Sunday, August 30, 2009


It occurs to me that if I am going to go on brewery tours from time to time, I need to bring a camera and add more photos to my blog. You would think that being an ex-professional photographer, having a camera with me always would be natural....but, no, I don't even own a digital SLR camera (forget about using film, if I am too lazy to shoot digital pictures). I need to bring my brother on excursions, he has a decent camera, has similar tastes in beer, and provides an excellent sounding board when tasting. See our experience at the Lager fest.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Boulder Beer Company

Stopped into the oldest microbrewery in Colorado today. The Boulder Beer Company opened in 1979. The Pub is their full service restaurant and bar fronting their brewery. It is small and cramped but clean despite its worn and somewhat dated decor. It feels like a college bar, which it is, and has a nice ample patio that more than doubles their capacity (a must in Colorado).

Boulder Beer company has the reputation of not very good beers amongst people I have been talking to lately, so I went to see for myself. I have never been to their facility. I have had their flagship beers, Singletrack Copper Ale and Buffalo Gold which are served at most Old Chicago Restaurants (they have a strategic partnership with Rock Bottom Brewery (owner of Old C) and are also distributed coast to coast. Their distribution map looks like a snake throughout the United States, Washington to California, through the southwest up diagonally to Minnesota, across all of the Great Lakes States, splitting eastward to New York and MA (and adjacent states), and southeast down the Dixie Highway to Florida. I guess almost no one has an excuse not to try this beer.

My first taster was that of a Pass Time, a traditional English Pale Ale....emphasis English.
This beer is unlike what you usually get when ordering a pale ale. The sweet flavor emphasizes the malt which is unusual, or has it been that long since I had an English Pale Ale? I might be tempted to call this under hopped, but I think, rather, most examples are probably over hopped or an "American" Pale Ale mislabeled simply as a Pale Ale. It is drinkable, and these days falls into what I would call a session beer. I also tried Cold Hop, their current seasonal, hoppier and stronger than Pass Time, perhaps an Export version of Pass Time (but not an IPA), still smooth, balanced.

I next contrasted their Sundance Amber Ale and their Hazed and Infused Dry Hopped Ale. I asked the barkeep if these were the same beers with different hop schedules (and the Hazed is unfiltered, hence the name).. The barkeep denied it, but I don't believe him. Even the ABV listed for both are the same....this makes for an interesting question, is it wrong to make two of the same beers with differing hop schedules and sell as different beers? I would probably prefer an acknowledgement of the sameness by calling it out in the description. Hazed and Infused is a good beer, but it still doesn't overwhelm with hop bitterness, aroma, or flavor comparatively to other big beers. It is listed as 38 IBU's (International Bittering Units), that is low....this beer is all about the dry hop (addition of hops in the primary or secondary fermenter, imparting a strong and fresh hop aroma).

A girl all of 22 sat down next to me and ordered a "hazed" and proceeded to text away....a couple of guys are in for the afternoon Rockies game, a good lunch crowd is on the patio. A couple of regulars sit at the bar. The girl's nasally voice is killing me, but she smells nice, and she is drinking a real beer on a Thursday afternoon, making the experience palatable. This is starting to sound like a Sheryl Crow song.

The last comparison of beers I tried was Planet Porter in bottle vs. casked. The Planet Porter is one of the original recipes from 1979. When I asked for a porter, and when he moved to open the bottle.....I told him to stop. I don't want to try a bottle of anything when I am in a tap room. He asked, "Do you want to try it on cask?" I can't believe he didn't offer it up before, duh, yeah. A Porter, in my opinion should be on cask, served slightly warm....the comparison was more of a contrast, the porter in the bottle was carbonated and tinny, the cask was warm and smooth.

I guess the cask wasn't listed on the board as it is newly tapped. I am a cask fan, I like dark or heavy beers served this way (but not exclusively). At any rate, if your local establishment has a beer on cask, try it in a taster, and compare with their normally produced and served product. Ask for a free taster...if they don't give you any or want to charge for the taste, there is something wrong with them. You are just trying to find a beer that you will be happy with.

The difference between the same kind of beer from a standard keg and cask is sometimes astounding. Technically, they are the same beer....but served differently. For full disclosure, I am pro-keg, even though I bottle my own beers. I think beer tastes better on tap. Someday, I will buy into a keg system, but I like the portability of bottles for my beer. Cask beer is pumped by hand from a beer engine into your glass. The cask vessel is usually small (a firkin or quarter barrel) and cask offerings are only good (and available) for a day or two at a time because unlike modern kegs, the cask pumps air into the cask, rather than CO^2. It is wise to ask when a cask was tapped to ensure that it is not more than a couple of days old.

I was just about to leave and they announced a tour. I almost never pass up a chance to go on a tour, even at breweries I frequent, as it is nice to look around at the equipment and see real beer being made up close. I never expect the information from the tour guide to be entirely accurate though. This tour was more informational and showed a number of locations in the brewery more than I expected.

The thing that you notice about the brewing facilities at the Boulder Beer Company, is that like their pub, things are old (twenty five years old to be exact). This brewery facility was built in 1984. Although the 50 barrel system's mash tun and kettle are copper and the facility upstairs was clean, they are the old-school, built into the floor variety, and they don't spend a lot of time shining them up. The downstairs (fermentation and storage) was a little gritty and all the concrete surfaces were stained with mildew from years of humidity. The fermenters were wrapped in foil surfaced insulation, which made them look duct taped together. This is a stark contrast to newer breweries bright, clean copper mash tun and exposed double walled stainless steel conical fermenters.

Years of modifications and expansions in this brewery result in a maze of areas and equipment and a preference of function over form. This brewery was built when no small brewery model design was available. They were the prototype of the small brewery and seem to have made changes over time on the fly. Perhaps it is the MacEyver in me that likes this. The tour ended in their banquet room with samples of all of their current offerings, and some free swag. All in all, the tour, the tasting, and the free swag all exceeded my experience at many other breweries. My favorite tours, though, are those impromptu offerings when I happen to be able to talk to the brewer in person (usually small places) and he/she invites me in after learning I am a brewer myself.

I realized after I left the brewery that I forgot to pay my tab.....crap...the free beer at the end obviously threw me. I went back the next day to pay and apologize profusely. The barkeep was not the same guy, but I had him promise to pass my apology along (with the payment and tip). I hope he got it.

My impression of the Boulder Beer Company is that they don't specialize in fancy beers that knock your socks off, although some of their offerings are hoppy and/or strong. Their beers are more basic, and I hate to say it, maybe not entirely memorable. That is not saying that the beers are not good; they are, and they consistently win medals at the GABF. They do stay true to the defined styles, and as a result they are not attention grabbers. Even their Hazed and Infused (which is a great name and their best seller at their pub) seems subdued and tame (a good term instead of tame is mellow) compared to the big beers of the day.

I enjoyed these beers, and can drink a few. Maybe these types of beers were built into the Boulder Brewing Company brewery's DNA as the brewery was born when just making good beer was the most important thing, maybe the only thing, necessary to grab your attention.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Origin of the Species: Beer Guy Pt. 3

The College Years

I graduated from high school one half a semester early and went straight to college, like, the very next day. I thought I knew what I wanted to do and I wanted my past to end right now, and my future to start yesterday. In a lot of ways, I am still the same. I am no good at waiting for things to happen. I would probably race right into my grave if I knew where it was going to be.

There is nothing like going away to college for the opportunity to reinvent yourself. If I was smart (or wise), I would have taken that opportunity, but I was/am not. So the beer guy goes to college.

As you can guess, I drank a lot of beer. I attended Central Michigan University, a moderately famous regional party school, and got my degree in broadcasting and communications. As a child, I suffered from a lack of creativity and exposure to the world of careers. Everyone in my family worked for the auto companies. Broadcasting was the most concrete thing I could study that was fairly opposite of working for an auto company. The craft beer movement was in its infancy in other parts of the country, and brewing beer never even occurred to me as a real career. In retrospect, I would have been better served if it had.

I can only remember a few things of actual coursework I learned in college:

1. Libel is written, slander is spoken (Broadcast Law, thanks to Peg and Shari and associated hand movements in study sessions)
2. The destruction of the island state of Thera might be the basis for the Atlantis legend (Near East to Alexander history course).
3. I was the person to the left or the right of successful broadcast types in Dr. Pointdexter's intro to Broadcasting or whatever class (something like you or the person to the left or right of you will not make it in this business, and I didn't).
4. The definition of the term self reflexivity in film (from Broadcast Critique) is films about or within a film.

An interesting list, but hardly a stalwart of information. Most of learning in college is social anyway.

So, on beer. There wasn't much to do in the middle of Michigan (literally Central Michigan, put your left index finger in the soft part in the middle of your right palm. That is where Mount Pleasant is, home of the Mighty Central Michigan University Chippewas (Ojibiwa)) except drink beer. We were too poor to drink anything else. Rich kids went to State, smart and rich ones went to Michigan. Since I was involved with the student run radio and television stations, I had an exposure to a lot of different people with different interests, musical influences, backgrounds, beliefs, religions, and upbringings. There certainly wasn't any need to join a fraternity or sorority when you ran with this crowd unless you disliked diversity. It was the exposure to this rag tag collection of people that taught me so much more than I could have gotten from any of my classes. I have become unafraid to try new things or experience things from different perspectives, and have come to expect diversity in the foods I eat, the music I listen to, and the people I choose to interact with. So it is, and should be, with beer.

I recently was asked by a person what my all time favorite beer was. I couldn't think of one beer that was in my mind best. Beer, like life is contextual. On a beach in Mexico, I want a Corona. Overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, I crave Anchor Steam. Off the slopes? a Breckenridge Avalanche Ale. After lawn mowing? Pabst Blue Ribbon. With good friends, more than one traditional English Brown Ale like Newcastle. The list goes on and on with me, but I digress.

At this particular college there were only two things to do on a weekend night, go to a party or go to the bar. I preferred the bar, and most Fridays would start at Sir Richard's Pub, and anytime any decent music act was in town, I was at The Foolery. Both were downtown, and subsequently, I moved closer to downtown to be able to walk to these venues. Every Friday after our daily television news program, we would hit the pub for the worst burgers (greasy and salty) and cheap beer. This place didn't even have a kitchen, they cooked the burgers behind the bar in some modified toaster oven contraption that oozed grease. I have no idea how the health department allowed that (or if the health department knew) and marvel that they didn't burn the place down. But these burgers were a couple of bucks. The pitchers of Busch were also $2....$4 for a pitcher (and not a small one) and a burger was right up our alley. We drank a lot of that. After a while, I got snobby at The Pub as they also served Moosehead in bottles for $1. I think that I was the only one who ordered them. That was usually my first beer of the evening, and then on to Busch beer pitchers for the remainder. We went to The Pub so regularly, that the whole front of the bar was ours, and the bouncers finally assumed that I was 21 by my sophomore year, aged 19.....which made me frequent there even more. The place I am told went through a couple of remodels and name changes before closing some time in the last decade. But it was The Pub, among the carved up picnic tables, the suit of armor that we always put lit cigarettes in face plate of the helmet, and those shitty burgers that I started to choose, at the very least, to start the night with what passed as a premium beer product.

College was a whirlwind of experience, and the story for me isn't so much about beer as it is about people. Some of my favorite people I met in or attended college with, including my wife. Retrospectively, I can see where if I did run into the craft beer world and homebrewing at this time, I might have changed course on my career. But that wasn't until a few years later in Ft. Collins. Next time, The Fort Collins years.

Check out Part I and Part II of the Origin of the Species: Beer Guy series.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Love the Beer You're With.

I saw an article about a new brewery in Fort Collins called the Horsetooth Brewing Company and checked out their website . Although I was excited at the prospect of a new brewery, the article seemed premature as the company is newly incorporated, and does not have a location, equipment, permits, licenses, or investors yet. They do have a business plan, a really nice logo, Facebook, and Twitter Accounts, and a blog. I'd say, they are about 12 weeks ahead of Skeptical Brewing Company (my fantasy brewery) at this point. Still, I hope that they get to the point where they can make some beer, but it seems such a long road, perhaps years before they get there. The Mountain Sun Brewery(2 locations in Boulder, Colorado) opened a pub near my house called The Vine Street Pub (17th Avenue and Vine Street) over a year ago with the intention of it being their third brewpub. They are just now going through rezoning hearings, and don't expect to have brewery operations going for another 12 months. (zoning and permitting is my original line of work, and it takes more time than anyone seems to plan for).

Fort Collins, Colorado is a beer mecca. I moved there in 1993 when my wife got accepted to graduate school (for the first time). Back then, there were 3 breweries (New Belgium, O'Dell's, and HC Berger) and 2 brew pubs (Coopersmith's and Dimmer's (I think)). There were 4 breweries if you include the Anheuser Busch plant north of town. HC Berger and Dimmer's didn't make it, but others have come along. I haven't been up there in a long time and need to go.

I wonder how many other breweries and brewpubs are in the planning stages right now? With so many people out of work or with reduced work schedules it would seem that a lot of people could be planning breweries. Conventional wisdom is that beer sales are recession proof, but beer sales actually fell late last year when the economy tanked. However, the craft beer market continues to grow. The Denver Business Journal recently reported that Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons, Colorado has increased production by 84% this year, and the people at Great Divide in Denver tell me that they are in the process of adding 20% to their capacity. According to the Brewer's Association, overall, the craft industry is up 9% this year.

Still, I haven't seen or heard of many openings of new breweries. If they do, perhaps we won't see them until this whole messy recession is over, or the planning will stop when we all get jobs. If you see a new brewery in your town, check them out. As the old saying goes...."Think Globally, Drink Locally". If you are lucky enough to travel, seek the local brewery or brew pub....remember, if you can't be with the beer you love, love the beer you're with.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Drinking Stone IPA

My friend left me a few beers to sample after our brewing session last week. I felt that the least I could do is share my experience of them. I had a quiet afternoon reading in the garden as the girls played with my wife in the front yard. The time was precious, but the afternoon was a little warmer than ideal.

One of the bottles was Stone IPA. Most Constant Readers know I have been softening my stance on the IPA (India Pale Ale) recently, finding that I do not mind drinking hoppy beers as much as I thought. I still have problems with anything labeled with the Imperial or Double moniker, though.

The India Pale Ale (IPA) style originated as an export beer for the then British Colony, India in the 19th century. The beer was made extra strong (other beers when talking about export strength they mean made more strong to withstand exporting) and additional hops were added. Hops serve as a preservative and the additional alcohol content allowed the beer to age rather than spoil on the long hot voyage via sailing ships around the Horn of Africa. Today the IPA has been adopted and adapted by a number of American craft breweries and excellent examples of the style can be had in most areas of the country.

Stone Brewing Company, out of San Diego, is known for their aggressive beers including Arrogant Bastard Ale, Ruination, and Stone IPA. I have tried all three, and have learned to just keep my mouth shut when someone waxes how they are great beers. They probably are, but the Arrogant Bastard (Imperial Russian Stout) and Ruination (Double IPA) are a little too rough and tumble for me, so I know better than to order one for myself. Stone's IPA are these guys' little brother, being a little brother myself, I can relate to it.

Anyway, upon opening and pouring Stone IPA into my standard beer glass, it hits you before you get it up to your nose....fresh hop aroma. Lots and Lots of high quality hops in this sucker. If there is an aspect of hops I like the best, it is the aroma and this IPA does not disappoint. It smells grassy, musty, like early morning in the meadow. Please excuse my descriptive language, it is the bullshit of beer tasting that chaps my posterior, too.

The bottle is also noteworthy as well. It is unusual to see an American producer with painted on labels (it is common to see in Canada). I think that this treatment is beautiful, but it is a pain in the ass for homebrewers as the label will never wash off. The label is green and white with a big ugly gargoyle (Stone's trademark, and in this case, ugly is cool) on it bordered by barley and hops.

The 12oz beer sits in my glass with a small head, perhaps 1/2 inch and some room to spare (pint sized glass). The head is an off white and a thin foam (not dense) that begins dissipating rather quickly. It does leave a nice lace foam on the glass wall as you drink it down, which is a nice effect. The color is a deep gold or light copper, which is lighter than a lot of IPA's, which probably indicates less darker crystal malt than most.

I can only taste hops with a little background bitterness. It is not to say that this beer isn't bitter, but the fresh hop aroma and flavor makes the bitterness take a back seat. The beer is medium bodied but has no malt flavor and a hint of alcohol warmth as you go along. The hops are grassy at first taste and become slightly citrusy as the glass warms.

This is a hoppy beer, but I find it smooth and drinkable. I am not sure I would call it a beginner's IPA, but would any IPA fit that bill? I likely enjoy it as the hop flavor/aroma outweighs the bitterness. Listed as 6.9% ABV (Alcohol by Volume), it is something I should have only one (pint) or two (bottles) of at a time. It ruins your taste of any other beer. It would be good, I think, with a seafood dish perhaps where the flavor of seafood is more prominent (fishy?)....don't quote me, as I am no expert on food and beer pairing. It could be that I was hungry when I drank it.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Seth and Uncle Marvin

I met Seth and Uncle Marvin at the Brekenridge Brewery's Blake Street Pub today. Seth was in from Seattle and Uncle Marvin was local. They got a flight of the taster glasses of beer.

Seth is a beer guy, and despite living in the heart of Seattle (near Lake Washington) he likes balanced beers and lighter beers like hefeweizen's.

Uncle Marvin liked Brek's Agave Wheat. The Agave (cactus, I believe), gives it a nice tang. I turned Seth onto the Ballpark Brown (one of my favorites), but he was a Summer Bright (Lager) fan. I am more of a fan of Left Hand's Polestar Pilsner (also on tap as a guest beer at the Brek pub downtown). See my experience at this year's Craft Lager Festival.

I found it interesting that he thought that beer in Seattle was over hopped. I haven' t tried enough to make that determination, but I like balence in my beer. I expect someone from Seattle to be accostomed to the local styles and prefer them. I guess not.

I have found that I enjoy hoppier beers more now than ever, but I would never want them exclusively. More as a curiousity, or an occassional. I would rather have a traditional English Brown Ale, like the Ballpark at Brekenridge. Does knowledge of beer lead to a like/desire for hoppier beers, or just an acceptance of them?

I just don't think that they are the end all, be all, of the beer world. Where do you stand?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Brew Day

I am always tired after a brew day. Today is no exception. It is a long day of cleaning, watching and waiting for water and wort to boil, stirring, rinsing, and dumping, and cleaning again. I enjoy the process though, and it would seem that the enzymes and yeast have the real work. It was nice to have something to do, and have something else to focus on.

Today was an unremarkable brewing day, but it wasn't without its differences and problems. My friend has been wanting to brew with me for a while, and he was able to obtain freshly dried Cascade hops from a friend's harvest. It is always nice to brew with someone new. We brewed my standard red ale recipe, but we upped the hop schedule a tad to celebrate our hop bounty.

Now, I regularly use "whole" leaf hops in my system with no problems, and prefer them to pellets, but these hops clogged my system's strainer making for a messy last half hour of trying to strain and remove the cones from the boiled wort. My only idea as to why is the possibility that "whole" hops from the brew store come somewhat pulverized to leaf form. These hops were "whole" cones. I also wonder if by not shredding or pulverizing the cones, if it makes the hops somewhat less effective. The aroma from the nice fresh hops was nice, though, and I hope it translates into our beer.

Interestingly, we achieved a slightly better mash efficiency than I usually do. I can not pinpoint what exactly was done differently in process, but the grains came from a different homebrew shop, and therefore the grind was different. I am convinced that I need to invest in a good mill of my own.
Right after a stainless steel conical, yeah right.

I use glass carboys for fermentation. I someday would love to purchase a nice stainless steel conical fermenter, but they cost something in the order of $700 or more, and one of my kidneys probably isn't worth that much. It would be nice to be able to harvest or dump yeast from the bottom of the cone, or to test the gravity using a valve, but I would miss watching the yeast ferment the wort. It is always nice to watch the wort clear and the hot break to settle out, and watch the first strands of or globs of yeast appear at the top (ale), then bubbles, then an active raucous foam. Meanwhile, the yeast in suspension clouds and swirls in the wort, like a storm on Jupiter. The airlock begins to bubble away releasing the carbon dioxide, and the smell of beer or bread is in the brewery.

And over periods of a few days to a week or two, the transformation happens. Each day there is something different to see; the color changes, the bubbling slows, and the foam on the top dissipates. The yeast falls to the bottom and the beer clears slowly from the top to the bottom.

As I said, I will miss my glass carboys if I ever can upgrade, but it will be nice to not have to split a 12 gallon batch to two carboys. I don't know if I will be able to resist popping the top from time to time to sneak a peak at my boys at work.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Are There Regional Styles Anymore?

I went into a small (albeit upscale) liquor store the other day and perused the beer selection and found a large number of authentic Belgian beers alongside a nice selection of local and not so local craft breweries as well as some national craft brewers (seems like an oxymoron, doesn't it, but I am talking about Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, Pete's and the like). The availability was great (for such a small place) and there were a number of beers and breweries that I hadn't heard of. I should be ecstatic. But the Contrarian in me started wondering if this really was a good thing after all.

Increasing sales of craft beers, having the small guys get access to wider distributions systems, and small craft breweries becoming medium sized seems like it should be a great thing. It ensures that I can get a decent beer at almost any restaurant, and Fat Tire in half of the United States, I think. I will talk about New Belgium in an upcoming episode of Beer Guy: The Ft. Collins years.
With the availability of imported beer and advanced distribution networks for many craft beer selections approaching that (and even using the same distribution as) of the national (and international, now) brewers, and with knowledge of water chemistry and current yeast availabile to the brewer you can either obtain the original style or a locally produced facsimile of classic beer in almost any mid-sized town. Therefore, my thesis question is basic:

In the United States, are there any regional styles or an accounting for local taste left in brewing? Should there be? In this world of globalization, should I be pining for an exclusively local beer? Or should I be damn glad I can get a load of decent authentic or replicated Belgian Beers at the Cheeky Monk or Trinity Brewing?

At this point in my life, I would have expected myself to have traveled the world. It is in our life plan to do so, but real life has gotten in the way. So, I never made it to Europe, and unless things turn around, maybe I never will. But I can take a 1 hour staycation at the Falling Rock Tap House and go anywhere in the world (on tap). Without such an availability, I would have never had the chance to sample beers from around the world.

So, in the food world, is it okay that I can get good seafood in Denver, and that I can stop by the Cajun Restaurant on the way home? Or, do I need to seek the source for some definitive? And despite the efforts of globalization, are there some places that retain their local heritage in brewing the local product? Are there any new local styles that have emerged from the last 30 years of the craft brewing industry?

I think that the answer is yes. But that doesn't mean you can't get a style outside of its locality. The main examples I can think of are out of the West Coast. The West Coast Style is perhaps a combination of California Common (Anchor Steam) and the availability of locally grown hops that produce light or amber ales that feature hop character over malt, and/or the funkiness of a lager yeast brewing at ale temperatures. I love Anchor Steam, and love it even more sipping it overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Does a Northwest Style Ale (those found in Seattle or Portland) taste better under mostly-cloudy ashen grey skies of a Pacific Northwest Winter? I haven't been there in the winter yet, but I would guess so. I don't enjoy the West Coast Style in the heat of Summer.

Since I live in Colorado, I posit that there is a Colorado (or perhaps Inter-Mountain West) Beer Style. Something to satisfy on a dry summer afternoon as well as after a perfect powder day on the slopes. That beer is the American Amber Ale (A^3).

As the craft beer industry in Colorado was being born, every successful brewery seemed to have its own version of the Amber. Some of these Colorado born beers have reached legendary status. My favorites are Breckenridge's Avalanche Amber, O'Dell's 90 Shilling (perhaps a Scottish Ale, but a distinct hop flavor in an amber), and the ubiquitous New Belgium Fat Tire Ale. But most breweries here have a version (Rock Bottom's Red Rocks, Wynkoop's Rail Yard). All of them are good here, but that doesn't seem to be the case in other places in the US.

Now some would argue that every new brewery needs an amber ale as a gateway beer to entice the standard American Lager crowd to better beer. I don't disagree with this strategy for success, but I ultimately lack the knowledge of craft beer in the east to make a definitive judgement as to their quality. I do know that the West Coast breweries add more hops to their amber ales (for their West Coast Ale). The Colorado Amber Ales are damn fine examples of the A^3, and I would like the sanctioning bodies to change the style name to reflect the locality, if not that of origin, then that of excellence. The beer style runs with the big boys as thirst quenching, but has just enough bite, malt flavor, and just a tad of alcohol warmth to sit outside on the deck after skiing all day and have a few.

Are there other local styles of beer? I don't know. There should be. I know that I like an occasional Anaheim Chile Beer, and since cuisine in New Mexico seems to add chilies to everything (perhaps even baby formula), maybe the best examples are coming from New Mexico (Wynkoop's and Coopersmith's in Denver and Ft. Collins both do a nice example, like Corona with heat). Could we call that NM style? Would it be appropriate? For my readers east of the Mississippi, please let me know what is being done around home that equals no other, and why it would or should be a regional taste or style. I can't wait to try it at the source for myself.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Good Day for a Beer, or 50 of Them

Manitou Springs, Colorado

My brother and I had the chance to check out the 7 th Annual Craft Lager Festival this year. Twenty two craft brewers participated in this year's festival. The festival is notable because their decidedly sustainable stance. They herald themselves the only wind powered beer festival in the world. Their goal is to raise awareness on sustainability and serve some damn good beer. The proceeds from the event are donated to various organizations promoting parks and open space. Naturally, the festival was held outdoors.

Manitou Springs is nestled up against Pikes Peak and is a typical Victorian Era tourist town. I didn't meet any towns people while I was there, but I would imagine that the town is used to having a bunch of yahoos wandering their streets, and a festival like this becomes more bearable as the participants are fenced in. This years festival was held in Memorial Park.

The festival seemed well planned and executed with an adequate number of clean portable toilets with hand sanitizer (I was there on Saturday, no word on the maintenance of the toilets by Sunday afternoon). This is key (in my opinion) for an outdoor festival, especially one serving unlimited amounts of beer. Having said this, there were a few issues that could have been improved. First, the layout of the breweries were all on one side of the park (with the exception of two), and 6 breweries were tucked into the back corner. This was great as this is where my brother and I started the festival, but as the crowds grew, the lines became intertwined and confused. Luckily, the people were very nice, it wasn't too hot, and no one seemed to get hot under the collar. It was sometimes impossible to tell if you were cutting in line or not. The other major problem was that almost no breweries had a dump bucket (for unused beer) or water to rinse the glasses. Water was provided centrally located in the festival grounds, but had run out at the time I discovered it. Luckily, I had forethought and brought my Camelback. This served as a rinse for our glasses as well as our palette (and was one of the smartest things I have ever done).

Entertainment was provided by a couple of bluegrass bands, one which played a bluegrass version of Prince's "When Doves Cry". It is hard to imagine that that song can sound creepier than the original.

My brother and I tasted almost all of the beers from all of the breweries. We were actually quite methodical about it. Upon entering the festival and noting that all of the breweries were on the same side and the closest breweries were already gaining a line, we headed for the back corner (where there were 6 breweries in close proximity). We also chose to get different samples from each brewer and traded tastes. Most brewers had around 2 or 3 selections, so we could double our tasting for each line we stood in. Lastly, the brewers close to the entrance we hit at the end as we were leaving the festival. By then most of the attendees were in the festival, and had stopped first at the closest. The lines were shorter at these.

The Beers

We had sampled at least 1 beer from every brewer, with the exception of Trinity Brewing out of Colorado Springs. Trinity is a place that my brother and I frequent when we get together for a beer in Colorado Springs, so we felt that we had an idea what they were serving. After trying about 80% of the beers we sat down and made notes on our favorites and what we didn't like and where we still needed to go, and what we wanted another taste of.

Here are our thoughts. Since neither of us are really good at describing our tasting experience, and we didn't care about style, we merely judged whether we liked it or not.

Our Best of Show: Oktoberfest, Left Hand Brewery, Longmont, Colorado

Close 2nds: Helles Good Beer (Helles/Export), Pug Ryan Steakhouse Brewery, Dillon, CO and 719 Light Lager (Helles/Export), Rock Bottom Brewery, Colorado Springs, CO (won first place two years ago)

Most Pleasant Surprises:

Me: Michelob's Grand, described as their original 1890 recipe for Michelob. It was malty and sweet, cloudy and unfiltered. Michelob brought all experimental beers to the festival, and was a contender (at least for me) for best brewery.

My brother: Lemongrass Lager, Rocky Mountain Brewing Company, Colorado Springs, CO.

Biggest Disappointment: Warning Sign Imperial Eis Bock, brewed specially for the festival every year and collaborated on by all of the brewers.

Understandably, this beer is intended to be a special beer that you don't get to run into every day. Our problem with this beer is that we had no idea what an Eis bock is supposed to taste like (let alone an Imperial Style Eis bock), and such a strong and complex beer did not go down well on such a hot day. My brother and I looked at each other after we tasted and had the same reaction....."Ew!"(as in yuck). The beer is listed as 10-14% ABV, and intended to break the German Purity Law. An Eis (Ice) Bock is a dark beer that is lagered below freezing so that the water in the beer turns to ice and is removed, leaving the alcohol behind.

Most Unusual Name: Silver Mullet (Malt Liquor), Rock Bottom Brewery, it also tasted as a Malt Liquor should....yuck, but totally true to style.

Best Brewery: Left Hand Brewery, in addition to our favorite beer of the festival, their other two selections (Pole Star Pilsner, and Haystack Wheat) got our thumbs up.

2nd Best Brewery: Carver Brewing Company, Durango, Colorado. Carver's three selections (La Plata Pilsner, X-Rock Bock, and Cervesa Real (Vienna Style Lager) all got thumbs up from the both of us.

Honorable Mentions: All of New Belgium Brewery's offerings (1554, Skinny Dip, and Blue Paddle). I felt that they couldn't win as their offerings are well known to us, and we both love 1554. Rock Bottom's Goat Toppler Maibock (light colored bock) which won BOS from the festival in 2008, and Shmaltz Brewing Company's Coney Island Lager and Coney Island Albino Python.

I have spent most of my energy learning about and making ales, and consider myself more of a novice on lager knowledge. This festival was especially useful for me to understand what I like in lagers. It was no secret to me that I preferred the Vienna/Marzen/Oktoberfest styles above all else, but I learned that I like Helles (Municher) as well. In all, I prefer beers made in the traditional styles of German Lagers over their Mexican and American interpretations. So, I like the maltier and hoppier varieties with good mouthfeel, but prefer the German exacting sense of balance in my beers. This fits with what I like in ales as well.

All in all the festival was fun, and I think the organizers did a great job. It also provided me with a warm up to the GABF next month. I will try to make this festival a yearly thing.

If you made it up to the festival and can add your favorites, your thoughts?

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Origin of the Species: Beer Guy Pt. 2

The 80's.

This is the 2nd of a series of what made me into the beer guy I am, see The Origin of the Species: Beer Guy for part 1.

The 1980's were a bad time for most la mullet, Hair Bands, Leg Warmers.

It is always darkest before the dawn, and the 1980's saw some experimentation by the big brewers (not all of it bad), and the birth of the craft brewing industry. As for my part, I shouldn't have been involved at all, due to age limitations, but I liked beer, and it was my beverage of choice.

The 1980's also was the time that arose a social consciousness about alcohol consumption. Mother's Against Drunk Driving was founded in 1980 and at the same time, an anti drug campaign from First Lady Nancy Reagan reminded us to "Just Say No". The awareness about the dangers of excessive consumption of alcohol were coupled with campaigns to discourage underage usage of alcohol by criminalizing the act of providing alcoholic beverages to minors. It became punitive to buy alcohol for the random kid asking you to outside of the 7-11. Until then, this was the primary method of obtaining beer for everyone under the age of 15. Ironically, the effectiveness of this awareness campaign made it easier to obtain illegal drugs than it was to obtain alcoholic beverages.

Now, I am not an advocate of underage drinking, and wish I could tell kids to wait, but really, what is needed is a healthy respect for moderation. I never liked drinking to get drunk. I still don't like the effects of alcohol. I have always said, if we could remove most of the alcohol from beer and still have all the varied flavors, I would be just as happy. The concept of having 1 good beer instead of a pitcher of inexpensive American lager didn't sink in for me until 1989. I will include that story in part 3 (the 90's). But the 80's were a drink what you got time.

Hockey Night in Canada

It was during this decade that I found out that beer and hockey go together. My friends and I would gather every Friday during hockey season to watch Hockey Night in Canada on CBET, Channel 9 out of Windsor, Ontario. Hockey Night in Canada features two games a night and entertaining commentary, namely from Don Cherry. I also got to watch Wayne Gretzky most nights in at least one game. As a teenager, this was riveting TV. I miss HNIC now that I live in the middle of this country. Hockey Night in Canada exposed me to a lot of Canadian Beer, if not from the ads (I don't know if broadcast rules in Canada prohibit beer ads, I don't remember any to be honest) but at least from the banners along the boards at the games. Come to find out, Labatt's, Molson, and Moosehead are better tasting than Coors, Bud, and Miller, and at least in Detroit (and the rest of Michigan), they were oft times cheaper, too. We would stay in, drink beer if we could get it from older "friends" and watch 4 or more hours of Hockey Night in Canada.

Once I got a job, I never got to watch HNIC anymore, but the lasting impression of the Canadian Lagers started me down the road to better beer. I still love to drink a Labatt's (Blue or Blue Light) when I can get it cheap. It is not worth paying an import price, however. After I turned 19, I went to Canada once (as the drinking age is 19 across the river from Detroit in Windsor), but by then, my regular hang outs figured on me being older than I was, or I had friends.

Other things I remember from the late 80's, perhaps into the early 90's. Molson Canadian Ale,Stroh's Signature, Heineken, Michelob Dark, Labatt's IPA (came in 4 pack, and I did not like it), and Ice Beer....there is no redeeming value to Ice Beer, except the excellent ad campaigns (remember the Penguin....Do, Be, Do, Be Doooo) and the fact that I think my friend (and he knows who he is) would have rather drank wine coolers than real beer if it wasn't for Ice beer. Although there were craft brewers popping up in the 1980's, we didn't hear or see them in Michigan until much later.

Next time on Beer Guy: the college years, and onward to the birth of the Craft Brewing Industry.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Blasphemous Rumors

OK, so I am getting back to actually talking On Beer.

This is a subject that I have been trying to get a grasp on for a while now. I am having trouble making a stand, as my understanding keeps being shaped like sand dunes on a windy day by my various conversations with people and my continued sampling of beer. As the song goes, I don't want to start any blasphemous rumors...the following is just my opinion.

For those of you who know me, I prefer malt over hops and ales over lagers, but not exclusively so. I understand and enjoy balance in beers. I find the recent popularity of bigger and stronger beers and the race to infuse the ultimate amount of hop bitterness, flavor, and aroma into a single beer a curiously and exceptionally American norm.

We in America like to go to extremes, for better or worse. When we do this, we often look back and call it a golden age. For example, in the 1950's big sedans with outrageous tail fins and jet engine motifs were the rage. Every model year the fins grew to an apex in 1959 (see the 1959 Cadillac for reference) with astonishingly impractical dimensions and then abruptly receded. In the late 60's and early 70's the designers of the Pony Cars and later Muscle Cars put everything possible under the hood. It was about absurd power and speed. Americans couldn't get enough, until, of course, they had enough. In 1973, the oil crisis quickly moved consumers away from the heavy, overpowered sports car. In both cases, the trend pushed styling and engineering to the absurd and then sales crashed. One by external forces, the other by (I believe) the boundaries of practicality and good taste. In both cases, even today, who wouldn't like to tool around in a '59 Caddy or rumble down the boulevard in a '68 Ford Cobra GT 350? But as a daily driver? Not me.

So, it is from this perspective that I view the current class of extreme beers, and I draw the line in the sand for myself at the India Pale Ale. I actually like the IPA (people who know me might be surprised, as I have recently acquired this taste, and these are not the IPA I first tasted from Labatt's in the early 1990s), but it is not my daily driver beer. I am especially fond of Great Divide's Titan IPA and especially so their cask conditioned version hand drawn from a beer engine with low carbonation and served at almost room temp (I think the guys running the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) would be proud). This beer is one that I occasionally have. Everything else beyond this is only good in taster format for me. After the sample, I can no longer taste anything but hops and alcohol. So for me, oak aged anything is sipped like whiskey and great around a campfire, and you won't find me having a full glass of Double anything (I generally avoid American Style Anything as well, and never a Texas Style anything either (as in Texas Brown)), even if it is good (ie Pliny from previous is good, no doubt, but for me, it's a sipper, and maybe occasioned not unlike any Winter Warmer).

The question I have is, are these beers that push the envelope a fad? Are we in the middle of the golden years for these behemoths? Or is this the new normal, that will push even the big boys to experiment with this particular bottled lightning? Will or have these beers pushed the boundary of good taste and as a result will they pass into the night like most Ice Beers? (The Ice Beers were truly an exercise in mass marketing frenzy and was nearly tasteless beer, sorry to invoke them here to make my point). I believe that the answer is a hearty perhaps. I believe that the best examples will remain, so that means that the Pliny family (Elder and Younger) and Dogfish Head family (60, 90, 120 minute) at the head of the pack will remain a popular curiosity, served nationwide in any serious beer joint and some smaller guys known for their boldness and full bodied beers will also mature these styles. For most craft breweries, however, the upper limits will settle somewhere far short of the DIPA, or maybe even the IPA itself. Perhaps it has already begun. How many Rock Bottom Breweries have their Hop Bomb IPA or similar on tap as a regular offering? I don't know the answer to that, or even if that is a fair barometer. It all depends on sales, and what you, the consumer, continue to collectively demand.

What about the Belgians you ask? I have complex relations with those guys too. I need time to come clean, so we will discuss them in a future post.

Finding Balence in Cleanliness

"Cleanliness becomes important when Godliness is unlikely"
P.J. O' Rourke.
"[I] Made damn sure The Pilate
Washed his hands
To seal his fate"
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, "Sympathy for the Devil"

The physical aspect of brewing is much more about cleaning than most people realize. Our job as brewers is to create and foster an environment in which the proper organisms (ale or lager yeast mostly) are able to thrive and unwanted or naturally occurring microorganisms, such as bacteria or wild yeast are thwarted in their efforts to live and multiply in our beer. So, like the old BASF commercials, we brewers don't make the beer, we make beer possible. We are mere assistants to the genius life's work of the single celled fungi we call yeast. And to do that, we need to make sure everything is as clean as possible.

Cleaning and Sanitation is most of what we do, and so it seems likely that it is a main reason that we fail as brewers or quit the hobby altogether. If you don't develop an adequate regimen for cleaning your equipment, your brewing is heading for a disaster. If you don't like the work of cleaning, or at least tolerate doing it, you should probably just go buy your beer, instead. I don't begrudge people who decide brewing is not for them (for whatever reasons), but either way, it might be nice to understand the labors of brewing while enjoying a well made beer.

I separate cleaning and sanitation into two separate activities in my mind while in the brewing process even though sanitation occurs while cleaning, and cleaning happens when sanitizing. Either way, the process is circular and my brewing day starts with sanitation, and ends with cleaning. For me, sanitation is easier, because cleaning is more difficult when it is done well, and knowing I cleaned well last time makes sanitation go quickly next time.

I start my brew day either the night before or early in the morning. I start by cleaning my laundry room which is also the entry to my cats' bathroom and it becomes my brewery's clean room. Cat litter, lint, dust, and dirt are everywhere. I sweep, and get out the Pine Sol and clean the floor. If there is something I am apt to skip, it is the washing of the floors, but I sweep, because clumping cat litter and spilled wort is kind of gross.

Next, I get out the towels and lay them on the washer and dryer and they serve as my counter. I also get out my wort chiller as it serves as my hose to spray into my fermenters and mash tun/kettle. Then I get out the equipment and bleach. I use regular household bleach as my main cleaner and sanitizer, and probably too much of it. But it is cheap and I rinse really well. I don't know the downsides to using bleach, other than it corrodes stainless steel if left too long in contact with the equipment, and perhaps you have to use too much water to rinse. The benefit of using bleach is that it is cheap and available at the grocery store (and it has multiple uses as a general cleaner around the house). The brewing specific alternatives are Iodophor (iodine), and Star San. The benefits of Iodophor is that the solution can stay in contact with the equipment for extended periods and you don't have to rinse. But you do need to let it air dry before using. Star San's benefit is that after a quick soak, the equipment can be used wet. I have never used anything but bleach, so I can't speak to these product's utility. I think that if I ever get new stainless fermenters or new brew kettles (like I pine for every time I get a beer magazine, surf the net, or visit my local homebrew shop), I will try these other options.

Cleaning at the end of the day is the most difficult thing. I am tired from a long brewing day, and have usually had a few beers while watching water boil (a tedious activity without beer, for sure). I have a lot of bottle brushes and other cleaning equipment, but only use a rag, bleach, my bent carboy cleaner brush and my wort chiller as my sprayer....and a little elbow grease. I make sure my stuff is clean and dry before it goes back into the store room. This way, my next brewing session will go smoothly.

Cleaning Bottles

When I share beer with friends, or give them a six pack for the drive home (just kidding), I am very specific about their instructions about bottle cleanliness. They must rinse the bottles with hot water to remove the sediment in the bottles immediately after pouring, and must never use soap on my bottles. They must also return the bottles in a timely manner. I am strict on this. If I don't get bottles back, or those bottles have dried crap in them, they will never get beer again. I have a few friends who have been cut off as such. I also know of a few brewers that don't bother with this level of fastidiousness, and they do have funky batches, bad beers, and exploding bottle bombs (an interesting side effect to some wild bacteria and yeasts). Ironically, they don't even wonder about why.

Simply by rinsing after pouring the beer into a glass, my bottling day is simplified. I have rarely used my bottle brush to clean inside a bottle. I will throw a bottle into recycling if it has dried sediment that can't be cleaned after a soak and rinse. I have plenty of bottles, and don't need the aggravation. Not many bottles are wasted in this manner, however, as I have good friends (or ones that know that I am dead serious), and stick to my guns about rinsing. On bottling day, all of my bottles go into the dishwasher for a wash and dry cycle. This serves as my bottle autoclave. The hot water and steam kill all of any remaining nasties and wash off any accumulated dust.

Some people just must clean off labels, they can't leave it alone. I don't care about the outward appearance of my bottles, so I don't. I don't peel the label on my credit card that says "Remove before Use". I am that way. I have bottles from breweries that don't exist anymore, and haven't existed for a decade. Each time I use them, they get more faint, or sometimes completely wash off. I like marking the passage of time this way. Many of my friends also suggest that I make labels for my beer. I don't and have not plans to. Perhaps I am too lazy to add this finishing touch to my craft, or perhaps I will never be satisfied with the outcome if I try to do it myself. Lastly, this does not serve my philosophy that the beer is more important. I view the additional step of adding a label and then cleaning it off as a waste of energy.

Cleansing is a metaphor in many societies and religions for the absolvement of sins. I don't know if I exactly buy that, but in many cases clean is good. In brewing it is an absolute must. I owe my philosophy of keeping things clean during and after use being easier than cleaning them later to my wife. It was her that taught me that periodic light cleaning ends up being more preferable to using napalm once in a while to tidy things up. My wife has unwittingly made me a better brewer. Speaking of cleansing, I love a long, hot shower, and need to do just that sometime before lunch.


btw: I am always looking for new tricks, time savers, or useful equipment to make my brew day more enjoyable, quicker, or easier. If you have a method that works for you, I would love to hear about it.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Crafting Patience

A couple of weeks ago I bottled the last of our summer beers, a standard American Blonde Ale; lightly hopped, and made with corn to give it some kind of ugly Americanization. Just the kind of beer you want after mowing the lawn in August, or out at the lake, or with friends and neighbors on the veranda. The basic beer that goes down fast any time it is hot and you are especially thirsty.

A week later, although I knew better, I cracked the first one to test. I do this with each beer, and the same scenario plays just like this:

It is carbonated, it smells OK, I put it to my lips for that first taste, expecting that first kiss that should be love. Each time the same wave of fear in the form of a cold sweat hits me without fail: THIS IS THE WORST BEER I HAVE EVER MADE!!!! It tastes like Ass in a bottle.

I usually have one another week later, and decide that it isn't quite ass in a bottle, perhaps a redheaded stepchild of a beer, perhaps it is drinkable, but I am still pretty ashamed. I tell everyone that I know that it sucks and start mentally going over every step of my brewing process to determine the what went wrong. Hot side aeration, inadequate hot or cold break, bad sanitation, bad juju, you name it, I think it.

In the blonde's case, I am two weeks and a few days into the process. Today, I got the beer as cold as I could, and poured it into a chilled glass, and find that I have a pretty good ale on my hands. It didn't even taste this good yesterday (remember the red headed stepchild?). Why can I know better, and still can't wait to reserve judgement? Why do I bother wasting beer, and telling the world what bad brewers we are, when I know it isn't ready. This is a temporary insanity of mine. I doubt my own skills.

As for the blonde, it isn't the best beer we have ever made, and I think that I will opt for giving up on using corn. This beer needs a little more body, a little more color and perhaps like me a little more time to mature. So, I preach patience, even if I am not always able to practice it. After 15 years of brewing, I am still more like George Costanza than I am any zen beer master. I have been lucky in that I have had very few undrinkable disasters, in fact, can only remember one really bad beer (sanitation issue) that needed to be introduced to the sewer. Most of the time, if I am disappointed, it is because I was expecting a different result.

The beer we make takes time, we can do little to speed it along as we nurture it. Knowing how things happen, when they happen, and to a lesser extent, why things happen should remind us that our beer is alive and ever changing. We should not be in a hurry to try our latest creations, after all there is a big world of beer out there, and we are apt to be disappointed in a beer that hasn't come into its own. While we are waiting, I suggest taking the opportunity to try local craft breweries' versions of the style you are attempting. If only I could l heed my own advice.

Happy brewing.