Archive for March, 2011

Iowa IPA Challenge

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Apparently tonight, in downtown Iowa City, there was a major throwdown of Iowa-made India pale ales. You probably haven’t heard about it, and even if you had, you would be hard pressed to find any information at all. The only reference on the series of tubes seems to be a tweet from Short’s that it is happening either during or as a part of the Top Chef of Iowa City. This event is being put on by the Downtown Association of Iowa City, and features chefs battling it out for culinary champion as well as bartenders showing off their most “creative” cocktails.

Short’s Burger & Shine has been making waves since they switched all of their taps to Iowa-made beers last year. Apparently, with this challenge they were hoping to capitalize on the recent growth of Iowa craft beer and an already-planned foodie event. I would argue that they made three critical errors in calling for this competition.

First, the timing. The tweet mentioning the challenge appeared yesterday on Short’s feed. They even admitted to having a paltry three entries. Three beers is a tasting, not a competition. Eric Sorensen, brewer at Rock Bottom in Des Moines, tweeted simply, “wish we would have had more notice.”

Second, the venue. The Top Chef event is tied in with the Downtown Association’s annual meeting. Surely the focus at that meeting will be on the operations of the association. Where the entertainment comes into play, it is reasonable to assume that the stars of the show will be the chefs and bartenders, since that is the competition that has been advertised.

Finally, the audience. I would expect that the majority of the attendees of this evening’s events are members of the association hosting the meeting. These are businesspeople, not beer aficionados. These are people who purchased their tickets over a week ago to an event that, at the time, had no beer elements. An Iowa IPA Challenge is a grand idea, but it must be held where all beer lovers can take part.

Enough complaining, let’s try some beer. Tonight I will be tasting four Iowa-made India pale ales. My review of Millstream Iowa Pale Ale is almost two years old, so I’ll re-rate it, but I just tasted both of the Peace Tree IPAs a few weeks ago so we can let those reviews stand. This all means that my Iowa IPA Challenge has twice the number of entrants of the “official” one.

First up, the Iowa Grown I.P.A. made by Madhouse Brewing Company in Newton. Since it is made with Iowa-grown hops, I picked up this beer for a post I will be doing soon about local ingredients, but it seems fitting to rate it today. The Iowa Grown IPA pours a burnt orange color, nearly clear, with some creamy white head. The nose is simply not hoppy at all. There is a caramel malt character like raisins that borders on vinous.

There is some hoppiness to the flavor, a deep, earthy grassiness. But the hops contribute minimal perceptible bitterness, and no strong, clean flavors. The caramel malt character carries through, maintaining the raisin and vinous flavor. A residual sweetness would balance the hops if they were there. The carbonation is a bit too intense. The flavor is unsettling, and not just because you expect to taste an IPA. This beer hasn’t really ever heard of the style.

Now I will taste the Iowa Pale Ale from Millstream Brewing Company in Amana. The Iowa Pale Ale is a very hazy pumpkin orange color. The buff-colored head is creamy and generous. The hops make the aroma citric and astringent, like the contribution of orange peel to a Belgian wit. Otherwise the nose is barren, with almost no malt character and no readily identifiable hops.

The flavor is mild and citric, as the aroma would indicate. The astringent citrus character continues to lend a Belgian wit quality to the beer: were it not for the color and body, you might mistake this for a witbier. There is a thickness to the palate and some residual sweetness; however, there is no rich malt flavor to justify it. This beer had a friend once who knew what it was like to be an IPA.

Next up, the double IPA from Millstream, HOP2, which has the dubious honor of having the worst label of the group. Even for Millstream this label is bad. Just look at it. No wait, don’t.

The HOP2 pours a copper-tinted auburn, opalescent, with some creamy off-white head. The nose of this beer, like the regular IPA, is disturbingly citric, in this case more like lemon peel. There is also an unpleasant character that I could name, but won’t here for the reader’s sake. It’s mild, so hopefully you won’t pick it up. There is a bit of a caramel malt character, but hardly any.

The flavor is simply unpleasant. There is a medicinal alcohol flavor, which could be the result of either of two major issues. First, they might be stressing the yeast past its point of comfort, in which case they would simply need to switch to a new strain. My suspicion, however, is that this flavor comes from the use of hop extract, used to try to boost the hop flavor and bitterness cheaply.

If you can get past this off-flavor, the beer is not too bad. There is a decent grassy hop character, as well as some sweet, toasty, caramel malt flavor. But those are hard to detect behind the sharp fusel alcohol bite. This beer probably read the Wikipedia article on India pale ale.

For my last Iowa-made India pale ale I had to step out. I headed over to Devotay to try the Golden Nugget on tap. This IPA is made by one of the newest Iowa breweries, Toppling Goliath Brewing Company in Decorah.

The Golden Nugget pours a lightly hazy pale straw with some bone-white head. The nose is mild, but pleasantly so. The Nugget hops certainly come through, producing a lightly fruity and earthy nose dominated by grapefruit and pine. There is just the faintest malt aroma.

The taste follows the aroma: the pine and grapefruit from the hops give a rich hoppy foundation. Some bready malt begins to balance, but this beer is very dry, so the bitterness starts to get away again. There is just a bit of a sweetness or richness that is soon overtaken by the lingering bitterness. The Golden Nugget isn’t too hoppy, it could just use a bit more malt to balance it out. Now here is a beer that understands what an IPA really is.

Well, if you add to this discussion my ratings of the two Peace Tree India pale ales, I think you have a pretty good overview of the Iowa craft brewing scene. Take that how you will, but I’m content looking forward to more beers from breweries like Toppling Goliath and Peace Tree.

+Toppling Goliath Golden Nugget

3.7 (2-8-8-3-16)

+/-Madhouse Iowa Grown I.P.A.

2.8 (3-6-5-3-11)

+/-Millstream HOP2

2.8 (4-6-5-3-10)

+/-Millstream Iowa Pale Ale

2.8 (4-5-5-3-11)

A note about styles

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

The first thing that I did this morning was a search for the term “alternative to bjcp”. It yielded this four-year old post of Ron Pattinson’s by way of the frozen RateBeer discussion on the topic.

Ron lists ten things that he likes about the BJCP style guidelines. My favorite is number nine.

They combine Belgium and France (styles 16 A to E) – something the Congress of Vienna was determined to prevent.

One comment in particular really puts my argument on styles on point. Courtesy Alan (I assume McLeod, of A Good Beer Blog):

have you ever had a beer, smacked your lips after the first long pull and thought “my God, how wonderfully dead on style!”

Brau Brothers Scotch Ales

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

In 2005 brothers Dustin, Trevor, and Brady Brau decided to move brewing operations out of the Lucan, Minnesota brewpub they had ran since 1998, founding Brau Brothers Brewing Company. Their family name could only be more appropriate if it had the umlaut – bräu is the German word for brew. Tonight I will be trying two Scotch ales made by Brau Brothers. Both are made with peat-smoked malt, but only one is labeled peated.

Peat is compacted, decaying organic matter that forms naturally in the bogs throughout Scotland (and other high latitude areas), the first stage in the formation of coal. Because of the high energy content, peat is harvested and dried for use as fuel. For many years peat was the primary fuel used in malting kilns in Scotland, used to make malt not just for beer, but also for Scotch whisky. Nowadays, malt kilned over peat lends its characteristic smoky flavor to many types of Scotch as well as Scotch ales.

First up, a beer simply called Scotch Ale, which pours a nearly clear caramel brown color. There is not much head, just a few off-white wisps. The nose is malty, with a prominent nutty sweetness. Caramel and light toast add to the malty complexity. There is a hint of smoke that contributes an almost mesquite character to the aroma. Delicate and wonderful.

The nose is not very smoky, but the flavor certainly is, though not on the order of a German rauchbier. A rich caramel malt sweetness compliments the smoke, and the taste of hazelnuts and an herbal hoppiness round it out. The peat character dies away much too quickly, leaving a sweet, almost cloying aftertaste. More smoked malt would disrupt the careful balance, so the only solution would be to modify the recipe to create more fermentable sugar; were it a bit drier, this 7.3% beer would be dangerously quaffable.

Now I will move on to the Bàncreagie, labeled a peated Scotch ale. A clear, caramel-colored brew with some off-white head, much like the regular Scotch ale; the aroma of this one is actually milder. A bit of malt and some smoke character, but mostly a watery nose (if that’s possible?).

The flavor is also much milder than the above, which I was not expecting, given that this one is half a percent stronger and specifically labeled peated. The clean maltiness of this beer is more like a northern English brown ale than anything Scottish. The rich bready character of the Golden Promise barley is evident. A mild unpleasant character of fusel alcohols mingles with almost imperceptible smoke. As you drink the Bàncreagie it gets easier to tell yourself that all of that flavor is from the peated malt.

There is one thing this one does much better than the first – body. Where the Scotch Ale was sweet to the point of cloying, the Bàncreagie is dry enough to drink but sweet enough to prove the malt bill. Now if only there were a significant peat smoke flavor.

+Brau Brothers Scotch Ale

3.5 (3-8-7-2-15)

+Brau Brothers Bàncreagie

3.5 (3-6-8-4-14)

P.S. I know what day it is. I’m Scottish, not Irish.

Peace Tree Imperial Stout

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Tonight I am going to try the new imperial stout from Peace Tree Brewing Company in Knoxville, Iowa.

The Imperial Stout pours a deep, dark black color, with a generous amount of creamy, sepia-tone head. The nose is very light. A bit of caramel malt, and some roast malt adds a burnt character. There is a bit of a fruity yeast aroma as well.

The flavor is much cleaner than you would expect from an imperial stout. The malt flavor is sweet to the point of being cloying. Much too much caramel malt and far too little roasted barley makes this beer just sweet and not very stout. The only strong flavor is the yeast fruitiness, entirely inappropriate for the style.

This beer is lacking any real character, and the sweetness makes it unpalatable. Do yourself a favor and just get the Gumbo Stout or the Imperial IPA instead.

-Peace Tree Imperial Stout

2.8 (4-7-5-1-11)

Kerry and Crapo suggest craft BEER

Monday, March 14th, 2011

Call your senator and tell them to support the Brewer’s Employment and Excise Relief Act (BEER Act), sponsored by John Kerry and Mike Crapo. This bill would lower the excise tax for small breweries.

Microbreweries would see it halved, from $7 per barrel (31 gallons) to just $3.50 per barrel. The larger small brewers would see the regular rate of $18 reduced to $16 a barrel, on their production from sixty thousand to six million barrels a year. I take it that the standard $18 rate would apply above that.

Also, this source claims the bill would “incentivize states to produce crops used in beer, like barley and hops.” Though that sounds like a wonderful idea, I don’t see any such provisions in the version I found.

This article has a great picture of Kerry raising a frosty glass of amber beer in front of a Huber sign. The text of the bill is available from John Kerry’s site (PDF).

Also, I take issue with the name. It should be Brewers’.

Mahr’s Saphir Weiss

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Mahr's Saphir WeissFrom Mahr’s Bräu in Bamburg, Bavaria, comes an amber-colored wheat beer brewed with a metric ton of Saphir hops. Longtime readers know that I am a fan of this unique strain of Hallertauer hops.

The Saphir Weiss is an opalescent copper color with a fair bit of creamy off-white head. The nose is full of classic weizen yeast character: banana and clove. This one has just a bit of an uncommon fruity hop aroma, something of a tangerine dream.

The bitterness of this beer is genuinely surprising; after the aroma you would expect a sweet banana bread flavor. A richly herbal hop bitterness takes its place. Grassy green and citric hops yield to cloves, which have an easier time breaking through than the banana. A bready malt sweetness supports the hops, and bananas echo in the background. There is just a bit of a lingering physical sensation on the tongue, accompanied by faint notes of banana and cloves.

+Saphir Weiss

3.8 (4-8-7-3-16)