The first ever Beer Blogger Brew-Off is in the books, and a good time was had by all.

The quality of the beers brewed by the participants was incredible. It was clear these guys have spent many years perfecting their craft, and it was equally impressive how distinctly unique each beer was considering everyone changed only one ingredient from the base recipe we all used. Here’s what everyone went with:

My secret ingredient, which I didn’t really keep a closely guarded secret, was lactose, making my beer a nice milk stout. You can check out the recipe and brewday here. After my beer fermented out, I kegged half the batch for a New Year’s party, and split the rest off into a carboy for bottling at a later date. The beer from the keg was fantastic — chocolatey, roasty, and milky sweet. I would have had more than two glasses of it, but my friends had other ideas and decided to drink it all too quickly.

Here’s where the story gets grim…after bottling and shipping my beers to the brew-off participants, we settled in for the sampling, and it quickly became clear something was a little off when everyone cracked my bottles. A mildly sour aroma crept up on us, not completely off-putting (and in fact some friends have said they enjoy it) but not exactly what I was aiming for, either. The likely culprit? Bacteria from sanitation issues during the bottling process.

I’m a meticulous sanitizer…in most cases I think I probably overdo it (if that’s even possible). And I know this kind of thing can happen occasionally to the best of us. But frankly, it was a little embarrassing.

After sampling everyone’s beers, we informally declared local beer blogger Derek the brew-off winner with his molasses stout, a fantastically rich, full-bodied beer. Very well done. And I’m happy to say he left me with a sixer for my longer term enjoyment.

If you’re interested in hearing the entire brew-off discussion recorded by Peter at Simply Beer,  listen to the podcast here. Already looking forward to the next brew-off!

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The Beer Blogger Brew-Off went about as smoothly as I could have hoped, given I was brewing in near arctic conditions.

After being pummeled by a snow storm earlier this week that created snow drifts in my driveway in excess of two feet, there’s no doubt winter has officially arrived in Minnesota. So it was nice hanging out in the garage with the propane burner cranked up as far as the dial would go, taking the edge off the single digit temps as the unforgiving wind howled outside the door.

However, while it was just slightly bearable in my garage, the cold did come into play during the mash. Thinking the cold mash tun and ambient air temp would make an impact on the mash temp, I overcompensated and heated my strike water to about 180 degrees, which resulted in overshooting the 152 degree target temperature by a couple notches. Not a big deal…the finished beer might come out a tad sweeter than expected, but considering the style I’m brewing it will likely go unnoticed.

During the sparge, the wort smelled fantastic coming out of the mash tun, tons of roast and chocolate. To make it a milk stout, I added a half pound of lactose to the boil with ten minutes remaining. The gravity reading (before I added the lactose) was 1.045, so very close to the target established by Peter at Simply Beer in the original brew-off rules.

I’m pretty excited for this one, as it’s been a while since I’ve had a nice, easy-drinking stout on tap. I’m even more excited to try the beers from the other guys taking part in the friendly competition and see how their secret ingredients made an impact (so far, I know one guy added maple syrup, and another toasted oats). To read about how the Beer Blogger Brew-Off went for the other homebrewers involved, check out the Twitter hashtag #brewoff.

Here’s a few pictures from the day:  

greatdivideLike many of us in the Upper Midwest, the fall season marks a favorite time of year filled with long drives up the North Shore to see the colorful progression of changing leaves, evening hay rides through winding farm fields, and the soothing smell of spiced cider wafting through the kitchen…

Hold on…what in the hell am I talking about? This isn’t Martha Stewart Living.

Fall means football. And even better, it also means the introduction of a slew of flavorful, aromatic seasonal beers.

The cooler months are historically the high season for beer, with brewers in northern Europe traditionally bringing out the strongest and maltiest of their wares that had been safely conditioning in cool cellars and caves through the hot and humid summer, such as Oktoberfests and doppelbocks. And with the slight chill in the evening air providing portent of the months ahead, it has me turning my focus to heartier, more warming brews.

I’m of course talking about the prototypical fireside beer…the glorious stout.

Despite some peoples’ perception of stouts as undrinkable glasses of motor oil (Bennigans, everyone’s favorite “Irish” bar and restaurant, ironically used to list Guinness under the appetizer section of their menu), they can often be one of the smoothest, most drinkable beers around, exhibiting a surprising spectrum of nuance in flavor, aroma and texture amongst the category. 

To talk about the history of stouts you need to also describe another closely related beer…the English porter. The name was coined in the early 1700’s by street and river porters, part of London’s blue collar working class, that preferred a darker, richer beer made with roasted malts. It wasn’t long before some versions of the beer became more broadly known as stouts, characterized by their higher alcohol content and greater bitterness and roasted qualities. Guinness started using the term stout to describe its beer in 1820, though they’d essentially been brewing the style since 1780.

Interestingly, stouts also have a long association with oysters, likely a popular food pairing in British pubs, with several versions being brewed with a handful of the shellfish in the mash or barrel. And yes, the rumors that women in northern Europe were (and apparently still are) encouraged to enjoy the occasional stout to aid in nutrition during pregnancy are, unfortunately, indeed true.

Stylistically, stouts (much like porters) can be somewhat of a catch-all term, encompassing a very wide swath of beers. But the common denominator is generally the incorporation of roasted barley which lends a dryness and roasted flavor that can be described as coffee, chocolate, or dark fruits. Some of the more commonly recognized varieties include the English stout, Irish dry stout, sweet stout, oatmeal stout, foreign extra stout, American stout, and Russian Imperial stout.

Your average Twin Cities beer lover doesn’t need to look far to find a bevy of fantastic examples at their local bar or retail outlet, with many of them brewed right here in Minnesota or Wisconsin.

English Stout
The standard bearer of the style. As described earlier, not that dissimiliar to many porters, but marked by a more pronounced malt and roasted characteristic, and slightly higher alcohol content.   

label_stoutLocally, August Schell’s Stout is a very nice example, and in fact one of the highest rated in the category, according to Beer Advocate.

“Schell Stout began as our Snowstorm offering in 2006, and due to its overwhelming popularity, it entered into regular production in 2008,” explained David Berg, brewmaster at August Schell Brewing in New Ulm. “The underlying philosophy behind the recipe was one of balance. The malt chosen was all from the UK, with just enough hops to keep the beer from being cloying. It’s not a beer that assaults your tastebuds. Instead, it’s a beer that requires the drinker to think about what they’re tasting to draw out the subtle complexities.”

Irish Dry Stout
guinness-is-good-for-youFollowing on the template created by the English stout, the Irish dry stout evolved after brewers in Ireland attempted to offer a creamier beer of greater body and strength, with an underlying dry, astringent finish. Today, most people know this style thanks to the ubiquitous Guinness, founded in 1759 in Dublin. Guinness is revered as one of the original mass marketers in Great Britain, reaching a pinnacle during the 1930’s and 1940’s with its iconic toucan mascot and slogans like “My Goodness My Guinness” and “Guinness for Strength.” Today, if you travel to Dublin and take a tour at their St. James Gate brewery (as I did a few years ago), they make a point in playing off the secretive “black stuff” used in their recipe, which is likely just some form of black patent malt to give Guinness its distinctive burnt, dry finish.

In addition to Guinness Draught (the stuff in cans here in America) and their recently released 250th Anniversary Stout, some locally brewed examples include Central Waters Irish Dry Stout, a seasonal release, and Furthermore’s Three Feet Deep, a beer that offers an interesting smokey nose thanks to their use of peat-smoked malt, making it very reminiscent to a nice scotch.

Sweet Stout
Sweet stouts are an English style originally gaining popularity around World War II. Historically known as “milk” or “cream” stouts, some also referred to it as “nourishing” stout, no doubt reflected in the advice of doctors in the early to mid 1900’s touting the beer’s health benefits for pregnant and nursing women. Legally, the “milk” designation is no longer permitted in England, a result of rationing during WWII when the British government required brewers to remove the word from labels or advertisements. 

The name is derived from the use of lactose, or milk sugar, as a sweetener which goes unfermented in the wort, providing a silkier, creamy mouthfeel and texture. They can literally come off as sweet, or in some cases a tinge of sourness, not that unlike spoiling milk in the most extreme examples.  

Minneapolis Town Hall recently had a cask of their delicious Coconut Milk Stout on draught, like smooth, liquid Almond Joy in a glass (though to my knowledge you’ll have to wait a while before it returns), or you can try Brau Brother’s Cream Stout, an offering that leans more on the lactose side of the equation.

Oatmeal Stout
Oatmeal stouts are an English seasonal very closely resembling sweet stouts. But unlike the sweet stout that uses lactose to provide its distinctive mouthfeel, oatmeal stouts use…well, you get the picture. Generally speaking, oats are a relatively small component of most brewers’ grain bills, maybe making up 5-15% of the total composition, as they tend to gelatinize into a gooey mess in the mash, potentially causing issues with the lautering process if not handled properly. So typically, the goal is to develop a more silky texture, with comparatively less emphasis on any “oatmeal” kind of flavor and aroma as one might expect. As a homebrewer, it’s definitely one of my favorite styles to make.

Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout from England is the classic example, easily found at many retail locations in the Twin Cities, or try Goose Island’s Oatmeal Stout, a beer that gives oatmeal and chocolate a whole new meaning.

Beer lovers in the Twin Cities have a number of locally brewed options to choose from, including Minneapolis Town Hall’s Black H20 Oatmeal Stout, Great Waters Blackwatch Oatmeal Stout, Flat Earth’s Black Helicopter, a stout brewed with Dunn Bros. coffee, and of course Summit’s Oatmeal Stout, found only on draught at area bars.

“Our Oatmeal Stout was first brewed in 2004 as a limited release beer, but quickly turned into a favorite so we decided to make it part of our regular line-up,” said Mark Stutrud, brewmaster and founder of Summit Brewing Company. “It’s poured with mixed gas (nitrogen and CO2) which gives it a tan, creamy head and smooth character.  The stout is dark brown in color with notes of chocolate, coffee, and caramel.  And the toasted oats give the beer a very velvety, smooth mouthfeel that sets it apart from others.”

Foreign Extra Stout
lionForeign extra stouts were originally high-gravity stouts brewed for markets outside Great Britain, designed to withstand the warmer shipping temperatures that could spoil less potent beers. Guinness Foreign Extra Stout is the most widely available example, which has been made since the early 1800’s.

A very closely related subcategory to foreign extras are tropical stouts, domestic versions of foreign extras brewed in warm climes such as the Caribbean. Interestingly, they are often brewed using lager yeasts, a practice more likely attributed to local brewing traditions (think how many lagers surprisingly come out of Mexico and the Caribbean) as opposed to technical consideration during fermentation. Locally available examples include Lion Stout (now in cans), a fantastic offering from Sri Lanka.

American Stout
American stouts follow closely to foreign extra stouts, offering a deep roasted and burnt malt characteristic, and as one might expect, more perceptible levels of hop bitterness. Like the American craft beer industry has seen with bold and extreme styles like double IPA’s and barleywines, experimentation is also a hallmark of this style, with some brewers adding coffee, chocolate or other ingredients to differentiate their beers. Many craft brewers have also taken to aging their beers in oak casks previously used for storing bourbon or other hard liquors, imparting a kbsunique complexity not found in most ales.

Sierra Nevada Stout and Rogue’s Shakespeare Stout are both good choices, and be sure to check out Michigan-based Dark Horse’s line of holiday stouts, which includes their fantastic Tres Blueberry Stout. Also, now that Founders distributes to the Twin Cities, be on the lookout for their Breakfast Stout, and if you’re very lucky, the highly rare Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout, a bourbon-barrel aged version of the original.

Russian Imperial Stout
darklordThe big daddy of them all…the Russian Imperial stout. Brewed to very high gravity, usually approaching (and exceeding) the 22 degrees Plato range for all you homebrewers out there, and copiously hopped to balance the intense level of malt. First brewed in 1796 by Thrale’s Brewery in London for export to the court of Catherine II of Russia, the style today is widely celebrated by many notable craft brewers nationwide as the ultimate expression of brewing in its extreme.

Dark Lord, brewed by Three Floyds in Munster, Indiana, is held up as one of the shining examples of the style. However, as I can attest from personal experience, it’s extraordinarily difficult to find unless you travel to the brewery one day out of the year to get it. Bell’s Expedition Stout is another fine choice (and much easier to procure), as well as North Coast’s Old Rasputin.

Closer to home, Brau Brothers has plans to release an imperial stout later this winter, according to CEO and brewmaster Dustin Brau, with details to be announced very soon.

And of course, no discussion on imperial stouts would be complete without highlighting Surly Darkness and the brewery’s annual Darkness Day festival, a one day event in October that has gained widespread attention and reputation as one of the best craft beer convocations in the country. The event draws beer lovers from across the nation to share in the glory of what is, at least in my opinion, one of the best beers on the planet. You can also find it on draught very occasionally around the Twin Cities, if you happen to be in the right place at the right time (rumor has it there will be a cask of Darkness at the upcoming Autumn Brew Review).

“When Todd first brewed Darkness in June 2006, I wondered ‘how am I going to sell 12 barrels of this stuff’?” said Omar Ansari, founder of Surly. “We had no idea up front it would become the phenomenon that it has. The first year it was only sold in growlers and kegs, and you’d see people driving in to places like The Blue Nile ordering a couple glasses and pouring it into sealable containers. We knew then we had to do something about it. So when the laws were changed the next year to allow us to sell 750 ml bottles from the brewery, we hosted the first Darkness Day festival, and each year it’s gotten progressively larger.”  

darkness

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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

dsc017121Had a great time at yesterday’s FirkinFest at the Happy Gnome. Lots and lots of great beers, and very good conversations with some of the local brewers and other craft beer lovers.

I did a short write-up on the event for Heavy Table, which was a lot of fun to do and a nice way to spend a beautiful Spring afternoon.

In no particular order, here’s the full list of the beers I tried that may not have made it into the article:

  • Steamworks Oak-Aged Conductor IPA – nice and oaky, well-done
  • Dark Horse Plead the 5th Russian Imperial Stout – solid chocolate notes, nice finish
  • Surly Bitter Brewer – haven’t had this one before, and really enjoyed it, nicely balanced biscuit flavoring
  • Tyranena Dirty Old Man Imperial Rye Porter – excellent, one of the better beers I had all day
  • Lift Bridge Kimono Girl Saison – very enjoyable, nice and citrusy
  • Dark Horse Double Crooked Tree IPA – a hop blast
  • Brau Brothers Sheap’s Head Imperial Lucan Ale – very nice hop character, could be the best offering I’ve had from them
  • Bell’s Hop Slam – it’s Hop Slam…what else is there to say
  • Big Sky Dry-Hopped Scape Goat Pale Ale – smooth and refreshing
  • Summit Dry-Hopped IPA w/Amarillo – great hoppy nose balanced by caramel malt
  • Summit Dry-Hopped IPA w/Kent Goldings – more earthy and subtle version, enjoyable
  • Rush River Bubblejack IPA – have had this once before, not too impressed
  • Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout – surprisingly hoppy for the style, enjoyed it
  • Lagunitas Old Gnarlywine – not sweet enough for me, a little too much heat from the alcohol
  • Harviestoun Ola Dubh 12 Year Reserve – definitely get the scotch cask in there, really liked it
  • Surly Tea-Bagged Furious – good, but not as hoppy as I’d expected it to be
  • Surly Oak-Aged Bender – fantastic
  • Left Hand Milk Stout – very enjoyable
  • Furthermore Three Feet Deep Dry Irish Stout – smokey and peatey, pretty good
  • Surly 16 Grit – amazing beer, slightly different than the first time I had it

dsc01169To be fair, I’ve never had a milk stout before, and wasn’t sure what to expect from Minneapolis Town Hall’s Festivus. Sounded interesting, and from some recent comments from fellow Twin Cities beer blogger dirtyspeed, I thought I’d head over and give a few of their holiday seasonals a try. I was actually more interested in their Jubilation IPA and Grinch’s Grog pale ale, but they were fresh out when I visited.

This review is a culmination of several sessions with Festivus, as the first glass I had didn’t give me a very good first impression. But, I eased into it over a couple different evenings, and grew to appreciate what they’ve done.

Pours with a nice creamy tan head, and very aromatic like a rich porter with deep roasted malt notes. A little bit of chocolate. But then you get the very slightest smell of curdled milk, which is a direct result of the lactose used in the brewing process. For many, that might be a turn off, and it was to me to be perfectly honest, but knowing this is the style I pressed on hoping things would improve. Historically speaking, milk stouts were originally brewed near the turn of the 20th century and given to nursing mothers as they were thought to be nutritious. Completely irresponsible knowing what we do today, but remember, one of the most famous taglines of the era was “Guinness, It’s Good For You!”

The flavor is very robust. Again, a very pleasant porter/stout characteristic of smoky malt and sweet caramel mixed with that tell-tale lactose finish. Kind of like drinking that first gulp of really cold and refreshing milk only to realize a split second later it’s turned. That might be a bit harsh, but once I got over that part of it the beer actually started to grow on me a bit. Very creamy and rich mouthfeel, a pleasant texture which I enjoyed.

Based on Festivus, I’m going to have to say that milk stouts are probably not my thing. I also recognize Town Hall can’t brew up a masterpiece every time they fire up the brew kettle. So overall an interesting little stout that I may or may not try again. 

Rating: B-