Friday, November 30, 2007

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

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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

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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? ratebeer.com 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

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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

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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)

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.