The Jester just got bester
As of this past Tuesday, Jester King Craft Brewery in Austin is now certified organic by the USDA, according to this press release on their website.
To quote the release:
The first of our beers to carry certified organic labeling will be this year’s version of Drink’in the Sunbelt Hoppy Wheat Beer, followed by our next batches of Mad Meg Farmhouse Provision Ale and Boxer’s Revenge Barrel-Aged Wild Ale. Le Petit Prince Farmhouse Table Beer, Noble King Hoppy Farmhouse Ale, Wytchmaker Farmhouse Rye IPA, Das Wunderkind! Sour Saison, and Bonnie the Rare Berliner Weisse also received full organic certification and will be labeled as such once we run through our current stock of labels. Black Metal Farmhouse Imperial Stout, which is over 70% organic, but uses a small amount of non-organic specialty malt, has been certified “Made with Organic Ingredients” and will carry the Texas Department of Agriculture seal, the next time labels are printed.
Although I may be more organic than some, I’m not really hung up on the organic lifestyle and organic foods. Sure, I belong to a local organic CSA called Johnson’s Backyard Garden. I don’t eat at major fast food chains (or any major restaurant chain at all if I can avoid it, which I usually can – thanks, Austin!). I try not to buy packaged foods with a lot of ingredients I can’t pronounce, but that’s a long way from organic. When it comes to my own brewing, I don’t add a lot of funky chemicals if I can help it – brewing water salts and acids to keep my mash pH down are generally the extent; I don’t spend the extra dough for organic malts and hops. In other words, whether food or drink, I keep it simple for anything I can control, and I don’t sweat the other stuff too much.
But who wouldn’t want to know that the ingredients that go into the beer they drink is of the best quality possible? Whether that means organic, or locally sourced, or whatever your personal hobbyhorse is, the fact that they bother at all means that they have a commitment to quality ingredients: that they care what they put into the beer they sell. That they’re not just here for the craft beer fad, and that they want to establish (and strengthen) their identity in the ever-more-crowded local Austin beer scene.
And that is great news, and a reminder of why I love the folks at Jester King so much. As far as I’m concerned, one of the best breweries in town just got better. I like to think that each of the best local breweries in Central Texas has a knack for something (see recent post here for my thoughts on the awesome power of Live Oak Brewing to replicate classic German styles). I always thought Jester King’s knack was simply to bring European-style farmhouse ales to a market otherwise lacking in them. But now Jester King appears to be doing more: with this gesture, they’ve demonstrated they want to be a leader in quality and innovation in all ways (including taking on the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission late last year over some silly beer labeling and distribution laws) in the Austin craft beer community. If there’s a battle commencing between great beer and mediocre beer, Jester King appears to want to be in the vanguard … they may not have been the first, but they seem determined to jump into the lead.
So prosit to Jester King! I’m glad they’re here.
A Crescent City Concoction, part 2
On Monday I finally kegged my Crescent Moon Café au Lait Stout after 4 weeks in the fermenter. I also finally added the eponymous coffee to the beer, crossing the line from a plain old milk stout (albeit one made by my own from-scratch recipe) into something truly unique.
The coffee and chicory was cold brewed on Lisa’s Toddy system: combining a pound of ground coffee with 9 cups of cold water, and letting it steep overnight, we brewed about 40 oz of concentrated coffee extract. Theoretically, this coffee extract is stronger than regular brewed coffee, but when we mixed a little bit of the extract with a sample of the beer at the planned ratio of 16-24 oz of coffee and chicory per 5 gallons of milk stout, there just wasn’t nearly enough coffee flavor. So we ramped it up, added more and more coffee until we got to a point where we were happy. The ratio we landed on was 64(!) oz of extract in the 5 gallon batch of beer. That’s a lot more than any coffee/beer recipe I’ve ever seen, but I let my tastebuds do the deciding. And I did want a bold coffee flavor.
The extract was added directly to the keg, and the beer was racked on top of that. This displaced a half gallon of the beer, so we ended up with .5 gallons of coffee extract to 4.5 gallons of beer, or a ratio of 1 part coffee to 9 parts stout. What I sampled really did taste like café au lait, so I’m pleased. Now it’s carbonating in the kegerator, and will be ready to drink in a few days.
This beer has made me feel like being a newbie homebrewer all over again: The anxious counting of day after day while I wait for the beer to be ready. The adventurous experimentation. The excitement over the unknown. If these phrases sound like ways to describe a brand new romance, it’s no accident. I’m in love with homebrewing, and this stout has reminded me why I fell in love with it in the first place. I want more of this thrill.
With June nearly upon us, I’ll look to a wheat beer for my next brew, as they’re much more forgiving to make in the heat of a Central Texas summer, even in my air-conditioned home. I’ve talked about a blood orange or other citrus wheat for a while now. I could resurrect one of my wheats from previous summers – lemongrass, ginger, or agave – but the wanderlust of experimentation is consuming me, and I think I’m itching for something new.
Read my original post about the recipe and brew day for the café au lait stout here.
From the Cellar: Showdown! Commercial vs. Homebrewed Smoked Porter
For this edition of From the Cellar, I opened a bomber of Ranger Creek Mesquite Smoked Porter (6.4% ABV) and pitted it head-to-head against my own homebrewed porter currently on tap: Smokey in a Plain Wrapper Rauch Porter (6.0% ABV).
Smoked porter or rauch porter is one of those style variations that seems to be springing up in all sorts of places spontaneously. Granted, Stone has had their version on the market for over 15 years now, so it’s possible we all got the same great idea from them. But it is a great idea. The astringency and bite of smoked malt plays well against the sweet and malty backdrop of a porter malt bill, giving complexity without having to resort to a ton of hops in the boil. It gives a flavor akin to stout without the sharp roasted barley notes that are so common (though not necessarily required) in a stout. So yeah, I’m a fan; and I was dying to know how one of my own brews stacked up against a commercial offering from one of my favorite up-and-comers in the Central Texas craft beer scene.
I poured a blind tasting of both beers and tried them side by side. I didn’t know which was which until after I had written down all of my notes. Picking a clear winner was tough, so I just judged each on its merits and avoided trying to score them (though I did have a personal favorite).
Beer A was nearly black with chocolate brown notes, and tiny bubbles with not a lot of head retention. The nose had some slight but noticeable fruity esters over dark chocolate and coffee. The aroma of smoke was present, but not obvious.
Beer B had a much more persistent head and was completely black with bigger and rockier bubbles. There was a distinct woodsy scent and a smell not entirely unlike good Texas barbecue. But the beer had a boozy smell, like it was barrel-aged, which would be a surprise. The thick head and carbonation would suggest that if it was aged, it wasn’t aged for any considerable length of time.
As for the flavor, I generally preferred Beer A even though Beer B was arguably a better crafted brew and a better example of a rauch porter. Beer A was full of dark chocolate and vanilla flavor, with a slight amount of esters and very little smoke. But it was refreshing and easy to drink, and ultimately really satisfying. Beer B was cleaner fermented, but the smoke really, really dominated the flavor … to the point of being almost too much for me. There was some leather and wood in Beer B, but really it was all about the smoke. It was drier than Beer A, but less refreshing because of the harsh, aggressive character I found the smoke imparted.
Within seconds of tasting, I knew which one was mine. Smokey in a Plain Wrapper has been on tap in my kegerator for a couple of months, so I know it pretty well and could pretty much tell it was Beer A. The Ranger Creek Mesquite Smoked Porter was Beer B.
So while the results weren’t shocking, they were very informative. My homebrew was more estery and with less smoke flavor (thus arguably less true to the essence of a rauch porter) than a commercial equivalent. But I would rather drink my homebrew, even when I didn’t know it was my homebrew, simply because it was more refreshing. Am I just getting used to the unique flavor produced in my brewing setup, or am I just subconsciously making beers I like? Or was it simply the fact that I wasn’t crazy about the mesquite smoke in the Ranger Creek beer, and another rauch porter from another brewery (with another kind of smoke) would have fared better? It’s hard to say. It could have been just familiarity with Smokey that made me like it more.
Regardless, it’s great to know that I like my beers not only because I made them, but that they also stack up well against commercial brews. I have no idea how I’d do against the commercial brew before a panel of judges, but as long as I like it and want to drink it (and share it with others) that’s good enough for me. Prosit!
One Drink Minimum: I see your Schwarz is as big as mine
Friday night was the inaugural screening of the Summer of ’82 film series at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Ritz location: John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian. Yeah, that’s right. That one, with Ahnold. With James Earl Jones as the snake god and Mako as the crazy wizard, and the lamentation of the women and all that. Oh, yeah.
I’ve been stoked about the Summer of ’82 series since I first saw a teaser for it, and the badge I scored is one of my prize possessions for the next few months. To kick the series off with Conan was an absolute blast. The (apparently brand new) 35mm print was astoundingly beautiful, and despite having seen it again and again, I felt like I was watching the film for the first time. Arnold Schwarzenegger owned that role (sorry, Jason Momoa, I’d ride in your khalasar, but you didn’t teach me what was best in life) and the film is much more intelligent than most people give it credit for. It’s a wonderful clash of the classic and the new: Conan is more or less your standard orphan-turned-legendary-hero, Siegfried meets Spartacus. But Milius knows his Joseph Campbell, and he tells a story that hits all the conventional heroic journey notes while still staying profoundly modern, with a screenplay so sparse in dialogue it’s almost high art, a post-Jonestown message about kids and cults that still resonates 30 years later, and a powerful female lead character who is a warrior first and a love interest second. I rooted for those characters like I’ve never rooted before, and James Earl Jones was so terrifying as Thulsa Doom on the big screen (those eyes!) that I only laughed a little bit when he told Conan he was his father.
To go with the Schwarzeneggerian splendor unfolding on the silver screen, I ordered a pint of Live Oak Brewing Company’s seasonal Schwarzbier. When asked what sets Live Oak apart in the exponentially expanding Austin beer scene, what comes to mind first is that they do a better job of replicating traditional German styles than anyone else around. Their HefeWeizen is a true hefe, full of banana and clove flavors, not the bland hazy wheat beers now rolling off the production line of every regional brewery. Their Pilz is a real-deal Bohemian pilsner, with crisp Czech malt and refreshing Saaz hops that fill every sip with flavor. These aren’t even styles I’m all that fond of, but I love that Live Oak does them well. I knew their take on the traditional German black lager known as a schwarzbier would be no exception.
The color was the deepest black, opaque. It seemed darker than most schwarzbiers and black lagers I’ve had, but that could have been the dim light of the movie theater. There wasn’t much aroma, but what I could pick up from it was dark chocolate and caramel, with the slightest hint of banana esters. Same with the flavor, which was subtle and refreshing, though chocolatey and with a little noble hop bite tapering off into a faint mocha java aftertaste. I found the mouthfeel a little thin for my taste, but I find that with black lagers a lot; I tend to be more of an ale guy, really, and perhaps my palate is still too calibrated for stout to really appreciate the thinner, more refreshing and crisp nature of a schwarzbier. But for all that, I enjoyed it. Once again Live Oak proved that they know German beer, and play with convention as well as any brewery in Central Texas.
The next screening in the Summer of ’82 series is Mad Max 2 (a.k.a. The Road Warrior). Since that show is not at an Alamo Drafthouse location, I’ve no idea yet whether there will be a beer available there that will pair as nicely and thematically with that film as this one did. If anyone can get their hands on some banged-up, greasy, post-apocalyptic cans of VB from the land of Oz, I won’t say no.
One Drink Minimum: Blues at Red’s and some Pink
Things have been pretty busy for the last week between the day job and writing, but on Thursday evening I was able to take a little break from it all. The occasion was a performance by former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, performing the group’s legendary album The Wall in its entirety. Before the show, I stopped at Red’s Porch in south Austin to enjoy “half pint night”, where the featured beer was Oskar Blues Deviant Dale’s IPA.
This was a spectacular beer. The color is a bright, vibrant orange that I suspect comes from the addition of Victory or dark Munich malt to the grain bill – my money’s on Munich, but as of writing this I haven’t had a chance to confirm it online. The aroma exudes grapefruit and pine, and is the freshest hop presence I can remember smelling in a beer. Late hop additions? Definitely, though I haven’t looked into which ones (and I’ll admit I’m not quite able to tell them all apart by smell and taste just yet). But when the glass was put down, it smelled like someone was holding a bag of fresh hops under my nose. I wanted to dive in.
Once it hit my palate, what surprised me most was its incredible smoothness. They call it an Imperial IPA, but at 8% ABV it’s right at the bottom of what I’d consider the appropriate alcohol range for the style. To be honest, it doesn’t even taste that strong. But as I kept drinking, it also became apparent that the beer is nearly perfectly balanced: its 85 IBUs are perfectly countered by a lotof malt sweetness, but without being cloying. For a hop bomb, there’s no resiny or medicinal quality that I can taste. The mouthfeel was just right, refreshing but not too dry. This is a brewery that knows how to make an IPA, and I’d drink it all day long. Luckily, between Lisa and I, we drank four of the half-pint glasses, and have a nice set to remind us of the experience.
Lest anyone be concerned that the concert was an afterthought after such a sublime dinner-and-drink experience, rest assured that it was not. I’m a raving, drooling Pink Floyd fan, and every time I’ve seen Roger Waters live (four times now, twice with this production of The Wall) he puts on a great show. He has an uncanny ability to connect intimately with a crowd of thousands – even in a university basketball stadium, and even when performing half of his show from behind a wall of cardboard bricks – no small feat for a rocker who was once notorious for his feelings of alienation from his bandmates and animosity for his fans (which inspired the album in 1979). But to paraphrase his song “One Of My Turns”, he has grown older, much less colder, and seems to be having a lot of fun. Or at least as much as is tasteful, given the very socially conscious themes and images of the show. He jumps around. He dresses in costumes. He pantomimes the lyrics. And he thanks his audience over and over again for letting him do it at his age. Reading between the lines of his comments to the audience, it’s obvious that Waters sees his touring now as a kind of therapy: no longer feeling isolated as he did when he wrote the album, he’s reinterpreted the story to shine a spotlight on those who feel isolated all over the world due to political and social injustices. To call it a concert is to do it a disservice: it’s a work of performance art and a heartfelt call to action to make the world a better place. It’s bombastic but honest, grandiose but personal.
A perfect balance of sweet and bitter in an unexpectedly subdued Imperial IPA, and a balancing act from a performer letting go of his darkest memories by reliving them. I’m wondering if that’s not a coincidence; if in fact that kind of balance is present in everything great. In any case, it was a fantastic intermission in an otherwise exhausting week.
I hope to be back on track with more posts later this week. Until then, prosit.