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.