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Good Old Barley Wines

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Bass No. 1 The First Barley Wine

Welcome back!

It has been a bit too long for my liking since my last post, but I hope the month of January treated you well. There were certainly a few days that a strong beer and a warm fire seemed necessary, but for the most part it has been a strangely mild winter here in Minnesota. The lack of snow and unseasonably warm temperatures have not stopped me, however, from taking part in ritualistic consumption and study of a robust, legend inducing style of beer: the barley wine. During the time since my last post I have enjoyed several classic examples of the style as well as a few beers that are close relatives or variations. In this post I will cover some of the  history of the style, ingredient and flavor/aroma characteristics, aging these beers, and my tasting notes from the beers I sampled.

I’d like to start by discussing the name “barley wine” itself. As you can probably guess, a beer with “wine” in the name is referring to the high alcohol content. The first historical reference to this label for a beer came in 1903 when Bass Brewing Company in England labeled their No. 1 strong ale as a “barley wine”. (Great resource for British beer history) It had already become common practice in Great Britain to label some strong ales (usually 7% ABV and higher) with “old” in the title (owning to the aging of the beer before being released), or referring to them as “stingo” amongst other names. Additionally, a taxation based labeling system related to alcohol content (technically the original gravity of the unfermented wort, which is the amount of sugar per volume of the liquid) came about in the late 1800s using “X”s to designate the strength of the beer, with XXXX being the highest in alcohol content. (Source: Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher p. 151) You can see then, that the label barley wine evolved out of other descriptors, and has grown into the term of favor for the most part ever since.

Further evolving, the term as most American craft beer lovers see it today is, “barleywine”. The legacy of this contraction into one word is fairly recent. First adapted by Fritz Maytag, former owner of Anchor Brewing and the man responsible for its revival, when attempting to get approval for his “Old Foghorn” the original American barley wine in 1976. The U.S. Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol, and Firearms did not like the idea of labeling a product as “wine” if it did not include grapes. Fritz did a little rebranding and brought his label to the state, (as they would allow it even if the federal government did not) calling the beer “Old Foghorn barleywine style ale”. (Source) His plan worked and the term has stuck in it’s condensed form through most uses in commercial U.S. production today.

Don’t worry, we’re getting close to tasting these big beers. Another bit about the naming is that although barleywine (this is what I’ll use for the rest of the post) was the common name for the highest strength beer a brewery makes (certainly not the case anymore with the style defying high alcohol beers many craft breweries produce) another name that is nearly synonymous is “Old Ale”. For the most part an “Old Ale” is considered a barleywine today, though their history comes from regular strength beers that were aged for a long period of time in wooden barrels and blended with younger beers or occasionally served unblended.

So what goes into these strong beers and what do they taste like? Barleywines are characterized by their large use of ingredients, both the grains (traditionally nearly all barley) and hops. Modern Barleywines use only the first runnings from the mash (meaning the highest sugar content) and can range in their final alcohol content from 8-14% ABV. Since the brewers use a larger amount of malt they must balance the sweetness of the beer by adding more hops. This is primarily where the distinction comes between “American style barleywines” and “English style barleywines”. Traditional English barleywines have pronounced malt flavors and aromas (toast, biscuits, caramel, brown sugar, molasses, raisins) with a range of bitterness from subtle to pronounced, but with hop flavors and aromas that favor the earthy, woody, herbal end of the spectrum. Anchor’s “Old Foghorn” created the first American style barleywine, which put a hoppier spin on the English style, and started the trend toward a hoppy barleywine. Along with the malt characteristics of its English style counterpart, American barleywines are known by their unusually high hop bitterness, distinct hop flavors and aromas (often citrus, piney, and resinous). It has come to a point where it is difficult to tell much of a difference between a Double/Imperial IPA and an American barleywine (to much acclaim from “hopheads”).

So with that background information in your head, I present to you some classic barleywines (both American and English) along with a couple of Old Ales and one specialty!

#1 (The Original!) Anchor “Old Foghorn” (English Barleywine) Fall 2011 Vintage Apprx. 8% ABV

Appearance: Clear dark amber with a creamy tan head that hangs around nicely

Aroma: Orange rind, copper/mineral, raisins, slight citrus hop character

Flavor: Candied dark fruit/rasin, dough, more citrus hops, slight alcohol warmth on finish

Mouthfeel: Richly carbonated, slightly viscous chewy body and a bit of tongue coating feel

#2 North Coast “Old Stock” (Old Ale/English Barleywine) 2011 Vintage 11.9% ABV

Appearance: Clear dark amber/garnet, fairly dense light tan head

Aroma: Doughy, caramel, raisin, nutty, present alcohol with some subtle vanilla and cherry notes

Flavor: Raisin, toast/bread crust, toffee, alcohol warmth on finish fairly pronounced.

Mouthfeel: Rich carbonation, rich and chewy body that clings well to the tongue, warming feeling in the mouth lingers

#3 Sierra Nevada “Bigfoot” (American Barleywine) 2011 Vintage 9.6% ABV

Appearance: Clear reddish amber with a rocky off white head

Aroma: Bright citrus (primarily grapefruit) with some caramel, raisin and toast

Flavor: Caramel up front, slightly faded but strongly bitter grapefruit rind, present raisin and a slight alcohol warmth on finish

Mouthfeel: Soft and dense carbonation, drying bitterness throughout, rich body and clings to the tongue and mouth

#4 Fullers “Vintage” (Old Ale/Traditional English Barleywine) 2010 Vintage 8.5% ABV

Appearance: Clear amber with a rocky/fluffy off white head

Aroma: Caramel, fresh bread, earthy/woody hop aroma

Flavor: Raisin, caramel, biscuit (light toast), damp earthy hop flavor, lightly bitter

Mouthfeel: Rich carbonation, medium body, clean finishing, not much tongue coating feel

#5 Alaskan “Barleywine” (English/American hybrid) 2011 Vintage 10.7% ABV

Appearance: (No photo) Clear deep ruby/dark amber, fairly small light tan head

Aroma: Candied fruit, raisins, cherries, dark caramel, toast, light alcohol aroma

Flavor: Sweet dark fruit, soft rich caramel, light citric hop flavors

Mouthfeel: Soft dense carbonation, moderately rich body, fairly clean finish

#6 Rogue “Old Crustacean” (American Barleywine) 2010 Vintage 11.5% ABV

Appearance: Hazy amber/dark copper, thin bubbly head that fades quickly

Aroma: Caramel, dates, very resinous almost sticky piney hops

Flavor: Toast, caramel, raisins, with a pronounced pine sap flavor on the finish

Mouthfeel: Slightly coarse carbonation, rich chewy body with a very dry bitter finish.

#7 SPECIALTY! Central Waters “Bourbon Barrel Barleywine” (American barleywine aged in Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels) 11.5% ABV

Appearance: Hazy amber/ruby color with minimal off white head that fades quickly

Aroma: Rich caramel, vanilla, bourbon, raisins, moderate alcohol

Flavor: More rich caramel, toffee, deep vanilla flavor, earthy toasted oak, smooth bourbon (not hot), raisins, warm and present (but enjoyable) alcohol finish

Mouthfeel: Rich and soft carbonation, viscous, robust body that coats the tongue well.

What a gathering of beers! Each one was a treat and can be enjoyed best either on its own or as an accompaniment to some funky earthy cheese (I tried some Stilton with the Fullers “Vintage” but I couldn’t convince my palate to like it) or perhaps with some rich pound cake during dessert. I enjoyed the Central Waters “Bourbon Barrel Barleywine” the most, but that’s not fair to the others on the list because I’m sure they would all do well with some barrel aging. With that in mind, of the other classic and more widely available examples on the list, the North Coast “Old Stock” won my heart. I find myself more drawn to the more malty, toffee-like barleywines (aka traditional English style) though I really enjoyed the Alaskan Barleywine, “Bigfoot” and “Old Foghorn”.

So that brings me to my final point in this post which is aging. The barleywine is the style of beer most suited to aging due to its high alcohol content and robust flavors. Many people (myself included) feel that a barleywine should be given a year to age before it starts really drinking well. This is not to say that many fresh barleywines are not tasty, but their flavors can be a bit harsh and the alcohol can be overly present and hot. Aging helps to mellow and round out some of the more harsh aspects (especially of American barleywines with their often brash bitterness), allow more subtle flavors to come out, and eventually new flavors will develop. A properly aged bottle of barleywine will typically develop some sweet sherry wine like flavors (think subtle cherry) over years and can gain depth and complexity amongst the flavors already present.

To observe this point, I have purchased duplicates of each beer that I sampled in this post (except the Fullers) and I will try them all again in one year. Until then I will keep them with my other cellaring beers in my basement. I am fortunate that the temperature hovers around 58 degrees and I can keep them in a room free from any light exposure. If you are interested in cellaring beer, try to keep it in the coolest (ideally 50-60 degrees), darkest (no UV light at all if you can help it) spot in your place of residence. Store the bottles upright as this will reduce the amount of surface area between the beer and any oxygen that may be in the bottle and will keep any living yeast on the bottom of the bottle so you can leave them behind when you pour.

Well I’m glad to be back on the horse again and I’m looking forward to my next post. I am sure that it will be much sooner than the time lapse between my previous post. Until I decide which direction to take, enjoy some strong beers while it’s still somewhat cold out, because spring will be here soon!


Winter Beer Brief-ing

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Welcome (to Winter)!

Do you need another reason to drink?

I hope this post finds you somewhere toasty with a beer in your hand. Since my last post, winter weather has begun to settle upon the Twin Cities with temperatures in the 20s or lower for the past several days and just a bit of snow. We’ve yet to have our first proper blizzard, but I’m sure it’s not far off (last year’s 18in dumper that brought down the Metrodome was on Dec. 11th). Aside from the backaches of shoveling and treacherous driving conditions, the frigid weather ushers in some excellent winter sports, festive holidays, and most importantly, justification for drinking high gravity robust beers. As a side-note, our move-in process has left me more out of sorts than I had planned, so this post has gotten little love and will therefore be pretty brief.

To backtrack for a moment to last week’s post, I have to give a couple of follow up comments. For one, I had a great time at the Lucid Brewing release of ‘Air’. The event was very well attended and everyone was in good spirits and excited to be drinking some new Minnesota beer. The beer itself was a welcomed break to many of the robust winter beers I have been drinking. It is an American wheat style beer brewed with some Citra hops, giving it a light crisp mouthfeel with a touch of citrus flavors and aromas and a mild lightly bready malt background. It is a great session beer at around 4% ABV and is sure to be a crowd pleaser. They are releasing ‘Camo’, their double IPA tomorrow night at the Golden Nugget in Minnetonka, so go check that out if you get a chance.

Also mentioned in last week’s post was the Surly ‘Abrasive’ release which was this past Monday at Lyon’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis. As per usual at Surly releases it was a pretty packed house (in spite of the frigid temperatures) with most everyone sporting some form of Surly garb. The beer was just fantastic, and I’ll be telling you more about it here in just a minute. More to come about Surly releases at the end of this post.

On to a few of the winter beers that have been warming my belly this winter. One that came out a few months ago to a subdued fanfare in light of it’s maple bourbon barrel aged progeny (CBS or Canadian Breakfast Stout) was the Founders ‘Breakfast Stout‘, a double chocolate, coffee, oatmeal stout. I have had this beer in the past and always thought fondly of it. Thought I am not a big fan of coffee, ‘Breakfast Stout’ makes it work. The coffee dominates the aroma with a bit of dark chocolate and anise in the background. The coffee is quite present in the flavor along with dark chocolate, but given how bitter both flavors are, the oats in the recipe manage to wrangle in the astringency to a palatable level for my taste. At 8.3% ABV this stout is sure to keep your cheeks flush and warm you up on a chilly winter evening; surely a wonderful winter brew. Also, this beer can be aged for a few years so if you can resist, put a couple of bottles away to see how the flavors develop.

Next on my winter drinking list comes straight from the Surly seasonal department and their recently released double IPA, ‘Abrasive’. Surly claims that this is Minnesota’s first double IPA and has been produced seasonally since 2008. During its first week on the market it has been tough to find on shelves unless you know where to look, because it is such a heavily sought after beer. It does not disappoint, with a deliciously pungent aroma that is present from a distance just upon opening the can. The aromas and flavors are definitely influenced by the large amount of Citra hops used in the brew giving off bright grapefruit and other fresh tangy citrus fruits amongst a telltale earthy almost mustiness (some call this a cat pee aroma) which is not at all unpleasant, but distinct. The increased malt bill results in a caramelly breadiness that backs up the intense hop profile and boosts the ABV to just shy of 9% (again, perfect for warming your chilled bones). This is typically a 2-3 month seasonal release, but it may be a bit of a short season on ‘Abrasive’ as there is a shortage of Citra hops this year, so get some while you can.

Last on this abbreviated list (don’t worry, I still have to work through barleywines, old ales, varieties of stouts, porters and the like in the coming months, so don’t fret) is Odell’s ‘Mountain Standard’ double black IPA. This is the third year for the ‘Mountain Standard’ but it’s first in four pack release, and it will be sticking around until April (awesome decision!). For the past two years, this beer has been only available in limited quantities in 750ml bottles (released at the beginning of November in honor of the time change back to Mountain Standard Time), but it’s popularity has brought it out to play for a longer release. For those of you not familiar with a black IPA, much less a double black, I’ll give you a quick rundown (I will dissect this style in the future in more depth). A black IPA is a hot topic in the craft beer world, not just because it is a bit of an unusual style, but because there are many different names for it: Black Ale, Cascadian Dark Ale, Black IPA, or just Hoppy Dark Ale all seem to mean the same thing. As far as the Great American Beer Festival is concerned, the category corresponding to this particular style is ‘American Black Ale’, which New Glarus won gold for this year with their Black Top (my favorite black IPA). So why does ‘Mountain Standard’ make my list of great winter beers? Well, it is an aggressively hopped, robust, dark ale, which boasts 9.5% ABV. The aroma rivals any IPA that I have had with bold grapefruit and resinous sticky hops and a flavor that can stand up to the roasted malts (an area that too many black IPAs fall short). The juicy citrus flavors flow over the chocolate malt background like orange and grapefruit bursting through a rich dark chocolate. This beer is glorious and highly drinkable in spite of the large amount of alcohol in it. I will be drinking a ton of this beer throughout the winter and I’d recommend you do the same.

So there you have it, a brief glimpse into a few of the beers I am (and will be) enjoying this winter so far. I am saving several others that I could have mentioned here for future posts, so stay tuned.

In other news, Surly will be officially making December one of the best months of the year by releasing a second seasonal (a bit out of order for them, since ‘Abrasive’ usually comes second) their highly touted ‘Smoke’ on Monday the 19th at the Red Stag Supper Club. If you’ve never had a smoked beer before, do make an effort to try some of this wonderful beer (have I made it clear how much I enjoy Surly’s beers?). I’ll be there to usher yet another great Surly seasonal and I hope to see you out.

Until next week, take care, stay warm and as always, drink well!

Craft Beer News Roundup

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Happy December and Welcome!

It has been a whirlwind week and a half in my world with a very busy schedule around the Thanksgiving holiday and a recent move I haven’t had much time to put together research for a post, but thankfully there is no shortage of happenings in the local and national craft beer world and I intend to give you a recap. There are also some exciting opportunities to get involved in and sample from the continually amazing Twin Cities beer scene.

I’ll start with an exciting and immediate event from the newest brewery in Minnesota (yep, there’s another one). Tomorrow (Friday Dec. 2nd from 5-7) Lucid Brewing will be officially releasing their first offering ‘Air’ at The Public House in Minneapolis. I’ll be there to welcome Minnetonka, Minnesota’s first brewery to market and you should come down to this historic affair if you can (I’ll let you know my thoughts on the beer as soon as I can). Lucid is the creation of two homebrewers Eric Bierman and John Messier that aim to produce high quality, refined and very approachable craft beers. They are unique in that they received funding through Kickstarter (a crowd sourced funding program for business start ups and the like) for a community brewing program where both amateur and professional brewers from the public will be able to come in and brew their own batches on Lucid’s equipment. I think that their tag line says a lot about the positive direction that the craft beer world is headed and something that I resonate with very much “Clarity in thinking. Excellence in drinking.” I’ll be looking forward to seeing their beer in bottles and on taps at local beer stores and bars.

Another exciting (though less historic) local brewery event will be Surly’s seasonal release of ‘Abrasive‘, Minnesota’s first Double IPA on Monday December 5th at Lyon’s Pub. Surly has brewed ‘Abrasive’ since 2008 in honor of ending their growler sales, though it initially debuted as ’16 Grit’ in honor of the abrasive factory that used to exist on the grounds of the brewery. This is a favorite of many amongst the Surly Nation and a real shock to the system for people unsuspectingly trying a Surly beer for the first time. I gave one to my cousin’s Scottish boyfriend last year at our family Christmas to help him cope with the prodding demands of my relatives and the giggles at his accent. He took one sip and looked like he had been punched in the face. He looked at the can and said to me, “Well that’s bitter.” Hah, quite an introduction to American craft beer and my family. He survived the encounter though I doubt he’ll forget it or the beer. So treat your friends and family right this holiday season and smack them in the face with some ‘Abrasive’, they’ll thank you for it in the end (probably).

Taking a break from the local craft beer world, I have some very intriguing information that has come to light potentially tying one of the most infectiously catchy songs, and probably equally loved/despised boy bands of the 90s to the craft beer community. Yes, ladies and gentlemen it was announced on Wednesday that Hanson, the guys responsible for the smash hit ‘MMMbop’, would be producing a beer called MMMhop IPA. As far as I can tell, this is legitimate, though we will have to wait and see if the beer can match the song of its namesake in popularity.

Back to the Twin Cities, where Flat Earth Brewing is continuing its two-month-long Porterfest, a (delicious) tinkering with its Cygnus X-1 Porter (an already great beer on its own) by bringing out 5 more adaptations. Each week Flat Earth augments Cygnus through infusions and one barrel aging. Each infusion is named and available for only one week in growlers directly from the brewery. November saw:

Week 1: Mystic Rhythms – Raspberry infused Cygnus
Week 2: Nocturne – Espresso infused Cygnus
Week 3: Grand Design – S’more infused Cygnus (I picked up a growler of this and it was incredible, the s’mores flavor and aroma both came through very well)
Week 4: Trees – Hazelnut infused Cygnus

and December is looking quite excellent also:

(This week) Week 5: Hold Your Fire – Hot Pepper infused Cygnus

Week 6: Dream line – Cherry-chocolate cheese cake infused Cygnus

Week 7: Xanadu – Orange infused Cygnus

Week 8: Hemispheres – Double chocolate infused Cygnus

Week 9: Big Money – Oak aged Cygnus (Aged in Rye whisky this year)

So make your way down to the brewery to pick up these fantastic creations to enjoy as the snow begins to fall and you’ll be sure to have happy guests for holiday parties or to enjoy on your own.

Well that should serve as a pretty good listing of a bit of the craft beer news floating about. Refer to the links I have posted on the right side of the page for additional information and continually updated news on both the local and national craft beer communities. There are constant new releases, special samplings and excellent fun events going on to keep things interesting as well as more news, reviews and updates from breweries and industry folks than you could ever hope to know if you’re willing to seek it out. The best way to enjoy craft beer is with friends, so go on out there and get your tastebuds some exercise.

Next week’s post will focus on some favorite seasonal winter beers as we start to get into the colder weather and the ground threatens to be covered in white for the next few months. Since there are so many winter seasonals and styles of beer that I plan to cover in the next few months, this will just be a taste of what’s to come and how to effectively prepare yourself for the wonderful drinking season to come.

Until then, drink well!


Unscripted: An Experiment in Freestyle Craft Beer Blogging

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Hi There!

Thanks for joining me for what will surely be a unique and fun post. While the concept for this post may have arisen partially out of a lack of preparation, I did want to try something fresh that I hadn’t seen before. Though I have no particular focus or direction for this post, I do have some thoughts that have been bouncing around my head and some exciting, timely craft beer news and updates. Also, as I am writing this I will be sampling and lightly reviewing a couple of beers that I have been meaning to drink.

On this chilly wintery feeling Thursday evening I am sipping on one of my favorite anniversary beers from 2011. It has been a big year with many craft brewery’s celebrating significant anniversaries: Surly-5 years, Alaskan-25 years, Stone-15 years, Three Floyds-15 years, Firestone Walker-15 years, amongst others. One other great Minnesota brewery, Summit, celebrated their 25th anniversary this year as well. In honor of the occasion they adapted their flagship (and legendary) Extra Pale Ale into a hoppier beauty, their Silver Anniversary Ale. I have enjoyed this beer since it came out this summer, it has a brighter citrus aroma and the taste profile more along the lines of an imperial IPA. Still it retains the clean bitterness and slight mineral character that has been the hallmark of Summit’s EPA. They have stopped producing it for this year, but if you find some around on a store shelf, do yourself a favor and pick some up. I can only hope that this recipe makes its way into their lineup in some form.

It has been another exciting week for me in the craft beer world. I had the good fortune to head back to my home state this past Sunday in anticipation of the Packer-Viking Monday Night Football match-up. I always take advantage of the chance to pick up some New Glarus (which is only distributed within the state of Wisconsin) and to see what other fun things are available on beer store shelves. I was thrilled to find some Blacktop (New Glarus’ black IPA) which I had tried over the summer and loved. The Blacktop also won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival held in Denver last month for the American-Style Black Ale category. Another exciting new seasonal from New Glarus was their Laughing Fox which is a very tasty kristal weizen (a sparklingly clear, amber wheat beer). As I was tailgating in the Lambeau parking lot and enjoying these and other tasty beers I happened to run into local beer celebrity, founder and owner of Surly, Omar Ansari. It was a gloriously random encounter and added to the excellence of the night which was capped off by a 45-7 trouncing of the Vikings. On my way back to Minnesota I stopped at a grocery store and wandered into their beer cave (yes, beer caves in grocery stores, figure it out Minnesota). I had heard some great things about O’so Brewing out of Plover, WI so I snapped up a mixed 6 pack, I’ll let you know what I think about them once I get around to trying some.

This weekend promises to be historic and thrilling for two local craft breweries. I’ll start with Fulton, who will open the doors to their new brewery in downtown Minneapolis for the first time and have growlers on sale starting at 4PM on Friday. They will also be open Saturday, more details here. Go check them out and drink their delicious beer and check out their new brewery. Another thoroughly exciting event will take place on Saturday in Stillwater. The first limited edition big bottle release from Lift Bridge Brewery is coming. The name is Commander and it is a big (12.5%ABV) English-style barleywine spiced with cardamom and aged in Heaven Hill Kentucky bourbon barrels. Wow! It will be offered in 750ml corked and caged bottles that can be enjoyed now or anytime in the next decade. Since it doesn’t look likely that this beer will make it to retail outlets, you should really try to get out to the brewery on Saturday to pick some up. Event details here.

On the topic of bourbon barrel aged beers, I was able to procure some Founders-Backwoods Bastard recently and have been dying to try some, and now I’m going to. Oh yeah! That’s what I’m talkin’ about. I almost don’t want to drink it. The Backwoods Bastard is Founder’s Dirty Bastard (Scotch ale) aged in bourbon barrels. Sweet caramel and toffee aromas woft out of the glass highlighted by the unmistakeable bourbon. The taste is like rich caramel swirled with vanilla and soaked in bourbon. The wooden barrels also add a mellow earthiness with some of the 10.2% ABV booziness adding some warmth on the end. Damn, you should definitely get some of this and drink it right away (and get another one to hide from yourself for a year or five).

Another great bourbon barrel aged beer (yep, I’m one of the folks that loves them) came into the Twin Cities this week, Odell’s Bourbon Barrel Stout. I tried some this year at the Autumn Brew Review and it was outstanding, so if you can find some go for it. Also, recently released from Odell is their Friek which is a blend of several Kriek (cherry) wild fermented ales with tart cherries aged in oak barrels. Then before the final blending, fresh Framboises (raspberries) are added to sweeten up the tartness, again if you see this, you should get it (I have no problem evangelizing).

Wow, I am still just giddy enjoying this Bastard. This freestyling is fun. Oh yea, and one more thing before I’ll be done. Remember my post about Olvalde’s Auroch’s Horn? Well, Joe Pond has come out with his second offering and first seasonal. His newest beer is an “Imperial Stout Porter” essentially a strong Porter giving a historical nod to the influences of Peter the Great on the development of stronger Porters. The beer is called “Ode to a Russian Shipwright” and is brewed with rye, unmalted estate grown (on his farm in Rollingstone) barley to add body and some local spruce tips. I tried some this week and it is another delicious success from Olvalde. The rye and unmalted barley add some grainy tartness to the rich porter body with minty spruce present in the aroma and finish of the flavor. Do I really need to say it or are you just going to go pick up the beautiful swing top 750ml bottle yourself?

Well this has been fun and (I think) successful experiment. Essentially a stream-of-consciousness blog post with some beer reviews, perhaps you’ll see more of this in the future when I’m feeling it. Looking forward to next week, I have this feeling that I’m going to need to dive into a style of beer again and do some research (samples and reviews). We’ll see where that takes me. Thanks for following along with this unusual post and let me know what you thought of it.

Drink well!

The Local Mash: Finnegans

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Céad míle fáilte! (A hundred-thousand welcomes!)

This week I bring you my third installment in The Local Mash series, focusing on Finnegans, a unique, innovative and inspiring, local, non-profit beer company. In this post I will cover some of the history and development of the organization, discuss Finnegans’ mission, provide you with some insider perspectives courtesy of my interview with Hillary Lewis, and let you know how their Irish Amber tastes. Let’s just dive right in!

For anyone who is unfamiliar with Finnegans, I’ll take a moment to give you an idea of how unique this organization is. To my knowledge (this is a topic I have researched several times over the last year, and it helps that my girlfriend was a FINNtern who really knows her beer) Finnegans is the only beer producing company that donates 100% of it’s profits to charity. Yep, you read that right, an entirely non-profit beer company. Now why don’t I call Finnegans a brewery? This is where another unique facet comes into play; the beer is brewed and bottled at the Summit Brewery. Though the bottles say Summit and the beer is brewed using their facilities, the companies are distinct, and Finnegans is not owned by Summit.

So with that in mind, let’s cover a bit of history of how Finnegans came to be. The roots of what would come to be Finnegans arose from Jacquie Berglund’s work with Cara Pubs, the highly successful local franchise of Irish themed pubs owned, up until recently, by well known businessman Kieran Folliard. Kieran has since decided to fully pursue his other venture, 2 Gingers Whiskey. During her work with Cara Pubs, Jacquie, in response to many requests for financial donations, combined with her generous personality was doling out an increasing amount of charitable donations. While this was embraced, it was quickly outgrowing the budget that Cara Pubs had in mind for their donations and Jacquie was becoming more focused on philanthropic work (her recent blog post gives you a good idea of her commitment to social entrepreneurship). This passion intersected with a fairly longstanding rumbling that Kieran should have his own beer brand and the initial test run for a charitable beer was incarnated as “Kieran’s Irish Potato Ale” which was contract brewed with the now defunct James Page brewery in Northeast Minneapolis. In 2000, after seeing the potential for a successful business plan, Jacquie went off on her own and created Finnegans, which would be brewed with James Page until 2003 before moving to Summit. It took 3 years for the company to become profitable, donating what they could to area charities, and establishing the Finnegans Community Fund which is the arm of the company which distributes the donations.

The most recent figures I could find for the total donations made by Finnegans to area charities was from October 2010 showing over $162,000 to more than 60 charities in the areas that Finnegans is sold. Finnegans currently distributes to Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and most recently South Dakota. Although Finnegans has donated money to a wide variety of charities in the past 11 years, this year’s focus has been on donating to food shelves in the states of distribution. Locally, this partnership has been with the Emergency Food Shelf Network (EFN), a 35-year-old organization working to end hunger in the Twin Cities area (they are always looking for volunteers, and it is a great opportunity to get a group of friends together to create positive change in your community). Finnegans’ donations are aimed at expanding EFN’s “Harvest For The Hungry” initiative which purchases food for meals from area farmers. Lots of breweries are focused on environmental responsibility and developing community stewardship, but I must say that Finnegans is truly in a league of their own. The type of positive change they are making by selling their beer is absolutely second to none, and given that they are financially sustainable at this point, shows that this is a replicable business model which I hope to see other beer organizations adapting.

Many people have become aware of Finnegans particularly in the last year and a half thanks in a big part to the snappy marketing revamp they received from the Martin|Williams advertising agency. The makeover included new packaging (an aesthetically pleasing, clean, white and green motif) and a host of witty quips, playing on Finnegans’ Irish heritage, to grace the bottle necks, buttons and other promotional materials. Some examples include: ’12oz Hail Mary’, ‘One Credit In Heaven’, ‘Guilt Eraser’, and ‘I’m a Goody Two Pints’. The advertising has worked wonders, enhancing the already thriving organization and playing a role in the 31% sales increase in 2010 (their best year yet). Some Irish eyes are surely smiling.

So now that you have an idea of how Finnegans came to be and how they are operating as a non-profit organization let’s hear from one of the few full-time staff members. Hillary Lewis was gracious enough to sit down and chat with me. Her working title is “Account Engagement and Promotions” meaning that she works with distributors, retailers as well as promotional efforts and other tid bits. As with many non-profit organizations, Hillary, “Wears many hats.”

Brightbeer (BB): Tell me about the “Drink Like You Care” campaign

Hillary Lewis (HL): “Drink Like You Care” started in 2007 to create a targeted giving campaign in which our distributor matches our profits, doubling our giving. The time frame for the campaign is always from November 1st-December 31st. In Minnesota, that means for each keg of Finnegans sold, the equivalent of 50 meals are donated to EFN and each case (24 bottles) sold equals 8 meals donated.

BB: I have heard that in addition to the Irish Amber, Finnegans will be adding a new beer to the lineup. What can you tell me about it?

HL: Our newest beer is a Blonde Ale which will be available as an early preview release from the end of February through March, and then available as a general release in the form of a summer seasonal from April-August.

BB: Do you have any other new beers up your sleeve?

HL: Nothing I can tell you about at this point.

BB: Outside of your connection to Summit, what is your perspective on other local craft beers?

HL: People often ask how I feel about the local craft market, and honestly, their success contributes to the burgeoning profile and success of the local craft beer market in general. It’s great to see other local brewers doing well

BB: What is your favorite part of your job?

HL: That’s tough, there are a lot of things I enjoy. I really love the mission of the organization and how unique we are. I get to meet a lot of great people and attend fun events. It fits my personality well to be out working with people face-to-face.

BB: Last one, what beers have you been drinking lately?

HL: Well besides Finnegans, I have gotten into some sour beers lately, especially from the Lips of Faith Series from New Belgium; I liked both Le Terroir and La Folie. It’s also the time for fresh hop beers so I’ve been enjoying those. My boyfriend is a home brewer so I’m always drinking his home brew too.

I want to say a BIG thank you to Hillary for taking the time to sit and chat with me. A bunch of the details from Finnegans history came out of our conversation as well. Finnegans is also unique in that they utilize community members as volunteers for various events and promotions, so if you are interested in helping to support Finnegans, becoming a member of “Team Finnegans”, or even a FINNtern you can find more information here. Also, to find out where you can get out to “Drink Like You Care” you can use this link to find out where Finnegans is sold near you.

So, if you’ve never tried Finnegans or even if you have, let me give you my thoughts:

Finnegans-Irish Amber Ale 4.6%ABV

My apologies for the poor photo quality, a new camera is in the works

Appearance: Crystal clear, bright copper color with a frothy white head that laces nicely down the glass.

Aroma: Pleasantly sweet up front with some red licorice, toast, caramel. There is a mineral aroma that comes in towards the end and gives way to a light earthy hoppiness. Aromas are well balanced.

Flavor: Tastes like a toasted biscuit with marmalade spread initially before lingering on some caramel and finishing with an enjoyably subtle citric bitterness.

Mouthfeel: Fairly dense carbonation that provides a light tickling effervescence on the tongue, light on the palate with just enough bitterness on the end to keep the sweetness from lingering.

Overall: This is a well balanced, very sessionable (meaning you can have a couple or more in a sitting) and tasty. The light biscuit blends well with the fruity/caramel aromas and flavors. The hops are just barely present, leaving the malt to take center stage. I enjoy this beer on many different occasions, and it is very versatile for pairing with food; it works well to take down most any sandwich, is subtle enough for a light salad and can stand up to roast meats. Finnegans was smart to choose such an adaptable and palatable beer (a great crossover beer for people that drink pale lagers) for their only offering (at the moment). Looking forward to the Blonde!

Well this has been an exciting post, and definitely one in line with my passions (and palate). Thanks again to Hillary and please contact me if you would like more information about Finnegans.

Next week’s topic is still a mystery to me, but I’m excited to see where my mind will wander. See you then.

Drink well!

The 2011 Surly Darkness: Reflections and Review

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A few days later than I had planned, but for a review of such a special beer perhaps the wait was necessary. This post will serve for me as a closing of the chapter for this year’s Surly Darkness mania that swept into my life on the eve of Darkness Day several weeks ago. This beer has created quite a ruckus this year, casting out ripples of excitement and joy as well as frustration and debate extending beyond the Twin Cities craft beer scene to several national craft beer blogs/news sites (Beer Advocate (from discussion forum) BeerNews, BeerNews Again, The Full Pint) and into some more mainstream local media outlets (Fox 9, Kare 11, Star Tribune, City Pages blog). Why all the news? Well, in a nutshell, in addition to the already highly anticipated release of a beer that is sought after by craft beer lovers from across the country, the prices being charged by some local liquor stores stirred up some serious controversy in the craft beer world (most discussed was $36.99/bottle at Surdyk’s while Surly sold it for $18/bottle on Darkness Day and many retailers charged roughly that price). I was able to purchase mine for $17.99, which is what many retailers were charging and what I had assumed they all would.

After watching this unfold so closely (and from the recent mania that the Founders CBS release caused) I have come away feeling that clearly people are very (very) passionate about excellent beer (which is awesome) and an increasing number of people are being exposed to craft breweries through the hype that is generated around their limited releases (which is also awesome), but as a segment of the population that generally prides itself on having refined tastes or being conscious consumers some amount of perspective seems necessary. Beer has always been a catalyst for bringing people together and that is important to remember. Is it easy for me to not be bothered by the limited nature of the release because I was one of the lucky ones who got some? Sure, but I also believe that if you are in the know, you have some responsibility to act as a good steward to the rest of the community. I have done my best to let friends know where they may have luck finding a bottle or what restaurants were serving it on tap, and most importantly, I invited some friends over (most who had never tried Darkness before) and shared the celebration with them. I’m not trying to sound holier than thou, but I am suggesting that it is more important to celebrate and share something as special as Darkness in such a way that it gets better each year, rather than focusing on amassing an epic beer collection. After all, what good is a super special beer if you don’t celebrate it with people?

Enough of my thoughts on the subject. Let’s get down to how this beer of the undead (referring to the label) tasted:

Surly- Darkness 2011 Approx. 10%ABV

Appearance: Poured black as a zombie’s soul with a thick mocha brown head that settled on the beer and stayed there until the glass was about empty

Aroma: Dark chocolate syrup is the first to woft up from the glass, which fades in behind blackberries, cherries and caramel. After another swirl some vanilla comes out in the blend with just a light bit of coffee and anise (black licorice) at the end of the sniff.

Flavor: The dark chocolate and cherry/berries flavors blend together beautifully tasting like chocolate covered fruit. After a bit of the sweetness gives way, savory caramel and vanilla come forward to add another layer of decadent complexity. There is a minimal amount of astringent bitterness on the finish with just a bit of that 10 or so percent ABV coming through as well.

Mouthfeel: This is a rich, viscous beer! The dense carbonation gets swallowed up in the thickness of the beer and arrives on my palate like a thinner chocolate syrup. It coats the tongue and mouth pretty much entirely and taints any other flavors coming in shortly after.

Overall: Though this is not my first encounter with Darkness, it is my first formal review of it, and it reminds me that there is more than just hype to this beer, it is just damned good. It is definitely on the sweeter side of the Russian Imperial Stouts that I have had, but that is fine with me. I prefer sweetness to heavy roast/coffee bitterness most of the time. Though it is sweet and has fruit presences, it is balanced out with enough hoppiness and roast to keep it from feeling overly rich or cloying. I enjoyed this beer in good company and also with some homemade brownies. The milk chocolate from the brownies was like double dipping the cherry/berry flavors and enhanced the vanilla and caramel aspects, it was a pairing that worked very well and is a good reason why Russian Imperial Stouts are often served as dessert beers.

It has been a whirlwind few weeks that Darkness has occupied this year, and I hope that some of the contentious issues that were raised can be remedied for next year so that the focus can remain on appreciating a truly great work of craft beer art.

In case you couldn’t make it out to the Four Firkins over the weekend, it was quite an evening. There were great speeches, bagpipes, people, and one other thing, oh right, beer. Surly-5 was on tap as was Brau Brothers-MooJoos, Lift Bridge-Farmgirl, Summit-Unchained #8: Black Ale, Fulton-Sweet Child of Vine, Bell’s-Sparkling Ale, and pouring from growlers or bottles was the whole Steeltoe lineup, several Schell’s offerings, and Dave’s Brew Farm-Matacabras (and other selection). Also poured during the evening was a 6 Liter bottle of St. Feullien-Trippel (which everyone that sampled, signed) and many bottles of Deus Brut des Flandres from Brouwerij Bosteels (a Belgian ale which is brewed and fermented, then shipped to France and undergoes a secondary fermentation with champagne yeasts and is aged for 9 months in French champagne caves. A one-of-a-kind beer). There was an amazing showing of support for the store with several brewers, brewmasters, some Cicerones, and tons of craft beer lovers on hand. I was happy to have been a part of the historic night.

Coming this Thursday: Another installment of The Local Mash featuring Finnegans (technically not a brewery, but an innovative, non-profit beer brewing company, located in Minneapolis) with a PSA about their annual “Drink Like You Care” fundraising effort focused on fighting hunger in the Upper Midwest.

‘Til then, drink well!

The Local Mash: August Schell Brewing Company

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Welcome to the second installment in The Local Mash series highlighting local Minnesota breweries. This week I will take you on a bit of a virtual tour of the historic August Schell Brewery, located in New Ulm, Minnesota. I recently visited the brewery for the first time, and it left quite a positive impression on me, further deepening my appreciation for Schell’s beer. I am thoroughly excited for this post and I will do my best to recall much of the vivid history of brewery and to discuss their most recently released beer.

This post is also a treat in that there are many photos from the tour, some will be displayed here in the post, but I will direct you to check out my pictures on my Flickr page, the Schell’s website (also a great historical resource!) but more importantly, the website of Kyle Zempel, one my excellent tour comrades, who took some excellent photos, unfortunately I cannot post them here, but please do check out the gallery at this link. His images are strikingly beautiful and certainly worth your time to appreciate them. Based on my interactions with Kyle and the quality of his photographs, I would recommend him if you are looking for a photographer for an event.

So, off we go, to scenic New Ulm, just under 2 hours drive southwest from the Twin Cities. The name of the original settlement is derived from the town of Ulm in the province of Wurttemburg, Germany, an area that many emigrated from. The Germanic influence of the first non-Native American settlers in the 1850s is unmistakeable throughout the town’s architecture and cultural festivals. Of the most treasured of the German influences (and most known by people not from the area) is the August Schell Brewing Company (Schell’s). Founded in 1860 as a family business by August Schell and brewmaster Jacob Bernhardt, it is the second oldest family owned brewery in the United States after the Yuengling Brewery from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, founded in 1829 (officially the oldest operating brewery in the United States).

The location of the brewery is just 2 miles southeast from downtown New Ulm close to the banks of the Cottonwood River. I have visited a good share of breweries, and the physical grounds that Schell’s is located on is the most beautiful I have seen (though New Glarus’ new hilltop brewery is quite a sight as well). Backed up against the hillside of the valley is the brewhouse, with the museum/gift shop/tasting room building just down the slope and the regal Schell’s mansion a stones throw to the south.

View up the hill to the brewhouse

The location was an ideal setting for a brewery with an artesian spring (still running, though no longer used for brewing), and the Cottonwood River to provide ice during the winter for use in refrigerated storage and lagering. There are beautiful gardens and a deer park on the estate as well (which I wish I would have explored further).

After surviving the “Dakota Conflict” unscathed in 1862, which saw much of New Ulm and surrounding towns burned and ransacked by Sioux Indians that were pushed to their breaking point by the U.S. government’s takeover of their lands (amongst other mistreatment), the next milestone in the brewery came when Jacob Bernhardt fell ill and was forced to sell his shares in the brewery, which August Schell purchased, making the brewery a family owned business.

Once August, at age 50, became unable to continue running the brewery and business, he put his son Adolph in charge of management and his son Otto in charge of the brewing. The Schell’s mansion was built in 1885 and shortly after in 1891 upon August Schell’s passing, his son Otto was elected president of the company with August’s wife Theresa vice-president. Otto remained president until his untimely death in 1911, followed just 4 months after by his mother Theresa. Once the dust settled, the Schell’s family namesake at the head of the company came to an end. George Marti who married Emma Schell (August and Theresa’s daughter) became the new president and has carried the Marti name forward in the presidency up to the present day with Ted Marti currently as the acting president. The company is still owned by descendents of August and Theresa Schell however, despite the name of the presidents.

The old copper brew kettle with our excellent tour guide Claire.

Now that you have some idea of the history, I’ll briefly cover (though pictures do the best job) what the brewery looks like today and how it functions. The old copper brewing kettle was the aesthetic highlight of the indoor tour of the brewery. It is no longer used, but serves as a warm glowing reminder of the rich history of the premises. (This is my photo, but do check out Kyle’s gallery for some high quality shots that really do it justice).

Up a flight of stairs from the old kettle, past the grain room (be sure to check out the photos of all of the bags of malt, which are rolled in by hand on two wheel carts!), and up one more flight of stairs we got a chance to view the current brewing room. This modern system is capable of brewing 150 barrels (4,650 gallons) at a time. Don’t worry if you don’t recognize all of the names of the brewing equipment, I will do a post specifically about the brewing process in the future.

Lauter tun in the brew room where the sugars from the grains are extracted, making "wort" which is then boiled and hopped

This is one of the 22 fermenters where yeast is added and the the liquid goes from being wort to beer. They range in size from around 200 barrels to 750 barrels at Schell's.

You can get a good feel from the rest of the photos of what the facilities look like, so let’s get on to talking about the beer already. Schell’s has a broad range of year-round, seasonal, and special release beers. This is a brief rundown of their year round and seasonal offerings (I have tried them all at one point):

Pilsner– Very well done to style, crisp and bright hop presence. All the better because this style is best fresh.

Firebrick– A caramelly/bready amber lager, lightly hopped.

Hopfenmalz– Amber lager. Light toast and caramel with a bit of citrus hoppiness.

Stout– Sweet stout. Light bodied for a stout, but done to style, very drinkable with some light roast and a bit of hops.

Dark– Dark lager. Light bodied with some caramel, great sessionable dark beer.

Oktoberfest– Märzen lager. I’ve told you about this one before, one of my favorite traditional style Oktoberfests. Bready malt and sweet with just a slight dose of hops on the finish.

Hefeweizen– Very traditional German style wheat beer with yeast in it. As with the Pilsner, best fresh and it doesn’t get much more fresh or traditional than from Schell’s.

Snowstorm– Winter Seasonal. The style of beer rotates yearly and this year’s will be a Wee Heavy (Scotch style ale). Expect a very present malt character with minimal hop presence. It has just hit stores this week, so go try some.

There are more that I could list, but these are some of the main beers to know. One other facet of the Schell’s lineup is the recently introduced “Stag Series” which seeks to make beers that are on the edge (or outside) of the mainstream. I did not get to try Stag #1 which was a barrel aged version of their Schmaltz’s Alt which is a winter seasonal. Stag #2 which was released Fall 2010 was a Belgian farmhouse style ale brewed with Minnesota wild rice. Stag #3 which was released in March 2011 was a German style rauchbier (smoked beer). Both #2 and #3 tasted excellent and fit the style very well. Needless to say I was quite excited about Stag #4, a Burton ale. I may feature this style in the future so I’ll keep the history a bit scant. A Burton ale is a style of beer from England that has not been commercially produced anywhere for nearly 50 years. It’s namesake comes from the town of Burton-upon-Trent in England which became legendary for the hardness of its water due to the large amount of gypsum in the surrounding hills. This hardness brings out aromas and flavors in hops which were instrumental in the development of IPAs. This particular beer however, is an English style strong dark ale brewed with floor malted Maris Otter barley (a favorite of mine, gives a great biscuit aroma and flavor) some torrefied wheat (meaning the its starches have already been converted into sugars so they can skip the mash), dark candi syrup and turbinado sugar. These ingredients and the methods used in the brewing are based on traditional English recipes and methods. I’ve been fortunate enough to have drank several of them and here are my thoughts:

Schell’s Stag Series #4: Burton Ale 8%ABV

Appearance: Clear deep garnet color with a tall dense off white head that sticks around

Aroma: Caramel, brown sugar, plums and other dried dark fruit, earthy/spicy hop aromas

Taste: Light toast, sweet caramel, dark fruit, just enough spicy bitterness to balance and a pleasant light warmth of alcohol on the finish

Mouthfeel: Rich carbonation and lightly effervescent, fairly light on the palate, sweet throughout but with a bit of bitterness on the end.

Overall: This tastes like it was well done to style, but who’s to say, I’ve never had a Burton ale before (and you probably haven’t either!). Great caramel sweetness with some brown sugar and dark fruits all balanced out by the dry hopping and allowed enough time (aged 3 months before distribution) to blend the flavors together. This is a fantastic beer and I can say from my own experiences that it compliments cinnamon rolls, camp fires, and relaxing fall evenings.

So there you have it, some history, some visuals and a review of an excellent beer all from a legendary local brewery right here in Minnesota. I highly recommend touring the Schell’s facility, it would make for a great day trip with friends. But, if you can’t make it to New Ulm any time soon, you can get a taste of traditional German beers at your local beer store and if you get a chance to pick up some Burton ale, do it soon because it is a limited release, and it won’t be brewed again (by Schell’s). It should age well at 8%, so you can stick a couple of bottles away for a treat down the road.

I hope you enjoyed this quasi virtual tour and look for more photos to be posted to my Flickr page and one last time, to get some great photos from the tour, check out Kyle’s gallery.

Enjoy the weekend, have a happy halloween and go snap up some bottles of Surly Darkness on Monday if you are able. I hope to be able to give you a mid-week review of this year’s batch, fingers crossed. Until next week, drink well!

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