05/31/10

Beer Run: Vancouver

Greetings from the Pacific Northwest. I’m hiding from the rain right now and decided to pen a dispatch from the field. I’m going to be visiting friends in Seattle next weekend but since they’re all away for the holiday I thought I’d explore our neighbor to the north a bit. On very little sleep, I drove north to Vancouver.

I was very excited about Vancouver, and not just because I had such a great time at Dieu Du Ciel brewpub in Montreal and was hoping that the Canadians know good beer. Everyone I know tells me Vancouver is a beautiful city, with plentiful nature close at hand, and clean, orderly streets full of good food and good times.

For the most part they are right. I’ve had a lot of great food here, and an awesome night of live music at the Railway Club. The streets are unusually clean. In fact the only litter I’ve seen since I crossed the border was inside my rental car. And the traffic appears far more cordial and orderly than I’m used to. Unlike Boston, when I cross the street, no one tries to run me over, and no one blocks the sidewalk by charging past the stop line (except me). And people actually wait for the walk sign at crosswalks (how quaint).

In short, I feel a little out of place here. Kind of like I’m in a modern, urban version of Mayberry or something. In Boston I’m thought of as too nice, too considerate; here I’m afraid I’ll be deported for jaywalking or vagrancy or something. Even the bums are polite; one was so busy asking me to have a nice weekend he forgot to ask for spare change. Another, finding I didn’t have 35 cents to spare, but noticing I did have a bag of beers, asked if I could spare a beer instead. I gave him the 35 cents.

But enough about Vancouver the city, how are the suds? Frankly I’ve been a little disappointed. I mean, you could do worse – the Granville Island brewery seems to be fairly ubiquitous around here with it’s Pale Ale ending up on tap at most establishments. There’s local beer all over downtown as far as I can tell, but it all just kind of ends up being fairly generic Brit-style ales and extremely boring light lagers. Today I visited the two dominant brew pubs near downtown, and things were starting to look a lot brighter, but at the end of the day I had to admit there was nothing on tap at either establishment that really, truly moved me.

First was brunch and a flight of tasters at Yaletown Brewing Company downtown. The food was amazing: a giant helping of applewood smoked cheddar soup with bacon, scallions, and crème fraiche, and duck confit done to perfection, with a crispy skin and meat so tender it melts in the mouth. Everything was not only tasty, but well presented, and the help was fairly attentive despite the lunch rush crowd. The place itself has a very sizable bar with lots of flat screens, so it seems like the place to be for both large groups and sports fanatics. Of which I am neither, so on to business.

The beers were pretty consistent threes on our scale of 1 to 5, which really only means they rank as craft beer, but aren’t exceptional in any way. This would include the Mainland Lager, Nagilia Pale, Hills Special Wheat (a hefeweizen roughly on par with Franziskaner and quite a ways below Ayinger), and the Warehouse Stout, which despite delightful notes of coffee and smoke and a nose to die for, fell quite short on body. The Downtown Brown faired a bit better, squeaking by with a four for its nutty malt character and velvety mouthfeel, not to mention quaffability. The Brick and Beam IPA is a bit less quaffable, with a bitter, hoppy aftertaste that lingers a bit too long for a session beer, but its respectable hop character and good balance still let it squeak by with a four as well.

The only real standout at Yaletown was the Wit, which is an excellent example of an underappreciated style. This is what blue moon should taste like: delicate malt character that is restrained enough to let the citrus, coriander, and yeasty character show through, without the spices needing to be overbearing. With a fairly light body and a finish that tails off quickly, this one is definitely a session beer, and though not one of my favorite styles, would be extremely appropriate for a summer day (if such a thing exists in the Pacific Northwest). I might appreciate this style more if there were better examples of it in the US.

Next I walked over to the Gastown district, the “historic” district according to my guidebook and the arch that welcomed me to the neighborhood. For the record, Lonely Planet, those are not cobblestones, they’re paving stones. Cobblestones are a lot more uncomfortable to drive or walk on, a fact that gives historic districts their charm. This place feels like you’re trespassing in someone’s back yard. I was also uncomfortable with the overwhelming presence of trendy clothing shops and the fairly contemporary looking street lighting. The area is named after it’s founder, a gold prospector named “Gassy Jack” Deighton, who in turn was named after his penchant for spinning tall tales. Gastown was apparently the oldest settlement in what would become Vancouver, but was founded in only 1867, which might explain the oddly contemporary flair for a historic district (mind you I’m visiting from Boston, founded in 1630).

That said, it was a perfectly pleasant neighborhood, clean and orderly (as usual) and with a wide array of dining and nightlife options. There’s also a steam driven clock that seems to be all the rage with the tour bus set, but I wasn’t moved. After all, I was on a mission.

I found my way to the Steamworks Brewery, which is downstairs when you enter the building. I was pretty stuffed so I didn’t get a fair sampling of the food, but it smelled delicious as I passed it a few times on my way to the restroom. I did grab some mushroom caps with cream cheese and crab, which were certainly a solid appetizer, so I suspect the food would pass. Speaking of the restroom, it posessed something rare: a Punk-approved air dryer for your hands. Up until now we’ve only approved of one, the Xlerator which I believe we first encountered at Ulysses in Manhattan. Anything else you might as well blow on your own hands, or just shake like a dog if there’s no paper towels. This is the first time I’ve ever seen the Dyson Airblade, which puts out a squeegie shaped air jet that is perhaps more effective than the xlerator. It has a bit less horse power, though, so you don’t get that cool deformation of the skin on your hands while you are using it (Ever see pictures of people’s faces during freefall? Then you know what I’m talking about.)

Bladder drained and hands dry I strapped on my second flight of the afternoon. Again, the bulk of the lineup was solid threes. The seasonal Hefeweizen was a little too clovey for my taste, and the banana was overpowered (though anybody who likes the Sgt. Pepper at my local Cambridge Brewing Company might not find this as offensive as I do), Lion’s Gate Lager (which is actually a pretty nice straw colored lager, but really serves no purpose other than providing a safe haven for Bud – or is it Molson – drinkers in a sea of craft beer), and the Coal Porter all fall in this category. I’d also throw the Empress IPA in this category because the malt character was a little boring, but IPAs aren’t really my thing, so many people might surely disagree with me on that point. The Nut Brown faired a bit better; it was a bit hoppy for a brown in my opinion but certainly well balanced, and the nose was really a standout with notes of maple syrup, and woody or smokey character (which is not to say it was wood aged or smoked, this was probably all from the roasting of the malt). It barely earned a four, but was certainly a step in the right direction.

The standouts for me at Steamworks were the Signature Pale and the seasonal German Pilsner. The Pilner had a very clean and fairly light malt character, quite restrained, which allowed a fairly robust hopping to shine through. The balance was good and the finish was clean, making it very quaffable. The Pale turned out to be my favorite here because it seemed to have the most assertive and interesting malt character of the entire lineup. I picked up lots of nutty and toffee notes, and even some woody and smokey character in the finish. There was a great balance, but also quite assertive hopping that lent a spicey, resiny flavor and aroma. Both earned a solid four.

As I finish this, the sun is shining again (for how long?) and I’m drinking a fairly decent “Springbock” from Phillips Brewing Company (one of the beers I saved from the homeless man about an hour ago). I’m pondering the state of the beer scene here in Vancouver and I’m seeing two things. First, most pubs and restaurants seem to carry local beer. The beer isn’t exceptional, but it is very accessible, and makes for a great session beer. There is a variety of styles on the market for the consumer to gradually trade up to – starting with the bland lagers, then progressing to hoppier and maltier English styles.

The second thing is that I havent mentioned the two best beers I’ve had in Vancouver: Big Rock’s Traditional Ale from Calgary (one province East, in Alberta near Banff National Park) and Back Hand of God Stout from Crannog Ales, on a farm in Sorrento, BC. Both were great beers, earning a solid four, and both come from outside Vancouver, but somewhere in the general region.

I feel both of these facts portend well for the future of beer in Vancouver, even if I’m not that impressed yet. I think that the revolution really begins when: 1) your average consumer is encouraged to trade up to craft beers, which seems very easy to do here, and 2) some mavericks in the sticks, heavy on craft and light on capital, start brewing exceptional beer and either kegging it up to put on tap in the city or putting it in big bottles to ship to high end liquor stores, while they slowly build their empire. If I’m right, you can assure that the revolution will not be televised, at least not in Boston, so be sure to check the scene in person from time to time and monitor progress.

Just wait til it’s sunny.

PS, I apologize to the city of Vancouver for the generally curmudgeonly tone of this article; but seriously, what’s with all the rain?

04/22/10

When Two Rights Make a Wrong: Flavored Saisons

Long time no see loyal reader. I’d like to try and get some momentum going again on the blog and shake out some of my blogging cobwebs before starting on another project, blogging on Boston area restaurants with some friends of mine. So here’s what’s been on my mind lately in the world of beer.

People who know me know that Saison is one of my favorite styles; an odd outlier in my repertoir of heavy, dark, roasty, thick-enough-to-chew favorites. Something about it just works. It’s crisp and light – or more accurately it’s percieved as light because it’s dry and usually a bit heavily carbonated. Like most Belgian styles, Saisons generally feature a complex yeast profile from the use of special yeast and generally warmer fermentation temperatures, which kicks up the fruity ester character, and sometimes adds a spicy phenol touch.

But more to the point, they are a relatively delicate beer, which further accentuates the yeast characters. Based on White Labs’ yeast profiles and the BJCP style guidelines, the attenuation of, say, a British style Pale Ale is something on the order of 70-75%, whereas a Saison tends more toward the neighborhood of 85-90%. This means more sugar is removed during fermentation and the result has a very light malt character that isn’t overwhelming. Then the hop character has to be restrained accordingly to keep the beer in balance (especially since the Belgians don’t really seem to care for hops anyway, they are known for aging their hops to remove the bittering and flavor characteristics before use-which I think I wrote about but was apparently never posted. We’ve got some catching up to do…) BJCP guidelines put the Saison at 20-35 IBUs (a measure of hop bitterness) whereas a Pale would be more like 30-50 IBUs. We’ve also talked about the BU:GU ratio before, which is a way to measure the balance of a beer based on the IBUs and the original gravity. Higher numbers are more bitter, lower numbers less. On this measure, Saison comes in around 0.4-0.5, and a Pale is more like 0.6-0.8.

So, science aside, what we’re talking about here is a relatively light, malty beer with a delicate flavor that allows the complexity of the malt and yeast character to really shine. And Saisons happen to be one of this beer snob’s favorite summertime options, not to mention a perfect stand-in for white wine or champagne with food, any time of year. For my favorite examples, see Brooklyn One (didn’t care for Brooklyn Two as much) or the classic Saison DuPont from Brasserie DuPont in Belgium. Other good examples include Southampton Saison, Victory Saison and Ommegang Hennepin.

CBC has a new(ish) beer on tap called Sgt Pepper, which is a peppercorn flavored Saison. I say newish because it’s been brewed in past seasons, and also because, well, I haven’t posted in a while. Since I love Saison, and I love peppercorns (mmm…Steak au Poivre…) you’d think I’d be all over this one. And every year I think the same thing, and every year…I’m wrong.

See, you try to take in the bouquet on this one and you sneeze. It’s just way too much peppercorn for a saison in my opinion. The Punks have a long standing bias against flavored Saisons for this reason, no matter what you put in them the flavor seems to overpower that delicate malt and yeast character which is the hallmark of the style. I thought we were alone on this one, and I don’t mean to second guess some of my favorite brewers here, but anecdotal evidence from my friends bears out that this one isn’t for everyone. Taste it before you get a full one.

There is one more thing to keep in mind here. Several of my beer and brewing gurus (see Charlie Papazian, or Stan Hieronymus) are quick to decry the practice of beer snobs like me judging a beer against style guidelines. That’s important for competition, but flavored beers are, by necessity, kind of unique beasts. This is why they created specialty categories at beer competitions to begin with; to encourage creative brewing rather than stifle it. So please, do try it, you might like it. Just do so with caution. And maybe don’t breathe too deep on that first sip.

08/31/09

Punks Welcome Olde Magoun’s in Somerville to the Beer Locator

In case anyone has missed it, our new site now features a tool called the “TP Beer Locator” in the upper navigation bar, which points our users to all of the best beer bars we’ve discovered on our various travels throughout the world. There’s hidden gems here from all over the northeast where we’ve spent most of our time, but also from the southwest and west coast, and even Europe and Southeast Asia, South America, and Australia.

Now that I’m settling into my new digs in Somerville (which also explains the relative dearth of posts lately), Mike and I went out to explore the neighborhood a bit. We’ve been hearing good things about Redbones in nearby Davis Square, but frankly in the recent heat wave, we were looking to stay a bit more local than that (especially after moving my preposterously oversized wooden desk all the way from Brighton). We settled on Olde Magoun’s Saloonright around the corner from my new house, and we were not disappointed, so we’ve decided to add this small, unassuming pub to the TP Beer Locator, and sing it’s praises here for a bit.

The beer selection doesn’t come close to what we’re used to at the Sunset Grill and Tap in Allston, but it’s nothing to sneeze at either. They’ve got twenty one taps, and everything is well thought out. Generic fizzy yellow lagers don’t seem to be available on tap, only in bottles; after all, why waste tap space? The most generic items on tap included Guinness, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, and Smithwick’s Irish Red.

The taps are a good mix of excellent imports (Radeburger pilsner and Weihenstephaner hefeweizen, for example) and a great list of American micros. What’s more, they don’t fall into the all too common trap of having two dozen IPAs with no dark beers or quality lagers; the selection is quite varied with a little something for nearly every palate.

But the real draw with this place is the food. I dare say their food selections are actually superior to the Sunset, and at marginally lower prices (though the portions are marginally smaller than the Sunset’s offerings, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you aren’t feeding a crowd). The nachos-the yardstick by which Mike and I tend to judge these places-were quite respectable, falling just short of the Sunset in my opinion. But considering the rest of the menu changes everything; we also had a crispy, delicious pizza that was fantastic and a truly sublime seared Ahi tuna sandwich. And none of these dishes came to more than ten dollars.

The clientelle also appears quite friendly, and the place lacks the intimidating vibe some people might get from a bar like the Sunset with a beer list that reads like the phone book. And talk about amenities…free wifi, free appetizers on arrangement if you have your fantasy football draft at the bar, the full sports package on TV featuring every football game. They even have a Tuesday night trivia competition sponsored by Harpoon, where the winning team gets four cases and a free brewery tour.

While Olde Magoun’s isn’t likely to captivate us the way the Sunset has for the past year, and we’ll surely strike out for more extensive beer lists from time to time, it makes a more than suitable local replacement, and they’ll be seeing much more of us over the coming months. If you are in the area, they should be seeing more of you as well.

Stay tuned, later this week we’ll have another Geek Speak article on gravity and attenuation, and then next week we should be back on track with new articles in our Belgian brewing series, including one on aged hops, and a few other surprises. Thanks for your patience!

08/18/09

Beer Run with Billy Joel: Sunset Grill and Tap, Allston, MA

BeerIt was a weekday afternoon, and things at the Sunset were slow. The staff was killing time, no doubt talking about beer and pouring a lot of samples for the customers, as they sometimes do when there’s nothing left to do. Then it happened. In from the street walked a living legend…Billy Joel had entered the Sunset.

He took a seat at the bar, surrounded by an entourage, and asked for a beer list. He was ill prepared for what came next, as he was handed not a sheet of paper, but a book, with pages upon pages of beers from the world over, ever major style from every country imaginable. Flipping, flustered, through the many pages, he asked

“You..uh..got a lot of beer here, huh?”

“Yes, that’s kind of our thing…” the bartender replied.

“You got PBR?”

…As luck would have it, they did indeed have PBR; inexplicably since few people likely order it in this environment. So the story goes…

This is my own beloved local, the Sunset Grill and Tap, and I can tell you that the Pianoman’s story is far from unique. After all, who would expect such a wide selection of beer for all price ranges so close to the campus of Boston University, in the decidedly un-glamorous Boston neighborhood of Allston; this isn’t Back Bay or Beacon Hill after all. And yet there it is, like a diamond in the ruff (not to discount another gem, Deep Ellum, just down the street).

No, this is a very common tale; many’s the time that I sat at this bar taking notes on many a fine beer, and witnessed the confusion of a newcomer to this unassuming place when handed the beer list. I must look like I belong, almost like a permanent part of the decor, because questions often follow. Rest assured, I and many others here are more than happy to play tour guide, so if you find yourself here, don’t be afraid to ask questions, not only of the staff, but also the patrons. Who knows, if I had been there, poor Billy might not have gotten stuck with a PBR after all.

Just as you shouldn’t be intimidated by the clientele, don’t be intimidated by the list either. So many choices may be daunting at first, but in time you’ll come to understand that it just makes the place more versatile. If one can’t find a beer they like in the Sunset’s ever-evolving catalog of 112 taps and hundreds more bottles, you aren’t likely to find one anywhere. The beer menu is well organized (this is not a trivial point, because I’ve been to some places out west that could use some work in this area). The options are great in every category, with indications next to most of the beers showing what scores they’ve received in online polling, and stars next to the top choice in a given category. My only knock against the menu itself is that they need a “what’s new” section for regulars such as myself so I needn’t spend a half hour sifting through the menu every time I go there.

The bartenders always seem willing to provide free tastes of anything on tap (this would be all the beers on the back cover of the menu). I’d say as long as you order some beers to go with your samples, I’ve never seen anyone get turned down on a sample. They also offer a range of serving sizes, though I usually go with the default. Do be careful to watch the prices on anything you order though; I’ve been known to accidentally order a $20 bottle of Brooklyn Local One Saison one night when I’d had one too many and wasn’t paying attention. But as a budget conscious Mike was quick to point out in leaner days, they always have a great selection of fantastic taps at $5 or so. If you’re willing to step up just a bit, they’ve got many more for 6 or 7.

As I stated in a previous article, the Sunset is a fantastic place to try a cask ale, they serve up a mean Dogfish Head 60 Minute from time to time, especially. Another very special section of the list is the meads. These are fermented honey, sometimes with malt or spices and herbs added, and taste like something between honey and wine, but somehow better than both. The Sunset has a wide selection of them, which is rare no matter where I’ve been. Mead isn’t really my thing, but certain Punk’s have been known to exclaim “where have you been all my life” with the first taste. Truly something worth trying, even if it doesn’t stick.  It led us to brew our own batch, results yet to be seen…

The place also has its fair share of intimacy, with many nooks and crannies to choose from. In fact, this could be seen as either an advantage or a disadvantage depending on perspective; I’ve often complained that the large wall splitting the place in two limits the sociability of the bar area by taking up standing area around it and limiting movement and the cross-pollination of conversations from one side to the other, but at the same time it creates a much more intimate feel that can be welcome at times, either for dates or for deep discussion among friends.

As for the food, you tend to be safe with anything latin-inspired (gigantic nachos, quesadillas, fajitas, etc) and anything involving the hummus. Overall the food generally doesn’t disappoint, but I would stay away from the barbecue sauce; I’m not a big fan. Also, plan around huge portions for everything. A good strategy is to bring people with you and share whatever you get. If you are still hungry afterward you can always get another plate of something.

I should also point out that there is a pool hall upstairs (Big City) and a Tequilla/Margarita Bar just down the street (Sunset Cantina) that are both owned by the same wonderful people. Mike and I have been to the Cantina, it struck us as a slightly more sociable atmosphere than the Sunset G&T, and with a respectable 38 beers on tap. It offers a nice compromise for the group with a mix of beer drinkers and non-beer drinkers, if the two should ever associate. One word of caution, however: do not order the $50 or $60 margarita…the cost of the drink is the cost of the tequila shot that goes into it; just drink the shot. The bartender there told us they always serve the shot on the side for those and recommend drinking them separately (often being ignored). There is a good reason they do that. We’ve never been to Big City so I can’t say anything about that, but I’d be willing to bet their beer selection is second to none among pool halls in this city.

08/14/09

Finally, a Beer Fit for Breakfast!

Reports are coming out of a very unique beer in the works from the Brooklyn Brewery. My hope is that it finally makes drinking beer before 10 AM a socially acceptable, respectable act. It seems that brewmaster Garret Oliver is looking for ways to get bacon into beer.

The reports are sketchy at best, but it appears the beer is starting out with two parallel threads that will be blended at the end. As Garret puts it  “Either this will be the most amazingly disgusting thing you’ve ever tasted in your life, or I shall rule the earth.” I must agree, but how’s he doing it?

  • A barleywine has been brewed using malt that was smoked in the same room as a batch of Benton’s bacon (Allan Benton is apparently a legend among bacon producers).
  • A brown ale is being infused with the essence of bacon fat by a process known as “fat washing.” This process has already been used to produce bacon flavored rum and bourbon apparently (who knew?). The fat is heated until completely liquid, then mixed into the beer. Then the whole thing is chilled until the fat congeals back to a solid state and rises to the top of the beer, where it’s skimmed off. In the process, the non-fat goodness of the bacon is left behind, dissolved in the beer, while the fat is removed from it. This keeps the beer from developing a greasy mouthfeel (also lipids in beer have a nasty effect on head retention as they interfere with the formation of the protein matrices that form bubbles). The brown ale will then be aged in Bourbon barrels.

In the end, these two forces will combine like antimatter to produce a beer that may very well change the world as we know it. I wait with bated breath, very excited and a little afraid…

08/11/09

Guinness Foreign Extra Stout: The World’s Best Extract Brew?

I just spotted an article on CNN’s website about the success story of Guinness in Nigeria. I didn’t expect to find anything amazing here, just another affirmation of Mike’s hypothesis about the amazing international growth opportunities for brewers as the developing world’s growing middle class acquires a taste for beer (and frankly they could do much worse than Guinness in my opinion, I salute Nigeria’s good taste!) It turns out that Nigeria now consumes more Guinness than Ireland, and is second only to the UK in consumption of this most renowned of dry stouts. That’s not to say that Ireland is slouching here; Nigeria is a nation of 150 million people, the UK about 60 million, and Ireland only about 6 million…I’d say they’re pulling their weight, for sure.

What was surprising to me is that in Nigeria, Indonesia, and other markets in which Guinness is brewed under contract this way, Guinness is apparently an extract beer.

Without getting too technical, there are two ways to brew beer, all grain or extract. An all grain brewer steeps malted grains like barley in warm water (a process called “mashing”), which creates a sort of tea by dissolving sugars and other compounds out of the grain and into the water. This “tea” is then called wort. Hops are added, the mixture is boiled for sanitization and to trigger certain chemical reactions, then the result is cooled and the yeast are unleashed, creating beer. All grain brewing is like making soup from scratch, if you will.

Extract brewing on the other hand can be thought of more like making condensed Campbells soup. A manufacturer of malt mashes the grains at the factory, then dehydrates the wort, extracting as much water as possible, which improves the shelf life. Sometimes hops are added, sometimes not, and then the dehydrated mixture is diluted by the brewer and boiled.

Homebrewers usually start out with extract brewing because it is easier, but then switch to all grain when they feel they can handle the challenge and want to increase the quality of their brews. However, this doesn’t mean that all extract beers are bad; I’ve heard of many extract homebrews going on to win awards at major competitions, and have also heard of professional brewpubs that make extract brews exclusively, among them two in Canada (one in Calgary, the other in Nova Scotia) and another in California (Pacific Coast BC in Oakland). I haven’t been to any of the three but have always been secretly skeptical, even though I’m sure that a good brewer can make proper use of any ingredient to make good beer, so long as they are smart about selecting and using it.

As for Guinness Nigeria, they use an unfermented, hopped extract shipped in from Dublin and add it to unspecified local ingredients. My guess is that certain ingredients are easy to get locally, the others are not of the same quality (or quantity) as those available in Dublin, so the extract replaces those that are harder to come by.

The Nigerian brewery was the first outside of Ireland and Great Britain and has seen torrid growth despite a global economic recession and challenging operating environment (including failing infrastructure and unpredictable governance according to CNN). I’d love to get my hands on their product and see what extract Guinness tastes like, but I don’t think it’s distributed in the US, so I’ll have to wait for now.

08/10/09

Ayinger Seasonal (Oktober Fest-Maerzen) Hits the US Mid-August

ayingerThe Punks’ favorite German brewery, Ayinger has a seasonal beer on its way that you’ll want to keep an eye out for. For those of you unfamiliar with Ayinger, they make category killing brews in just about every style of German lager:

  • Celebrator Doppelbock (i.e. double bock)
  • Ur-Weisse Dunkel Weiss (i.e. dark wheat beer)
  • Brau Weiss Hefeweissen (i.e. cloudy wheat beer)
  • Altbairisch Dunkel (i.e. traditional bavarian dark lager)

We’ve tried them all (save the 100th anniversary Jahrhundert), and not a single one fell short of a four out of five, with myself in particular awarding Celebrator and Altbairisch Dunkel a full five due to my penchant for all things dark. Now we get to add the Oktober Fest-Maerzen to the list.

Maerzen beers are so called because they’re brewed in March (Maerz in German) to mark the end of the traditional brewing season, and lagered for many months in underground caves (at least they were in the days before refrigeration) before emerging in late summer and playing a key role in annual Oktoberfest celebrations. Oktoberfest started in Munich in 1810 as a celebration of the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese, who gives her name to the fair grounds on which the festival takes place, the Theresienwiese. It has been celebrated with great gusto nearly every year since, starting in late September and continuing for 16 days, ending in early October.

Maerzen beers are different from many other German lagers, in part, because the longer lagering period necessitated that they be brewed to higher gravities (i.e. higher alcohol content) and that more hops be used in the brew, both of which improve shelf life of beer. It is this higher hop rate (German noble hops of course!) that gives the beer that recognizable “fest-spicy” character that many of us think of when we think of festbiers, though American examples probably overemphasize this character. This is another reason I can’t wait to try some German examples now that fest season is upon us again.

Keep an eye out for Ayinger Oktober Fest-Maerzen starting after mid-August.

08/4/09

Jurassic Pub: Truly Ancient Ale

Mad scientists extracting ancient DNA molecules from fossilized amber, resurrecting long dead beasts and unleashing them on an unsuspecting modern world as part of some half-baked, twisted commercial scheme. Hollywood horsepucky you say? Think again my friend. Truth, you see, can be even stranger than fiction. A certain hybrid, made possible by frightening science, has recently come to my attention: The Tyrannosaurus Rat. No, not the ones living in the sewers under Manhattan; I’m talking about a beer, one unlike any the world has ever seen.

The first batch was brewed in 2006, when Peter Hackett of northern California brewpub Stumptown teamed up with famed mad scientist (and real-life inspiration for the Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park) Raul Cano of California Polytechnic to brew a hybridized version of his Rat Bastard pale ale that is nothing short of an abomination. What was so different about this simple pale ale? It was brewed with yeast that had lain dormant for 45 million years, buried deep in amber – fossilized tree sap – from an age before man, at the dawn of modern mammals.

Cano had generated a great deal of interest and controversy in the mid nineties by claiming to have cultured microorganisms (thousands in all) from the remnants of amber. Among the many species in his catalog were several strains of yeast closely related to Saccharomyces cerevisiae-he had found ancient ale yeast and brought it back to life! Cano never intended his research to create tasty beverages. In fact he had started his company, Ambergene, with the far loftier goal of synthesizing new antibiotics from the microorganisms, but the company later folded by 1997 when the investors (among them several major pharmaceutical companies) lost patience in the lack of progress. The only marketable idea that seems to have come from the venture was when a homebrewer on Cano’s staff decided to culture up some of the ancient yeast and brew a series of beers from it: T-Rex Lager, Stegosaurus Stout, Jurassic Amber Ale, and Ancient Ale. These beers were served at the wedding of Cano’s daughter, as well as the wrap party for Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World.

So how do you bring bugs back to life after 45 million years? Many microorganisms (including yeast strains) actually go into a state of deep hibernation when they run out of the things necessary to sustain life. If they are preserved from exposure to the elements, say by being trapped in virtually air- and water-proof fossilized amber, they can apparently stay alive and hibernate…for a very long time. This makes it relatively simple (I’m sure!) to reconstitute them; simply sanitize the bejeezus out of the outside surface of the amber (Cano used disinfectant, ultrasound, ethanol, and fire) to prevent modern contaminants from interfering with the sample, then dip it in liquid nitrogen to make it brittle, break it into many small pieces, and then stick it in a solution of microorganism chow and other nutrients and wait. The controversy I spoke of wasn’t so much over the risk of culturing some sort of andromeda strain from the amber or other ethical concerns, but more about the risk of modern contaminants. Most of the bacteria and other microorganisms Cano found were actually closely related to modern species, and considering 95% of modern bacteria has not been identified, let alone studied by scientists, it was hard to say whether Cano’s bugs were coming from inside the amber or outside. Even Cano initially thought the cultures growing in his petri dishes were contaminations that were keeping him from studying the dead bugs he was looking for, but with time this hypothesis changed, he isolated thousands of species, and his work was peer reviewed, replicated on several occasions by other teams, and eventually published in the journal Science.

And what about the beers? Cano’s Fossil Fuels Brewing Company is currently working with two northern California brewers: Hackett at Stumptown Brewery is producing a pale ale, and Joe Kelley at Kelley Brewing makes what can be referred to as a “Belgian” hefeweizen. Neither are available outside of northern California at the moment, but reports from the field indicate that the yeast features clove and other unique phenolics that gives the hefeweizen a bit of a “Belgian” feel. The strain has also been described by hacket as having a “gingery” tang, and several sources make mention of smooth fruity notes, citrusy but not overly sour. Either beer appears to be a must-have if you can get one.

So when will we get it on the east coast? Hard to say. They are expanding draft offerings (with presumably fake amber chunks in the tap handles) throughout California as we speak, and are in talks with contract brewers to ramp up production of bottles for wider distribution, but considering the fledgling brewing company has taken nearly three years to get this far, there’s no telling how long that will take.

So in the meantime, us Punks will have to wait (or pull together funds for that Pacific Coast Highway road trip we’ve always wanted to take) and see where this truly unique yeast will show up next. Reports indicate that Joe Kelley of Kelley Brewing would like to see it in a scottish wee heavy, so you’ll likely find it there before you find it at our local Sunset Grill and Tap, unfortunately.

If you want to listen to me geek out on this truly astonishing yeast strain from the perspective of a knowledgable homebrewer, don’t forget to check out my Technical Addendum.

08/4/09

Jurassic Pub: Technical Addendum

In another post, we’ve told you all about the ancient yeast Raul Cano resurrected from fossilized amber, and the very special pale ale and hefeweizen that were created with it. Now down to business…time for this homebrewer to geek out on what makes this ancient yeast so very unique, and why the entire story is so special to begin with.

It should be noted right from the start that creating beer from ancient yeast was quite a long shot from the very beginning, and Peter Hackett of Stumptown knew this when he signed on to collaborate with Cano on the project. Even though we speak of ale yeast as a species (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), there is a great deal of variation within that species; the very variation that helps gives rise to the plethora of variety present among ales brewed the world over. Many strains of the yeast simply don’t perform well in the hostile environment that is wort, with its alcohol and acidity, not to mention the limited availability of oxygen. Any homebrewer knows that viability (health) of the yeast is very important, even with modern yeast…what effect would 45 million years in amber have on the viability of the strain? The bottom line is, this yeast was very unlikely to create a reasonable beer at all, let alone a critically acclaimed one which Hackett himself said was like nothing he’s ever had before.

To his credit, Hackett decided to press on, and found that this was indeed a very unusual strain. When first pitched, the yeast takes longer than most modern ale yeast to kick in, but when it does – make room. It has a very vigorous, even violent, top-fermenting initial phase that creates a very thick foam at the top of the fermenter. Then it does something I’ve never heard of in an ale yeast. It drops to the bottom of the fermenter, leaving the wort nearly clear. Normally this would be called flocculation and mark the approximate end of fermentation, when the yeast goes dormant to wait for more food (though more accurately a small portion of the yeast would remain in suspension and keep working longer, after other cells had flocculated). But Cano’s yeast doesn’t stop working. It keeps going, fermenting on the bottom of the vessel like a lager yeast would. Eventually, when fermentation slows to the point where the brewer is ready to put an end to it, they “crash” the yeast by cooling it to near freezing temperatures, causing any remaining yeast in suspension to finally give up and flocculate to the bottom so that they can be removed and the beer can be bottled. But here again, Cano’s yeast had other plans; refusing to crash, it simply keeps going – for another month! Apparently a 45 million year nap leads to an epic case of the munchies…

There are two other unique features about the yeast I’d like to mention. One is that it likes to work hot, even for ale yeast. It’s been used in a pale ale that ferments above 70 F, and a wheat beer that ferments at 68 F. My sources suggest that typical temperatures for these two styles would be something around 67 for a pale and as low as 62 for a hefeweizen (though there is some debate that would place it as high as 67, but I’ll go with Jamil Zainasheff on this one). I would speculate that this is because the Eocene epoch from which the yeast hails had a much warmer, tropical climate than the one we currently inhabit, and the yeast was evolved to this climate. My intuition would be that this higher temperature would mean more esters and phenols (fruit and spice) in the finished beer, and tasting notes of others (which were discussed in our other article) seem to bear this out.

Another unique feature is that the strain is apparently unable to digest any but a small range of carbohydrates, far fewer than modern brewer’s yeast. Cano believes this also contributes to the spicy character of the finished beer, though I’m not sure why since I’ve never heard of unfermentable sugar lending a spicy character to beer. On the other hand, unmalted wheat and rye are often described as lending a unique spiciness regardless of the yeast used, so maybe he is on to something. This does remind me of something I read recently about the difference between beer yeast and wine yeast. Apparently wine yeast also works with a smaller range of carbohydrates, and this gives beer made with wine yeast a cloying (overly sweet) finish, unless it is coupled with a beer strain or enzymes are added to the wort to break up the larger carbohydrates into simpler ones. They seem to have gotten around this for the Pale ale by using a lower starting gravity instead – less sugar in the beginning means that even though less is eaten, there is still less residual sugar at the end. A typical pale ale would start at a specific gravity of about 1.058 to 1.065, but the pale ale brewed by Hackett starts at only 1.050, which means that there is roughly a fifth less sugar dissolved in the wort at the start of fermentation.

As for those bottles they intend to roll out to the rest of the country…Cano has patented the yeast strain, and sequenced its genome so that he can enforce the patent. This would prevent unauthorized brewers from conjuring up cultures of the stuff from the dregs of these bottles (apparently Cano doesn’t intend to filter the product). I am ambivalent about this, because while I respect his right to protect his “babies” as he calls them, I’d like to see such a unique strain be as widely available as possible to further the cause of innovation and creativity with its use. However, I suppose this is where homebrewers come in to play; after all, Rogue’s patent on its PacMan yeast hasn’t stopped many a homebrewer from trying their hand with a sample.

08/4/09

Liquefied Sweat Sock: The Geuze

One of the topics we intend to cover on this blog, which is not well understood by alot of American craft beer drinkers, is the insane beauty that is Belgian brewing. The Belgians do things a little differently than everyone else. The best way I can think of to introduce this concept is to talk about The Geuze.

We Punks always refer to “The Geuze” in a monolithic sense, with a simultaneous reverence and terror. This is a very unusual beer. In reality it is simply the most extreme version of the Lambic style of Belgian beer. Other examples of Lambic beer are far less extreme, examples including the fruit lambics such as Framboise (blackberry) or Kriek (cherry). If you’ve ever met a girl that claimed not to like beer, get them a Lindeman’s fruit lambic. They won’t believe it’s beer, but it’s sure to please; Lindeman’s Kriek tastes like black cherry soda in my opinion. Those of you that think Sam Adams makes a Cranberry “Lambic” might want to leave the room now. The beer may be tasty but it’s certainly not a lambic.

What sets Lambics apart from other beers is that they are not fermented by carefully cultivated, house broken Saccharomyces yeast. No, these beers undergo a process known as Spontaneous Fermentation. This is precisely what it sounds like: the unfermented wort is pumped into a kuhlship (an empty one from Allagash is shown in the image to the left) and left at the mercy of whatever little beasties happen to be present in the rafters of the brewery (or farmhouse as is often the case) or even blowing in through the open windows. This invites all kinds of species, not just wild yeast but even bacteria such as Lactobacillus to leave their mark on the wort. This brings us to the title (and one of the most pronounced flavor characteristics of The Geuze for many drinkers) – Lactobacillus is a bacteria that produces lactic acid, which is commonly found in sweat and gives The Geuze a sour odor that many people describe as similar to foot odor. Traditional Lambics are primarily brewed in a small area around Brussels, seasonally from October to May, when the weather limits the presence of undesirable bacteria. This reigns in this character a bit, but pick up any Geuze at your local liquor store and it will likely be unmistakable.

Spontaneous fermentation also gives rise to one of the more unique aspects of brewing a true Belgian Lambic: the art of blending. Just as different malts of scotch are blended, and in times of yore aged beer was cut into batches of new beer to “bring it forward” with a hint of aged complexity and tanginess (a tradition that Guiness still carries on in a way with intentionally soured batches for their Foreign Extra Stout), so do highly trained Belgians round out the differences in flavor from year to year by blending batches. If one year’s vintage got too much Lacto, that sourness can be offset by blending it into a previous year’s vintage that just wasn’t quite sour enough.

In this way, you can start to see why Belgian breweries have been around for so long and have not really changed much in the hundreds of years they have been brewing the same beer. Indeed there are stories of breweries that had to be shut down when it became necessary to move the old farmhouse the beer was brewed in; because the environment had simply changed just enough that they could not produce the same beer. There are also jokes about breweries whose beer simply didn’t taste the same after the old farmhouse dog died, because he wasn’t there to sneeze in the vats anymore.

And what about those fruit lambics? The sourness here tends to be undercut by the introduction of fruit after an initial period, which sets off a whole new round of fermentation. But if homebrewers are any indication, the insanity doesn’t end here. I have heard reports of otherwise sane and reasonable home brewers smashing their fruit and simply throwing it into the batch without any particular sanitation protocol, under the theory that any microorganisms on the fruit itself will simply add complexity to the fermentation character of the beer. Supposedly the results are quite good, if not exactly reliable.

As for tasting notes, the Punks have tried The Geuze on three occasions. First (always the guinea pig) I tried the Lindeman’s Cuvee Rene at home, and was unimpressed. The flavor was simply far too sour to get behind, though oddly (and disturbingly) the foot odor nose on it started to almost grow on me by the end of the bottle – almost. Maybe the worst of it dissipates with time, or maybe you become desensitized.

Eager to share the unpleasantness, I talked Mike into trying a Cantillon Geuze, also at home. Mike was forever changed. He said, and this is an exact quote, “I may never be able to drink Belgian fruit beer again.” (Remember, the Belgian fruit beers are built on a Lambic base, so some of the same flavor characteristics were present, but in a far more pronounced way in The Geuze.) He has largely kept good on this, as I have never seen him order a Belgian fruit beer since, and this was one style he would often try, before he met The Gueze.

The third occasion, however, brings us to the heart of the matter. Once at the Sunset I heard someone order a Cuvee Rene, and struck up a conversation with the gentleman. He said that he really enjoyed The Geuze, they had a certain dry complex character that reminded him of wine. Lindeman’s website describes The Gueze as cidery, winey, and reminiscent of dry vermouth. Tasting the Cuvee Rene with that for a new point of reference, I could almost (not quite) see what some people like in the stuff. Frankly, it’s not my thing, but it almost made sense to me, for a fleeting moment. This is why when the Punks refer to The Gueze, it is with both fear and reverence. This is, perhaps, the Mount Everest of beer appreciation, and the complexity of producing it is surely the pinnacle of insane, beautiful brewing.