Friday, August 31, 2007

What's The Difference Between "craft" and "industry"?

From an email newsletter sent out by Tyranena owner and brewer Rob Larson (sorry for the excessive copying, but I hope you'll indulge me):

Earlier this year we installed a larger motor for our glycol pump to handle our increased number of tanks. That installation required running a new electrical line... which managed to direct water (from occassional melts of ice on the pump) to a low point on the top of the boiler room (where our glycol resevoir and pumps are located) which just happed to be immediately above one of our control boxes... and this 1/4" of water running down the wall just happened to hit a point where the box was mounted to the wall with a bolt... which just happened to be located immediately above the frequency control drive... which, well, doesn't really like water all that much. A couple of days (and a couple of grand... and some caulk - with the need of some more caulk, weather stripping and perhaps insulation) later, we are up and running again. It's always something. So go out and buy a few six packs... or come down to the brewery for a few pints... and help us pay for yet another equipment failure.

Bottled 634 cases of Hop Wh0re Imperial IPA on Tuesday which was a truly painful experience. Those highly-hopped beers, for some reason, cause several of the filler heads to occassioanlly short-fill. That and a 6 hour plus bottling day is really stinkin' long... especially when three orders go out and two come in.

So, that's life at a small brewery. Pretty typical actually; it's always something. And, in preparation for what's coming up: 634 cases is 15,216 bottles. In 6 hours. Even at it's best their line fills 2 cases per minute and would take 5 hours and 15 minutes to bottle that many cases. While that may seem like a long time, how long would it take you?

Well. Here's life at a big brewery. In fact, one of the biggest:

[Coors'] Vast facility on 2000 acres looked nearly empty. Only 100-120 on shift at any one time as brewery runs pretty much 24/7 and employs about 450 people, plus 50 seasonal. ... It brews 1,000 bbls at a time (almost 2x Golden) and turns that every 2 hours. Running flat out right now and packaging 30% more than last yr with same number of people. Mostly cans come out of Shenandoah. There are 3 can lines that do 2150 cans per minute. Bottle lines do 1600-1700 per minute. The brewery has “multiple layers of automation” and “multiple levels of human/machine interface,” said Tim, noting that designing ability to extract meaningful info in a brewery this size (i.e. thru software) “sets this brewery apart.” ... Shenandoah also has first “cross flow membrane filtration” machine in North America, a process that filters out brew down to “microscopic level.”

The Coors Shenandoah facility brews in 2 hours about 1/6 of what Tyranena brews all year. It takes the Coors facility exactly (and we can say "exactly" because I assure you it is "exactly") 8 minutes to do what took Rob (and probably Benji) 6 HOURS to accomplish.

So, you want to know why you pay more for Tyranena Beer than for Coors (and why Tyranena's Three Beaches Blonde is scores better than anything Coors can ever produce)? Because the owner of the company, the head brewer, is taking 6 hours out of his day to make sure that each bottle is packaged correctly. The owner and head brewer is out there installing and fixing equipment. He has his hands in every aspect of the production mechanism. And he takes his time doing it so that you have a beer that is exactly as he envisioned it, using quality ingredients and local labor.

Tyranena, indeed any "craft" brewery, doesn't run a faceless, mechanical process that runs 24/7 using ingredients not intended to make the beer better, but rather to make the beer cheaper. There aren't "multiple layers of automation" and there isn't "multiple levels of human/machine interface" (unless you include "machine working" as one level, and "machine not working" as another level, both requiring "human interface").

That is why it is important to support the "craft" brewers, particularly those here in Wisconsin. They have dedicated their lives, and the lives of your co-residents, to crafting the best beer they know how to make. It's the same reason why we buy vegetables and bread and salsas and flowers and meat and cheese at the Dane County Farmer's Market instead of the Super WalMart or Super Target. It's the same reason we buy Shullsburg and Organic Valley cheese (and Carr Valley and Blue Mont and all of the other fine Wisconsin cheeses) instead of Kraft singles.

So, when you go to Riley's or Steve's or Woodman's or Star Liquor next time take a 6 pack of Tyranena's Hop Wh0re Imperial IPA and set it next to a case of Coors Light and contemplate the above. Then decide which one you'll take to the cash register (keeping in mind that a 6 pack - or 4 pack - of the Hop Wh0re Imperial IPA has about the same alcohol content as that entire case of Coors Light).

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

It's The End of Summer

This summer has been pretty active around here. Beer fests galore. Lots of great summer wheat beers - Leinie's, Capital, and New Glarus all had particularly good years for their wheat beers. Leinie's had their best-selling seasonal beer in their Summer Shandy. Which, if if you haven't tried it (and based on Leinie's numbers, you probably have) it's surprisingly decent. It's a lemonade-ish beer (a "shandy" is typically half lemonade, half wheat beer) that goes down well bitterly cold. And, the nice thing about it, at least for me, is that it doesn't give me that beer drudgery that I get when I drink a cold beer on a hot day after working outside.

While the American wheat beers (some ales, some lagers) have been particularly popular, there are two types of wheat beer that have been, if not ignored, at least not pushed as hard: wit, and saison. These are both interesting wheat styles from Belgium and France.

The saison is interesting because as a style it almost went extinct. Recently there has been a revival of sorts and breweries all over the world are producing beers in the saison style. The saison originally started as a farmhouse beer with each one tasting far different the next. At the end of winter, a batch was brewed in preparation for the summer work. Because refrigeration didn't exist yet, the beers were typically fermented at temperatures much higher than usual (side note: typically ales are fermented at around 65-75 degrees). This was possible because of unique yeast strains that were capable of withstanding such high temperatures (sometimes up to 90 degrees). Moreover, because of the high fermentation temperatures and long bottle-conditioning periods (filter!? HAH!) these beers can have a quite a sharp alcohol-y taste. Some reports indicate that these were initially very low-alcohol beers (3% ABV or so), but they are now typically in the 5-8% ABV range. Of course, Americans like their hops, so the American versions of saisons can sometimes be fairly hoppy, but typically the hop profile was moderate with extensive use of the european noble hops (grassy and citrus-y).

The most famous of the American saisons is the Hennepin from Ommegang brewery in New York (Ommegang is actually owned by the Belgian brewery responsible for Duvel). The Hennepin (BA.RB.) is wonderfully complex, yet light, not overbearing, but definitely assertive. The yeast is definitely the show, but the malt and hops provide a wonderful chorus. Also available around the Madison area is the new Farmhouse Brewery Saison 7 out of California. (BA.RB.) It's not quite as assertive, not quite as bold, and a bit thin tasting. It's hard to pick out quite what is wrong with it, but between a lower yeast profile, a strange hop profile (more lemony than typical), and lower carbonation than the Hennepin it is definitely a more muted saison. But, it is a style definitely worth checking out and you can't go too wrong with either of these as your starting point.

Another interesting style is the wit. The wit is a very un-American style because it is typically very low hopped (if at all), but the Americans actually make some pretty examples. The Northern Europeans famous for this style typically used spices such as coriander, bitters, and orange as preservatives instead of the hops preferred by the English and Germans. They are typically golden in color and hazy with a strong foamy head. In the US we tend to bastardize these drinks by putting a slice of orange or lemon in them (e.g., Blue Moon).

The American gold standard of this style is the Great Lakes Holy Moses White Ale. It is fruity and light, with an astringent bite, and a light, moderately carbonated feel. Ommegang Brewery also makes a wit that is quite good if you can find it around town. More popular in the stores (although the Great Lakes is widely available) is the Victory Brewing Company's Whirlwind Wit. It is a very good example of the style with a moderate fruitiness (not nearly as strong as the Holy Moses), with a bit less body, and a clean, crisp finish.

There aren't a whole lot wits from the Wisconsin breweries. This is somewhat surprising given the Northern European decendency of many of the residents here. I think the biggest reason for this is the saturation of the market by the American wheats and light lagers. Hopefully, maybe next year, some of the breweries can give the style a running shot.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Spaten Premium Lager

"It tastes kind of skunky."

Frankly, I sort of like it. Light lagers aren't typically my thing, but when you're sitting out on the Terrace on a gorgeous summer evening, it's sort of difficult to go for anything else. Does the terrace have other beers? Of course. But, all the way from dinner over to the terrace I was thinking "Man, I could go for a Spaten." Of course, I was thinking about the Optimator, but honestly I didn't even know that the Terrace would have either.

I'm not a native Madisonian. I didn't even go to school here. The Terrace, while in theory is not unique - it's just a lake-side bar and meeting place - manages to show off all of the things that make Madison unique. For example, to get there you have to drive all the way through the heart of the city; it is rather out of the way (at least for those of us that don't live on campus). You go on to the isthmus, past at least 2 lakes, within sight of the capitol, through most of the university, and have to fight for parking. Thus, you are forced to experience the city. When you get there, you are treated to unique architectural artifacts (the chairs) and sit next to an iconic lake. If you are as lucky as we were, the weather is 75 degrees and cloudless, and the patio bustles with academic energy even when school isn't in. Moreover, the Terrace requires you to at least pretend to be a Madisonian - thus, you must get into character; because unless you are a student, or a member of the Union, you cannot purchase beer at the Terrace. (perhaps when you catch me on a day that I've had a few too many you'll get my rant about how this, in itself is typically Madisonian)

But, if and when you can purchase beer there (or have someone buy the beer for you, or simply lie to the bartenders) you are treated to a surprisingly decent beer list. It leans toward the typical college fare (Leinies, PBR, etc.) for the "cheap stuff", but for a mere $10 you can have a pitcher of Stella Artois, Great Lakes Burning River, Bells Oberon, Capital Fest or Island Wheat, Sprecher Dark, Spotted Cow, and a beer specially brewed for the Terrace by Grays, among others. It turns out you can also get the Spaten Premium Lager and Optimator.

Our table bore out the split regarding the Spaten Lager. (BA. RB.) Some people really like it, others think it is dreck. I fall on the side of liking it. Or at least liking it enough that I don't think it is dreck. As I said, it's not generally my thing, but for a light beer, it's malty sweet (almost cloying) but a nice, if unbalanced, hoppy bitterness. Others find its aroma to be skunky and unbearable. Its taste too sharp. I found the aftertaste pretty tolerable; if anything it makes you want to have more (if only to get the slight metallic taste out of your mouth).

Is it the best beer ever? No. But, on a nice summer evening watching the sun set over Lake Mendota (I think, or is Lake Monona?) with 2000 people you've never met, preparing to watch a highlight reel of kayaking in Canada, it really hits the spot. Besides, if you have enough it makes you say things like "Man, those kayakers look like retarded birds."

Friday, August 24, 2007

"Craft" Beer

All of the "industry" blogs and news of late is how the "craft beer" segment, for the third year in a row, is growing at a double-digit pace. (see the interesting "Brew" Blog and "Brew" Magazine for a good summary of this discussion) This year happens to be up 14% over last year. And, while this segment is currently 4% of the industry, it is predicted that soon (2010?) the segment will be over 10%. Of course, the problem is: What is a craft beer? And, at least one Wisconsin brewery is right in the heat of this battle. The Brewers Association (a collection of "craft" breweries) has promulgated the following definition:
1) The brewery must turn out less than 2 million barrels per year (production limitation)
2) Be less than 25% owned or controlled by an alcohol beverage supplier that is not a craft brewer (ownership limitation)
3) Either have an all-malt flagship or have at least half of its volume in either all malt beer or in beers that use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten the flavor (quality limitation)
This is an interesting definition. On the face of it, as a consumer, I have no real problems with this definition. In fact, I might go further. I would set the production limits lower. 2 million barrels is a lot of beer. Sierra Nevada is 600,000+ barrels. And, really, much over 1 million barrels I can't imagine that you are "craft" anymore. You don't have the production ability to experiment, your brewing schedules are extremely regimented, your marketing costs are outrageous; in other words, it is no longer a "craft" but acts, for all intents and purposes, as a small "big brewer".

I would argue that the biggest "problem" with the definition is the quality limitation. Really, how can you decipher what the intent of the brewery is in using adjuncts? It's too subjective. Using adjuncts, for example rice, for both "flavor" and "lightening" is a fairly ingrained (haha, pun!) tradition. It doesn't make sense to me to take a relatively objective definition, one that will be used to parse an industry, and read brewing motive, a subjective limitation, into it. It would make more sense to set out a list of adjuncts and acceptable brewing ratios that set out presumptions of the intent. Rather than base the definition on the subjective intent of the brewer (e.g., what is the purpose of using the adjunct in question) set out guidelines that make it clear that you have crossed the threshold from "flavor" enhancement to "cost-saving and flavor deprecation". For example, and I'm not a brewer on any much of a scale, so I don't know if these are reasonable, just a guess, but say "If your grain bill is over 10% rice" it is presumed that you are using the rice not as a flavor component but simply to reduce costs and lighten your beer (although, as mentioned earlier, one could argue that this is not an inherently troublesome motive).

But, back to the question at hand, can you figure out which Wisconsin brewery has the biggest problem with this definition? If you guessed "Jakob Leinenkugel Brewing Company" you win the prize. Leinie's seems to be regretting getting into bed with Miller in 1988 (for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, but I was just a young teenager in 1988 so it's not like I was paying attention to such things). Yes, Leinie's is run as an "independent" brewing operation; but the fact is, at the end of the day, their board and by extension their brewers, report to Miller SAB. And, if Miller doesn't like what it is seeing, it has significant ability to step in. More importantly, by being part of such a large enterprise, Leinie's has relegated itself to a mere "profit center" in the eyes of Miller. It's not a craft brewery to Miller; Miller sees it as a growth opportunity and a profitable division.

While Leinie's points to 140 years of family management, the fact is, at this point, it is not entirely family managed. It's family managed unless Miller has a problem with the management. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe they are truly "independent" of any Miller influence. But then, I would argue, what's the point for Leinie's? Why not buy yourself out? But, the fact is, Leinie's likes being in bed with Miller. They get great marketing teams, and excellent distribution; and for that price, they had to sell their soul.

So, Leinie's wants to eat their cake, too. They want to be considered a "craft" brewery, despite all the benefits of ownership and stock control by a non-craft brewery (even assuming that they fall inside the production limitation of 2 million barrels; I suspect that my revision, of 1 million barrels would rule them out).

Leinie's would prefer to define a "craft" brewery as "having a variety of interesting styles of beer." We'll ignore this; by any accounts this is not a reasonable definition. So, I would say, even if we discount the Brewers Association's definition, what makes Leinie's a "craft" brewery? The fact that they have a Berry Weiss? Because they have a Big Eddy series? (which, as a side note: the Big Eddy is a river near their Chippewa Falls plant, but they don't even brew these beers there; a second-hand account related to me tells that the brewers there didn't even know about the Big Eddy IIPA). I would argue that, even absent Miller's influence, Leinie's acts more like Sam Adams and the larger regional breweries rather than a small brewery truly concerned about the trade. At the end of the day, I suspect that Leinie's board of directors talk about "pallets" being moved and "product" getting to the shelf and "brands" being introduced rather than any overwhelming desire to participate in the world-wide beer discussion.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dogfish Head - Midas Touch

Dogfish Head Brewery is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. On the one hand, they make some of the awesomest beers on the planet (the 120 is in my top 3). On the other hand, they make some of the worst beers on the planet (what's up with their poor belgians?). And, they like to muck about (Blueberry Ales, Chicory Stouts, etc.) and they haven't found beer that they can't make an "imperial" version of. In many respects they are the prototypical modern American craft brewery. They hate conventional beers (god forbid someone just want to drink a plain ol' pilsner - no, got to make it an imperial pilsner, whatever that means), love their hops, and tend to misunderstand lagers and belgian beers.

Having said all that, if you're in the mood for an imperial pilsner or some oyster in your stout, few do it better than Dogfish Head. So, they get an "A+" for creativity, even if the end result could often have used an editor before allowing it to go to market (note: guys, just because you brew an entire fermenter of the stuff does not mean you have to sell it).

They have two interesting fermented beverages which are not "beers" at all. Sure, they look like beer, they're fermented like beer. But to approach them as beer is to come away sorely disappointed. The Midas Touch is one of these. (BA. RB.) The person who gave it to me had the following things to say about it: "Have another beer ready to wash the taste out of your mouth", "drink it over a sink, so you can pour the rest out", "the worst beer I've ever drank." And that was before I tried it. So, needless to say, since I usually trust this guy's judgment, I was a bit apprehensive.

We interrupt this review for a brief history/mythology lesson. Midas was a King of Phrygia residing in Pessinus, which is now Ballihisar, Turkey. His kingdom was known for its great wealth and generosity. The myth alleges that Dionysus' (the greek god of wine) teacher (a drunk with powers of prophecy) wandered away and was found in Midas' garden (an alternative holds that Midas kidnapped him to gain a prophecy). Midas then returned him to Dionysus who granted Midas anything he wished; Midas, of course, wished that everything that he touched would turn to gold. When he hugged his daughter and she became a gold statue Midas went back to Dionysus and asked to have his powers removed. Dionysus consented and told Midas that to wash off the powers he would have to bathe in the river Pactolus. As a result, the sands of the Pactolus became rich with gold (this is true, the sand of the Pactolus River is gold) and became the basis for the world's first gold-based currency. (didn't see that coming did ya!?).

In any event, in 1957, researchers at University of Pennsylvania uncovered a burial chamber that was thought to belong to "the" King Midas (it has been disproven). In this tomb was discovered a drinking vessel containing a fermented grape and barley based residue. Based on the ingredients revealed by an analysis of this cup, Dogfish Head has created a drink that they call the "Midas Touch Golden Elixir".

As I said earlier, the reviews weren't good (e.g., "the worst thing I've ever tasted") and I can tell you that it is not the worst thing I've ever tasted; the winner of that dubious award is the Jones Soda Brussel Sprouts Soda. In fact, the Midas Touch was downright drinkable. As I mentioned earlier, you have to approach this drink as something other than beer. For that reason, I chose a champagne flute as my drinking vessel of choice. It poured a clear, golden and bubbly with a head that dissipated quickly. It smelled of wine and clover with a hint of sweetness and barley. While the taste was somewhat cloying (it is 9% ABV), it was actually pretty decent. The high carbonation keeps the intensity from settling on the tongue, and the grapes and honey give it a mild sweetness that is offset by the barley and yeast. Surprisingly, the saffron doesn't seem to lend much color at all, though it manages to assist the barley in muting the harsh grape-y/alcholic taste. I wouldn't want to drink a six-pack of this, but as a novelty it works well. And, really, that's all I've really come to expect from Dogfish Head anymore - novelties that work well.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Brasserie V, part deux


Finally made it there last night and I was moderately impressed. Although it's still rough around the edges (literally), there is great promise. For a Tuesday night, the place seemed to be doing pretty well for itself. The bar had most of its seats occupied, and at least 3 tables were full. The "ambiance" isn't much to speak of yet. The lighting seems a little bright for a restaurant. While most of the walls have been painted, there are spots where they haven't gotten to yet. The bar itself looks nice - real wood and all. And the tables were set up almost exactly like they were in Relish.

I'll admit, I knew about Brasserie V because of its beer. I had no idea they even served food. But, it turns out, they do. And pretty fancy food at that. When we sat down the waitress/bartender greeted us with two menus and a wine list. It took her a minute or two to get to the beer list. Which seems odd; I think, tastefully done, they could leave the beer lists on the tables. But, she was overly friendly and offered us tastes of any beer they had.

Unfortunately, they were out of the Urthel Hop-It. This was very disappointing. In fact, I was rather astounded that they would be out of any beers yet. I eventually settled on a De Koninck. (BA. RB.) My friend ordered the Wittekerke. (BA. RB.) Both were fine. In fact, the De Koninck was exactly what one would expect from a Belgian Ale. Mild and yeasty, with a hint of fruit and alcohol; I was surprised just how "normal" it tasted after finishing the glass. If you were to look up "wit" in the dictionary, you would see a picture of the Witterkerke. Nothing fancy or overwhelming about it. Just a good, white bier.

I will say, this is a nice departure from the modern trends of creating, and serving, "exceptional" beers. If all the beers are "exceptional" (to wit: the Fantabulous Resplendence), then what is "normal." But the tap list is rife with "normal" beers. Rather the list is rife with beers that are excellent representatives of their style. This is a welcome relief to find a place where one can just get a plain old porter, it doesn't have to be uber-hopped, or use some obscure french farm yeast, or be made in the "porter style" using only wheat and rice.

Every beer get an appropriate glass. And, for the most part, they are all glasses from the breweries themselves. Again, a welcome relief from some places, let's call them "Maduro", where sometimes the bartenders get lazy (or overly busy) and just serve everything in a pint glass. The exception being that my De Koninck was, ironically, served in an Urthel glass because none of the De Koninck ones were clean. Also, a fun note: they have the new Sam Adams glassware. Which, I will admit, is a lot different from what I thought it looked like. In my mind, I was picturing basically a mildly tapered English Imperial Pint. But, the picture of the Sam Adams glass doesn't really do it justice, it is a much more pronounced taper than it looks and the bulb at the bottom is more rounded.

We weren't that hungry so we just had an appetizer and an entree between the two of us. Both were really good. As we were finishing, the owner came over and talked to us and he seemed really friendly. I told him that I was disappointed about the Urthel and he informed me that they had run out and were unable to get another keg of it. But, he said, they would be rotating their taps anyway to keep the list interesting and fresh. One has to wonder, though, how long it will take to get a new keg if they don't already have reserves for when the line goes down. And, for that matter, how they will inform customers of this new change. Hopefully, they will print up new beer lists. He also informed me that his favorite of the taps was the Kasteel Chateau Brown (interestingly, I was unable to find this beer, given this description, on either Beer Advocate or RateBeer - now I'm curious as to what the actual name is). This is unfortunate for me. I am not a fan of browns ales or Belgian brown ales for that matter (although I am a fan of THE Browns). His favorite plays out on the list as there are no fewer than 3 brown ales on tap. While I'm not averse to having the same beer twice, if you were to eliminate from the tap list all of the brown ales and the beers that I've had previously, there are only 3 beers left (of 14 on tap) - one of which was off-line. Oh well.

In any event, you can tell the place is new. But, hopefully, the owner has some patience because I think they are doing the right things here.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Great Dane Dilemma

Politics has devolved into the serving of special interest groups. This is not an inherently bad thing. Where the problems arise are when not all interests are represented by special interest groups. In those cases, how do those not represented gain a voice? Usually, they don't. In the usual case, those not being represented are the average, uneducated (I don't mean "uneducated" as in "not smart" just one not generally informed of the details of a particular piece or series of legislation generally because one isn't aware of said legislation) every-day consumer. Take, for example, your consumption of beer (you knew it would come to that didn't you?). Well, a new special interest group looking out for joe-sixpack (not this joe sixpack, although him too, just not in his "official capacity") called has pointed out that there is some interesting legislation going down here in Wisconsin.

Generally, a consumer can purchase beer in any number of places: at a retail store, at a restaurant or bar, at a brewpub, at a bowling alley or golf course, at a sporting event, and scores of other places. All of these places are regulated in their sale of beer (and other liquors). This isn't really news. However, what you may not know is that the channels of distribution for beer are highly regulated. As a brewer I can't just sell my beer to anyone. As a brewer, absent special circumstances, I can only sell to a distributor. As a distributor, I can only sell to other distributors or retailers. As a retailer, I can only sell to consumers. This distribution paradigm applies to all breweries, including "brew pubs" which are really just breweries that are licensed to sell beer on premises through a codified exception to the general rule.

The current law only allows a brewery to have 2 "on premises" licenses (called a "Class B" license). A brewery can have up to 4 more licenses, if some "small brewer" conditions are met and the restaurants buy the beer through a distributor, not from themselves. Thus, at max a brewery can have 2 brewpubs, and 6 if it's sufficiently small and buys its own product from an independent distributor.

So, these rules set up the problem. A very successful brewery called The Great Dane has two Class B licenses, one downtown, and one in Fitchburg. They are approached by a real estate developer who would like to put a Great Dane at their trendy mall on the West side of town (Hilldale). You see the problem. Under the current laws, if The Great Dane wants to add this third license, they would have to meet the "small brewer" conditions (they don't) and they would have to buy their own beer from a distributor. So, what's a brewery to do?

Well, if you are as successful as the folks over The Great Dane, you hire a lawyer and a lobbyist and you get the rules changed. And now, making its way through the legislative process is the result of that process.

SB 224 (and AB 455) would create a fourth type of license called a "Brewpub License."** In addition to the following rules, here's the catch: a brewer can only hold a maximum of 6 Brewpub Licenses. This license would allow the brewery to do a few things:
1) manufacture up to 10,000 barrels a year across all brewpubs (as a point of reference, this is slightly less than the current total output - pre-expansion - of New Glarus Brewery)
2) bottle
3) sell growlers
4) transport this beer to any of the brewpubs owned by this brewery
5) sell bottled beer at wholesale from the 10,000 barrels and up to 1,000 additional barrels (this is very small)
6) sell other alcohol provided the relevant licenses are procured.
So, back to the top; as a consumer of beer, what does this mean for me? Well, the entire point of the original version of these rules (only 2 Class B licenses per brewery) was to prevent the likes of Miller from opening up a ton of "brewpubs" and keeping small breweries out of the market by saturating the market. Given the reformulation of these rules, it's not like it's inviting the macro-brews from opening up tons of brewpubs. Heck, Capitol Brewery is over 20,000 barrels a year and thus would be prevented from obtaining Brewpub Licenses. 10,000 barrels seems like a reasonable cap and the allowance for bottling could make Wisconsin's beer scene even more interesting (Great Dane in bottles!) Thus, this new formulation is reasonable and exciting.

My only problem is this: what happens when Great Dane has 6 locations all around Madison and some real estate developer in Milwaukee asks if they'd like to have a location at a trendy new mall going in on the North side of Milwaukee. Are they going to go back to the legislature and re-write the laws again?

** For the sake of completeness, the other three types of license: Class A (allows retail sale of beer in original packaging for consumption off premises), Class B (allow retail sale of beer for consumption on or off premises), Class C (allows retail sale of wine for consumption on premises at a restaurant).

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Three Floyds Fantabulous Resplendence

A few posts ago I was complaining that the beer selection around town is quite monotone. Thankfully, every now and then, if you make the rounds frequently enough, you'll find something that's sort of special and different. In this case, it was the Three Floyds Fantabulous Resplendence (BA. RB.). For their Tenth Anniversary, Three Floyds brewed an American Strong Ale (10.5% ABV!) - it won't be brewed again. Too bad.

It was found at the West Side Woodman's on Friday night. They had 4 bottles, all pushed towards the back near the 6s of the typical Three Floyds (speaking of which, I'm happy to see that they are bottling Gumballhead in the sixes now). You could tell that they had had more. And, I knew that these four weren't going to last long. Unfortunately, I couldn't buy a bottle Friday night. But, I knew that I could be back on Saturday to buy one (or two). But, I was so sure that the bottles would be gone by then, I was just about convinced to take a bottle (or two) and hide it. But, I decided not to out of courtesy to my fellow beer drinkers around town. I figured, if I can't buy, I shouldn't prevent someone else from buying it and enjoying it. So, I left it.

Well, I had a party to go to on Saturday night, and that Fantabulous Resplendence would make an excellent accompaniment to the evening. So, we headed over to Woodman's; though, I was fairly convinced that it would be sold out. Well, when I got there, I went straight to where the beer "should" be and there was a bottle of New Glarus Belgian Red. What? Well, I moved it out of the way, and low-and-behold, there are two bottles of the Three Floyds left. Lucky me! So, which of you wants to admit to hiding it? Out of spite, I almost bought both of them. But, I was talked out of that, since we really only needed the one bottle.

When we finally got around to drinking it that night with some friends of mine who could be described as beer novices (in their fridge that night: Tyranena's Brown Ale (Rocky's Revenge) and Bell's Best Brown Ale - as an aside, this was kind of odd, because Bell's doesn't start distributing the Brown until late Septemeber, so it must have been left over from last year), it was a big hit. It was the first time my friends had had beer out of wine glass before (RB and BA suggest snifters, but we used red wine glasses). It poured a light, unfiltered, amber color with virtually no head at all. The smell was all bread and grapefruit. It literally smelled like a freshly baked loaf of fruit bread. The first taste was thick and syrupy and intensely malty and bitter from the high alcohol. Then the hops hit. I don't know how much hops they put in this bottle, but I'm guessing "shit ton" might be an apt description. The hops were overwhelming, and if it hadn't been for the assertive malts at first, it would have been an amazingly unbalanced beer. But, as the orange and grapefruit wore off (a bit of geek speak: I'm not sure this beer was "dry-hopped" in fact, I would guess that the vast majority of the hops were used as "bittering" hops; while there was some aroma of hops, it was deceptive for the actual taste of the hops; thus, in the brewing process, early addition of hops - called "bittering hops" - provides the high bitterness, while the later additions provide the aroma - thus are called "aroma hops" - the type of hop called "cascade" is typically used as an aroma hop and provides the distinctive American 'citrusy/orange' aroma - however, it appears here that Three Floyds used the cascades as bittering hops, and it worked wonderfully), the malt reasserted itself and blended nicely with the orange and grapefruit.

A lot of the BA and RB reviews say that this beer is all hops. But, I thought it was more balanced than that, and didn't catch the overwhelming hop aroma that many of those reviews noted. This is definitely not an IPA (or a derivative thereof). The hops are huge, but the malt here is more caramel and thick than for a typical IPA.

All-in-all, an excellent beer. My friends loved it, and it went very well with the salmon that they had cooked. Unfortunately, there probably aren't many left around town, and it was a one-off thing so Three Floyds won't be making it any more. So, the lesson here is: be vigilant, get out and look, and if you have to, move the Belgian Red out of the way to see what might be behind it.

And The Name Is ...

Brasserie V

Sorry to the folks at Brasserie V. The fine editors over at The Daily Page have been kind enough to link to my post about you. Unfortunately, my quote may have been seen a bit out of context. To wit (no pun intended! though Brasserie V does have a few fine wits if you would like to dry the yeasty, fruity, light summer beers), the bit about most of the beers (those in bottles, as the the context would have implied, but was stripped in the Daily Page excerpt) being available in retail outlets around town for considerably less.

I don't see this as an inherent problem. We see this all the time. Think, particularly, about wine that we buy for dinner at a restaurant (or indeed, any beer that we buy at a bar). We don't go to a bar because they have good prices on drinks. We go to a bar because we identify in some way with that bar, or because the bar provides some service that we desire. Thus, just because I can get Piraat at Steve's or Riley's for $10 (instead of $18) doesn't mean I'm going to just stay at home and drink it there.

Hopefully that clears some of that up.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

New "Bar" on Monroe Street

OK. So, I don't know the name of the place. But, it's on Monroe, where Relish used to be. While I will claim it as a victory because I love beer, Relish was a great deli. The sandwiches were fantastic and their cheese selection was surprisingly comprehensive. Hopefully, this bar doesn't suffer the same fate of jumping on a trend that seems like it might have some legs, but just turns out to be a trend. To wit: cheese was all the rage a few years ago, and now seems to have fallen back to an obscurity slightly above what it was. Beer has the potential to suffer the same fate. What?! Blasphemy you say! But hear me out. One of the problems that makes cheese so hard to approach for a newbie is that there is just so much of it and the labels and names make it practically impossible to reasonably compare one against another.

Beer has a similar problem. I'll give an example from a newbie point of view using the menu from the new bar. Rodenbach Grand Cru. It's a fine beer, and it sells for $7 a bottle. But, how, as a newcomer, can I justify the expense and not know what it is? As opposed to say: Westmalle Triple ($8). That at least tells me it's a triple. Triple what? Well, maybe, even as a newbie, I've done a little research and I know that the trappist ales (like Chimay and Orval) have different types: the ale, a double (dubbel), a triple, and sometimes a quad (like New Glarus!). Thus, I know what I can expect out of this Westmalle Triple, or can at least guess.

My point here is just this: labeling makes a fine product unapproachable. For this reason, while the uninitiated will try a few of them, once they "try" a Delirious Tremens (btw, not for sale at this bar), and shiver from the taste they may just go back to their Capital Island Wheat and call it a day.

One of these days I will get over to this bar. I will tell you that most of their beer can be purchased at the retail outlets around town for considerably less (e.g., Orval sells here for $7.50, but can be had a beer store for about $4). But some of the list is really intriguing. Piraat ($18. Served in a bomber. BA. RB. I've actually seen this occasionally around town in the stores). Buffalo Stout. ($19. Served in a "champagne bottle". BA. RB.) Their tap list is actually much more interesting. Corsendonk Pater. ($6.50. BA. RB.) And the really intriguing one: Urthel Hop-It. ($6.50. BA. RB.)

I was going to hold off on publishing this post until I found out the name of the bar - since it's not that far from me, it could be determined fairly quickly; but I have a nit to pick. A friend of mine grabbed their drink list when she was there (which is how I know what their bottles and taps are and the prices), but nowhere on the drink list is the name of the place, an address, a phone number - nothing. Just drinks. Now, it strikes me as odd because one would have to expect that these things would grow legs and walk away (I know, right? Like people drinking beer would do such a thing!) - the least they could do is see it as an advertising opportunity. In any event. Soon enough, fellow readers, soon enough we will know the name of this elusive beast.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Castle Brewery Samichlaus Bier

This beer claims to be (perhaps) the rarest beer in the world. Perhaps. But I doubt it. After all, I managed to find it here. For as bright as the brewing scene is here in Madison, there are surprisingly few bottle and tap choices outside of the locals (the tap selection is starting to get a lot better). For example, we miss out on quite a few nationally available regional beers such as Stone Brewery, Founders, Three Floyds, Surly, Oskar Blues, etc. Granted at least 2 of these are tiny brews that don't really distribute too far outside of their immediate areas - but they are still found regularly in well-equipped brew stores in Illinois, Ohio, and Minnesota. Yet, for the most part they are largely ignored in Madison stores. To our credit, we at least have ready access to most of the bigger Colorado breweries, and (unfortunately) some of the California micros. Even the foreign beers are pretty typical around town; virtually every store has the same selection. Although, in fairness, some of these "regulars" can be "hard to find" outside of Madison. To wit: this Samichlaus Bier. My bottle came from the Steve's on University.

This bottle proclaims that this beer is only brewed once a year (December 6) and aged at least 10 months before bottling. Which makes any bottle you drink at least one year from the time the grains in question hit the water in question. Mine was bottled in 2004, which means it was brewed in 2003 (December 6 to be specific). That makes this beer 3 years, 8 months and a few days old. Unfortunately I do not have a bottle 1 year old to compare it against.

What I can tell you is that it poured a deep wine-like color with virtually no head. It had a huge scent of caramel and coffee. In fact coffee would play a large role from start to finish. The taste was sweet and port-like and no carbonation. Chocolate and brandy at first; a quick burst of bitter. Then soft and more mellow roasted coffee as the aging shows its value. A great big beer.

While I may not call it the most extraordinary beer in the world, I would say that it is best in class; or at least among the best in its class along with Ayinger and Weltenberger Closter.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Pre-Great Taste

Just some thoughts on the events occurring pre-Great Taste of the Midwest (which, unfortunately, I could not get to this year). There were three events that I knew of (via forums at and Bell's at Maduro; Dark Horse Brewery at Wonder's Pub; and, Founders Brewery at Glass Nickel Pizza. My plan was to get to all 3. That didn't pan out.

First to Bells.

We were at Maduro around 6pm and the place was fairly packed. People overflowed into the sidewalk and Bell's had taken over. The outdoor seating had Bell's umbrellas, there were Bell's flyers everywhere. All of the staff were wearing Bell's t-shirts. All 15 taps were Bells beers.

They had everything you might expect: Oberon, Two-Hearted, Java Stout, etc. They also brought in stuff that is a little harder to find: 6000, 7000, 8000, and the Hell Hath No Fury. All-in-all they had something like 15 taps. I ordered the Hell Hath No Fury. It is a Belgian Abbey Dubbel. The abbey dubbel style is great when it is done correctly (think of the fine Trappist beers); unfortunately, not many breweries out there can make a good one. By all accounts, Bells was supposed to be middle of the road, but I thought I'd check it out.

Unfortunately, I was inexplicably served a Java Stout. The place was crowded and the bartenders were busy; I think the bartender just confused the order. In any event, I did not get the Hell Hath No Fury, I got a Java Stout - a fine beer, but not really what I had been expecting. So, with that we left and got some food ...

... then on to Wonder's Pub for Dark Horse.

Wonder's Pub was the exact opposite you could find from the circus over at Maduro. First, Wonder's is practically impossible to find if you don't know where it is. We had directions and went past it three times. When we walked in, we found what appeared to be a perfectly normal bar in the middle of east side Madison. No banners, no umbrellas, no t-shirts (well, a few; in fact, enough that it seemed odd, given Dark Horse's relative obscurity; but still, not nearly as pervasive at Maduro). When we went to the bar, we saw only 2 Dark Horse Beers on tap, along with the rest of their standard taps including at least one from Bells. The 2 Dark Horse beers were the Crooked Tree (IPA) and the Scotty Karate (Scotch Ale). Their website and the forums had seemed to promise more (e.g., their stouts, at the very least - I love their Fore: Smoked Stout).

So we got a Crooked Tree and sat down to figure out what the deal was. To our right, a guy wearing a Dark Horse t-shirt was holding a snifter and pouring a bottle into it. So, I asked him where he managed to find that bottle. The guy said he had brought it with him - he was one of the brewers at Dark Horse Brewery. Russ Beattie sat down and we chatted for about an hour.

Their brewery is in Marshall, MI, a town of 7500 on the expanse of I-94 between Chicago and Detroit. They only brew a little over 2,000 barrels per year. (By comparison, New Glarus is over 10,000 barrels and Capitol is over 20,000 barrels). They tend towards the hoppier, and their IPA is their most widely available beer. Over the winter they brewed a series of five (yes, FIVE) stouts. I had had the Fore, and they had brought the One and Too.

Russ handed us a One (an Oatmeal Stout) and two plastic cups (the bar was running low on cups and didn't want glass ones going out apparently). It was quite nice. Moderately chilled, dark, and sweet. It had a full mouthful with just the right amount of oatmeal (it was neither too fuzzy nor too thin), a pleasant chocolate flavor, subtle carbonation and a nice roasted coffee finish.

As I enjoyed my beer, we talked a little more about Dark Horse. It started when Russ and Aaron were up at Northern Michigan home-brewing in their dorm rooms. The RA could be bought off for the right payment. They found some funding (a random aside: "gas station and party store" doesn't mean the same thing in Michigan and Wisconsin: in Michigan "party store" is a liquor store: In Wisconsin, a "party store" is a place to buy streamers and cardboard center-pieces; one makes considerably more sense to be found at a gas station) and started up a brewery in their hometown of Marshall.

The idea of a series of stouts seemed kind of odd to me. Looking back, I'm not sure why it seemed so odd; the stout is a very versatile style that can hold up not only delicate fruits, but hefty oatmeals and roasted barleys. In any event, the series developed sort of backward. Aaron had 5 labels that he wanted to use for a series. It was only after they had the labels did they decide to brew stouts. So the stouts match the labels. They have: an oatmeal stout, a cream stout, a blueberry stout, a smoked stout, and an imperial stout. Russ seemed pleasantly surprised that these can be found here in town at Riley's (or at least they could have, I'm not entirely sure they still have them there). I've now had the one, two and four. All of which are excellent.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, Russ, let me in on a little secret that I'm not sure he wants me to share with you. Needless to say, it involves Dark Horse and fermented beverages. I can tell that it's apparently really good stuff, and seems like something that would sell particularly well here in Madison. I agree with Russ that it could really help Dark Horse reach the masses.

Scotty Karate stomped and hollared for a while. If you like Scott H. Biram, or th' Legendary Shack Shakers, or Reverend Horton Heat, Scotty has their same low-fi country-metal sound. The guys at Dark Horse really like Scotty, and I've got to agree. In fact, at the brewery they frequently have excellent live music and Scotty can often be found there.

Sadly, we never made it over to Glass Nickel for Founders (they of "Breakfast Stout" fame).