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.