Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category

Now Hiring: Brewer

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

I heard a rumor that an Iowa brewery is sniffing around for a new head brewer. Based on the information I got, it is either Great River or Olde Main.

Either way it is exciting. Here’s hoping they find someone good with vision looking to make some awesome hoppy beers and Belgian styles.

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!”

Woah Wyeast!

Friday, February 25th, 2011

Nice new smack-packs. I approve. Good job, Wyeast Laboratories.

New Wyeast Smack Pack

The large, beautiful, full-color photograph of Mt. Hood, with the clear blue sky, really sends the message of purity that you want from your yeast bank. The company’s symbol has always been the mountain, which towers over their office and lab in Odell, Oregon.

An Open Letter to the Gordon Biersch Brewery

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

To whom it may concern,

With all the choice available in the craft beer market today, it is a wonder consumers are able to decide on anything. Considering that, I appreciate your efforts to reduce the number of brands I want to try and recommend. You see, Gordon Biersch is one brand that in the future I will not be buying.

Why you may ask? Because I make a point of ensuring that my money is well spent on the production of quality beer. Recent action by Gordon Biersch against the Oskar Blues Brewery has shown exactly where your company is spending money: not on making good beer, but on attacking those that do.

As has been reported in several media outlets the past week, Gordon Biersch has sent a notice of cease-and-desist to Oskar Blues, forcing them to stop using the name ‘Gordon’ on their classic seven-year old beer. A beer, I might add, named after a real person, Gordon Knight, one of the pioneers of the craft brewing movement.

This legal wrangling smacks of the same sort of thoughtless corporate hackery that a certain large brewer knows quite well, rather than the spirit of support and camaraderie that has built up the craft beer movement over the last several decades.

I hope that this was merely an oversight, and that such strongarming will not be attempted again.

Quite sincerely,

Andrew Couch

[ed. note: This article was originally posted under the title “An Open Letter to the Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant Group and Centerbridge Partners” before I was made aware of the questionable distinction between Gordon Biersch, the brewery, and Gordon Biersch, the restaurant group.]

Dortmund Brewery Museum

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

This is the last post I took notes for while in Germany, and it seems an appropriate retrospective. Look forward to my forthcoming first post back in the United States, a cross-section of the newest and weirdest stuff coming out of New Glarus.

It was entirely by accident that I ended up spending the summer in Dortmund, onetime brewery capital of the world. I wasn’t even planning on going abroad, until my German teacher told our class about a summer program through her alma mater, the Technische Universität Dortmund, and I cannot thank her enough for encouraging me to apply.2010-10-24-cask So perhaps it is appropriate that it was only my very last day in Germany that I finally got around to visiting the Dortmund Brewery Museum.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the international popularity of Dortmund’s stronger version of the originally-southern pale lager, combined with the relative accessibility of its port, caused it to grow into the biggest beer producing city in Germany. Beer and Dortmund were synonymous (and still are, literally, in some parts of the Netherlands). Dortmund had more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the world, an erstwhile Portland.

2010-10-24-union-truckYou’ve almost certainly heard of at least one of the Dortmund brewers, among them Dortmunder Actien-Brauerei (DAB), Dortmunder Union, Dortmunder Kronen, Thier, Hansa, Brinkhoff’s, Stifts, Ritter, Hövel’s. In 1900 the city had thirty of them, fifteen of which were among the largest in the country. By the 1950s more beer was made in Dortmund than in anywhere else in the world, save good old Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Now all but one are brands owned by the Dortmund brewery, all produced in the same plant on the same equipment. But I digress.

On an unassuming side street in the north side of Dortmund sits one of the biggest breweries in northeastern Germany, Dortmunder Actien-Brauerei. Walking by it you might not even notice, save the smell of barley in the air.2010-10-24-equip But there is one welcoming stucco building with large windows on the south end of the complex that was once called the Hansa Brewery, and later the Kronen Brewery. Here is the home of the Brauerei-Museum Dortmund.

The museum is located in a former machine house, so while there are no big tanks or kettles to see, there is a big steam engine, and they’ve moved in a period bottling line as well as one of the original Union delivery trucks.2010-10-24-bottling-line There is a large collection of memorabilia of the various Dortmund breweries: mugs and glassware, beer mats, bottles, labels, signs, and advertisements. This last bit especially allows the visitor to immerse oneself in another era. There is a fair amount of equipment, and numerous placards that explain the process of the production of beer. Unfortunately the signs are only in German, so an English speaker might wish to arrange for a guide.

The Museum may very well be a bit slanted towards the brands currently owned by the museum’s owner. That point notwithstanding, it provides a valuable look at the history of the beverage that made the city great. It would be all too easy to lose the stories of the people and places that drove Dortmund’s breweries’ growth, and with it the growth of export beer, especially given today’s high-speed merger-happy international beer market. Fortunately the existence of the Dortmund Brewery Museum ensures that won’t happen anytime soon.

A delightful antique.  Every day each brewery worker was given a token that this machine would redeem for a free shift drink.

A delightful antique. Every day each brewery worker was given a token that this machine would redeem for a free shift drink.

The large, shallow vessel is called a kuhlschip, at one time used to cool hot wort to fermenting temperatures (and it is still used for lambic).  The device in back is a convoluted-flow chiller.  The hot wort runs back and forth through the tubes, and cold water cascades down the outside.

The large, shallow vessel is called a kuhlschip, at one time used to cool hot wort to fermenting temperatures (and it is still used for lambic). The device in back is a convoluted-flow chiller. The hot wort runs back and forth through the tubes, and cold water cascades down the outside.

A photograph of open fermenters at the former Hansa Brewery, proof that even high lager brewers have humble origins.

A photograph of open fermenters at the former Hansa Brewery, proof that even high lager brewers have humble origins.

There is no better brand.

There is no better brand.

High-Gravity Beer

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Once again the issue of high-gravity beer has been raised, now in a story for Radio Iowa by Pat Curtis. He covers most of the major points of the issue while staying neutral.

But nothing can hide the confusion of Lynn Walding (head of the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division). “I think it’s a little disingenuous and misleading to call them beer… they’re aging and finishing like a scotch whiskey.” Let’s ignore for a moment that it’s not the place of the state to define a well-defined term (like pi?). We can’t ignore the fact that these beers age and finish like (and are almost exclusively in the alcohol range of) fine wine, not spirits. And in Iowa, native wines are legislatively encouraged for their economic development effects. Wineries are invited to the ABD for feedback. Where are our native breweries? Why were they not invited? All brewers want is equality.

This might also be a good time to point out that the numbers for 2009 high-proof beer sales have been released. Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo, Bigfoot, and Celebration once again make every other brand feel impotent. Together they are 72,840 bottles of beer that could have been made by an Iowan if the legislature modernized our ancient alcohol laws.

Edit: The story is also available in audio format from Iowa Public Radio (stream or download).

The Session #33: Framing Beer

Friday, November 6th, 2009

session_logoHow do you know when you’ve had a good beer? You’ve poured your glass, taken in the aroma and color and have a measure on your tongue. How is it judged and ranked compared with other beers? The single most important factor affecting this determination is how the beer compares to what was expected.

Example: you just got in a trade a bottle of a rare Bavarian hefewiezen. But even after the swirl, it is still brilliantly clear. The color is right but the aroma is flat, missing key yeast character. This sounds like a really bad beer! Except the brewery forgot to switch labels on the bottling run and in fact you’re drinking their world-class lager. I’d hope I would notice immediately that it’s a lager. But is it that easy? I can see myself simply chalking it up to a single yeast fault manifesting itself in the appearance and aroma. I might make some sarcastic remark like “this would make a great pilsner”.

Is it possible to drink a beer without making this sort of judgement? I don’t think you can become a truly blank slate. Even in competition judging the beers are framed by the style of the flight. Actually, especially in competition is a beer held to the standard of a particular frame. These frames are not the world however, even though we view the world through them. That means we should be working to remove the frame, to get closer to the world beyond.

What was the world like before 1977? What would it be like if we stopped using styles? Chaos? Modern beer competitions are so intimately tied with the definitions of style. We adhere to a few historic (or not) ideals for each kind of beer and shove everything else into a “specialty” category. But I can say with a good deal of certainty that, even after decades of weird homebrew experimentation, there are more kinds of beer that have never been made than all the kinds that have.

You still have about twelve hours by my reckoning to post your contribution to The Session #33. The prompt is located here, along with submission instructions.

The Session is a monthly beer blog carnival. I am hosting this month, #33. For more information about The Session inquire here.

Announcing Session #33: Framing Beer

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

My sister once told me a story she had heard about a sculpture exhibit: on the winter day it opened, the artist placed a coat rack next to the door. Predictably, the patrons hung their coats on it. Each day the artist moved the rack a bit closer to the rest of the exhibit, until the day came when the visitors chose not to use the “piece of art” for their coats. That day the artist placed a sign on the coat rack that stated simply, “Art begins here.”

session_logo_no_friday_text_inside_200Imagine persuasively describing craft beer to someone who has until now entirely missed out, maybe in a sales situation. Perhaps it’s a brown ale and you can can describe the caramel and toast flavors, or it’s a pale ale and you have fruit or herbs from the hops. You might start having to defend yourself if it’s an IPA and those hops taste earthy, resiny, or particularly bitter. You’ll definitely meet some resistance if your favorite is an imperial anything, brimming with intensity and a sharp kick, or if you’d like to convince a person of the credibility of a sour beer or anything for which you must use the word ‘funky’. Each of these descriptions is inevitably an attempt to ‘frame’ the beer, putting the consumer in the proper state of mind to drink it.

For better or worse, in everyday situations beer comes with a label. This label very really ‘frames’ the beer inside. The fact that the beer comes commercially-produced signals the presence of investment (if not skill). A style name or tasting notes indicates the general characteristics to expect. If you know the brewery the beer is framed with your past experiences. Even the label art will affect your expectations for the beer.

What role does this framing play in beer tasting, especially for ‘professional evaluators’? Relate an amusing or optimistic anecdote about introducing someone to strange beer. Comment on the role a label plays in framing a beer or share a label-approval related story. I have not done much blind tasting, and I would be intrigued to hear about this ‘frameless’ evaluation of beer.

And drink a beer. Ideally drink something that you don’t think you will like. Try to pick out what it is about that brew that other people enjoy (make sure to properly frame the beer!). The Session #33 will take place here 6 November 2009. Leave a link to your post as a comment here or else e-mail it to me at couchand at gmail dot com on or before that day.

Extra credit will be given for specific mention of the Post article prompting this topic, or for use of the phrase “priming the pump”.

For more information about The Session inquire here.

A Sour Beer Primer

Sunday, August 9th, 2009

Modern beer is produced through fermentation by a pure culture of yeast. Brewing yeast is a strain of either Saccharomyces pastorianus (for lagers) or Saccharomyces cerevisiae (for ales), and its purity is constantly maintained. However this practice is only a few hundred years old, evolving alongside (and in a large part motivating) the study of microbiology.

Before the invention of the microscope the various fermentation microbes were indistinguishable. The yeasts and bacteria would form a mixed culture referred to simply as “Godisgood”. This cake would be repitched from batch to batch indefinitely, a method much like making homemade sourdough bread.

Brewing yeast (especially lager yeast) is prized because it ferments alcohol yet generates minimal byproducts. There are many other microorganisms (bacteria and wild yeasts) that do much the same work less cleanly. The vast majority of these are considered beer spoilers.

With the right species under the right conditions, a mixed fermentation of bacteria and yeast will produce something with more depth than any wine. The addition of strains of bacteria to beer adds a unique flavor: sour. This comes from organic acids, predominantly lactic acid (yes, like sour milk) and acetic acid (yes, like vinegar). If not handled properly sour beer will be worse than vinegar or sour milk, a lesson understood by many beginning homebrewers (from pouring their beer down the drain).

However, when made with style and grace a sour beer is simply divine. If you already appreciate the complexity found in the binary balance between malt and hops, imagine the possibilities afforded by the addition of this new dimension of flavor.

Certainly sour beer takes dedication to appreciate. Doesn’t all beer? If you were to try Pliny the Elder or some other ridiculously hoppy, ultra-bitter beer, without previous experience with IPAs, that too would seem undrinkable. Given the proper introduction, however, it is not just drinkable but delicious.

The most striking character of sour beer is its complexity. Certainly there is the strange balance between malt and acid and hops. Fruity character is accented by the acidity in the same way it is in a high quality wine (or an orange or grapefruit for that matter). But my favorite part of the complexity is the way the taste of a sour beer will change as it sits on your tongue. The organic acids will slowly neutralize after coming into contact with your mouth and saliva and different aspects of the beer will shine through at different times.

There are basically three types of sour beer: the weissbiers of Berlin, the brown and red ales of east and west Flanders, and the lambics and gueuzes of the Zenne (Senne) valley. Blending is common if not the rule for all of these styles, both to temper and accentuate the sourness.

Berliner weisse is a pale wheat style with a clean and crisp acidity that comes from lactic acid. It is usually brewed to 2.5 to 4 percent alcohol, making it a shankbier or “small beer”. Traditionally it is served with a sugar syrup that comes in two flavors: green is woodruff and red is raspberry.

Flanders red-brown ales have a strong fruity malt character and a balancing acidity. Unlike Berliner weisse the red-browns have a prominent acetic component in addition to the lactic sourness. This is stronger in the red ales of west Flanders, which are aged in oak. The east Flanders brown ales are aged in steel and have more dark malt complexity that makes up for the relatively restrained acidity.

Lambic is a style of beer that properly can be brewed only in spring and fall in the valley of the Zenne, a river that flows under downtown Brussels. This valley is home to a particular microbiocoenosis: the balance of various bacterias and wild yeasts is just right to produce the true champagne of beers. Lambic is fermented in wood casks, which produces two important effects. First, the microbiota can “hibernate” in the wood, something more and more important as the area around Brussels gets paved over. Second, all the carbon dioxide escapes through the wood, so unblended lambic is flat.

Lambic is almost never consumed straight anyway. There are three common preparations. Faro is lambic that has had Belgian candi sugar added. Gueuze is a bottled blend of old (two or three year) and new (six month) lambics. The sugars remaining in the younger beer ferment into carbon dioxide producing a sparkling beverage. The most common lambic preparation is the addition of fruit. Raspberries and cherries are the traditional candidates, with Shaarbeekse cherries being the real classic (Shaarbeek, former home of endless fields of cherry trees, is only a kilometer from downtown Brussels).

Sour beer must be savored with patience, but your dedication will be rewarded many times over with an intensity and depth beyond that of any other beverage. And that is why sour is my favorite kind of beer.