06/30/09

Harpoon Boston Brewery Tour Notes

Harpoon, the venerable South Boston brewer of Harpoon IPA (one of the few earning a solid four out of five from the Punks) and UFO (which earns somewhat lower marks but we’ll get into that in our next article on yeast) got it’s start in a bathtub in my own current home town of Brighton in western Boston. Maybe that’s why I’ve had a soft spot for them all this time and was greatly disappointed some months ago when I found that they offered no tours, only tastings.
After the ACBF last Saturday, I attended a session at my beloved local, the Sunset Grill and Tap and met Kate, a newcomer to the Bay State, who was also a fan of the brewery. We decided to take a trip out to see them. It wasn’t until I checked the times that I found they had finally starting offering not just tastings, but also tours as of April. Perfect timing!

The following weekend, after an arduous journey down town, including three transfers, a threat of thunderstorms, and a bitter cold wind that we were not prepared for, we arrived…and were promptly turned away, as they had just sold out the last tour. Defeated, we walked away from the brewery trying to figure out what to do now, when to our delight the guy at the door (our new best friend) chased us across the parking lot to inform us that they had just decided to run an extra tour that afternoon. Score one for Harpoon!

This was the first brewery tour I had been on since I started actively brewing, which I must say is a very different experience. In the past, being unfamiliar with brewing terms and the brewing process, I had a difficult time keeping up with everything and didn’t really absorb anything because there was too much new information to handle all at once; now having been engrossed in the process for so long, the terms were familiar, which left me with enough spare brain cells to actually think critically and ask questions.

The tour started out simply, with a typical overview. Taste the grains, smell the hops pellets, try politely not to laugh while the casual beer drinkers in the group taste the hops or cringe when the aroma burns their nostrils. This is the grain mill, that is the mash tun, then we lauter, boil, … None of this was anything I hadn’t seen before on other tours, or done on my own a dozen times. Then we descended to the floor, where we could see the lower parts of the conditioning tanks, and they did something I’ve never seen a tour guide do. They started pouring samples of the green beer.

For those who don’t know, “green” doesn’t refer to the color of the beer, it’s just what they call beer that hasn’t finished conditioning yet. This means it is the freshest beer you will ever drink; it hasn’t been filtered, it hasn’t been carbonated. It contains yeast, larger proteins and polyphenols, and possibly even some sediment from the spent hops and grains (though that seemed to have settled out of this particular sample). The reaction to this was even more dramatic than to the hops, with most of the participants actively seeking a trash can or bucket to spit into. It was nothing new to me, as I always sample what’s left over after bottling, and drink the samples I use for hydrometer readings (more on hydrometers in a later article). Frankly, it’s one of the things I love most about brewing, and something that until now you really had to be a brewer to experience.

But a few among the group did seem to enjoy the green beer, despite not being homebrewers (for the record, Kate was one of them). To anyone who takes the tour and likes the green beer, I recommend seeking out cask beers, which in many places are available (if at all) only at the finest beer-oriented bars, but are well worth the effort of finding. The only difference between the green beer served on the Harpoon tour and a properly served cask beer is that the flavor has matured slightly, and that cask beer is served warmer, at cellar temperatures in the fifties rather than the low thirties at Harpoon. Cask beers are among my favorite, so look for at least one later article singing their praises and explaining to you why on earth you’d ever want to drink your beer cloudy, warm, and flat.

Having passed the high point of the tour for me, they continued on to talk about how the beer is filtered, then force carbonated, and either bottled or kegged. Harpoon has two breweries, one in Boston the other in Vermont, apparently Boston is the only site with an automated kegging machine, so the Vermont brewery only kegs beer if needed to supply the tastings. The tour guide also related a story of how the mix packs are produced…apparently it is a manual process of filling boxes with two bottles of each variety, and occasionally takes place in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Finally convinced that a career in brewing was not for me…we moved on to the warehouse, which was quite a site to behold, two long rows of palates stacked over 30 feet high with cases of beer. The brewery had just had an event, apparently, but when fully stocked, one can walk down the aisle and touch beer on either side of them; quite a sight to behold, I’m sure.

After about a half hour on the tour, we were brought back up to where we started for a half hour tasting, just like the old days before they started giving tours. It was here, staring at the wide selection of beer, made from a single yeast strain, that the brewer in me started to wonder how they do it…they even make lager beers (like their Octoberfest and Munich Dark) with an ale yeast! This is homebrewing 101, match your yeast to the style you are brewing, people…

In my next article I will explore how they did exactly that, the advantages and limitations that a single yeast strain creates for the brewer, and finally why that has doomed the UFO series to such low esteem among us Punks.

Practical note: tours are only offered on the weekend and cost 5 dollars, 3 of which goes toward your tasting glass (which you can keep) the rest of which goes to charity. During the week no tours are offered, but there are free tastings, but no free glass. The brewery store also has lots of merchandise, though some is near heinously overpriced (fifty dollar hoodie anyone?), and you can also buy beer, cider, or soft drinks, including the somewhat rare Leviathin and 100 Barrel Series, and growlers of anything (I believe) they have on tap.
06/30/09

A Korean Beer Quest II: Seoul Microbreweries

While traveling abroad I found myself in Korea for two weeks with no real agenda. So one evening I decided to take a friend’s advice and explore the city’s Apgujeong district, known as ‘Apgu’ for short. Apgu is known to be the city’s high end residential, fashion, and restaurant district. To my surprise, mixed in amongst Seoul’s numerous soju tents (quite an experience), trendy martini bars, clubs, and dives, I found two hidden gems. I was lucky enough to stumble upon not just one, but two microbreweries, and only blocks apart.

The first of the microbreweries was a bit of an eclectic establishment referred to, on their card at least, as Cafe, Pops Cool. The small staff consisting of a manager, a waitress, and a cook were all incredibly polite, and this was despite my lackluster Korean language skills. Communication at times was definitely a challenge, but all part of the local experience. Nevertheless, beer is a universal language, and once the staff recognized I was an advocate I was offered a tour of the premise, including the brewery. The brewery was quite small, but still impressive. That night they were serving two options a light beer and a black dunkel; I had both. The dunkel was definitely my preference, but both were vastly superior to the Korean mass-produced beer Hite or OB. Cafe, Pops Cool is definitely a good option for a quality brew from a friendly staff while touring Apgu.

Next on the list was Platinum Microbrewery also located in Apgu (there are apparently two in Seoul). This bar/restaurant was clearly designed to be more modern and high-end when compared to Cafe, Pops Cool’s, and this showed in the prices. It was a rather large dimly lit space that would be great for a date. The food and beer list was quite extensive with seven beers on tap. The food was decent, and the beer was satisfactory. However, I preferred the dark beer from Cafe, Pops Cool to any of Platinum’s selections. But, if you do find yourself visiting be sure to try the beer sampler, its the biggest bang for your Won. If my memory serves me correctly, then I believe Platinum’s Belgium White, at least to me, was the most impressive option.

If you liked this article then you would likely find this posting from seoulgirl discussing Seoul microbreweries, especially Platinum, an interesting read.

Also, I will soon be visiting the Seatlle area, and hope to do some beer related touring and tasting, so please email me or leave some comments to this post with any suggestions.

06/29/09

A Korean Beer Quest: Into the DMZ


This may sound cliché, but this is how it happened… One Sunday evening while I was touring a famous section of Seoul called Apgujeong; I stepped into an unassuming bar aptly named Rock and Roll Pub. There I sat drinking very reasonably priced Leffe Browns when I noticed another American. Being friendly as I am I went over and said hello. This quickly led to quite a drinking session for a Sunday night. The other American, who was named Adam, turned out to be quite the worldly character with an array of exciting stories from across the globe. But, one story particularly caught my attention. He told me that years ago when he was touring the DMZ between North and South Korea, there in a little shop he found North Korean beer. I was shocked and excited. Might I as well be able to try the forbidden brew? All I knew is that I needed to find out. I could only imagine Hogan’s reaction if I had to tell him I passed on this beer-related quest. The next day I booked my tour.

I was a little unnerved to discover my pickup was scheduled for 7:00AM knowing in all likelihood I would be at least slightly hung-over, but there was no way I was going to pass on the chance to explore the DMZ and maybe try some of North Korea’s finest. The guide arrives at my hotel; her name is Choi, and it turns out I am the only person on today’s tour, a private tour! Now I really can’t complain. After some general chit chat I decide to ask her the question really on my mind, “Will I be able to purchase North Korean beer on this tour.” Her response, “Can’t say I ever heard of that.” My heart sank, was Adam wrong?

We arrive and after watching a quick introductory film on the DMZ, which oddly gives the impression that the place is something akin to Disney Land, despite the 10 million landmines. We start off touring the 3rd infantry tunnel. This tunnel was secretly dug by the North Koreans to accommodate a potential sneak attack on Seoul, scary when you think about it. Hopefully one day these tensions ease and the tunnel can be used for something more worthwhile like beer running.

Outside the tunnel I notice a small gift shop; I start to wonder. However, as I walk through the door hope fades quickly. I immediately notice all the typical touristy wares: postcards, T-shirts, etc… One unique item was a small paperweight like object featuring a piece of barbed wire from the original DMZ. By this point I was sure even if there ever was North Korean brews sold in the DMZ they were long drank, it was time for me to just enjoy the day…

I called a last minute audible and decided to pickup some water before we left, so I headed over to the small fridge. My eyes lit up like Ponce de Leon discovering the fountain of youth; there it was… the prize, Taedonggang Maekju! I couldn’t believe it, there it sat unassumingly surrounded by bottled water and North Korean Soju. I immediately rejoiced and made the purchase. I didn’t however imbibe the beverage until I reunited with Hogan, so by this time it had become somewhat skunky, but was still rather refreshing; overall we both thought it would be a decent beer. But by this point it wasn’t about the taste it was about the journey.

Here is a great article from Reuters discussing the background of this beer in pretty good detail.

06/28/09

American Craft Beer Festival 2009 Part Two: Tasting Notes

Now that we’ve gone over some of the practicalities, lets get to the beer. Remember, we were only able to cover a small subset of what was at the festival, and we were focusing on beer we can’t find locally, so New England microbrews will be underrepresented.

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!

06/28/09

American Craft Beer Festival 2009 Part One: Practicalities

Last weekend, the Alstrom Brothers threw one heck of a party, and the Punks were in attendance. We thought we’d throw out a few quick thoughts on the practicalities of attending beer festivals. In our next post we’ll reveal some of the gems we unearthed. If we don’t get to your favorites, cut us some slack, with 300 beers at the festival, we could only cover so much ground. But we look forward to hearing comments from those in attendance.
So I, being the only one lucky enough to be a Boston resident, made it to both evening sessions, the first night with wonderful new friends from out west, the second with Mike and Helen. The first thing we’d like to point out is that, if possible, you should attend the Friday session. I guess out of towners (like Mike and Helen) can’t generally attend on a weeknight. As a result, the crowds were much smaller, meaning significantly shorter lines, less trouble navigating the facility, and potentially friendlier staff since they weren’t being mobbed. In fact, if we have one critique of the festival, it’s that they seem to have sold too many tickets to the Saturday session, and were only using about a third of the facility. At times it was impossible to move, let alone take notes.

The second thing to note is that if you are a serious festival goer, you might want to bring a secretary to take your notes (might as well ask your designated driver…in for a penny in for a pound, just make sure to get them something nice). I found it very difficult to juggle my tasting glass, beer list, and pen all at the same time. It also helps if your notetaker is in the legal profession, as they’ll be familiar with shorthand and are used to taking extensive notes. Our Friday notes read like the back of a napkin at 4AM; our Saturday notes like a court transcript.

Oskar Blues was also distributing necklaces with a beer can on them. We didn’t figure it out until it was too late to be useful, but this is not a spitoon, and not necessarily a fashion accessory either. We did, however, see people keeping their taster in it while they took notes. Very handy, indeed.

Finally, if you’re going to any beer festival, always remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, so pace yourself. This is often repeated, and with good reason. To that we would add, it’s not about “getting your money’s worth” either. When we ran the numbers we decided we had paid the equivalent of over six dollars a pint (remember you are only getting two ounces at a time, and you have to wait in line for that even). You’re not here to drink lots of beer cheaply, you can do that at home. You’re here to taste beers you can’t find anywhere else. This also means you should probably shy away from your old favorites for a change and try to find some new ones. So take your time and get searching.

06/28/09

Who are the Trappist Punks?

The world of beer goes deeper than the line of taps at your favorite watering hole. It goes deeper than the cooler at your corner liquor store. Simply put the world of beer is much larger than most people dare to imagine.

The Trappist Punks are explorers of this vast world. We brew beer. We taste beer. We talk about it, drive hours just to find new ones, and try to learn more about this wonderful beverage, how it’s made, and the people who keep the beer world alive. The more we learn the more we find is left to learn. That’s why we’ve decided to share our journey with you, because together we can see further.

Like most things, it all started simply with a series of small, seemingly inconsequential experiences. A brewery tour here, and brewpub there, a failed experiment with a Mr. Beer kit. Over the past five years our interest has turned into a virtual obsession. We seek beer while travelling, from coast to coast, to our neighbors in the north, and even to North Korea. Hogan in particular is becoming frighteningly obsessed with the technical side of brewing and how the magic four ingredients – malt, hops, water, and yeast – can produce such a wide variety of different beers, and the imaginative mad scientists behind the creation process.

We are not beer snobs. I’m not even sure either of us have ever met a beer snob. We are, however, passionate beer people. Sometimes beer people can seem a bit unapproachable to newcomers, like they speak another language. This needn’t be the case; we feel you can geek out on beer without losing everyone else in the room, if you do it right. We also feel that while it is sometimes exciting to hear about strange local customs from around the world or obscure farmhouse breweries, what we all really need is a usable road map to navigate the beer world. That is what we hope to provide. And we look forward to the help of our readers on this one, because after all, we can only draw a usable map for our own little corner of the world, and the few places we’ve been.

So you have a choice. You can go back to the warm embrace of your fizzy yellow corporate masters, or you can look a little deeper and see what else there is for you, a little deeper in the cooler.