Earlier in the day it was announced that President Obama would be drinking Bud Light, Professor Gates Red Stripe, and Officer Crowley Blue Moon. The issue CNBC raises is that none of these beers are actually produced by a fully owned US company. Anheuser-Busch is now run by Belgium’s Inbev, Blue Moon is produced by the Molson Coors Brewing Company in Toronto, and Red Stripe is a product of Jamaica.
Inspired by my own recent article on Cask Ale, I decided to try my luck. I say try my luck because everytime I order a Cask Ale at the CBC, the cask seems to have mysteriously “just kicked.” This time I lucked out, they had an ESB with Columbus hops. The first thing I noticed was the sparkler tip on the spout, and the fact that a second beer engine next to it had none. You see sparkler tips are added to the end of the spout to agitate the beer on the way out. This strips some of the CO2 out of solution, giving you a nice creamy head. I believe this was actually the first time I ever had a cask ale with a sparkler tip, and the head held up much better than I was led to believe it would. It probably also contributed to a delightfully creamy mouthfeel. But what’s most important is that the beer engine next to it had no sparkler tip.
Sparklers are a bit of a touchy subject among cask beer aficionados. They do give a creamy head and improve on the presentation of the beer, but they also strip some of the delicate hop compounds and a good bit of bitterness out of the beer itself and deposit it in the head. This can throw off the balance of the beer (not only by removing hop bitterness, but also by removing dissolved CO2, which lowers the acidity of the beer). It also sort of mutes the hop character a bit. Neither of these is necessarily a problem though, as long as the recipe was formulated with these effects in mind. If a beer was meant to be served with a sparkler and is served without it, it may be too harsh. If it was meant to be served without it and the establishment ignores the brewer’s recommendations in the name of showmanship, then the character will suffer and the beer will be milder than it should be. The fact that they have one of each at the CBC tells me that they have kept this debate in mind and are consciously considering these issues when formulating recipes and serving their cask beers, and that is a very encouraging sign. I don’t have much experience with the ESB style, but the level of harshness and hoppiness was about what I would have expected – the hops were clearly present in the nose and flavor but not overly assertive, sort of punctuating a more assertive, slightly toasty, nutty malt. The serving temperature was also appropriate, so I’m going to add CBC to the list of Punk-approved Casks in the Boston Metro area. Mike, who’s not as into casks as I am, agreed with me that this had earned at least a four out of five.
I was certainly glad that I went straight for the cask as well, because Mike and I soon discovered why they’re always out. Apparently the CBC taps their cask Tuesdays at 5PM and they are kicked within hours. The reason? Even though it is being served from a barrel-sized vessel (about 31 gallons) there’s only about 5-7 gallons in the cask when it is tapped. I was shocked at this, since that’s the same volume most homebrewers work with, I expected far more from a brewpub as popular as CBC.
Most likely they are trying to have a quick turnover because, as I’ll discuss in more detail in a later post, casks are living beasts and need to be finished quickly before wild yeast infections and oxidation take too much of a toll. But personally, I would advocate that they either start tapping more than one cask a week, or fill the casks a bit more.
I’ve heard (though I can’t really confirm or deny it) that a properly stored cask is still usable for up to three days, and in fact the aging of the beer over that time period can actually be viewed as a positive thing, adding complexity. Go much past that and it goes downhill fast, but in the beginning the changes are slow and sometimes welcome. At any rate, CBC has made the list of approved Casks, and you should try to make it out there if you are in the area on a Tuesday. Just don’t dawdle!
Once Mike and I had kicked the cask (literally…we managed to snag the last pint) it was time to move on. Now the beer menu at CBC includes four house brews that tend to be pretty safe (if somewhat boring) beers styles: the Regatta Golden Kolsch, the Tall Tale Pale Ale, the Cambridge Amber Ale, and the Charles River Porter. Usually, Mike and I skip over these and go straight to the seasonals, looking for the biggest, Belgianiest thing we can find. But this time we decided to try the whole lineup for once. We got tasters of the four house brews, as well as two of the lighter options on the seasonal menu, the HalfWit belgian wheat and the Hefeweizen. It should be stated that I’m not a fan of tasting things from taster size glasses. For one thing, it’s tough to get a good nose off of such a small sample, filled to the brim because there’s nowhere for the aromas to collect themselves at the top of the glass. But we had alot to accomplish here, and both of us had to work the next day.
We found the four house brews were nearly all over-hopped for our taste. None were outrageously over-hopped, and many craft beer drinkers would likely disagree with us on this one. If you really like hops, you can’t really go wrong with any of the house brews. For Mike and I though, this kept most of them down to only a three out of five. The beers also shared a bit of creaminess in the mouthfeel which was very welcome.
The Regatta Golden Kolsch was the exception, which displayed an appropriate level of malt and no really significant hop presence, just a delightful citrusy flavor that could have come from either a light application of hops or yeast effects.
We both felt that the Pale would make a much better IPA than a Pale Ale. It wasn’t that it was a bad beer, but the hoppiness seemed a bit much for us to consider it a Pale, but I suppose that’s fashionable. One thing I noted, however, was that drinking the dregs of the Pale Ale taster after it had warmed was a bit more pleasant. There was some nice notes of butterscotch that came out as it warmed up, and I suspect this one would make a fantastic cask ale.
We also found the coffee notes in the Porter to be a bit too assertive, as was the hops in the aftertaste. But again, this is highly palate dependent.
The most interesting of the house brews, however, was the Cambridge Amber. Again it seemed over-hopped for an amber, but the malt complexity helped balance this and make it a very fine beer indeed. I picked up a hint of smokiness that I really latched onto and Mike and I both got welcome notes of peach, probably yeast derived. This was the only beer from the main lineup that earned a four out of five.
The Hefeweizen was interesting too, in that it seemed to suffer the opposite affliction of most American brewed hefeweizens. Usually American brewers tend to eschew the more phenolic yeasts used by the Germans in favor of estery american ale yeasts. The result is fruity, often overly citrusy, and wholly unpleasant to me. It seems CBC took the opposite extreme here with the phenolic notes being a bit too assertive for me. I gave it a three, but it might have warmed on me had I had longer with it.
The Half Wit was one of the drier Belgian White Ales I’ve had, but I think that’s appropriate to the style. The citrus orange flavor was a bit more mild than I’m used to as well. It had the expected coriander notes and a balanced flavor. It also went down quite smooth. Personally I had to give it a three because the dryness was too much for me, but Mike liked this one alot, and gave it a four.
After the dainty tasters it was time for what we love best: the big, the bold, and the Belgian. CBC really shines when it comes to the big, unique beers that Mike and I enjoy, employing lots of wood aging, Brettanomyces yeast, bacterial cultures, and anything else they can find to make the best beer possible. The higher alcohol beers on their seasonal menu are what keeps us coming back; they might not be for everyone but often seem tailor-made to our malt-and-yeast starved palates. Also, don’t let the fact that they refer to them as “seasonals” fool you. This portion of the menu is ever changing and if you find something you like, you need to take advantage of it as much as possible. Mike still feels the sting he experienced when hearing months ago that they had run out of the Kendall Weiss Berlinerweiss (codenamed “the Woodruff” by the Punks). Be forewarned, the best beers here will not stay around long and are often unavailable in growlers, so come early and often while you can.
Mike started off with the Cerise Cassee, a sour wild ale with cherries fermented slowly by a cocktail of wild yeast strains and bacterial cultures in French oak wine barrels. It was pretty aggressively sour, exhibiting some character that I’ve seen in CBC’s specialty beers before, reminding me a bit of sweet pickle juice. I’m a fan of pickle juice mind you, but not generally in my beer. The balance was a bit too sour for me and I probably wouldn’t order it again, but Mike really enjoyed the aftertaste, which reminded him of sour cherries, and it went down kind of crisp and refreshing due to all of the acidity. I gave it a two, Mike was more pleased and gave it a three. With a bit more sweetness in the balance I would have been more generous. One thing we could agree on, this one is not a session beer, but worth a try if you’re into funk.
The importance of balance was reflected in our more generous scores for the other two new specialty beers we tried. Both “YouEnjoyMyStout” and Arquebus had a detectable level of that same pickle juice tang in them, but both garnered four out five from at least one of us.
The Arquebus was referred to as a summer barleywine. Intrigued, I asked what that meant. The more familiar winter barleywine from CBC, Blunderbuss (which we’ve consistently placed somewhere between a three and a four) is a more typical barleywine: heavy, sweet balance, extraordinarily complex yeast and malt character, and very light on hops. The Arquebus includes honey and white wine grapes into the typical malt bill for a lighter, dryer character that is more seasonally appropriate. It also uses a bit more hops for slightly more bitter balance. Mike likened it to his much beloved mead (honey wine) that we often taste at the Sunset, but carbonated. I agreed – more specifically the flavor reminded me of a few samples of braggot I’ve tried (this would be mead with malt included along with the honey). There was a hint of tang to it as I said, but this was well balanced by the sweetness and hops. The nose was a bit harder for me to like, since there wasn’t as much hop and the sourness was thus much more assertive. On flavor alone I would have agreed with Mike that this was a four, but the nose was a little off-putting and I gave it a three.
YouEnjoyMyStout (the long name of which makes it a nice sobriety check for the bartender near last call, for sure) was a barrel aged imperial stout. Looking back at our notes, we had an opportunity to taste an aged YEMS sometime around the 20th anniversary of CBC earlier this year. We weren’t that impressed; we found the wood character was a little overwhelming. So we were a little skeptical about this one, but CBC pulled through. The wood character was much milder (probably due to the shorter aging period? I don’t know if they rack this one out of the barrels at some point) and offered a delightful, delicate coconut aftertaste that lingered well after the initial burst of chocolate had dropped off. The flavor had notes of that same sour pickly tang, but was well balanced by the roasty malt complexity. Comparing this to other Russian Imperial Stouts we’ve had, it was a totally different animal; tangy and far less hoppy, with a much lighter body (possibly due to their typical wild yeast treatments? their description doesn’t describe the fermentation of this one in any detail). We gave the 2007 vintage a two, but in retrospect I feel this was unjust. We were comparing it against a baseline we were quite familiar with – the RIS style – when we should have been tasting it as more of a Belgian specialty. This younger version was fantastic, garnering a solid four out of five.
Finally, Mike and I finished the evening by returning to an old friend: the Benevolence. Benevolence has been available at the CBC for some time now; it’s a truly unique beer, roughly based around Belgian lambic and Flanders sour ale brewing methods, coupled with lots of fruit and honey additions, aging in used bourbon casks. The CBC website does a far more thorough description than I could, so I won’t bother with the plagiarism. Just know this one’s a doozy. Last time we did a tasting, the Benevolence earned a five out of five, with Mike likening it to Port (I, the uncultured slob, having no idea what port tastes like, said it was chocolatey and fruity). This time the chocolate notes overtook all else, with Mike likening it to a chocolate martini. Then I picked up some plum, dark cherry, and other fruit notes. Then Mike caught some chocolate covered cherries and rum. Really not sure how to put this one, except to say that this is a phenominally complex beer that will offer up something different on every sip. Still very worthy of a five out of five.
Heaven forbid someone in your party is not a beer lover, the CBC also carries wine from Sutton Cellars of Sonoma, CA, who share their same penchant for wild fermentations. I tried some on a previous visit, I won’t do them the injustice of trying to give tasting notes on it, but it was a very interesting wine that even I could enjoy. This is, I understand, a rarity in the wine world, as vintners do not generally share the brewers’ penchant for such things as Brettanomyces and bacterial cultures.
As for food, we were underwhelmed by the nachos (they could learn a thing or two from the Sunset Grill and Tap on that one) but the pizzas are fantastic. Specifically we had the one with Italian salami and Banana Peppers. We’ve also had a mean Chicken Mole at the CBC on a previous visit, but it wasn’t on the menu this time. From what we’ve seen coming from the kitchen, some of their bar snacks are lacking, but the pizzas and entrees appear to be a good bet.
In summation, with their beer menu split between the simple and the sublime, and some interesting beer alternatives like wild fermented wines, as well as a respectable food menu and very sociable, open atmosphere, CBC is a great option for diverse groups in the Kendall/Central square areas of Cambridge. I’d go so far as to say it’s the best option for excellent beer in Cambridge/Somerville, if not for the fact that I crave variety more than anything and CBC only serves it’s own beer. It does sit shoulder to shoulder with Bukowski’s for this honor, however.
It’s an invitation to a benefit for the Multiple Sclerosis Society being held Sat 7/25 at the Publick House in Brookline, near where I live. I fully support the cause and encourage any hop heads out there to attend and do your part, and greatly respect that BA often throws together and promotes events like this in support of various causes.
What I’m less enthused about is the way it is being presented. “Enjoy insane IBUs and food that burns” … “demonically inspired, insanely-hopped abominations” … “depraved self-abuse of your palate” … honestly guys, who finds this appealing? Not to pick on BA here, because they aren’t the only ones guilty of such transgressions, they’re just catering to a subset of beer drinkers, and I’m just trying to enlighten those same drinkers as to what IBUs and bitterness really mean in the greater context of beer.
Again, please come out to support this cause, especially if you are a hop head, but while you’re tasting these abominations, remember that there is a difference between hop flavor and bitterness, and that balance goes much farther than intensity when it comes to good beer; at least that’s this Punk’s opinion. Ignore the numbers, just taste the beer.
Here’s the details for anybody who didn’t get it:
* 20 (or so) tongue-numbing IPAs!
* Super spicy menu!
* Special guest appearances by the brewer, who will be laughing at the depraved self-abuse of your palate, lovingly inflicted by their demonically inspired, insanely-hopped abominations!
* Noon to 5pm. $15 charity cover at the door. Cash bar.
* 100% of the $15 cover goes directly to the MS Society, as does all proceeds made by the donated kegs.
Prepare to ThrowDown!
For updates, the list of beers, to tell other BAs that you’ll be there, and to see who else is going …
Cheers, hope to see you there, and spread the word!
Jason & Todd (Alström Bros)
Earlier this month New York City Mayor Bloomberg declared July 2009 as ‘Good Beer Month’ in NYC. I didn’t think too much of this at first, but looking a bit more into it I discovered the idea was petitioned by a group who are establishing a new rating system for the big apple. To be specific, they have created what they are calling the ‘Good Beer Seal’. The ‘Seal’ will be given to beer bars throughout the city matching a certain set of criteria.
1. Have 80% craft domestic or special imported beer.
2. Serve a good portion of their beers via draft or cask ale program.
3. Maintain a strong ‘pub’ vibe as a nice, local place to drink a beer and visit with friends.
4. Active community presence, as well as being independently operated.
5. Good beer should be a strong feature if not the focus of the operation.
Will this catch on? I don’t know… Do I want it to? I am somewhat mixed about that; part of me would enjoy a nice comprehensive list of great beer bars in the big apple. But, some of the allure that comes with being a well-traveled New Yorker is showing your out of town and in some cases local friends that hidden gem, which you hope isn’t terribly crowded. But, in the end both friend and foe should have a chance to drink good beer, so I wish the program lots of luck. I just hope they remain diligent and stick to their core values while awarding the ‘Seal’; I would be rather upset to see TGI Fridays pop up on the list… By now most of you are aware of my disdain toward TGI Fridays, it all started when they got rid of their Nachos Grande 8 or so years ago…
Several bars I suggest they look at:
David Copperfields (and yes to my dismay the magician guy does own it)
Rattle N Hum
The Ginger Man
Vol de Nuit (as a Belgium bar it might be a stretch)
Elysian Brewing Company: Located toward the far end of Pike Street away from the famous Pike Market, Elysian occupies a large concrete corner building clearly displaying the company’s insignias. The inside is separated into a restaurant/bar on one half with the brewery taking up the rest of the room, visible through clear glass windows. The food menu was pretty robust with several decent selections. But that wasn’t why I was there. As you would expect of most brew pubs the beer menu rotates, and the day I was there they had at least seven selections (I say seven because that’s how many I actually tried and I am sure there were more). They also have two sampler options the first of which is called the Elysian Sampler that includes their ESB, IPA, Porter, Pilsner, and Jasmine IPA. The other choice is the Bartender’s Sampler, and is akin an omakase of tastings, meaning the bartender selects what he believes to be the best choices during that season or day. I of course went with the Bartender’s Sampler. For me the sampler included the Loser Pale Ale, Saison Poivre, Son of Bete Blanche, Bifrost Winter Ale, and Hydra Hefeweizen. In addition I ordered taster size portions of the Perseus Porter and Dragonstooth Stout. Barring only a few exceptions, I really enjoyed my choices at Elysian. I rather enjoyed the Loser Pale Ale and the Dragonstooth Stout, while I found the Saison Poivre and the Hydra Hefwezein somewhat disappointing.
I found the Loser Pale Ale to have a bit of a hoppy/sweet nose with a light body, balanced flavor, and a clean finish. Pale Ales are not amongst my favorite category of beer, but if they were this one would definitely be a winner. I also believe this beer is a one-off production from the company, so get it while you can.
If you like-I mean really like-peppercorn then the Saison Poivre is for you. However, when I think peppercorn I can’t help but think of my perennial favorite Route Des Épices by Dieu Du Ciel in Montreal; Elysian’s Saison Poivre just can’t compare. The delicacy of the saison style just couldn’t hold up to the peppercorn; it works much better against the rye background chosen by Dieu Du Ciel. A more subtle application of the peppercorn would have been better received.
Like the search for the great American novel, the Punks have been on the lookout for the great American hefeweizen, but the white whale still eludes us. As a hefe fan I had high hopes for the Hydra Hefeweizen, but found the taste of banana to be somewhat overpowering leading to a slightly unbalanced beer. Schneider and Ayinger still make my favorite hefes.
The Dragontooth’s Stout had a great roasty and chocolaty nose, a smooth body, flavor punctuated with hints of chocolate and hops, and a slightly bitter and malty finish. My cousin commented that it would be a great burger beer, and I don’t disagree.
Fremont Brewing Company: After finishing up lunch we decided to head over to the Fremont Brewing Company. Now here’s the thing about this place, when I was doing my research I couldn’t figure out if they were actually selling beer yet. According to the internet, they were incredibly new and still in the midst of starting up, but we decided to take our chances. This risk paid off. We pull around an unassuming corner in a commercial/industrial neighborhood, and I get a quick glimpse through and open garage door of what appears to be a mountain of kegs and brewing equipment. We quickly parked and headed in. Once inside I was greeted by a somewhat bewildered and very busy staff. I introduced myself, and to my surprise they not only seemed happy for the intrusion, but eager to tell their story. I began speaking to Matt and Kemp, who to my surprise turned out to be the owners of the Fremont Brewing Company. I must admit anyone displaying this much enthusiasm toward the art is sure to succeed. I really appreciate the time these guys gave me as they were just about ready to finish up a big batch of their Universe Pale Ale.
Despite the fact they clearly weren’t quite ready to receive guests, I was still able to obtain a growler of their Universe Pale Ale, and even taste a sample of green beer right from the fermenter. It was a very pleasant beer, and I envy those people in Fremont who will be able to walk over to refill their growlers at anytime.
In addition to the Universe Pale Ale, Fremont will be offering an Interurban India Pale Ale, named after a nearby statue. Another aspect of this brewer I shouldn’t fail to mention is the fact that they try to utilize as many locally grown and organic ingredients as they can in a sustainable way. They will also soon open a tasting room on the second floor of their brewery with great views of Seattle and Mount Rainier; I recommend visiting if you are in the area. Fremont’s beer will be sold in kegs, cans, and growlers.
Hale’s Ales: Prior to leaving Fremont Brewing, Matt and Kemp, knowing my intentions for the day, suggested I try Hale’s Ales right down the block. How could I say no? Hale’s Ales is located between the Fremont and Ballard districts of Seattle in a large industrial/commercial area.
The building itself is spacious and contains both a brewpub and brewery serving a full menu of food. As you can tell by the name Hale’s Ales specializes in English style ales, and claim to have produced the first nitrogen conditioned ale in the US.
On that note the Hale’s Cream Ale was exceptional, and a must have if you visit. The bar staff seemed somewhat cold, but very knowledgeable. When I visited there were over 15 beers on tap organized by light, hoppy, malty, and dark. Unfortunately, being overwhelmed by the vast selection of beers, and realizing how many brewers I had left to visit, I was only able to sample four beers; the Troll Porter, Imperial Stout, Hale Cream Stout, and the El Jefe Hefeweizen. The Cream Stout was far and away the best beer of this selection, teetering on a 5 out of 5 on the Trappist Punk’s beer scale. My second favorite was the troll porter, while the El Jefe Hefeweizen was my least favorite.
Georgetown Brewing Company: Next we made our way over to the south side of Seattle and visited the Georgetown Brewery. Let me start off by saying this was without question was my favorite stop of the day. Nestled in an old refurbished industrial complex, the Georgetown Brewery served one of the best and most consistent lineups of beers I have ever tasted. The store itself is a small room in the brewery, which sells various logoed paraphernalia, and of course beer. They also offer free tastings.
The first beer I tasted was called Lisa’s Chocolate Stout, named after the brewer’s retail manager. It was fantastic. Quite possibly the best chocolate stout this mouth has ever tasted. Sadly, this beer was made for a special event, and despite being named after the retail manager, is not being sold. In fact, you can’t even purchase growlers from their store front; it is for tasting only, so get there quick! I was also told they use organic chocolate from Theo Chocolate in the brewing process. After tasting this masterpiece I had to try more.
Next on the agenda was the Nine Pound Porter, named after a neighborhood bar. Like the stout, this was another amazing beer. In a nutshell, it had a sweet nose, nice malty character, and an excellent finish. At this point I had to ask, “How can I get your beer in NY or Boston?” The answer, “You can’t…” At the moment Georgetown’s brews can only be found in Washington and Idaho, and maybe soon in Oregon. The owners are fearful of over expansion as they do not want to compromise the quality of their amazing beer; I can respect that, but wish I didn’t have to go all the way back to Seattle to refill that growler!
Finally, I tasted Manny’s Pale Ale and Chopper’s Ale and both were winners. The bottom line here is if you are in Seattle and looking for good beer you must go and seek out Georgetown Brewery…
The Pike Pub & Brewery: Next we made our way to The Pike Brewery located in downtown Seattle, very close to the famous Pike’s Market. I feared this brewpub would turn out to be nothing more than a glorified T.G.I. Friday’s, given its location near a tourist mecca. But, ever seeking diamonds in the rough, I had to give it a shot.
In the end though my hunch was correct. I had the beer sampler, consisting of a multitude of beers ranging from mediocre to bad, with the Kilt Lifter being the only exception. I sadly left the bulk of it behind; as I knew I had at least one more stop ahead and didn’t want to fill myself up with low quality beer. If you are in this neighborhood and are looking for a good beer, then I recommend going up the street a ways and finding the Elysian Brewing Company, you won’t be disappointed.
Black Raven (Redmond, WA): For the last stop of the day we found the relatively new Black Raven Brewery in Redmond Washington. The brewery was located on the outskirts of the city in an office/industrial complex. Redmonders and those who work for Microsoft can rejoice in the fact that within their midst has sprung up a superb brewery with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. According to my notes, and after several beers, I coined the Black Raven as “The Pride of Redmond”. It was clear from the moment I walked through the door that these guys knew beer; the beer list read was as large and varied as one would expect from any high-end European or American craft-brewer. Nor was the quantity out step with the quality.
I thought I was done with this, but turns out there’s one more in me relating to Harpoon. I promise this is the last one for a long time; this is not a Harpoon fansite after all, it’s a beer blog. That said…
First a recap. In our last article I discussed that there are two very important flavor compounds in yeast: esters (which taste fruity) and phenols (which taste spicy). Different yeast strains produce these in varying amounts, and Harpoon’s leans to the estery side without much phenolic character. I also discussed that brewers have various ways of reigning in the character of the yeast and making it less-estery or less-phenolic, but that they can’t turn esters into phenols, the character is what it is. With this in mind, I examined Harpoon’s lineup and found that they had selected styles that are defined by the BJCP style guidelines to contain either an estery profile or a clean profile (no esters or phenols to speak of). This is what allows them to brew consistently good beer in so many styles with only a single yeast strain.
This is a new way of looking at things for me. As a home brewer I don’t generally start with an ingredient and try to find ways to use it; I start out wanting to brew a specific beer or style of beer and then figure out how best to produce it. Homebrewers have this liberty because we are working in smaller batches and don’t have to worry as much about our supply chain. Our local homebrew shop always has what we need in appropriate quantities regardless of what style of beer we are brewing. But professional brewers make their lives much easier if they find a way to make many styles of beer without using niche ingredients or a dozen different strains of yeast.
I couldn’t help but think it would be fun to play brewmaster and try to brainstorm where they could go next. Just a quick disclaimer, I’m not so bold as to second guess the professionals (yet) and indeed Harpoon may have already brewed or be planning to brew any one of my ideas. Furthermore, they could have already tried and failed because the ideas themselves are no good; sometimes things that sound like they should work just don’t. No, I’m not being vain here, this is just a fun little exercise I decided to share with everyone; trying to climb inside the head of a professional brewer for a moment.
First, there’s the ales of the British and American tradition. As I said in the previous article, beers from these traditions tend to have an estery profile, so any of them would probably be a good choice. Indeed the Harpoon lineup already includes several of these styles for just this reason, but others are missing. However, the natural fit between this category and Harpoon’s estery yeast strain also makes this category less interesting, so I won’t dwell on it long. (Also, I apologize to the Scots and Irish for lumping them into the British category here, but you do share a somewhat similar brewing heritage, so think of it as shorthand not a slight. Slainte!) Styles missing from the current lineup include:
- Scottish Ales of any kind (one of my favorite categories), for which some fruity esters would be appropriate. If I were to add one to the lineup, however, I’d err on the cleaner side, Scottish Ales are supposed to be about malt, not esters.
- Stouts, which personally wouldn’t work for me. The roastiness would largely cover the esters, and if the esters showed through I’d view it as an unwelcome intrusion. The possible exception would be a sweet stout, for which some fruitiness might be nice, but I’d trade this one in for the absolute no-brainer:
- Porter. When I started thinking about it, I can’t for the life of me understand why Harpoon doesn’t already make one. Many good porters have fruity characteristics, and the Harpoon lineup is conspicuously light on dark beers (the wonderful Munich Dark being the main exception). I would even argue that the Porter would be a more natural fit for their yeast than the Munich Dark, which is based on a lager style that doesn’t play well with fruity esters.
Another obvious group to consider would be the hybrid beers. They’ve started making a Kolsch already (Summer Beer), which works quite well. Essentially, hybrid beers are beers that either use a lager yeast (which tend to be cleaner than ale strains) at higher temperatures to encourage esters and other byproducts, or use an ale yeast (which tends to be fruitier than lager strains) at lower temperatures to reign in the byproducts and estery flavor. The result is not quite a lager and not quite an ale (hence the name hybrid beer), but exhibits limited esters in an otherwise clean lager-like palate. I would encourage a push by Harpoon into the hybrids category since their yeast would play well here, and it would diversify their otherwise Brit-Am ale heavy lineup. Possibilities include:
- California Common (commonly known as Steam Beer, but that’s trademarked by Anchor Brewing Company). They’d want to make sure the beer finishes somewhat dry, and not go crazy on the esters.
- German Altbiers would also work, but I wonder if it would concern them to be playing in the same space as the widely popular Long Trail Ale. I don’t personally know of any other American breweries that make an Alt (pipe up if you do), but Long Trail is quite popular in Harpoons breadbasket of New England, so the competition might not be welcome.
- Cream Ale is an interesting option in my book. My first exposure to this style was a restaurant near South Street Seaport in Manhattan that served Genessee’s cream ale for a dollar a can (completely unheard of in Manhattan). I wasn’t quite a connoisseur back then, but it was a mighty fine cheap beer. Brewing this one to style is something Harpoon would have no interest in most likely, however, since the BJCP seems to make DMS (a compound found mainly in cheap beer that tastes and smells like cooked vegetables and is generally frowned upon) and the use of corn adjuncts a requirement. But I see no reason why cream ale can’t be a craft beer. One of the highlights of the Punks’ recent visit to Montreal was McAuslan‘s cream ale, which was nitrogenated for a velvety (you might say “creamy”) mouthfeel and sported a delightful, estery profile. Our notes don’t mention anything about cooked vegetables; it was quite refreshing and delicious. I can definitely see Harpoon making a splash in this style if they bend the style guidelines a bit like McAuslan did. And this is another style rarely touched by craft brewers, McAuslan is the only example that comes to mind, and that’s not distributed widely (if at all) in the US, so this one could definitely be a good move for Harpoon, I feel.
What about the lagers? We’ve already seen that Harpoon can make a reasonably good Munich Dark and a seasonal Octoberfest by toning down the esters of their yeast a bit. They might have a tad more esters in there than they would if they used a lager yeast, but this can be said to provide some additional complexity even if it’s not appropriate to style. Surely they could have similar success in many of the other lager styles, but some might be better choices than others. Let’s take a look at just a sample of what’s out there:
- Lighter lagers (like Pilsner or Helles) might not be a very good fit. I’m most familiar with the Pilsner style so I’ll work with that, but the category shares alot of similar characteristics and the analysis would likely apply to most of them. Good Pilsners are relatively delicate in character. They are full flavored for sure (Pilner Urquell is not your grandfather’s “true pilsner beer” – unless of course he emigrated from the Czech Republic) but the fullness of the flavor comes as much from good balance and restraint as anything else. Like soft chamber music, the notes may not be loud but they go together. I feel that even the restrained esters seen in some of Harpoon’s other lagers might overwhelm this style’s delicate sensibilities.
- Dark and amber lagers (like many american craft lagers, vienna lagers, and the german black “schwarz” beer). Harpoon already brews a Munich Dark that works out quite well. This is a bit safer territory than the lighter lagers for such an estery yeast, because (as I’ll be explaining in another post later this week) dark beers tend to exhibit a more complex malt character than lighter ones. This added complexity and boldness would help cover an errant ester or two from the yeast. However, since they already brew a munich dark, a beer in this category might not be differentiated enough to pursue.
- This leaves us with one of my all time favorites: the Bock. According to BJCP, traditional bocks and double (doppel) bocks are permitted to have some esters and fruitiness in their profile. I’ve tasted some very good bocks with fruit notes. The big problem here is that we are largely talking about different kinds of fruit. I would describe the profile of Harpoon yeast as mostly citrus fruity, with a hint of something else I’m going to call berry-like because it reminds me vaguely of berries, particularly strawberries. Most often bocks are described as similar to darker fruits such as plums, prunes, raisins, or even grapes. This flavor comes not from the yeast, but from the darker malts and from reactions that take place during the boil (again this will be discussed further later this week). I still think it would be an interesting addition to the lineup if the yeast is reigned in somewhat and a generous helping of darker malts and melanoidins is added to give the darker fruit notes. I can picture a brew where the brighter citrus and berry notes balance the rich dark fruity notes and create a fuller, more complex palate. I’m not sure it would work, but I am sure it would be fun to try.
Finally, the Belgians. I have to admit I wasn’t sure where to begin with this one, since I don’t know much about their beer styles. I love Belgian beer with a passion, but it tends to be difficult to lump into categories; so much so that when I try beers side by side from a single Belgian style, I can scarcely recognize that they have anything in common. Furthermore, the Belgians make extensive use of two things that would be problematic in this exercise: brettanomyces and sugar. Brett yeast would be out of the question here since that’s the entire point of this exercise, and the use of simple sugars rather than malt, while not wrong in any way, would be uncharacteristic of the other Harpoon beers, which are brewed entirely with malt. Nevertheless, I did my best to overcome these limitations and here’s what I came up with:
- According to BJCP, Belgian Pale Ales do tend to exhibit an estery profile. Using BJCP guidelines and Jamil Zainasheff’s Brewing Classic Styles I was able to find that the difference between a Belgian and the more familiar British Pale Ale appears to be 1) the use of noble hops rather than British varieties, which would lend a spicier hop character as opposed to citrusy or pine resiny, and 2) a slightly more phenolic (spicy) yeast character, though it seems that the phenols should be restrained by lower temperature fermentation. Harpoon could concievably pull this one off, since the phenols are more of an accent flavor than the main event here. However, if you remove the phenols you are left with a relatively small change in hop character, and the beer probably wouldn’t be far enough differentiated from Harpoon Ale (which is somewhere between an Amber and a Pale).
- Then there’s another Punk favorite, the Saison. This is an unusual one for me to like: very citrusy and very fruity, light in body, and heavily carbonated it represents the exact opposite end of the spectrum from my other favorite styles. But for some reason doing everything wrong just seems to turn out right in my book. The flavor profile of a Saison is an excellent match for Harpoon yeast, heavy on citrus and berry. BJCP does mention that light phenols can be present, or that they can be substituted for the use of actual spices – a practice I generally frown on. But in this case I might make an exception. The spritzy, highly carbonated, light bodied nature of Saisons seems to obscure some of the finer points of the flavor profile, and might successfully hide the use of spices in place of yeast characteristics. I think the real challenge here would come from the light body and dry finish; these come from exceptionally high attenuation by the yeast (that is the yeast keep working and eat a far larger portion of the sugars in the wort before shutting down, leaving a lighter body and not much residual sweetness, which gives the beer a dry character to the finish. Generally this is accomplished by the use of specialized yeast strains, different mash techniques, or the use of simple sugars in place of a portion of the malt. I’m not sure what level of attenuation the Harpoon guys can get out of their yeast, but if they are willing to let some sugar into the batch just this once, they could concievably pull it off. They might end up with a fantastic beer that is very different from others in their lineup, and makes great use of the unique estery profile of their yeast that they are so proud of. It might not make it into the main lineup, but would certainly make a great limited edition or specialty offering, similar to Brooklyn Local One from the Brooklyn Brewery.
So after going over the many possibilities, here’s my picks for what I’d most like to see next from Harpoon. A porter would be a natural fit, extending the British portion of their lineup and adding a bit more color to a relatively light lineup. Also a good fit, a cream ale, brewed not to the BJCP guidelines but to craft beer standards instead – more along the lines of McAuslan than Genessee (not to knock Genessee, it along with Yuengling are my personal lawnmower beers of choice, or would be if I had a lawn to mow).
Then there’s the extra credit, swing-for-the-fences brews. A bold, dark Bock style beer with a hint of Harpoon’s signature ester profile to balance the rich fruity malt notes, and a true-to-style Belgian-inspired Saison that really showcases, loud and clear, the citrus and berry notes I pick up in other Harpoon beers. Both of these, if they worked out, might work better as limited edition brews.
It was a fun exercise stepping into the head of a professional brewer and looking at the relationship between beer and yeast backwards for a change. I’m very pleased with the outcome and hope my rambling was either entertaining, educational, or both. Now enough harping on Harpoon for a while, later this week I’ll be discussing why some beer drinkers are afraid of the dark (beers that is) and why I think they shouldn’t be.
First, a tiny primer on yeast for the uninformed. Yeast are single-celled organisms that turn sweet wort into beer. They breed, then they feed, then they sleep until someone provides them more food (not a bad life if you ask me). During the feeding process, they turn simple sugars in wort into alcohol and carbon dioxide (which if trapped, as in bottle conditioned or cask beer, will naturally carbonate the beer). They also produce various other compounds that impact the flavor and aromatic character of the finished beer, among them esters (a class of compounds with fruity or citrusy flavor and aroma) and phenolics (a class of compounds with a spicy flavor and aroma).
What the tour guide was saying then, is that Harpoon selected and then patented their particular strain of yeast based primarily on the fact that the founders were particularly pleased with the estery profile it produced. The strain is also an ale yeast, which works quicker and is, by most accounts, less temperamental than lager strains (we’ll get into the difference in a later article). They must have worked very hard to find just the right strain, and I imagine that using a single strain is very convenient, in that it limits the chance of cross contamination within the brewery and makes the work of managing the yeast farm that much simpler. But how do they get away with it?
Lets break this down by style. I’ll be referencing the BJCP style guidelines alot for this; for those unfamiliar, this is the body responsible for certifying people to judge beer competitions (also not a bad life), and they are also the clearing house for style definitions in a way, so that all us beer geeks around the world can use a consistent vocabulary when discussing matters of style.
First the ales in the British and American tradition, as there is some overlap here. Harpoon brews an IPA, a combination Pale Ale/Amber Ale, a Brown Ale, and an Irish Red Ale in the Spring. American and British strains of ale yeast do tend to have somewhat similar, estery profiles, so it’s not surprising that the descriptions for nearly all of these styles make a mention of fruitiness or esters in both aroma and flavor.
The only exception is Irish Red, which is expected to contain no esters according to BJCP. However, there is nothing that says you can’t use an estery yeast to make a beer with a clean, ester-free profile. You can think of yeast profiles somewhat like a stereo with a broken tuning knob. You can turn the volume up and down (by playing with fermentation temperatures or pitching rates…more on this in another article), but there’s not much you can do if it’s tuned to the wrong station. Besides this, it’s possible that you can even make a fine Irish Red with a fruity, estery profile as well, it just wouldn’t fit into the defined style category very well.
When I started to consider the German styles in the lineup things got a little hairier, though. The Summer Beer (Kolsch) is no problem; BJCP describes it as a “Hybrid” beer made with a clean ale yeast. This is geek-speak for a beer made from ale yeast, working at very low temperatures to create a relatively clean profile (having less esters than the yeast would otherwise make) and then lagered to further round out the edges in the profile (lagering roughly corresponds to those conditioning tanks in the brewery, near which the air temperature drops a few dozen degrees!). The description also refers to some fruitiness in flavor and aroma, originating from fermentation; this is our good friend the ester at work, just with less potency than the British and American ales, brought about by a low fermentation temperature.
The German lager styles were a bit more troubling for me; that would include Munich Dark (or “Dunkels”) and the Octoberfest fall seasonal. Lagers ferment at temperatures much too low for ale yeast, resulting in a remarkably clean profile. This is why all the fizzy yellow American stuff is lager beer (though not particularly good examples of it…ask a German). It is possible to produce a lager beer with ale yeast, if you have a particularly clean, versatile yeast that can keep working at low temperatures and produce a fairly clean fermentation. When we taste the Harpoon lineup with this in mind this is pretty much what we find, fairly clean tasting beers that are probably just a tad more estery than some other examples brewed with lager yeasts; but honestly the extra complexity is not unwelcome for folks who live outside style boundaries.
This is good enough for Munich Dark; Dunkels are generally a clean but roasty lager (my intuition being borne out by BJCP, which says there should be no fruity esters or diacetal in Dunkels). But I’ve always known the Octoberfest/Marzen style to have a sort of unique spiciness to it, which I always attributed to the yeast (that is, from our old friends, the phenols). I checked the Wyeast and White Labs sites for their respective Octoberfest strain descriptions, and was surprised to find that neither made any mention of spiciness or phenols, focusing instead on the complex maltiness of the finished beer. A little further digging turned up that in fact, the spicy flavor I’ve found in other ‘fest beers probably came from the German “noble hops” so often used in these styles, rather than from the yeast profile. This example illustrates an important point that we’ll keep coming back to in later articles, that the brewer has many levers at their disposal to effect the flavor and aroma characteristics of the finished beer.
So far so good. All of the beers in the Harpoon lineup either have a fruity profile according to BJCP, or are fairly clean, both of which are achievable with an estery yeast. Winter Warmer (the winter seasonal) is a spiced beer, which can be of any style, so it’s not really covered by BJCP in any detail and we can ignore that one. The bulk of the flavor profile is most likely from the spices used, rather than the yeast. This just leaves the elephant in the room.
The Punks have a well known prejudice against the UFO beers. We are fans of Harpoon, and it has always caused us some inner conflict that some of their most commercially successful offerings are so unpalatable to us. It’s not that they’re bad beers, but something is amiss here as far as we are concerned, and the answer lies in the yeast.
The UFO series is Harpoon’s line of unfiltered wheat beers. It all started with the UFO Hefeweizen, which is a style with German roots. Then they added raspberry to it (we feel too much raspberry…ever crammed raspberries up your nose?) to make Raspberry UFO. Then recently they added UFO White, which is based on the Belgian White Ale (or Witbier) style of unfiltered wheat beer; this is our favorite from the series but still doesn’t quite make the cut for us. We’ll also lump in the new Crystal Wheat (or “Kristallweizen”) that has started showing up in summer mix packs as a limited edition brew, because as far as we can tell this is the filtered version of the original UFO, with some lemon peel for spicing.
The problem here, for us Punks, is that the base styles of these beers (which we love with a passion) use very specialized (and often temperamental) yeast strains. The German Hefeweizens use weizen yeast strains which produce a very complex profile rich in banana-like esters and clove-like phenols. The Belgian yeast used to produce traditional Witbiers, too, is known for a profile dominated by spicy phenols, at least according to the strain descriptions on Wyeast and White Labs sites. But the Harpoon yeast doesn’t have a significant phenol profile to speak of; it was selected specifically for its estery profile. So why would you use it in beer styles known for phenolic character?
What we have here isn’t an example of bad beer, or even beer brewed out of style, but an example of the Americanization of old world styles. One can now speak of an American Hefeweizen style that uses simple American ale yeast but lacks the complex clove and banana flavor of traditional German Hefeweizens like Punk favorites Ayinger, Erdinger, or Schneider; they tend more toward citrusy flavors (we’ve been known to describe UFO as tasting like you are sucking on a lemon…this is an exaggeration, but only slightly when compared to more traditional Hefeweizens). Likewise many American breweries are making what they refer to as White Ale by using typical American Ale yeast and getting the “phenolic” character by simply adding spices like coriander to the beer. The result is somewhat less than satisfying once you’ve had the real thing.
This doesn’t necessarily make UFO, or other Americanized beers for that matter, a bad beer. I wouldn’t dare be so unpatriotic so soon after our most hallowed national holiday. Sometimes we get it very right. I can’t think of a single English IPA that I’ve ever tried, even though the style originated there. It was originally brewed heavy and hoppy to survive the long journey to the military outposts in India, but I feel that it finally got its sea legs right here in the US during the craft beer revolution of the eighties and nineties (by the way, Harpoon makes one of our favorite examples of this style). But occasionally, when the base style is so defined by the yeast that makes it, why accept substitutes? This is why the UFO series will never really receive a passing grade from the Punks. It is a fine beer if you like these Americanized styles, and I encourage you to try it and form your own opinion. Just make sure to reach a bit deeper into the cooler and try it alongside one of the more traditional examples of the style I’ve listed above, otherwise you are doing yourself a great disservice. Harpoon brews a fine American Hefe – citrusy, crisp, and refreshing, it makes a decent alternative to your typical lawnmower beer – but intercontinental it is not.
One feels that even Harpoon brewers themselves are fully aware of the limitations presented by their one-yeast rule. This is no doubt why their specialty beer lineups, including the Leviathin series and Punk fave 100 Barrel series, have ditched the limitations and produced some very fine, unique beers in the process. But I must say, supported by the BJCP guidelines as well as my own palate, that they’ve done an excellent job of selecting styles that are appropriate for their chosen strain, even when those styles don’t match my particular palate.
First, the most consistently fantastic breweries. These are breweries that we tried multiple beers from and consistently scored high marks (4 or 5 on our scale from 0 to 5) by each of us.
- The Duck and Rabbit Brewery (NC): they describe themselves as the dark beer specialists, how could we resist? The RIS scored a 4, and the barleywine a 5. I also tried something else from D&R on Friday night but my notes are unintelligible as to what…all I knows is that (thankfully) I liked it enough to drag Mike and Helen back to them on Saturday.
- New Holland Brewing Company (MI): It’s a rare brewery that makes an Imperial IPA that gets rave reviews from the Punks, but New Holland managed to pull it off. The only thing that kept Imperial Mad Hatter from a five was a slightly harsher pine resin aftertaste than we like. Their Night Tripper Imperial Stout had no such affliction, the finish seemed so much smoother than our standard-bearing Stone RIS that I could knock them down all night (though it might make for a short night). In all fairness, I didn’t care much for the Saison I had Friday night, the body was a bit light for my taste. But that’s not out of character for a Saison, so I can’t really blame them; this is a case of the style not matching my palate rather than the beer not matching the style.
- Weyerbacher (PA): This was the one exception to our “try something new” rule. This is a perennial favorite of ours but is a little expensive at our local watering hole and had a relatively short line. The Old Heathen Imperial Stout had an intense chocolate flavor and a fantastic nose, though we were wanting for a bit more body (the Punks feel it isn’t a stout if you don’t have to chew before you swallow). This didn’t keep it from getting a five on our scale. XIV, their Belgian Wheat Wine was also a favorite of ours simply for its uniqueness. Pairing the unique spicy character of wheat malt with the complex sweetness of a barleywine earned them a four.
- Southampton Publick House (NY) – I’ve tried Southampton’s Saison before and was quite impressed. So impressed that I thought it was a Belgian brewery. Apparently they are based out of Long Island and make far more Belgian-inspired beers. I tried the Publick House 12 (Abbey Dark Ale) and was blown away (again my notes aren’t really intelligible on this point). I was so impressed that I returned for the Imperial Porter, which was equally impressive. Unfortunately Mike and Helen didn’t make it to this one so you’ll have to take my word on it, but suffice it to say there is a trip to Long Island in store for the Punks at some point.
Next, some musings on ingredients. We had a watermelon beer from Opa Opa that earned a four from everyone but me; I have a well known prejudice against fruit beers. For the record, Mike and I have tried the Watermelon Wheat from 21st Amendment (Come Hell or High Watermelon) on two occasions in the past (not knowing it was the same beer) and had radically different conclusions. We suspect it is because the quality of flavor in the watermelons used varies throughout the season; on one occasion it tasted somewhat artificial, on the other it was more natural. We both agreed that the Opa Opa beer had a more natural watermelon flavor than either of the 21A tastings, but that may have been influenced by the fact that they included a watermelon wedge that was nearly as large as our tasting glass. Note to brewers…nice gimmick but please don’t garnish a taster. I tried the dregs of the taster, trying to figure out what the base style was, but found the body was thicker than usual, because I was drinking watermelon pulp by that point. I wasn’t pleased.
I was, however, pleased and intrigued with the various beers containing rye as an ingredient. Several Rye-based IPAs were present, most notably two from Terrapin Beer Company in GA (The Rye PA single IPA, and Rye Squared, a Double IPA). I loved the way the spicy rye character played with the hop character and can’t wait to try playing more with Rye in his own brewing. The balance was relatively light on the bitterness and quite malty for an IPA (especially the DIPA), which is another well known Punk prejudice, earning both beers a four.
I also got a chance to try Dogfish Head’s Palo Santo Maron when the line was actually managable on Friday night. The thing that drew me to this beer was that the wood it was aged in is apparently designated a potentially endangered species. Make sure you get some while you still can, it was a fantastic beer: thick creamy mouthfeel, wonderful smokey nose, and a flavor reminiscent of a Russian Imperial Stout but more sour and less roasty (the actual style was Imperial Brown Ale). The finish was a little harsher and more bitter than I like, which kept it just shy of a five, but a very solid, respectible four.
Until next time, slainte!