Sometimes I’ll read beer reviews, my own included, and realize that some of them are about three adjectives and a couple of choice nouns away from being mistaken as Penthouse Forum letters.

“Beautiful body, with legs for miles.”

“Seductive mouthfeel.”

“Intoxicating perfume, with a firm backbone that keeps you wanting more.”

Only thing missing is the handsome repairman coming to fix the bored housewife’s plumbing.

So instead of turning this into a Whitman-esque rendition of my thoughts on Three Floyd’s Rabbid Rabbit, I’ll just go ahead and call it one of the most unique American saisons I’ve tried in a long time.

I picked this one up on my Dark Lord Day excursion last year, since the brewery unfortunately does not distribute in Minnesota (yet), and have been cellaring it since. Poured with a golden coloring and dense head of carbonation, pretty lively and effervescent. Aroma is certainly fruity, and you do get some hops, but more than anything I was surprised that the beer truly smelled like graham crackers, which was very pleasing, a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg and other spices. Flavor was sweet, a soft mix of fruit and spice, without much of the 7.4% ABV coming through. Medium mouthfeel, with a sweet finish (not classically dry).

Overall, a really fun beer from a great brewery that stretches the style guidelines a bit.

Rating: B+

Where I Bought It: Three Floyd’s Brewery
Availability: Seasonal – released in March
Price: About $14 per 22 oz. bottle

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The names Ben Miller, Michael Robinson and Jeremy White probably don’t ring a bell. But coming to a variety six pack near you in April 2010, their beers will be available as this year’s winners of the annual Samuel Adams American Homebrew Contest, more commonly known as The LongShot. 

The competition, which started back in 1996 with just a couple hundred entries, pared down more than 1,300 beers from homebrewers nationwide to four finalists, with two of those beers going on to be commercially developed and sold nationwide. The competition also included a separate employee-only segment that selected one winner from nearly 300 entries submitted by the Boston Beer Company’s non-brewing staff, or just about 80 percent of the company.

I had a chance to talk with Jim Koch, founder of the company and a key figure behind the rise of craft beer in this country, who explained his own Sam Adams Boston Lager started off as a homebrew recipe in his kitchen more than 25 years ago. But according to Koch, “compared to this year’s winning entries, it frankly wasn’t as good.” 

DSC03171With a majority of today’s 1,500 commercial craft brewers first learning the ropes on an amateur level, the connection between homebrewing and the craft beer industry is arguably one of the greatest contributors to the explosive growth seen in the segment over the past couple decades. And Koch sees the competition as a way to highlight the link.

“The diversity of beers at the Great American Beer Festival is mindblowing, and many of these styles are a direct result of homebrewers developing these beers in their garages and on their stove tops,” said Koch. “This competition is our way of celebrating these pioneers, and reminding everyone that the roots of the U.S. craft beer industry are in homebrewing.”

According to Koch, the GABF did not exist twenty-five years ago as the standalone, economically viable event that it has become today. Instead, it was attached (almost as an afterthought) to the last day of the much larger American Homebrewers Association conference. “They were gracious enough to tolerate this handful of nut jobs who tried to go pro,” Koch said.

The winning LongShot beers were, as expected, superbly well done. Interestingly, the two non-employee winners both brewed beers relatively similar from a stylistic standpoint, which had everything to do with the quality of the beers as opposed to marketing considerations, Koch explained.

Michael Robinson’s Old Ale
A malty, English-style ale with notes of dried fruit, nut and caramel. Michael, a homebrewer from New Hampshire, used five different malts in the grain bill, and a distinctively English-style yeast strain to give the beer its character. Coming in at 9% ABV, it’s definitely not your average session beer. Mike was also recognized as a finalist in last year’s LongShot competition, as well as the 2007 Samuel Adams Patriot Homebrew Contest.

Ben Miller’s Barleywine
A dark red beer boasting plum undertones to complement the distinct caramel malt flavor. Ben used five hop varieties to give the beer its citrus nose and bitter finish. This was Ben’s 100th batch of homebrew in just under two years (he’s been busy), and coincidentally just an hour after winning the LongShot competition, he also won a Gold Medal at the GABF for his IPA that he brewed with Jeff Erway, brewmaster at Chama River Brewing Co. in Albuquerque, for the Pro-Am portion of the competition. I’m almost scared to see what this extremely talented homebrewer will come up with next.

Jeremy White’s Lemon Pepper Saison
Judging by the quality of his beer, you’d never guess Jeremy spends most of his time working as a member of the Boston Beer Company’s IT staff. His saison is a beautifully balanced yeast-forward beer with hints of citrus and pepper in the nose, and a light malt character. A truly drinkable beer.   

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With more than 100 different Belgian beers on draught throughout the weekend, beer geeks in the Twin Cities didn’t need to look far to find some fantastic offerings at this year’s Belgian Beer Festival at The Muddy Pig in St. Paul.  

After helping a friend with some home improvement projects at his house just a stones throw from the bar, my wife and I walked over Sunday afternoon to catch the mid-day NFL games and try some great Belgian ales. Compared to last year, the selection seemed much larger and more interesting, a sign that hopefully we’ll be seeing more of these delicious beers on tap around town.

Verhaeghe Echte Kriekenbier
A beautiful Flanders red. Great amber red appearance, bretty and sour, with a nice biting cherry finish. My wife tried a sip, and thought it smelled like a foot. Mission accomplished.

Rating: A-

Saison Dupont
One of the benchmarks of the style. Spicy aroma, coriander and yeast. Nice bitterness in the flavor, earthy but not barnyard. Enjoyable.

Rating: A- 

Poperings Hommelbier
Tried this for the first time at last year’s event, and still pretty impressed. The Belgians have a different approach to IPAs, but it works. Very distinct aroma, smells like a rose bush. Mellow hop bite, with a subtle bitterness in the finish.

Rating: B+

La Rulles Estivale
A Belgian pale, characterized by a yeasty, toasty aroma and smooth flavor. Almost akin to a German pilsner in some ways. A nice beer.

Rating:  B+ 

La Divine
From Brasserie de Silly, you’d never guess this was a tripel from its dark appearance. But this one surprises you with a sweet maltiness, plenty of toffee notes and candi sugar in the flavor. Creamy mouthfeel. Really liked this beer.

Rating: A

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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

DSC02238I know Tomme Arthur, brewmaster at Lost Abbey, has gotten knocked around the blogosphere a fair amount for what many in the beer community see as a lapse in quality and customer care related to the release of their 2008 Brandy Barrel-Aged Angel’s Share that apparently lacked sufficient carbonation. More on that saga here.

I don’t really have a horse in this race, as I wasn’t one of the folks that signed up to be part of the “Patron Saints and Sinners Club,” because frankly $235 plus shipping costs for what amounted to six bombers of beer (two 375 ml bottles every other month, to be exact) seemed a tad steep for my blood. But I can see both sides of the coin on this issue…from a customer’s perspective, when you pay about $40 for the equivalent of a bomber, there’s a reasonable expectation that everything about that bottle better be in pristine condition, even down to the wiring on the cork cage. On the otherhand, reading Tomme’s explanation, I absolutely understand the pressures that must be associated with getting product out the door in a timely manner to meet customer demand. Because as a homebrewer, I know firsthand that variables involved in bottle conditioning (yeast population, available fermentables, temperature) can greatly impact the speed in which the beer inside is ready to be properly served. Sometimes you get a batch that carbonates in a week, and sometimes it takes a month. Sometimes it’s even overcarbonated. It can be a crap shoot, which is why I generally prefer kegging. But I think what some people might forget, as much as they have a reasonable expectation to getting what they pay for, is that beer — and more specifically HIGH QUALITY craft beer — is a living and breathing organism. And consequently, there is a possibility for variation in product, especially in small handcrafted batches as Lost Abbey was dealing with. I’d expect these bottles in question would have eventually carbonated just fine, given some time in the cellar. But if some of these folks are like me, patience is in short supply, especially when you have a fantastic beer package sitting on your doorstep.   

In the end, I think the Angel’s Share thing was an unfortunate incident that probably put a small black eye on what is otherwise, at least in my opinion, a high quality brewery. Their reputation will surely recover.

Thankfully, none of these issues presented themselves when I popped a bottle of their Carnevale, a saison-style ale that uses a healthy dose of brettanomyces to set it apart from many others in its category. I don’t know what it is, but I am completely enamored with wild yeast, I just love it.

Poured a hazy golden color, with a nice foamy head. Very cloudy with yeast, and a definite funky aroma from the brett. A bit spicy and some citrus notes, but it’s largely overshadowed by the musty yeast. The flavor was OK, some sweet maltiness, but not as crisp, clean and effervescent as I tend to prefer in saisons. It seemed kind of “muddy.” I suppose some of this could be from the brett’s overall dominance. Mouthfeel was good, full and smooth. 

A unique saison. But a little one-dimensional, even for a guy that really enjoys brett.

Rating: B

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
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Omar expounding on the virtues of his beer

#Winteryspew be damned. No amount of snow and sleet was going to keep me from attending the annual Surly Dinner at the Happy Gnome in St. Paul Tuesday evening.

Despite the dire predictions of icy roads and certain death plaguing the afternoon rush hour, my wife and I actually got over to the pub with little to no difficulty. We met some good friends of ours, and chatted with Omar a bit before the dinner program began, highly anticipating what was to be a fantastically well-done dinner pairing some of the Twin Cities finest beers with the artful creations of head chef Matt Hinman. The menu was incredible, many of the ingredients locally sourced:

First Course
Composition of vegetables with duck confit, red watercress, lemon vinaigrette, herb mix
Paired with Cynic

Second Course
Fois gras soaked in bourbon and cured in smoked salts, brioche, grapefruit supremes, topped with honey and vanilla glazed pistachios and pumpkinseed oil
Paired with Smoke

Third Course
Seared opah with celery root puree, roasted garlic-braised rainbow chard, passion fruit/pineapple reduction, mango and papaya relish
Paired with III (Three)

Fourth Course
Rib eye on mascarpone risotto, roasted wild mushrooms, Minnesota ramp butter, and red wine demi glaze
Paired with Darkness

Fifth Course
Flourless chocolate cake with coffee-creme glaze
Paired with Coffee Bender

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Fois gras on brioche

To say the entire meal was extraordinary would be a phenomenal understatement. This being my first beer dinner, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. Sure, I knew the beer was going to be excellent. It’s Surly, after all. And I’d heard good things about the fare at the Gnome. But how well would these two things complement each other? Well, perfectly, as it turns out. Wasn’t forced in the least. Like each course and Surly offering had been German-engineered to go together. The Smoke gently coaxed out the salty character of the fois gras. The hopped, sweet maltiness of Darkness created a perfect entree to the expertly grilled rib eye. And the Coffee Bender helped to cap off what could be the most potent and delectable chocolate cake I’ve ever enjoyed.

What I found even more enjoyable and interesting was the discussion of the beers inbetween each course with Omar and head brewer Todd Haug. Very educational to learn more about the ingredients, stylistic philosophies and thought processes that have gone into crafting each beer over the years.

We left a happy group of Surly loyalists (and newly made Happy Gnome fans), already looking forward to next year’s dinner.

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