Monday, December 31, 2007

And ... We're Back

We hope everyone had a great holiday. We did. It's also that time of year for the "Year in Review" type stuff. As we were getting all excited about compiling this list, we realized something detrimental to our effort: Robin Shepard, over at the Isthmus, pretty much hit it dead on and our article was just going to be repeat of his.

However, there were some differences, so let's go over those:

Best Seasonal Beer: We can't really argue with Tyranena's Oktoberfest, although we thought that Capital's was the best of the bunch. Unfortunately, we didn't start publishing until August, so we missed the first two-thirds of the year's seasonal beers.

Best Summertime Beer: Furthermore is always a good choice. They make a great selection of interesting pale ales. But, we'll put our money on Brewery Creek's Shandy. This unassuming brewery in the shopping district of Mineral Point put together a great summer beer; in fact, this beer was in the running for Beer of the Year for some of our contributors.

Best Beer of 2007: We agree with Robin on this one, but just wanted to state it for the record. Lake Louie's Louie's Reserve is the best beer of the year. Complex and warming, this beer should perform well for years to come.

So, with 2007 out of the way, what is there to look forward to this year? Even at this early stage there are some interesting lights at the end of the 2008 tunnel:

Prepare for the Belgian Onslaught

First, Furthermore is adding another Belgian style to its lineup that already includes the Fatty Boombalatty, a Belgian wit brewed as a Wisconsin pale ale. But, on Janauary 5th at 9:45pm at the High-Noon Saloon, Furthermore will officially unveil another Belgian style brewed as Wisconsin pale ale: the Make Weight, a Belgian Tripel. With this 8.5% ABV Triple Pale Ale as they call it, Furthermore is going to be a brewery to keep an eye on in 2008. Owners Arun and Chris recently purchased some land in Spring Green where they hope to put a brewery and eventually move away from contract brewing in Black River Falls for their increasingly interesting lineup of beers that includes perennial MBR favorite Knot Stock and the seasonal drinkability of the Fallen Apple.

Second, the folks over at The Great Dane are back from a head-honcho-inspired trip to study brewing styles in Belgium. The rumor mill has it that The Great Dane will start brewing some Belgian beers. This could be an interesting experiment that, if brewed to the quality typical of the Dane, will bring Belgian beers to the fraternity masses. While these beers are typically styles that wouldn't seem to appeal to the prototypical Great Dane clientele, with its upscale move to Hilldale and a strong showing by the Belgians, perhaps The Great Dane can class up the joint a bit.

Speaking of The Great Dane

The other big thing to keep an eye on in 2008 will be the impact of The Great Dane Bill. To our knowledge there are a couple of breweries planned to open in 2008, including a brewery focusing on wild yeast strains and the possible re-opening of the Potosi Brewing Company. There may, and probably will, be others - all of whom will be impacted by this new law.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Hey Barkeep!

Yes, it's that time of the month again. Today we are fielding questions from the peanut gallery. This question comes to us from the deep recesses of The Great Dane at Fitchburg (proof positive that we have nothing against the Dane here - we drink at all three of them constantly), but inspired by their summertime Watermelon Weisse and the general practice with wheat beer:

Why is there fruit in my beer?

A good question. What does a lemon (or in this case a huge chunk o' watermelon) really add to the weisse experience? Why is it there? Are you supposed to eat it?

I will admit that I do not like chunks of fruit in my beer, so I always ask the bartender to hold off on the fruit - I often get a crazy look, but they usually comply.

But why put it there at all? Michael Jackson (the beer one, not the gloved one) has reported that he first encountered the practice in the 1960s in Bavaria (Southern Germany along the Austrian border). He indicates that his own investigations into the matter have turned up a few reasons:
1) the style was originally farmhouse style (similar to the Belgian saison or the French bier de garde), and the fruit had been added to mask uneven product quality - I agree with Mr. Jackson in his dismissal of this as a legitimate reason: the people who would have brewed these beers would have viewed the "uneven" product as natural and would have left it as is;
2) because of all of the wheat (as much as 50% of the grain bill for these beers) these beers generate huge amounts of foamy head - lemon acts to cut the head; while Mr. Jackson dismisses this because it flattens the beer this seems pretty reasonable to me, though is probably not the entire factor behind the practice, it certainly is a benefit when pouring - particularly if the practice began because the lemons were on hand "just in case" and when the foam became unmanagable the lemon was quickly added to prevent excessive overflowing; and
3) the tartness of the lemon accentuates the charateristic fruitiness of the drink - which seems a perfectly legitimate, if not slightly subjective, reason; thus, it seems to me, the bartender should ask if you want, not put it in by default.

Finally, Mr. Jackson, notes that this practice has fallen out of favor in continental Europe for two reasons: first, that the lemon rinds contain trace amounts of pesticides, and second, that styles more in favor are less and less filtered and contain significant amounts of yeast sedimentation in the bottle - this yeast adds a creamier texture and alters the taste such that the lemon becomes more off-putting.

Personally, I do not put a lemon in my beer because I like the taste of the beer - the popular American versions (Blue Moon, et al) are already so sweet and fruity that they hardly require the additions. And, of the craft versions, I prefer the continental style: more heavily sedimented and yeast-y and find that the lemon does not accentuate the flavors.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Yet Another Brewery That Couldn't Start Today

I know. It's beating a dead horse. Well. It's more like beating the skeletal remains of a horse that was beaten to death. But, I feel obliged to point these things out, because I think it bears explicit demonstration of exactly the havoc that the legislature has wrought by hastily passing the Great Dane Bill (SB224). So, humor me.

Central Waters Brewing Company first started brewing in 1998. By 2000, the owners Mike and Jerome, were winning awards for their barleywine. After a number of ownership changes that, surprisingly left the beer quality high, Central Waters is now one the hottest breweries in Wisconsin. The regular beers in their lineup, Lac Du Bay, Mud Puppy Porter, Ouisconsing Red Ale, Happy Heron Pale, Junc Town Brown, and Satin Solstice are all great beers for their styles. Infinitely drinkable, and supremely balanced any one of these would make a fine choice at the beer store.

But they also have a few tricks up their sleeves. Kosmyc Charlie's Y2K Catastrophe Ale (BA.RB.) is one of the best barleywines in the country, if not the world. While I'm sure we'll get around to a more formal review of it in the future, rest assured that you cannot go wrong with the Y2K barleywine.

But Central Waters' real juggernaut-inducing beers are its barrel aged beers. Central Waters offers three beers aged in bourbon barrels. The aforementioned barelywine is also available occasionally aged in bourbon barrels. Also produced is an aged stout and an aged cherry stout. Last week, the Bourbon Barrel Stout was released. Its availability is scattered, so if you see it around, make sure you grab it - it may not be last long; even at $16.99 for a 6-pack. In fact, I was told that for the second straight year retailers are getting less than anticipated. Brennan's had ordered 25 cases and was assured that they would be getting them; only 5 cases were actually delivered. While Central Waters' expansion into the Milwaukee area might account for some of this, it is hard to fathom what the full reason could be. Last year's excuse was an evaporation issue: that seems like a lot of beer to evaporate.

Central Waters Bourbon Barrel StoutIn any event, the Bourbon Barrel Stout is considered one of the better stouts (BA.RB.) - the one-year aged version is in Beer Advocate's Top 10 for the style.

Appearance: As it pours into an over-sized snifter, it is dark and thick, but not oily like the Russian Imperials; its coloring is more of a dark ruby brown, not the jet black colors of other stouts; it is accompanied by a thin, wispy brownish-tan head that clings as if its life depended on it to the sides of the glass.
Aroma: roasted and bourbon, with some coffee-ish notes; there's some faint chocolaty smells lurking in the background, but it could be hops mixing with the roasted notes. As it warms up the bourbon notes really come out and the chocolate asserts itself more.
Flavor: Ideally served at 55 degrees, this beer has some kick; the coffee and roasted notes hit first, followed by the bourbon, and a smooth finish of chocolate and a light bitterness; some of the oakiness from the barrel comes through, though surprisingly little hop; this beer is all about the malts and the specialty malt complexity is pretty amazing; a light touch with the sweetly caramelized malts adds a soupcon of brightness.
Body:the bourbon aging rounds this beer out and is it is supremely smooth; for a stout it maintains a soft but not heavy body.
Drinkability: An excellent before bed night-cap to watch the timbers in the fireplace dwindle down while listening to the final strains of Mingus' Epitaph.
Summary: If stouts are your thing - and really, who doesn't like a stout every now and then - go out and grab a six while you can; it is doubtful that retailers will be splitting these for singles, so you will probably be stuck paying the $16 for a six-pack; but drink a couple now, and drink a couple next year, and then two more the year after that - you will find it was the best $16 you ever spent on beer. Between the Leinie's Big Eddy Russian Imperial and Central Waters, Wisconsin is making a strong claim for the top of the stout pile.

So, what does the Great Dane have to do with this beer? Well, to belabor the point, as I promised I would earlier, SB 224 would make it illegal to start a brewery that operates like Central Waters does. How? Well, the new law requires that if a brewing company own a brewpub license that all of its facilities must be brewpubs. Thus, brewing operations cannot be separate from retail operations. It is this same rule that would have prevented Granite City from opening here. In this case, Central Waters has a 7,500 square foot brewing facility in Amherst, WI; its restaurant is 60 miles away in Marshfield. Although the restaurant facility does brew some beer (namely, 6 beers that are available only at that location), the brewing facility does not have a restaurant - though it would be required to have one under the new law. Moreover, if and when Central Waters surpasses 10,000 barrels it would have to close down its popular brewpub. Of course, Central Waters will be covered by the grandfather clause; but any new brewers hoping to mimic Central Waters differentiated brewing system will be out of luck.

ps. the word of the day is "soupcon" - use it in a sentence today and people will think you are twenty times smarter. Everybody can thank Sean for today's word of the day.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Capital's New Twist

Capital Brewery, based in Middleton, is one of the stalwarts of the Wisconsin craft brewing industry. Brewing since 1986, Brewmaster Kirby Nelson is best known for his skills with dark lagers. The Munich Dark has been winning awards since 1987, only one year after Capital first started brewing. Yet, Capital's best selling beer is the Island Wheat, a wheat ale. Capital has made ales before; an amber and a brown ale have been regulars, while the Vintage Ale and the Kloster Weizen have been in regular rotation. Since the advent of the Island Wheat, however, it appears that the Kloster Weizen has now been retired, leaving only 3 other ales in a lineup of dozens of beers brewed by Capital.

Until now.

Released earlier this fall, Capital Brewery now brews a pale ale, called the US Pale Ale (BA.RB.). So, what distinguishes this from its other beers? Well, it is one ale style without a real lager counterpart. The Amber, Brown and Wheat all have lager equivalents: Oktoberfest, Munich dark/dopplebock, and pilsner (more or less) respectively. What does that mean? Well, more or less, an Amber is substantially similar to an Oktoberfest with the exception of the use of lager yeast and cold fermentation. A wheat ale recipe is very similar to a pilsner yeast, with the exception of wheat (although pilsners will often use some wheat in their recipes) and the lagering process. The same is true for the brown ale.

However, the pale ale has no real lager equivalent. So, what's the difference between a lager and an ale? While I'm sure a master brewer can talk your ear off about the difference, for our purposes today it will suffice to say that it is dependent on the temperature of the fermentation and the position of the yeast during the fermentation.

Lagers are fermented at relatively cold temperatures (about 35F to 60F). As a result, the fermentation times are longer and the yeast is relatively less active and tend to settle to the bottom. Thus, lager yeasts are also called bottom-fermenting yeasts. Because of these cold temperatures and longer fermentations, lagers tend to be clearer (the cold temperatures and longer times provide a better "break" of the particulates which settle during fermentation) with more subtle and complex malt flavors. Also because of the long fermentations and instability of hop aroma and flavors, not to mention more subtle malt flavors, they tend to be low-hopped beers, often relying solely on noble hops for aroma and very little bitterness.

Ales are top-fermenting beers. Instead of fermenting at cold temperatures over the course of months, ales are frequently fermented for about two weeks at room temperature, generally between 65F and 80F. Because of the high temperature and fast fermentation, there is less of a "cold break" of the particulates, thus there is frequently cloudiness associated even with filtered ales. Moreover, the short fermentations allow for more aggressive bitterness hopping. Which, conveniently, can mask or even compliment some of the alcohol-y and metallic tastes that are imparted by some ale yeasts.

So, why is there no lager equivalent to the pale ale? Partially because it would be a really boring beer. Unlike a light lager like a pilsner, a pale ale typically has some body to it, but not an over-abundance of specialty malts that would result in complex flavors (i.e., the Oktoberfest/marzen and darker lagers). For this reason, pale ales rely on hop flavors and aromas to compliment the malt body. Ideally, there should be a strong, equal balance between malt and hops. There is a great diversity in pale ales, from the British-style Bitters (a slightly hopped pale ale) to the uber-hopped and citrusy American Double IPA. It is a very popular style for American breweries, though Capital had, thus far, resisted the temptation.

But, now, Capital has entered the fray with its US Pale Ale.

Appearance: Poured into a Weizen-style glass, it is an attractive pale gold with nice bubbling action and a thick, foamy, two-finger pure white head.
Aroma: Floral and grassy hop aromas, with a soft sweetness lurking just around the corner, there's a citrus punch waiting for you at the end; surprisingly complex hop aromas were captured very well by the oversized weizen glass.
Flavor: Smooth and bitter; in fact, much more bitter than the aromas would have let on; the citrus hops become a little pushy on the finish and just kind of hang around, never really letting go; unfortunately any of the sweetness or complexity in the malts seems to be overshadowed by the hops, though some sweetness from the caramel malts pokes its head through every now and then; an estery/alcoholish taste rounds out the finish.
Body: a medium light body that keeps that the beer from being cloying or overbearing; the finish comes quickly but is not particularly clean and they hop bitterness just lingers for a while.
Drinkability: would compliment a chicken or cream-based pasta meal quite well (maybe chicken pesto linguini?), but probably would not have too many once dinner was over; over the course of the beer, the citrus becomes a little much, asserting itself more and more, while the floral and grassy tones found so pleasantly in the aroma seem to disapper entirely
Summary: A good first effort; the US Pale Ale shows considerable promise as the recipe will likely continue to be tweaked to clean up the finish, bring some of the malts forward a little, and hopefully discover some of the hops that seem to get lost along the way.

Friday, December 14, 2007

One More Item For Your Holiday Shopping Pleasure

It's official. Your dreams have come true. You can now purchase Madison Beer Review T-Shirts!

Printed locally, these handsome t-shirts provide an instant indicator of your predilection for local, craft beer and your amazing good taste.

More importantly though, each purchase of a t-shirt results in a donation to a local charity. We believe strongly in our community. We show our commitment through our emphasis on local breweries, local brewpubs, local restaurants, and the selections available at your local retail outlets. We feel it is important to support our local businesses because it keeps our money where it is needed most - here in Wisconsin. We continue that commitment by sending 30% of the profits of our t-shirts to a local charity. As we develop more designs with area artists, we will add more t-shirts and more charities.

The first charity selected is one that is vital to the survival of Madison Beer Review: Literacy Network. Without people that can read, we wouldn't exist.

Literacy Network provides learner-centered literacy services to Dane County adults. This is accomplished through one-to-one tutoring of reading, writing, and English speaking skills; ESL classes; and their First Step Learning Lab.

Literacy Network helps about 1,000 learners every year achieve life goals through literacy, such as:

» Reading to children
» Reading a newspaper
» Describing illnesses to doctors
» Talking to their child's teacher
» Filling out job applications
» Developing a résumé
» Entering training programs
» Improving basic skills to move into a GED program

You can help the Literacy Network by becoming a tutor, participating in their Run/Walk (fka, Canterbury Run/Walk), participating in Literacy 24/7, or by purchasing one of our t-shirts.

ps. Sorry for the pitiful image; it was the best we could put together in a short period of time - if anyone would like to donate some product photography skills, we might be able to work a trade out. Also, thanks to Idun Consulting for helping us get this up and running.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

It's Gift Giving Time

Regardless of religious ideology, it's that time of year when we traditionally give each other (family, friends, beer writers, etc.) gifts. The process usually goes something like this:

1. Think about which person you would like to buy a gift for.
2. Think about whether you REALLY need to buy that person a gift.
3. Think about how much you want to spend.
4. Think about how much you CAN spend.
5. Drink a beer.
6. Think of a different person.
7. Repeat steps 2-6 until depression sets in or you're sufficiently sloshed to think getting a ride to the mall is a good idea.

So, if you're trying to think of good gifts for people that appreciate beer, here are some ideas:

1. A Mix-6 and some glassware. We (MBR) do these for our charity events that we donate to and people love them. The best thing is, you can be as cheap or fancy as you like. You can get 6 local brews and a couple of pint glasses for under $15 if you try hard enough. Moreover, it's a gift you can never have too many of.
  • Some places to look for good singles selections might be: Woodman's (large, if not plain, selection of domestic craft; good, if not standard, selection of imports); Barriques on PD (Can't speak to the other Barriques, but this one has two single-door fridges dedicated to singles; usually some good locals, but a good price range as well); Steve's and Riley's both have similar large selections, but tend to be the highest priced.
  • For that glassware, look no other place than Germania Collectibles in the same building as Essen Haus and Come Back In; they have a great selection of glassware.

2. Books. Anything by Michael Jackson is a must for any budding beer aficianado; Great Beers of Belgium, Ultimate Beer, and particularly The Beer Companion are great places to start. Some other good books: John Palmer's "How To Brew" is an excellent easy-to-read resource for homebrewing and understanding the brewing process; and two of Charlie Papazian's books, "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing" makes brewing beer seem so easy you'll want to try it (you should!) and you can still hear stories from brewers in Wisconsin about when Charlie came through researching his "Microbrewed Adventures."

3. The Gamerator. Kegerators are for the old folks. What you need is a video-game emulator in a stand up arcade cabinet with built-in tap system. Yes. You do need one.

4. Looking for Gift Certificates? Try the Wine and Hop Shop, down on Monroe Street. Friendly, knowledgeable staff and more products than you can shake a wort chiller at.

If you have other ideas please leave them in the comments. Rumor has it that Santa reads Madison Beer Review.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Are You a Millenial?

A Millenial. That's a pretty weak "generational" name. There was "The Greatest Generation." The "Baby Boomers". The "Me Generation". The "Generation X". And, now, "The Millenials". As far as names go, they seem to be getting weaker. Gen-X is pretty lame - it's non-descript and has fostered a whole line of "X" products that really leaves me wondering when a brewery is going to start using "X-TREME Pale Ale" anytime soon (there are two XTreme Beers: an Xteme Kriek and the awesomely titled Red Dragon Xtreme; Ironically, both of these beers are styles known for not being extreme - a fruit beer and a helles lager, respectively).

Anyway. There some news that Millenials, those currently between the ages of 21 and 30 (or at least that's the age relevant to us), are connoiseurs. They purchase premium products at a much higher rate than previous generations. According to reports, this generation spends 28% of its dollars on imports, and another %15 on craft beers. Over 40% of their spending is on foreign or crafts. That's a lot. As a comparison, the "older" generations spend only 15% of their beer dollars on imports and only 6% on crafts. Interestingly, Millenials are spending less money on beer, though. While the "older" generations have moved 6% of their alcohol spending to wine or spirits, the Millenials have moved 12% of their spending from beer to wine or spirits (27% spirits, 26% wine - the article is unclear which of these gained most from that 12% loss).

So, now that we've dutifully reported the news, the more interesting question is why?

I'll take a stab at a guess, and you can post comments whether you agree or disagree (also, if you post, let us know if you are a Millenial or not - for the sake of disclosure, none of the full-time members of MBR are millenials, though many of our correspondents are). I have two guesses at reasoning:

1) Generation X is pretty well-known for its aversion to mass-market products. They are a very difficult generation to market to because of this; there's a high loyalty factor, but there's also a high suspicion of anything that is "too" popular. So, this accounts for some of the "lack of movement" in the "older generations" - the loyalty factors keeps those generations, who have been with their products longer, from moving easily. But, this also plays into the Millenial issue. I have a theory, and it's unsupported by anything other than my own empirical observations - most Millenials are younger siblings of Gen-Xers. The attraction of that "underground" hit has rubbed off, but also at a time when there are simply more choices. Gen-X is one of the most entrepreneurial generations in decades - they are the ones starting many of these craft breweries. As a result, there are simply more "underground" choices for the Millenials to choose from.

Playing into this is the notion that Millenials are very status-conscious and easy prey for "lifestyle" marketing. Thus, the craft breweries are able to gain traction with marketing campaigns that focus on the high-quality, high-value, underground lifestyle that appeals to Millenials. To wit: notice even the marketing campaigns of the major breweries - particularly Budweiser with their Bud Select and "premium lager" campaigns; not to mention Miller's "award winner" campaigns. There is value in marketing to this younger generation the "premium" nature of the product. This value did not (does not?) exist for Generation X because of that generation's "imperviousness" to marketing, particularly from majors.

2) The second reason is less of an attitude issue, but related. The simple fact is, there are more choices in the marketplace. When the older generations were "coming of age" their beer options were limited: Miller, Bud, Coors, et al - and the only "crafts" available were Sam Adams or Sierra Nevada nationally and Leinie's regionally (and to a lesser extent, Great Lakes, Bells, or Goose Island). Imports were pretty much limited to Heineken, Corona, or Amstel. But the explosion of the American Craft Brewery has largely been driven (as mentioned above) by Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers frustrated by this lack of choices, but who see business opportunity at least as viable, if not more so, as the wine industry boom of the 90s.

So, what do you folks think?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

More Than You Probably Wanted or Cared to Know About Hops

How do hops work? It seems like a rather innocuous question. You'll be sorry you asked.

On Wednesday, we discussed what hops do; we mentioned that while hops originally served a purely preservative function (mash hopping was very popular for this where the bitterness is more subdued), these days they are used more to define the flavor of a beer. It's taken almost a hundred years to figure out exactly how hops work, but it is, literally, down to a science; the number and variety of hop strains being used in all sorts of applications is one of the driving, and defining, forces of the American craft beer movement.

Cross Section of Hop Showing Lupulin GlandsThe question then is, how do hops impart their bitterness and/or aroma? Hops can be broken down into two parts: vegetal matter and lupulin glands. The vegetal matter is the green stuff. The lupulin glands are the yellow stuff.

Vege-wha? Lupu-huh?

Vegetal matter is the green, leafy part of the hop. It constitutes over 85% of the hop components, yet it is the least useful portion of the hop. While the leaf itself contributes something in the way of tannin and protein, these effects are mostly negligible. In fact, even considering all of the useful parts of the hop, an efficient brewery will effectively utilize less than 10% of the weight of a hop. In short, it's the lupulin glands that are the stars of the hop show.

What the heck are lupulin glands?

Glands filled with lupulin. Duh. The easy answer is that lupulin and the lupulin glands are the yellow stuff you see on the picture to the left there. It contains the stuff that makes your beer bitter and smell nice. For our purposes, we can break these down into three more technical components: soft resin, essential oils, other stuff. The soft resins themselves are comprised of alpha acids and beta acids. The alpha acids are rendered out of the hop by the boiling process. You will almost always see an alpha acid number associated with a hop profile; the Hop Union Data Book says that their strain of US Cascade is 4.5-7.0% Alpha Acid. This means that 4.5-7.0% of the hop (remember 85% of it is vegetable matter) contains usable alpha acid. On the other hand, Beta Acids are not affected by boiling, but some additional bitterness imparted by oxidation (exposure to air), thus the bitterness is more prevalent in the aroma; the data sheet shows that US Cascades are 4.5-7.0% Beta Acid as well (this matching is coincidental, if you were to look up US Centennials you would see 9.5-11.5% Alpha Acid and 3.5-4.5% Beta Acid).

So what do these numbers mean? Well, the higher the number the more of that resource the hop has to impart the desired characteristic. So, as a general matter, more alpha acid means more bitterness; more beta acid means more aroma.

There are also essential oils trapped in the lupulin. These oils contribute to the particular aroma that are taken out of the hop. While people smarter than me have taken a shot at quantifying what a hop aroma would be based on numbers (i.e., like with alpha acid and beta acid), the fact is it is hard to tell just looking at numbers and oil types what a hop will smell like. It's best to just get one of the little buggers in your hands, roll it around a bit and take a big ol' whif.

We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the classification of "Noble Hops." These are a classification of hops that are grown in Europe (Germany and Czech Republic mostly). They are low-bittering, high-aroma hops. Interestingly, they are Eurpoean Appelations of Origin, meaning that only those grown in the location given in the name of the hop may be called that (e.g., only hops grown in the Saaz region of the Czech Republic can be called "Saaz").

Finally, on Wednesday we failed to mention another hopping technique called the "hop back" where the wort is run through a bed of hops on its way to the chiller. This technique is simply another method of aroma hopping.

Even after all of that, these "fresh hop" beers brag about their usage of whole, fresh hops in the brewing process - "using fresh hops is a big endeavor, as the process requires four to five times the volume of hops compared to the normal process of using pelletized hops" - the fact is, using the hop in whole leaf form is the least efficient means of exploiting it. Like driving a Hummer when gas is over $3.00 a gallon, making a "fresh hop" beer in the midst of a hop shortage seems a little irresponsible.

Of course, this week we've got the 1967 Cadillac El Dorado convertable, hot pink with whale skin hubcaps, all leather cow interior and big brown baby seal eyes for headlights! Yeah! And we're driving around at 115 mph, getting 1 mile per gallon, suckin' down whole leaf hops like they're going out of style in a non-biodegradable styrofoam container. And when we're done suckin down those hop-bombs, we're gonna wipe our mouths with the American flag. (apologies to Denis Leary for the abuse of his song; also: just to make it clear: we do not endorse driving hot pink cars either during or after drinking hop-bombs)

Great Divide Fresh Hop Pale AleGreat Divide Fresh Hop Pale Ale (BA.RB.)

Appearance: Gold and bubbly with a huge creamy white head; none of the floaties of the heavy handed, but nice bubbling from the carbonation
Aroma: You can smell this thing from across the room; fruity and floral; the malt aromas are buried under the hoppy brightness, but it adds some bottom-notes the hop high-notes
Flavor: bitter and grassy, with a solid caramel maltiness that gives way to a lingering finish of alcohol and sharp fruitiness; a slight spiciness pervades
Body: medium-light body that goes down very easily with a lingering finish
Drinkability: perhaps the most drinkable of the three that we had this week; the light body provides a surprising maltiness
Summary: tipped towards the hoppy side, it is still a fairly well-balanced beer;

we were having a discussion this week about expectations for this type of beer - one of us took the side that these beers are supposed to be hop bombs, malt is there because it has to be, but it is definitely the back-seat, the hops are the showcase; the other of us took the position that despite the obvious emphasis on hops, there needs to be some malt backbone to provide at least a little relief and complexity aside from the hop bombardment which tend to be one note (cascade/centennial); so the question to you: do you look for a malt component in your hoppy beers?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Apparently It's Hop Week

On Monday we looked at "wet" hops vs "dried" hops. "Wet hops" are the industry jargon for "fresh" and stands in contradiction to the typical use of "dried" hops. As we mentioned, hops are typically used in one of two forms: pellet and whole leaf. Pellets are dried hops that have been cut up and compacted into a very small pellet that looks a bit like a green rabbit dropping. There a few reasons that pellets are used: first, they keep better and are easier to store because of the compact form; second, since they are smaller and come apart in the boil, they don't effect water volume (fresh hops absorb some water). The biggest disadvantage to pellet hops is that because of their fine form, they tend to clog up drains and require better filtration systems. There is some debate, but the general consensus seems to be that whole leaf hops impart a more "rounded" or "true" hop extraction, but the caveat is that they do not keep particularly well. Moreover, the whole leaf hops are bulkier and absorbant.

So, what is a hop and what does it do? Well, if you have been following along with us and went out purchased the Sierra Nevada Harvest Ale you have tasted what a hop does. Another suggestion: purchase Dog Fish Head's 120 IPA. It will give you a good idea of what hops can do. Although initially used to prevent beer from spoiling on long journeys, hops are most commonly used as a bittering, flavor and aroma agent. They can be added at almost any point in the brewing process:

Mash Hopping: hops are added with the first grains during the "mash" process; while not particularly common in commercial brewing, it is done more frequently by homebrewers and typically produces a more subtle yet inherent hop bitterness - others have likened it to a wine's tannin bitterness
Boil (aka "Kettle") Hopping: after mashing, the wort is typically boiled for up to an hour for the purpose of concentrating the wort and for adding hops; as a general rule, the longer hops are boiled, the more bitterness and less aroma will be gained from the hop
Aroma Hopping: added within the last 15 minutes of the boil, very little bitterness is extracted, but the aromas are retained
Dry Hopping: strangely, not the opposite of "wet" hopping (remember: "wet hopping" means using "fresh", as opposed to "dried", hops); added after the wort has boiled and cooled and has had the yeast added to it and had a chance to settle down, hops added during this time are purely for aroma purposes, no bitterness is extracted and are almost exclusively used in whole leaf form; the hops will sit in the fermenter for 3 days to a month until the resultant beer is bottled.

Two Brothers Heavy-HandedOn Friday, we'll look at some of the components of the hop and what makes some hops better for bittering and some hops better for aroma. In the meantime, have a Two Brothers Heavy Handed India Pale Ale (BA.RB.), another Fresh Hop beer from one of my favorite "new" breweries down there in Illinois. They concentrate on making lesser-known styles of beers (as opposed to Dog Fish Head who concentrate on really pushing the envelope of beer itself) and have numerous awards to show for their skill. The six-pack we have (also purchased at the Barriques on PD) is from lot 2897, which, the Two Brothers Website tells us, contains Cascade hops (Lot 2547 Willamette; Lot 2617 Cluster; Lot 2687 Centennial; Lot 2847 Baby Cascade).

Appearance: A deep copper coloration with only very mild bubbling and a modest, creamy white one-finger head that dissipates quickly into small dense clumps of foam; a close inspection reveals that what were thought to be bubbles are actually tiny bits of hops that made it through the filtration process.
Aroma: surprisingly light aroma that is more malt than might have been expected; a sweetness and light caramel scent come through with the citrusiness of the cascade hops over top
Taste: a quick hoppy bitterness, followed by a mild malty breadiness that gives this beer some substance with a long finish of orange and grapefruit
Body: a firm medium body with long finish; a slight oiliness in the front, but unlike the Sierra Nevada Harvest, it doesn't coat the mouth
Drinkability: I could drink these all night; it is definitely hoppy, but there is more malt backbone to it to make it supremely drinkable
Summary: where the Sierra Nevada Harvest was 20 oz of liquid hops, the Heavy-Handed is more like a traditional IPA, just with the depth of hop flavor that comes from fresh hops; this beer warms up very well; while it is best served at refrigerator temperatures it changes character as it warms; where it starts as a pretty typical American IPA, the fresh hops with their undried resins and oils start to show their subtleties - there is a faint woody earthiness that comes through that is not typically found in cascade hops, the upfront brightness asserts itself and begins to be differentiated from straight bitterness, the caramel and base malts add a definite complimentary sweetness and body that can carry some of the oils and prevent it from being cloying

ps. For those keeping count, Two Brothers is in the process of installing a world-class restaurant at their brewery featuring one of the top chefs in Chicago; they wouldn't be able to do this today if they were based in Wisconsin.

Monday, December 3, 2007

No Wonder There's A Freaking Hop Shortage

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company is one of the biggest and oldest craft breweries in the United States. It was started in 1980 in a small town 2 hours North of Sacramento in the heart of the Sacramento Valley between the Cascade Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Not only is this Nortern California area rich in agriculture, but it is an area rich in the American craft brewing tradition; home to such illustrious breweries as Bear Republic, Mendocino, Russian River, Lagunitas, Lost Coast, and, of course, Sierra Nevada.

Together these Northern California breweries have begun and carried the torch for hoppy American beers. A mere 500 miles from the Yakima Valley (about the distance from Madison, WI to Pittsburgh, PA), hops are plentiful. Sierra Nevada has a reputation that is unsurpassed. The Bigfoot Barley Wine is considered one of the finest in the world of its style and has a hop profile that makes this beer near the top of the bitterness scale (90 IBU for those of you keeping count). The Pale Ale has won 7 gold medals and is Sierra Nevada's single most popular beer; it is singlehandedly responsible to introducing countless people to craft beer and tips the pale ale scale at 37 IBU.

Hops are usually used in a dried form; they dry easily and quickly and keep well sealed and chilled. Sometimes they are used as dried whole leaves, sometimes they are used as dried and compressed pellets. But because of the proximity of Northern California to the largest hop growing region in the world (the Yakima Valley) these breweries are in a somewhat unique position: they can use large quantities of hops in their fresh, undried form allowing for huge aromas and the extraction of even the most subtle leaf flavorings.

Havest Fresh Hop AleIt is with these fresh hops that Sierra Nevada has bottled their Havest Fresh Hop Ale. A bounty of hops, over 8,000 pounds (4 TONS) of hops, went into this years bottles. Some of these bottles made it all the way to Madison, WI where they were purchased at the Barriques on PD on the west Side. Unfortunately, the hops themselves are having a tough time getting here - perhaps because they are in these bottles.

The two hop types in this bottle are cascade and centennial. Cascade hops are typically associated with these Northern California breweries and provide a citrusy, orange-like aroma and flavor. While cascade hops are easily over-used, they can provide a distinct aroma and quenching flavor. Centennial hops are similar but with a more subtle citrus-iness and a more pronounced floral bouquet.

Appearance: huge 3-finger white foamy head, golden copper and crystal clear and stylish carbonation; a very pretty beer
Aroma: floral and not nearly as citrusy as might be expected; there is slight lemony pepperiness and a huge flowery nose
Taste: bitter; very, very bitter; seems to be lacking any malt at all actually - faint sweetness pokes out, but the peppery bitterness is overwhelming; after the first shock, some of the citrus juiciness pokes through and provides a pleasant diversion from the mouthpuckering tartness.
Body: It is a "soft" beer and the fresh hop resins provide a coating function that causes this beer to adhere to the inside of the mouth leaving a pleasant brightness after the big flavors are over
Drinkability: One is enough thank you very much; I like it for what it is, and the hops are pleasant enough; but I can't fathom drinking very much of it
Summary: Very unbalanced; not as much of the cascade oranginess as I expected - more of a lemony and floral acidity; the oiliness provided a nice counterbalance to what would otherwise be a harsh beer; the lack of any malt characteristic prevents this from being too highly recommended except to anyone other than dedicated hop heads.

ps. For those keeping score at home: Sierra Nevada is also a brewpub and would be unable to operate in the state of Wisconsin under the recently passed laws allowing the Great Dane to brew at Hilldale.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Our 50th Post! (New Glarus Unplugged - Smoke on the Porter)

It seems hard to believe that not that long ago the porter was virtually extinct. Before the first American craft beer movement in the late 70s (Charlie Papazian we salute you) the style was dying a long slow centuries long death.

The porter is a classicly British style. Understated and supremely drinkable it's cousins are the bitter and the brown on the lighter and sweeter side and mild and stout on the darker side. The style itself encompasses a wide range, although the Beer Judging Guidelines recognize three classifications: the brown, the robust and the baltic. The brown porter is what we typically recognize as the classic British porter: soft, low-alcohol, medium to moderate body, low-hop, strong caramel and roastiness. The robust is the typical American porter: moderate to full body, higher alcohol, moderate to high bitterness - while very similar to a stout it can be distinguished by the lower concentration on the roasted flavors in favor of higher bitterness. The final category is the Baltic porter. I would dare anyone to effectively distinguish between a Baltic porter and a stout on something other than "it was brewed in a Baltic state." Technically it has a sweeter, fruitier profile and a lower roastiness; these typically fermented on lager yeasts giving a cleaner, sharper flavor.

New Glarus does not make a porter. Dan and Deb sometimes brew a stout. They brew a bock (a lager style similar to a porter). But no porter. To my knowledge the Smoke on the Porter (BA. RB.) is the second smoked beer they have done - they did a Smoked Rye Bock back in 2005 also as part of the Unplugged series (if there are any of these floating around, please let me know - we can work something out!). They bottle says it was cold-smoked by the brewery's neighbors at Hoesley's Meats. Cold smoking is a process whereby the smoke-ee (the unmalted barley) is held at room temperature separate from, but in the same enclosed space as, the smoke-ed (applewood in this case). This is in distinction to "hot" smoking which is what you do to smoke ribs (put it on a grill over hot, smoke-generating wood). The unmalted barley thus gains the flavor but is not cooked.

Appearance: a one-inch head of creamy off-white that dissolves quickly; dark brown to almost black where it's concentrated in the glass - looks like a dark porter, but doesn't have the viscosity associated with the heavier versions of the style

Aroma: Sweet smokiness is primary; the marketing materials says this was smoked over applewood and that sort of sweetness certainly seems presents, though I wouldn't be surprised if that's just the marketing talking; but there is definitely a distinct fruitiness that could be enhanced by some subtle aroma hopping

Taste: the sweet smokiness definitely comes through in the taste, but it isn't the first thing to hit; there is some upfront caramel and roasted malts in the backbone to give depth to the smoke. the roast from the malts follows through the finish; very low bitterness

Body: A moderate to medium body that holds up well over the fullness of the taste; in fact the long finish makes this beer seem "heavier" than I think it is as the body seems surprisingly medium-ish, but the smokiness and caramel flavors add a fullness and complexity of flavor that makes it seem richer

Drinkability: eventually the smoke would get to me, but I could really drink this beer at any point in the evening; it would be nice to have on a cold night watching television (to wit: this evening), but would also go well after a long night to unwind in front of Conan O'Brien.

Summary: A nice take on the smoked beers; hoppy beers have had their run, let's try something new - a fine rauchbier frenzy would be nice; nobody would buy them except me and the other smoked beer nuts, but it would be nice. What really makes this beer shine and separates it from the Aecht Schlenkerlas is the richness and depth present throughout the flavors. Schlenkerla is nice but it is all smoke. Smoke on the Porter presents a wide range of flavors, one of which is the fruity smokiness that wafts on top of all of the flavors.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

You Want To Talk About Dilemmas

We all have that internal debate. Should I buy it? Shouldn't I buy it? I've never heard of this beer. I wonder if it's any good.

Of course, the wonders of these inter-tubes is that we have instant access to all sorts of information. Unfortunately, it's not generally very handy when actually standing in front of the cooler at the liquor store. If you are one of the lucky few in possession of a Crack-berry you could limber up your thumbs and look some information up. But, really, what kind of tool does that? Right. Well. Let's ignore that question for the moment, because sometimes that damned device is blocked by the faraday cage of fluorescent lights and structural steel.

Allow me to back up a minute and set the mood. We were driving home from Thanksgiving; driving along I-30 in South-Western Chicago hoping to avoid the traffic on the expressways. A light snow was starting to fall. It was Sunday (significant because, it turns out, liquor stores aren't open in Indiana on Sundays - you can only buy beer at restaurants or bars that serve food). I was jonesing for some beer that I couldn't buy in Wisconsin. We were going to pass within 20 minutes of Two Brothers Brewery and planned to stop (spoiler: it was closed, despite its website that promised hours of noon to 5 on Sundays). Three Floyds is no longer available in Wisconsin (only Indiana and Illinois) and there's some stuff that you just can not get here.

So, we were stopping occasionally at liquor stores. A fun thing to do if you have some time to kill. We found a disturbingly large collection of malt liquor on the East side of Chicago Heights. We found some Two Brothers. We found the usual Three Floyds suspects (Gumballhead, Alpha King, Robert the Bruce). But nothing special. But, we did find a beer I had never heard of. It billed itself as "America's 1st Italian Brew." And was called Cugino Light. It was brewed in Monroe, Wisconsin. The Crackberry was of no use.

Red pill or blue pill? Do you buy the beer or not. At this point, you know as much about the beer as I did while I was holding it in my hands. There are two reasons I put it down and did not buy it. The first is that I am not a fan of light beers; nothing against them, I just do not usually drink them. The other reason is that it was a beer brewed just down the street in Monroe that I had never heard of. Not that I know everything, but I am moderately familiar with the Minhas product line down there and have kept up on the Berghoff news. I had never heard of a Cugino (or Cugino Light, for that matter) being brewed there.

If ever there was a lesson for "trust your instincts." It now appears that Cugino Light was brewed by The Cugino Brewing Company out of Batavia, Illinois. (A side note: Batavia, Illinois is separated from Warrenville, Illinois - the home of Two Brothers Brewing - by the Fermi National Accelerator Complex, a huge particle accelerator and high-energy physics laboratory). Cugino had contracted with Joseph Huber to brew Cugino and Cugino Light. In 2003. It does not appear that it has been brewed since 2003.

This is a case where "aging" or "cellaring" is not a particularly good idea. A sampling of reviews of this beer from Beer Advocate and Rate Beer:

  • The aroma has an off chemical smell ... its got a chemical processed flavor, with a hint of skunk

  • Pours way too dark for a light beer ... there are a few floaties visible

  • Almost ethereal with a damp, musty basement finish.

  • My first and last.

And a few (BA. RB.) from the "non-Light" version:

  • Not sure I would go out of my way to pick-up

  • might make a decent lawnmower beer

  • found this at some store in wisconsin once on a camping trip: $2 for a 6pack. figured, why not, right? offers four good reasons why not: aroma, appearance, flavor, and palate.

  • No need to use your liver as a sieve for this one.

  • Wherever it’s from, I don’t want any more.

So, the moral of the story? I'm not sure there is one. Maybe it's that sometimes you should be very afraid of the beer you've never heard of. Maybe it's the same old story that a contract brewery is only as good as the recipe. Maybe it's that Joliet, Illinois is a suburban wasteland unfit for subtlety or fine taste - a place where a beer like Cugino can survive on the shelves for 4 years. Heck, maybe it's just that not every beer is good.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Rising Cost of Small Brewing - Part II

We've been traveling a lot for the holidays and had some awesome beer (2005 Dark Lord and a 2000 Lindemen's Kriek were the highlights). But, there's some interesting information about the first, and most immediate impact of the hops shortage.

Every year since 2006 Samuel Adams has run a homebrewing competition called the Longshot Homebrew Competition. In 2007, one of the winners was Mr. Mike McDole from California; if you are interested, this is his 2006 Mayfaire winner, a Double IPA (210 IBU!?!) - presumably his winning recipe for Sam Adams is similar. As you will notice, this particular recipe calls for seven different hops - over 1 pound of hops for a mere 12 gallon batch.

One barrel is 31 Gallons. Thus, applying simple math, to brew only one barrel of this beer would require approximately 3 pounds of hops. Thus, a mere 667 barrels would require one ton of hops. Suffice to say, Sam Adams brews 667 barrels without thinking about it.

Well, the problem arises because of the fact that most of Sam Adams beers don't use this much hops let alone the varieties of hops Mr. McDole's Double IPA utilizes. You can read the letter from Jim Koch, founder and brewer at Sam Adams, that explains this problem here. When Sam Adams set out to start brewing they ran into the very real problem that they simply could not get the hops. The hops they needed were, literally, sold out. Even Sam Adams, one of America's top microbreweries, could not get the hops. They were in a sticky situation. After consulting with Mr. McDole, Sam Adams decided to postpone the release of the Double IPA winner until next year. By then Sam Adams should be able to source the amounts and types of hops that are required.

And, this is similar to the problem our Wisconsin breweries face. In this case, because of the lateness of the decision to source, Sam Adams was low on the priority lists and were closed out of sourcing the hops they needed. Similarly, Wisconsin breweries will have trouble sourcing hops. This could directly impact those breweries that make hop-intensive styles like IPAs and Double IPAs first - for example, Tyranena, New Glarus, Great Dane, Central Waters and others.

Thus, it can be easy to predict that breweries will start experimenting with lower-hop styles. Perhaps this will result in more quality and experimentation by forcing breweries (not just the hop-intensive ones, but the ones being pushed by the others as well) to focus on subtlety rather than fall back on hops to mask poor mashes, low-quality yeasts, and imprecise quality control. The other side is that we (those that promote and the media in general) have to increase consumer education so that consumers can differentiate these more subtle and complex beers.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Hope Everyone Had A Happy Thanksgiving

We were going to post this on Wednesday, so that some of you who were pondering the best beers to go with that Thanksgiving Dinner would have some ideas. But, we thought it would be better to let you make your own decisions. Hope your beer complimented your meal. Ours did.

2005 Panil Barrique - a sour flanders-style belgian ale from Italy. Its medium body was more wine-like than beer; in fact many in the family were amazed that this was beer at all. Unfortunately, this one isn't widely available here in Madison yet; although it seems to have some general availability in other major cities - an informal poll revealed that those in Chicago and Cleveland can find this pretty readily if they put some effort into it. The oak-aging made this much smoother and less brash than the young La Roja. It's slight woodiness brought out the best in the turkey.

Jolly Pumpkin La Roja - another dry amber sour ale with slightly lighter body than the Barrique from the small Michigan brewery. It went very well with both dark and light turkey meat. The sour notes and slight fruitiness accented our herbed stuffing and complimented the baked oysters nicely.

All-in-all, these were both excellent choices. Furthermore's Fatty Boombalatty was a popular beer while watching football. While Tyranena's Alt was another winner.

What did you have with your Thanksgiving dinner?

Monday, November 19, 2007

"Peekrab Yeh!" (or, This Damned Cold)

Ostensibly, via the "Hey Barkeep!" feature on this site we answer questions about beer that others are afraid to ask. Today, though, is a bit of reverse "Hey Barkeep!" and I'm the one asking the questions. I know, with relatively high anecdotal certainty, that drinking when you have a cold is a bad idea. But, I will be the first to admit I know nothing about medicine and I am not afraid to ask.

So, the question of the day: why shouldn't I drink beer (alcohol) when I'm sick?

The hardest part about answering medical questions online is the inability to trust anything you read here. These internets are chock-full of quacks and frauds and hucksters (we'll ignore the catcalls of naval-gazing from the gallery, thank you very much). So, I will preface everything I say here by saying, if you are a doctor and what you read here is incorrect, please get a hold of us and correct us, or post a comment correcting us.

There are two primary reasons you should not drink when you are ill: 1) alcohol dehydrates you; 2) alcohol may suppress the immune system.

The American Lung Association tells me that when I have a cold, I should stay hydrated. Proper hydration ensures that mucus remains moist and easy to clear and keep the nose and throat from drying out. Beer is liquid, right? Well, not really; beer (and caffeine, apparently) dehydrates. Basically, alcohol prevents the brain from signalling the kidney to retain water. So, the kidneys actually release rather than retain liquid, which only compounds the problem.

Moreover, alcohol, particularly in quantity, inhibits the immune system. While its effects in low levels does not appear to have much effect, an amount sufficient to cause intoxication could exacerbate problems. Alcohol in such quantities can inhibit the ability of white blood cells to multiply and decreases the efficacy of white blood cells.

Not to mention, the symptoms of the common cold (congestion, weakened senses of smell and taste, runny nose, scratchy throat, etc.) inhibit the appreciation of beer. If you can't smell and taste, that $23 bottle Nøgne Ø Dark Horizon will be wasted (by the way, for those interested, this is an awesome Russian Imperial Stout and can be purchased at Steve's Liquor on University). So, please, if you are sick, put down the beer for a few days, go get some non-caffienated tea (chamomile is my weapon of choice) and take some real cold medicine.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Rising Cost of Small Brewing - Part I

I suppose it seems inevitable that we eventually had to run an article about this. But news out of the Pacific Northwest has made this issue a bit more interesting for us. Really, until now, this was just a rising cost issue.

Supply and Demand CurveLower supply (world-wide hop shortages) and rising demand (from increase in high-hop craft brewing, particularly in America) have put price pressures on hops; as a result the prices are skyrocketing. It's simple economics that nobody can really argue with. To make matters worse, barley growers here in the US are switching to subsidized corn crops because ethanol-related demand has increased the attractiveness of corn as a crop(both can be grown in similar land plots, so they are growth substitutes). Thus, we are also seeing a decrease in the supply of barley, and an increase in the demand (again from US craft brewing). This double whammy is raising prices, particularly for small buyers who cannot receive substantial price breaks. News around the industry says that prices for a 6-pack of craft beer will increase by about $1 in January.

The major players (Bud, Miller, Coors, etc.) are not hugely impacted for two reasons: 1) they buy in huge quantities and pay futures prices that moderate their price expectancies and allow for stable prices over lengthy periods of time; 2) they don't use a lot of hops, especially considering how much beer they brew. Throw into the mix the fact that the majors supplement their barley and hops with (comparatively) stable-priced corn and rice adjuncts. It is not expected (to my knowledge) that the majors will be joining the craft brewers in raising prices.

Moreover, the vast majority of Wisconsin's breweries are pretty low on the supply chain (to our knowledge, there are only a handful that brew over 20,000 barrels and only one that brews over 100,000 barrels). They get their hops after all of the bigger breweries get their allotment. Rest assured, even Great Lakes and Bells and Goose Island get their hops before Calumet, Tyranena, and The Great Dane. This is to be expected; hop sellers will prefer large buyers to small buyers - it moves their product and is a substantially lower payment risk. Again, basic economics: rational businesses prefer less risk to more risk, particularly at similar prices and/or when future supplies and demands are unknown or wildly variable.

Thus, the very basic inputs for small Wisconsin breweries are getting much more expensive. So far the breweries have resisted passing these costs on to the consumer. But as raw material prices continue to eat into profit margins, it has to be expected that prices will rise soon. It is looking like that will occur in January. Of course, some breweries will be effected much worse than others. Capital hardly uses any hops at all; Tyranena's flag ship is an India Pale Ale (IPA) that contains a lot of hops; City and Point breweries sell mostly low-hopped beers; Ale Asylum and The Great Dane and Central Waters and others use quite a bit more hops.

We will have more on this story as it develops.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Lake Louie and the Scotch Ale

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We're in Wisconsin. Deutschland Westen. Lagers are the undisputed kings of the land. So, how is it that 30 miles west of Madison we find one of the best Scotch Ales in the world?

Named, ironically, for a lake that isn't a lake just south of a river near a relatively unforgettable population sign (pop: 726) on the way to Spring Green is Lake Louie Brewing Company. While Lake Louie's beginnings have been well documented, it is still a bit of a mystery as to how Tommy Porter picked a scotch ale to hang his hat on.

The mystery is particularly befuddling because the Scotch Ale style is practically unheard of in the United States. Few breweries attempt it probably because it is a difficult style to brew well. The long boil times make for a small margin of error between malty, appropriately caramelized, and overly sweet. The long fermentation times make for a small margin of error in yeast quality and temperature control. The low hop rate provides little cover for poor quality. Overly peat-like and the beer could end up tasting like liquid dirt.

It is a specialized style that does not generally appeal to the macro-lager, orange-peel beer chugging neophyte. It has a softly sweet, but dry singularly malt flavor. Any hops are usually late-addition hops that provide a subtle brightness to the aroma, but contribute little to the flavor. While some smokiness may be prevalent and roasted unmalted barley can provide some dry grainy earthiness, there is very little get in the way of the base malts. In other words, the style is all about subtlety; it would be nearly impossible to create an "Imperial Scotch Ale" (even Three Floyd's Robert the Bruce is restrained).

Thus, it takes great skill to brew a fine scotch ale. And Lake Louie's "Louie's Reserve" is one of the best. It is also priced like it is one of the best. Purchased at Star Liquor, it cost $11.99 (apologies to Star, I had originally posted that this was $14.99) for a six pack. Even at such a rather steep price, I will go back for more. This is also a beer that should age extraordinarily well; and this year's vintage may be a classic.

In terms of glassware, the style is pretty flexible. A snifter will bring out any hop aromas best, and is particularly well suited for this beer as it warms up. A standard pint glass will keep the aroma and flavors well-contained. But I chose a newly acquired Becher Pint; in theory, this glass will show off the coloring and keep the aromas and flavors contained for maximum punch while drinking. This theory was supported immediately upon pouring. This is, in all honesty, one of the prettiest beers I've ever seen. Only Ename's Abbey Tripel would give it a run for its money. A creamy, bubbly, one finger head sits on top of a crystal clear, saddle brown ale. A faint caramel scent comes through the bread-like maltiness; a back-bone of roasted malt gives way to chilled musty earthiness. The creamy flavor is complex yet restrained, a subtle smokiness belies the sweet instense maltiness. The long finish is balanced by equal parts alcohol and peat and earthy, grassy brightness. The body is thick but not heavy; it pleasantly coats the mouth, but is not syrupy. Perfect for the late-fall crispness that necessitates turning on the fireplace (no one seems to have real wood in their fireplaces these days). While Capital's Autumnal Fire and Winter Skal are similar lager versions, the ale smoothness of Lake Louie's "Louie's Reserve" provides a nice creaminess to compliment its rich earthy maltiness.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Big Announcement

Well, it's more like a prelude to a big announcement.

But, here's the deal. We are going to start selling some stuff on this site. I know, you're saying to yourself: what I really need is to overpay for another witty t-shirt with some inane beerism. "I'm not as think as you drunk I am." We could sell you one of those, but, I suspect, you wouldn't buy it. Or rather, if you want to buy it, go somewhere else.

Instead, this site's focus, and the one thing we want you to get out of this site, regardless of whether you would ever be considered a "beer geek" about it or not, is that beer is made and sold by and for our community. When we buy beer from Capital brewery, or New Glarus, or Tyranena, or Lakefront, or Stevens Point, or Calumet, or where ever, that money stays here in Wisconsin. It employs our neighbors and provides money for our schools. It shows pride in our community.

With that "Buy Local" mantra in mind, we have decided to do something about it. We are going to start selling t-shirts and other merchandise. These are t-shirts that will be printed right here in Madison. We will keep prices reasonable. We will try to offer a good diversity; although it will be t-shirts to start, we also want to offer polo shirts, and hoodies, and glassware, and other fun stuff.

But, more importantly, they will feature the artwork of our Wisconsin artists. We already have a few lined up. But, if you are an artist, or you want to nominate an artist, get in touch with us with contact information for the artist, and we'll get it figured out. Not only will your designs be featured at Madison Beer Review, but we will split the profits with you. In fact, not only are we splitting the profits with the artist, a portion of the profits from any merchandise sold on this site will be donated to a local Wisconsin charity. The charity will, for the most part, be hand picked by the artist and detailed with the shirt.

So, if you know an artist (or are an artist) who would be a good fit, let us know. What makes a good artist for us? Well, someone who has a good design to go on a t-shirt.

If you know of a charity that can use the money, let us know. What makes a good charity? Is it based in Wisconsin? Does it serve the citizens of Wisconsin? If yes, it is a good charity.

If you think it's a good idea, post a comment and let us know. If you think it's a bad idea, post a comment and let us know. If you have a good idea about merchandise, post a comment. But, we are going to put our money, literally, where our mouth is and hopefully you guys will want to support your community.

We will give you more details and let you know as soon as the t-shirts are ready to be sold (it will be before the holidays), but in the meantime, get your suggestions in.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company

Upper MidwestLeinies. If you are from the Upper Midwest you know all about The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company. Practically every person I talk to, including myself and people old enough to be my grandparents (and probably those old enough to be my great-grandparents), had a keg of Leinie's Red at their 21st birthday party. It is a rite of passage, and has been since 1867. It is the Upper Midwest.

But, there is a dark side to The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company. It is owned by Miller Brewing Company. And Miller Brewing Company (soon to be called called MillerCoors), in turn, is owned by SABMiller, one of the largest beverage conglomerates in the world with over one hundred beer and beverage brands in its portfolio.

SABMillerSuch corporate ownership is not, inherently, a bad thing. A number of great beers are owned by huge conglomerates. But, these brands get purchased for a reason. Usually because they have great local brand recognition and are accessible, or can be made accessible, by the everyday person. And, this is was definitely the case with Leinies. In the late 1980s after the first craft beer boom in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Leinie's was a well-respected brand locally here in Wisconsin, but also in Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio. Miller saw an opportunity to diversify its portfolio and The Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company saw a great opportunity to expand its sphere of influence in the Upper Midwest, and a partnership was formed. (That's business speak for Miller purchasing Leinies.)

It is hard to say what the impact of this was in terms of quality of the beer. Even if someone had cellared a 1986 version of Leinie's Red and compared it with today's, it would be hard to say whether one was "better" than the other.

But, what we can say is that those that have been here, and those that have grown up with Leinie's, have become disappointed in the brand. Whether it is merely the knowledge that it is now a corporate sell-out, or whether there actually some diminished quality in the beers, the perception remains: Leinie's is a second-rate alternative to "macro" beers. Cheaper (in every meaning of the word) than New Glarus or Capital, but at least it is not Budweiser.

Leinie's seems to have worked very hard in the part year or so to turn this perception around. In 2005, Leinenkugel's failed to take home any awards at the Great American Beer Fest. In 2006, it took home a silver for its Sunset Wheat, and a gold for its Creamy Dark. Using the Sunset Wheat to launch a whole series of specialty seasonal beers, this year, 2007, Leinie's won a gold for its Berry Weiss.

Then, early in 2007, Leinie's launched a high-end brand called Big Eddy. The first beer brewed under the Big Eddy brand was an Imperial India Pale Ale. It was only available on tap in a small handful of locations in Milwaukee and Madison. It wasn't even available at its own brewery; in fact, it wasn't brewed in the Chippewa Falls plant where the Big Eddy Springs are located. It was presented as a cask-conditioned "real" ale and it was available at The Great Dane Hilldale location (where you will no longer be able to get unique beers like the Big Eddy IIPA). When I had one in late June, I was unimpressed, despite rave reviews at RateBeer and BeerAdvocate. I thought it was unbalanced, even for an IIPA. The malts were weak and rendered weaker by the cask (the cask itself was improperly maintained and poured, which isn't Leinie's fault directly except for its failure to ensure that those responsible for serving its beer were properly trained on the quirks of the cask). The hops were overblown, and the whole thing was just unpleasantly bitter and cloying.

Russian Imperial StoutBut, now, Leinie's has released the second in the Big Eddy series. After rave reviews, it has expanded somewhat the keg distribution. It is ostensibly available in Madison and Milwaukee and the Detroit area on tap (if anyone knows where in Madison has this on-tap, please let us know). It is also being bottled, and is (or was) available at Star Liquor here in Madison, and I'm sure other stores have it as well. There is a list at Leinie's website showing the Madison availability, but use at your own peril. I think we paid $9.99 for a 4-pack.

The packaging is impressive, though the twist-off top seems a little cheap, the stylish lettering and subtle, classy coloring make it look appropriately nice. It was pulled out of the refrigerator and allowed to raise in temperature for about 20 minutes before it was poured. To drink this at refrigerator temperature would waste its flavors and aromas. Meanwhile, the snifter it was to be poured into was inpected to ensure it was entirely clean and free of any residual soap. It was the longest 20 minutes since 11:40 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

It poured a thick, oily, pitch black with a thin brown head that never really materialized into anything substantial. This beer is black. Pitch black. There is some brown-ish-ness around its extreme edges, but it fades into black quickly. Its aroma is big and round with huges notes of roastiness and chocolate and subtle caramel. There is a grassiness that comes through presenting a nice brightness. The flavor, on the initial hit is surprisingly dull; then, it hits. The chocolate flavor melts in your mouth, the roastiness floats on and fades into a sharp bitterness and wine-like alcoholy taste that finishes off the flavor components, though they continue to play in your mouth until the next sip. The body is thick and velvety and luxurious, coating the entire mouth and tongue and, really, anything it comes in contact with. This is a very nice Russian Imperial Stout. While drinking three of these would be out of the question, drinking one is quite pleasant and filling. I can't help thinking that this beer will improve with age. For now, the flavors are surprisingly subtle and complex given the huge aromas. In time, I suspect these will reverse. But, in the meantime, congratulations to Leinie's for crafting a fine beer worthy of its premium status.

If they could only put this much effort and quality into all of their other beers...

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Restaurant Magnus

I'm a beer person. I like wine. I drink wine. I appreciate wine. But, I like beer. And, I really like good beer. And, good beer with good food is, or can be, just as good of a match as wine, if not better because of the huge diversity in styles. But, it's frustrating to go to a high end restaurant that clearly spends a lot of time on its wine list, but serves Amstel Light and Guinness as its imports.

With that said, for a variety of reasons I was at Restaurant Magnus on Monday night. I won't go into the details of the restaurant (the food was good, the service was fine). But I'll just focus on the beer list, which was surprisingly decent.

If you go out to their website you will see a part of this list. What immediately struck me was how reasonable the prices were. I was expecting to be gouged, like $7/bottle gouged. But that isn't the case. Even for the bomber and 750ml sizes, the prices were reasonable. Rogue Chipotle will retail for about $6/bottle or so and is a modest $8.75 at the restaurant. I almost went with the Victory Golden Monkey Tripel to go with my Seared Lamb Loin, but instead settled for the Ommegang Hennepin. It paired very nicely with the Spanish Cheese plate and the Lamb; its subtle carbonation and clean tastes acted almost as a palate cleanser. And its subtle yeasty fruitiness really accentuated the flavors of the cheeses.

My only disappointment was that they did not actually have the Jolly Pumpkin that is shown on the website. The seasonal tap handle is the Autumnal Fire. They also have Spotted Cow and Lake Louie's Premium on tap. It would be nice to see some creativity here; Spotted Cow in a bottle is fine, but why not rotate all three taps seasonally? Quite frankly, they probably don't go through enough beer there to justify it is my guess.

I do like the local focus of the taps. It would be easy to put the Delerium Tremens on tap. Or even the Franziskaner or Guiness. But they keep the taps for the locals which is great. It would be greater if there was actually some diversity to show off some of the locals a little more. (secret: if you really want some of these "show-off" locals, head over to Natt Spiel, which has some common ownership with Magnus, located at 211 King Street)

The bottle list is fine and I love that they sell PBR (not listed on the website, but is on the list) for $2. The bottle list could be updated a little better for the seasons as well. And, it could use a little more creativity. With their meat selections and rustic fare, a good selection of smoked beers might be nice; New Glarus has a Rauch that came out yesterday, November 6, and the Schlenkerla smoked beers would pair very well with just about anything they offer.

Interestingly there were some Mexican and South American beers on the list that may not make bad selections. Unfortunately, the selection included Corona instead of a personal favorite Dos Equis, but it also includes the Carta Blanca and Xingu (a Brazilian beer).

All in all the beer list was pretty decent and comprehensive. It could use some rotation and some creativity in the selection, particularly the taps. But I like the focus on local beers and the diversity in the selection. Also, the staff could use some education - when I asked about whether the Jolly Pumpkin was available, I was told that their seasonal tap had changed and they now had Autumnal Fire. Which, while a true statement, doesn't really answer the question.

And, really, what the hell is up with Amstel Light? Does anyone really think it is a "fancy" beer?

Monday, November 5, 2007

A Random Post About Glassware

We are putting together some packages for various charities that make a habit of asking for such things. Our fall package includes a Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout, an Ale Asylum Hopalicious, a Capital Autumnal Fire, and a Lake Louie Louies Reserve (by the way, you can get all of these, like we did, at Star Liquor). We include with the beer some some appropriate glassware for the lucky bidder: a snifter and a becher. Also included with this package is a little "helpful" packet that explains the glassware and the beers. We thought that the bit on the glassware might be helpful (do not fear, the bit on the beers will be forthcoming as well). Also see the excellent guide at BeerAdvocate regarding glassware.

By the way, if you are interested in this particular package, you can bid on it at the Iowa County Humane Society Silent Auction being held at the Dodger Bowl on November 11, 2007. For more information or to place a web bid, please email us.

So, without further ado: The Beer Glass Tutorial Introduction.

You know that white wine goes in a white wine glass, red wine in a red white glass, brandy in a snifter, and champagne in a flute. And beer goes in a pint, right? Not necessarily. Much like wine, the beer glass shape and size can influence the taste of beer. Different kinds of glasses highlight different aspects of beer. The right beer in the right glass can even change the taste of the beer.

SnifterAs you pour the beer in the glass, watch as the beer swirls in the bottom, the head build, and the bubbles rise. The style of the glass improves the look, the smell, the experience. Please never chill your glassware and avoid the dreaded frosted glass. Why? As the beer hits the frosted glass, condensation occurs. This dilutes your beer and alters the serving temperature. A double whammy guaranteed to lessen the quality of your beer. Save the frosted mug for the Bud Light.

A new trend in bars across the country is to serve each beer in its own particular glass. Although some claim it is a marketing ploy, and to a certain point it is, different beers should be served in different glasses. Beyond the look of the beer, the shape of the glass impacts the development and retention of the beer’s head and the ability of the beer to retain temperature. The head created by pouring a beer acts as a trap for many of the volatiles in a beer. Volatiles are compounds that evaporate from beer creating its aroma, including hop oils, alcohol, and odors from spices, herbs or other additions. A glass that promotes a healthy head may capture more volatiles. Because different styles of beers call for varying levels of head retention and presentation, different styles of glassware should be used accordingly to attain the desired amount of head and captured volatiles.

Some beers warm up better than others. Subtle fruity beers and darker beers can thrive in higher temperatures. Highly carbonated pilsners and India Pale Ales do well at cooler temperatures. The shape of glass determines how much of the beer is exposed to warming elements and its rate of temperature change.

Becher Pint GlassSo which glass do you use for which beer? The answer can often be overwhelming. In Europe, and increasingly in American microbrews, each brand of beer will often have its own glass. In fact, glasses are still being invented for beer. Some bars in larger cities will even stock unique glassware for every brand of beer they serve, which could number in the hundreds or even thousands. But don’t worry, you need not follow suit. Like we said, marketing does play a role. So have fun, try different glasses for each beer. Although some people will tell you otherwise, the “right” glass depends on what you like. Whether you like your pilsner in a flute (Miller High Life is the “champagne of beers” after all.), in a stange, or something else entirely, the only thing that matters is that you are enjoying it.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Our First Internet Meme

I'm so excited. These internets are so awesome. It allows us to have a (inter)national discussion without actually picking up a phone or being social or pleasant! We can lob insults back and forth with reckless abandon knowing in our heart of hearts that there are no consequences! WooHoo! Wild irresponsibility rocks!

Of course, we can hold civilized discussions leveraging the collective intelligence and locational viewpoints of hundreds and thousands of people. We can gather opinions and facts and let those with specialized knowledge chime in when necessary to arrive at a reasonable conclusion about issues that affect an entire industry.

It's the latter of these that I plan to engage in (though I do loves me some reckless abandon every now and then). And, I had been planning on doing a post about this at some point anyway.

For some of the other thoughts on this see the excellent discussion at RateBeer and by Alan McLeod at his Gen-X at 40 Beer Blog.

The basic question to be debated is this: does a particular beer have "worth" above and beyond what the market will generally tolerate. Or, would you ever pay $50 for a single bottle of any beer? Before we start, I'll just mention that, yes, there are beers out there (even non-cellared) that can fetch hundreds of dollars for a single bottle (e.g., DeuS, Utopias). Cellared and aged can fetch even more.

We can start the conversation by saying that the wine folks don't have this issue. No one really considers it a problem that some bottles of wine (750ml) sell for over $30. But if beer sold in a 750ml size is over $10, it is considered expensive. This seems, to me, to be a matter of consumer expectations.

We have been trained by Miller, and Budweiser, and Pabst, and Coors that beer is cheap. Well, cheap beer is cheap. Boone's Farm is cheap, but no one holds that against the wine producers. But, Sam Adams is inexpensive, too. And, that starts the problem; because what is to be done about quality beer that sells for, approximately, the same price as the corn-and-rice watered-down beer?

Beer has always had an "everyman" aura. From its earliest days, especially in this country, beer has always been accessible to everyone. Sam Adams can sell its beer for a negliglibly higher price because, well frankly it just doesn't cost that much to make beer. Once the profits are added on, the stuff just isn't that expensive to make. Of course, even as this is written, some of this is changing because prices for hops are going through the roof due to crop shortages. Same with Barley, shortages are affecting prices all over the planet as barley growers are switching to ethanol-powered subsidized corn markets. So, the raw materials actually are more expensive in some cases. Prices for (IIIII)IPAs will start to go through the roof.

But that still leaves the issue of why some beer, regular old, nothing too amazingly special other than that it is produced really, really well, beer, costs $50+ for a bottle of the stuff. Well. For the same reasons we spend $50+ on a bottle wine to be quite honest. You pay for quality. You pay for name. You pay for scarcity. You pay for the artwork on the bottle. You pay for the bottle itself (750ml, cork and cage bottles are not cheap).

But mostly, you pay for name and scarcity. Cuvee de Tomme, from Lost Abbey, costs a lot because Tomme Arthur is well-respected as a bad-ass brewing god. He knows what he is doing. Thus his work is in high demand. But, in order to maintain his own standards, he brews in very small batches. Thus, if you want some of his beer, you must stand in line. And you must pay for that right. Why? Because someone out there will pay for that right. But, you say, why doesn't he just make more? Buy why, I say, should he? He's happy with his rare, expensive product. The fact that no one that can't make it to the brewery personally and isn't willing to spend $300 for a bottle of the stuff can't have it doesn't really seem to bother him.

Calumet BreweryUs Midwesterners might say, that's typical of Californians. Everyone else be damned they'll sell to the highest bidder for the sheer ego of it.

Consider, on the other hand, Rowland's Calumet Brewing Company in Chilton, WI. They're beer is equally as rare. Equally as amazingly awesome. But, you can go to the bar there in Chilton, sit down and buy a mug of the finest Oktoberfest made in this country for $4. There's a cheese spread in the back area for the taking. Mr. Rowland's wife will serve it to you. And, if you're lucky, and if they don't think you are some sort of weirdo tourist who got lost on the way to Green Bay, you can strike up a conversation with the three other people that are in the bar with you.

At Calumet, you have scarcity but no "name." Bob Rowland's son (Bob Rowland passed last year) isn't out talking to anyone that will listen about how he has to put his in beer in bottles that cost $2 before any beer even goes in them. He doesn't enter his beer at the Great American Beer Fest. He doesn't sign autographs for adoring fans. In fact, I've never seen him; don't even know what he looks like. The vast majority of Wisconsin, let alone the world-buying public has no idea that Rowland's Calumet exists. There is no demand for his beer, despite the fact that it is some of the finest beer made in the United States.

So, at the end of the day, where does that leave us? Probably where we started. It's all about markets and simple economics. If you think you can sell everything you made for $50+, go for it. Markets can be brutally honest some times (despite the fact that sometimes markets are wrong - to wit: New Glarus' Enigma is a fine session craft beer, but a year later this stuff is still sitting on shelves - they literally cannot give it away, despite name and scarcity).

side note: you will notice the picture shows a celebration at Rowland's Calumet for their 6000th barrel. That's not 6,000 barrels this year, that's 6,000 barrels ever. They've been brewing since 1990. They hit their 6,000th barrel in June of 2007. It took them 17 years to make as much beer as Tyranena will make this year alone. Please, if you love beer, and you know what's good for you, stop in Chilton on your way to a Packers game. Heck, drive the two hours just because. It is an amazing place.