Sunday, December 30, 2012

Milk Stout Nitro (Left Hand Brewing Company)

I love stouts. Irish-style dry stouts or sweet milk stouts -- it's all good with me. In my experience, milk stouts are a little less common to find on the shelves, so I make a point to try them when I can. Lancaster Brewing Company's version is quite good, and is one of the few that seems to be readily available my area.

When I read last year that Left Hand Brewing Company was coming out with a milk stout, I added it to my wish list. I enjoyed the brewery's flagship beer, Sawtooth Ale, a few times last summer, and besides, I was curious what nitrogenated beer in a bottle would taste like.

As instructed by the bottle's label, I gave the beer a hard vertical pour, which resulted in a pleasant cascading wall of bubbles in the glass. The foam is a slightly brownish cream color and is so dense you're hard pressed to make out individual bubbles. Hangs around for the whole glass, too. The beer itself is effectively black, giving up a tinge of mahogany around the edges when held to light.

The aroma is sweet and roasty with nary a hint of hops.

Nitrogen gives this full-bodied stout a luscious, silky mouthfeel, almost without fizz. (By the way, there is no "widget" in the Milk Stout Nitro bottle, as found in cans of Guinness, Boddingtons and others. The nitro appears to be dissolved in the beer.)

True to its style, the beer has a deep roasty malt flavor with a faint smokiness. Just as it seems the flavor is about to descend into char territory, creamy sweetness swoops in and gathers the malt in its soft, pillowy arms and deposits it gently on the back of your tongue, where hops lend subtle counterbalance. As the beer warms, more floral and herbal hop notes come to the foreground. (The varieties used are Magnum and US Goldings, I was informed by Lora Berger of Left Hand, who was too polite to point out that this information is freely available on brewery's website.) Roasted barley is the main note remaining in the aftertaste.

Overall, a very nice milk stout, and a fine beer to inaugurate one of the shapely new Dogfish Head pint glasses my kids gave me for Christmas.

Incidentally, check out this crazy cookie recipe which uses this beer as an ingredient and is recommended to pair with it: Chocolate Chip Cookies with Bacon, Beer and Cayenne

From the bottle's label:

Brewed on the banks of the mighty St. Vrain
Super smooth with soft roastiness and mocha flavors

Featured beer:
Milk Stout Nitro

Honorable mentions:
Lancaster Milk Stout

Sawtooth Ale

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Brew day!

A few months ago I was approached by Spark editor Rob Kalesse, who proposed a challenge: he and I -- two guys with a lot of experience behind the bottle, but none behind the kettle -- would each brew a beer, then have our beers judged by a panel of experts. The whole process would be unflinchingly documented in print and social media.

Some have been surprised to hear that I, a well-known lover of beer, have not taken up homebrewing before now. The fact is that I already have more hobbies than I can pay enough attention to, and I don't want to get into something as time- and equipment-intensive as brewing without being able to do it properly. On top of that, I'm more of a dishwasher than a cook. The mere thought of combining raw ingredients and adding heat fills me with anticipation of failure.

Yet Rob's proposition struck me as an irresistible challenge. Reporting about beer over the last year, I have discovered that homebrewing is booming in popularity right along with the craft beer movement. Almost everyone I've talked to is brewing and loving it. So, in the interest of science, and to feel that my finger is truly on the pulse of local beer culture, I decided that I should take the plunge myself. Well, for those reasons, and for the delectable possibility of mopping the floor with Rob's face.

Through a volley of emails, Rob and I refined our ideas. We would both start with the same recipe (a brown ale), then each team up with a local brewmaster who would advise us. After heavy deliberation, we finally agreed upon a name for the contest: "Kettle to the Medal."

On a Thursday in early November, we met for lunch at Wilmington's Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant to get things kicked off with our brewmaster advisers. Brian Finn, head brewer at the very brewpub where we were gathered, would be teaming up with Rob. In October, his black IPA took a bronze medal at the Great American Beer Festival.

My partner would be Ric Hoffman, the head brewer at Stewart's Brewing Company in Bear. He, too, was a recent GABF medalist, winning a silver for his oyster stout.

Over the next few days, Ric and I began to exchange emails, and right up front I let him know my position: I want to learn as much as I can through this experience, and it will be great if our News Journal and Spark readers get some entertainment from it, but the bottom line is, I want my beer to taste better than Rob's, and I to want win that medal. Ric seemed to be OK with that. He sent a stream of suggestions about equipment, ingredients, and... hygiene?

You know that thing about being more of a dishwasher than a cook? Happily, it turns out that dishwashing chops are practically as important to beer making as cooking skills are. Among the first words of advice Ric sent me: "Literally every surface you encounter and every cubic inch of air is inundated with organisms that wish nothing more than to ruin the beautiful wort you brew."

Oh, no you don't, you filthy, conniving organisms! You will not ruin my beautiful wort! I resolved to carefully maintain sterilization throughout the brewing, fermenting, and bottling processes. My reasoning was that if my opponent is anything like the stereotypical guy (which is to say, inclined toward slovenliness), I might gain a slight advantage over him through meticulous hygiene.

Rob picked up our ingredient kits from How Do You Brew, the brewing supply store at The Shoppes at Louviers in Newark. The recipe was for an English brown ale, a classic style that's not too complex, so pretty forgiving to brew. Ric and I gave some thought to gamesmanship: how were Rob and Brian likely to alter the recipe, and what could we do that would be as good or better without adding too much complexity? My idea was to add calcium sulfate to the water, a time-honored method to mimic the waters of Burton-upon-Trent, home of many great English ales. Ric's suggestion was to "Americanize" the beer a bit by increasing the amount of finishing hops.

Recipe in hand, ingredients acquired and equipment borrowed, I swept the fallen leaves from my back patio and set up the propane turkey cooker. I flicked a lighter and heard a concussive rip as flame took hold under the five gallon stainless steel kettle, into which I had poured about two and a half gallons of water. Nearby sat a plastic fermenting bucket filled with disinfectant solution, and inside that soaked a chiller made of coiled copper, a big industrial-strength cooking spoon long enough to reach the bottom of the kettle, and a few other odds and ends that needed to be germ free.

This gray, slightly windy morning felt well-suited to standing beside a roiling cauldron, engaged in a craft of ancient origins. I cut open the plastic bags containing dried malt extract and deeply inhaled the fresh, cereal-like aroma before stirring it a little at a time into the kettle. I wanted to absorb the full sensory experience of each ingredient so I would understand its contribution to the final product. Three pounds of liquid malt extract also went into the pot -- along with the blade of the cheap kitchen spatula I was using to coax the viscous, honey-like extract out of its can. (I recovered the blade intact and made a note use better quality instruments next time.)

Next into the kettle went the intensely pungent Willamette hop pellets. To a lover of hoppy American IPAs, this smell is nearly as mouthwatering as garlic sautéing in olive oil. I stirred in one ounce of pellets with the malt at the start of the boil to provide a balancing bitterness. Another ounce went in after 45 minutes to lend more complex hop flavors. I added one more ounce just before the end of the boil to give the aroma of the finished beer a bit of musty herbal character.

After sixty minutes of boiling and stirring, I killed the flame under the kettle and poured its contents (with a great deal of sloshing) into the fermenting bucket. I immersed the chiller into the steaming wort, connected a garden hose to its feed tube and unfurled its drain tube onto the lawn. I monitored the temperature of the wort with a candy thermometer while cold water coursed through the copper coil. It started near 200F, but after about ten minutes had dropped all the way down to 70F degrees -- the optimum temperature for introducing yeast.

Two days earlier I had made some yeast "starter" by boiling a cup of powdered malt extract in about a quart of water, then cooling it and adding the yeast packet from the kit. "This allows the yeast to start reproducing and increasing in vigor before adding it to the main batch," Ric wrote.

With yeast added to the wort, my brew day was essentially done. I moved the fermenter to my basement laundry room, where it would hold a fairly stable temperature within a few degrees of 70F. I sealed the fermenter's lid and added an airlock, which enables byproduct gasses to escape from the bucket without letting in air saturated with filthy, conniving microorganisms.

At this point the beer's fate is completely in the hands of the yeast, which will quietly digest sugar and excrete alcohol. After a few days with no real role to play in the beer's development, I found myself sitting on the basement floor with a stopwatch in my hand, timing the minutes between bubbles in the fermenter's airlock like a nervous father-to-be timing his wife's labor contractions. Total cessation of bubbles will signal that the beer is ready to be bottled. I'm still not there yet.

This is how I dipped a cautious toe into the waters of homebrewing. (Not literally, of course -- that would be highly unsanitary.) If it starts to look like the first step on the slippery slope towards brewing obsession, I'm sure my wife will do her best to break my fall.

Beer Club (December 14, 2012)

It was the first mix day in a while when all seven members contributed. We got another great batch of beers.

• Bell's Pale Ale (Bell's Brewery)
• Bell's Porter (Bell's Brewery)
• Exit 16 (Flying Fish Brewing Company)
• Köstritzer Schwartzbier (Köstritzer Schwarzbierbrauerei)
• Milk Stout Nitro (Left Hand Brewing Company)
• Mission IPA (Mission Brewery)
• Oak Barrel Stout (Old Dominion Brewing Company)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Boulder Bend Dunkelweizen (Fish Brewing Company)

Here is a representation of a traditional style from Fish Brewing Company of Olympia, Washington. They dub their Leavenworth Biers line as "the Northwest's original German-style craft biers." This will be the first beer I have tasted from this brewery. (Props to Mr. Wade Malcolm for contributing it to the Beer Club.)

I don't have a proper wheat beer glass to try this in, so my trusty Spark pint tumbler will have to do. The beer pours the deepest brown in color, only letting though a bit of light around the edges. It produces one finger or so of light brown head.

The aroma is of roasted malt, mainly. Very little hop presence is detectable, but sweetness is suggested.

The beer has a fairly straightforward roast malt flavor. The carbonation hits right up front, after which the roastiness opens a bit to hints of hazelnut, with just a touch of black pepper on the back end. The strongest impression after my first sip was the beer's creamy, mouth-coating texture. Clearly a wheat thing.

Only toward the bottom of the glass did I start noticing the pure yeast flavor I would expect in a weizen -- probably because more of the yeast had sunk to the bottom. At 4.7% ABV, this beer would be highly sessionable, if you're so inclined. There is no intense sweetness or bitterness to wear your taste buds out.

Overall, not a knockout, but not at all objectionable.

From the bottle's label:

Alpine-style dark wheat ale

Featured beer:
Boulder Bend Dunkelweizen

Monday, December 10, 2012

Bass IPA (Anheuser-Busch InBev)

Well, here it is, the new face of Bass. As described previously, the grand old Bass brewery was taken over by A-B InBev in the year 2000, and its products are now being produced at the Anheuser-Busch plant at Baldwinsville, New York. The label would clearly like us to believe that this beer is made in the traditional English style, despite its remove from the distinctive calcium-rich Burton waters and the even more distinctive Burton Union system in which it was traditionally fermented.

So what might a person expect a "traditional" Bass IPA to taste like, if they were to permit themselves to be persuaded by the marketing? I can do no better than to reproduce this quote from Martyn Cornell's excellent Zythophile blog:

North American IPAs – excellent though many of them are – use hop types completely unknown to 18th and 19th century British brewers, and major on floral, citrussy flavours and aromas in their IPAs, which are designed to be drunk comparatively young. Early British IPAs were designed to be drunk aged anything up to nine months or more, and while they were certainly bitter, they would have lost most of any hop aroma that they originally had. In addition it is becoming increasingly clear that early British IPAs would have showed at least some Brettanomyces character, from their long ageing in cask. Apart from both containing lots of hops, and being similar colours (except for the black ones) modern North American IPAs and early British IPAs could not be much more different.

Okay, so what is this one really like? In my pint glass, it shows a medium amber color -- strangely thin, though. Doesn't seem dense enough. The pour produces half an inch of clumpy, off-white foam.

There is a rather subdued, delicate, flowery, cotton candy aroma. Quite nice actually, and I will give points for foiling the expectation set up by the aroma of American IPAs.

At first sip, the beer does have some of that trademark Bass malt flavor, sweet and dense, but it drops of very quickly into a finishing bitterness that has very little nuance -- no citrus, no sap, no flowers, grass or herbs. In this sense, too, it does stand out from an American-style IPA. The body is of medium weight -- not as flimsy as the thinnish appearance might lead you to expect. Just a bit of grain flavor lingers after the bitterness lets up.

There is actually a fair amount of flavor here, but not much complexity. When tasting it blind, my wife said "tastes like a fairly well-made American beer." That's about right. It does stand apart from the predominant contemporary West Coast IPA style, but whether it is because of an authentic English character, I'm not so sure. There is certainly no Brettanomyces character (because there is no cask aging), nor any sulphurous “Burton snatch.”

Overall I would rate aroma this beer's best quality. That aspect of it really is rather nice.

From the bottle's label:

[front] Brewed in the tradition of William Bass Brewers Limited, Burton-on-Trent, England. This fine India pale ale has been brewed in the great British tradition using traditional English Fuggle hops.
[back] ICONOGRAPHY. From the makers of the original pale ale comes Bass India Pale Ale. Make with all malt and a blend of imported and domestic hops, including the traditional English Fuggle. Bass IPA is then dry-hopped in aging tanks for a remarkable aroma. Perfect for anytime you want to enjoy an intensely satisfying beer.

Featured beer:
Bass IPA

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Caveat Emptor (or: Invasion of the Body Snatchers)

I evangelize a lot about craft beer. After all, it has more or less rescued the American drinking public from the homogeneity of dull, mass-produced light lagers. But of course the craft movement did not invent flavor in beer; it merely restored what the mass producers had stripped out. And prior to the 1990s, imported beer was always there to remind us, by contrast, of the wan quality of our domestics.

Back then, whenever I had the chance I drank beers from England and Germany -- motherlands of the brewing traditions that immigrated to the United States and thrived prior to Prohibition. It seemed to me that these countries still treated beer as a flavorful, traditional beverage, not a commodity to be produced at as high a volume and as low a cost as could be worked out by a planning committee.

But it's a good thing the craft beer movement did take hold here in the U.S., because the inexorable expansion of a few multinational beverage corporations seems to be overtaking every great and venerable European label we once knew. Among the dozens of formerly independent brands that have been gobbled up by the world's largest beer concern, Anheuser-Busch InBev: Bass, Becks, Boddingtons, Franziskaner, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Löwenbräu, St.Pauli Girl, Spaten, and Stella Artois.

A few of those really sting for me. Sure, the original brewing arrangements remain intact in some of these cases, but the bottom line is that A-B InBev controls the brands and can do with them as it pleases. And they have already made some changes that clearly do not benefit the beer as much as they do the parent corporation.

Take for example the Bass Brewery, founded in 1777 by William Bass in Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, and one of the most important players in England's storied history of brewing. The brewery was purchased by Molson Coors in 2000, and the Bass brand was later sold to the mega-conglomerate A-B InBev. Beers bearing the Bass imprint are now brewed for the American market at the Anheuser-Busch plant in Baldwinsville, NY. (The facility has an annual production capacity of 7.6 million barrels.)

The Bass label now says "Brewed in the tradition of William Bass Brewers Limited." Not sure exactly what that is intended to mean, but it can't possibly be true beyond a very superficial point, since the Burton Union fermentation system originally used by Bass survives to this day at only one brewery in the world, and it is not in Baldwinsville, New York.

This is the essence of what can happen when a juggernaut corporation buys up historic breweries for their "brand cachet." After the acquisition, decisions are based on the balance sheet, not the quality of the beer, but consumers are expected to hold the products in the same fond regard.

Selling out to a global beverage corporation may, unfortunately, hold an allure for some American craft breweries, too. Many have rapidly grown to the limits of their production capacity, and they'd love to have more fermenting tanks or wider distribution than they can afford on their own.

In a move that generated lots of conversation in the craft beer community, Chicago-based independent Goose Island sold itself to A-B InBev in 2011, and its flagship beer, 312 Urban Wheat, is now brewed in -- you guessed it -- Baldwinsville, NY.  A-B InBev also holds non-controlling stakes in, among other breweries, Georgia's Terrapin Beer Company and Delaware's tiny Coastal Brewing Company, which produces the Fordham and Old Dominion brands.

The multinationals are also using their distribution leverage to steal precious shelf space from legitimate craft breweries. Under the guise of independent and ostensibly "crafty" companies, MillerCoors makes Blue Moon and A-B InBev markets the Shock Top and the less-known Blue Dawg brands. These are but a few examples from what is likely to become a pernicious trend.

It's all bad for the beer drinker, in my opinion. But in the big picture, the most insidious practice of all is to cash in on brand loyalty built through decades (sometimes centuries) of conscientious craftsmanship by selling the hollowed-out husks of formerly great beers. What is lost can never be replaced.


Recommended reading:

The Plot to Destroy America's Beer
Big Beer dresses up in craft brewers' clothing

Recommended viewing:

Beer Wars

Beer Club (November 30, 2012)

Even though only five of us chipped in this week, we still came up with three breweries that are new to the list. Good stuff!

• Bass India Pale Ale (Anheuser-Busch InBev)
• Sculpin India Pale Ale (Ballast Point Brewing Company)
• Sierra Nevada Porter (Sierra Nevada Brewing Company)
• Boulder Bend Dunkelweizen (Fish Brewing Company)
• Loch Down Scotch Ale (Arcadia Brewing Company)