Thanks to New Glarus for bringing back their Cherry Stout, a past gold medal winner in the Wood and Barrel Aged Beer category at GABF, and the first in this year’s Unplugged Series.

Appearance is decidedly unstout-like. Fairly reddish coloring, not black or opaque as one might expect. Huge head on the pour, loads of rocky bubbles. Aroma is nearly identical to their Wisconsin Belgian Red with a bushel of  sour cherries, backed with a faint note of dark chocolate, maybe even a syrupy Coca-Cola quality. Flavor is impressive, a beautiful blend of the sour cherry with a building flavor of roasted, chocolate malt. Mouthfeel is solid.

Overall impression, there’s a great deal going on here. If you’re looking for a traditional example of a stout, this ain’t it. It’s better. 

Rating: A

Where I Bought It: Casanova Liquors
Availability: Limited Release
Price: $9.99 per four pack

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I’m normally not one to turn down a challenge…especially when it comes to my favorite hobby.

So when Peter over at Simply Beer recently contacted a handful of homebrew bloggers across the country to take part in what he dubbed a Beer Blogger Brew-Off, well, there wasn’t much debate on whether I was going to throw my hat into the ring.

The format is pretty straightforward…everyone will brew the same base stout recipe this coming Sunday the 13th, but the variable is we all get to change ONE thing about the recipe…whether that’s tweaking the grains, hops, yeast, or introducing a secret ingredient.  The secret ingredient can be anything, as long as the 5 gallon batch is completed on time.  Everyone will bottle their beer January 10th, ship each participant a couple bottles on February 1st, and do a virtual tasting on February 12th that Peter will record and post as a podcast.

I think this event is a pretty cool idea, for a couple reasons…aside from the beer itself, the camaraderie and friendships developed being part of the homebrewing community, whether local or national, are some of the greatest things about the hobby, in my opinion. I’ve also learned alot from connecting with other brewers, and I’m certain this experience will be no different once I sample their beers and get a chance to learn about their vision and process.   

Here’s the list of participants, including a couple local guys. If you’re not familiar with some of these accomplished homebrewers, check out their sites:

DerekLuther Public House (@LutherHaus)
ErikTop Fermented (@topfermented)
JosephHopfentreader (@hopfentreader)
MichaelThank Heaven For Beer (@heavenlybrew)
NateThank Heaven For Beer (@THFBeer_nate)
PeterSimply Beer (@simplybeer)
ThomasBeer Genome Project (@TomBGP)

Here’s the base recipe we’re all going with:

9 lbs. domestic 2-row barley
1 lb. chocolate malt
1 lb. roasted barley
4 oz. flaked barley
4 oz. caramel 60°L
1 oz. Willamette (60 min)
1 oz. Tettnang (2 min)
Wyeast 1056

60 min mash @ 152
75 min sparge @170
60 min boil
Estimated gravity of 1.046 and finish around 1.014

So what’s my secret ingredient going to be? I’ve put a fair amount of thought into it, and it’s been surprisingly challenging coming up with that ONE ingredient to go with. After some pretty funky suggestions, including one from my buddy Aaron at The Vice Blog to brew an egg nog stout (not sure I’d be able to pull that off with just one ingredient), I’ve decided to keep it relatively simple and add about a half pound of lactose during the boil to make this a nice milk stout. My focus will be on making this the most well-executed stout I can, as opposed to blowing people away with barrel-aged, fruit-infused craziness.

I’m curious to see what the other guys decide to do with their batches. I’ll keep everyone updated as the competition progresses.

DSC02926

Last time I won a ribbon for anything was during my fourth grade spelling bee, where I placed third after incorrectly spelling the word “restaurant” (I went with restaraunt). In retrospect, I should have at least gotten a blue ribbon for not wetting myself, considering how nervous I was standing in front of my entire school. But that’s a whole different story.

Well, I was very excited to learn recently that my raspberry wheat stout was the recipient of two home brewing awards:

  • Gold medal winner in the Minnesota Renaissance Festival’s Byggvir’s Big Beer Cup, Eclectic – Fruit Beer category
  • White ribbon winner (third place) in the Minnesota State Fair’s Home Brew Competition, Fruit Beer category

I’ve brewed this beer a handful of times in the past, each time making some slight iterations here and there. For this batch, I think the incorporation of wheat in the grain bill was a key factor, helping to smooth out and balance the darker malts for a better overall mouthfeel and texture. The combination of roasted malt and distinctive berry aroma is the clincher, in my opinion, enveloping you right away with its intoxicating perfume.

The objective commentary from the judges in both competitions was really valuable, the sole reason I enter these things in the first place. And interesting to get some insights into the beer that I frankly hadn’t even thought about going into things. For example, many thought the beer had some prominent coffee notes in the taste, which after sampling the stout again I definitely agree with. Also, a few felt the alcohol heat was just a tad on the high side…not distracting, but maybe too much for some tastes. I see what they’re saying, and I’m taking it into account for the next batch I brew.  

It’s just kind of nice when, despite your best efforts as a home brewer to inevitably screw something up, it all comes together.

Rating: A

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

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

I felt a little like we crashed the study party when a handful of us walked into Acadia Cafe on the West Bank of the U of M campus last night for our inaugural First Tuesday Beer Club meeting. Undergrads seated around pub tables with open books spread about, quiet conversations about the day’s lecture. A relaxed and scholarly environment mixed with the faint smell of hops and quality craft beer.

Calling our rendezvous a “meeting” might be a little formal. The small group was really a spin-off from a larger wine tasting circle, consisting of seven guys who realized that they all maybe enjoyed drinking and talking about beer slightly more than they do wine (maybe I’m just speaking for myself). After our last wine event, we decided to meet up at Acadia to test drive a few of their offerings, informally calling our gathering the First Tuesday Beer Club. But unlike the more rigid and structured wine events where scoring and extensive tabulations took place, we were just going to drink good quality craft beer and nod our heads in approval when we liked something. Maybe a few grunts mixed in for good measure.

We started the night with Surly Mild. I’d actually never seen this one on tap before, and was very eager to give it a shot. The menu described it as an English-style dark mild ale that resembled a malty version of iced tea. And that really wasn’t too far off. Given it was Surly, I was very surprised at just how little was really going on with this one. Barely noticeable aroma (save for the small hint of toffee), relatively nondescript taste, and thin mouthfeel. What immediately came to mind after taking a few sips of Mild was “session beer.” At 4.2% ABV, there’s no way anyone was going to have four or five or twelve of these and be in any danger of stumbling home. While this is probably a good stylistic example of a lighter English-style ale, it’s definitely the least favorite Surly offering I’ve had (Rating: C+).

The rest of the night went something like this:

Southern Tier Gemini Double IPA (far and away the crowd favorite – Rating: A-)
Rogue Yellow Snow IPA (so-so, pretty drinkable but compared to Gemini a little lower on the IPA scale – Rating: B)
Anchor Bock (very good…I’m not a big lager guy so I was pleasantly surprised – Rating: B+)
North Coast Old Rasputin (I’d had this in the bottle before, and was even more impressed with it on draught – Rating: A)
Saison Dupont Organic Farmhouse Ale (ick…something medicinal and uninviting about this one – Rating: C+)
Bell’s Sparkling Tripel 2007 (solid example of a Belgian tripel…yeasty up front with a nice, sweet finish – Rating: B+)
Bell’s Cherry Stout (enjoyable, nice way to cap off the night – Rating: B)

We each had our share, and ponied up the $8 per guy to settle the tab (seriously…I think they must have forgotten to put a couple pitchers on the bill). Next stop on the First Tuesday beer tour…The Muddy Pig. See everyone there.

dsc009401Monday. Back to the grind after a long and relaxing holiday break. My day wasn’t actually that bad, all things considered. Only about 400 emails to wade through and a handful of obligatory meetings. All made that much more bearable by a great little surprise sitting on my desk when I walked in…a sixer of New Glarus for my birthday, compliments of my very thoughtful boss. I’m really looking forward to trying each one.

But on to the beer at hand…Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout. I’ve never had Lagunitas before, mainly because they’re based out in California and only recently started distributing here to Minnesota. I’ve had this one in the beer fridge for quite a while, and tonight felt like the kind of evening to warm the bones with a hearty coffee stout.

Poured with minimal head into a snifter, and a very interesting ruby red coloring. Definitely not as dark or thick as I was expecting. A nice, rich malty chocolate aroma coupled with notes of coffee thanks to the Colombian beans used in the brewing process. Actually kind of reminds me of Surly’s Coffee Bender.

I let the glass warm up just a bit, and it had a nice, smooth taste through and through. Just enough bite with 30 IBUs to balance out the malt. A little thin in the mouthfeel, however, but that’s fairly typical of many stouts I’ve had. Didn’t really pick up much of the 8.29% of ABV, pretty well-hidden.

According to Beer Advocate, this is supposed to be an Imperial Stout, but I don’t agree. Too light in color and a tepid mouthfeel that prevents me from really going with that description. But a decent enough beer. 

Rating: B