toast/roast of the beer seemed to be doing battle with the fruit and acidity from the wine barrel. The parts were all there, alt, wine, and wood. They just didn’t quite work together. A worthy effort that just didn’t quite hit the mark. Looking forward to Number 2 in the series, a Wild Rice Farmhouse Ale.