Friday, August 29, 2008

Hey Barkeep! Can I Get A Beer Without Any Of These Hops That Everyone Seems So Keen On?

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India Pale Ale, Imperial India Pale Ale, Extra India Pale Ale, Extra Pale Ale, Imperial Stout, Imperial Oak-Aged Barleywine, Imperial Pilsner, Imperial Weizen.

Hops are everywhere. What's a beer drinker to do who doesn't want their beer bitter? Well, there's plenty of beer that puts the focus squarely on the malt: bock, kolsch, rauchbier, biere de garde, just to name a few. There are also beers that put the focus on spices and fruits: wit, framboise, fruited stouts, saison.

But what if you don't want any hops. Not just low hops. None. Zero. Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nein. Of course, in many countries, you can't even call your beverage "beer" if it doesn't have hops.

Some people are allergic to hops. Some people just don't like the taste. Others like a challenge. In any event, there is at least some demand for a fermented malted barley beverage without hops. And, no, whiskey, bourbon and scotch don't count.

The problem is hops and beer have been synonymous for centuries. Ron Extract, Director of Sales and Distribution for Shelton Brothers Importers, provides a good history lesson: "Historical records of hop cultivation in Europe go back to the 8th century AD, and the use of wild hops in beer probably goes back much further than that, but their usage didn't really become popularized throughout Europe until the late 1400s, and even then they remained a rather unpopular addition to beer in certain regions.  In 16th and 17th century Britain, many traditional 'ale' drinkers eschewed the use of the hops, while 'beer' drinkers embraced it."

As a result, it is often necessary to go back hundreds of years to find beer styles, let alone recipes, that do not call for at least some hops. There are only a few breweries in the world that make a habit of brewing some of these old recipes: Dogfish Head here in the States; Jopen, based in the Netherlands (but temporarily brewing in Belgium); and, Legends Limited, based out of Baltimore, imports a few others, including those from Heather Ales, Ltd such as the Alba Scots Pine, the most popular of these traditional recipes,.

For example, Dogfish Head's Midas Touch Golden Elixer, a beer that we've reviewed on this site before, is a recipe reverse-engineered from traces of liquid found in a chalice in King Midas' tomb. Even it, a recipe that, in theory, dates back to 700 BC, contains 20 IBU (International Bitting Units - typically, a measure of hop bitterness - does anyone know if this measures bitterness in general, or just from hops?). This beer has pretty decent availability here in Wisconsin.

Jopen makes a couple of gruit-beers based on recipes from the early 1400s. Gruit was a Northern European mixture of spices frequently used in beer in place of hops. Shelton Brothers imports two of Jopen's gruits: the Adriaan (a beer spiced with yarrow, rosemary, and sweet gale) and the Koyt (brewed primarily with sweet gale). Michel Ordeman, head brewer at Jopen, admits that even these ancient styles had hops in them, and he uses them in brewing the modern versions: "In the days of gruit, hop was seen as a spice and most probably was one of the ingredients of gruit. The amount was very low (so little that is was not tasted). In our Adriaan we use a little hops and in the Jopen Koyt even less. The bitterness in the Koyt is from the gagel we use (Myrica gale) [ed note: myrica gale and gagel are both names for sweet gale] together with other herbs." From what Ron tell me, the Koyt is available to retailers from Beechwood, and because of this, may be available in the better-stocked beer stores in Madison (Rileys, Steves, Star, etc.) and Milwaukee; the Adriaan will become more available soon.

Finally, the Fraoch Heather Ale and the Alba Scots Pine, both imported by Legends Limited and available fairly readily in Madison, are the only beers I know of to be brewed commercially without any hops whatsoever. Or, at least as far as I know.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

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Part 2 of Beer Talk Today's Beer Games. The closing ceremony is incredible. Trust me.



You can download it here. Ogg here.

Beer Talk Today is provided under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Minocqua Brewing Company, Minocqua, WI

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One of the great things about the state of Wisconsin is that there are breweries everywhere. Including such far away and remote places as Minocqua. Three and a half hours north of Madison, Minocqua (pop. 4900) is a summer and vacation haven for many of the Southern Wisconsinites and Northern Ill-Annoyings; its downtown is situated on a quasi-island, peninsula-thing for God's sake - it doesn't get any vacationier than that.

On that quasi-island/peninsula-thing is Minocqua Brewing Company. What? You're surprised that there's a brewpub in a Wisconsin tourist town? What might surprise you is that it's really good; unlike another brew-pub that will remain nameless in the Dells. Or the other halfway decent brewpub in that other place.

The problem with these tourist-trap brewpubs isn't that they aren't any good. They are perfectly fine. Generally they make drinkable beer that is worthy of your vacation dollars. But that's the thing. We so associate these beers with the good times that we are having on vacation that we impose those good times on the beers themselves. That Leinies Sunset Wheat that we drink in Black River Falls while fishing and hunting with our buddies becomes the greatest beer ever. That pitcher of Shipwrecked Captains Copper becomes the beer that you and the couples you are on vacation with cherish forever. But, if you remove the memories from the beer, what you are left with is, often, not very good beer. Not to belittle the beers or others tastes in them - I'm a firm believer that you like what you like - but these types of beers in particular, because of the strong emotions attached to them, sometimes cloud our judgment.

The only way to remove the memories, is to remove the beer from the place of the memories and give them to strangers and get their opinion. So, we have before you today Minocqua Brewing Company's Wild Rice Lager. It is a beer that you can order by the pitcher or growler and share with your buddies on or after a fishing excursion on the many lakes surround Minocqua. In other words, it is one of those beers that seems like it could destined for stories that will last lifetimes.

Minocqua Brewing Company Wild Rice Lager
Appearance: a coppery, well carbonated body with thin off-whitish head that settles quickly
Aroma: very light aroma of malt and some huskiness or earthiness; perhaps a very light hoppy brightness on the end
Flavor: well carbonated and surprisingly full-bodied, an earthy sweetness; the rice flavor definitely comes through as a noticeable toastiness that is not due to toasted malts; some grassy hops clean up the flavor a bit
Body: for what one would think might be a lighter-bodied beer, this is surprisingly full-bodied (which makes it, in the grand scheme of things, I guess, medium-bodied)
Drinkability: Light enough for the sessionability, but with good assertive flavor that is not overpowering
Summary: Rumor has it that the wild rice comes from the local Lac Du Flambeau Indians - I have an email in to the brewer to check the veracity of this story - I will let you know when I know. In the meantime, I was really impressed with this beer. Is it anything more than your typical light lager? Well, a little - it's got a little more flavor and body. But I would put this up with Spotted Cow as a go-to beer for those long-drinkin' nights.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Madison Beer Review Presents Beer Talk Today

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In conjunction with Beer Talk Today, Madison Beer Review brings to you the Beer Games - a celebration in the spirit of the Olympics. Will the Chinese cheat? Will Jamaica become a runaway hit? Who will win Gold in Malt Liquor? You'll just have to listen yourselves.



You can download it here in MP3 and here in Ogg.

Beer Talk Today is presented under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Due To Popular Demand

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HAHA! I lied! Nobody has really demanded any of this, except #3, but it's still cool nonetheless:

.5) Summit Brewery will be at Dexter's Pub tonight (Monday, August 25). Why? Does it matter? Get over there and drink some good Minnesotan beer. Maybe they'll have their Oktoberfest with them. Speaking of which ...

1) Oktoberfest season is almost upon us. Last year, one of our first features was a month-long blind tasting of Oktoberfest beers. If you remember, Capital Brewery "won" that blind tasting. Capital has already jumped the gun and released their Oktoberfest at the beginning of August; Tyranena is in the process of bottling theirs. I can smell the caramel malts in the air. This year we'll have some more stuff for Oktoberfest - it's going to remain a secret for now, but it is related to item number 2, below:

2) Starting tomorrow, Madison Beer Review is going multi-media! I know, I know, you are all amazed. But, MBR has hooked up with the Kyle, Matt and Jon at Beer Talk Today to bring you 30 minute podcasts on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Never fear, we will still publish this printed stuff on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. You can hear their latest, on-the-spot interviews at the Great Taste of the Midwest, here. Tomorrow they'll bring you the Beer Games; it's sort of like the Olympics in Beijing, except without the underage girls.

3) I have to admit defeat. In my review of The Malt House and in subsequent posts, I have been lambasted (I have also been accosted on the street for this) for my stance that I thought The Malt House needed something to keep people there - TVs, dart boards, pool tables, food. After a second visit late last week, I am a convert. No distractions necessary - I was impressed with the way that the sound of conversation can just fill up a room. On a random Thursday evening the place was mostly full and people were engaged in conversation. Without the other noises and diversions, these conversations just filled the space in a glorious white noise. The place looks great, with colorful walls and posters and mahogany bars and brass taps - a bit of overkill with the Chimay breweriana, but that's a pretty fine nit to pick. And, they had Jolly Pumpkin's Weizen Bam on-tap for $4; my heart melted. Now, if I just lived on the East Side ... damn you lakes!! I curse your inconvenience!!

4) You still have a week to get in your entry for the Quivey's Grove Beerfest Tickets. Write me a post about anything you like, email it to lewis-at-madisonbeerreview.com, and you could win two tickets to the Quivey's Grove Beerfest on September 27.

5) Some smart-ass forwarded this comic (apologies to United Press Syndicate):

Friday, August 22, 2008

Lower The Drinking Age

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On Thursday, the Washington Post ran an article that indicated that some college Presidents are pushing Congress to reconsider the drinking age and open debate on the subject. But, if you are going to disagree with 119 college and university Presidents, you should probably have a good reason; you can read their reasons here. Mothers Against Drunk Driving ("MADD") disagree and you can read their reasons here - it is pretty much the text-book on why the drinking age is what it is. (a quick aside: the MADD site proclaims that the 21 drinking age is estimated to have "saved" 25,000 lives since 1984; a) how is it even possible to calculate this number??? and b) only 25,000? in 24 years? That's 1,000 per year. How many lives and how much property damage could have been saved if we concentrated on responsible teaching of the effects of alcohol and discouraged binge drinking behind closed doors?) The only-slightly-more-sane Chicago-Tribune also disagrees.

The University of Wisconsin received an invitation to join the Amethyst Initiative (the organization under which all of the schools have come together), but because of the imminent change in leadership the school has decided that now is not the best time to make an institutional commitment. In the coming weeks this issue will be considered by the new Chancellor.

In the meantime, the University of Wisconsin system has a number of programs in place to educate students on responsible alcohol consumption. Among those programs is the UW-Madison PACE program. P.A.C.E. stands for the four objectives underlying its purposes: policy, alternatives, community, and education. The PACE program uses each of these pillars to support its underlying mission to ensure that its students are safe and aware of the dangers of high-risk drinking behaviors.

According to PACE Program Director Susan Crowley, "Before students arrive on the campus we discuss ways to prevent high-risk drinking with their parents and students during the summer orientation sessions. As soon as students move to campus to begin the academic year, they participate in discussions with residence hall staff, UW Police, Dean of Students and University Health Services regarding the implications of underage or excessive drinking. In addition to discussions, students are provided with websites and links to information, education and referral services. Students who are seen at the student health service are automatically screened for alcohol misuse."

Surely many students roll their eyes at such "discussions" and fail to visit the links, but the University recognizes the issues and gives the students and parents the tools to prepare themselves. As Ms. Rowley notes, "Irresponsible, dangerous drinking occurs among students of legal age as well as underage students, just as it occurs in the general population. In that respect, the age of legal use is an arbitrary measure of responsible drinking. More important to moderating drinking behavior is establishing community norms around acceptable behavior as well as providing young adults with the information and education about alcohol use that will allow them to make good, responsible choices." On the other hand, in the home and high school environment these issues are skirted for fear that broaching the topic may make the students suddenly get the idea to start drinking.

The debate then is: do we use an arbitrary measure of responsibility like drinking ages, or do we, as a society, take on some of the responsibility of "establishing community norms around acceptable behavior"? Of course, there is no reason we cannot do both, but in the meantime, we deprive our young adults of many of the pleasures and privileges that the rest of society enjoys. The website OpposingViews sets up the debate for you.

Of course there are the obvious cliches - we can vote, but not drink; we can be drafted, but not drink; we can sign contracts, but not drink; etc., etc., blah, blah. I'm not really concerned about these reasons, because we are allowed to do a lot of things, but not allowed to do others. It is called civilized, ordered, society and we deal with it. My point is more about when and how we learn the value and responsibility of consuming alcohol.

The 21 drinking age is an arbitrary hard-cap that removes the responsibility from parents, and the community at large, for teaching responsible alcohol consumption. The reality is young adults and teens learn to drink on college campuses far from their parents' watchful eye, under loads of peer pressure, and in stressful situations. Until students are in college, drinking is a privilege that has been withheld; but these same students are constantly inundated via advertising (professional and college sports, prime-time television, movies, magazines, websites, older siblings) and college culture that drinking is "the cool thing to do." At 20, 19, 18, even 17 or 16, it is a forbidden pleasure that the rest of the world seems so keen on, yet, remains elusive and unknown to the underaged. So, when these young adults turn 21, the dam breaks and they take it out on the nearest 30-pack of Busch Light.

If the drinking age were put back to 18, or even 16, or (oh nos!) eliminated altogether, these teens would come of age when they are still living with parents - the first "real" beer would not be the Beast Light kegger at the Zeta Psi house, it would be a Spotted Cow with parents at a birthday dinner. But, it would also put squarely on the parents the role of teaching responsible drinking; and, while, yes, parents should be teaching this anyway, in anticipation of that 21st birthday party, it is a lesson without any real practical implications or consequences.

In what ways does a parent teach a pre-21 year old the value of responsible drinking? A chalkboard and easel that outlines the chemical composition of alcohol and list of side-effects and their possible impact on a young body? Maybe a 50s-era public service announcement that shows a kid driving a car into a tree? Maybe take the passive aggressive route and leave YouTube open to a teen-propaganda video claiming that underage drinking leads to manslaughter?

Or, maybe by sharing a glass of beer or wine over dinner and showing that it can be a beverage to be respected? Maybe at social events where parents can monitor exactly how much the kid is drinking and cut him or her off? Look, I'm a realist; the kid will probably, at some point, drink too much and end the night praying to a porcelain god. Would you rather that happen for the first time at home, with parents to deliver a stern lesson? Or would you rather that happen in a college fraternity house in front of a cheering audience crying "Puke and Rally, dude! Puke and Rally!!"? Do we blindly proclaim abstinence or nothing? Or do we admit to ourselves the reality and teach responsibility and provide prophylactics?

Finally, university binge drinking is a crime without a punishment. The vast majority of it goes on behind closed doors where police cannot access the rampant underage consumption. Moreover, most of these kids are under their parents' medical insurance and very few of them drive after drinking (most of the establishments are within walking distance). So, while that 3am trip to the emergency room to have the stomach pumped is uncomfortable, there are no lasting physical problems, and, more importantly, there are no financial ramifications - it is not like the student is paying for it out of pocket.

Simply put the rules currently in place not only impede responsible parenting regarding alcohol, but seem to actively discourage it. The papers are rife with parents doing the "right" thing and providing safe places or providing safe rides, only to be hassled later by MADD and/or the police. An 18-year old drinking a beer is not a problem. An 18-year drinking six beers is a problem. But a 35-year old drinking six beers is also a problem.

In any event, in the meantime the drinking age is 21. So, if you are under 21 please do not drink. And if you do, please (please!!) do not tell the police Madison Beer Review said it was OK.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

On India Pale Ales - Central Waters Glacial Trail IPA

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To follow up on Matt Lange's entry on Monday, I wanted to talk today about India Pale Ales. It always seems that the worst offenders of the unbalanced beer syndrome are IPAs. It is a style that is easy brew, it is a style that readily covers mistakes, and it is a style that is very easy to overdo. It is also one of my favorite styles because of the sheer diversity and flavor capabilities - from English bitters to the noise-rock inspired hop-bombs to the newer variations like Stone's XI - a dark IPA with a roasted, stout-ish notes.

At some point in the not-too-distant past there was one style: India Pale Ale and it meant, basically, one thing: a strongly bittered bite in the finish. In most other respects it was sort of a cross between a pale ale and an amber - with some caramel or biscuit malts for color and complexity, but otherwise a fairly simple, if not slightly stronger malt bill. Typically with a strong ABV around 7-8%. Today, we call this a sub-category of the India Pale Ale - the English IPA.

Central Waters' Lac Du Bay IPA was in this English tradition. Paul Graham, head brewer at Central Waters, agrees: "The Lac Du Bay IPA was an English IPA. Very malty, higher in alcohol (7.5%), and hopped with English hops (more earthy and flowery)." Unforutnately, "the retirement of Lac Du Bay was not by choice. The hop shortage (or what the some of the players in the industry made to appear as a shortage - that's a whole other story) caused the retirement. We had access to American hops still, so the change [to the Glacial Trail] was made." But, never fear, the Lac Du Bay may be back: "I am sure that sometime in the future we will be able to get the hops again. In fact, they were just offered to us, but unfortunately we don't have the production space right now. Our plan is to bring it out as a seasonal when the timing is right (hop availability and production space)."

Then, the West Coast started growing hops. Specifically, the West Coast started growing Cascade hops. Cascades are great hops - great for aroma, great for bittering. They typically weigh in at around 5.5% Alpha Acid, so in many respects they are similar in form and function to European noble hops - except the aroma is much more up-front and distinctive. Instead of the soft peppery, earthy and grassy aromas of the European Saaz and Goldings and Hallertaus, the Cascades have an assertive grassy and citrusy aroma - oranges and grapefruit. It is a distinctive aroma which really comes through in the bitterness as well. Together, this flavor and aroma combination can really compliment a sweet malt bill, resulting in amazingly refreshing beverages.

Starting with Sierra Nevada in the early 80s, the Cascade has come to be associated with American brewing, and particularly the American West Coast. What brewers quickly discovered is that consumers loved it. It made its way into the pale ales, amber ales, common beers, stouts, and india pale ales being made all up and down the Pacific Coast. As brewing stronger and stronger beers became a competition in the late 90s, brewers found that the strong aromas and flavors of the Cascade masked the alcohol flavors. So, beers that were upwards of 9% ABV could actually taste refreshing. These now form the basis of what we call an American IPA - indeed, you can, for the most part, substitute "cascade hoppy" whenever you see "American" or "NorthWest" in front of a style name (e.g., American Amber, American Stout, American Pale Ale).

It is in this American tradition that we find Central Waters' newer IPA, the Glacial Trail. As Mr. Graham notes: "Our goal with Glacial Trail was a balanced American Style IPA. We wanted the beer to be bitter (68 IBU's), but not in your face - where you would not be able to taste anything else. The beer has a great malty backbone that we wanted to compliment the bitterness."

Then came the hop bombs - intentionally unbalanced beers meant to show-off the aroma and flavor profiles of the hops. Beers like the Dogfish Head 120 and the Sierra Nevada Harvest Ale are some of the best of this style; but just throwing a ton of hops in the kettle does not a quality hop-bomb make. There must be complexity, both in flavor and aroma, but in the bitterness and malts as well. Tyranena's Hop Whore is really the best Wisconsin example of this third IPA category.

So, we now have, basically, three types of India Pale Ales - 1) the so-called "English" style, which is restrained and malty with a clean, bitter finish; 2) the American IPA, which is much hoppier, usually with Cascade hops, but still focused on balance and typically with caramel and German specialty malts; and 3) the hop-bomb (also called "Double IPA", and Imperial IPA) which is intentionally unbalanced to show-off hop aromas, flavors and bitterness. I like each of them, or rather, I'm not opposed to any of them - I've had excellent examples of all three.

But I've also had really bad examples of all three, and, I think, that this is what Matt was getting at in his essay that we published on Monday - the "bigger" beers can be an all-out assault on the pallette. And, when brewed incorrectly, can be a not-very pleasant all-out assault on the pallette. We can agree to disagree on some of the specifics (e.g., I love the Ruination), but I agree overall that there are way too many poor examples out there.

Unfortunately, this overpowering aroma and bittering flavor can also mask brewing incompetence. Failed to clean out the kettle? No problem, bitter the hell out of the beer with Cascades and no one will ever know. Incomplete fermentation? No problem, with enough Cascades no one will even notice the yeast. Chill haze? No problems, use enough hops and the beer is supposed to be cloudy anyway!

However, the biggest problem is that many of the worst offenders, taking a cue from the wine industry, market their beer as sophisticated with the correlative assumption being that if you don't find the beer to be sophisticated then you, the drinker, just aren't sophisticated enough. And Stone is not the only brewery guilty of this - many, many breweries fall prey to this. Yet many of the beer snobs among us, fearing to lose our beer cred, fall right in line, proclaiming the flavors to be huge but failing to discern that there is only one flavor and when the beer warms up it turns into bitter, syrupy piss. Some of this lemming-ness is a result of said marketing: we're too afraid that the brewery is right - if we don't find the beer sophisticated and complex it must because we aren't sophisticated enough. Some of it is because of a herd mentality - one person, a hop head, loves a beer a posts a great review of it and each subsequent reviewer, seeing that this person thinks it is so great, agrees that it is great - the logic being that one beer cannot both be a 10 and a 1. But it can - and that is the great fallacy of numbering systems, but that's a different post for a different day.

In the meantime, let your taste be your guide. If you don't like a beer, you don't like it.

Glacial Trail IPA (Base Malt: Briess Pale Malt; Specialty Malts: Caramel 10L, Caramel 40L, Munich 10L; Hops: Summit and Ahtanum; ABV: 6.75) (BA. RB. By the way, both of them refer to this as "Glacier Trail" - what is it with people and the "Gla" formative that makes them always think something "glacier"??)

Appearance: served at 45 degrees, a hazy brownish-red, it's approximately the color of the stained wood that my coffee table is made out of; a strong, if not small, off-white head
Aroma: a lemon and pine brightness on-top of a grapefruit hoppiness; a faint bready sweetness lies below the aroma
Flavor: the hoppiness is immediately noticeable, but the first flavor that I can distinguish is the caramel malt with a slight roastiness to it; I'd had this a few months ago and I thought I had remembered more of this roastiness - perhaps it is due to a long kettle boil and the caramelization was greater in that first batch? In any event, there is a slight roastiness; as it warms up, the malts come through both in the flavor and the aroma
Body: oily and full-bodied
Drinkability: I really find myself enjoying this beer. It warms up very well and changes from the hop-forward American IPA to a more well-rounded quasi-amber - in fact, at about 55 degrees you could call this an American Amber and I'm not sure anyone would complain.
Summary: I'm not familiar with the Ahtanum hop, but the Summit is a high-alpha-acid hop with an aroma and flavor profile similar to the Cascade, with citrus and grapefruit notes - it appears to be one of the few high-alpha-acid hops that is also good for dry hopping and late-kettle additions. Brew365 tells me that "[Ahtanum] has a citrus and floral character much like cascade with the addition of some piney or earth notes. Grapefruit quality is more forward in than in cascade as well." Apparently, the Ahtanum is used in Stone's Arrogant Bastard.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Note On Balance

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Our next entry in the Quivey's Grove Writing Competition comes from local student broadcaster, Matt Lange. It addresses one of my favorite topics, balance - and more specifically the lack of it in the modern American Craft Brewing industry. So, without further ado:


A Note on Balance
By Matt Lange
Co-host of Beer Talk Today, Saturdays at 4 PM on 91.7 FM WSUM
beertalktoday.blogspot.com
When Stone brewing came to Madison a few weeks back, they came on strong.  Seemingly out of nowhere Stone was on tap at Brasserie V, their posters were up at Barriques, and any liquor store with a decent craft beer selection had their bottles. 
Being that I live in Wisconsin, I have a very mid-western-centric view of the craft beer world, and I’d never had a Stone beer.  How did they gain such a presence in Madison so quickly?  Were they really so good that anyone with a taste for good beer was beating down the door to get it, or was there a big push from distributors to get a foot in the door of an already flooded Madison craft beer market? 
I went to Brasserie V to investigate.  While waiting at the bar I noticed a Stone coaster that told me that I probably wouldn’t like their beer, that “it is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth.”  I realize that this is just posturing, but I was still quite put off.  Who the hell are they to tell me what I’m going to like? Don’t you think that people who are in a beer bar that carries Stone beer probably have a taste for high quality craft beer? Arrogant Bastard is certainly an appropriate name.
Even with my anger at their ridiculous marketing, I do love a big beer when it’s done well, and I was intrigued, so I decided to give it a try anyway.  I ordered the Ruination IPA, which came highly recommended.  The first sip had a pretty impressive hop flavor, with a slight warming alcohol, but the hops were the center of the beer.  As I kept drinking the huge bitterness kept growing and growing, and by the time I got to the end of the pint my taste buds were so destroyed the bitterness was all I could taste.  It was one big glass of bitter.
I wrote Ruination off as something to please the hop-heads who want nothing more from a beer, but with the pre-Great Taste of the Midwest shindig at the Brasserie, I had to give Stone another try.  I mean, “Vertical Epics,” how could those not be good?  A companion gave me a taste of the 08.08.08 epic, and it seemed to have an identical hop profile to the Ruination, with a hint of Belgian yeast character that seemed to make it a bit more balanced (granted, I just had a taste).  I ordered the 07.07.07, which the Stone rep described as a big Belgian Saison style.  I love Saisons, and the reason they are so good is because they strike a fantastic balance between all the different characteristics: the malt, the hops and the spicy yeast notes are all there but no one thing dominates in a well made Saison.  But Stone does not seem to be a brewery of moderation or balance, and the 07.07.07 was no exception.  This time it wasn’t the hops but the spices that absolutely dominated the brew to the point of making it nearly undrinkable.  Coriander, clove, and cinnamon punched you in the face with nothing there to balance out the extreme flavors.  For the first time I can remember I actually had to send a beer back, because I couldn’t take more than a third of a pint, nor could I convince any of my craft beer loving friends to have more than a sip. 
Yet Stone is clearly doing something right to be expanding to Madison so rapidly.  They also have very strong ratings on Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, especially for the Arrogant Bastard (which I have yet to try a full glass of).  But beers like the Ruination and the 07.07.07 seem to be part of the “extreme beer” movement that is sweeping the craft brewing industry right now.  There seems to be a race toward who can make the biggest, boldest, hoppiest beer in the history of man.  I find the results of this unofficial competition to be almost always bad, and I don’t think I’m alone.
Through the course of doing my radio show over the past few months (shameless plug: Beer Talk Today, Saturdays at 4 PM on 91.7 FM and www.wsum.org), I’ve gotten a chance to talk with many brewers and other people from the craft beer industry, and almost everyone I have talked to, without any specific questions on the subject, have expressed distaste for the extreme beer movement.  Brian Haltinner, the owner of Maduro, felt that extreme beer is coming to an end.
“I think there’s been an explosion of weird extreme styles,” Haltinner said. “I think we’ll settle down into what we do best, the American ale style, and also experimentation with traditional styles of Belgian beers.  I hope so at least.”
Matt Van Nest, who as owner of Brasserie V is clearly a fan of Stone, had a very similar sentiment when asked where he sees the future of American Craft Beer.
“Craft breweries have already done extreme beers in all the styles, so I think you’ll just see refining those styles and getting better at what they do, because I don’t really know where else you would go with it at this point,” he said.
Now I don’t think that being refined and being extreme are mutually exclusive.  Case and point is Bell’s Hop Slam, the 10% abv double IPA that has tons of hop flavor and yet is oh so drinkable.  I had a chance to talk with Larry Bell at the Great Taste and ask him about Hop Slam.
“I believe in making sure there’s enough malt in there to balance things out,” he said. “Yes, there’s bitter there, but it’s really all about hop flavor.”
Bell also suggested a possible geographic explanation.
“That’s probably a difference between us here in the middle part of the country compared to some of the west coast people,” he said.
So maybe that’s it; maybe it’s my Midwestern attitude that causes me to prefer things that aren’t quite as extreme but a little more refined.  Or maybe Stone is right and I don’t “have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate” their extreme beers.  Either way, I’ll take my balanced Midwestern brews any day.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Monroe Street Bistro est. 2008

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On Monday August 11th, another beer bar on Monroe Street opened. It is, creatively, called Monroe Street Bistro. I love that the sign outside the bar proclaims "est. 2008." This makes the fifth beer bar to open in just the last year; Brasserie V, The Malt House, Alchemy and Dexter's Pub are all recent entrants in the high quality beer bar restaurant business. Each is different in its own way: The Malt House is corner pub through and through - no TVs, no pool, no darts, no food - just good beer and good friends. Dexter's is a Wisconsin corner bar all growed up - a fantastic fish fry to enjoy with your beer. Alchemy replaces the old Wonders as a neighborhood beer and food provider. Brasserie V provides a more upscale European evening.

So, where does Monroe Street Bistro fit? Think of it in the tradition of the Natt Spiel - dim lights, cozy interior, good food, good music, good beer, good liquor, good wines, and just a hint of mystery. Of course, the Natt Spiel doesn't advertise - if you know it's there, you go; if you don't, they don't exactly go out of their way to let you know they are there. It's a hip bar for those too hip to admit they're hip. Monroe Street Bistro is more than happy to tell you they are there, but still keep the hip sense of mystery about them with secret menus only for those in the know (I assure you the password exists in this post somewhere) and hipper-than-thou bar selections (like the "Left Bank Martini" made with St. Germain Elderflower Liquor and Bombay Sapphire).

Of course, given that Monroe Street Bistro is just under 1 mile Southwest down Monroe from Brasserie V, the comparisons are inevitable. In fact, Clayton, ex-head chef of Brasserie V, is a co-owner of Monroe Street Bistro where you will also find the gregarious Agent Provocateur from Brasserie V, Joseph. But, in only a few respects is Monroe Street Bistro similar to Brasserie V: a focus on quality, European fare, Belgian beer and a wood bar. But that's pretty much where the similarities end; where Brasserie V is the realized focus of its owner, Monroe Street Bistro concentrates on providing a more comprehensive experience.

While the focus at Monroe Street Bistro is, of course, on beer (15 taps, 28 bottles) they also offer scotch (13 different bottles), and cocktails (28 of their own creations) and other high-end liquor. Chef Clayton has created three different menus: a lunch, a dinner, and a late night menu. The dinner menu ranges from Belgian (Moules et Frites) to French (herbed lamb chops) to Italian (Bucatini Marinara) to Greek (a Greek Appetizer plate). But, post-9pm until bar-time is where Monroe Street Bistro really separates itself. While Brasserie V tends to slow down as the evening goes on, Monroe Street Bistro is just heating up with a late-night menu consisting mostly of the dinner-time appetizers and a focus on live music and dj sets in the French chillout/downtempo tradition.

Of course, I could pick some nits: some of the taps have been dedicated to certain distributors ( which results in things like Miller Lite on-tap), the menu is eerily similar to Brasserie V, the mirror on the back bar could use some fancy-ing up, too few non-restaurant seats. But, in other respects Monroe Street Bistro has really been the most fully realized opening of the recent beer bars - no missing artwork, the walls are all painted and the interior is well-appointed (note the French tradition of chairs outside of the ladies room for the lasses to sit on while waiting), the staff is all knowledgeable and trained from day one.

So, just like Dexter's, Alchemy and The Malt House all peacefully co-exist on the East Side despite all being within 1 mile of each other, Brasserie V and Monroe Street Bistro are not mutually exclusive propositions.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Consider It A Lesson Learned

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Freakin Frog MenuAs I may have mentioned, I was in Las Vegas this past weekend. 113 degree weather aside, I've learned a very important lesson to pass on. First, The Freakin' Frog is freakin' great. Over 800 beers in bottles and on-tap. Since I was the first of my group to arrive, I headed over to the Freakin' Frog to grab a beer while I waited for everyone else to show up. On-tap, just to name a few, were Delirium Tremens, the original Coors Banquet, and Lienie's Sunset Wheat. OK, not amazing, but they also had on-tap, Stone's 12th Anniversary, Black Butte XX Porter, and the Speakeasy Double Daddy Imperial IPA. It's this last one that I want to talk to you about today.

I'll stop here to posit a hypothetical situation. It is Noon. You go to a world-renowned beer bar and you have about two hours to kill. You haven't eaten yet, and they serve food at this bar. You know you will have one beer before you eat, and probably one more afterwards. But, when you order your first beer, the bartended asks a strange question: "would you like a pint or a pitcher." After looking around to reassure yourself that he is talking to you only because there is no one else in the bar, you dare to ask "Why would I want a pitcher?" The bartender tells you that a pint of the beer that you want is $6. A pitcher, because it is their lunch special, is only $8. I'll amend this hypothetical further. The bar has just gotten in a case of Stone's Vertical Epic and at 3pm (an hour after you had planned on being there) their afternoon special is 2-for-1 bottles.

What do you do?

Well, if you're anything like me, this situation quickly spirals out of control. You buy the pitcher thinking "Oh, I'll just drink two pints out of this while I eat, then when my friend's plane lands at 2pm I'll just call him and have him help me finish it." In the meantime you taste three other tap beers, chat up the bartender from Queens, the customers from Brooklyn and San Diego, and forget to order food. You probably finish the entire pitcher before your friend even shows up. When he gets there, because it is his bachelor party, you buy him a beer. And yourself. And the guy that you've been chatting with who is a homebrewer from San Diego. Then you also buy 1 bottle of the Vertical Epic to drink now, one to give to your friend, and one to store in your cellar. Oh. did I mention that the pitcher that you bought is 9.5% ABV and the Vertical Epic is close to the same?

Moral of the story: if there is only one of you, you do not need the pitcher. Ever.

Speakeasy Double Daddy IIPASpeakeasy Double Daddy Imperial IPA
Appearance: orange and translucent with some slight haze, viscous but not syrupy, a small white-ish head
Aroma: typical west-coast IPA with a nice caramel malty sweetness
Flavor: supremely balanced with a strong maltiness offset by a big hoppiness; while the cascades are evident mostly in the aroma, there is a strong grassy/hoppy bitterness with only a touch of the grapefruity cascades; I wish I could tell you about the finish, but I'm not sure I ever tasted it
Body: medium bodied and viscous
Drinkability: I finished an entire pitcher by myself in under 2 hours, what do you think?
Summary: I really enjoyed this beer; IIPAs can be really fun beers to drink because the flavors are strong but refreshing, and the beer is strong but drinkable. But they are dangerous beers; while it is possible to drink an entire pitcher of an IIPA in one sitting, it is most certainly not advisable. The Double Daddy is also one of the great things I love about beer and traveling. Speakeasy will probably never be available here in Wisconsin; and Tyranena or Furthermore or O'So will probably never be available in San Francisco; but if you find yourself a stranger in a strange land, there can always be good beers to make you feel like a local - even in a place where there are no locals.

A Brief Reminder - More Later

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Due to unplanned internet outages at MBR HQ, we'll just have this reminder first. A full post later today.

Reminder: Tonight is the Madison Beer Review/Brasserie V First Anniversary Party at Brasserie V. We'll be there starting at 5pm and the fine folks at Brasserie V have generously agreed to run happy-hour specials for a couple of hours. We'll bring some T-Shirts to give away, if that's your thing. We really hope to see you there!

Reminder: Get your posts and articles in for the Quivey's Grove Writing Competition. We're giving away two tickets to Quivey's Grove and all you have to do is write something that we can post on the website here. A better deal cannot be had.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Haiku

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A haiku homage to the Beerfest:


Quivey’s Grove Beerfest
Fall day, friendly folks, fine beer
Should be Shangri-La

by Jonathan Cooper

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Link Between Our Obsession With Spies and Beer

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I'm out of town today, so this post was written back before the Great Taste - I'll get some Great Taste stuff up on Wednesday for you.

Maybe it's a rogue James-Bondian thing, but we (Americans) seem to enjoy not only our beer, but have some strange fascination with spies, and to put the two together, well, Bob's your uncle.

I ran across this Reuters article the other day and then BoingBoing ran a piece about it as well. It's about a bar in Berlin called "Stasi Bar." The bar is located near the old headquarters of the Ministry of State Security, the secret police of East Germany. Of his idea to have people sit and drink beer amongst the chotchkes and relics and reminders of a Kafka-esque iron fist, the owner of Stasi Bar says "We mean it in a satirical but serious way." But, hey, if you become a "Stasi Informant" you can get discounts. I'll take that kind of repression any day.

The Safe HouseAnyway. My point isn't about some obscure bar in the middle of Berlin that caters to tourists, but rather, I'm reminded of a spy bar in the middle of Milwaukee that caters to tourists: The Safe House.

The Safe House is a fun, ridiculous, place where you need a code word to get in the door and the website makes me promise not tell where the bar is actually located. No, I'm not going to tell it to you (but if you Google "Safe House Milwaukee, WI" they will gladly give you a map; or you can go the Safe House's website and they give up the goods for free). I was last there, geez, must have six years ago, at least. I was living in Chicago and a college friend and I drove up to Milwaukee to visit another college friend who was there on business. He knew about The Safe House.

Once you give your secret password and gain entrance through a not-entirely-obvious doorway, the place is covered in spy memorabilia and knick-knacks. There are secret passages and hidden dining rooms. It has "gambling" (you get fake money and can win more fake money that you can use to get discounts on beer and what-not). Just for giggles you should tell them it's your birthday, because the sheer manic awesomeness of the Rube Goldbergian Celebration is well worth the time and effort. Though, admittedly, it seems the entire city of Milwaukee goes there for their birthday, and by the fourth one you will have had enough. You can giggle at the cluelessness of your fellow diners via the in-house t.v. system that spies on the lost and confused.

Quite frankly, I'm amazed the place still exists, but apparently it's been in the same location since 1966. It seemed gimicky and strange at the time. And for a place that makes you give a password or face public ridicule, and makes you promise not to tell anyone else where it is ... well ... let's just say, I'm amazed the place still exists.

Now, among the many interesting things about The Safe House, the most interesting, in my opinion, is that they have their own beer called "Code Beer." I think it is brewed for them by Sprecher. And, it wasn't very good. In fact, after about the sixth (or was it seventh?) one I had a splitting headache. There's no mention or review of it on BeerAdvocate (or did "they" have it removed?). My recollection of it, such that it is, was of a light lager, something along the lines of a PBR. But, it must not have been too bad because I still have a mug (a "mason jar" with handle) with the secret password written right on the side of it.

Here's another good review of The Safe House.

But there's a funny story that goes along with this evening, and I'll try to be brief because it's not really relevant to anything. As I mentioned above, my friend and I were from Chicago and had never really visited Milwaukee before. So, he drove up, we met my other friend at his hotel, and we walked to The Safe House. At the end of the evening we got in the car to drive home and got on 94. Now, he had consumed less than me (remember, I had a splitting headache), but still had had enough to be "confused." Anyway, apparently we got on 94 going the wrong way. We didn't realize this until we got to about one-third of the way to Madison. So, we pulled off the highway, and called my then girlfriend (now fiancee), who I had just started dating and asked where we were (she's from Wisconsin, so my logic was, of course she has memorized the transportation grid of the entire state, right?).

This is, I kid you not, the conversation as I remember it. Remember, it is now about 2:00am - I woke her up.

"Hi ____. Where am I? I think we got turned around and we're still in Wisconsin. I think. Do you know where we are?"
"I have no idea. Where are you?"
"Target."
"Jeff, you'll have to be a little more specific than that."
"Behind Target. John is pissing on a dumpster."
"Ugh. What town are you in?"
"I have no idea."
"Then how can I help you?"
"You're from Wisconsin. How do we get back to Chicago?"
"How did you get to where you are?"
"I think we are still on 94. But we think we might have gone the wrong direction. We were wondering if there was an easier way than just turning around and driving all the way back to Milwaukee."
"There might be. But I need to know where you are."
(an aside to John, who had finished peeing at this point) "Hey! What did the last exit sign say?"
"I don't know. I think it started with an O. Ah.Coe.Moe?"
(back to my phone)
"I don't know. Something like Ah-Coe-Wacka-Wacka? Ah-Com-Wacka-Macka? Ah-Com..."
"I have no idea where that is. I don't think you're pronouncing it right."
"I don't think so either."
"I think you just need to get back on 94 and drive back through Milwaukee."

So, we did. After stopping on the side of the road to release the evening's dinner from my inner guts back the direction from whence it came, we finally got back to Chicago around 4:30am or so.

For what it's worth to you future intrepid travelers, it's pronounced: U-Con-O-Moe-Wok. And, yes, the easiest thing to do is turn around and go back through Milwaukee.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Pete, I’d Like You To Meet Re-Pete

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With the Great Taste of the Midwest, the pre-parties, the post-parties, new bar openings, and anniversaries, it's kind of a big weekend for beer in Madison, so I'm just going to re-hash a lot of the stuff going on this weekend and set out the schedule. I've put together the map you see here to help you out with where everything is.

Friday
  • Brasserie V: Stone Brewing Company – Vertical Epics, IPA, and Arrogant Bastard
  • Maduro: Bells
  • Dexter's Pub: New Holland Brewing Company
  • Alchemy: Surly, hosted by TheBeerSpot.com (kegs will not be tapped until 10pm)
  • Missouri Tavern (Waunakee): O'Fallon
  • Madison's: Summit Brewing
  • Sardine: Goose Island
  • The Malt House: Great Taste on Tap (O'So Brewing Co's imperial saison, Fox River Brewing Co's German pilsner, WeizenBam from Jolly Pumpkin, Bell's Porter, and Dragon's Milk from New Holland)

Saturday

Sunday

  • Recover
  • Tyranena: Special Brewery Tour starts at 1:30pm - a great mid-afternoon stop for those coming in from Milwaukee or those not heading home until later in the evening, or those in Madison who wake up late.

Monday

Wednesday

  • Madison Beer Review/Brasserie V First Birthday Party – Starts at 5pm, Happy Hour drink specials

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Let’s Talk Pre-Great Taste Parties and Anniversaries

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Some big news today.

The first news of note is that Friday August 8 is the first anniversary of Brasserie V. For the entire month of August they will be having drink specials and weekly giveaways. They have a beer dinner on August 25th to celebrate. There will be a tasting sometime later in the month, as well. But, Friday August 8 is their actual, real-live anniversary. And it just happens to coincide with the eve of the Great Taste of the Midwest, so you know Brasserie V will party in style. And you would be right. Because not only is 08.08.08 Brasserie V's anniversary, and the eve of the Great Taste, but it is also the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Oh wait. Not relevant. Sorry. It's the release of Stone Brewing Company's Vertical Epic. You see where this is going?

Stone Brewing will be having a joint Vertical Epic/Pre-Great Taste/Brasserie V Anniversary Party on this Friday evening. The 07.07.07 and the 08.08.08 will both be on tap. The IPA and Arrogant Bastard will also both be on-tap. Stone reps will be on-hand and some t-shirts and glassware and much more will be given away. Brasserie V will also be kicking out some special menu items for this epic evening.

But, wait! There's more!

What? More?! How is that possible?

Oh yeah. There's more. Because August 13th, 2008, next Wednesday (one week from today, you know) happens to be Madison Beer Review's first anniversary. Yeah. We've been at this for a full year. So, we're going to celebrate turning one year old with Brasserie V. If you'll recall, our first post ever was about a Pre-Great Taste event at Wonders with Dark Horse Brewery. Our third post, a few days later, was about Brasserie V, though at the time we didn't know the name of the place. By the following week we had managed to get on over there, where I had the stellar observation "you can tell the place is new." Why anyone continued to read after that is beyond me, but thank you!

So, in recognition of this interlocked fate, on August 13th we will have a celebration of sorts at Brasserie V where they have generously agreed to run beer specials for us and MBR will kick-in for some appetizers. We may even have some stuff to give away that night. We really hope to meet some of you great readers and commenters out there. More on this as it comes up, but get us on your calendar!

Because first we have some more Pre-Great Taste of the Midwest parties to get to:

  • Bells' at Maduro – The annual ritual is back. Expect crowds, but also lots of good beer. Starts at 2pm, 20 Bells taps.
  • New Holland Brewing Company at Dexter's Pub – New Holland is from Michigan and Dexter's is a newer pub on the East-Side
  • Surly at Alchemy (the old Wonders Pub) hosted by TheBeerSpot.com – I've never heard of TheBeerSpot.com, but Surly is definitely worth showing up for! Kegs aren't tapped until 10pm though
  • Of course, Stone Brewing Company is at Brasserie V – Vertical Epics, IPA and Arrogant Bastard on tap
  • O'Fallon will be at The Missouri Tavern out in Waunakee – O'Fallon is from near St. Louis and this could be a great introduction for them here in Wisconsin
  • Still waiting to hear if anything is going on at The Malt House - the rumor is that they are going to forego hosting a brewery and have some super-rare tap beers like Jolly Pumpkin, but we're still waiting for some confirmation. Update: Here's the latest from The Malt House: "I plan to feature several Great Taste breweries Friday night, but have not aligned myself with any one particular brewery for "conflict of interest" reasons, being the festival chairman and all. Besides my usual 6 Wisconsin lines (Grumpy Troll's Maggie IPA, NG Organic Revolution, Hopalicious, Rocky's Revenge, Groovy Brew, Lakefront Stein), I expect to add lines for O'So Brewing Co's imperial saison, Fox River Brewing Co's German pilsner, WeizenBam from Jolly Pumpkin, Bell's Porter, and Dragon's Milk from New Holland. We'll also have these 6 Belgians on draft: Kasteel Rouge kriek, Duchesse de Bourgogne, Pauwel Kwak, Piraat, St Bernardus Prior 8, and Chimay White/Triple."So, add The Malt House to your plan, cuz that's a strong lineup folks.

  • Edit: Add Summit at Madison's, Goose Island at Sardine

And one Post-Party that I know of: again, TheBeerSpot.com is hosting at Alchemy – this time it's the Michigan stalwarts, Founders.

By the way, you can track all the action yourselves at BeerAdvocate's Forums.

One Last Thing: As a birthday present from me to you, I have two tickets to the Quivey's Grove Beerfest on Saturday, September 27th that I am giving away. What!? Yeah. Here's what you have to do: write me a something. You can enter as many times as you want. Email it to Lewis-at-MadisonBeerReview.com with the subject "Quivey's Grove Writing Competition".

Here's the rules: 1) you have to be able to attend the Quivey's Grove Beerfest; 2) your piece has to be an original work of authorship written by you; 3) you have to let us print it on the site; 4) submissions should include your name and email address.

You can write about whatever you want during the month of August. Write about the Pre-Great Taste events, the Great Taste, review the new beer bar opening up on Monroe Street (Monroe Street Bistro), review a beer using whatever criteria you like, write a moving piece of fiction about beer. Write whatever the heck you want. I'll print them as I receive them (include a note in your email if you want it printed anonymously). At the end of the month, we'll pick the best one to win the tickets.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Big D, Little A, Double L, A, S – Spells Viking (Viking Weathertop Wheat)

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I wonder what proportion of the population of the United States carries the title "head brewer." I would be willing to bet it is less than 2 in 604.

But, up in tiny Dallas, Wisconsin (pop. 604), the Lees, Randy and wife Ann, brew about 20 beers and two bracketts (brackett, aka "braggot", is a mead brewed with honey, malts and hops). Mead is probably best associated with the Celtics, though references to mead show up in pre-Hindu teachings dating back to 1700 BC (by the way, completely unrelated and totally interesting, the last wooly mammoths walked the earth in 2000 BC, a mere 300 years before mead was first described in these sacred Vedic hymns – one would think it existed far before anyone bothered recording it, which makes mead an old, old drink). It also plays a significant role in the epic Beowulf where the villainous Gredel, a descendant of Cain (Christianity's first murderer), is attacking (raising Cain in?) the Viking mead halls only to be thwarted by the hero, Beowulf. Anyway, the point is, the explicit link between Vikings and mead go back almost 900 years.

The link between Vikings and Dallas, WI is a bit harder to trace, but probably relates to mead.

Viking Brewing Company is a bit of an enigma to me. The first puzzling thing is availability. With over 20 different beverage choices, including around 12 to 15 seasonal beers, one would expect to see more than four choices in any one retail establishment. Or more particularly, one would expect to find a different selection during different parts of the year. It seems that few retailers in the Madison area, however, carry more than three (of Viking's five) year-round (Blonde, CopperHead, and Vienna Woods – in the winter sometimes the year-round Whole Stein is treated as a seasonal). The fourth shelf-space location is typically one of the dozen or more seasonals that Viking produces. Yet, the seasonal availability bears little relation to the actual season. For instance, the Morketid (a black bier), Invader, Abby Normal, Rauch, or Berserk seem to never be available. Yet the Lime Twist (a May seasonal) and Weathertop Wheat (the March seasonal) are almost always available. My best guess is that this is a product turnover (aka sales velocity) issue. In other words, I'm not entirely sure that Vikings product is exactly flying off the shelves – the result being that March seasonals are still on shelves in August (and possibly September or October or November). This means that if, for example, Star buys the Weathertop Wheat in March and it doesn't sell out until November, we miss April through November's seasonal products.

The other curious thing about Viking is its sale in four-packs instead of six-packs. Typically this four-pack arrangement is reserved for special or limited releases – to wit, New Glarus' Unplugged is packed in four packs, Sprecher's Special Reserve series is in four-packs, Tyranena's Brewer's Gone Wild series is in four-packs, etc. But all of Viking's beers are in the four-packs. This is neither inherently good, nor inherently bad – it is just different.

Finally, it is my experience that while the vast majority of Viking's beer is great – sometimes it seems that it goes bad on the shelf, as I had a pretty brutal run a few months back (maybe last August and the spring before that) of less-than stellar quality. This can be due to any number of reasons – a bad bottling run, oxidation, etc. – none of which are related to actual brewing quality. In that regard, I've found Viking's beers to be creative and fun and I like that they take a unique approach to brewing. Not only is their beer pure, reportedly containing no fining agents, chemicals or preservatives (it is rather common practice even among small brewers to use chemicals to adjust water characteristics and to use fining agents to clear the beer of "floaty bits"), but in many cases each style has its own yeast or yeast blend. But this purity of style and technique can also lead to widely variable quality. For another of example of a high-quality brewery with widely variable quality, one need only to look to the wild yeast breweries of Cantillion and Jolly Pumpkin where even the slightest variations can cause wildly divergent results. Similarly, Viking's dedication to purity of technique is to be applauded and encouraged, but one must also then expect that some batches may just not turn out. Moreover, with as long as these packages seem to sit on shelves, it is just more time for problems to mount. As is to be expected, ratings for Viking beers are all over the map (BA. RB.).

Viking Weathertop WheatViking Weathertop Wheat

Appearance: a deep copper body, and a foamy white head – the head is smaller and denser than your typical weisse beer, but it still gets a good two fingers before falling down
Aroma: caramel malt and soft cloves; a faint scent of wheat dust and slightly musty; no hop aroma detectable – not a strong aroma
Flavor: not a flavor I was expecting at all – not like the aroma in the slightest; an amazing brightness, almost like lemon or lime was added; soft with some banana before the inexplicable citrus hits; the finish lingers with no hop profile to clean it up
Body: lean body with definite build but is undercut and thinned by the flavor sharpness
Drinkability: It takes a little getting used to as it is very different from any wheat beer in recent recollection, but it's an interesting beer to throw into the mix
Summary: I could definitely see people enjoying this beer; I can also see others not enjoying it all. I'll enjoy finishing the four-pack, but I wonder what this would have been like back in March when it was fresh – would there have been any hops? Would the grains have been a little more noticeable? The website marketing material claims that the aroma and flavors are "toffee, (light) honey and dark fruits. Finish is mildly sweet with light bitter hops." I didn't get any of that, except maybe the honey and the mildly sweet finish. But the toffee, fruit and hops definitely did not come through. In any event, certainly more enjoyable than Leinie's Sunset Wheat.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Long Time Listener, First Time Caller - Session #18

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The Session Number 18It must be something about the weather that's gotten under us Midwesterners skins. I see this is the first time that the folks over at Hoosier Beer Geek have chosen to participate in The Session, too.

What is The Session? The session is when on the first Friday of every month beer bloggers, and beer fans alike, around the world write about the same topic. This is the the brain child of Stan Hieronymus, who is the author of Brew Like a Monk, and author of the beer blog: Appellation Beer. (Apologies to HBG for basically lifting those few sentences, but it's a good little intro piece).

This month the topic is "Happy Anniversary" and it is hosted by The Barley Blog. So, I'm supposed to write about:
Use this as an excuse to celebrate. Open a limited release anniversary beer from your favorite brewer. Enjoy that special beer you normally only open on your wedding anniversary or birthday. Either way, tell us about it. Why is it a beer you may only drink once a year? Why is that brewery’s annual release the one you selected?
But, I'm not exactly going to write about that.

Instead, I want to talk about an idea that I think is really cool that maybe some brewers looking to scrounge a little change from under the couch cusions might want to consider: custom brewing or white-labeling beer.

As I think I've mentioned before on this site, I'm going to be married soon. So, in figuring out what I want to do for beer for the wedding I started looking around at the Wisconsin brewers to see what would be good. Now, one of the best things about holding a wedding on a farm in the middle of nowhere is that we are not beholden to either distributors or some venue ripping us off for a keg of beer (e.g., The Memorial Union's awesome deal of $225 for a half-barrel - full keg - of f-ing Pabst Blue Ribbon. What?! Yeah. A keg of Pabst f-ing Blue Ribbon for $225!!! That same keg is $69.95 at Riley's - and don't even get me started on the $18.95 bottle of Yellow Tail Shiraz). And alcohol is pretty important to us: not only do I write a blog about beer for goodness sakes, but I have clients who are breweries, my family likes to have a drink or six, and my fiancee's family doesn't mind a couple every now and then either. So, paying $225 for one keg of PBR (let alone the 2.5 kegs that we think we are actually going to need) is not going to cut it.

So, instead my fiancee and I sat down and made a wish list. At the top of the list for me is the Oktoberfest made by Rowland's Calumet Brewery up in Chilton. At the top of my fiance's list: Fallen Apple by Furthermore. Not only was the Oktoberfest style invented for a wedding, but Rowland's is one of the best I've ever had and pretty close to my favorite beer on the planet (much like bands and music, it's hard to have a favorite, but the top 5 are all pretty much the same). Then, it turns out Fallen Apple was originally created by Furthermore's head brewer Aran Madden to use as the champagne toast at his own wedding.

So, you see, creating beers for wedding celebrations has a long history. And we still needed another half-keg of beer. So, I called up a local brewer and asked a favor: How would you like to brew a beer for my wedding? To my delight he agreed and he gave me some ideas for styles based on some different sorts of beers that he's brewed in the past. I picked one (a maple syrup bier de garde) and we've tweaked it a little for our purposes. In this case, I'll get to be around when he's brewing it. It'll be brewed on his test-batch system and go into 5-gallon corny kegs.

But there's no reason other, local, brewers can't offer this as a regular feature. First, it's a service that simply cannot be replicated by the bigger breweries - it is a service that would not scale much beyond local microbreweries and brewpubs. But, it offers an extremely customized, personal interaction with your customers - and it is a great opportunity to create lifetime customers. The service, of course, would bring a premium price. The breweries could offer custom bottling, if feasible. We'll leave aside the (rather glaring) legal issues for now. I can hear the complaints: I don't want to tie up a whole fermenter and aging barrels with one special beer. But, to this I have a couple of ideas: 1) most of these smaller breweries have small test-batch systems that are in the 5-10 gallon range (perfect for a few 5-gallon corny kegs); 2) you could limit choice to a couple of different types of beer that are only available as these special releases and white-label them ("white labeling" is the practice of putting someone else's label on your own product - it is quite common in the clothing industry, for example); 3) if someone wants to pay for a full production of it, what do you care; 4) put a few orders together that are similar enough to be brewed together (or only offer style choices that are based on beers that you are already regularly brewing) but only require minor post-fermentation differences.

Would it be "worth" it? I don't know. These brewers are all very busy. But for the right price could they find some time for the occassional fun, one-off brewing? The bigger question is: what's the right price?

Celebration beer indeed!