Archive for the ‘Beer’ Category

Thoughts on New England Beer

May 1, 2011

I grew into beer in Vermont, drinking New England beers. One of my first real beer loves was Catamount Ale, which used to be brewed in White River Junction but is now defunct. Long Trail was emerging on the scene about the time I was leaving Vermont, and it was a good brew we really enjoyed, but it wasn’t Catamount. McNeill’s brewery was also starting production about the time we left. McNeill’s, formerly Three Dollar Dewey’s, was the bar that really turned my beer world around (and Ray originally brewed with Catamount before he began brewing his own) and opened my eyes to the big wonderful world of malt and hops. So I’ve always had a soft spot for New England brewers.

Fact is, though, they didn’t really hold up once I moved away and my beer horizons expanded. For instance, most of the beers I loved in Vermont really didn’t hold up once I started tasting those amazing west coast ales. I moved away in 1990 as the beer world was quickly expanding, and my awareness was also expanding (thanks in large part to the Saturday Night beer club at Cafe Brenda in Minneapolis where I worked for many years–the perfect way to relax after long busy nights at the restaurant). My love of Vermont beers became more nostalgic than anything (although nostalgia plays an important part in the beers we love). After I moved away, I did get back to Vermont pretty regularly through the 90s and it was always a pleasure, say, to revisit McNeill’s brewery or have a Long Trail but on the whole the New England beer scene seemed to be losing ground. Then I barely visited during the ’00s.

So it was interesting to be back in Vermont recently to both see what was happening in the scene in general, and to revisit some of my old favorite beers. I sensed a world divided. As I mentioned, Catamount is no more. Long Trail seems to be fluorishing, but the beers are pretty uninspired. Otter Creek, which was also emerging about the time I left, falls into the same camp–decent but uninspired beers. In fact, during my first week in Vermont, that was my sense of New England beer in general: Long Trail, Otter Creek, Smuttynose, Harpoon were all fairly disappointing. I went to the Vermont Pub in Burlington which opened about the time I left as well–it wasn’t great at that point but I thought I’d see where it had gone, and it had gone from mediocre to worse. I really thought the beer here was pretty bad and the ambience even worse. Flat Street Brewery in Brattleboro was really pretty bad. My visit to McNeill’s (which I blogged about earlier) was good, some of his beers were quite wonderful, some less so, but that quirky Brattleboro charm had kind of run off the place at least on that Friday night. I found a few newer local brewers, Rock Art, Trout River, Lake Placid, Shipyardbut the first beers I had from any of these places were mediocre as well.

After a fairly disappointing first week, though, things did get much better the second week. First, I spent a day in Montpelier and had some beers and lunch at the Threepenny Taproom. This place is a real find, and I really wish it had been there when I was at Vermont College (how life would have been different to hang out here instead of Julio’s or Charlie-O’s). A great draft list and an even better list and a small but creative daily menu. The staff knew their shit and were really pleasant. I had previously had a few Allagash beers from Maine, and they’d generally left me lukewarm, but I sampled their barrel-aged Curieux–holy crap that was good! This is also where I discovered Hill Farmstead, a small but really creative brewery doing some amazing work. I sampled two fabulous IPA’s. After Threepenny, I also found some of the better beers in some of the local portfolios. For instance, I found some very good Rock Art beers: Rock Art brews: their Vermonster is a really nice malty barleywine and their Belvidere and their ESB2 are both excellent imperials; Lake Placid’s Ubu is a solid English Strong Ale; Long Trail’s Double Bag is a much stronger IPA than their regular IPA. My last find in Vermont was Burlington’s Flat Bread/Zero Gravity brewery. I had lunch there my last day in Vermont and was really happy to end that way, a really good IPA, an  even better Imperial, and a good belgian tripel.

My sense, then, is that in general New England breweries are a little behind other areas of the country, but there are some exciting things going on. It’s a little harder to find the gems here than other areas of the country, but they’re out there, and I’m looking forward to seeing what creative brewers like Hill Farmstead will end up doing. I think I need to go back, this time with MB in the summer so we can do some hiking, visit the old swimming holes, and do some serious beer research.

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The Batch Sparge

April 5, 2011

In my last post I mentioned that I was trying out “batch” sparging for my all-grain brewing. Today I put that beer into a secondary fermenter, so I had a chance to taste it and assess the process. For homebrewing purposes, I can’t see not going with a batch sparge method. It took half the time (at most), it was easier with far less to monitor (for instance, the ph of the sparge is much more easily maintained), it takes less equipment, temperature is much more easily controlled, you don’t have to worry about stuck run-offs, and judging from the beer so far it works great. I have plenty of malt character to the IPA I brewed; unless there’s something I’m missing, I won’t bother with the more traditional sparging methods unless I go pro. The only real downside I see is that you need to compensate about 5% for the slightly reduced efficiency of your run-off. If I ever go pro (some dreams never die) then that 5% is profits, but for a 5- or 10-gallon batch of beer we’re talking an extra dollar. I’ll gladly pay.

Here was my method:

I heated 40 oz water for each lb of grain (in this case, I had 12 lbs grain total, so I had 480 oz of water or 15 qts/3,75 gallons) to about 180 degrees. I put this into an insulated cooler/mash tun to preheat it. When the water cooled to 163 I added my grains (the grains will drop the temperature about 9 degrees, and I was shooting for a 154 degree rest). I stirred thoroughly, added some gypsum to get the ph right, and let sit. The rest temperature ended a bit low, so I took about two quarts and heated it up, added it back in and the target temperature was spot on and stayed that way for the hour it took for full starch conversion.

While the grains were mashing, I heated up the sparge water. There are, of course, careful calculations designed to get you to the 6 gallon wort that you’re shooting for (how much is lost to grain absorption etc) but my friend suggested going with an 8 gallon total and taking note of final product, adjusting accordingly for next batches. I went with this method, heating up 4.25 gallons of water to 170 degrees in two batches. When all the starches had been converted, I added the first batch of 170 degree water, stirred thoroughly and let sit as a minor “mash-out” temperature rise. I then put the other pot of water on to heat up to 170 and went ahead and opened up the spigot full force. As the first few quarts came out, I recirculated them back into the mash until the run-off was nice and clear. At that point, I simply let the whole batch run out into the pot. By the time the first sparge was done, the second round of water was ready to go, so I put that into the mash bed. I then put the first half of the wort onto the stove to start warming it up to a boil, as I went through the exact same process (recirculating the cloudy first run-offs) with the second half of the wort. When that was done, I added it to the pot already beginning to boil. The final wort was almost exactly 6 gallons which with evaporation gave me a final batch of beer just above 5 gallons at almost exactly the gravity I was shooting for. Notice that you don’t have to maintain sparge water temperatures as it slowly drains through the grains (which really is the most difficult aspect of homebrewing all-grain in my book). You do need two large kettles since you heat sparge and collect wort in two different batches, but most of you all-grain brewers already have that I imagine. If not, it’s a minor expense for the ease of this process.

I used to be an all-grain brewer back in the late 90s, but life got in the way (damned PhD and then real job) and I really wondered if I’d ever have the time to brew all-grain again. Frankly, this is not much harder and doesn’t take that much more time than using malt extract. And then the beer is all yours: a recipe you can design and truly call your own. It’s the difference between bread makers (which certainly make fine tasting bread) and baking your own. I like the feel of kneading bread; it’s therapeutic. So, too, is that magical, steamy, aromatic process of turning grains into sugar into beer.

All Grain Brewing

March 29, 2011

My last beers have been, if I do say so myself, extraordinary. My double IPA is one of my best. My farmhouse is light, fresh and tasty, and my hybrid honey biere de garde is a unique beer. My Belgian Strong Golden is aging nicely and just about ready to bottle. So, my brewing confidence is full force right now; I’ve said for a few brews that the next one would venture back into all grain, but clearly that hasn’t been the case. Until now. My Mount Vernon brewery is well stocked and I’ve got the layout figured out, confidence is high, so today I brewed a medium gravity, moderately hopped all-grain IPA. This is an all-chinook hops ale, an experiment I’m starting to really get to know my different hop varieties (the Mikkeller series of single-hop beers has also helped me with this, but it’s also made me want to brew a similar series).

Grain Bill:
10 lb 2-row
1 lb Belgian pale malt
.75 Belgian caramel pils
.25 Briess caramel 120 degree

In my previous all-grain incarnation, I stuck very firmly to the traditional model of sparging. I have been persuaded in my reading, though, to work with a “batch sparge” method in which the sparge is done at full speed (rather than the slow model in which the brewer maintains the level of water in the mash tun as it drains). The two big pluses to this method are speed and no stuck mashes; the con, of course, is a potential loss of efficiency leading to a lower gravity than a recipe might call for. Most of what I’ve read suggested that the loss of efficiency is not that great and can easily be countered by adding about 5% to the grain bill which is what I’ve done.

Mash:
3.75 gallons mash water
Strike temp of 152 degrees
60 minute rest

Sparge:
4.25 gallons 170 degree water, in two batches.

Boil:
1 oz Chinook hops, 11.2%, 60 minutes
1 oz Chinook hops, 11.2%, 15 minutes
1 cup malto-dextrine, 15 minutes
1 tbsp irish moss, 15 minutes
1 oz Chinook hops, 11.2% 1 minute

Add 1 tsp calcium carbonate and Wyeast 1056, American Ale yeast and aerate.

O.G. = 1.055

Everything went well and the pre-fermented beer tastes pretty good. I’m surprised by the hop character–it’s not that overwhelming a hop profile, or so I thought, but the first taste of it has a pretty spicey burn at the finish. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is surprising to me how strong it seems. We’ll see. My plan is to dry-hop an ounce of Chinook in the secondary, but I’ll sample before then and see what I think.

Belgian Strong Ale

February 21, 2011

I’m trying to clean off my desk before my upcoming travels, get myself as organized as possible instead of this mass of papers, books, and other junk that I call my life. In the midst of one pile I found the scribbled notes of a recipe for a Belgian golden ale that I had not posted here. Since I use this blog as a kind of recipe book for me as much or more than any of my readers, I thought I should jot it down before I leave (and I guess it’s either an appropriate style since we’ll be flying into Brussels on our way to Africa, or perhaps oddly inappropriate since we’ll be flying into Rwanda).  Anyway, here goes:

Grain:
– .25 lbs Dingeman’s Caramel Pils
– .25 lbs Dingeman’s BiscuitGambrinus
steeped  20 minutes in 1 gallon 170 degree water. Sparged with a gallon room temp water.

Boil:
– 7 lbs Pilsen malt syrup
– 2 lbs clear belgian candi sugar
– 1 oz Czech Saaz hops, 3.9% (60 min)
– 1 oz Tettnang hops, 4.9% (60 min)
– 1/2 oz Czech Saaz, 3.9% (30 min)
– 1/2 oz Hersbrucker, 2.4% (30 min)
– 1/2 oz Hersbrucker, 2.4% (10 min)
– 1 oz Czech Saaz, 3.9% (1 min)
– 1 Tbsp Irish moss (15 min)
– 1 cup malto dextrin (15 min)

Yeast:
– Wyeast 1388 Belgian Strong Ale.
– 1 oz calcium carbonate for yeast, aerated well.

OG: 1.079

This is another one that can use some aging so it will sit until well after I’m back, hopefully ready for a summer party. See ya then!

“Cedar Rapids” the Movie

February 17, 2011

So in my last post I made some references to the upcoming release of “Cedar Rapids.” I should clarify that I don’t know that much about the movie and it may well paint Iowa in a good light; I don’t know. But I admit that I’m confused when, say, the editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette entertainment section, who also hasn’t seen the movie, refers to it as an “homage” to Cedar Rapids and how great that will be for our national image. Really? Was “Fargo” an homage to that town?

Even as I ask that question, I know that many of you will say it was in fact an homage. It’s true that the Cohens displayed great affection for the people of Fargo even as they severely ridiculed them. Masters that they are, the Cohens can deftly maneuver that fine line. And maybe this movie will do the same, but I certainly wouldn’t jump to conclusions that this is what the movie is trying to or will do. Rather than an homage, it’s better to think that the location of Cedar Rapids offers the movie-makers something helpful for their plot. And this is a comedy about an earnest but naive man from Wisconsin on his first adventure into “big-city” experiences. So you’ve got to think that the comedic value has to be the irony of “big city” and “cedar rapids,” no? What makes it funny to go to a convention in Cedar Rapids? Maybe our slogan, the City of Five Seasons, is enough (can we please get rid of this city motto–for those of you who don’t know: the fifth season is “the season to enjoy all the others” so it’s all year long. No, I’m serious).

Here’s the thing. I’ve said some less-than-flattering things about Iowa in this space, some of it fair, some of it not. But ultimately I don’t look down on Iowa or Iowans–Cedar Rapids is a good town and I feel good to be here. My heart broke and still breaks for its struggle following the flood. It’s a town filled with big-hearted people who are giving it everything they can to recover. I wish the community well and do what I can to help it along its way. On the other hand, it has always seemed to me that Iowa on the whole is about 20 years behind the rest of the world. Even that doesn’t really bother me. In the right light, this can have its own charm. What ultimately bothers me is that we don’t even see that we’re twenty years behind. If it’s a conscious choice, it may be kitsch but OK, I can live in a world of nostalgia as well as the next person, but if we live with our heads stuck in the sand then the process of recovery is always going to be stuck in the same sand.

Let me give one example (and then I swear this will be the last time I bring this up–or I will try): I’ve written more than my share about the crazy beer/liquor laws we’ve been living under before last year. So what happened during that time was a craft brewing explosion around the country. Now I would have been upset had we been aware of it but chose to not participate in that explosion. But the reality was that people in this state didn’t seem to get that the explosion was even happening, that we were actually losing money to those states around us that carried better beer. During the final debates about the issue, the real fear was that young drinkers would buy higher alcohol beers to get drunk. Proponents of course kept saying, look at other states please. Craft beers are also much more expensive. College kids are not buying these beers. And now we have a more reasonable law and our beer culture can slowly grow. But we’re twenty years behind everyone else. Most national breweries have unfavorable views of Iowa and aren’t too concerned with having us as a market–this will change, but my point is that we now have to sell ourselves to catch up. I say this not to rehash the beer debate but because this is the easiest example I have. We seem to be stuck behind the times in terms of food, movies, coffee, music, etc. And this makes it even harder to draw in businesses, or young professionals, or even keep the youth we have.

I’m looking forward to seeing this movie. And I hope it has some good-natured fun with Iowa. I also hope and trust that the people of Iowa will see it as good-natured. Part of me is skeptical, though, that we’ll necessarily even see what’s funny to people elsewhere. We’re an earnest lot we are. I hope the pundits are right and this movie will bring a little recognition to an area that’s been struggling and could use some help. Of course it won’t help that they had to actually film it in Ann Arbor.

Iowa City is Not Madison

February 14, 2011

Every few months, MB and I feel the need to go somewhere where we can eat and drink better than we do in Iowa, and somewhere where we can wander new neighborhoods or hike new trails–you know, just a different town. The goal is an easily drivable town, one we can easily do for just a few days for a reasonable cost. Fairly frequently–or whenever we’re able, really–we get to Saint Louis or Minneapolis. On occasion, but less frequently (see the comment about affordability) we get to Chicago. The easiest spot, and one that always fits the bill, is Madison. About a 2 1/2 drive, with Dubuque–an interesting river town–bluffs, the potential for a stop at New Glarus, and plenty of rolling farmland all along the way. It makes a great one- or two-night trip.

The last few years we’ve taken a very short mid-winter trip down to Iowa City for my birthday at the end of February, only a half hour away. It’s a nice town, and we love being able to eat a decent meal and then spend the evening at our favorite bar, The Sanctuary, with its nice menu of Belgian and other assorted beers. This year I will be in Africa for my birthday, though. We also just needed to get away, so we spent this last weekend in Madison. Once again I’m reminded of how much I love this small city.

What struck me, though, during this last visit was thinking of how many people in Iowa I’ve heard compare the two towns, Madison and IC. Yes, they are both Big 10 cities with a large midwestern university in the heart of town. But the comparison can go absolutely no further than that. Iowa City is a pleasant enough town, but it really has 3 or 4 good restaurants, the Sanctuary, John’s grocery (one of the better beer suppliers in Iowa), a below mediocre brewpub, and a few nice hiking trails. Yes, many will say, but it has the Iowa Writers Workshop, but I’d rather not get started on that. In general, I find the workshop atmosphere rather pretentious and cliquish (oh my god, there I’ve said it).

Madison, however, has a comparatively amazing array of restaurants (for instance, what a treat to be able to choose between the Tibetan or the Nepali restaurant that are just blocks away). While I love the Sanctuary, it was a real treat to spend the evening in Brasserie V, a real Belgian beer lover’s heaven with some decent food to boot. There’s Steve’s liquors for stocking up on all those beers we can’t get in Iowa (yes, we came home with the car loaded down). There is a fine brewpub, Great Dane, and an excellent brewery, Ale Asylum (they have a tap room, but I’ve yet to make it).  And the trails and lakes and outdoor culture of Madison can’t be beat.  Yes, the real point here is we had a great weekend. But I find myself scratching my head about the people who insist on making the comparison here. I get it that Madison is not only a big-10 university town but also the state capital. So, sure, that affects the culture of Madison so it’s the apples-oranges thing. But even more I wonder, then, why compare them? It makes me think of the recent local commentary about the upcoming movie “Cedar Rapids.” Local politicians are determined to point out how good this will be for our state giving it big-name recognition. An Ed Helms movie about an inept businessman who goes to a convention in Cedar Rapids that was actually filmed in Michigan because our film industry is so appealing? Really? I haven’t seen the movie but I’m not sure it’s going to be good press for Iowa.

I don’t know what my point here is (except maybe to say it’s worth visiting Madison if you haven’t). I’m not trying to downplay Iowa City (I’ve done enough Iowa bashing elsewhere). Maybe it’s just that we’re working hard to be something we’re not. Iowa City isn’t Madison. And Cedar Rapids certainly shouldn’t be hoping for movie recognition. Let’s just do what we do and do it well. So, to that end I’ll point to one positive change from earlier commentaries: now that Iowa has lifted the ban on higher alcohol beers, I’m pleased to say that Iowa now has a first rate beer. Peacetree brewing has shown some promise in early beers, but they are inconsistent and not all that great. But their relatively new Double IPA (which would not have been legal under the old laws) is quite nice. It’s a beer I’m happy to say comes from Iowa. It’s a beer I’ll share with friends from elsewhere. So get a few more good brews in state. Get a few more good restaurants. And then be happy to be small town middle America. A place where we can increasingly know the farmer who grows our food. Where education is valued. And where diversity is supported (oops, maybe I need to rethink that one after we recently voted out the judges who upheld gay rights and gay marriage…. a post for another time).

The Year in Beer

January 1, 2011

Yes, I’m a beer geek. Just the other day I rated my 700th beer on ratebeer. If you don’t know ratebeer, you’ll probably say, “oooh.” If you do know ratebeer, you’ll say, “eh, OK, whatever.” I mean, there are thousands of raters who are over the 1,000 mark and many who have crossed the 10,000 threshold. I’m just out there in the middle with thousands of other raters, drinking our beer, taking notes, jotting them down and moving on. For what? I’ve been asking myself. I know that no one else reads such ratings and I’m not writing them for others. But for me? Well, I have become more and more aware that my ratings of a single beer can vary quite dramatically from one tasting to another, so how helpful are the ratings for me? The descriptions themselves become more about filling out the character-count for the rating to be posted than actually meaningful anymore (how often can I say citrus or pine or grass or dark fruit etc?). I’ve also found that the comparative aspect of ratings has made it almost impossible for me to give a score higher than 4.5 (and that’s pretty damn rare). Higher than that needs to be almost perfect in each category: aroma, appearance, taste, palate, and overall. So, does that Mikkeller look better than that Stone? Hmm, not so sure, so give it a 3 out of 5. “Overall” becomes this sort of catch-all category to really give the final number where I think the beer belongs–but the numbers seem dictated by my original ratings as I find it harder to rate some much higher than the quality beers I started with. I could go back and re-evaluate them all, but who the hell would have the time or desire to do that? So I’m back at the question, what’s the point? Why this desire to catalog all these beers. Is it just to say “I’ve been there?” Maybe. See, I’m cool.

I’ve previously argued that ratings ought to consider price in their evaluations–a 4.0 beer may be a great find at $7 and a really poor find at $15–so I’ve started to include that in my own ratings so I can remember what really seems worth shelling out the money for. But even that seems silly since I don’t carry my ratings to the store with me, so when do I look them up in order to be helpful? Well, yesterday I was talking with some friends about all the great winter beers that we love. I drink well at Christmas time. So I was trying to remember what good beers I enjoyed last year at this time and went back to that point in my ratings and realized what I suppose I’ve known all along: what ratebeer really is is a kind of diary/travelogue. So many important events in my life involve good drink and good food (yes, I can no longer pretend to be a radical, having clearly sunk into a bourgeois lifestyle for good) so keeping tabs of the beers I discover is also a round-about way to keep track of experiences. As I was backtracking to last winter, I flashed by the brewpubs I found on my travels over last summer which brought lots of good memories to mind. I remembered trips to visit friends and family as well. It’s a different kind of photo album. With that in mind, I thought that this year’s best of list would be my top ten beers of 2010 with “top ten” status being a combination of quality of beer and quality of experience. I mean, one reason my ratings probably would vary so much from one tasting to another is that context is an important part of the equation. We’ve searched for years for a port that MB would like, but the truth is the times she has enjoyed port have been when she’s enjoying an evening with friends at a restaurant or another festive setting; at home, she finds she doesn’t really like port. There are beers I’ve loved only to later discover that I don’t really like that much (though the discrepancy isn’t like MB with port–it’s more likely that I may love a beer once then later think it’s a really good beer rather than a great one), so I’ll give up on the rating as an actual rating and simply consider them memories. Here’s a snapshot of 2010:

10. Summit Imperial Pumpkin Porter: Summit has a great place in my heart. I’ve loved their pale ale from the day I first moved to Minnesota some twenty years ago. It’s not the most outrageous beer, but it’s very well crafted, clean, straightahead ale and it’s been there for some great moments in my life. Their other beers however are pretty hit or miss (more miss than hit). Their “unchained” series has been a real hit, though. Their most recent unchained is this pumpkin porter. It’s delicious. I discovered it on a visit to minneapolis in early December to visit friends. I sampled it first at W.A. Frost with the Koefods and proceeded to drink it throughout the trip. Yum.

9. Town Hall Masala Mama.  Same trip as the Summit. A frigid, snowy night, and MB and I at Town Hall Brewery getting some snacks and beer in a gap between visits to different friends. Crowded, noisy, with a really great beer and sweet potato fries. Just my kind of happy hour.

8. Green Flash Imperial IPA. Holy crap, this beer had the most intense fresh hop flavor I’ve perhaps ever tasted. I mean ridiculously fresh. A big fluffy white head that just wouldn’t die. Enjoyed this one over Thanksgiving weekend in our new Mount Vernon house, feeling nice and warm with this big be and our toasty fireplace roaring.

7. Central Waters Illumination. This is a really big beer, tons of malt and hops. I’ve had some decent Central Waters beers before (they’ve got a nice coffee stout) but nothing like this beer. This was great and it tasted amazing when I discovered it in a bar in Stevens Point on my way back from an artist residency on Isle Royale. I was tired and really in need of some good food and beer. This hit the spot.

6. Mikkeller Single Hop Amarillo. I actually blogged about the price of beers using another single hop beer as my foil, but the truth is it’s a really good series of beers–and I love the Amarillo. I had this one at the Lincoln Wine Bar when I got back from my trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. I was worried that it would be tough to come back to Iowa after two weeks out in Rocky Mountain, but it felt like home to go to the wine bar, listen to some great live bluegrass and drink this beer.

5. Dogfish Head World Wide Stout. This is just a ridiculous beer. Not much more to say about it. Had this one during my visit to Maryland for my Mom’s 80th birthday party. Kind of a tradition now when we get to Maryland to go to the Gaithersburg brewpub with Mom & Dad for a few pints.

4.Dieu du Ciel Equinoxe du Printemps. I’ve been loving what this Canadian brewery has been doing. And this is an excellent beer. Shared this with my friend Matt at his wine bar one slow day in early spring, a cloudy rainy day but really nice in the bar. This was right after we’d put an offer on a house in Mt. Vernon and it felt good to share this beer and feel comfortable in our new town.

3. Twisted Pine Imperial IPA. Had this one on tap at the brewpub in Boulder Colorado. I stopped here when I first got into town on my way to visit my cousins before I headed up to Rocky Mountain National Park. I was tired and a little dazed from the drive and it was baking hot outside, but I had the bar just to myself for a bit. I had their IPA which was nice, but when the bartender realized I was a beer geek he had me sample a few that weren’t actually on the list yet. This Imperial was great and a perfect start to this trip.

2. Rochefort Trappistes 10. This is perhaps one of the finest beers I know. I’ve had it before but it’s been a long time. I had this one on my birthday, a freezing cold night in February when MB and I went to Iowa City to spend the night, have a nice meal, and enjoy a few beers at one of our favorite places, The Sanctuary. I splurged on this and my birthday felt quite complete.

1. Stone Russian Imperial Stout. Another ridiculously good beer. We drank this to toast in the new year last year, just me and MB and a roaring fire and a bottle of Stone. This was when we resolved to make some big changes in our life over the next (now the last) year, most notably to move out of Cedar Rapids to Mount Vernon, a resolution we managed just as we planned. This was a perfect year to help us start a new chapter in our lives and to signal a good year. It was a great year indeed and we’re hoping the next one is as well, for all you Street Parade readers as well.  Happy 2011.

Honorable mentions: Mikkeller Beer Geek, Sierra Nevada Southern Harvest, Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary, Bells Batch 10,000, Mikkeller Santa’s Little Helper 2010 (many raters say this Mikkeller should be cellared for a year. I get their point that it can certainly hold up for cellaring, but to say it’s unbalanced or too sweet to drink now is just downright silly. Drink it!).

Theobroma

October 18, 2010

Last night I fixed one of my favorite sandwiches, blackened tofu. Yes, all you meat-lovers out there, don’t laugh–I’ve actually converted a few folks with this one (slabs of tofu with chef paul’s on it blackened on the cast iron, topped with caramelized sweet onion and poblano peppers, melted mango-habanero cheddar cheese, and a datil pepper mustard and mayo on a homemade kaiser roll. The inspiration is from the Top in Gainesville, but my version is much better if I do say so myself. Throw some sweet potato fries on the side and it’s a killer dinner). Anyway, the point of this entry isn’t the sandwich but the fact that the sandwich begs for a good beer on the side. It was also our first fire of the season, first fire in our new house, so we were celebrating a bit. I thought it was a perfect evening to open up the Dogfish Theobroma I picked up on a recent trip to Maryland. So this is really a follow-up to my last post.

I was looking forward to this beer and it certainly started off well–a different color and body beer than I expected, a fairly light color, small white head, and pretty effervescent. A slightly sour aroma and the flavor had a nice bit of honey flavor with just a bit of dusty cocoa to it. Unique. As it warmed it went downhill, though, and in the end I’d say it was an interesting but disappointing beer (I always have high hopes for Dogfish Head’s beers). Worth trying, glad I experienced it, but the thing is that in the brewpub it was going for $24 a bottle. I picked it up in a store for $12 a bottle. This makes it a really disappointing beer to me, a unique but average beer going for these kinds of prices?

In my last post I was troubled by beer venturing into wine territory. The problem is not increasing prices, nor increasing experimentation by brewers (even though I wasn’t really thrilled with the Theobroma, I certainly respect Dogfish for attempting beers like this and want them to keep pushing on). But with wine, I can at least comprehend some of the pricing. I know that some grape varieties and harder to come by, and some vintages are going to demand a greater price, and some wines are much better able to stand up to cellaring, etc. (and I know this is also becoming more so true with beer but still…)  I generally know beer ingredients, too. Yeast costs are slightly variable between strains, but not that much. Malt and other grains can vary year to year as grapes do, but here, too, the difference is negligible–and grain can be stored in ways that grapes can not (the big difference is the amount of grain used in a beer, but there doesn’t seem to be anything extravagant about Theobroma’s grain profile). The real price variable is hops which in the case of Theobroma is negligible since there is almost no hop character to the beer whatsoever (the dearth of hops in recent years and the resulting price increases are the understandable reason for the expense of styles like double IPAs). This beer does make use of ingredients I know less about such as cocoa nibs.  Here, too, though, the flavor of these ingredients is slight enough that I can’t believe they were a huge component of the beer. I found myself asking what makes this beer worth $24 a bottle (again, I did get it for less, but DFH certainly feels it’s worth that price). Is there anything really that different in the cost of production–I can’t see it.  Is it just the “exotic” quotient and the fact that beer hunters will pay that amount?I have to believe this is the case and as much as I love new, interesting beers, I see this as a troubling trend. I’m not sure who to blame here or what to do about it (I mean, am I going to stop spending good bucks for, say, Lost Abbey’s? I don’t think so) but I certainly don’t want to see us become a culture of collectors who tout the value of mediocre beers simply in the name of uniqueness.

I guess that’s enough–I sound like a crotchety old man who simply doesn’t want to pay for his beer. Not so. I do want some correlation between a beer’s ingredients and production costs and its price, but that’s not my point. I just expect a lot of my beer I guess. So this evening I’ll dip into my stash of Founder’s Breakfast Stout and remember why I hunt beer in the first place.

Has Beer Become Wine?

October 16, 2010

Recently, I had the pleasure of sampling Mikkeller’s Single Hop Amarillo IPA. It’s a wonderful beer, incredibly smooth with a nice spectrum of  citrus hop flavors and aromas–a remarkable range for a beer using only one variety of hop.   My problem was that it was $7 a 12 oz bottle retail–over 3 times more than what I consider to be some equally fine IPA’s (for instance, Bear Republic’s “Racer 5”, a beer I’d generally put in the same league as the Mikkeller, was going for $1.95 a bottle at the same store).

Now, I don’t begrudge brewers making expensive beers and charging what they’re worth, and I will certainly pay for them (and I want them to experiment and make bold beers. For instance, I just shelled out for Dogfish Head’s expensive “Theobroma”–brewed with Aztec cocoa powder and cocoa nibs from Askinosie Chocolate, honey, ancho chilies, and annatto00–and I’m anxiously looking forward to trying it). But it seems that the beer culture is now falling into the trap of wine culture:  if Robert Parker or Wine Spectator rate two wines 93, how can it be possible for one to go for $15 and one to go for $75?  Is it that one is a 93 in the $75 league and one is a 93 in the $15 league and the ratings are skewed? Is that $15 wine that’s rated 93 is well crafted for a certain palate, but that $75 wine rated 93 is rated for a superior palate, a drinker who can discern the finer subtleties of a great wine? To some extent, the wine rating becomes meaningless. Or are wine prices really  just a question of what we’ll pay for them (and merely a status symbol and not directly related to the quality of the wine)? I’ve always been baffled by this, no matter how much I love good wine. How do I know what’s really worth paying good money for?  Without someone I trust to make recommendations (like movies, you don’t listen to everyone’s recommendations equally) I can feel pretty lost. And if I talk to someone for recommendations, the thing we talk about is value–not some rating, but how good is it for how much you’re spending.

Beer, of course, has never been beyond this problem, but it was certainly less so. It used to at least be easier to know what level a beer was in. And the more moderate price differential made the issue negligible–you weren’t going to seriously overspend. With the increase in differential between beers, though, we’re forced to reconsider how we evaluate beers and their worth.  Again, this blog entry is not a knock on the Mikkeller beer; it’s very well crafted and I’m glad I tried it. But if it’s going for $7 a small bottle and I can get Bear Republic at a third of that, I’m going to get Bear Republic. And it’s not a question of breweries–for instance, the Mikkeller “Beer Geek Breakfast” I recently tasted was incredible and unique and worth every penny.  But what I see on sites such as Ratebeer and Beer Advocate is an increasing acceptance that the more expensive beers are inherently worth it. Sites such as these are pushing this culture toward more expensive beers and become less helpful to me in terms of evaluating what’s really worth spending the money on. I know, I know, the answer is to go ahead and buy some, try it, and make the decision myself whether to buy it again and add my own rating. The culture seems to be pointing exclusively toward the bigger, the more “exotic,” the bolder beer. And this is a trend I’d confess that in general I like. I really want that bigger, bolder, more exotic beer.  But the result seems to be  that we begin to equate price with quality. More and more, it seems that more expensive = more exotic, and this just isn’t the case, just as it isn’t with wine.

I can hear some of you saying that if I can’t really taste the difference in value in the Mikkeller and the Bear Republic, then my palate just isn’t good enough to taste the nuance; I’m just not ready to appreciate the Mikkeller. And that may be true. My palate is nowhere near as good as some of my friends’. But that’s also the problem: where beer culture used to avoid the elitism of wine culture, it is now beginning to embrace it. (there’s a big difference I see between educating someone’s palate so they can appreciate more flavors and considering the ability to taste nuance to be some kind of judgment of character). At all levels, there are good beers and bad beers (and as beer guru Michael Jackson, may he rest in peace, used to say, there is a time and a place for Budweiser).  It may be heresy to some, but I’d like to have value become a more standard part of the ratings of beers (yes, yes, I know that value is a very loaded word and we can have a long theoretical debate about this, yes some beer hunters value the discovery, but the term as I mean it here is quite simply how does its quality correspond to its price).  I love reading Beer Advocate’s ratings (and generally agree, but quite often am baffled by their response to a beer), but nowhere do they discuss the price of a beer (and, yes, I know that prices vary radically from area to area, but we can point to what range a beer is in). It may be good, but is it worth the price? Likewise, I wish that ratebeer.com would add a category for value (as is, we rate on aroma, appearance, taste, palate, and “overall.” Yes, I know that I can factor the price into the overall, but why not add a section of value? I am more and more inclined to consider price in the overall category and I think many of my ratings will start to go down. I don’t know if this is true for other beer hunters or not, but I certainly think it would helpful for both drinkers and brewers to find out. And ironically, this is something that has become more standard in wine ratings. It’s now easy to find articles in wine magazines or newspapers that are basically a list of, say, ten recommended wines of a certain variety for $15. Not a bad idea for beer lovers either.  Why not a list of the ten best-value stouts? or considering the current fad, a list of the expensive pumpkin ales that are actually worth it, a beer style that can be excellent but is far too often quite horrible–he says opening a bottle of Southern Tier Pumking Ale and pouring expectantly…..

Aging Homebrew

March 23, 2010

Over a year and a half ago, I brewed a seriously dark, rich, high alcohol Imperial Stout. It was very good but frankly didn’t seem to be aging all that well. So I mostly drank it up. About 6 months ago, I thought it had passed its prime getting a kind of acidic sourness (not that lovely sour we like in some Belgian styles) and I drank a few and ignored the rest. I was cleaning out the basement the other day and stumbled upon the last 6 pack and opened one last night. Oh, if I only had patience. It’s a whole new beer, rich and creamy with a deep roasted backbone–and all that acid and sourness are gone. It’s a great beer and now I’m lamenting having drunk any at all months ago. Now what to do? Drink those last precious few or see what happens to them in a few more months? Dilemmas, dilemmas.