The Pipes, the Kilts, and the Beer

The sound of a bagpipe is one that defies onomatopoeic description. Equal parts pipe organ, sitar drone, and python-ensnared sheep, it is at once abrasively off-putting and irresistibly seductive. Bombast and melodiousness stuffed uncomfortably into one inflated bag.

The sound of the pipes is also inexplicably linked to beer. At every beer festival I have ever attended bagpipes have served to usher the crowds in and then back out again, like the Pied Piper with his rats and children. This is true not just in Minnesota, but nationally. Brewers Association festivals including the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and SAVOR always begin with a pipe and drum band. From Florida to Washington it’s the bagpipes that start the taps flowing.

A related curiosity is the wearing of the kilt. Whether authentic or utility, beer fests bring out an unusually high concentration of kilts. Men by the hundreds – okay, the tens – parade around festival grounds in their tartan or Carhartt® manskirts. What’s the deal?

I have never understood the connection. Certainly the Scottish drink beer, their already incomprehensible brogue becoming more garbled with every pint, but this is a distinctly American phenomenon. I have it on good authority that you wouldn’t hear pipes or see kilts at a beer fest in Glasgow or Edinburgh. So what is it about beer that turns so many of us Yanks into wanna-be Scots? Curiosity got the best of me. I decided to find out.

It was a stormy day at the Beer Dabbler Pride Fest where I began my quest. Waves of rain rolled through one after another, sending people scurrying under brewer tents for shelter. During breaks in the weather I queried anyone in a kilt. The reasons they gave were many. “It’s breezy.” “It’s comfortable.” “It provides easy access.” (I didn’t ask for what.) And from a woman in a Utilikilt®, “My husband wears a kilt because I like what it does to him. He likes what I do to him later.”

These reasons were all fine and dandy, sexy even, but none of them had anything to do with beer. No one at Pride Fest could explain why a beer festival in particular had prompted them to pull a kilt out of the closet, so to speak. I was going to have to dig deeper.

I needed to talk to someone in the industry. Flat Earth Brewing founder and now-retired Summit brewer Jeff Williamson was known to don a kilt at fests. I sought him out. Williamson cited his own Scottish heritage. He owns kilts that bear the tartan of the region whence his family came, but he mostly wears a Utilikilt® to beer fests. It’s easier to clean spilled beer off of 65/35 Poly/Cotton Twill than wool. He parroted the Pride Festers’ assertions of comfort and ease of access. (Again, I didn’t ask.) But he could offer no explanation for the connection between kilts and American craft beer. Another dead end.

Dennis Skrade

I turned my attention to bagpipes. Perhaps an answer to that oddity would also solve the kilt question. I sought out Dennis Skrade, the man whose clangorous tones have kicked off nearly every beer fest in the state. He’s played Winterfest and Autumn Brew Review from the beginning. He’s blown up his bladder at the Great Taste of the Midwest, All Pints North, and several other fests. His pipes have accompanied Rock Bottom tappings and the blessing of the Maibock at Town Hall. In short, he’s been everywhere and played them all. Surely he would have some insight.

Skrade first proposed a number of benign theories. “Beer makes people happy and makes them smile.” He said. “Bagpipes do the same thing.” He noted that bagpipes have long served to commemorate important events both solemn and festive; think police funerals or the queen’s birthday. Or maybe it’s that beer people are loud and brash. Like bagpipes, you hear them coming. These folks need something equally piercing to get their attention, especially after a few beers. Bagpipes were meant to lead people into battle. Their tone gets your blood going and makes the hair on your neck stand up. And they can be heard even over a festival’s din.

Skrade also thought that it might be more an Irish connection than Scottish. The Irish have their own piping tradition and made up a larger percentage of immigrants to this country in the 19th-century. A Chicago fire chief of the day purportedly hired men based on whether they could blow songs that he didn’t know. The Irish have a prodigious reputation as aficionados of the drink. It’s no secret that St. Patrick’s Day, one of the biggest drinking holidays of the year, is also a prime day for pipers. And many of the early beer imports to this country were Irish; think Guinness and Harp. This theory deserved further exploration.

Seeking answers, I pushed Skrade harder. Ultimately he laid the blame on Summit Brewing Company founder Mark Stutrud. In 1986 Skrade tried his first Summit beer. He liked it so much that he made a point of visiting the brewery. Upon learning that Stutrud was a fan of the pipes, Skrade asked to be allowed to play at the brewery. Ever since, festivities at Summit have included bagpipes. The tradition expanded from there.

So this whole bagpipe/kilt thing is Mark Stutrud’s fault. Now I had a real lead.

Mark Stutrud

I confronted Stutrud with the accusation. “I deny that outright.” He said. “There is way too much liability involved. The amount of insurance, the premium would be outrageous. So I wouldn’t do it.”

He did confess an affinity for bagpipes and kilts. It is, he claimed, in his DNA. His need to be around pipers and people who wear kilts is a way of dealing with subconscious issues of Scandinavian abhorrence of pipes; a way to confront ancestral fears head on. “The Vikings considered bagpipes weapons of mass destruction. It’s about the only thing that scared them.”

He also pointed out that in the 1980s craft brewers were deviants; isolated miscreants making flavorful beer in a sea of…well you know. Pipers are also a bit of a deviant group, he opined. There is a natural affinity.

Reflecting on the real connection between bagpipes and beer, Stutrud took a historical perspective. He related it back to Anglo traditions at a time when life was bound up with the seasons. A successful harvest was celebrated with dancing and drinking accompanied by bagpipes. “It’s a long-standing tradition that pipers were always compensated in beer. So they’re like flies to honey in that regard.” So are modern pipers just looking for ways to get free beer? “There is absolutely no question.” Stutrud continued. “Every piper I’ve met has the same perspective. So truthfully I think that’s the direct connection. Those guys are seeking out a good mug of ale. And historically that’s how it’s always been.”

Bob McKenzie

I next turned to Bob McKenzie, Head Brewer at the Barley John’s Brewery in New Richmond, Wisconsin and an actual bagpipe-playing Scotsman. If anyone would have insight, certainly it would be him. I first asked him about Dennis Skrade’s Irish theory.  He discounted it immediately, saying, “Irish people would already be drunk and getting into fights by the time they got to the festival, so it’s unlikely that they’d be in any shape to play the bagpipes.” I ran this past Irishman and Summit Head Brewer Damian McConn for verification. “That’s like stench from a sweaty sock.” he replied, adding that he had no idea what the connection was between bagpipes, kilts, and American beer fests.

McKenzie thought the connection could have its roots in the fact that early American craft brewers were by and large brewing English styles and reaching out to people with an interest in British culture. Bert Grant, a native of Scotland and the man who basically invented the brewpub when he opened the Yakima Brewing and Malting Co. in 1982, exemplified this. According to an article on Seattlepi.com, “Grant was known to wear a kilt at his pub in Yakima and occasionally dance on the bar. He kept a claymore – a double-bladed broadsword – just in case he had to enforce his ban on smoking.”

McKenzie reinforced the Pied Piper theory. Festival organizers like bagpipes because they are loud and people follow them. When the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild did two sessions of Autumn Brew Review a few of years ago, they wondered how they were going to get people to leave after the first session ended. The answer was to send in the pipers. People will either follow them or run away from them was the thinking. It worked. McKenzie speculated on the reasons. “The Scottish used them to lead people into war, so maybe there’s just some primordial instinct to follow a bagpiper. It could just be to see if they fall down or not. You’ve got this person trying to walk and play this instrument that involves a lot of wind at the same time. Everybody just wants to see if they are going to fall over.”

After positing these possibilities McKenzie got down to brass tacks. “My first idea is that it all has to do with Dennis Skrade. I kind of thought initially that it was solely due to the fact that he likes free beer. It was an elaborate ploy for him to get free beer.” But then McKenzie went to the GABF where there were bagpipes and people in kilts. He realized that this was bigger than just one man.

Bagpipe bands are mostly male, he postulated. If given the chance to drink free beer they would jump at it. “One bagpiper somewhere thought, ‘this is a good way of getting beer.’ Word went out over the piper forums to contact the local beer festival. They’ll let you in for free. All you have to do is play bagpipes at the beginning and the end. Any piper that survived St. Patrick’s Day knows that you can still play bagpipes no matter how much you drink.”

As for the wearing of the kilt McKenzie said, “They make it much easier to go to the bathroom. Something that is important when consuming large quantities of beer.” Is this what people meant by “ease of access?”

Summit Unchained #21: Us & Them

Parti Gyle

For beer history geeks these words conjure up images of the great, old breweries of Britain – Barclay Perkins, Bass, Whitbread, Ind Coope, and Allsopp. They give homebrewers tech goosebumps. But for the uninitiated it sounds like an act of festive duplicity.

Parti gyle is a system of getting two beers from one mash. If you aren’t up on the brewing process, the mash consists of steeping grains at a certain temperature – usually somewhere around 150 degrees Fahrenheit – for a period of time. This steeping activates enzymes in the grain that convert the kernels’ starch into simple sugars that yeast can ferment. The resulting sugary liquid is called “wort.”

Once the steeping is done, the wort is run off into the kettle to be boiled. A lot of usable sugar gets left behind in the grains. Typically they are rinsed with hot water, making a thinner wort which is also run to the kettle. But if that thinner wort is diverted to a different kettle, you have the basis for a second beer from the same mash. That’s parti gyle.

In the olden days, English brewers would use this system to make beers of differing strengths. For instance, they might make an X, XX, and XXX version of their pale ale. As many as three gyles would be run off from a particular mash and then the worts containing different amounts of sugar were blended together at different proportions to make the different beers.

Very few breweries still do this. There are a couple of breweries in England, I am told. Fuller’s is one. Anchor Brewing in San Francisco has done it, making their refreshing Small Beer from the second runnings of Old Foghorn Barleywine. Surly’s Damien is made from the second thread of Darkness.

Summit brewer Gabe Smoley has revived the practice for the latest Unchained Series beer Us & Them. This the 21st beer in the series is actually two beers. 1st Thread is an American-style IPA that comes in at 7.2-percent alcohol. 2nd Thread is a session IPA at 4-percent, made from a second gyle of the same mash. The kettle hopping regime is the same. The dry hops are different.

The results are remarkable. Like siblings that grew up in the same family, these are two very distinct beers, but with an underlying quality that ties them together.

Here’s my notes:

1st ThreadUnchained #21: Us & Them 1st Thread
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
7.2% ABV
90 IBU

Aroma: Hops lead – juicy melon and tropical fruit. Pineapple, mango. Faint herbal/floral notes. Low, grainy malt with moderate impression of sweetness. Low esters. Low alcohol.

Appearance: Full, creamy, off-white to ivory foam with excellent retention. Dark gold/orange and brilliant.

Flavor: Juicy hops with sturdy supporting malt. Bitterness is high and lingering, but amply supported by medium sweetness. Bitterness comes on stronger mid-palate. Hop flavor is high and juicy – tropical fruit, mango, pineapple, grapefruit, and tangerine. Sprite-like citrus. Malt flavor is low, neutral-grainy, with a faint biscuit character. Finish is off-dry with lingering bitterness and juicy tropical fruit.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: A super-juicy and slightly sweet IPA with restrained bitterness and bursting hop flavor. Perhaps a bit sweet in the finish.

2nd ThreadUnchained #21: Us & Them 2nd Thread
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: American Session IPA
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
4% ABV
55 IBU

Aroma: Hops dominate. Bright citrus – lime and tangerine. Apricots. Low, neutral-grain malt with light notes of toasted biscuit. Very low impression of sweetness. Low esters.

Appearance: Full, creamy, just off-white head with excellent retention. Medium gold and brilliant.

Flavor: Hops through and through with a low, grainy cushion. Bitterness is high, but smooth. Bright, lemon/lime-citrus hop flavors, almost acidic. Low floral and apricot back notes. Sweetness is very low. Malt has a dry, toasted biscuit character. The finish is very dry with lingering toasted grain, bitterness, and lime citrus.

Mouthfeel: Light body. Medium-high carbonation.

Overall Impression: Light and bright. Most session IPAs have bitterness levels that are too high for their weight. This one has nice balance. 55 IBU in a 4% beer is still bracing, but it isn’t tongue scraping in this beer. The dry, biscuit malt background is reminiscent of an English bitter.

Summit Union Series #5: Old Blaggard

My beverage BFF, wine sommelier Leslee Miller, and I have a joke between us. Whenever we’re teaching a class together, she will pour a wine and say something like, “It’s only 9 percent. You can drink it all day.” I on the other hand start talking about taking it easy on the strong beers at around 8 percent alcohol. Oh, the different perspectives of the beer people and the wine people.

But it just goes to show you how appropriate the term “barleywine” really is. It’s beer. It’s made from barley. But it has an alcohol content more common to the world of wine than beer.

Historically both wine and barleywine were served similarly as well. Wine wasn’t always served in the glassware to which we are now accustomed. Once upon a time guests were greeted with a much smaller serving, poured into a tiny little glass. My mother has a collection of these antique wine glasses. I always thought they were for cordials. English lords once served manor-brewed strong beers in similar tiny glasses. Nowadays the beer people have it better. We typically get a ten-ounce pour of barleywine. Five ounces is the normal pour for wine.

Old wine glass

Old wine glass

Old barleywine glass

Old barleywind glass

For Old Blaggard, the fifth beer in the Union Series, Summit Brewing Company has concocted a proper English barleywine. Like English pale ales and IPAs, English barleywines are less focused on hops then their American offspring. Being a lover of malt and yeast, this pleases me. The biscuit and toffee flavors of English malt are among the most pleasing in the beer vocabulary. And I’m quite fond of the orange marmalade notes of English yeast.

The Summit Union Series combines old styles and techniques with new ingredients. Old Blaggard is a single malt/single hop beer featuring Endeavor hops from England and Simpson’s Odyssey malt, both new, at least to this country. It also uses a bit of invert sugar, an ingredient familiar to English brewers for centuries. The sugar adds some color as well as boosting the potency without overwhelming the beer with the sweetness of unfermented sugars.

Here’s my notes:

Brews_BottleUnion Series #5: Old Blaggard
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: English Barleywine
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
10.1% ABV
50 IBU

Aroma: Malt and hops in approximate balance with low, floral alcohol. Malt is strong toffee and honey, giving a moderately high impression of sweetness. Very low biscuit notes. Hops give herbal and citrus notes. Moderately high fruity esters – overripe apricots, golden raisins.

Appearance: Full, creamy, off-white foam with good retention. Dark amber/mahogany and brilliant.

Flavor: Malt forward with low supporting hop bitterness and sweet alcohol. Malt sweetness is high. Flavors of toffee, caramel, and low biscuit. Hop bitterness is medium-low, just cutting through the sweetness. Hop flavors and esters bring high notes of orange marmalade and some darker, bruised stone fruit notes as well. Golden raisins. Some low earthy character. Alcohol is apparent. Finish is semi-sweet with lingering fruit, caramel, and alcohol.

Mouthfeel: Full body. Low carbonation. Warming but not hot.

Overall Impression: A fine sipper. Let it warm a bit to really allow the malt to come through, then pour it into a snifter. The combination of caramel malt with fruity hop and fermentation character is lovely. Alcohol is verging on too much, but doesn’t quite go over the top. It’s great to drink right now, but I’ll stash one or two of these aside and see how they taste in a couple of years.

Summit Unchained #20: Sticke Alt

True story. A few days ago I had a dream about a new Minnesota brewery that made only German altbier. They made multiple varieties of altbier, most of which I had not even known existed. I was personally excited by this. I love altbier. But I remember telling the owner that his business plan seemed ill advised. Altbier is kind of an obscure style here in the US. And American consumers expect that breweries will make beers in a range of styles, unless the style that they make is overloaded with hops. In which case they can make as many variations of the same style as they want.

The notion of an all-altbier brewery did indeed seem strange in my dream. Yet, if you go to Düsseldorf, Germany, you will find not just one, but many breweries making nothing but altbier. It’s a whole city of altbier brewers.

“Altbier” in German means “old beer.” The term refers not to the age of the beer, but to the mode of production. Germans started making lager beers as early as the 1400s. Bottom fermenting yeast strains adapted for cold temperatures developed accidentally in the country’s south as a result of winter brewing and cave aging. Cold fermentation inhibited the growth of bacteria and other spoiling agents. Lager beers tasted cleaner than their top-fermenting counterparts. They had a longer shelf life and were therefore suited to wider distribution.

Over the period of a few hundred years, lager brewing gradually took over in the Garman-speaking realm. But a few cities clung tenaciously to their old (read “alt”) ale brewing traditions. One of those was Cologne or Köln, home of Kölsch, where in 1603 city leaders outlawed the making of bottom-fermented beer.

A little further downstream along the Rhine River was another holdout town, Düsseldorf. There are at least five altbier brewpubs located in the old city center (altstadt) of Düsseldorf. A number of other breweries making the style are located in and around the city outside the altstadt. They all brew beer that falls into a fairly narrow profile – amber to almost brown colored with assertive bitterness and complex, balancing maltiness reflecting kilned malt types. But each brewers imbues the beer with their own unique stamp. Some are bitterer, others lean more toward malt. Some are lighter, others more rich and filling. But these differences aside, when you are in Düsseldorf, altbier is what you drink.

Sticke (“secret”) Alt is a special variant on the altbier style that is brewed for special occasions, usually only twice a year. It is stronger, richer, and fuller-bodied than the typical altbier. Hopping rates are higher. 60 IBU is not unheard of for the style. But the malt profile is bolder as well. Sticke alt gushes with the nutty and toasty notes of kilned malt, occasionally overlaid with hints of bitter chocolate.

Summit brewer Mike Lundell has veered from his IPA track to create a Sticke altbier as the 20th installment in the brewery’s popular Unchained Series. The new beer hits the streets on draft and in bottles starting the week of October 12th. You can party with Lundell and the Summit crew at the Muddy Pig on October 14th from 5 – 7 PM.

Here’s my notes:

Sticke Alt BottleSummit Unchained #20: Sticke Alt
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Sticke Altbier
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
ABV: 6.3%
IBU: 55

Aroma: Malty with low supporting hops. Malt is bread crust with low nutty and toasty background notes. Hops are low – spicy/herbal, a touch of licorice. Clean fermentation.

Appearance: Dark mahogany and brilliant. Full, creamy, ivory to beige head with excellent retention.

Flavor: Malt forward but with ample hop balance. Bread crust, toast, caramel-like melanoidin, and a hint of dark chocolate and coffee. Medium-low sweetness. Hop bitterness is medium-high, but sharp and firm. Low spicy/herbal hop flavor – again with the hint of licorice, even mint. Clean fermentation. Finish is very dry with lingering malt – melanoidin and roast – and spicy hop flavor.

Mouthfeel: Medium to medium-full body. Medium carbonation. Some creaminess.

Overall Impression: Typically I’ll drink a first sample of a beer to form an impression and then write notes on the second. I’m writing these on the fourth sample. I like the first so much that it demanded another and another (not all on the same night). This beer hits all of my buzzers; lager-like fermentation, toasted malt flavors, malt-forward with ample supporting hops that are spicy, not fruity, in character. In short, it’s my kind of beer.

Summit Unchained #19: Make It So

As I sit here typing, I am sipping on a cup of hot, Earl Grey tea. It is one of my greatest pleasures in life. Hot tea in general, actually. I am a person of rituals. Every day I have two cups of coffee in the morning and then drink cup after cup of hot tea through the rest of the day – even in the summer. The first at 10:00am give me a nice mid-morning break from work. Then there is one after lunch, one or two through the afternoon, and finally, one after dinner.

Another great pleasure in my life is English beer. Bitters, porters, and stouts with their earthy/herbal hops, toasted biscuit malt, and funky, buttered-marmalade fermentation flavors are soothing to my soul. German lagers have taken over the top spot in my hierarchy of beer styles, but English beers still hold a place of very high esteem.

I wouldn’t call myself a Star Trek geek, but I have been an avid follower of the show. I watched the original in first run. (I just dated myself?) I hated Deep Space 9. It sucked, admit it. But I watched the others religiously. I dug Data, had a crush on Seven of Nine (who didn’t?), and I do love me some Jean Luc Picard. Wait…that came out wrong.

New Summit Brewer Nick Hempfer has combined all three of these things in the newest Unchained Series beer Make It So. It’s an English Extra Special Bitter brewed with Earl Grey tea, Captain Picard’s favorite sip.

Tea beers aren’t new. There are a few of them out there. Funkwerks Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado had a winner with Leuven, a green tea-infused, brettanomyces-inflected saison. Japanese Green Tea IPA from Stone Brewing is another one worth checking out. They can work quite well if you get the balance right. Star Trek beers have also been done. Stone Brewing did Farking Wheaton W00TSTOUT with actor Wil Wheaton who played Wesley Crusher on Next Generation. Someone even came out with Klingon Warnog and Vulcan Ale in cans.

But I do believe that young Nick Hempfer is the first to bring together all of these things in a truly coherent conceptual package. Earl Grey, ESB, and Jean Luc Picard. It all makes sense.

Here’s my notes:

Brews_Can_MakeItSoUnchained #19: Make It So
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Extra Special Bitter with Earl Grey Tea
Serving Style: 12 oz. can
5.3% ABV
40 IBU

Aroma: Fruit and buttered toffee. Notes of herbs and orange citrus. Iced tea. Toffee malt with low perception of sweetness. Iced tea lingers in the nostrils.

Appearance: Medium amber/orange. Brilliant. Full, creamy, ivory head with excellent retention.

Flavor: A bit malt forward with soothing, English toffee and toasted biscuit character. Bitterness is medium and lingers long into the finish. Hop character is low – herbal. Some subtle, orange-citrus esters and low butterscotch. The Earl Grey has a presence mid-palate – blends with hops and brings a light iced tea quality similar to that from the aroma. More the black tea flavor than the bergamot that defines Earl Grey. Some black tea tannin joins in the finish to grab the sides of the tongue.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Low carbonation. Light tannic astringency. Low creaminess.

Overall Impression: Lovely. The tea makes a subtle addition, blending nicely with the hops, the yeast, and the malt. Like spice in a good Belgian ale, it adds depth without calling itself out. The Base ESB is solid. Wonderful toffee malt and English fermentation character. One of my favorite beer styles with one of my favorite kinds of tea. This is all that I hoped it would be.

The official release party Make It So happens this evening (8/1/15) at the Summit Brewing Company beer hall at 5:00 pm.

Summit Hopvale Organic Ale

In June 2014, Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont wrote a sarcastic piece on his Blogging at the World of Beer blog titled Every Beer is Now an IPA. In it he bemoaned the proliferation of variants on the India Pale Ale – variants that often have nothing to do with that style except an overload of hops. Beer drinkers are subjected to black, white and red IPA, Belgian IPA, rye IPA, stout IPA, Cali-Belgique IPA and any number of others. IPA is such a popular style that brewers slap that acronym onto any hopped-up ale or lager they produce instead of going to the trouble of calling it something else. If it’s an IPA people will buy it.

The one that bugs me maybe the most is the “session IPA.” What the heck is that besides an oxymoron? The whole idea of an IPA is super-hoppy and high alcohol. Indeed the style’s mythical origin story is all about brewers upping the alcohol content on beer shipped to India so that is wouldn’t spoil. IPA was never intended to be sessionable. We have a style category for sessionable pale ale. It’s called “pale ale.”

So what is a session IPA and why isn’t it just called pale ale? A quick survey of a few of them shows alcohol content ranging from 4.3% to 5.1% ABV. Using the BJCP guidelines as a standard (because that’s the standard we’ve got) that puts all but one of them squarely in the range for American pale ale. And the one is under by just .2%. As for bitterness, they range from 40 to 65 IBU. Of the eight that I surveyed, only three were outside the American Pale Ale guidelines, one by an insignificant 2 IBU. I would argue that these beers are all just heavily late and dry-hopped pale ales.

But two of the examples that I looked at had significantly higher bitterness than is specified for an American pale ale. Stone Go To clocks in at 65 IBU and Summit Hopvale Organic Ale at 55 IBU – both square in the range for an IPA. So perhaps the definition of session IPA – if we have to call it that – should be a lower-alcohol, highly-hopped, pale ale with the bitterness of an IPA.

I don’t like the label, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like the beers. Given my preference for malty beers, these often thin and aggressively bitter beers should not be to my taste. There is really nothing about them that I should like. But I happen to love them.

Did I mention Summit’s Hopvale Organic Ale? The newest year-round beer from the steadfast St. Paul brewery is being unleashed on the public today (April 1st. No really. It’s not a joke.). Summit seems to have studiously avoided the session IPA moniker in the marketing for this beer. Thank you Summit! They say merely that it has the “hop character of a full-strength IPA, but the drinkability of a low-gravity bitter.” But at 4.7% ABV and 55 IBU it fits neatly into the pigeon hole. It’s made with all organic ingredients and just a touch of lemon peel to give it a citrusy high note.

Here’s my notes:

Brews_Can_HopvaleHopvale Organic Ale
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Session IPA
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
4.7% ABV
55 IBU

Aroma: Huge hop aroma. Melon, tropical fruit – mango. Herbs. Grapefruit. Lemon peel. Malt offers only a low impression of sweetness. Neutral character. Low esters – orange. Hint of sulfur. It all combines into a fruity, almost powdered sugar aroma.

Appearance: Medium gold and slightly hazy. Full, creamy, off-white head with excellent retention.

Flavor: Full blast of hops with low, supporting malt sweetness. Hop flavors are similar to the aroma – melon, tropical, grapefruit, pine. Lemon comes through more strongly. Bitterness is medium-high to high, but smooth, not overwhelming. Malt sweetness supports. Low biscuit/toast malt flavor. Light and refreshing. Hops are the star. Malt is barely there. Finish is very dry with lingering bitterness and hop flavors.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium-high carbonation. Very low hop astringency.

Overall Impression: Hops rule the roost in this beer. Malt is almost an afterthought. Almost, but not quite. And oh, what hops they are. Full of rich, fruity and resiny flavors. And then there is that bright spot of lemon peel. This is one of those beers that I shouldn’t like, but do. This will be great in the summer, but it’s a year-round so you can drink it all the time.

Summit Unchained #18: Hop Silo Double IPA

Summit Brewing Company held out for almost 30 years. They declined a ride on the über-hopped bandwagon. While everyone else was brewing big, bitter, IPAs and double IPAs (even some who shouldn’t, given their overall mission), Summit held strong. It was only a couple of years ago that they finally relented with the release of Sága. Now, with the eighteenth beer in the Unchained Series they have gone whole hog with a Double IPA.

I’m bored with hops, in case that wasn’t clear. I know all IPAs are not alike, but whenever I taste a new one I can’t help but say to myself, “Yeah, it’s another IPA.” They are not all alike, but they are all so very, very similar. And there are so damn many of them.

But I won’t harsh on Summit too much for entering the fray. It was bound to happen sooner or later. And Hop silo Double IPA is part of the Unchained Series. Brewers can do what they want. And brewer Eric Harper is mixing the style up a bit by combining all English malts with ample dosages of a variety of American hops, including a new one called Lemondrop. Even though double IPA is not my favorite style of beer, I was intrigued and anxious to give it a whirl.

Here’s my notes:

Summit Hop Silo Double IPAUnchained #18: Hop Silo Double IPA
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Double/Imperial IPA
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
8.3% ABV
101 IBU

Aroma: Hops dominate, but don’t explode from the glass. It’s an herbal/savory hop experience as much as a fruity one. Spearmint and herbs. Tropical fruit – mango and pineapple. A background of garlic chives. Light dry-hopped grassiness. Malt is very slight with a bit of a caramel tinge and a faint impression of sweetness. Alcohol is noticeable.

Appearance: Full, creamy, off-white head with good retention. Medium copper color and brilliant.

Flavor: Flavor follows the aroma but with a stronger malt presence. Hops still dominate. Bitterness is medium-high – relatively easy-drinking for the style. It intensifies as you sit with the beer. Malt sweetness balances well, but doesn’t overpower the bitter. English toffee and toasted biscuit define the malt character. Hop flavors are high with the same savory/fruity quality as the aroma. Herbs, mint, chive, garlic, ripe mango, pineapple, and a background hint of lemon. The finish is semi-dry with lingering bitterness and fruit.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Low hop astringency. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: A moderately intense double IPA. The lingering bitterness has bit of a harsh edge, but isn’t overwhelming. I am particularly sensitive to the garlic and chive character that comes from certain hops – Apollo likely in this case. It’s not a flavor that I care for in beer and unfortunately I pick it up fairly strongly in this one. With the caveat that I’m not a huge fan of the double IPA, I will say that this is not my favorite beer of the Unchained Series. It’s well-enough made, but not to my taste for reasons mentioned. Your mileage may vary.

Your first chance to try Hop Silo will be at Winterfest this Friday and Saturday night at the Union Depot  in St. Paul. Apparently there are still tickets available. An official release will be held at the Summit Beer Hall on Saturday, February 28th from 4-9pm. You’ll be able to try the beer and chat with brewer Eric Harper. Further release events will follow all week long at locations throughout the Twin Cities.

Summit Unchained #17: Harvest Fresh IPA

Wet hop beers have become an early-fall ritual. Hop harvest season comes around and brewers everywhere scramble to get the hops in the kettle as quickly as possible after they are picked, often within hours; minutes even for those who have hop yards outside the brewery. The practice reportedly brings brighter, livelier hop aromatics. I must admit that I have never really found this to be the case. Instead I taste an unpleasant level of grassy/vegetal flavors from the addition of all that green, leafy matter. I have yet to figure out what all of the fuss is about.

For Fresh Harvest IPA, Summit brewer Tom Mondor has chosen to use both “fresh” and wet hops from the Pacific Northwest. Another admission – I always thought these were the same thing. As he explains in the video below, they apparently are not. A hop grower in Oregon has initiated a pelletizing process using lower temperature kilning and immediate processing and shipping to get the freshest possible hops out the door to brewers. Still, aside from rapid shipment, once they have been processed like most other hops, it’s hard for me to understand why they would be called “fresh.” I guess I’ll have to investigate further. For now, I’ll let Mr. Mondor explain.

Here’s my notes:

Brews_Bottle_Unchained17Unchained #17: Fresh Harvest IPA
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
ABV: 7%
IBU: 70

Aroma: Hops clearly dominate – Tropical fruit, limes, mint, hay, grass. Low grainy malt aromas with some caramel and biscuit character. Some orange high notes and English-like fruity esters.

Appearance: Full, creamy, just-off-white head. Excellent retention. Medium orange/amber and clear.

Flavor: Balanced and English-like. Tongue-tingling bitterness is moderate with full emphasis in hop flavor. Loads of fruit – orange, tropical fruits, grapefruit, even blueberry. Malt sweetness is medium-low. Some caramel and toasted-biscuit malt flavors. Malt provides ample balance to the hops. Again there is an English estery character to it. Finish is off-dry, lingering on fruity hops.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium carbonation.

Overall Impression: An easy-drinking, balanced IPA. Despite the use of an American Ale yeast strain, the malt complexity and fruity hop character give it a pleasant English character. There is little of the grassy/vegetal flavor that I normally associate with fresh-hop beers.

Summit Unchained #16: Herkulean Woods

As much as I would like to deny it, it’s fall. I love the fall. The cooling air and changing colors make it perhaps my favorite season in Minnesota. The problem with fall is that it means winter is not too far behind – another nine months of virtual hibernation.

One good thing that fall brings is a plethora of malty brews. It’s the season of Oktoberfest and brown ale. While the rest of the state’s beer drinkers are obsessed with hops, I do love malt. I especially love the toasty and toffee flavors of the mid-toast malts that to me epitomize the autumnal beers. Give me the Munich malt. Bring on the Biscuit. Toss in a pinch of melanoidin malt for good measure.

Herkulean Woods, the newest Unchained beer from Summit Brewing Company, drips with this kind of deliciousness. Christian Dixon, one of Summit’s newest brewers, has laced that toasty malt with a splash of spruce and a smattering of Minnesota maple syrup. Top that off with bracing bitterness and spicy woodsy hop flavors and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a dilly of a fall beer.

Here’s my notes:

Summit Unchained #16: Herkulean WoodsUnchained #16: Herkulean Woods
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Strong California Common with spruce and maple syrup
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
8.2% ABV
77 IBU

Aroma: Bright fruity notes dominate. The blueberry-like aroma of spruce. Hop spiciness like Indian lemon pickle. Low caramel, bread crust, and toasty malt stays just below the surface.

Appearance: Medium amber/copper and clear. Full, dense, creamy, ivory head with excellent retention. Leaves lace on the glass.

Flavor: Flavor is all malt at first – toffee, burnt caramel, and toasted bread. High melanoidin character. There is plenty of malt flavor, but not a lot of sweetness. That same blueberry spruce carries through from the aroma along with a hint of pine. Maple stays very low, noticeable mostly in the finish. Some buttery kettle caramelization. Bitterness is medium-high. Hop flavors present a Hallertauesque lemon-pickle spiciness as in the aroma. A touch of alcohol. Finish is dry and lingers on hop bitterness and burnt caramel melanoidin.

Mouthfeel: Medium to medium-high body. Medium carbonation. Some warming.

Overall Impression: A heavy dose of toasty, high-kilned malts – the kind I like. Maple could be a bit stronger, but then again, maybe I don’t actually want that. I’m happy with the malt. A rich and tasty treat that will go well with a chill fall night. Fire pit on the patio, anyone?

The official release for Herkulean Wood happens Tuesday, September 9th from 5-7pm at McKenzie Pub in Minneapolis. Other events are scheduled over the next couple weeks. Check the Summit event calendar for information.

Summit Union Series #3 – Southern Cape Sparkling Ale

Beer styles emerge for many reasons. Ingredient availability, economics, consumer taste, and water are all factors. Even climate can play a role, as in the development of “steam beer” in San Francisco where 19th-century lager brewers were unable to rely on frigid winters and ice to achieve cold fermentation and conditioning temperatures. Because these factors tend to be regional, beer styles also often begin as regional phenomenon.

And so it is with Sparkling Ale, the native-born style of Australia. From the earliest days of the Australian colony, beer was seen as a more wholesome and less intoxicating alternative to rum, whiskey and other spirits. A strong brewing industry, it was believed, would also have a favorable economic impact on the new colony, providing jobs and promoting agriculture. Brewing was encouraged and even subsidized with government grants.

Brewing in Australia was a difficult proposition at the time. Ingredient supply was sporadic and the warmer climate than that “back home” in England led to beer that was often subpar. This led to the closure of many of these original breweries. Those that survived sometimes adulterated their beer with opper sulphate, tobacco and cocculus indicus (a very bitter poison) to make up for their shortcomings.

Australian beer gained a negative reputation, leading to a growth in the market for imported beers, including the newly-rising lager beers. The warm climate created a demand from consumers for lighter, more refreshing brews, and lager beers filled that bill. Like the inventors of cream ale in the United States, ale brewers in Australia responded by creating a light, effervescent ale that came to be known as sparkling ale.

The style’s popularity was short lived. As lager beer continued to dominate, sparkling ale breweries closed, eventually leaving only one – the Cooper’s Brewery. Cooper’s Sparkling Ale is still available and until very recently was the only version of the style to be had in this country.

With its newest Union Series beer – Southern CapeSummit Brewing Company has brought us another, at least for a limited time. The Union Series is designed to showcase new and lesser known ingredients. In this case these new ingredients all hail appropriately from the southern hemisphere. Malts come from Australia and Chile, hops from New Zealand and South Africa. Here is Head Brewer Damian McConn giving an introduction to the new ale.

Here’s my notes:

Summit Southern Cape Sparkling AleSouthern Cape
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Australian Sparkling Ale
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
ABV: 4.4%
IBU: 47

Aroma: Malt centered with underlying fruity hop and ester compliment. Honey – like a sheet of beeswax. Fresh bread and graham cracker. Juicy fruit gum. Dried apricots. Light white-wine vinous notes.

Appearance: Medium gold and clear. 1 inch, creamy, white foam with excellent retention.

Flavor: Malt centered with more-than-balancing bitterness that lingers into the finish. Same honey notes from the aroma. Graham cracker and low toast. Sweetness is low. Hop bitterness comes midway, hitting the back of the tongue with a cutting sharpness. Hop flavor is low, providing a bit of spice and limey citrus. Subtle stone-fruit esters round it out. The end is all hops, with long-lingering bitterness dominating the dry finish.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Medium-high carbonation. Light astringency.

Overall Impression: Delicate but forceful somehow at the same time. A super-dry finish and slightly higher-than-normal carbonation keeps it light and lively on the tongue. The waxy honey notes ground it. Bitterness is stronger than I personally would prefer, but not enough to stop me from drinking it. For some reason I have the urge to make salad dressing with this. Hmmmm…..