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.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hale's Ales' and Their Mongoose IPA

The Brewery: Hale's Ales, Seattle

Hey there! I’m back with October’s Northwest beer review. As you might recall, my intent with these posts is to be educational(if you’re a first timer, or you don’t recall, read more here).  In short, I want readers to learn about craft beer and the Pacific Northwest craft breweries the brew them, while promoting an appreciation for those same beers.

This month I’m reviewing Hale’s Brewery’s Mongoose IPA. Hale’s Brewery is possibly one of the oldest microbreweries in Washington State (though I’m still researching this), having started in Colville in Northeastern Washington in 1983. After trying out a couple of other cities and brewing locations, they have chosen the Ballard district in Seattle as the location for all of today’s brewing operations. You can read their full history, and how Dave Hale’s love of English beer styles inspired and guided the development of this brewery at this page in their website. In true English brewing tradition, Hale’s uses open fermentation—where int he fermentation tanks are kept in a sterile environment, but open to the ambient air—and you can swing by their brewpub on Leary Way to see the entire process any time.

The Brewer: Chris Sheehan

Thanks to a long-time friend who now works at Hale’s, I was put in touch with Chris Sheehan, Lead Brewer. Chris’s graciousness in answering my questions was remarkable as he had to coordinate with other Hale’semployees for some of the answers, and without his help, I may not have made myself-imposed deadline.

Q: What first got you interested in brewing beer?
I worked with a friend when I was18 who brewed his own beer. At the time my knowledge of beer was Coors, Bud,etc... large macros. We talked about it often, and although it took a few years before I tried it myself, it was definitely the seed that got me going. By the time I started brewing I was drinking more micros, and I made a game of never buying the same beer twice; just to continue to taste what was out there.

Q: What is your favorite brewing memory?
My favorite moment... there are a couple that are right up there, but the one that sticks out is when I brewed my first batch of beer at Hales - my first professional batch. I enjoy the thought of people drinking the fruits of my labor, and at that moment I thought how cool it was that so many other people would be drinking my beer, so many more than all the friends I had sipping my home brew. It was an epiphany tome—that I finally achieved what I had been working for years to accomplish.

Q: What is your favorite style to brew and why? To drink?
My favorite style to brew really is anything new; a seasonal, a one-off, or a new recipe. Although the process mostly remains the same for brewing all styles, a new beer feels exciting as it exercises the creativity in me. It took many beers to finally warm up to my palate, but I can salivate over the thought of a sour beer. I love the tart,complex flavor. Nothing compares to a beer with a little "horse-blanket", and as off-putting as the description implies, there is no substitute.

Q: What is the single-most important variable to you in your brewery/process?
As a home brewer, getting a beer to ferment was always the initial hurdle, but after the brewing process was down,making sure clean bottling methods were used was the most important to me. In ever worried about being uptight on cleanliness until after the wort had cooled after the boil; nothing is more disappointing than putting in all the work and time in order to have gushing or spoiled bottles of home brew because you were lazy in the last step. Professionally, we have 4 brewers at Hales. In addition, our brewery is not automated, instead controlled by hand operated valves and monitored throughout by a single brewer. So at Hales, the most important thing is consistency.

Q: Do you have any tips (process, OG,FG, special ingredients) for home brewers wanting to clone Mongoose IPA?
As for a Mongoose clone, we use Columbus hops for bittering, and Amarillo® and Chinook for flavor/aroma. Malt bill is c[rystal]-40,c[rystal]-75, Munich, wheat, Carapils®. A word on dry-hopping: We never let our beer go longer than 3-4 days after dry-hopping - it seems to bring out a"dank"/vegetal flavor that isn't very pleasant.

Q: Brewer question of the month: What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you on brew day?
Happily my brews at Hales have gone uneventfully, however, as a home brewer I once tried decoction mashing a dopplebock. An afterthought, the only other pot I owned wasn't large enough to boil the required volume of mash to perform an adequate decoction. I had to use an addition of smaller pots collectively, which was a pain. Later, my mash gotstuck and took twice as long. My kettle boiled over, and I was sure all the effort was in vain, as two days later my yeast still hadn't started fermenting.But in the end, fermentation kicked off, and 3 weeks later we were drinking a very palatable dopplebock that still was one of the better homebrews I made.

Q: What was the brewery's vision for Mongoose IPA when you began developing the recipe?
IPA is a traditional style created and brewed by the English; being that we are modeled after English brewing tradition, we've had an IPA for a long time. As the popularity of that style began to grow in the US, we created a recipe which enhanced the hop profile to the likes of the American IPA drinkers.

Q: Is there anything you'd like to change about Mongoose, or has the original vision been achieved?
We were among the first breweries to use that style as a flagship beer. Today, Mongoose IPA is our best selling bottled beer. It has had changes to the recipe over the years, which are unavoidable as the ingredients will change slightly or become obsolete or better quality hops/barley are introduced. Our intentions are always to respect the audience of drinkers that have made that brand popular as well as producing beer that we enjoy drinking ourselves. The success of Mongoose is a great feeling, and as of a few years ago we added another IPA (Supergoose) to our lineup, which is one of our best-selling beers.

Q: Where can readers find your beers in WA, OR, ID?
Our beer can be found on draft and in bottles all over Seattle. Various grocery stores as well as Costco stores sell our bottles.  We have smaller distribution in central and eastern WA, Portland, OR, and in Coeur d'Alene, ID.

The BJCP Style: English IPA

Hale’s Mongoose is an India Pale Ale (IPA), a style with a long history as varied as those who recount it.  For some reason, it has gained a huge following in the US, and I can’t think of a single brewery or brewpub I’ve been to that doesn't have their version of this esteemed and historic style.  It is one of my favorite styles, and it is infrequent that you won’t find multiple breweries’ offerings of it in my beer fridge. In fact, if you were to stop by, and I didn't have at least one representative of this style in my fridge, many of my friends would tell you it was probably because I had died. I love it that much.

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, inorder aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impression. Within each of these, the guidelines address each contribution in descending order of detectability.

For IPA, the BJCP provides us with three styles to choose from: English IPA, American IPA, and Imperial IPA. Since Hale’s beers were originally inspired by the small village breweries of England, and Mike Hale himself learned their techniques to bring English Ales to the Northwest, I’ll evaluate it as an English IPA.  However, with the use of typically American hops, I could just as easily have chosen to evaluate it as an American IPA.

For aroma, you should expect “moderate to moderately high” aromas presenting as floral,earthy, or fruity—aromas you typically find in hops traditionally used England breweries. A slightly grassy dry-hop aroma is acceptable, but is not a requirement of the style. You may also be able to detect moderate caramel-like or toasty malt notes. Fruitiness should be low to moderate, and can be provided by either esters or hops.

In terms of what you should see in the glass, “the color ranges from golden amber to light copper, but most are pale to medium amber with an orange-ish tint”.  Color is measured in Standard Reference Method or “SRM” units, and you can find numerical equivalents of color descriptions on the BJCP’s site here.  “Golden amber to light copper” is equivalent to 8-14 SRM. In an English IPA,hop flavor is medium to high, and the hop bitterness should be moderate to assertive.  In other words, flavor should present first and bitterness second. The hop flavor should be similar tithe aromas (floral, earthy, etc.). Malt flavor should be medium-low to medium high, noticeable but please, and it should support the hops, not detract or upstage them.  English malts are typically bready, biscuit-like, toasty, toffee-like and/or caramelly, and these same flavors should be present in an English IPA.  There needs to be enough malt flavor, body and complexity(typically derived from using a variety of malts). Finish—the sensation remaining after you swallow—can be medium to dry, and bitterness may linger into the aftertaste. Some clean alcohol flavor can be present in stronger versions, but contrary to the history of the beer, flavors imparted by oak are inappropriate.

The beer should be smooth in the mouth, and give a medium-light to medium-bodied feel.  Any sensation of hop-derived astringency (sharpness, harshness, biting) is not acceptable. Moderate to medium-high carbonation may contribute to a dry sensation. Some smooth alcohol warming should be noticeable in stronger versions.

Overall, English IPA is a moderately strong pale ale that represents its traditional ingredients of English hops, malt and yeast, but in general, it will be less hoppy than its American counterparts and more malt characteristics will be present.

The Review

I pulled Hale’s Mongoose IPA from my fridge at 43F—maybe a little cold to be able to pick up some of the finer hop aromas I was anticipating. It poured a nice white head that persisted momentarily before settling to nice presence of lacing over the top of the beer. The color is an amber-orange hue, right on the money for style, and this particular example presents with some haziness, which I would surmise comes from some dry hopping.

In terms of aroma,toasty and caramel malt notes present before hop aroma, but the hops make a showing in the form of a pleasant fruitiness with some mild floral notes—likelyfrom the Amarillo. Before venturing further, I helped the beer to warm some. If you’ve ever seen a person in a bar holding their pint in both hands and turning the glass from time to time after the pour, but before drinking, they’re likely trying to warm the beer.  I used this little trick, hoping to coax some more aroma and flavors from the beer,and I was rewarded with more of the fruity hop aromas. Mmm!

Taking a swig and allowing it to fully embrace my palate, I ran it over my gums and tongue before swallowing. My first impression was one of balance—the hop flavor and toasted malt provide a near-perfect performance in this beer, and neither seems to want the spotlight, each advancing and retreating throughout the swallow, the crystal malts providing a caramel flavor that partners extremely well with thehops’ fruity and floral flavor contributions. Then the magic happens; that thing all hopheads seem to live for: the bitterness comes through. Initially, I would describe the bitterness as fruity, but it devolves into a distinct grapefruit flavor that remains well after the beer has left the scene.

The style guidelines tell us this should be a smooth beer, and Mongoose is definitelythat. It seems to be more of a medium-bodied beer, with a sensation of malty sweetness present throughout the entire glass. I could detect no warming from alcohol, despite a moderately high starting gravity of 1.060, and what I wouldexpect to be a not-so-low alcohol by volume.  I would describe the carbonation as medium low to medium, but the lacing it leaves behind is quite nice to look at.

Overall, I really enjoy this IPA. It is not a big hop-bomb waiting to blow your taste buds off. It is a subtly great beer with all the characteristics you’d expect in an English IPA. However, this particular IPA has the added bonus of a wonderful, assertively lingering, grapefruity hop bitterness to remind you that it is, above all, an IPA.  Do yourself a favor and grab one if you see it on the shelf.