Tag Archive | beer tasting

National Homebrew Day, Part 2 – Tasting the Frog and Gnome

About a week ago I wrote about the two big bottle-conditioned beers I brewed to commemorate the births of my children: Old Froglegs Barleywine and Gnome Brew Wheatwine. I set a reminder for myself to taste both of them on National Homebrew Day (May 7) and write up the results here. So here we are.

Both of these beers were brewed for extended cellaring and aging. My master plan – probably a very bad plan – is to ration the bottles out slowly on special occasions and give the last bottle of each batch to my children on their twenty-first birthdays (never let it be said I don’t think long term!). I say “probably a very bad plan” because I suspect that after twenty-one years, it will be little more than fancy-pants malt vinegar in the bottle that I give to my kids … in which case I’ll gladly help them fry up some fish and sprinkle the ancient beer on some chips.

So maybe twenty-one years is too ambitious. But as they were brewed with aging in mind, it’s not too surprising that they’re both still getting better. In fact, the barleywine – which just celebrated three years since its brew date – seems to be getting close to its peak. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Beer 1: Old Froglegs Barleywine

Brewed April 29, 2013. Bottled December 6, 2013.

File_000

File_001

Old Froglegs poured a deep, cloudy mahogany with little carbonation and no head retention. Sniffing it was a delight, and I just wanted to crawl into the glass and explore its complexities – black cherry, tamarind, a cordial aroma like Grand Marnier.

The flavor didn’t disappoint either. After nearly three years in the bottle, it’s very smooth with no burn at all and no boozy bite. It’s thick, not quite syrupy but hefty like a liqueur, but the sweetness is full of caramel and melanoidin and not at all cloying. My wife got some woody flavors from it, though there was no wood in it. All in all it was a little like sipping brandy: a vinous, palate coating and very sophisticated-seeming beverage. It’s hard to imagine it getting better, and I’m starting to wonder whether I should worry less about saving bottles for the future, and enjoy more of this beer now while it’s so good. These are dangerous, dangerous thoughts …

Beer 2: Gnome Brew Wheatwine

Brewed February 23, 2015. Bottled November 2, 2015.

File_005

File_006

A bit lighter in color than its older brother, Gnome Brew poured more of a dark bronze color. Similarly lacking in carbonation, and with no head retention. The aroma was nowhere near as complex, and there wasn’t much aroma to speak of at all. I got a hint of apple and pear, but that was it. Not green apple like the acetyldeyhde tang of green beer, but a riper, fruitier apple … but still pretty ordinary. There was a hint of alcohol on the nos as well.

The flavor was good, but coming on the heels of a well-aged barleywine, it was unfortunately lacking. A bit boozy – not at all a surprise given this has been aging in the bottle only seven months – and with a thinner mouthfeel, so it lacked that delightful “cordial” quality of the barleywine. There are good flavors in there: cranberry, red wine and/or port, a bit of tannin. And it’s much smoother than it was when I opened the first bottle at Christmas 2015. But it still has a way to go before it’s quite where it needs to be.

Here are both beers side by side, with Old Froglegs Barleywine on the left and Gnome Brew Wheatwine on the right:

File_002

I don’t have to tell you it was a lovely evening. The only better way to celebrate National Homebrew Day would have been actually to brew (but it was my son’s birthday party; see last week’s story for details). And it was a wonderful way to remember the past: how in the weeks after each of my kids was born, I rallied myself – against the lack of sleep, the struggle to adjust to a needy new person in the house, and the feeling of untethered confusion about the future that accompanies the birth of a child – to brew a batch of beer that would give me a long-lasting memory of the time. Both beers have certainly done just that. And what delicious memories they are.

Check out the complete recipes for both beers in the Recipes section of the site.

Next week, I’ll write about the homebrew we served on tap at the birthday party on National Homebrew Day: a simple and tasty hopped cider that’s perfect for a Texas spring day. Until then, cheers from myBrewHome to yours.

Advertisements

A monster saison

A new Godzilla movie comes out today! I’m a fan of the kaiju classics, so I’ve got my ticket for tonight. Babysitting realities prevented me from going to any of the advance screenings this week, but no matter – I’ve been prepping for tonight by watching Showa-era Toho kaiju movies for weeks with my thirteen-month-old. He’s enjoying them so much that he now smiles every time he sees the Toho Company logo, laughs when he hears an Akira Ifukube score, and kicks happily when he sees Godzilla’s head (sure signs that I’m doing something right as a dad).

Last night while watching Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, I also tapped the first glass of my new dry-hopped saison Le Petit Kaiju. This was an update of last year’s Le Petit Plésiosaurea Summit-hopped pseudo-clone of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace I brewed and bottled to give as favors at my wife’s baby shower. Why kaiju this time? Not just because of Godzilla’s return to the big screen. See, we’ve been calling our little one “kaiju” for as long as I can remember. And replacing the peaceful, cuddly Loch Ness Monster I featured on the Plésiosaure label with the shrieking, atomic-breathed, stomping lord of destruction Godzilla seemed very fitting now that he’s a toddler.

The grain bill for the saison was the same as last time. I mashed in with 11.75 lbs (5.33 kg) of Belgian pilsner malt for a single rest at 148°F (64°C) for 90 minutes, which is recommended at lower temperatures to ensure full conversion of the starches. I added a pound of dextrose at the beginning of the boil to bring the OG up to 1.067. And lest you turn your nose up at the dextrose, let me say that I believe kettle sugar does wonderful things to the right beer recipe (i.e., dry), and I follow the teachings of Randy Mosher, who said in his book Radical Brewing that Belgian candi sugar – which many would use in a similar recipe – is “a complete rip-off”. Dextrose or evaporated cane sugar for light beers, or a little piloncillo or demerara for darker beers, have never done me wrong if I keep those simple sugars to less than 25% of the fermentables.

I duplicated the Summit bittering hops of Plésiosaure with .4 oz (11.3 g) of 16% AA pellets at 60 minutes, but changed up the later hop additions to pay homage to Gojira’s Japanese island roots. While Sorachi Ace – a Japanese cultivar – would have been perfect, I’m still having trouble sourcing them. I did, however, manage to get my hands on some 15% AA Pacific Jade from New Zealand. It’s still Eastern hemisphere and Pacific rim, and has a profile reminiscent of Sorachi Ace, if not quite as sublime. I added 0.4 oz (7 g) at 30 minutes and 3 oz (85 g) at flameout.

I pitched a starter of White Labs WLP565 and fermented for 3 weeks before dry hopping with my last ounce (28 g) of the Pacific Jade hops, which sat in the fermenter for 2 more weeks. The FG was 1.005, leaving this kaiju saison a monster at 8.2% ABV, even stronger than last year’s batch.

Surprisingly, Le Petit Kaiju is very easy drinking, as I found out last night. It poured a lovely golden straw color. A little cloudier and thicker than I expected, but this was the first glass off the keg so there was a lot of sediment in suspension.

kaiju

Skreeeoonnnkk! (the correct way to spell Godzilla’s roar)

The head dissipated very quickly, so more time on the CO2 will do it good. But the aroma is sweet and citrusy, almost like lemonade, with a lot of yeasty character. As for the flavor, it’s spicy and lemony, bold and memorable. But it’s not quite dry enough. At first I was shocked by the heavy mouthfeel given the low FG, but then I remembered all the yeast in suspension. I’m hoping once the dregs are drawn off and I get some clear beer out of this keg, it will have the dry character I’m looking for. I’ve got a lot more Toho movies to show my little kaiju this summer, and I’m going to need lots of refreshment.

On-Tap Recap: Beers for the aging former headbanger

I was a metal kid in the late 80’s. Although I liked the music, it was the album art that drew me in. Iron Maiden, Dio, Ozzy, any album with demons or creepy magical glyphs on the cover was fair game for my tape collection when I was about twelve. See, back in the late 80’s before Viggo Mortensen and Peter Dinklage, it was hard out there for fantasy geeks. We didn’t strut proudly down the street shaking our D&D dice in their little bag, shouting about how geeky we were to passersby. Just being seen with a paperback of The Lord of the Rings was enough to get your ass kicked. But wearing a T-shirt or pin with album art from a metal band was, if not exactly “cool”, at least likely to scare people away so they’d leave you alone. It was a subtle way to get your geek on while people around you just assumed you were into something more socially acceptable than fantasy, like consuming heavy drugs or worshipping Satan.

The parental shock value of the album art was a factor as well. As an honor-roll student in the suburbs of a southern American city, there were few ways I could terrify my parents more than by hanging a life-size poster of Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie the Head next to my bed, where it hung for almost ten years. My wife – who has been with me since we were teenagers – still has fond memories of that poster, recalling our first evenings as a couple (studying, always studying) under the leering visage of Eddie in his Somewhere in Time cyborg form. And they say teenage boys know nothing of romance.

Today is the twentieth anniversary of my first date with that wonderful woman I married, so I’m celebrating the past by recapping two beers that I think the twelve-year-old me who bought that poster would be proud of.

Eddie himself stars in my first tasting, snarling at me in 19th-century dragoon uniform from the label of a pint-sized bottle of Trooper by Robinsons Brewery, named for – and featuring the art from the 1983 single release of – the Iron Maiden song “The Trooper”.

trooper

Billed by Robinsons as a hand-crafted real ale “developed” by Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson with “true depth of character”, it sounded about right for my taste. It poured a deep orange-gold with a thicker head than I expected, with the brassy, crackery aroma I love in an English ale. The taste was fine, a little astringent and earthy with a hint of slick, oily mouthfeel like one gets with oats in the grain bill, though I don’t know if there were any in this one. I don’t know about “true depth of character” but it was a pleasant enough pint at a sessiony 4.7% ABV. A friend of mine who is both a homebrewer and an Iron Maiden obsessive described the beer as “not as good as you want it to be”, and that was true. It’s a gimmick, plain and simple, and I bought into it; the beer was pleasant but not as remarkable as the song it’s named for. I could drink it again, but would rather drink my own English-style homebrew … though I will save the bottle.

Drawn in a style reminiscent of a seventeenth-century woodcut, a three-headed demon towers over a burning sea of tortured mortals beneath a ring of runes and glyphs on the label of Blakkr Imperial Black Alea collaborative brew between the self-proclaimed “unholy trinity” of Three Floyds Brewing in Indiana, Surly Brewing in Minnesota, and Real Ale Brewing in Central Texas, brought together by their “love of brewing and love of metal”. The black double IPA is available in 4-packs of – what else? – metal cans. Twelve-year-old me would totally have worn a pin of this label on his jean jacket.

blakkr

How’s the beer? Well, it’s black. With a thick beige head and a citrus aroma that leans towards bitter orange and lime. But it’s surprisingly drinkable for an imperial brew with an ABV of 9%. I don’t find it syrupy at all. There’s a crisp bitterness on the front end from traditional American pale ale hops, though as I empty the glass and my palate becomes fatigued, I notice the hops less and the roastiness of black malts comes to the foreground, like a dessert of dark chocolate cake after a pungent salad. But for all that, the beer isn’t that memorable. It’s tasty, and I would drink it again (good thing since I have three more) but I’m not sure that it lives up to the awesomeness of the label art.

Which means we have a trend here. Wicked art that satisfies your inner twelve-year-old and tie-ins with your favorite metal band are neat, but only get you so far in craft beer. Both beers could have been worse, but could have been better. I’ve learned I’ll buy a beer once on a gimmick, but I won’t rush out and buy it again. And it seems that you can’t judge a beer by its label.

On-Tap Recap: Black Sunday

I’ve been doing these On-Tap Recap posts documenting my weekend beer tasting adventures for a few weeks now, and it seems I’ve just been reviewing bottled beers from my home cellar. I haven’t actually posted a review of anything on tap. Guess that’s my bad, but I do have a good excuse. With a small child at home to take care of, I just don’t make it out to the pubs like I used to. For the most part, I drink what I can drink at home.

Luckily for me, my adopted home town of Austin has many pockets of craft brew indoctrination, with more popping up all the time. Craft brew taps are appearing in the unlikeliest places, and so it’s getting easier for even a boring old homebody like me to get a pint. One such unlikely place is the Happy Trails Saloon at the Whole Foods Market a mile from my house. Springing from the floor of the store like an oasis in the desert, halfway between the pizza counter and a refrigerator case stocked with hummus in little plastic tubs, Happy Trails is a bar with about a dozen taps, four devoted to wine and the rest to a rotating selection of craft beers from the likes of local heroes Austin Beerworks, Hops & Grain and Adelbert’s to national favorites like Southern Tier and Ballast Point. Here the weary grocery shopper can take a break with a beer and food from either the Happy Trails pub menu or from any shelf or counter in the store (including the esteemed pizza counter).

This Sunday, halfway through our weekly family grocery trip, we stopped at Happy Trails, bolted the baby’s high chair to a table and let him bat his eyes adorably at Whole Foods employees and customers while he munched finger foods and we relaxed with slices of mushroom pizza and a couple of pints.

First up, a Baltic porter from Hops & Grain’s Greenhouse rotating line of experimental beers. This beer, I was told, was made with Whole Foods’ in-house roasted Allegro coffee. The coffee was noticeable, but mostly a background flavor in a very smooth, smoky black porter. Medium body with a lot of flavor, not too much alcohol, and not syrupy or thick. Great for an afternoon pizza break with the weather outside getting into the 70’s.

Next, a Southern Tier 2XSTOUT. Much as I love (almost) everything I’ve had from Southern Tier, and as fond as I am of milk stout, this one was a little anticlimactic after the Baltic porter. It was smooth and sweet, what I want out of a milk stout, and a good example of the style. But next to something as complex as Baltic porter, a milk stout was like a blunt object, beating me over the head with malt/sweet instead of the nuanced profile of the previous beer.

Really, the true star of this story is not either of the beers I drank, but the location. Good beer and good food right in the middle of a market I visit once or twice a week? That gives me hope that maybe the pub life isn’t behind me after all.

An homage to UK pubs (and a classic monster movie)

I vote we go back to the Slaughtered Lamb. – Jack Goodman, An American Werewolf in London

Homebrew inspiration can come from strange places. My favorite homebrews are the ones that were inspired not just by an imagined set of flavors, but by places I’ve visited, stories I’ve read, movies I’ve watched, etc. I love using the language of malt, hops, and yeast to tell a story about something more than beer. The trick, though, is that brewing is not an abstract art. A good concept might make for a great conversation starter, but no matter how high-concept a brew is, if it doesn’t taste good I don’t want to be stuck with five gallons of it (I graduated from a Catholic university in New Orleans, but that doesn’t make it a good idea to brew a crawfish & Bananas Foster porter with Trappist ale yeast for the alumni picnic). Finding the right balance between concept and taste is the ultimate goal.

In spring 2011, Lisa and I visited the United Kingdom for three weeks and spent a lot of time in pubs. We drank real ales from so many regional breweries whose names I can’t remember (except for Brains – #1 among zombies in South Wales) served at cellar temperature, often from beer engines – though at one awesome hole-in-the-wall in a one-road hamlet in Scotland I think I remember drinking beer dispensed from a cardboard box. The taste and aroma of real British ale, even the sight of the interior of a British pub, are vivid and powerful memories for me.

In summer 2012, I saw John Landis’ 1981 film An American Werewolf in London for the first time and my nostalgia was kindled by an early scene in the film at a fictitious Yorkshire pub called the “Slaughtered Lamb”. So I brewed a special bitter with English malts and American hops that I named Kessler’s Rampage Special Bitter in homage to the film’s main character and titular werewolf. Not long after I kegged it my sister-in-law and her husband, a native Sussaxon*, came to visit for a week and emptied the keg while I wasn’t looking. I took that as a compliment, and decided to brew it again this summer.

The 2013 version was 94% (8 lbs) Fawcett’s Optic malt, reportedly the base used by Fuller’s and other UK breweries. 4 oz each of Crystal 40 and Crystal 150 rounded out the grain bill. Last year I used Crystal 120 instead of Crystal 150, but otherwise the malt profile was the same in both versions and pretty typical of the style. The mash was one hour at 155°F.

The hops were my chance to freestyle. American homebrewers can be pretty predictable in their hop selections for English pale ales – occasionally someone might get bold and use a little Fuggles, but generally it’s either East Kent Goldings, East Kent Goldings, or another … what’s it called? oh yeah, East Kent Goldings. I suppose that’s what judges look for in competition, but the lack of originality disappoints me. American pale ales and English pale ales are cousin styles, and I see no reason why American hops can’t play a role in a damn fine English bitter if the right ones are chosen – i.e., probably not the 4 C’s (though I suspect someone has done it well).

In 2012, I used exclusively American hops in keeping with the inspiration (you can see both recipes here). For 2013, I deviated with one English hop in the mix:

  • 0.5 oz Warrior (15% AA) at 60 minutes
  • 0.5 oz Progress (6.6% AA) at 15 minutes
  • 0.4 oz Willamette (4% AA) at 5 minutes

Although Progress is English and Willamette is American, both are Fuggle derivatives, so I thought they would pair nicely together despite being a slight variation on the original inspiration. Consider it an homage to Jenny Agutter’s character Alex in the film, the English love interest of the American David Kessler (yes, I can rationalize anything with my artsy symbolic bullshit).

I pitched Safale S-04 into the wort with an OG of 1.046. True to the old adage that “English yeast do it faster,” the fermentation bottomed out at 1.010 less than 48 hours later, leaving me with an ABV of 4.7%, palpable but still sessionable. I kegged it after 4 weeks, and after 2 weeks under refrigeration it’s just starting to get good enough to drink.

I don’t have any of last year’s batch left over to do a true vertical tasting, but I’m a little disappointed in this year’s model. I’m not sure the Progress hops were a good addition (sorry, Jenny). I’ve used them in more robust English-style beers like porters and stouts to great effect, but with so little malt character to hide behind, I’m getting a strong tropical fruit flavor though it is mellowing with time in the keg. The other fault is less diacetyl than I like in this style, though it may be hiding under all those Progress hops and may become more obvious as the hop flavor mellows.

So the beer’s not perfect. But considering I half expected the skies to open up, swarms of locusts and some ancient BJCP curse to fall upon me when I put hops other than East Kent Goldings in a special bitter, I think I’m still coming out ahead. I don’t get the feeling of being an American lost in Britain in this version, but my second Transatlantic ale experiment is good enough to brew again. And again. Until I get it right.

*Sussaxon: a native of East or West Sussex. My brother-in-law assures me this although this term is technically accurate, no one uses it. We both like it because it makes us think of the people of Sussex as mud-splattered, armor-clad Saxons performing great acts of manly savagery like raiding cottages across the southern coast of Great Britain. They’re not.

Homebrew Tips for New Dads: Commemorating the event, a great excuse to drink!

Well, I’m back. – Samwise Gamgee

I haven’t written for this blog in nearly two months, as I’ve gradually adjusted to the ups and downs of being a father to my first child. Learning how to change, bathe, and sing Queen songs (including a special diaper-time version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” with peepee-related lyrics) to my newborn son Lucian was only the beginning. I also learned to deal with: an increased share of the housework to help Momma, an upheaval of my sleep schedule, a return to my day job, and the happy stress of many wonderful visits from friends and family anxious to meet the little dude in the blue onesie.

With all of that going on it was hard to find time to write, which was fine because I wasn’t doing all that much to write about. If your blog is about homebrewing, when you ain’t homebrewing you ain’t got much to say.

Did you catch that? Practically no homebrewing for two months. The horror! Almost as horrific as the fact that “bottle washing” means something entirely new to me now that I have a baby (interestingly, I don’t dread washing baby bottles like I did beer bottles – no labels).

Even though I haven’t done much brewing, I have partaken liberally of the fruits of my homebrewing labor. Thanks to some careful planning before the birth, I’ve managed to keep the pipeline flowing during my hiatus. But preparing for these brewless weeks wasn’t just about making sure I had enough booze to get through the newborn period. Far from it. You see, I’m a commemorator.

The things we create – a beverage, a story, a carpentry project, even the name we give to a child – form a record of our past. Each creation is a snapshot of who we were when we created it, a representational image of our brain at the moment of creation. Those snapshots exist long after the “me” responsible for the creation has changed forever – years after, if we’re lucky – and are like little running shoes for the feet of our memories. That’s one of the reasons why I believe every human being should create … something.

Of course, if what you create is consumable food products like beers and meads, there’s a shelf life to consider, so they won’t last forever. Sure, the right brews (imperial stouts, barleywines, meads, fruit wines) can be cellared for years if designed and handled properly, but at some point you’ll open and empty the last bottle. They’re not quite as permanent as other creations can be. But the unique thing about brewing to commemorate important life events is that the enjoyment of those creations (i.e., the drinking of the beer after it’s fermented/aged) creates its own memories that are worth holding onto in their turn.

The day we brought Lucian home from the hospital, Lisa and I shared a bomber of Le Petit Plésiosaure Saison, a Summit-hopped saison loosely adapted from Brooklyn Sorachi Ace that I brewed in February. The name (French for “the Little Plesiosaurus”) is an homage to an adorable cartoon poster of the Loch Ness Monster we have hanging in Lucian’s room. We gave bottles of the saison out as favors to friends who came to our baby shower and asked them not to open it until we announced the birth, and we did the same.

Photo 2013-05-22 12.29.30 AM

C’est bon ça!

I’m thrilled to report that this saison exceeded my expectations and also wowed my friends, not all of them beer geeks: a refreshing, dry, aromatic and spicy saison perfect for late spring/early summer that hides its 8% ABV under layers of citrus, chamomile and subtle phenolics. We’ve made it through nearly all of the bottles we had left over, and that’s okay. This beer was intended for drinking fresh in hot weather, for refreshing breaks from the hard work of keepin’ this baby happy. When I have my last taste of it later this summer, I’ll pause to celebrate the end of the first phase of Lucian’s life and the beginning of the next. In fact, his 3-month birthday sounds like a great time to finish off the batch. Challenge accepted.

The other commemorative brew I’m enjoying between sessions of therapeutic baby bouncing is Lucian’s Landing Ginger Metheglin, a ginger mead I made in October with the goal of bottling it right before the baby was born (but Lucian landed early, so I didn’t bottle it until after). I aged it from October to April, by which time all of the fresh ginger root aromatics in the must had evaporated – only a pleasant ginger tang on the palate remained. To replace the lost aromatics, I steeped 3.5 oz of fresh ginger root in 8 oz of boiled water to make a ginger tea and added that to the carboy along with 4 oz of crystallized ginger in a muslin hop sack. After 4 weeks, I bottled it and had labels printed with my own design evoking the inspiration for my son’s name, a second-century work of early science fiction satire called True Story (often translated as True History) by Lucian of Samosata.

IMG_1519

Protip: Even when buried beneath housework and baby care chores, always find time for Photoshop.

We plan to drink some fresh and save some bottles for special occasions (first Christmas, birthday, etc.), so the snazzy bottles were a must. Most recently we opened a bottle on Sunday, Lucian’s 2-month birthday, and found that mead paired quite well thematically with a marathon viewing of Game of Thrones Season 3 before the finale Sunday night. Pale golden and nearly crystal clear, it has just enough ginger to tickle the nose and palate before the unmistakable earthen notes of honey come in, then recede giving way to a fruity, ginger ale-like finish. I’m proud of it.

IMG_1522

Deceptively elegant at 13.7% ABV.

I like to think that someday Lucian will appreciate things like the fact that his dad made a special mead in honor of his birth, even though he couldn’t enjoy it himself (though maybe one day, who knows …). There’s no way of knowing now, of course, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll keep doing it for myself. Being a father is hard work, and I’m sure it’s only going to get harder. Though it’s already proving to be well worth all the effort I put into it, finding time to remember “me” amid the multitude of self-sacrificing tasks to be completed has been an important step in retaining my sanity. And that’s who me is (erm, I am): A homebrewer. A commemorator. A big frickin’ sap.

My more perceptive readers may have noticed that above I mentioned “practically no homebrewing”. Don’t tell anyone, but I did manage to squeeze in one brewday before April – the month of my son’s birth – was over. That was yet another commemorative brew, but one I won’t be drinking for a long time. I’ll tell you all about it in an upcoming post. The only hint I’ll offer before then is: Ribbit.

This Sunday, remember to wish a Happy Father’s Day to your dad or a dad you know (or yourself if the gift-wrapped dress socks fit) … and to my fellow new dads out there, just starting out on this difficult but rewarding journey: have a homebrew with me. We deserve it.

From the Cellar: an Auld Lang Stout

With highland-like winter winds dropping the temperature outside to near freezing and the tune of “Auld Lang Syne” still in my head, it’s no surprise that my thoughts turned to Scotland for my first cellar beer of 2013. My attention was captured by a couple of bottles from BrewDog that I’ve been cellaring for the better part of a year.

I consider myself a BrewDog fan. Based in northern Scotland, they’ve earned a reputation for extreme beers. Three of their beers – Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Sink the Bismarck!, and The End of History – were freeze distilled to achieve ABVs of 32%, 41%, and 55% making each the “strongest beer ever made” at the time it was released. I stopped into their brewpub in Edinburgh twice while visiting the UK in 2011 and tried both Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Sink the Bismarck!. Served at a premium price in tiny pours (I believe they were 50 mL, not quite 2 ounces) and made for sipping, they weren’t drinks I would ever reach for when I wanted a “beer”, but they were enjoyable, unique and worthy of the recognition they received worldwide.

But BrewDog’s history of record-chasing hasn’t brought them unanimous appreciation at home. They’ve courted controversy, been targeted by industry watchdogs, and feuded with London-based international beverage giant Diageo. A couple of UK natives I’ve spoken to have even told me they didn’t appreciate BrewDog bringing American-style brewing excess to the British Isles, though their growth and success suggest that’s a minority opinion. In any case, from here in the USA – where excess in brewing often manifests itself through the same old tricks: higher gravity, more hops, stranger microbes, etc. – BrewDog’s innovative excess looks very original to me, and I’m glad they’re in business.

A 12-ounce bottle of BrewDog Paradox Isle of Arran Imperial Stout, barrel aged in scotch whisky barrels and 10% ABV, sounded perfect to stave off the cold. I put it in the fridge for a few hours to chill slightly and served it up.

wpid-Photo-Jan-2-2013-940-PM.jpg

The beer poured almost black, with chocolatey brown hues showing when the light hit the pouring beer just right. It didn’t pour nearly as thick or syrupy as I expected it to, suggesting a thinner body than many other imperial stouts. Once in the glass, it was tar black with no head.

wpid-Photo-Jan-2-2013-940-PM.jpg

The aroma was strong with scotch whisky at first, and burned my nose a little. As I continued to sniff, it faded to a barleywine-like booziness with raisin and black cherry notes along with blackstrap molasses and mouthwatering caramel.

Strangely, the flavor was very mellow – a bit too much so. I tasted more raisin than anything, with a little oaky whisky flavor underneath but very little indicative of an imperial stout; it tasted more like a very dark English old ale. As the beer warmed to room temperature, a little bit of roasty stout character emerged, but not enough to balance the whisky notes. And as the pour suggested, the beer was very thin, with very little residual sugar to hold up the whisky and raisin notes.

I suspect that I aged this beer too long, which is a shame. It didn’t taste stale, but was unbalanced, as though some flavor notes faded faster than others. For a brewery known for extreme beers, this one came across as soft in the wrong ways. But I won’t fault BrewDog for that. I’d love to buy another bottle and try it again someday, but it seems the Paradox line has moved on to other things.

Whatever is next, I’ll be watching.

From the Cellar: December, bomber by bomber

I have an ever-growing collection of 22 oz and 750 ml bottles of beer cellaring in the Harry Potter closet. I save them for interesting meal pairings or other special occasions (which includes “another Sunday”). So December – a time of parties, good meals, multiple Christmas celebrations and the new year – is a perfect time to catch up on the cellar back stock. By which I mean drink them, of course.

It’s also when a lot of breweries release special beers, so I’ve found a few to fill the empty spaces in my cellar as I drink them up. Here’s a quick review of some recent bombers I’ve tasted and bought, and a preview of what I’m uncapping next.

This past Saturday, I opened a Stone Enjoy By 12.21.12 IPA. The occasion? Nothing more than resting up after seeing The Hobbit twice on Friday, and a December evening warm enough to put some filet mignons on the backyard grill. Steak and IPA aren’t two things I pair often, especially not when the steak is seasoned boldly (I used some coffee-chipotle rub left over from Thanksgiving), but time was running out on this time bomb of a bomber. The spicy beef and spicy beer matched better than I expected. The beer was light in color, with less melanoidin flavor than I usually want from an IPA, but I didn’t mind the hops overtaking the light malt profile. It was fresh, grassy, floral and spicy. Like a morning stroll through an English garden in spring. With a steak.

Then on Sunday, my wife Lisa and I had an early “Christmas” dinner: leg of lamb with garlic, lemon and herbs, which I paired with a bottle of Boulevard Collaboration No. 3 – Stingo that I’ve had for several months. Not knowing anything about “stingo” – a strong English style – except what was on the label, I expected deep malt and spice with a hint of sour tartness. I thought it would be a natural pairing for lamb with a little tangy mint sauce, but I was disappointed. There was some malt roastiness and a tang on the finish, but nothing in between. Not enough malt backbone, not enough depth, and not enough sourness to be pleasant. I had a lot of trouble finishing it, and that’s the first time I can say that about a Boulevard beer. Realizing it had been in storage for a while, I checked the date on the label, and it wasn’t out of date. Just not my thing, I guess.

I also bought a few new beers for my collection: a Stone 12.12.12 Vertical Epic Ale, a Brooklyn Black Ops, and a Samuel Adams Thirteenth Hour. I predict at least 2 of those won’t live to see spring.

Speaking of not living to see spring, this Friday night (December 21) I’ll open a bottle of Dogfish Head Theobroma in honor of the winter solstice and the end of the Mayan calendar. Since “theobroma” (a.k.a. cacao) is the food of the gods, this should be an excellent way to gain favor with Bolon Yokte K’uh, the Mayan god of war and creation who might be coming to destroy us all. If he is not amused and punishes me for my insolence – or if, more likely, he forgets to show up and the world continues to turn – at least I’ll be enjoying one of my favorite beers.

Saturday morning, assuming we’re alive and not already on the Dark Rift road to the Mayan underworld Xibalba, we drive to New Orleans to spend Christmas with our families there. I’m bringing a couple of bottles of Samuel Adams Norse Legend Sahti for Christmas Day. I haven’t tried it yet, but it should be something interesting to introduce to non-beer geeks in the family. The label might even open up some geeky discussion about Norse mythology, which I recommend highly as an excellent conversation topic, especially over grandmother’s Christmas lasagna.

Then there’s a bottle of Samichlaus Bier Helles which won’t see any action until New Year’s Eve. January 1 is Lisa’s birthday, and this year she can’t drink to celebrate thanks to our bouncing, kicking bun in the oven. So we’re having a small celebration at home starting on New Year’s Eve. Samichlaus, a rare Helles bock brewed only once each year by Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg in Austria, will be a fitting send-off to 2012: a very special beer for a very good year.

From the Cellar: Breaking free of the Turk(ey)ish prison on Thanksgiving

I’m pretty sure every homebrewer and beer geek has at least one personal story about how they surprised – and perhaps even converted – some non-craft drinker they know with the awesome power of real beer.

Maybe one night in college you handed an Imperial IPA to your malt liquor chugging buddy, and he quickly commended it before twisting open another 8 Ball. Or maybe you once convinced a co-worker to try a fruity wheat beer at a happy hour instead of a hard lemonade, and she now stocks her fridge with lambics. Or maybe you triumphed over decades of wine supremacy by pulling off a really successful beer pairing with a dinner, to the amazement of friends and/or family. My latest such story is a variation on that theme: a 3-course dinner with beer pairings, served in my own dining room.

The day was Thanksgiving (November 22 for those reading outside the U.S.) and the objects of my proselytization were my wife Lisa’s family: my mother-in-law and father-in-law in town from New Orleans, and my sister-in-law and her husband visiting from the United Kingdom. To set the stage, let me introduce them instead as: a coffee drinker, a whiskey drinker, a Bud Light drinker, and a foodie/pub manager from the south of England.

Challenge accepted!

Out of everyone in attendance, Lisa was the only person who was as convinced of the greatness of this idea as I was. She co-envisioned this event with me but couldn’t join us in the beer tasting thanks to an unfortunate medical condition called “expecting our first child” that isn’t expected to clear up for several months. This toast is for you, X.

The dinner itself was rather unorthodox. We haven’t done turkey on Thanksgiving in my house for nearly ten years, and saw no good reason to start now. We decided to build an utterly un-Thanksgiving-y menu with several commercial Central Texas beers from my cellar as inspiration, while also giving everyone in the family a chance to cook something. Here’s what we came up with.

I should disclose at this point that I don’t usually cook. Brewed beverages and the occasional steak are all I make that’s fit for human consumption, so most of the actual cooking (except for the steak) was done by Lisa and my brother-in-law. But I did choose the beer, so I’ve snatched the right to bill myself as director of the whole production.

Salad Course: Romaine with blue cheese, pecans, dried cranberries, and homemade mustard vinaigrette paired with a bomber of South Austin Brewing Company Saison D’Austin. As a longtime fan of this ubiquitous local saison, I had been dreaming about this pairing for a few days beforehand. This is a very light and refreshing saison, and everyone at the table enjoyed it (especially my sister-in-law the Bud Light drinker). But I found it lacked the backbone to stand up to the bold flavors of the blue cheese and mustard. Something with a bit more spice and/or funk would have served the dish better, so next time I’ll go with something a little more intense – a more phenolic Belgian or something with some Brett – and save the Saison D’Austin for a cheese course.

Main Course: Grilled sirloin with a coffee-chipotle rub served with a relish of tomatoes, tarragon and mustard; dill-roasted tricolor potatoes and oven-roasted asparagus paired with a bomber of Jester King / Mikkeller Weasel Rodeo Imperial Oatmeal Stout. The rub and the steak were the only food items I prepared myself, carefully trying to match the flavor profile of the beer, which features chipotle and kopi luwak coffee. Coffee and pepper were more pronounced in the steaks than the beer, if I do say so myself. But the pairing was a match made in heaven, and the in-laws enjoyed it all so much that we actually drank not just one bomber of Weasel Rodeo, but also the second bomber I had chilled just in case.

Dessert: Pecan pie from the Salt Lick paired with a 12-ounce bottle of Real Ale Sisyphus Barleywine Ale from 2011. Okay, so we didn’t actually make the pie, and I had no idea how it was going to pair with the 2011 Sisyphus, which I had never tried. As it turned out, the rest of the family were stuffed and satisified by now, so the barleywine was shared by me and my brother-in-law alone; 6 ounces for each of us was more than enough. The beer was robust and nutty with toffee overtones, and I thought quite a good match for my favorite pie in the Austin area, though I found myself wishing I had some good vanilla bean ice cream to complete the ensemble. I wasn’t disappointed for long, though, because I soon found myself satiated and … well, let’s just say “sleepy”.

So. A fantastic dinner that we had fun preparing together, and a great opportunity to demonstrate for visiting family why I’m so excited about the Central Texas beer scene. Hopefully I even got them thinking about beer in new ways. Would I do it again? Hell yes. And since there’s nothing “Thanksgiving” about this meal, I may do it again before next year’s holiday season. I hope it inspires you to try something similar.

Austin Beer Week 2012: Ommegang Beer Dinner at Easy Tiger

I’ve had a few beers before from New York’s Brewery Ommegang, but not many. So it was with curiosity and an empty stomach that I entered the hallowed halls of Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden on Tuesday night for their Austin Beer Week Ommegang Beer Dinner. It was my second beer dinner at Easy Tiger (my first was in July) so I came expecting an all-stops-out delicious meal designed by chef Andrew Curren with the beer remaining the star. The menu was promising indeed:

The menu, before I smeared it with messy but memorable victuals.

Easy Tiger’s wait staff turned the hospitality up to eleven, bringing my first beer within moments of being seated. That was Ommegang’s Octoberly-named Scythe & Sickle, an ale celebrating the harvest season with barley, oats, wheat and rye in the grain bill. It poured a cloudy orange with an initial tart, acidic aroma that gave way to spicy clove esters and floral notes upon tasting. I had fun trying to pick out all the different grains. The oats gave a creamy texture to the brew, and spicy rye was also evident; but the most distinctive flavor I got was a raisin-currant character typical of Belgian crystal malts like Special B. The beer was accompanied by Easy Tiger’s “Harvest Mix” of popcorn, potato sticks, peanuts and dill: not your father’s party mix.

Beer #0: Scythe & Sickle. Yes, that’s a full glass pour.

Then the real fun began.

First Course: Biere d’Hougoumont with Herbed grits, roasted mushrooms, quail egg, lemon hazelnut gremolata – This limited-edition bière de garde includes French ale yeast and French Strisselspalt hops in the recipe, and was aged on white oak and hard maple. It was light orange in color with a quickly dissipating head and smelled of honey and floral hops. A boozy character like that of simple sugars (honey, or candi sugar?) in the wort was strong on the palate, but no alcohol burn. It balanced well with the earthy mushroom flavor dominating the grits.

Second Course: Goudenhop with Orange-lacquered grilled pork belly, creamed Swiss chard, crispy leeks – Ostensibly a Belgian-style blonde, the beer lived up to its name (meaning “golden hop” in Flemish) with citrusy hops on the nose and palate that slowly gave way to a long-lasting bitterness. It seemed an odd pairing with the nutty creamed chard and rich slab of pork belly that actually melted in my mouth, until I recognized it as a genius combination of opposites. The Goudenhop offered a refreshing lifeline from a dish easy to drown in (albeit happily), like orange juice next to a heaping plate of morning bacon. Folks, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

Third Course: Gnomegang with Pecan-crusted red fish, sweet potato & Granny Smith apple hash, parsley brown butter – A big golden beer with a thick head and aromas of tart fruits and the unoffensive cheese notes of Belgian yeast. It was incredibly full bodied, packed a boozy punch, and would make a great mainstay for a Belgian abbey’s Lenten fast. The rich, oily fish paired very nicely with it, and I’ve never disliked anything with Granny Smith apples in it.

Fourth Course: Art of Darkness with Chuck roast, potatoes, carrots and Art of Darkness bread – This smooth, velvety black ale (I wouldn’t call it a stout; there was no roasted barley character at all) had the hallmark flavors of oats and (I’m guessing) debittered black malt. The beer was good, but I must confess I was more entranced by the wedge of artisan bread on my plate, made with that same beer. I had waited all night to get my hands on some of Easy Tiger’s legendary bread, and its appearance made me a happy man. My apologies to the roast; it was succulent and savory, but I had already given my heart to another.

Fifth Course: Chocolate Indulgence with Pumpkin pie, milk chocolate, candied orange, hazelnuts – The last ale on the menu was as dark as the previous one, and had the roast character its predecessor lacked. More coffee-like than it was chocolatey, it was very good on its own but a little heavy next to a light and flaky specimen of one of my favorite fall desserts. The pie itself was delicious, and thankfully not cloyingly sweet. I loved each on their own but wasn’t crazy about the two together.

Beer #5: Chocolate Indulgence. And another sweet glass for my collection.

But the night wasn’t over yet! Easy Tiger and Ommegang surprised us with a final course: a plate of soft cheese, fennel relish, and another fresh baked bread (EDIT: Nancy’s Camembert from Hudson Valley, fennel marmalade and Pan au Levain roll – a sort of French “sourdough” – thanks Chef Andrew Curren for confirming) accompanied by a flute of Aphrodite lambic. The lambic was sweet and fruity with the color and flavor of raspberry (and just a little pear) all but masking a thread of Brett funk, and was an admirable way to end the night. It went fine with the cheese, but I kept thinking how well it would have paired with the pumpkin pie … though I would hate to have missed out on this latter offering of house bread.

Beer #6: The mighty Aphrodite.

Much like schnitzengrubens, them strong Belgian-style beers can wipe you out, especially when taken with good food. By the end of the night I had one foot in brewhound Valhalla, tethered to the mortal plane by robust conversation with several fellow beer geeks in attendance that I had the pleasure to meet that night – including John Rubio of The Beerists podcast and Austin Chronicle beer culture writer Ivy Le and her husband. But bedtime loomed, and before long I emerged from the rathskeller to find my way home, happily smacked down by another spectacular Easy Tiger beer dinner.

You win another round, Easy Tiger. Well done. Name the time, and I’ll be there for the rematch.