Thursday, June 21, 2012

Hale’s Ales Brewmasters’ Dinner, June 18, 2012

Let me just get the apologies out of the way now. I went to this dinner fully intending to have some great material in terms of food and beer reviews. Unfortunately, after the first course, I was so enamored of the company, writing and updating my Untappd beer list both took backseat to conversation. Bad beer blogger. I’m sorry.

Let’s start with how I learned about the Brewmasters’ Dinner. A long-time friend brought them to my attention this past winter, but timing being what it was, we couldn’t attend. Then about two weeks ago, she shot me a text and let me know another was coming up. It’s timing fell on my sixth day of sabbatical, just two days before the National Homebrewers Conference; I couldn’t have planned it better. Did I mention my friend is a bartender at Hale’s and that I’ve known her since high school? Thank the Universe for Facebook and staying in touch with people.

Next, I should probably mention the menu, but before I do, let me get something off my chest. I have always been skeptical of food/alcohol pairings. It’s never mattered to me whether it was wine, spirits, or beer being paired—I’ve just always thought that pairings were more about personal taste than about any prescribable flavor combinations. The only thing I’ve known for sure is there are certain pairings I absolutely did not like.
I didn’t come by this opinion willy-nilly. I started seeing beer pairing suggestions in all sorts of media for at least a year preceding the beginning of my BJCP training. BYO Magazine, DRAFT magazine online, Men’s Health, Twitter, Facebook—all of them, at one time or another recommending various pairings that I dutifully tried. Time and again, I found myself disappointed by the limited pairings I tested. After a while, I gave up on taking the advice of the different sources I was reading, and I just started drinking whatever style of beer I was in the mood for.

All that changed at the Hale’s Brewmasters’ Dinner. All. Of. It.

The dinner was hosted at Hale’s Ales on Leary Way in Ballard, in their upstairs banquet room. The banquet room has a view of the open fermenters and the brewery. The brewers were busy at work, and the aroma of mashing grains filled the air. To say the location was perfect is an understatement.

With the brewery backdrop, we took our assigned table. A nice touch by the staff was the use of different Hale’s beers as centerpieces and to denote to which tables guests were assigned. I could not have been more surprised to learn that we’d be sitting and dining at the El Jefe Hefeweizen table with founder Mike Hale, himself, and an added bonus of Hale’s general manager, Phil O’Brien. I’m guessing it was no coincidence this beer was chosen for our table.

Menu-wise, it looked to be nothing if not calorific.

The Appetizer

After a brief welcome from Joe Messler, the restaurant manager, owner/founder Mike Hale and Head Chef Scott Sewell took center stage introducing first a brewer and then the dish. As each course was served, this would be the custom: a brief overview of the beers provided by a brewer then a short description of the dish and its preparation by Chef Sewell. Head Brewer Lincoln Zmolek introduced the Tart Wit and the Pale American Ale.

The appetizer was a house-smoked Sockeye Salmon Mousse served over Crustini with dressed Arugula. Two pairing candidates accompanied the mousse, Hale’s now-famous Pale Ale and a one-off Tart Wit. The mousse was incredibly light and fluffy, garnished with a sprig of fresh dill that was just the right amount for the mousse.

Hale’s Pale is a study in hop/malt balance, with neither ever taking center stage. As much as I love this Pale Ale, though, the pairing with the salmon seemed to improve it somehow. Sockeye is not overly fishy, and it needs beers with more subtlety for the complementary flavors to play nicely. Mission accomplished.
The Tart Wit was a very light, hazy summer-appropriate wheat beer. It completely fooled me, though. First, I’m not a sour beer fan; second, it had a distinct lactobacillus aroma combining with a citrusy lemon-like note. I was prepared to be underwhelmed. Somehow, though, the souring was exactly the right amount for me as well as to complement the salmon. Then I learned it was brewed with acidulated malt instead of a lactobacillus inoculation. My night of learning continued as I realized the selection of these two beers to be paired with the salmon was superb. Others at my table enjoyed the way the Wit paired with the dressed arugula and raspberries.

Unfortunately, the appetizer was the first and last course I took a picture of. Unfortunate, because almost every course was better than the previous, and I’m not saying that because of an alcohol-induced bias—although I will blame alcohol for the increased conversation that kept me from taking pictures.

The Soup

The next course was Avogolemono Soup paired with Hale’s Cream Ale and “25” Belgian Dubbel. Assistant Brewer Tyler Oien gave an overview of the beers before we dug in.

I’ve had the Cream Ale in the past, and as far as cream ales go, it’s always been a fair representation of the style. Tonight’s was different, and gave me one more reason to truly appreciate Hale’s motto, “Think Globally. Drink Locally.” Drinking this beer, freshly made, at the brewery, pulled right off the nitro—well, it’s a much different beer than having it elsewhere. More importantly, the pairing with a creamy, lemony Greek soup like Avogolemono couldn’t have been better. Don’t get me wrong—“25” goes really well with this soup, too, but there was something about the silky-smooth creaminess and the light bready tones in the Cream Ale that seemed to draw out all the best flavors in the soup. As for the “25”, it is possibly the most mild Belgian yeast strain I’ve tasted. That’s not to say the beer is not good. To the contrary. As a Dubbel, the malts take a more prevalent role in the experience than the yeast typically would, offering raisin-y and caramel notes that also played well with the cream in the soup, again upsetting my preconceived pairing doubts.

The Main Course

The soup was followed by the main course—a choice of lamb chops or salmon. Since there were two of us, we had decided to do one of each and then sampled from each other’s plates. The French Cut Lamb Chops with Rosemary Demi were the thing gastronomic dreams are made of. The demi took five days to make, had no thickeners, and seemed to cling to the lamb like lacing to the side of a beer glass. The lamb was perfectly rare and cut-with-a-fork tender. Served with Asparagus in a Balsamic Reduction and two small polenta cakes. the whole plate was beautifully presented and a wonderful symphony of flavors and textures. The lamb was paired with Hale’s Rudyard’s Barleywine. Of all the pairings, this one was by far my favorite. It was also the pairing that finally convinced me to drop what I now consider a ridiculous belief that alcohol/beer pairings are entirely personal preference. The sweet, malty barleywine, with its generous hop presence, enhanced the lamb and demi in ways I could not have imagined. If the lamb was excellent without the beer, it was divinely superb with it. I was blown away.

My wife had the Salmon with Béarnaise Sauce. A generous portion of fresh, pole-caught Silver salmon, in a perfectly thick version of this timeless sauce, on a bed of braised spinach, served with oven roasted baby red potatoes with rosemary was paired with Hale’s HSB (which stands for Hale’s Special Bitter, the brewery’s version of an ESB) on nitro. I’m a huge fan of Béarnaise and Hollandaise sauces, and this was one of the best—if not the best—I’ve had. Like the demi, the Béarnaise was a testament to the chef’s skills, as it coated the salmon and refused to give up its hold on its fleshy partner. The nitro in the HSB made an extremely smooth finish that, in addition to the caramel and malt flavors with a mild hoppiness, again enhanced the flavors of the fish and Béarnaise.

(Not Just) Dessert

I’ve already given away that I thought the main course was the best. That’s not to say that the dessert was anything less than superlative, but I was apparently in more of a meat mood than a sweet mood. That being said, the dessert provided an unexpected surprise—and another learning opportunity. A Spiced Porter Cake with Danish Vanilla Ice Cream and Tres Fem Anglaise paired with Hale’s Bourbon Barrel Aged Troll Porter and their Tres Fem Belgian with tart, Montmorency cherries. The interesting thing about the final pairing was the staff’s decision to actually use the paired beers in the recipes. It was the coups de grace.

A piece of warm spiced caked tasted so much like the Troll Porter, that I found myself feeling like I was just extending the consumption experience by taking a bite and following it with a generous sip of the beer. There was none of that, “I just ate something sweet followed by something unsweet” unpleasantness. It was more of the “enhance, extend, and complete” pleasantness I was becoming fond of. I had to try it with the Danish Vanilla Ice Cream/Tres Fem Anglaise and the Tres Fem beer—wow! The same experience! As a true-to-form Pacific Northwesterner, I love my coffee. I really love my coffee with a nice dessert. But pairing these beers with desserts that were made with them? Phenomenal!

Surprise Guest

The menu mentioned a surprise guest could make an appearance. With Mike Hale and Phil O’Brien already present, I knew it couldn’t be either of them. When Lead Brewer Chris Sheehan announced the surprise guest was another beer, I was… well, surprised.

The brewery took the opportunity to break out Aftermath, their latest Double IPA recipe, and special it was. This beer’s aroma will blow your olfactory socks off. Citrus, grapefruit and some piney-ness come barreling out of the glass like an old locomotive under full steam. The beer is well-balanced, with some of the sweetness from pale malt and toasty and caramel notes found in Vienna malt keeping some of the bitterness in check. This is necessary given that the beer is "severely hopped throughout brewing and fermentation", according to Chris, with Amarillo, Cascade, Simcoe, Centennial, and an experimental hop. Aftermath becomes more broadly available on July 1 in bottles and draft, so if you’re in the area, it’d be worth stopping by the brewpub to enjoy a glass or two.

Things I Learned

First, with the help of Hale’s staff and their brilliant pairings, my opinions about pairing foods with alcoholic beverages were completely shattered, swept up, and tossed away like so much debris. Having long ago ditched the age-old custom of pairing white wines with fish and chicken, and pairing red wines with red meats, I will likely revisit these notions.

My second learning (or maybe this is more of an affirmation than a learning) was that you can accompany food with beer. So often I’ve heard people say they don’t like beer with a meal because of how heavy it is and how full it makes them feel. If they ever attend one of these events, I think they’ll find that concept exists entirely in their own imaginations. Even a fairly robust barleywine with a fairly hearty helping of lamb, if sized appropriately, left me feeling less full than a plate of pasta and a glass of red wine.

My third key take-away from this experiences was that pairing is a full-palate experience. The flavors are only one aspect to consider when trying to decide what liquid refreshment should accompany your meal. The two beers that made this readily apparent were the Cream Ale and HSB, both served on nitro. Especially with the Cream Ale, the smooth, almost silky mouthfeel of the beer’s gas so perfectly complemented the creaminess of the Avogolemono that it convinced me I need a nitro tap on my kegerator. (My wife will be tickled, because she loves nitro beers, but it probably means I need a newer, bigger fridge for a kegerator.)

Fourth, this dinner was brilliant in more than just the food and beer style pairings. Sure, there is a lot to be said for the time, energy, thought, and preparation that went into the beer and the food. More than that, however, is the insightfulness required to know that it’s the people your business is built on—your employees and your community—that matter the most. Giving your employees the opportunity to really show off their skills, talk about their craft, and celebrate their creativity, all in a public forum, is a stroke of pure genius. It’s also a hallmark of sincere humanism. The same kind of humanism that provides the realization that you have to locate your business in a community where it will be appreciated. I’d assert that if more companies were to celebrate their employees’ creativity and innovation in this way, there’d be a lot more happy, productive employees in the world. If more companies made an effort to be an active part of their community and become a community asset, they would enjoy better success.

My last learning—but arguably one of the most important—had to do with the company you pair with your meal. With Mike Hale’s stories of cycling through the English countryside in search of village pubs, and Phil O’Brien’s stories about the brewery’s early days, it was hard keep any kind of focus on the beer and food. The humor, the camaraderie, and the conversation topics all served to enhance the dining experience. Meeting the face behind a Twitter account with whom you’ve been sharing tweets for months adds to that camaraderie, and it was a real pleasure to chat with @SeattleBeerNews’s Jeff and his wife Jeanne. Having my wife there with me to enjoy the experience, being able to participate in the beer conversation because of her nascent homebrewing interests, paired with the other company at the table, enhanced the atmosphere. Listening to Mike Hale talk about drinking locally, and pairing that with the dish selections of Chef Sewell, made the food just a little better knowing the philosophy and sentiments are genuine. Seeing the pride shining in Phil O’Brien’s eyes as he shared his personal Hale’s memorabilia collection,   (which includes a Hale’s Pale American Ale tap handle hand-made by Mike Hale himself) and then pairing that pride with the actual PAA, well, it made it that much easier to really appreciate and enjoy the beer.

From left: Mike Hale (founder, owner, Hale’s Ales), Bill Fishburn (blog author), Phil O’Brien (general manager, Employee #3 counting Mike).

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Big Time Brewery and Alehouse, Seattle

This month my feature is Seattle'€™s Big Time Brewery and Alehouse. I’m going to review their award-winning Coal Creek Porter, while sharing some great details provided by head brewer, Drew Cluley.

The Brewery

Big Time is near and dear to my heart. As a University of Washington alumnus, this was the first craft brewery where I first (legally) enjoyed craftbeer. Located in the heart of the U-district, right on University Avenue (“The Ave” to the locals), Big Time provided—and still provides—convenient access to some of the tastiest beers around. Since I was at The U near the beginning of the craft beer revolution, the choices weren’t as varied as they are now, and Big Time was our local gem.

Founded in 1988, it was still a fairly nascent brewery when I achieved drinking age.  Its doors opened on December 7 that year, and it’s remained open since, through a long string of some notable Seattle craftbeer pioneers. Opened by Reid Martin—fresh on the heels of opening Triple Rock Brewery in Berkeley, California, in partnership with his brother John—it has become a U-district fixture.

Housed in a “narrow space 100’ long by 8’ wide that runs the length of the building directly behind the bar”, Drew describes the 1400bbl brewery as having to be the “strangest-shaped  brewery in the land”.  With their five fermenters, 20 seven-barrel serving tanks, and 60 kegs, they sell about 80% of their beer in-house and self-distribute the remaining 20% to local bars and restaurants in the Seattle area.

The Brewer: Drew Cluley

I’m very grateful to Drew for the time and energy he put into this interview. I managed to catch him at the brewery when I stopped by to purchase my growler of Coal Creek.  Between tending his batches, meeting with some other patrons, and before heading out to a New Year Day dinner, he found time to have a quick pint with my wife and me.

Drew is Big Time’s fifth Head Brewer in 23 years and the fourth to come from Seattle's Pike Place Brewery. Like many of today’s professional craft brewers, Drew’s background is founded in homebrewing, but I won’t spoil that. You can read about Drew’s history in his own words.

Q: What first got you interested in brewing beer? 
My sister sent me Dave Miller’s Home Brewing Guide as a birthday gift in 1990.  I was living in Syracuse, NY at the time, and I went to the library and got Charlie Papazian’s  The Complete Joy of Home Brewing.  Armed with these two books, I procured supplies from area homebrew shops (by area I mean 40 miles away in Ithaca, and 80 miles away in Rochester) and began making extract amber pale ales.  When I moved to Seattle in 1993 I met future brother-in-law Bill Jenkins – (yes same sister).  He was brewing at Pike Place Brewing Co, and we all got a house together, and Bill and I started brewing all-grain batches on a 10-gallon system.  In 1994 we brewed a touch under 500 gallons in our basement.  At a Thanksgiving dinner party in 1994 I met Rande Reed (Snoqualmie Falls Brewing Co), and he was impressed with some of my homebrew that I brought and suggested I apply for a job at the newly-opening Pyramid Brewery in Seattle.  I entered the brewing profession when I was hired as a cellerman by Rande in January 1995.  I have brewed for Pyramid, Oh La Ho (a brewpub I helped open in Tobu, Japan ), Pike Brewing, and The Big Time.

Q: What is your favorite brewing memory?
There are so many great brewing memories.  One that stands out was the night we released my Pike’s Monks Uncle Belgian style triple.  This was the second Belgian style beer that I professionally developed and released, the other being Pyramid Saison that was a summer seasonal in 1996.  The release of a new beer is always special; I really enjoy seeing the pleasure that something that I created gives to people.  That night, November 29th, 2006, while we were inside Brouwers café in Fremont, it began to snow heavily.  Someone came into the café and yelled, “It’s snowing”!  We all filed out and began a wonderful 30 minute snowball fight, fueled by many glasses of our 9% Belgian ale.

Q: What is your favorite style to brew and why? To drink?
I enjoy all styles of beer; however you’ll most likely find me drinking an India Pale Ale.  I love the aroma of the brewhouse when we add copious amounts of finishing hops.  At the Big Time we have brewed 24 different, distinct IPAs in our 24 years in existence, the latest IPA was batch #2300 and we decided to make a 9.2% triple IPA called, “Whiny the Complainer.”  It will release the first week of February, 2012.  I am also a huge fan of Belgian Ales.

Q: What is the single-most important variable to you in your brewery/process?
The only thing I allow to be variable is music.  Music must be on and loud, what gets played is variable with a strong nod to Phish in the rotation.  The goal to successfully brewing consistent beer is to minimize variables and keep the process the same each and every time.  That and using the correct and best available ingredients for the style you are brewing lead to successful batches.

Q: Do you have any tips (process, OG, FG, special ingredients) for homebrewers wanting to clone Coal Creek Porter?
Not really tips.  It is just a straight forward porter that starts about 1.056 and goes terminal around 1.018 (it’s about 5% abv).  There is a good bit of Munich and C[rystal]-75 for body, as well as Roast and Chocolate malts in equal amounts, and a wee bit of Black malt too.  It is lightly bittered with Chinook hops and then there is just one more addition of hops, this time a good dose of Centennial hops for the last 2 minutes of boil.

Q: Brewer question of the month: What is the best accidental (home)brewing success you've had? (A recipe you thought was going to be really bad that turned out really good.)
This is a really hard question because I humbly confess that I can’t recall any accidents that turned out well.  I guess that I just don’t really allow accidents to occur.  I have only dumped 2 batches of beer in my 22 years of brewing, one was a homebrewed Barley Wine that got forgotten in the basement for too many months and the airlock dried out and the beasties attacked.  The other was a 125-barrel batch of Thomas Kemper Wit that I was told to sewer during my shift because the marketing /sales department at Pyramid didn’t think it would continue to sell into the autumn.   That was a tough one as the beer had just taken a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival.

Q: What was the brewery's vision for Coal Creek Porter when you began developing the recipe?
Coal Creek Porter is a 23 year-old recipe.  Ed Tringali [Big Time’s first Head Brewer] created that recipe in 1988.  It has been slightly tweaked over the years by some of the previous Head Brewers, but basically it is true to its original form.

Q: Is there anything you'd like to change about Coal Creek Porter, or has the original vision been achieved?
I think that the Coal Creek Porter is fine the way it is.  If I wanted to do a major tweak on it I would just create another porter.  That is the beauty of working in a brewpub where you can brew 20 to 30 seasonals and one-offs every year to complement your regular lineup.  That was the major reason I left Pike Brewing Company last year.  I love the freedom that the Big Time brewery allows for myself and my assistant, Bradley Zimmerman, to explore the creative avenues of brewing.  I haven’t really brewed many lagers in my 22 years of brewing, but we plan to brew two this summer: An authentic Pilsner and a Marzen/Octoberfest.

Q: Where can readers find your beers in WA, OR, ID?
Our beer is sold in 22oz bottles only at the brewpub.  Of course we have half- and full-gallon growlers available, as well.  As far as accounts serving our draft beer they are mostly in King County here in Washington State.  We do occasionally do a festival outside of Washington. In recent years we’ve been at the Oregon Brewers Festival, and last year we attended the Great Canadian Beer Festival in Victoria British Columbia.  We also always attend the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver each autumn.  We have been awarded 23 medals at the GABF in the 23 years we’ve attended the fest which is something all the Head Brewers  that have been at the helm of Big Time are proud of...

The BJCP Style: Robust Porter

Aroma: Robust Porters have a roasty aroma that should noticeable and may be moderately strong. Some additional malt character may show in support, and hop aroma can be low to high using US andUK varieites. Fruity esters are moderate to none with no diacetyl.

Appearance:  The color is medium brown to very dark brown with ruby- or garnet-like highlight, and they can approach black in color. Clarity will be clear when these beers are not opaque. A full, tan-colored head with good retention is expected.

Flavor: A moderately strong malt flavor usually featuring a lightly burnt, black malt character (and sometimes chocolate and/or coffee flavors) with a bit of roasty dryness in the finish. Finish may be from dry to medium-sweet, and there may be a sharp character from dark roasted grains, but acridity, burnt and harsh flavors should not be overly present. Bitterness should be medium to high and hop flavor can be low to moderaly high to balance the roasted malt flavors. Diacety should be low to none and fruity esters should be moderate to none.

Mouthfeel:  Robust porters are medium to medium-full body and moderately low to moderately high carbonation. Stronger versions may have a slight alcohol warmth. There may be a slight astringency from the roasted grains, but it should not be a strong characteristic.

The Beer: Coal Creek Porter

Coal Creek Porter
Aroma: The aroma is dark and roasty with definite dark-roast coffee overtones, like a French or Espresso Roast. The coffee aromas come more to the forefront as the beer warms, providing any good Seattleite with a familiar olfactory experience. The roasty aroma has an associated grain note that I find very pleasant, to the point of mouth-watering (your mileage may vary, but that’s what I get). A slight hint of caramel or toffee plays just ahead of a hop spiciness that cuts through the roasted aromas. I detected no diacetyl or significant fruity esters; just a clean roasted aroma.

Appearance: The beer pours a very dark brown to black, but, for a dark beer, it is quite clear when held to light. The ruby and garnet highlights brought out by backlighting are mesmerizing.  The head is tan and dissipates quickly to a nice lacy ring of bubbles.

Flavor: The first flavors to grab my palate’s attention are all distinctly and prominently coffee. Those are quickly followed by a darker sweet fruit that I don’t detect in the aroma, but that I would describe as possibly raisin and it’s combined with a mild caramel sweetness. Hop flavor plays next, with an earthy spiciness that is also notably “bright” or “clean”, likely indicative of a very fresh hop in the early boil. The roast grain bitterness ties with hop bitterness at the finish line of my palate, leaving a pleasant sensation at the back of my throat—and also leaving me wanting another swallow.

Mouthfeel:  The body is medium and carbonation is somewhat low, but that could be due to it being from the growler. It still has a nice tingly sensation on the tongue. This porter is not a dry porter, as it leaves the drinker with a subtle sensation of sweetness, probably a result of the Crystal Malt. There is a slight creamy feeling in the finish that is very pleasing for such a roasty beer.

Overall Impression: If it weren’t for the alcohol inherent in beer, this porter would make a great waker-upper beverage. I love the coffee notes and the dark roastiness that play in the aroma and flavor. Let it warm a bit to get the full sensory benefits, but then have a second pint (or growler) before you hit The Ave to dodge the raindrops.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Pipefitter Porter, Steam Plant Grill and Brewery, Spokane

On a trip to my hometown of Spokane for Christmas, my wife and I made an effort to check out a couple of the local breweries. We were pleasantly surprised to learn about the Steam Plant Brewing Company and Pub in the heart of Spokane's downtown. As a native Spokanite, I don't know how it is that I hadn't heard of this place until December, 2011, but I was apparently about 15 years late to the game.  I couldn't have had a nicer Christmas present from my hometown, though, than sitting at the dimly lit bar (my excuse for the blurry intro photo) in the bowels of a former steam plant-turned-brewery enjoying their Pipefitter Porter.

Appearance: The beer poured a deep brown color with a thin tan head. Shining my only light source (my phone's LED flash) through the glass, distinct ruby hints became apparent in a very clear beer.

Aroma: The first scent to come through after some warming and cupping (you gotta treat your beer nice, you know!), was a more-than-subtle toffee note. The toffee was followed by dark roasted malts, a hint of chocolate and a low earthy hop aroma. As the beer warmed from my oh-so-delicate caresses, distinct coffee aromas presented themselves concurrently with increasingly noticeable dark chocolate scents. I detected no alcohol, fruity esters, or diacetyl in the aroma.

Flavor: The most prominent flavor was dark roasted malt. A dry, highly roasted, malty flavor that I found extremely pleasing. There was a slight mineral flavor component to the beer, like I've had in other dark beers (this can sometimes be the result of water chemistry--the salts and minerals present in the brewing water--or can sometimes be contributed by the specific malt used). Most of the bitterness in the beer was provided by the dark grains--no astringency, just good, solid, dark grain bitterness. The toffee was evident near the end of the swallow, and was followed by a low, earthy/spicy hop flavor with just a touch of hop bitterness. No alcohol or diacetyl were present, nor were any fruity esters, in the flavors of the beer.

Mouthfeel: Pipefitter has a medium body with low carbonation. There was no astringency in the mouthfeel nor any alcohol warming. This is not a sweet porter. It is quite dry, yet very drinkable.

Overall: The showcase of this beer is definitely the dark grains. As one could expect from a porter, the hops play a supporting role, as the roast flavors take center stage, basking the palate in a complex combination of coffee, chocolate, and mild toffee. If you're in Spokane, it's worth the time to stop at the Steam Plant and get your dark beer valves blown by Pipefitter. (I don't know what that means. Just go order a pint and enjoy!) 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Royal Brougham Bitter by Big Al's Brewing, Seattle

Hey readers, I’m back with a review of Big Al’s Brougham Bitter, a perennial favorite of Emerald City Supporters (ECS), the “largest soccer [football] supporters club in Seattle”. If you need a reminder about who I am and a rehash of review intentions, you can find them here.

The Brewery

Big Al’s Brewery was founded in 2008 by Alejandro Brown and is located in Seattle’s White Center neighborhood. They list six year-round beers and two seasonal releases on their website, a Summer Ale and a Harvest Ale. Brougham Bitter might be considered their flagship beer, if you measure by the number of ECS members who drink it. Big Al has his roots in homebrewing, and he pays homage to this legacy by devoting a page on the brewery’s site to the hobby.

The Brewer: Alejandro Brown

I contacted Alejandro "Big Al" Brown via their website, and he responded almost immediately, agreeing to my standard interview. I can’t thank Alejandro enough, as I know this is a very busy time of year for him, and he still found a way to provide me with the answers below.

Q: What first got you interested in brewing beer?
Drinking it! No, seriously...drinking it!! I fell in love with the beverage when I was very young, about 11 I think. I was the kid stealing sips of my dad's Bud when he wasn't looking. I'm a hands-on guy; I build, I fix, I create. It was a natural thing to take up brewing when the time and resources became available. I knew after my first homebrew session I was going to do this for the rest of my life.

Q: What is your favorite brewing memory?
Memories. Homebrewing on Sundays with my friends. Every single one of them can be called my favorite brewing memories. Four or five of us would get together and drink and make beer. It's what I miss most about homebrewing now that I brew professionally: The social side. That's probably why we brew Local Hero, to never forget homebrewing is where it all started, and brewing with other people is a beautiful thing. [Editor’s Note: Local Hero is one more way Alejandro continues to support the local homebrewing community. Read more in his blog.]

Q: What is your favorite style to brew and why? To drink?
Can't say I have a favorite. My best answer would be a style I never brewed before. Same goes for drinking it. I like to learn and experience as much as beer has to offer so new new new is what I'm after.

Q: What is the single-most important variable to you in your brewery/process?
It's all about the fermentation! Temp, lag time, yeast, it's all about a good, thorough, and fast fermentation. A great recipe can create garbage with a bad ferment, and the simplest recipe can create amazing beer when the fermentation goes perfectly.

Q: Do you have any tips (process, OG, FG, special ingredients) for homebrewers wanting to clone Brougham Bitter?
ESB, C[rystal]40, C[rystal]120, Victory, Wheat and a lil black barley. Fuggles and Goldings, Irish yeast. OG - 1.054, FG 1.012, IBU 25, SRM 13. The most important part: Play ECS Chants on YouTube while doughing in.

Q: Brewer question of the month: What did you find to be the most challenging obstacle to becoming a professional brewer?
Learning how to work with such big equipment. How do you clean and sanitize a 1000 gallon tank? How do you move 465 gallons from one tank to another? It's all the same really, just the logistics of working with so much more beer.

Q: What was the brewery's vision for Brougham Bitter when you began developing the recipe?
To create a beer that the Emerald City Supporters would be proud to call their own. An English style bitter that so many football supporters enjoy at the matches in England, where football was born.

Q: Is there anything you'd like to change about Brougham Bitter, or has the original vision been achieved?
I am very happy with the beer as it is right now. As a matter of fact, I'm getting thirsty...

Q: Where can readers find your beers in WA, OR, ID?
We are on tap at fine craft beer establishments all over WA and Or. We currently do not distribute to Idaho. We hope to be bottling by the end of 2012. [Editor’s Note: You can find the brewery’s complete list of serving locations here.]

The BJCP Style: Special/Best/Premium Bitter

WARNING! I copied the next few paragraphs from the Beer Judge Certification Program Style Guidelines. I’ve edited them some to make them a little more accessible for the average beer drinker, but if you’re not into beergeek speak, by all means, scroll down to my review. If you do read them, recall that each component of the five main aspects (aroma, appearance, etc) are given in descending order of presence in the beer.
Aroma: The best examples have some malt aroma, often (but not always) with a caramel quality. Fruitiness should be mild to moderate. Hop aroma can range from moderate to none. Hops from the United Kingdom are typically used, but US hop varieties are acceptable. Generally no diacetyl is detectable, although very low levels are allowed. [Diacetyl is a natural product of fermentation, and can be detected as a buttery or butterscotch aroma or flavor. It can be acceptable in some beer styles, but is often considered a flaw.]
Appearance: The color of this style should be medium gold to medium copper. It should have good to brilliant clarity. The head should be low to moderate, and white to off-white in color. It may have very little head due to low carbonation.
Flavor: The Special/Best/Premium Bitter style should have medium to high bitterness. Most have moderately low to moderately high fruity esters. Hop flavor should be moderate to low, and characteristically is earthy, resiny, and/or floral due to the UK hop varieties typically used, although US varieties may be used. Bitters usually have low to medium maltiness with a dry finish. Caramel flavors are common but not required. Balance is often decidedly bitter, although the bitterness should not completely overpower the malt flavor, esters and hop flavor. Generally no diacetyl is detectable, although very low levels are allowed.
Mouthfeel: Bitters are usually medium-light to medium in body. Carbonation is low, although bottled and canned commercial examples can have moderate carbonation.
Overall Impression: This style is a flavorful, yet refreshing, session beer. Some examples can be more malt balanced, but this should not override the overall bitter impression. Drinkability is a critical component of the style; emphasis is still on the bittering hop addition as opposed to the aggressive middle and late hopping seen in American ales.
Comments: More evident malt flavor than in an ordinary bitter, this is a stronger, session-strength ale. Some modern variants are brewed exclusively with pale malt and are known as golden or summer bitters. Most bottled or kegged versions of UK-produced bitters are higher-alcohol versions of their cask (draught) products produced specifically for export. The IBU levels are often not adjusted, so the versions available in the US often do not directly correspond to their style subcategories in Britain. This style guideline reflects the “real ale” version of the style, not the export formulations of commercial products.

The Review

Let me start this review with saying that my beer drinking environment was not optimal, but I hope it doesn’t impact the experience I’m trying to provide you, the reader. I reviewed this beer sitting in a hotel room, using sub-optimal glassware, as you’ll see in the picture. Lighting was dim to say the least, and it’s hard to say what effect this may have had when combined with the tint of the glass I used for this beer. I can say that the clear growler in which I bought the beer provided a similar color, so I would guess lighting was more of an issue than glass color.
Appearance: The beer poured a clear, deep copper with a thick off-white head that dissipated within a few minutes. Lacing remained around the edge of the beer throughout the drink, but (and it could have been the glass) it did not really adhere to the walls of the glass.
Aroma: The primary aroma from this beer was the malt. It was very biscuit-like with just a hint of a dark fruit, followed by some slightly noticeable sweet notes reminiscent of caramelized sugar—the kind of caramelized sugar aroma you’d get from a toasty bread crust fresh from the oven. I could detect some very light floral notes, that are likely hop-derived, but the hop aroma is very low to the point of being almost undetectable.
Flavor: The star of the flavor show was the malt. I got a lot of biscuit and bread crust flavors, followed by a mild hop bitterness in the middle of the palate. The beer finished with a mild toffee or dark caramel note that was slightly dry. There were no significant yeast esters to note, but those present were very mildly fruity. There was only a barely detectable hint of alcohol. This beer had a very straightforward, clean, and satisfying malt profile.
Mouthfeel: It presented with a medium-light to medium body and a fine, low level of carbonation. The finish was somewhat dry, despite the expectation of sweetness that might have been caused by the caramel notes in the aroma.
Overall: What I really liked about this beer was the aroma. I could have sat around huffing this beer for a long time, if I hadn’t needed to write something about how it tasted. It looked great in the glass despite being darker than the style guidelines specify (Alejandro’s SRM of 13 is right-on for the style, but for some reason, my sample presented much darker). The flavors were bready and biscuit-like, and the sweetness from the malt reminded me of a great loaf of artisan whole grain bread. The head was tantalizing, and it dissipated quickly enough to let the malt aromas come through. In summary, I would buy this beer again and again, just for the olfactory experience. It is definitely a session beer, and after finishing a growler, I can see why it is such a favorite of Seattle soccer fans.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Cozy Sweater Milk Stout, Iron Horse Brewery, Ellensburg

Now that I'm through the busy-ness of October (studying for the Project Manager Professional exam), November (taking the PMP exam), and most of December (Happy Merry Kwanzukkahmas Festivus), I'm going to attempt to post a couple times a month in addition to my full-length, feature, brewer/brewery/beer formats, which I'll keep providing about once a month. My purpose isn't changing; I still want to educate people about craftbeer and beer appreciation from a Beer Judge Certification Program perspective, but my short reviews will be a little more succinct and focus on the beer.

The Beer: Iron Horse Brewery's Cozy Sweater

Cozy Sweater is a seasonal ale from Iron Horse Brewery in Ellensburg, WA. The menu in their taproom suggests that they change it up every year, and this year's is a Vanilla Milk Stout. Milk Stouts are now referred to in the style guidelines as "Sweet Stouts", and the Vanilla is an extra kick provided by the brewer. From the brewery, we get the following description:

Cozy Sweater

Here we’ve taken a dark and chocolatey beer foundation and added a few
twists. The addition of lactose has the benefit of adding a smooth and round
mouthfeel, plus a touch of sweetness. On top of what could already be considered
a revelation in a bottle, we decided to throw in a hint of vanilla, because who
doesn’t appreciate overdoing it? This beer rolls off the line just waiting to
complete your winter day like nothing other than a sweater from your Aunt
Milly could.

The Review

Appearance: This beer pours with a thick, tan head, foreshadowing the good things to come. It is a very dark brown beer--distinctly brown, not black--and quite opaque. The head persists for several moments before resolving to a nice lacing that chases the beer down the side of the glass, reminiscent of frost around your home's window panes, ringing the edges, and providing a reminder of what used to be in your glass.
Aroma: Taking a deep whiff of the beer provides distinct scents of coffee and roasted grains. When I say coffee, imagine a freshly poured, high-quality drip coffee from a darker roast; this is the first and most prevalent note to grab your senses and take hold. The pleasant roastiness of what is likely black patent malt makes the second assault on your olfactory passages. Those two dominating scents then give way to a very chocolaty aroma, like you'd get from a rich, dark chocolate bar fresh from the chocolatier. If that weren't enough, the finishing aroma provides a touch of vanilla followed by the barest hint of earthy hops. There are no fruity esters or hints of alcohol present, as should be the case for a Milk Stout.
Flavor: Like the aroma, the first flavor out of the chute is coffee.  It matches the aroma--a smooth dark roast. However, the chocolate flavor beats its way to your palate before the grains' roastiness, and then you get the vanilla. This is an almost artistic presentation of the vanilla in this beer. It is not overdone, and it makes your palate aware of its presence in a subtle and soothing way. I imagine a room full of dancers representing the flavors, who all clear the floor when Lady Vanilla makes her entrance; she's dressed in a classic, understated gown, but completely steals the show. Because every grand entrance has to be followed by an anti-climactic buzz from the attending crowd, we can't forget the hops in this beer. They trail vanilla quietly, providing just enough bitterness to offset some of the initial sweet clamorings. The beer finishes dryly, likely due to the roasted grain and low-ish final gravity.
Mouthfeel: Despite the darkness of this beer, and the mix of coffee and chocolate flavors, it has only a medium body. However, that body remains present on the palate like a favorite cozy sweater remains in your closet. (Hmmm, coincidence?)
Overall: The star of this beer's show is the flavors. Sure, appearance and aroma provide some great supporting performances, but taking a swig of this beer and letting it wash over your entire palate, exhaling through the swallow, and sensing its impact on your tongue, cheek and gums--man! This a great stout with some incredible coffee and roasted flavors that should please most any stout lover. The subtle vanilla flavors and aromas are artfully pleasant bonuses, and will be a big reason I go in search of more. Combining the minimalist 4.5% alcohol by volume with the palate pleasantries makes for a very enjoyable and sessionable beer. If you see these in your local bottle shop, grab them and start planning your "vertical" tasting for 2013.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Iron Horse Brewery's Quilter's Irish Death

So, how’s it been? I’m here with November’s Northwest beer review, and after a harrowing month, glad to be writing this beer review. Recall that my aim is to educate you about craftbeer. In short, I want you to learn something about craftbeer and the breweries that brew them, while I promote an appreciation for the beers, themselves. That all being said, let’s get to it.

The Brewery: Iron Horse Brewery, Ellensburg

This month I’m reviewing Iron Horse Brewery’s Quilter’s Irish Death, which they tout as a “dark, smooth ale”. Iron Horse is “the best local craft brewery located in Ellensburg, WA”. You can learn a little from their website about their history, but more importantly, you’ll get a sense of the personality of this company. My impression is they don’t do much the conventional way. Purportedly founded in 2004 (unconventionally, not found on their website) you’ll have to decide whether their name is a reference to an old term for a locomotive, or an obscure reference to a not-too-distant sculpture along Washington’s Columbia Gorge. They make several beers, but in the Puget Sound area, where I live, they are probably best known for Irish Death. If you can get your hands on any of their other brews, I’d recommend it. (I’ve tried Mocha Death and their IPA, both of which are worth chasing down.)

The Brewer: Greg Parker

I was able to get in touch with Greg Parker, one of the co-owners/co-founders of Iron Horse, through their Twitter account, run by Ross, his friend and another co-owner/co-founder. As you might suspect from their website’s self-imposed unorthodoxy, Greg’s answers follow the same vein.

Q: What first got you interested in brewing beer?
A coworker of mine was always talking about how drunk they got over the weekend brewing beer and how much beer they had fermenting, in bottles, in kegs and otherwise. It drove me crazy. I kept asking him to invite me over for a brew session, and I finally prevailed. It wasn't easy though. At one point, he told me "last Sunday was National Teach a Friend to Homebrew Day. I should have called you". One’s prospects aren't great when you can't even get an invite for that occasion.

Q: What is your favorite brewing memory?
It happens every year. When the wet hops get to the brewery and stink up the cooler and then turn our lauter tun, doubling as a hop back, into a steam bath so pungent you can feel the resin on your face after sticking your head in. When is someone going to grow hops hydroponically so we can have fresh ones year round?

Q: What is your favorite style to brew and why? To drink?
I like to brew things that seem interesting, but aren't a style. If I want a pale ale, I will go buy and drink one. If I want a 7% brown wheat beer made with a high fruit but low phenolic yeast, I’m gonna make it. Then I am going to not pay enough attention and end up with a 9% brown wheat beer made with a high fruit but low phenolic yeast. At least that is what happened in my garage last weekend. Every once in awhile I will brew a style, but it is so much more fun just dreaming up the end result and developing a recipe around the concept than it is to tweak a standard percentage to make a "to-style" derivative. To drink? It all depends on the season. I have actually been drinking a fair amount of Irish Death lately. I am really excited for this wheat beer I just made.

Q: What is the single-most important variable to you in your brewery/process?
Yeast. We have a strain that is a bit more expressive, and it leaves a signature. I actually refer to it as my third child, and when challenged, have been able to identify it blindly in a beer.

Q: Do you have any tips (process, OG, FG, special ingredients) for homebrewers wanting to clone Quilter's?
Use a mothertruckload of malt, easy on the hops. Don’t get hung up on attenuation and get some yeast that has some fruity character. Better yet, go buy one and brew something better.

Q: Brewer question of the month: If you could take off today and visit any brewery in the world, which one would it be and why?
Probably a Burton brewery still using the Burton Union system [Editor’s Note: A Burton Union system is a recirculating fermentation system developed by the Burton Breweries in the 1830s]. The system is so unique, and I love the Burton ale yeast strain. Plus to get a pale ale from the source, fresh and nuanced, it just sounds so satisfying.

Q: What was the brewery's vision for Quilter’s Irish Death when you began developing the recipe?
We inherited the recipe when we bought the brewery. Jim Quilter developed it, and there were a few iterations floating around. I am inclined to believe it was the result of "I wonder what would happen if I just added every malt that I have left right now?" it is definitely a "kitchen sink" approach.

Q: Is there anything you'd like to change about Irish Death, or has the original vision been achieved?
I’d like to have it magically multiply itself in kegs and bottles so we could fill them half full and double our capacity.

Q: Where can readers find your beers in WA, OR, ID?
Everywhere in Washington except Vancouver, Everett, and painfully limited quantities in Olympia and Bellingham. Lewiston, ID. Nada in Oregon, but those two states are our first stops once we have enough beer to supply Washington.

The BJCP Style: Strong Scotch Ale
As you might recall, the Beer Judge Certification Program provides style guidelines for the purpose of having a set of evaluation standards. They’re a collection of descriptions provided with some discipline, and for each style, they cover, in order aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression. Within each of these, the guidelines address each contributor in descending order of detectability. 

I originally started looking at Irish Death as an Irish Red, but as you’ll see on their website, it really defies the guidelines. Which style it best represents has—and will probably continue to be—argued by more experienced judges than me. I present it to you here as a Strong Scotch Ale, and I’m sure that will stir the pot of nationalistic fervor between Ireland and Scotland to no end, but only because I’m sure those two countries’ collective eyeballs are glued to my writings and this blog, and not because I’m suggesting that a beer with the word “Irish” in its name should be judged as something originating in Scotland (#sarcasm). Now just don’t call me if you start hearing about slurs being lobbed across the Irish Sea because of this review.

For aroma, you should expect a malt forward nose from this style, with low to no hop presence. Typically strong caramel notes are present, and smoky, peaty, or earthy aromas may be acceptably present. Esters or alcohol may also present themselves for detection, and that’s ok, too.

In terms of color and head (appearance), expect Strong Scotch Ales to be copper to dark brown, clear, and have a large tan head, that may not persist. Really strong versions may have the appearance of “legs” or of the beer sticking to the side of the glass.

This style is really about rich maltiness, so the presence of caramel flavors, especially in strong versions, may be noticeable. This is achieved through kettle caramelization, i.e., introducing the first runnings from the grains to an already hot boil kettle for the purpose of caramelizing some of the sugars present. Hop flavor and bitterness should be low to medium-low “so that the malt can dominate”. The palate is usually full and sweet, but it may not finish in the same way, possibly leaving a sense of dry.

This style is typically medium-full to full-bodied, with some versions having a thick, chewy viscosity. A smooth, alcoholic warmth may be present and is necessary to balance the maltiness. Carbonation is usually moderate.

This style is overall rich and malty with flavors tending toward the sweeter side of things. The malt flavors can be complex and provide the drinker with strongly alcoholic beer.

The Review

Irish Death isn’t as readily available in the Olympia area as I’d like it to be, so I opportunistically grabbed one a few weeks ago, hoping I could convince the brewery to give me an interview. I’ve had this beer a few times in local pubs and taverns, always on draft, and I was a little apprehensive about pouring it from a bottle. My fears were unfounded… well, in most any normal person’s eyes, at least. As a person whose professional experience has been gained mostly in a company whose corporate culture is one of paranoia, I like to think my fears were well-founded in years of expert experience.

The beer poured a dark, clear brown, but as expected from a stronger (7.8%) Scotch Ale, I had to work to get a head to form. It poured light tan, with tightly knit carbonation bubbles, but it quickly dissipated leaving a trace on the surface that couldn’t quite sustain a lace down the glass.

Taking my first inhalation of the bouquet, the caramel maltiness was definite and distinct. There was some hint of very subtle smokiness and a mild earthiness (peat?), just as the style describes. While there was a note that was distinctly yeasty, I really couldn’t detect any esters or alcohol, which was surprising for a beer with this high an ABV. Unlike other batches I’ve had, this one presented more like a Strong Scotch Ale than any previous samples I’ve tasted. I couldn’t pick up even a hint of hop aroma.

As one would suspect from Greg’s description of a “mothertruckload” of grains, this beer is all about the malt. The flavor is over-the-top malty (in a good way), and the types of sweetness and various caramel flavors play nicely off each other. There is just the faintest hint of hop bitterness towards the finish that keeps the malt sweetness from being cloying. I’m a big fan of caramel in almost any form, and this beer left me quite satisfied. It’s not quite like drinking dulce de leche, but only because 1) it’s not made with cream (or at least doesn’t appear to be), and 2) the hints of smoke and hop bitterness help to offset the sweetness.

It is definitely a fuller-bodied beer, and quite smooth, just as the label says. If I could find one thing I’d change about the beer, it’d be the carbonation level, as it seemed to be under-carbonated. However, that’s mostly a personal preference, and not a reflection on the beer itself. The guideline allows for a lower level of carbonation for this style, and Iron Horse delivers on that point.

Overall, this is an extremely tasty beer. If you’re not a hophead, or if you’re looking to make a break into craftbeers, this is one beer you need to put on your wishlist. While it’s available year-round from what I can tell, it makes a great winter warmer and is worth the time and effort you might have to put into finding it. Just be warned that the smoothness belies its potency, and you’ll want to enjoy it in moderation… or not.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

India Red Ale (IRA), Double Mountain Brewery, Hood River

My family and I were out for a quick dinner at Olympia's Cascadia grill, when I found a beer I just had to write about. If you're in Olympia, it's worth your time checking out Cascadia. They serve local beef in a great selection of burgers and some of the best french fries I've had in recent history... but I digress. That's a restaurant/food review and this Perspective is about my other love, craftbeer. They had on tap a nice selection of Deschutes Brewery beers, and a nice, little surprise from a Hood River, OR, brewery.

The Beer: Double Mountain Brewery's India Red Ale (IRA)

Double Mountain has this to say about this beer:
The “IRA”, as it’s known around here, marries a ruby red color and rich body with the hop flavors of an IPA. Our unique ale yeast strain adds a delicious layer of complexity. One of the first beers we made and an enduring favorite.  Brewed with Gambrinus Organic Pilsner malt, imported crystal malt, Simcoe and Brewers’ Gold hops. 6.5% ABV, 65 BU

The Review

Appearance: The beer arrived at the table with a thin, white head, that dissipated quickly, but left the barest hint of lace throughout the drink. It is a distinctly reddish beer, tending away from the lighter colors you might associate with an India Pale Ale, which I imagine is why the brewery took the liberty with the style name. I'd estimate the SRM to be 22 based on the scale in BJCP Droid (yes, I have the BJCP guidelines application on my Android smart phone. I'm a beer geek. Don't judge, k?). The beer is pretty hazy, leading me to believe there has to be a generous amount of dry hopping going on.

Aroma: A notable aspect of this beer is its clean, fresh hop scent. I know, I know. How can hops have a "clean" scent? What I mean is that the smell is very pungent, seems to be a single-hop note, and the aroma is very intense. I discerned tangerine and lemons in the hop aroma. The tangerine aroma brings to mind Satsumas or maybe Mandarin oranges. The lemon is distinct and pleasant; a mild lemon scent you might get from fresh squeezed lemon-aid. The malt aroma comes through in a mild caramel note, after the citrus fruits are done making their presence known. Finally, lighter fruit esters that might bring to mind fresh-cut apples or pears make a brief appearance.

Flavor: This beer is first and foremost about the hops. From the first sip, you get great, assertive hop flavors of citrus that tend toward tangerine or orange. The lemon, present in the aroma, is not noticeable in the flavor, replaced by the more orange-like flavors. The light sweetness of the malt complements those flavors with a mild hint of caramel. The beer finishes sweet, but then there is a really incredible hop lover's surprise: An intense, back-of-the-throat hop bitterness that grabs your attention much like a jolting alarm in the too-early morning after a night of enjoying too many of this kind of beer. It will wake up your taste buds and make you take notice. Say hello to Simcoe hops! Although it is 6.5% alcohol by volume, there is no discernible alcohol present in the flavor.

Mouthfeel: With a medium-light body and low carbonation, it  provides a nice, spritzy sensation. Its finish is sweet as opposed to dry. As you might expect with the lack of alcohol flavor, there is no warming from alcohol. All of these aspects of mouthfeel combine to provide a beer that is extremely (and possibly dangerously) quaffable.

Overall: This is a great IPA with an amazing hop presentation, and even with a hazy appearance, the beer tastes clean, fresh, and light. The citrus notes that show up in the aroma stick around for the flavor show, shoving the malt right off the palate stage and owning the program. Just when you think the malt and yeast might provide a palate-relaxing intermission, the hops jump back into the scene. They provide the twist of a surprise ending that makes this beer well worth your time and effort to find. Get it. In your mouth. Now.