As we cracked the growler of Russian River’s fabled Pliny the Younger, I looked out the window, anxiously awaiting celestial white angels riding majestic unicorns to descend from the skies, carrying lightning bolts of peace and healing designed to rid the world of all war and disease.

At least, that’s what you’d expect reading the gushing reviews on Beer Advocate, which were of course devoid of any hype or preconceived notions (as ALL the highly rare beers on BA’s top ranked list have surely been rated). I fully anticipated nothing short of a life altering experience as soon as the beer hit my lips…nay, as soon as I entered the room and came into the shimmering aura of said growler. This was Pliny the Younger, after all, the beer that within two weeks of its broad release straight from the brewery somehow magically overtook (albeit temporarily) the indominitable Westvleteren 12 as Beer Advocate’s number one beer on planet earth. The holiest of holies. And somehow, through mysterious methods of fermentation, Russian River had found a way to bottle miracles. Real miracles, people.

After disappointedly spotting only a few stray clouds streaking the winter sky, I turned my attention to my friend Ryan who had graciously invited me and several others to his home for a small tasting of the chimerical beer, procured during his trip to San Francisco Beer Week in February. 

Younger had clearly held up well in the growler, as my friend poured the first glass with a building head of carbonation that quickly dissipated. Very nice deep gold coloring, with some haze likely from the four dry hop additions the beer goes through. The aroma is full on hops, with notes of onion and…bear with me…a slight catty smell. One of the more unique aromas I’ve ever gotten from a beer in this style category. Taste is intensely bitter, likely off the IBU chart. Not too sweet, with a dry, highly attenuated finish. Very full, prickly mouthfeel. 

Does this beer live up to the hype? I suppose. It’s a wonderful DIPA. But I tend to prefer Pliny the Elder, and in fact, some folks at the table thought other beers like Bell’s Hopslam were more enjoyable.

Rating: A-

Where I Got It: Through a friend’s trade 
Availability: Limited Release
Price: No idea

The reason I knew this year’s batch of Bell’s fabled Hopslam was on its way to the local market wasn’t because I received a press release from the brewery, nor did I see “Coming Soon!” signs in my favorite liquor stores. Rather, I’ve been getting scads of search engine hits from waist-watching beer lovers wondering “how many calories are in Hopslam?”

A strange thing, if you ask me. When it comes to craft beer, people’s fascination with calories is a bit funny, like walking into The Olive Garden and asking for the low-carb menu. On the macro front, marketers in the U.S. have honed in on it as a point of differentiation for years, humorously beating each other up on the air waves to see who can produce the most metabolically inoffensive product possible. 

However, most people interested in flavorful, artisanal food selections probably wouldn’t dictate the bulk of their dining choices in that way. Similarly, there’s a reason Michelob Ultra exists…and it ain’t for people like me.  

But to address the apparently highly sought-after answer on Hopslam’s caloric content…I don’t know definitively*. However, based on this site, I’d safely put it in the 275 to 300 calorie neighborhood per 12 ounce bottle. Which compared to Bud Light’s paltry 95 calories, or even Guinness Draught — everyone’s oft-cited “meal in a can” — at only 125 calories, Hopslam certainly takes things to another level, and not just in its nutritional value.

Poured with a nice head of carbonation, rich amber coloring with great clarity.

Aroma is citrus and pine resin, maybe some flower like lavender and a hint of clove possibly from the honey they use in the brewing process, and a fair amount of alcohol.

Flavor is impressively bitter from start to finish, as expected with the style, but not enough malt sweetness to follow it up and balance things, at least for me. A little one dimensional from that perspective, with the alcohol cutting in to take a disproportionate amount of the spotlight. Very hot. I juxtapose this to beers like Dogfish Head 90 Minute, which masterfully finds a way to showcase the hops and malt in their own place. 

Mouthfeel is good, nice carbonation and a prickly, warming sensation from the hop/alcohol combo. The honey probably contributes to the somewhat dry finish and helps kick this beer up to the 10% ABV level. 

Doing my best to wipe away the palpable hype that drips from the bottle, and daring the ire of beer geeks far and wide, I recognize and enjoy the beer for what it is, a really aromatic and somewhat unbalanced double IPA. Truth in advertising, I suppose. Try it if you can, but I’m not a gushing fan.

Rating: B

Where I Bought It: The Cellars in Plymouth
Availability: Seasonal – available through February
Price: $15.49 a six pack

* Brewery representative Jason Gillum confirmed that Hopslam comes in at 280 calories per 12 ounce bottle.

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Lots of homebrew fun this evening while I watched Monday Night Football.

I racked my spiced pumpkin oatmeal ale to secondary after a very vigorous and thorough primary. I used a healthy 1000 ml starter, and it fermented out pretty quickly, just about three days before it dropped to 1.012. Smelled awesome coming out of the fermenter, a subtle cinnamon, clove and nutmeg spicyness. And it tasted nice and caramel sweet. Really looking forward to it around Halloween.

I also racked my double IPA to secondary, and dry hopped with a half ounce of Simcoe and a few ounces of Willamette. Never tried this combo, and am curious to see how it comes through in the finished product. I’m hoping for a nice punch of pine from the Simcoe, hopefully balanced by the earthy woodiness of the Willamette.

The fermentation on this one, however, is what has me somewhat baffled. I brewed this about a month ago, and after fermentation began within 12 hours of pitching the yeast starter, it really never stopped…just a steady, even fermentation for a few weeks at about 68 degrees. While a relatively big beer at 1.080 OG, I’ve never personally seen an ale ferment this long (even my Let Me Out Imperial Stout finished earlier), and it had me a little concerned something was off in some way. I took a gravity reading the other day once it appeared the bubbles in the air lock were significantly slowing (once every five minutes or so), and it was close to the target FG of 1.015, so I let it sit for another couple days to clean up any remaining diacetyl that might be hanging around. Tasted about right coming out of primary, so I’m hopeful I’m just overly paranoid and things turn out well.

In total, I have five beers at various stages of fermentation, with my lambic experiment leading the way at a few months in the carboy. For that one, I’ll likely rack onto fruit early next year, letting the brettanomyces that’s already in there kickstart another fermentation. There’s a very thin white film of bubbles at the top of the beer, which I’m assuming is the krausen line, given how slow brett fermentation typically takes.

Next on the home brewing agenda is either a nice oatmeal stout, or possibly a coconut milk stout, inspired by Town Hall’s version I enjoyed just a few weeks ago on cask (and coincidentally Best Beer of the Fest at last weekend’s Autumn Brew Review).

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My time this afternoon tippling a few at Stub & Herb’s, just a stone’s throw from the gleaming new Gopher football stadium on the U of M campus, greatly reinforced my perception that the place is one of the best craft beer bars in the Twin Cities.

DSC02871The saloon was nearly empty when we arrived around noon, save for a few souls in a quiet booth in the back that, unlike most of the state’s populous, didn’t have the Fair on their minds.

Amazing that a college bar — stereotypically filled with macro swill, plastic cups and crates of Red Bull — has such a fantastic draught list, including nearly every Surly offering (Hell and 16 Grit just recently ran out before I got there!), a number of other locals like Lift Bridge, Flat Earth, Summit and Schells, and a dozen other notables from across the country. And it’s not just the stuff on tap…the staff are actually friendly and, get this, knowledgeable about what they’re pouring, a seemingly tall order in most bars around the city. Our bartender Benji offered some nice recommendations, including our lunch fare which included a Surly Bender French Dip, a great sandwich made with beef roasted in the oatmeal brown ale.

I tried a number of beers while we were there, most really hitting the mark.

Great Divide Hercules Double IPA
Probably not a great idea to start my afternoon off with a 9% ABV double IPA, but what the heck, it’s Sunday. A very aromatic IPA, but more on the dank side of the hop spectrum than protoypical, bright West Coast-style DIPA’s like, say, Pliny the Elder. Very bitter taste even for the style, almost a little too much for me. But fairly smooth throughout considering how boozey it is.   

Rating: B+

Lift Bridge Minnesota Tan
I’ve enjoyed nearly everything I’ve tried from Stillwater-based Lift Bridge, including their flagship Farm Girl Saison (I’m actually sipping a snifter as I write this), and their Minnesota Tan, a Belgian triple, was no different. Kind of nice to see a local brewery leading with a couple Belgian styles, but this one has certainly veered from the “traditional” path with an interesting pinkish coloring thanks to the lingonberries they brew with. A bit yeasty in the nose, a bit tart in the taste, leading to a nice sweet finish. Very enjoyable. And at 8.5% ABV, another one that’ll sneak up on you if you allow it.   

Rating A-

Flat Earth Sunburst Apricot Belgian Pale Ale
This is another pretty solid local offering. A light and refreshing aroma of apricot up front, fairly unique (although I think Town Hall has done an apricot wheat before). Taste is relatively similar to their regular Belgian Pale Ale, which is what I’m assuming is the base beer…more of the light tartness from the apricot coupled by some malty sweetness, leading to a dryness in the finish. 

Rating: B

Lagunitas Lil’ Sumpin Sumpin
Wow…this is everything I’ve heard about this beer and then some. It’s classified as an American pale wheat ale, but it screams IPA to me. Actually, very reminiscent in the aroma to Surly Furious, likely some combination of Warrior, Amarillo and Simcoe hops. Also got a little bit of citrus in there, grapefruit or lemon. Taste was not really what I’d expect for a wheat beer…far too much of a sweet and malty backbone, which did help balance the bitterness. You also get some of the honey they apparently use while brewing. Our bartender informed us that when this ran out, they were tapping Lagunitas’ Lil’ Sumpin Extra, a double IPA, which I can only assume builds on the success of this beer. 

Rating: A

Sierra Nevada Tripel
Never had this one before, and was frankly a bit surprised to learn Sierra Nevada has delved into the Belgian brewing tradition (to my knowledge, they’ve done a saison before, but that’s about it). Certainly reminiscent of a nice tripel like Chimay Cinq Cents, but kind of a Chimay “light” quality to it. Some American hops in the nose as well as yeast and clove, but overall a much lighter, more airy characteristic to the aroma (sort of how New Belgium is to Belgian beers). Taste is sweet and alcoholic, a bit dry in the finish. I guess I understand why they haven’t done more Belgians in the past.      

Rating: C+

Dark Horse Too Cream Stout
Ah, Dark Horse…one of my favorite breweries out of the Midwest. This is the last of their holiday stout series that I’ve tried, which also includes One Oatmeal Stout, Tres Blueberry Stout, Fore Smoked Stout and Plead the Fifth Imperial Stout. Loads of deep roasted malt notes in the aroma, along with milk chocolate. Tons of distinctive dark bitterness in the taste, presumably from the black patent malt I’m assuming they use in the grain bill, but expertly balanced by lactose to give it a silky smooth mouthfeel and wonderful overall impression. Probably the best beer I tried all day.

Rating: A

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Dark Horse Too Cream Stout

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Surly mural on the Stub's patio

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Soon-to-be-filled TCF Bank Stadium

My kolsch and Horizon hops

My kolsch and Horizon hops

Perfect Sunday for home brewing. Low 80’s, sunny, and a refreshing little breeze. I felt a little ambitious and ended up brewing two beers, a dunkelweizen and a double IPA.

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been slowly getting more and more into traditional German wheat styles, and after enjoying Weihenstephaner and Aventinus, I’ve been itching to brew my own version. Dunkels are essentially dark hefeweizens, a little more roasted, caramel maltiness with similar banana, clove, and even nutmeg aromas. I really dig the style, partly because there seems to be a bit more complexity than your average hefe.

For the Double IPA, I decided to kick it off with a big alpha acid shot from an ounce of Simcoe, then slowly add to the flavor and aroma with a progression of Mt. Hood and Willamette. Willamette is known for its spicy, woody qualities that I think lend a rather earthy and subtle characteristic to some beers, so I thought it’d be an interesting experiment to see how it played in a DIPA. The expected OG on the recipe was just shy of 1.10, so pretty hefty. But the hops only get me up to about 65 IBUs thanks to the low alpha acid ratings of Mt. Hood and Willamette, so not necessarily a hop monster in the truest sense of the style. But I wasn’t going for eye-watering bitterness. Hope it balances out with all that malt (and in fact, it could even turn out to be more in line with a barleywine vs. a DIPA, depending on how the malt comes through).

To save on time, I went with malt extracts, something I haven’t done in quite a while, but it worked just fine (and cut about 2.5 hours from the whole process). While I brewed, I enjoyed a couple glasses of my kolsch, which I think turned out pretty solid compared to commercial examples I’ve had.

Also, a few pictures below of my hops, which are exploding (I’ve had to rig up a modified trellis system so the Cascade bine can continue to climb), and a massive spider web which I saw on the pine tree in my back yard. Kind of random, but I thought it was cool.

Here are the recipes I went with:

Dunkelweizen (slight variation on a kit from Midwest Supplies)
6 lbs. wheat LME
3 lbs. dark LME
4 oz. Carapils
12 oz. Caramel 40L
1 oz. Tettnanger (in boil at 60 min.)
1 oz. Hallertau (in boil at 2 min.)
Wyeast 3056 Bavarian Wheat 

Double IPA
6 lbs. Gold LME
6 lbs. Light Pilsner LME
8 oz. Aromatic
8 oz. Biscuit
8 oz. Caramel 80L
1 lb. Victory
1 oz. Simcoe (in boil at 60 min.)
0.3 oz. Willamette (in boil at 20 min)
0.3 oz. Mt. Hood (in boil at 20 min)
0.3 oz. Willamette (in boil at 15 min)
0.3 oz. Mt. Hood (in boil at 15 min)
0.3 oz. Willamette (in boil at 10 min)
0.3 oz. Mt. Hood (in boil at 10 min)
0.3 oz. Willamette (in boil at 5 min)
0.3 oz. Mt. Hood (in boil at 5 min)
0.3 oz. Willamette (in boil at flame out)
0.3 oz. Mt. Hood (in boil at flame out)
2 oz. Willamette (dry hop)
Wyeast 1332 Northwest Ale

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Some days are better than others.

Most days, I wake up, head to work, and if I’m lucky, I may cap off my drudgery with a nice beer or two. Usually a homebrew, but maybe even something highly rated on the Beer Advocate “Best Of” list. While spending a long weekend in New York City, I may have completely outdone myself, reaching heights not likely to be attained again any time soon. Some may not immediately think of NYC as a beer town, at least compared to other locales out West. But after hitting up Brooklyn Brewery, a few of the best craft beer bars in America, and a stop at one of the tastiest BBQ joints I’ve come across north of the Mason-Dixon, I think NYC should be near the top of every beer geek’s list of places to go.

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Westy 12 & Rochefort 10

Along for the ride and serving as our very gracious tour guide of the city was my good friend Aaron over at The Vice Blog, New York’s favorite beer blogger, who joined my brother-in-law and me at our hotel to kick off the weekend with your average, run-of-the-mill tasting that included a few beers you may have heard of…Westy 12, 8 and Blonde; Dark Lord 2009; Lost Abbey Angel’s Share Brandy Barrel-Aged 2008 and Bourbon Barrel-Aged 2009; and Rochefort 10. Just standing in the presence of these assembled beers, I almost didn’t want to ruin the moment by cracking the first bottle open. But that of course would be ridiculously stupid. 

We started off with a blind tasting of Westy 12 and Rochefort 10 (which some deem to be nearly identical), and surprisingly showed that not only was Westy 12 the significantly more desirable beer (much maltier and sweeter, in our collective opinion) than Rochefort 10, it made Rochefort 10 seem more akin to a poorly concocted homebrew than a finely crafted Trappist quadrupel. Really…I’m not trying to be insulting or funny, the beer smelled faintly like vomit or rancid cheese, which completely surprised me. The taste was OK, though.

DSC02511The Angel’s Share bottles were excellent in their own right, certainly both A-level beers. The Brandy Barrel-Aged version, from my understanding, is the one that gets knocked for its lack of carbonation, but it didn’t bother me in the least. Both versions poured with a huge, full-frontal assault of booze and dark malts, very reminiscent in that regard to Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout or Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout. Burnt malt and coffee notes with both, and a medium mouthfeel. I really enjoyed both of these beers, tough to say which is better.   

DSC02535After a phenomenal afternoon session, I felt a little like Han Solo emerging from his cell of carbonite as we stumbled out into the blindingly sun-drenched streets of Manhattan. We pushed on to Rattle n’ Hum, a fairly new beer bar a block from the Empire State Building that immediately makes any beer lover feel like they’ve hit the big leagues. Nicely appointed, warm wood throughout, and arguably one of the most impressive tap and bottle lists I’ve ever seen this side of Belgium. A true beer oasis.

DSC02530After sampling a handful of great beers including Stone Russian Imperial Stout, Sixpoint Northern Lights, Dogfish 90 Minute and Weihenstephaner Hefeweiss on draught, we asked the bartender if she per chance happened to have an extra bottle of Alesmith Yulesmith floating around somewhere behind the bar. Not seeing it on the menu, but hearing rumors that it had recently been on the premises, we figured it was worth a shot. Lo and behold, she emerged from the depths of the beer cooler with a nicely chilled bottle and plunked it down in front of our bulging eyes.

DSC02542This being my first ever Alesmith tasting, I didn’t have much to compare it to when it came to the brewery itself, but Yulesmith really knocked my socks off. It’s a double IPA billed as a holiday beer, which like Sierra Nevada’s annual Celebration Ale series always makes me scratch my head a bit. I guess out in California, hops equal holiday cheer.

Poured with a nice billowing head bursting with citric hops and spiciness. Beautiful malt backbone, a great balance between the sweet and bitter. Slick and oily from the hop resins, leading to a lingering bitter finish. Really a nice example of a very well put together West Coast IPA. I’d give it at least an A.   

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Nicely pickled, we continued the beer parade by catching a cab for Brooklyn Brewery to check out their happy hour and sample some of their finest. After a long and winding drive through several very hip Brooklyn neighborhoods, we arrived and walked in to an amazing scene. Tons of craft beer lovers (and a few folks who clearly didn’t realize how good they had it) packed into a very cool warehouse space amidst an ambience-inducing bottling line and handful of bright tanks. Right up front, they also had a great display of antique beer bottles, most of which were from former breweries in the city. A great touch from what I assume is the consummate historian and renaissance man himself, Garrett Oliver.

DSC02555We sampled a handful of their stuff on draught including Blanche de Brooklyn (a yeasty witbier), Sorachi Ace (a very peppery saison, part of their Brewmaster’s Series) and Intensified Coffee Stout (one of the best coffee beers I’ve ever had, in league with Surly Coffee Bender and Great Divide’s Yeti). The single line to get a beer at the pouring station was a mile long, but somehow we were able to bypass all of this by making friends with the bartenders. After a few beers, we decided to share a bottle of Local 1, a Belgian pale, having recently favorably reviewed their Local 2. Very nice, a delicate use of malt and hops, but nothing too mind blowing. Probably a strong B-level beer.  

After getting our fill at Brooklyn Brewery, we somehow found a cab, which was a bit of serendipity given our location in a somewhat desolate part of Brooklyn, and made our way to The Ginger Man, another highly regarded New York craft beer bar. I’d provide some pictures from the experience, which like Rattle n’ Hum was jaw-dropping in the number of hard-to-find and vintage stuff on hand, but I was frankly too mesmerized with a snifter of Goose Island Night Stalker to pay much mind to the camera. Deep chocolate nose, booze in the back end from the hefty 12% ABV, and a very full, solid mouthfeel throughout. Certainly an A-level kind of beer, if only for the fact that it lasted approximately 2 minutes before I’d guzzled it all down.

Later this week: Dinosaurs BBQ and The Blind Tiger

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Brooklyn Local 1

DSC02159Contrary to popular belief, the best beer event last Saturday in the Twin Cities was NOT hosted by City Pages.

I saw a note via my Twitter buddy ibeyou that Al over at the Blue Nile was hosting his “Hop Heads Only” celebration of Humulus Lupus, a hop lovers’ festival complete with a couple dozen offerings from breweries worldwide including Founders, Victory, Brasserie d’Achouffe, Sierra Nevada, Dark Horse and of course Surly. A few friends and I wandered over mid afternoon to partake in the hoppy goodness, and were definitely not disappointed. Thanks again to Al for organizing such a great event and wonderful set of offerings. In order of preference from top to bottom, my afternoon’s work included:

  • Dark Horse Double Crooked Tree
  • Victory Wild Devil
  • Surly 16 Grit
  • La Chouffe Houblon Dobbelen IPA
  • Sierra Nevada Bigfoot Barleywine
  • Moylan’s Hopsickle Imperial IPA
  • Flying Dog Double Dog
  • Southern Tier Iniquity
  • Brau Brothers Sheephead Pale Ale
  • Lefthand Twin Sisters Double IPA
  • Avery Maharaja
  • Urthel Hop-It

For me, it was neck and neck between Dark Horse and Victory, both fantastic beers. I was a little surprised by Surly 16 Grit, as it definitely had a much boozier aroma and taste than I recalled from other tastings…not overwhelming, but not as caramel sweet as I remembered. Also, my table of friends collectively concluded that Urthel Hop-It smelled remarkably like a permanent marker. Real good, if you’re into huffing.

The icing for me was getting the opportunity to meet with Kris and Mag over at Beer Musings from MSP, the aforementioned ibeyou, as well as BJCP judge and Twitter friend Ryan. Really cool people, hope to see them again soon.

After the Blue Nile, we stumbled on over to Town Hall (quite a brisk little walk for those of us not in tip top shape) for a couple pints of Masala. As expected, it went down like water considering the taste bud destruction that had already taken place, so we got back to my brother-in-law’s place downtown and completely switched it up by cracking some Dark Lord. What a way to cleanse the palate.

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