Tasting Notes: A Bunch of IPAs

I have been feverishly writing tasting notes of late. Nearly every new beer I drink gets the full treatment. Slips of paper with hastily written, barely legible scribbles litter my house. Sometimes I get around to typing them up. I’ve got them, so I figure I should do something with them. And as I have been ignoring this blog for some time, this seemed a good place to put them. And so I offer you a bunch of IPAs to start.

Here’s my (raw and unedited) notes:

Red Line
Torque Brewing, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
Style: Red IPA
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
6.5% ABV
60 IBU

Aroma: Caramel malt and bread crust. Low impression of sweetness. Electrical fire phenolic. Moderate citrus peel and herb spice hop aroma. Low minty. No alcohol.

Appearance: Dark amber/red and brilliant. Full, off-white to ivory foam with excellent retention.

Flavor: Malt hop in good balance with favor to hops. Hop bitterness is high to medium-high. Sharp and spicy. Hop flavor is high – spicy, grapefruit pith, resinous. Same electrical fire phenolic from aroma. Finish is off dry with lingering bitterness and low caramel/toast malt. Malt is caramel and bread crust with low sweetness.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium carbonation. Medium-low astringency.

Overall Impression: Needed to be consumed sooner as that electrical fire phenol is obtrusive. Not yet undrinkable.

Hop Ridge IPA
Alaskan Brewing Company, Juneau, Alaska
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
7.3% ABV
57 IBU

Aroma: Hop forward. Pineapple and lemon pulp. Low herbal. Hollow-stem plant. Fruity and herbal. Minty. Very low sweetness. Low fruity esters. Green Melon. Gooseberry.

Appearance: Pale gold. Hazy. Medium, fluffy, white head with good retention.

Flavor: Hop forward. Moderate bitterness. High hop flavor – green melon, green plants, green berries, pineapple, herbs-mint. Very low malt sweetness. Very low neutral grain malt flavor. Finish is very dry with lingering melon, mint and green plants. Clean fermentation. Pineapple and lemon come in as it warms up.

Mouthfeel: Light to medium-light body. Medium-high carbonation. Low astringency. No alcohol. Not creamy.

Overall Impression: So green. All about green things. Would be great with cucumber or mint. A leaf of basil?

Spruce IPA
Alaskan Brewing Company, Juneau, Alaska
Style: American IPA with Spruce Tips
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
7% ABV

Aroma: Hops lead, blended with spruce. Tangerine and orange pulp. Minty herbs. Pine and blueberry. High fruitiness. Malt is nearly imperceptible. Low grainy sweetness under the fruit. Medium fruity esters. Very light alcohol – floral. As it warms the pine-tree spruce aromatic becomes more intense. Like walking in the woods.

Appearance: Full, creamy, ivory foam with excellent retention. Dark gold/light copper and clear.

Flavor: Similar to aroma. Hops lead, blended seamlessly with spruce. Blueberry up front leading to pulpy orange and tangerine with tropical fruits in the middle. Finishes with resinous pine and herbal mint. Finish is dry to just off-dry with lingering blueberry and pine resin with low bitterness. Bitterness generally is medium-high. Low sweetness. Malt is neutral grainy sweet. Moderate fruity esters. Bright tart-citrus hop notes ride the top layer.

Mouthfeel: Medium body. Medium carbonation. Low creaminess. Low astringency in the finish.

Overall Impression: Hops and spruce blend seamlessly in a fruity extravaganza. Pine tar in the finish is on the edge of off-putting. As it is, it adds a sense of bitterness in an IPA with otherwise relatively low bitterness.

Mocha IPA
Stone Brewing Co., Escondido, California
Style: Double IPA with coffee & cocoa
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
9% ABV

Aroma: Citrus and tropical fruit leads – juicy mangos and pineapple. With a long sniff, coffee emerges to take its place. The two battle for the top spot. Medium sweetness. Stone fruit. Low, grainy-sweet malt. Medium fruity esters.

Appearance: Full, creamy, off-white head. Excellent retention. Dark gold and hazy.

Flavor: Cocoa takes charge in the palate. Cocoa to start, with apricot and stone fruit enveloped. Cold press coffee comes midway and stays to the finish. Bitterness is high, but balanced by medium malt sweetness. Squishy fruit – mango, apricot, pineapple syrup. Finish is off-dry with lingering coffee, chocolate and fruit.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full body. Low alcohol warmth. Medium-high carbonation. Low creaminess.

Overall Impression: What an interesting beer. It could have been a train wreck. Instead it’s like eating chocolate covered fruit while sipping coffee. No element overpowers. All work in harmony and have a moment at the center. That said, a full 12-ounce bottle was about six ounces too many.

Ghost Hammer IPA
Stone Brewing Co., Escondido, California
Style: American IPA
Serving Style: 12 oz. can
6.7% ABV
56 IBU

Aroma: Hops full on. Floral/spicy noble old world character with lemon citrus overtones. Low orange melon notes. Malt has almost worty character – grainy sweetness with dark sugar, low caramel. Smells like when the hops go into the kettle. Moderate fruity esters.

Appearance: Full, creamy, off-white head with >> retention. Dark gold and hazy.

Flavor: Hops in the lead. Very floral – geranium/rose. Low resiny notes. Earth. Peppery spice. Licorice. Bitterness is low and doesn’t quite balance the malt. Malt is neutral grainy sweet. Sweetness is medium and tapers off in the finish. Lipid juice or canned fruit syrup. Moderate orange esters. Low lemony highlight in the finish. Finish is off dry with floral, lemon citrus, orange and long-lingering bitterness

Mouthfeel: Medium body, Low carbonation. Low astringency. No alcohol warming

Overall Impression: This is just kind of a mushy mess. A ton of hop fruit and slightly sweet malt that lacks crispness and snap. The flavors all just mush together. No clear definition. Too much going on, and yet so uninteresting.

Hops & Rec
Offshoot Beer Co., Placentia, California (offshoot of The Bruery)
Style: Double IPA
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
8.1% ABV

Aroma: Hops lead. Juicy fruits – lemons, lemon peel, pineapple, ripe mango. Medium malt sweetness. Grainy/doughy. Low herbal notes – sage or mint. Low alcohol – vaporous. Low fruity esters.

Appearance: Light gold. Cloudy. Medium-full, rocky, white foam with good retention.

Flavor: Hops in full charge. Similar to aroma. Brighter citrus notes first – lemon, lemon peel, lime. Juicy tropical fruits follow – pineapple, low ripe mango. Subtle herbal/floral notes – mint/geranium. Bitterness is medium-high – smooth. Malt flavor is low – grainy sweet, almost an afterthought. Alcohol is low and mellow. Off-dry finish lingers on fruity hops and smooth bitterness.

Mouthfeel: Medium body – light for 8%. Medium carbonation. Low alcohol warming. Very low astringency. Very low creaminess.

Overall Impression: My kind of double IPA – all about hop flavor and aroma, not so much about hop bitterness. I wish there was a bit more malt intrigue here, but the hop expression really is layered and lovely. Nice interplay of fruit and herbs. Deceptive in its strength.



Some Thoughts About Being Mean

The other day a friend told me that I’m mean. His actual word was “cunty.”

My friend is not in the beer industry, but he has friends who are. Something I wrote or said – or maybe several things I have written or said – upset those friends. I am too negative. I am too hard to please. I’m never satisfied.

I had a similar experience after Facebook posting my thoughts about a brewery in another state. An owner messaged me with a long missive expressing surprise at my assessment of their ales. He left a phone number, so I called. I sat through a 20-minute harangue. He had no interest in hearing my thoughts. I could say nothing more than, “I stand by my experience of your beers.”

Maybe I am too negative. Maybe my words are sometimes harsh. It’s true that I have become a bit jaded about the beer scene. But part of my role in that scene is critic. When faced with obvious process flaws and off-flavors, it is my job to call it out. Indeed, I have heard increasing demand from consumers and long-time industry professionals to do more of that.

The criticism of my critique is often that I’m not giving brewers a chance. I’m too quick to name the problems. These brewers are young and passionate. They have dreams. I’m stepping on these dreams when all they need is time to work things out. It’s a difficult step to go from brewing ten gallons at a time to brewing ten barrels. Rather than publicly calling them out, I should go in and talk to them.

In what other industry do we say this? Imagine a newly minted ladder company led by young people with a passion for helping people climb. Their stepladders look great, but a manufacturing flaw prevents them from being unfolded. Would we say to those ladder makers, “You’re young. You’re passionate. You just need time to work it out. Until you do, I’ll keep buying your ladders.” If Consumer Reports tested such a ladder they would give a scathing review. They wouldn’t call the company to gently walk them through the product’s flaws.

Somehow though, we’ve decided that beer is different. Passion, dreams, and the difficulties of scaling up are reason enough to learn the craft on the drinker’s dime. Inexperienced brewers should be protected from the consequences of their inability to deliver a quality product.

I reject this. Like any other manufactured product – and beer is a manufactured product – it’s not impossible to get it right the first time. Sure some recipe tweaks might be needed. But there is no excuse for process flaws and obvious off-flavors. It’s simply a matter of knowing what you’re doing.

Perhaps before opening a brewery, make the effort to learn how to brew. Before making the leap from your five-gallon Igloo cooler to a state of the art rig, learn how all that fancy equipment works. Go to brewing school. Work in a brewery. Get down and dirty with the chemistry of beer making. Learn about water. Nibble on grains. Train yourself to recognize the flavors that should not be there. If you don’t want to develop that expertise yourself, hire someone who has it.

Get your shit together and I’ll stop being a cunt.

Clockwerks Brewing: A First Look

clockwerksbrewinglogo300x300A brewery’s tap handles are its mark. They make a statement about the brewery’s identity. The row of handles is often the first thing a beer drinker looks at when walking into a bar. A distinctive handle instantly alerts consumers to the brewery’s presence in the lineup and draws them in to purchase a pint.

And so it was curious when I walked into the recently opened Clockwerks Brewing and saw a row of handles appropriated from other breweries. Rather than expressing the steampunk aesthetic of Clockwerks, there they were, boldly declaring the brand identities of Abita, Alaskan, Goose Island, Tallgrass, Odell and Sam Adams, but painted gold as though an attempt had been made to hide the fact.

What does it say about a brewery that gives so little thought to such an important brand identifier? The appropriation of other’s branding certainly raises questions about the owners’ ethics – not to mention the potential legal issues involved. Tap handles are the property of the brewery that produced them – reuse is theft. Tap handle design is protectable under trademark law, raising the ugly specter of infringement lawsuits.

But to me this omission sends a more important and disturbing message. By neglecting this important detail of identity, the proprietors are signaling, “We don’t care.”

The space at Clockwerks has a similarly appropriated feel. It’s not an unpleasant space – although the combination of dim, yellow-tinged lighting and copper/gold, metallic paint did make it somehow difficult on my eyes. But it feels unfinished. It’s as though the steampunk vision has been vaguely superimposed onto a room intended for another use. The look is there in the color scheme and clockwork wall sculpture. But touches like exposed mechanicals, Edison lightbulbs and fixtures made of plumbing pipe are so commonplace now that they don’t really take it where I, at least, want it to go. Steampunk is a busy aesthetic filled with anachronistic excess. Missing are the gaudy Victorian era gewgaws and shining brass Rube Goldberg contraptions. Just a few small touches of this type would complete the theme. It’s like the tap handles. If steampunk is your identity, do it all the way. Detail. Identity. But maybe that’s just me.

Clockwerks’ website is another piece that suggests a lack of attention to detail and concern. Unless there is some secret navigation that I can’t find, it consists of just a cover page with the logo, address and open hours. There is no information about the beers, events, menus, history, or anything else. The Facebook page reveals more, but even there the information is limited.

What about the beer? The focus at Clockwerks is lower-alcohol, sessionable ales and lagers. I was there on two consecutive nights and drank a number of the available beers. Once common theme tied them all together – fermentation issues.

Any brewer worth their salt will tell you that fermentation is the most important step in brewing. The entire process of brewing is all about creating the best environment for yeast to do its thing. Fermentation effects every aspect of beer character from color and body to malt character, sweetness and the expression of hop flavor and bitterness. Proper attention to fermentation is critical.

Attenuation is the term that refers to the amount of sugar that yeast consumes during fermentation. Under-attenuation – or incomplete fermentation – leaves behind a high level of residual sugar, resulting in a sticky-sweet beer that tastes like wort. It is the most common flaw that I find among “craft” brewers. Without exception under-attenuation was the signature character of the beers I tasted at Clockwerks. Other fermentation related issues can included excessive fruity esters and buttery diacetyl. These were also present.

I wasn’t actually there as a writer, so I didn’t take detailed notes. That’s also why I regrettably don’t have any pictures. But here are my quick recollections of a few of the beers I tried.

Kölsch – Three shades too dark for the style, under attenuated, overly fruity, diacetyl, too much toasted grain character, not enough bitterness or hop character.

ESB – Under attenuated, overly fruity, diacetyl, not enough hop bitterness or flavor.

Rye Pilsner – Under attenuated, diacetyl

Alt – Under attenuated, diacetyl, not enough hop bitterness of flavor.

Witbier – Under attenuated, overly fruity, heavy for the style

Clockwerks Brewing
25 North 4th Street
Minneapolis, MN 55401

M-Th 3pm-10pm
Fri 3pm-12am
Sat 12pm-12am
Sun 12pm-8pm

Dark(ness) Days at Surly Brewing?


As the “craft” beer movement – industry, marketing is more and more the name of the game. In 2009 I toured the Lagunitas brewery in Petaluma, California. Someone asked the tour guide how large their marketing budget was. The response was a chuckled, “We don’t have a marketing budget.”

Fast forward to today and every brewery – new, old, large, small – had better have a solid marketing and sales plan in place if they want to thrive. As competition intensifies, I suspect they will need them to merely survive.

Many breweries now hire PR firms. At some it is next to impossible, even (or maybe especially) for media, to communicate directly with someone from the brewery. All communications go through the PR representatives.

Surly Brewing is a case in point. Once upon a time it was relatively easy to get a question answered by owner Omar Ansari or former head brewer Todd Haug. Nowadays, even simple questions directed to personal emails receive responses from representatives at One Simple Plan, followed up by second emails inquiring if the needed information had been received. Typically the answer is no.

I don’t fault them for this. As frustrating as it might be for me, it is as it needs to be for them. As Surly grows, their time becomes increasingly valuable. As I already mentioned, marketing is now the name of the game and PR firms are part of it.

It could be argued that much of Surly’s success has come from marketing. I’m not knocking the beer. The beer is great. If it weren’t, the marketing would not have worked as well as it did. But Surly’s cantankerous image and “do it our way” persona appealed to drinkers at the beginning of the current “craft” revolution. Drinking Surly made one a rebel. The image captured the zeitgeist in a way that I think surprised even the folks at Surly. But they recognized it early, manipulated it, and were able to capitalize on that oeuvre. It was savvy marketing that built their brand.

In a piece for Mspmag.com about Haug’s resignation from Surly and subsequent hook-up with Three Floyds, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl opined that many of Surly’s more recent beers are decidedly un-surly. I would counter that this has always been the case and that it was marketing that made them seem so over the top. Hell is one of the brewery’s top-selling brands. It’s a simple, golden lager. The now-retired Bitter Brewer was a slightly Americanized English Bitter – hardly an extreme style. Bender is a brown ale. And Cynic is nothing more than a traditional Saison – and a comparatively uninteresting one at that. Surly’s lineup has always consisted largely of beers that did not go to extremes. The “extremes” were mostly minor tweaks and an aggressive public image.

Even the more extreme brews aren’t so extreme when viewed in a larger context. Furious was fierce for the region at the time of its release. But according to Haug, it was modeled on West Coast-style red ales – now called American Strong Ales by the BJCP – that already existed in abundance elsewhere. Think Bear Republic Rocket Red or Stone Arrogant Bastard. Abrasive is one of many double IPAs. Even Darkness has its antecedents – notably Three Floyd’s Dark Lord, which Haug will presumably now have a hand in brewing. But image and branding made the Surly beers feel bigger, bolder, and badder than they perhaps really were.

Todd Haug’s departure presents Surly with a dilemma. In her piece, Moskowitz Grumdahl quotes Haug as saying, “They marketed the shit out of me.” Indeed, Haug was the public face of Surly. I’m sure many Surly fans couldn’t identify Omar Ansari if they saw him. But everybody knows Todd Haug. Although he is one of the kindest and gentlest men in brewing, his outward demeanor – tat covered, goat bearded, heavy metal axe man – personified the Surly image. He looked the part of the devil’s spawn. He exuded an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Todd Haug put a personal face on Surly’s marketing.

So what is Surly to do now? I have no concern for the future of the beer. There are plenty of passionate and talented brewers there to keep the taps flowing. But what will become of the image? As the brewery gets bigger, it will be difficult to maintain the bearing of rebellious upstart. As people and entities mature that stance starts to look curmudgeonly. Even Stone Brewing’s arrogant attitude has softened of late. And who will be the public face that makes the marketing a tangible, touchable thing?

The Surly crew is smart. They clearly know how to market. I’m sure they’ll figure it out.

As a last tip of the hat to Todd, I’ll take a look at his last batches of Damien, Darkness, and Anniversary beer.

Here’s my notes:

Surly Damien 2016Damien
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: American Black Ale
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
6.5% ABV

Appearance: Opaque black. Faint ruby highlights. Appears clear. Full, creamy, tan head with excellent retention.

Aroma: Toasted bread. Coffee. Light Oreo cookie chocolate. Medium-high Melon and tangerine hop notes provide bright contrast to deep, rich roast malt character. Moderate impression of sweetness. Low alcohol. Low dark fruit esters. Pine.

Flavor: Malt forward with ample supporting hops. Chocolate – semi-sweet. Low coffee. Smooth café mocha. Low caramel and bread crust. Vanilla. Melon and tangerine hops bring bright contrast to the roasted malt. Lifting. Bitterness is medium to medium low. Low alcohol. Low fruity esters. Something vaguely vinous. Finish is dry with lingering chocolate and melon/citrus/pine hops.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. Creamy. Velvety. Medium carbonation. Not warming. Not astringent.

Overall Impression: Like a lightweight, less-intense black IPA. Smooth, velvety chocolate countered by bright tangerine/pine hops. Easy to drink and drink a few.

Surly Darkness 2016Darkness 2016
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Russian Imperial Stout
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
13% ABV

Aroma: Malt forward with moderate hop accompaniment. Coffee. Dry chocolate cookie. Licorice and dark fruits – raisins or dates. Alcohol is apparent – isopropyl. Moderate pine resin hops. Very low impression of sweetness.

Appearance: Voluminous, creamy, tan foam. Cascades in glass. Excellent retention. Black and completely opaque. Appears clear. Faint ruby highlights.

Flavor: Roast malt driven with subtler, malty sub-flavors and moderate hop support. Chocolate dominates – dark chocolate syrup with dry chocolate cookie at the end. Low coffee grounds. Caramel. Similar date/raisin dark fruits from the aroma. Licorice. Burnt black malt character in the finish, but not the primary roast note. Subtle undercurrents of vanilla and maple. Maybe even a hint of blackberries? Medium-high sweetness. Hop bitterness is medium-low. Tar. Medium-low, pine resin hop flavor. Alcohol is apparent – helps cut the sweetness without crossing the line to solvent. Finish is semi-sweet to sweet with lingering cookie-like, dry roast, dark fruit, and caramel.

Mouthfeel: Full body. Smooth and silky. Medium-high alcohol warming. Low carbonation. Not astringent.

Overall Impression: Okay, I’ll be that guy that I often deride. It’s not as good as last year. My notes from last year are much the same as this year. But last year the pine felt more intense, the overall feeling was less sweet, less heavy. At least in my memory. But I’m probably wrong. Still, this is good. Alcohol is high, but not quite intrusive. Love the chocolate syrup. And the satin texture is to die for. As always, whacks you in the head at first and then comes back to deliver lots of subtle complexity.

Surly TenTen
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Old ale aged on toasted sassafras
Serving Style: 750 ml bottle
10.5% ABV
63 IBU

Aroma: Floral alcohol. Bread. Chocolate. Toffee and brown sugar. Dark fruits. Vaporous alcohol is the dominant note. Camphor. High caramel with background vanilla. Very light earthy/herbal hops. Dark fruit esters – date and cherry.

Appearance: Full, creamy, beige head with good retention. Reddish brown/mahogany with red highlights. Clear.

Flavor: Malt forward with low hop accompaniment and alcohol. Malt is the dominant flavor – caramel and vanilla prominent. Background notes of milk chocolate and dark fruits. Alcohol is definitely a component – floral and verging on solvent/hot. Hop bitterness is medium, but still remains subservient to the massive malt. Low herbal/earthy hop flavors. Dark fruit esters – dates and maybe candied cherry. Sweetness is medium-high. Finish is off-dry to semi-sweet with lingering bitterness, alcohol, caramel and cherry fruit. Chocolate covered cherry or Brach’s chocolate covered cherries. Wood impression is missing. Or is that maybe a little root-beer character in there?

Mouthfeel: Full body. Low carbonation. Medium-high alcohol warming, but not quite hot. Low astringency.

Overall Impression: Let it warm up for a long while. Complexity doesn’t come through until its temperature is up there. Alcohol is a bit of a distraction, would do well with some age perhaps. Try it again in two years. Where’s the toasted sassafras? Am I missing something? I admit that I don’t know what toasted sassafras tastes like, so maybe I am. But my Boy Scout experience with sassafras leads me to expect root beer flavors. A generally pleasant sipper, but think it’s one of those rare beers that could be better in a couple years.

Surly Brewing Co. #Merica!

Two things.

American lager wasn’t always bland and insipid.

The use of corn and rice in beer is not inherently bad.

In the mid-1800s, political upheaval in Germany caused a massive burst of German immigration to this country. Among the thinkers, craftsmen, and businessmen were brewers – lots of them. Of course they started breweries to supply their compatriots with beer – the full-flavored, lager beer to which they were accustomed in the old country.

But there was a problem. American barley was not the same as that grown in Germany. American 6-row barley had a much higher protein content than the 2-row barley back home. Excessive protein makes for cloudy beer with a thick mouthfeel that is inappropriate for the refreshing lagers they were making. It had to be cut with something.

These resourceful brewers turned to another local and abundantly available commodity – corn and rice. Low in protein, these adjuncts supplied fermentable sugar while lightening the body. Their use wasn’t an attempt to cheapen the beer. It was a solution to a problem, one that improved the beer.

Through prohibition American brewers produced the full gamut of traditional, German lager styles. They made pilsner, helles, bock and doppelbock, as well as all the others. These beers were true to the style of the day, but with an American twist.

Then came prohibition. Spirits became the drink of choice, with mixers added to cover the harsh taste of bathtub booze. The new mixed drinks were light and spritzy. After thirteen years, that profile changed the American palate. The people wanted a lighter quaff.

When beer became legal again in 1933, brewers obliged with lighter brews. It didn’t happen all at once. Some surviving breweries continued in the old ways. But many reduced the alcohol, body and bitterness to satisfy the prevailing taste.

World War II furthered the trend. Faced with ingredient rationing, brewers cut their products even more. Beer in cans was shipped to troops overseas, who took a liking to the lighter brews. By the end of the war when the soldiers came home, another palate shift had occurred. Lighter adjunct lagers were now the norm.

The shift went even further in the 1970s with the mass introduction of “lite” lagers. “Tastes great! Less filling!” became the battle cry of calorie conscious beer drinkers. Thanks in part to heavy marketing, light beer picked up steam. It was lighter and it didn’t tax the taste buds. You could drink a lot of it. And you had to drink a lot of it if you wanted to catch any kind of buzz.

And so we arrived at the blasé beer landscape of the last decades of the 20th-century.

But there was a bubbling undercurrent. Emboldened by the legalization of homebrewing in 1976, regular people were pursuing bigger flavor in their basements, kitchens, and garages. Among their output was the resurrection of pre-prohibition style American lagers.

Once exclusively the realm of homebrewers, the style has recently gained popularity among commercial brewers. A few good examples have cropped up. Anchor California Lager and Coors Batch 19 are both available in the Twin Cities.

Now Surly Brewing Company has tossed its hat into the ring with #Merica! Their version is brewed with North American pilsner malt from Country Malt Group, flaked corn, and all-American Warrior and Willamette hops. It clocks in at 5% ABV. Surly doesn’t say what the IBU rating is. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 10 to 50. 50 is certainly too high. I think 10 is likely way too low. Call it somewhere in between.

Here’s my notes:

Surly #Merica!#Merica!
Surly Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Pre-Prohibition American Lager
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
5% ABV

Aroma: Bright lemon/lime citrus hops lead, followed by mellow, grainy malt and low corn. White bread. Spicy/floral hops come in later – licorice and mint.

Appearance: Pale yellow and mostly clear. Full, fluffy white foam with good to excellent retention.

Flavor: Malt and hops in balance. Malt is white bread with very light toasted grain flavor. Low corn. Bitterness is low to medium-low, but is enhanced by the high attenuation. It is balanced by a soft touch of sweetness. Spicy/floral hop flavors are medium-low with a high note of lemon zest. The finish is very dry with lingering bitterness, spice, and grain.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. High carbonation. Low astringency.

Overall Impression: A slightly more gutsy summer lager. Bitterness feels a bit higher than some others. Body is a bit fatter than others. But it still has the refreshing character that makes pale lagers so delightful.

New Summer Brews from Summit

Staying true to its promise of celebrating the 30th Anniversary right, Summit Brewing Company keeps cranking out the new beers. The two newest are sure to cool you off as the steamy heat of a southern Minnesota summer sets in.

Zingiber Cream Ale is the 22nd release in the Unchained Series. Brewer Christian Dixon has whipped up a traditional American cream ale spiced up with organic ginger from Hawaii. His last unchained beer was the polarizing Herkulean Woods. That funky fall beer was one that folks either loved (like me) or hated. I suspect this offering will be significantly less controversial.

Keller Pils is the second release in the 30th Anniversary Series, following on the heels of the most-delicious Double IPA. This one is a light, summer-sippable, unfiltered, German pilsner that features heirloom German malts and new varieties of German hops.

There are definite similarities between these two brews – one all-German and the other all-American with a German influence. The base ingredients are similar but not the same. The flavor profiles follow suit – similar, but not the same. They should do nicely to fit the many moods of summer, while maintaining that sunny-patio drinkability.

Can_UN22Unchained #22: Zingiber Cream Ale
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Cream Ale with Ginger
Serving Style: 12 oz. can
5.3% ABV
35 IBU

Aroma: Bright, lemon/lime and spice hops over bread/bread-dough malt. Balanced. Yeasty aroma adds to the bread dough impression. Low sulfur. Low corn.

Appearance: Full, creamy-interrupted, just-off-white foam with excellent retention. Medium-gold. Brilliant.

Flavor: Malt forward with low to medium-low spicy hops and supporting ginger. Malt is white bread with very low toasted grain. Low corn. Low sweetness. Bitterness is low, but amplified by the low, zip and snap of ginger. Low to medium-low spicy hops with a touch of lemon citrus. Finish is dry with lingering ginger and lemon.

Mouthfeel: Light body. Medium-high carbonation.

Overall Impression: A light, refreshing, and balanced summer ale. Clean, crisp, sharp. Sulfury nose was a bit intense at first, but blew off. Ginger gives just a hint of spice and flavor without overwhelming the beer. It’s not a “ginger beer.”

Can_KellerPilsKeller Pils
Summit Brewing Company, St. Paul, Minnesota
Style: Pale Kellerbier
Serving Style: 12 oz. can
5.1% ABV
38 IBU

Aroma: Mix of bready malt and spicy-lemon-herbal hops with low yeasty sulfur. Malt is bready with low toasted grain. Combined with yeast it gives a slight impression of bread dough. Medium hops – spicy and herbal with low note of lemon.
Appearance: Full, meringue-like, white foam with good retention. Medium gold and mostly clear.

Flavor: Very much follows the aroma. Sweetness is low. Bitterness is medium-high, but gently lingers. Spicy/herbal hops balance the malt base of bread and toasted grain. Low yeastiness. Low green apple. Low lemon citrus. Finish is very dry with lingering lemon, herbs, and bitterness.

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

Overall Impression: Light, sharp, and refreshing. A crisp and hoppy summer alternative with smoothing malt and yeast.

Minnesota Cider Week at Town Hall

OSP-TOWNHALL-Cider Week Logo 2016Every once in a while you attend an event that just gets you all revved up. That was the case for me with a recent media preview for Cider Week at Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery. In attendance were eleven Minnesota cider makers, there to talk cider and sample out their wares to eager, Twin Cities media hacks.

I almost didn’t go. Like the idiot that I can sometimes be, I misread the invitation and went first to the wrong place. The event was only scheduled to run for an hour. By the time I got to the right place, it would be almost over. As I drove off, I thought to myself, “Screw it. I’ll just go back home.”

I’m really glad that I didn’t go home. The thing had me so jazzed up that I kept a few of the cider makers there long after the official event had ended. When I left the Town Hall Tap, I was totally juiced about cider.

The best cider is made from heirloom variety apples that are meant for juicing, not for eating. They provide the perfect balance of bitter, sweet, acid and tannin. For a long time these apples weren’t grown here in Minnesota. But over the last few years, several acres of them have been developed. Those apples are starting to find their way into local ciders.

Once cider maker using them is Milk & Honey Ciders in Cold Spring. They source most of their apples from their own five-acre orchard. The rest come from partner orchards in Wisconsin. They use several varieties of apple in their ciders, including Kingston Black, Arkansas Black, Chestnut Crab, and Dabinett. Milk & Honey ciders are fermented dry and feature a nice balance of acid and tannin.

During cider week, be on the lookout for Kingston Cuvée. This lovely cider is made with mostly Kingston Black apples. Also delicious was Grand Cru, made with all Dabinett. Both of these ciders won silver medals at the Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition (GLINTCAP). Milk & Honey ciders will be featured in a cider dinner and seminar at Town Hall Tap on Tuesday, June 7th.

Also featured in that dinner is Sweetland Orchard in Webster, Minnesota. This family run orchard uses both heirloom and culinary apples in their cider – all Minnesota-grown. They planted their first cider apple varieties in 2010. Northern Spy is a single-variety cider that features high acidity for a bright tartness and is fermented to dryness. Drink this! Scrumpy is their mixed-apple cider with rhubarb and tart cherries. The cherry character is oddly very clear and subtle at the same time.

I’m always happy to talk with Jim Watkins from Sociable Cider Werks. He shared some interesting news and a great new product. Shandy Apple is the first seasonal offering that Sociable is putting in cans. Think shandy, but not sweet. It’s all about apples and lemon peel. It’s sure to be a summer favorite. My favorite Sociable cider, Spokewrench, has seen a recipe tweak that makes it even better. The stout-like, black malt flavors come through more clearly in the palate, giving more of that apple-chocolate blend that made that cider great to begin with. Sociable is entering into an alternating proprietorship arrangement with itself (essentially) to allow it to make apple wine. And they are expanding their barrel-aging program. All good news.

Another one to look out for during Cider Week is Number 12 Cider House in Buffalo, Minnesota. Their Sparkling Dry is my favorite. It’s a crazy complicated cider to make. They use ten apple varieties – all grown in Minnesota. Two different blends are fermented separately with different yeast strains. They are then blended together to create the final product. It’s definitely worth a try.

One of the more interesting cider makers at the event was Minneapolis-based Urban Forage Winery & Cider House. Their method is implied by the name. Urban Forage sources their apples from the city. They pick the apples from trees in various back yards and other city spaces. “Most people see them as a nuisance.” says cider maker Jeff Zeitler. “I see them as an asset.”

Their flagship Dry Apple Cider was intriguing. It was the only still cider that was on sample at the event. Fermented to dryness, it was full of fruit and had an interesting “poopy” aromatic from fermentation – but in a good way. Their Sparkling Pear Cider was not my favorite, showing what I considered to be some fermentation flaws. I’ll reserve final judgement on their cider. But the East Lake Street taproom is close enough to walk to from my house, so I suspect I might be doing a bit of additional sampling at some point.

Town Hall’s Cider Week runs from June 6 – 11, with events all week. Check these out!

Ciders Take Over the Taps at Town Hall Locations. Town Hall Brewery, Town Hall Lanes and Town Hall tap will each have at least 12 ciders on tap all week.

Tuesday, June 7, 7:00 PM – Cider Dinner and Seminar at Town Hall Tap
Enjoy a cider-paired course dinner from Town Hall Tap featuring presentations from cider makers representing Minnesota cider makers Milk & Honey and Sweetland. Tickets are $65 and limited — call (612) 339-8696.

Thursday, June 9 – Minnesota Cider Competition
Cider makers are invited to submit their homemade ciders for prizes, including a large cider collection.  Register and find more information at http://townhallcidercomp.com.  There is a $7 entry fee.
• Deadline to enter is 7 p.m., Sunday, June 5 — submit entries at Northern Brewer on Lyndale Ave. in Minneapolis. Participants must submit two bottles per category entered (Dry, Sweet and Other).
• Awards ceremony is 7 p.m., Thursday, June 9, at Town Hall Tap.

Saturday, June 11, 1-5 PM – Cider Fest at Town Hall Brewery and Republic 7 Corners
Discover hard-to-find ciders alongside favorites from local, national and international producers including Keepsake, Milk & Honey, Sweetland, Wyndfall, Yellow Belly and more. Tickers are $35 for unlimited samples and a Cider Week glass. Tickets: www.tempotickets.com/ciderfest

Indeed Brewing Lavender, Sunflower Honey, Dates

Never take tasting notes at face value – mine included. Palates are individual. There is as much as 30-percent variation in olfactory receptors between any two individuals. I have no information on the subject, but I would also expect such variation in taste receptors. We all have particular flavor sensitivities. We all have blind spots in what we are able to perceive.

Other subjectivities come into play as well. Mood, setting, time of day, brand expectations, last food consumed, and a myriad other circumstances also affect our experience of a beer. Notes recorded on one day might not look the same as those recorded on another. The veracity of notes also depends on the taster’s ability to express the things they sense. Imprecise language will yield misleading results despite the trueness of a person’s palate.

So it was with was my sampling of this year’s Lavender, Sunflower Honey, Dates from Indeed Brewing Company. I wrote two sets of notes. On the first sampling, my overall impression ended with the words, “I’ve had [this beer] other times and loved it. Right now, not so much.” There was a disconnect. Days later I took a second set of notes to verify my perception. Voilà, the beer that I’d so often enjoyed was back again.

Looking back through both sets of notes, the words were nearly the same. My sensory vocabulary is fairly decent. I’d accurately described the objective sensations I perceived. The description of the first beer matched the second. But somehow my subjective experience of it did not.

Had I stuck with my first set of notes, readers would have been left with a negative impression. Going with my second would have the opposite effect. What follows here is a combination of the two. The objective observations of aroma, appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel are mostly from the first night. The subjective overall impression is mostly from the second, with a wink and a nod to the first.

Here’s my notes:

Lavender, Sunflower Honey and DatesLavender, Sunflower Honey, Dates
Indeed Brewing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Style: Fruit and Vegetable Beer
Serving Style: 16 oz. can
7.2 ABV
20 IBU

Aroma: Flowers and toast. Lavender floats over the top, dominating early on. Dark honey character is clear and medium intensity – comes in the middle. Moderate impression of sweetness. Dates come low and late – forming a bottom to the aromatic tower. No hops. Low esters. Low alcohol that boosts the floral.

Appearance: Light to medium amber and brilliant. Full, creamy, off-white foam with excellent retention.

Flavor: Malty lead with other ingredients playing support. Sharp toast and caramel malt. Burnt caramel. Dark honey flavor and sweetness counters the sharpness. As with aroma, lavender forms a fluffy topper. Dates form a low, fruity middle. Bitterness is low. No hop flavor. Alcohol is noticeable – almost too prominent. It gives a slight burn. Low peppery notes come in late. Finish is off-dry with lingering honey, toasted malt, and alcohol.

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

Overall Impression: A potential train-wreck, this. But it avoids the crash. There is a lot going on here, but it all melds together nicely. The prominent alcohol is the one big detractor. It has a role to play in the overall profile, but steps just over the bounds that I would like for it to maintain. This is a beer that I have to be in the mood for and certainly not one that I would want to drink more than one in a sitting, but it’s a good one for late night contemplation

10,000 Minutes of Minnesota Craft Beer Week

MNMO_Craft-beer-week-logo_Minnesota Craft-Brewers-GuildIt’s Minnesota Craft Beer Week – 10,000 Minutes of MN Craft Beer!

I have to admit that this fact snuck up on me. I’ve been deeply engaged in non-beer things for the past several weeks and haven’t been paying much attention the beverage world. When someone asked me on Twitter what beer week events I was most looking forward to, my unexpressed response was, “There are events?”

Indeed there are events. Tap takovers, beer dinners, and special release parties are happening all over the state from now until May 15th. The Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild has a rather confusing calendar of them here. For a more readily understandable listing check out this Growler piece on the subject. If you want a super comprehensive listing of events happening throughout the state, I’ve uploaded an amazingly full spreadsheet of fun things to do that was supplied to me by the Brewers Guild. So much stuff!

I had the opportunity yesterday to sample some of the seasonal and one-off beers that will be on offer this week. Here are a few favorites.

Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery: Maibock and Hefeweizen. Two of my favorite beers from Town Hall. I once came into the brewpub particularly parched and slammed a pint of hefe. It’s that good and that easy to drink. I wouldn’t recommend slamming the Maibock, though. At least not if you want to keep drinking through the evening.

Finnegan’s: Freckled Rooster. This was not the beer I was expecting it to be. French farmhouse – I’m thinking malty with maybe a little bit of yeast character. Nope, this one is totally driven by yeast and is quite unique. A little bit of acidity. A whole lot of dry. A boatload of peppery hop and phenolic spice. Yum!

Hammerheart Brewing Company: Imperial Sköll Och Hati. Forget trying to pronounce it. Just order it by description. Big stout. Smoke. Bitter chocolate. A slight burnt edge.

Fair State Brewing Cooperative: Rye Falutin. A complex sour with loads of fruit – pear, lemon, apple cider – coupled with a small dose of barnyard, Brettanomyces funkiness.

Boom Island Brewing: Triple Brett. As long as we’re talking wild beers, try this one fermented with three different Brettanomyces strains. Not sour. Less funky. Lots o’ fruit – pineapple and pear.

Now get out there and drink some Minnesota beer.

Grain Belt Lock & Dam Lager

I love a good lager. Grain Belt Premium Lager is arguably Minnesota’s beer. The brand is deeply connected with Minnesota brewing history. I don’t especially like Grain Belt Premium Lager. It’s too sweet for my taste. I want my lager to be crisp and refreshing. Grain Belt to me is sugary and mouth-coating. To each their own, though.

Then along comes Grain Belt Lock & Dam Lager. Now this is a Grain Belt that I can sink my teeth into. (Can one sink one’s teeth into a beer?) It’s crisp. It’s bitter. It goes down smooth.

There is precious little information available about this beer from the folks at Schell’s. Only a promotional one-sheet that talks about the history of the St. Anthony Falls dam being the power source for the original Grain Belt Brewery in Northeast. What was the inspiration? Is it some old Grain Belt recipe? Or maybe a beer culled from the Schell’s brewing logs? What’s the deal with this beer?

I turned to Schell’s head brewer Dave Berg for answers. “The inspiration was Hopfenmalz.” he says. “It’s not the exact recipe, but it’s got a lot of similarities. Call it Hopfenmalz plus what I’ve learned in the past 7 years!”

Hopfenmalz was an amalgam of three styles, says Berg – Pilsner, Vienna lager, and pale ale. Lock & Dam follows suit. “It’s basically a Pilsner recipe with a bunch of Vienna malt that’s hopped like an old school pale ale. Just enough C-60 to give it a copper hue. The hop combination is new and old: Cascade, Smaragd, Calypso and Bravo. It’s 5% ABV and about 30-35 IBUs. It’s all-malt, by the way.”

There you have it.

Here’s my notes:

Lock & Dam LagerGrain Belt Lock & Dam Lager
August Schell Brewing Company, New Ulm, Minnesota
Style: Lager
Serving Style: 12 oz. bottle
5% ABV
30-35 IBU

Aroma: Spicy and lemon citrus hops dominate. Low, bread-dough, grainy malt underneath. Low perception of sweetness. Low sulfur. Low corny DMS.

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

Flavor: Malt and hops in approximately equal balance. Medium-level maltiness – grainy, cracker, low toasted grain. Very low corny DMS. Sweetness is low. Bitterness is medium-low to medium. Hop flavors follow the aroma – lemon citrus and pepper/anise spice. Finish is dry with lingering toasted grain and hop spice.

Mouthfeel: Medium-light to medium body. Medium-high carbonation.

Overall Impression: Crisp, clean, and balanced. Toasted grain makes a delightful complement to the peppery spice of the hops. Not quite a pilsner or Vienna lager. Too hoppy for a helles. I’ll just call it a delicious summer lager.