Tag Archive | beer tasting

A taste of local at the Texas Craft Brewers Festival

Fiesta Gardens in East Austin was the hoppiest place in town on October 6 as about two dozen breweries from all over Texas gathered for the annual Texas Craft Brewers Festival, sponsored by the Young Men’s Business League of Austin. Featuring over 115 beers, the event promised to be a carnival of discovery. I walked through the gates holding my tasting glass eagerly, like an explorer taking his first steps on a newly discovered shore with a trusty saber in hand.

The format was a familiar one: a booth from each brewery in attendance (arranged in alphabetical order, wow) offering pours of their most popular and/or most interesting beers. $20 bought admission, a 4 oz. plastic tasting glass and six tickets, with additional tickets available for purchase at two for $3. Most of the pours cost one ticket, with some of the rarer/higher-gravity offerings going for two.

I sprung for the $65 VIP pass. It didn’t come with any additional tickets (bummer), but I did get a T-shirt and imperial pint glass along with noon entry, two hours before everyone else. The early entry was worth it, because the place got nuts at 2:00 when the gates opened to general admission. VIP’s also got a “meet-and-greet” round robin tasting in the main pavilion from 1:00 to 2:00. Brewers and brewery representatives walked around the pavilion with pitchers, pouring samples and answering questions.

I love talking to brewers who have a real passion for brewing. The ones who are visibly energized by talking to kindred spirits. The ones whose eyes light up when asked why they chose one yeast strain over another, or who get excited when you taste something subtle in the beer that they were specifically trying for. They’re the stewards of our community, the true shamans of our tribal craft brew culture. I’d especially like to thank Jeff Stuffings of Jester King Craft Brewery, Diane Rogness of Rogness Brewing Company, Jud Mulherin of Circle Brewing Company and Grant Wood of Revolver Brewing Company for stopping for a few minutes on a busy day to talk to me – one of many admirers clamoring for their time – about their ingredients, their craft, and why they do what they do.

The beers themselves presented a fascinating snapshot of where Texas craft brew is today. Several things became apparent over the course of the day:

  • Sour beer no longer a thing? The event website boasted “at least four sours”. That’s a much smaller number than I would have predicted a year ago, when sours were seemingly the next big wave in craft brewing. But now it seems Texas brewers are looking elsewhere for innovation. Real Ale Scots Gone Wild and Austin Beerworks Einhorn Berliner Weisse were on tap along with some sours from Jester King, but I didn’t see anything on the menu that I hadn’t tried before. I made a beeline to the Jester King booth for what I thought was a new sour – the Viking-inspired Gotlandsdricka – and got a surprise. Jeff Stuffings informed me his Gotlandsdricka was intended to be a modern interpretation, not a historically accurate recreation of the ancient ale, and was clean-fermented with just Saccharomyces cerevisiae. I’m a sucker for anything Nordic, and I liked it a lot, but I’m still curious to taste the sour version they may release in a few months.
  • Flavorings are where it’s at. For a region so rich in German heritage, Texas brewers sure don’t know the meaning of Reinheitsgebot. Spices and fruits abounded. Rogness OST Porter with coffee and coconut and Yogi Amber with chai spice, Thirsty Planet ChiGoatle Amber with peppers, Revolver Blood & Honey Wheat with blood orange zest and spices, and Jester King Gotlandsdricka with sweet gale and juniper all made impressions on me. Even Reinheitsgebot champions Circle Brewing have jumped into the flavor fray with Smokin’ Beech, a refreshing Rauchbier with a bacony character from malt beechwood-smoked according to a traditional Bamberg process that Jud Mulherin described to me in reverent detail.
  • Tea is the new coffee. Coffee porters and stouts remain popular, but Texas brewers are starting to notice coffee’s hot stepsister from across the ocean, with very different takes on the concept. Live Oak poured an Oaktoberfest infused with lapsang souchong China black tea, lending a vegetal smokiness tailored for slow sipping. Jester King poured their kombucha farmhouse ale Buddha’s Brew. Rogness Yogi Amber doesn’t actually have tea in it, but recreates the experience of chai tea in an amber beer with chai spices and unfermentable sugars. Diane Rogness called Yogi “her baby”, and she should be proud of it. I enjoyed drinking it and have thought about it a lot since Saturday.
  • Dallas-Fort Worth is growing. Lakewood Brewing and Revolver Brewing are two names from the Metroplex that seem to have made their Austin debut at the event, alongside DFW stalwarts Deep Ellum and Southern Star. I didn’t get a chance to try Lakewood (sorry!) but Revolver’s Blood & Honey Wheat is a surprisingly complex lawnmower beer with blood orange zest and savory spices. Head brewer Grant Wood invited me to guess which spices he used. I guessed incorrectly, and when I pressed him for the correct answer, he said smiling, “We’ve gotta have some secrets.” Touché.

Finally, the day brought great news to the mead lover in me. I had a chance to speak to Eric Lowe of Meridian Hive Meadery, a new Austin company getting their brewhouse (meadhouse?) assembled currently, and who will hopefully be releasing their first meads in early 2013. There’s a mead gap in Austin, and I welcome them with open arms and a thirsty palate.

Photos of the event are below (including one of your friend and humble narrator in a yellow shirt), courtesy of Roy Moore and Control Images. Thanks to the YMBL and all who made the event what it was.

Roy Moore Photography: TCBF12 &emdash; DSC_0488

Roy Moore Photography: TCBF12 &emdash; DSC_0486

Roy Moore Photography: TCBF12 &emdash; DSC_0513

Roy Moore Photography: TCBF12 &emdash; DSC_0507

Roy Moore Photography: TCBF12 &emdash; DSC_0499

Roy Moore Photography: TCBF12 &emdash; DSC_0497

Roy Moore Photography: TCBF12 &emdash; DSC_0491

Roy Moore Photography: TCBF12 &emdash; DSC_0525

Roy Moore Photography: TCBF12 &emdash; DSC_0517

Roy Moore Photography: TCBF12 &emdash; DSC_0518

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The Buddha and the King

On a beautiful, cool Saturday afternoon wedged between days of thunderstorms, Jester King Craft Brewery released their new Buddha’s Brew ale during their weekly open house. Beer hipsters (and garden variety hipsters) descended on the brewery for a turnout that scuttlebutt suggests was the biggest the brewery has ever seen on a “non-event” Saturday.

The new ale is a collaboration between Jester King and Austin kombucha company Buddha’s Brew. It’s Jester King’s first beer fermented entirely in oak. The wheat ale wort was pitched with bacteria and fermented in the barrel, then aged for nine months before blending it with Buddha’s Brew Classic Flavor Kombucha. Buddha’s Brew was also on location Saturday giving out free kombucha by the sample and cup. I’ve been a fan of their kombucha for years, so I was excited about the collaboration.

I haven’t been to Jester King in several months, so I was surprised to find a new system in place for the beer tasting. In the old system, $10 bought you a tulip glass and three full pours of whatever you wanted. Now, for $10 you get a card listing the day’s menu with a check box next to each of the 7 beers available:

One ticket to paradise, with a kombucha to go.

The bartenders poured 5.5 oz of whatever you ordered and marked the box next to it on the card. If you tried them all, it would equate to a little over two pints of beer and a keepsake glass for $10. So it’s not the steal it used to be, but it’s still a great value, especially if you can get there early enough to go back through the (very long) line 7 times during the 3-hour window they’re open. Even though this new system effectively raises the price per ounce over the previous system, it encourages beer flights instead of pounding pints as quickly as possible. The limited-release selections du jour are thus available to more attendees, and fewer frat boys are stumbling around drunk from too many Black Metals. I’m not sure if the new system was just for this event or if this is how they do it every week now, but I’m a fan of it in theory … if they can get the line moving a little faster.

I started with Buddha’s Brew, the hot new starlet on the set. It was straw-colored with little head and smelled like a Berliner Weisse: lactic, light and wheaty, though I was hoping for more fruitiness on the nose. It tasted like a Berliner Weisse too. Tart, refreshing and wheaty with some vinegar notes and a pleasant mouth-puckering tartness. My only complaint was that it was less complex than I expected. The kombucha didn’t add much flavor; no fruitiness, no earthiness. Nor any oakiness or vanilla from the barrel aging. It could have been any sour wheat ale, albeit a well-made one. Note that I would gladly drink it again if there weren’t more interesting beers available.

From there it was only natural that I ease into Bonnie the Rare, Jester King’s Berliner Weisse, for comparison’s sake. (It’s all for science. I swear.) Bonnie came from a bottle and had the same wheat/straw color as Buddha but was clearer. It had a lot more going on, too. It smelled of bright sour fruits and spice: sour apple, lemon pepper, grains of paradise. It tasted like an übertart lemon-lime soda with a spicy astringency and a hint of blue cheese on the back end. Dry, but not puckering. From the same ballpark as Buddha’s Brew perhaps, but Bonnie played the game better; more interesting and complex overall. If faced with a choice between the two at a bar, I’d order Bonnie, hands down.

My third pour was Mad Meg, an organic bière de provision – a high-alcohol continental style intended for extended aging. At 9.6% ABV, it was a step up from my earlier tastings but smooth enough not to be a shock. It poured a handsome red-orange I attribute to Cara-Munich malt, but I enjoyed thinking of it as an “albino amber”. The aroma was mouth-watering: floral hops and a rich mandarin-like citrus with noticeable alcohol. The flavor didn’t disappoint, either, delivering piney hop bitterness at the start and boozy, bready malt on the finish with no alcohol burn. It was smooth and brilliantly balanced, easy to drink on a fall afternoon or warm enough for a cool night.

I made my way through the tastings leisurely and only got three in my 90 minutes there, but it was well worth the price of admission. Between beers I cleansed my palate with lots of free kombucha from the Buddha’s Brew tent (thanks!). Peach and Pineapple-Super Greens flavors were on tap and delicious.

I left happy (alcohol + probiotics, mmm mmm good!) and inspired. I’ve been thinking about homebrewing kombucha for a long time, and I might start soon using some Buddha’s Brew dregs to culture a starter SCOBY. Someday I actually hope to have draft kombucha in the kegerator for those non-beer occasions. I’m not sure I’ll ever use it in a beer myself, but who knows? And I toast Jester King for their innovation. After all, that’s what supporting local business is all about.

One Drink Minimum: Real Ale Beer Dinner at Easy Tiger (part 2 of 2)

Now that the hop-fueled insanity of IPA Day 2012 is over, back to my two-part review of last week's Real Ale Beer Dinner at Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden. See here for Part 1.

We left off at …

Fourth Course: Scots Gone Wild Sour Real Heavy with venison liver mousse, black pepper cherry jam, arugula, country levain – The first three courses were all paired with beers made from the same Lost Gold IPA wort. The first new wort in the lineup was a single-barrel wild fermented Scotch ale. It was good, with floral and dark berry notes on the nose and a murky chocolatey red-brown color. It was tart and astringent, very refreshing and great for summer, and paired well with the very rich venison liver mousse. I love venison, though I'm not a fan of organ meat, and a quick glance around the room told me I wasn't the only one outside of my comfort zone. But with a little faith in the chef, I tucked in with an open mind, and I'm glad I did. A bite of the liver mousse spread on the levain bread with a chaser of the sour Scotch ale was fantastic, but the portion was big. I finished mine, but I saw a lot of unemptied plates.

Beer 4: Scots Gone Wild Sour Real Heavy

Fifth Course: Highlander Barrel-Aged Real Heavy with bone marrow, blood sausage, herb salad, fougasse – Before this next dish came out, the servers brought out an enormous pretzel-like bread (the fougasse, I believe). It was delicious, but there was no way the two of us at our table could fit more than a few bites in. The beer, also made from the Real Heavy wort above but aged in red wine barrels, was my least favorite of the night. It had little aroma and a bitter, medicinal flavor. After so much good beer and good food, it was a minor letdown. As for the food, this was my first time eating bone marrow, and it wasn't bad, but I preferred the blood sausage. The herb salad was very sparsely dressed, well-balanced to the strong, earthy flavors of the protein on the plate.

Beer 5: Highlander Barrel-Aged Real Heavy

Sixth Course: Vol. 15 Bourbon Barrel-Aged Russian Imperial Stout with bitter orange bread pudding, caramelized honey, figs, walnuts – Yep, you read right: Easy Tiger worked bread into the dessert as well (bravo, maestros). By this point, I was stuffed, but I finished this tasty and surprisingly light bread pudding. The beer hit all the notes one expects from a RIS, though my (perhaps desensitized) taste buds didn't taste much barrel character in the stout. And the stout may have gone better with a chocolate cake than with such a light bread pudding. After everything else, I couldn't finish the beer, and I wasn't the only one. I hate to waste, but there's only so much one can consume in an evening.

Beer 6: Vol. 15 Bourbon Barrel-Aged Russian Imperial Stout

So there you have it: a delicious dinner and a great beer flight. Easy Tiger and Real Ale truly went all out with each of their contributions and made a good team. The plating portions and the beer pours were impressive, and a great deal for $55 a head. On the other hand, smaller portions would likely have kept the appetites in the room going longer. Maybe even long enough for the less adventurous folks in the room to embrace those organ meats on the later plates.

But hey, Easy Tiger is learning as they go … and I recognize that “The portions were too big at my six-course gourmet microbrew dinner!” is totally a first-world complaint. So I'm not complaining at all. It's just an observation, and maybe will raise some awareness that could eliminate waste in the future.

As for Real Ale, I'd say they showed Austin that this now-old-standby in the local beer community still has some surprises up its sleeve. But they are bigger than the upstarts; and bigger, for a commercial brewery, means bigger risk. Smaller breweries can brew a small experimental batch and eat the cost of having to dump it if necessary, but a brewery the size of Real Ale takes a huge financial hit if they make a 60-barrel batch of something that turns out undrinkable. The trick of fermenting 3 different worts 6 different ways seems a good way for a brewery that size to experiment: if one of the beers turns out bad, there's still barrels and barrels of another beer they made from that wort they can still sell. Is that as exciting as the reckless abandon of a smaller brewery? Well, no … but it still can turn out a bunch of damn good beers, as Real Ale proved.

So thanks to Easy Tiger and Real Ale for a great night that left me happily stuffed and happily buzzed. I'm looking forward to the next one. Prosit.

One Drink Minimum: Real Ale Beer Dinner at Easy Tiger (part 1 of 2)

Last week Lisa scored tickets to a beer dinner hosted by Real Ale Brewing Company at Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden in downtown Austin.

Easy Tiger opened earlier this year on East Sixth Street, promising fresh baked-in-house breads, ample taps, and a menu that goes beyond pizza, all just down the street from the chickenpox of dive bars and music venues that dot the sidewalks of what the kids call “Dirty Sixth”. This was Easy Tiger’s first beer dinner, and it showed – mainly through oversized portions; a good problem, really – but the dishes were tasty and the pairings on the mark.

It would’ve been hard to imagine it when I first moved to Austin, but Real Ale is now the big kid on the block in Central Texas craft brew. With every new brewery that sets up shop in the region, Real Ale becomes more and more the elder statesman, and they’ve been accused of letting themselves go stale, of not pushing the envelope. (Aside from their flagship ale Firemans #4, most of their beers fall firmly in the American-British spectrum of bitter/pale ales: an APA, a rye APA, an IPA, etc. … but they do make a fantastic barleywine and some nice German seasonals.) The lineup for this beer dinner seemed carefully choreographed to prove that the old dog still has some tricks in it, and while I’m not sure I bought the routine 100%, the beers were well-made and I had a fantastic time.

Aperitif: Firemans #4 – Before the first dish came out, we started with a 6-oz pour of Real Ale’s ubiquitous flagship blonde ale. If you haven’t tasted this beer, you haven’t been to Austin. It really is everywhere, and it’s been the gateway to craft beer for frat boys and good ol’boys in this town for years (not to mention a few people I know). Call it boring; but you can’t argue with its quality, and they brought out the freshest batch I’ve ever tasted for this event. Crisp, clean taste, a nutty continental malt aroma, and a noticeable but not intimidating noble hop flavor make this a beer you can buy a case of for that stubborn Bud drinker in your family, even for your mom. And I have.

Beer 0: Firemans #4

Then the marquee lineup started: 6 dishes paired with 6 beers, about 6 ounces worth of each (cue Iron Maiden). The trick I mentioned earlier was that these 6 beers came from only 3 different “wort streams” – this was a new term to me, but basically means simply that 3 different worts were fermented under different conditions to produce 6 different beers.

First Course: Lost Gold IPA with mussels, smoked tomato, fennel, leaks baguette – Real Ale’s aptly named year-round IPA pours a deep golden color. The aroma abounds with grapefruit and floral notes. The flavor is a modest but noticeable blast of hops that doesn’t fail to refresh. It went astoundingly well with a smokey mussel stew served family-style with a whole baguette (for two). We scraped the bowl, and it was a big bowl. And all I can say about the bread is, “OMG, bread!” You can tell it’s what Easy Tiger does best.

Beer 1: Lost Gold IPA

Second Course: Empire Barrel-Aged Lost Gold IPA with duck sausage, corn pudding, watercress – The second beer made from the Lost Gold IPA wort was aged in red wine barrels that left a blanket of sour cherry fruit notes on the whole thing. The hop aroma faded with the aging, as expected, but the bitterness remained, and the beer poured enticingly murky. A hint of pungent funk from the barrel complemented the rich, earthy duck sausage. The corn pudding was light and fluffy; it complemented the sausage just fine but was easily overpowered by the beer. The disparate elements of the dish worked better separately than as a single bite.

Beer 2: Empire Barrel-Aged Lost Gold IPA

Third Course: Imperium Wild Lost Gold IPA with apricot-braised goat, local shell pea cake, mint gremolata – The third version of Lost Gold was aged in similar barrels to Empire, but wild fermentation was induced for a funkier flavor. Floral notes took center stage on this one, and it was very dry, balancing very well with another rich protein dish. The apricot balanced both the gaminess of the goat and the funkiness of the beer. By now, I was really excited about what the night had in store. I was eating great food and enjoying the results of an experiment on how one wort could become three very different beers.

Beer 3: Imperium Wild Lost Gold IPA

Check back in a few days when I post my reviews on the last three pairings of the evening, and my overall impressions. It was a delightful and insightful night.

Weizen Up

Sorry, Internet, I've been holding out on you. Weiss Blau Weiss Bavarian Hefeweizen, my experiment in simplicity that I brewed in June, has been pouring for over a week now, and I've had several pints of it already; but I haven't yet written about it. It's high time I did, so you can enjoy it vicariously as much as I've been enjoying it … well … the regular way.

Shinin' like Rhine-gold.

It pours beautifully: a creamy golden color with a gleaming white head. It's cloudy, as a hefeweizen should be, and except for a little bit of floating sediment, it looks as good as any commercially brewed hefeweizen I've ever had. The sediment should clear up once I pour a few more pints off the keg. I did use Irish moss for this brew – as I do for most of my brews – but there are many who choose not to use kettle finings for hefeweizens, and it's possible this worked against me in that it precipitated more particles out to the bottom of the keg. But I'm sure it'll be fine in a few more pours.

The aroma is spectacular. Exactly what I wanted: lots of banana esters, a touch of the sweet, grainy aroma of crisp continental Pilsner malt, and the faintest whiff of clove spiciness. That's about it. No hops on the nose at all. Nothing confusing or muddling. You can tell instantly what ingredient created every single component of the olfactory signature of this beer.

The taste is good, too. It's light, of course, and perfect patio refreshment for my next summer brew session. The yeasty character doesn't lead in the flavor department the way I was hoping it would, not like it leads the aroma. I don't usually bother with that little slice of citrus that most brewheads outside of Bavaria are so fond of in their weizens, but I could see a lemon wedge adding something to this beer, just because it could use a bit more zing (sadly, I don't have any in the house). I don't blame the recipe for this little flaw, rather my fermentation temperature. Next time I make it, I'll ferment a couple of degrees higher for the first couple of days.

The mouthfeel is just right for a summer afternoon: refreshing, not too astringent. It goes down smooth and easy, and at 5.2% ABV is pretty session friendly.

So there you have it. Weiss Blau Weiss Bavarian Hefeweizen was an overall success, not despite its simple recipe but because of it. In fact, it seems to me that my efforts to introduce unnecessary complexity to the process – namely, using kettle finings and overchilling during fermentation – was the main thing that kept it from being (to me) a perfect beer. But that's okay; it's still plenty drinkable, and I'm sure I'll be emptying this keg pretty quickly … no complaints here, because I'd love to make it again. Can I make it even simpler next time? Probably not much so, but the lesson has been hammered home: one doesn't need a mile-long list of ingredients to make a damn good beer.

Of course, the Bavarians have been trying to tell us that for centuries.

 

One Drink Minimum: The Twin Cities IPA Face-off

My day job has me in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area for the better part of two weeks. I haven’t had much time for brewing or for entertainment. So for this edition of One Drink Minimum, instead of pairing a beer with an entertainment event, I’m pairing two local IPAs in a comparative tasting and gluing them together with a robust meal of steak and pierogies at a local bar and grill.

The location of this northern face-off was the Edina Grill in Edina, Minnesota. The concierge at my hotel gave me two recommendations for local beer spots, and Edina Grill was one of them. He admitted there were bigger selections in town, but on my travel budget and the proximity to my location, this oldtown-diner-turned-hipster-hangout couldn’t be beat. And he specifically said: “Try their awesome pierogies”. The steak came nicely on the rare side of medium rare and was a little tough but not too bad. The horseradish sauce was tasty, not too rich or heavy, and made for a wonderful pairing with an IPA. The potato and cheese pierogies on the side were indeed awesome, and tasted divine in the steak drippings but were a little bland on their own. I ate around the haystack of crispy onions that topped the pierogies.

The beers I ordered were the two most ubiquitous local IPAs I can find on this trip: Surly Furious and Summit Sága. Furious, a 6.5-percenter from one of the jewels in the Twin Cities beer geek crown, has been around a while and has come highly recommended from locals for years. Sága, on the other hand, is a new brew for 2012 by Summit, a larger craft brewery with wider distribution. It weighed in at 6.4%.

Furious was first in my flight. The first mad-dog thing about this brew was the aroma. It was floral, herbal: not the usual grapefruit that one expects from American IPAs, and that’s a good thing. Don’t get me wrong – I love citrus notes in my hop aroma, but it’s becoming a little too conventional. The moment those little bubbles burst under my nose with a smell like winter in the Alps, Furious had my interest. The color was dark amber and clear, with a firm, persistent head. As I emptied the glass, the beer left behind the kind of lacing that any American homebrewer (or microbrewery) should envy.

The flavor was … well, let’s just say intense. It wasn’t too sweet, and definitely hop-forward, a little unbalanced. But I enjoyed it. It’s possible that the beer was mishandled somewhere along the line, but there were definitely some harsh resiny notes coming through. Not that I mind that in an IPA, especially one I’m pairing with spicy, creamy horseradish. And I dig resin, after all: I once put almost 31 AAUs of Warrior and Falconer’s Flight in an IPA with an FG of 1.009 – and that was just the early bittering additions. I should add that the mouthfeel was profoundly perfect, and really helped my enjoyment of this beer. While there wasn’t necessarily much sweet to balance out the hops, the body did.

On to Sága, which had a much more conventional citrus aroma than Furious. After the bold herbal punch in the face of the Furious, this one seemed positively mild by comparison, almost like a nicely dry hopped saison more than an IPA. The color was lighter, a bright tangerine but sparkling crystal clear.

The flavor was more easygoing as well. This is a very refreshing and approachable IPA from Summit, and I can see why many guys down the bar from me were ordering it without thinking twice. It’s a great easy drinker for the summer, although it was slightly more overpowered than the horseradish. This one was sadly a little lacking in body, though; it slipped away from my palate way too soon, leaving me refreshed but wanting more.

All in all, I preferred Furious more, which didn’t surprise me. It just had more of what I want out of a good American IPA. In the end, I find Sága a little too close to Summit’s flagship American Pale Ale to really stand out. But although it might not be my favorite, kudos to Summit for turning a decent IPA with a respectable ABV into a popular gateway beer. I’m always on board with anything that gets people hooked on good beer.

With that said, I’m definitely looking forward to getting back to Austin later this week, and hopefully getting a new brew in the fermenter this Sunday. I’m leaning towards a spiced German hefeweizen for this weekend’s brew, something to get through the pipeline quickly and into the keg to make up for some lost brewing time. And after that, back to posting a little more regularly.

Until this weekend, prosit.

 

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

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

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.

“Now they will know why they are afraid of the dark…”

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.

Old Faithful: The Saga of JR 11/27

I hate to jinx myself by saying it, but I’ve been pretty lucky as a brewer. Since I started brewing three years ago, I’ve been happy with almost every beer I’ve made. Even my first few all-extract batches were pleasing enough; granted, I had no idea how much better my beers could be. But I learned from every mistake and obsessed over details, and consequently, I can honestly say that almost every beer I’ve made has been better than the one before it.

Except for one.

It was November 2010, and I was partial mash brewing for nearly the last time (I switched to all-grain brewing in January 2011). The recipe was a juniper rye ale kit from Austin Homebrew Supply, and I had chosen it as my holiday beer for that year. I conducted the stovetop mini-mash with zeal, anticipating the adoring looks I’d get from family and friends as I proudly poured gleaming bronze ale into their eager glasses. I inhaled deeply as I crushed the juniper berries in a mortar and pestle, imagining what that piney, herbaceous scent would add to the aromas of Christmas dinners filling the air in the homes of my loved ones.

The brew session went spectacularly, as did fermentation. I bottled on November 27, christened the batch number JR 11/27, and poured the first taste eleven days before Christmas. It was okay – in need of some aging, but promising.

Sleeping beast.

But when the holiday arrived, disaster struck. The first bottle I opened foamed over. Yes, we smelled juniper, but were distracted by the geyser of beer spilling out all over my hands and the floor. I tried another, and another, with the same results. I realized with horror that JR 11/27  was one of those beers homebrewers dread making: a “gusher”, overcarbonated in the bottle by an unknown infection.

Once the fizz settled enough to pour, all the yeast sediment had been kicked up from the bottom of the bottle and poured out into the glass in huge chunks. Particles hung in suspension in the glass, pale against the dark amber beer, looking thick and jellylike. I tried pouring through sieves, coffee filters, even paper towels; all that did was break the sediment up into tinier particles that made it look like a glass of some odious brown first aid gel.

People drank it, politely, but no one asked for more. I couldn’t blame them. It was nasty looking and didn’t taste like anything. Presumably the infection that caused the gusher fermented the beer too thin, taking out all the body and flavor. But I didn’t give up on it. In the weeks to come, I chilled and drank bottle after bottle, stubbornly rejecting the obvious like some crippled but libidinous salmon struggling upstream towards spawntopia. It never improved.

A few months later, with twelve bottles left, I decided to accept JR 11/27’s fate. But, unable to bring myself to dump the remaining bottles down the drain, I hid them in the back of the Harry Potter closet and forgot about them. Perhaps time really did heal all things, and someday they’d be worth drinking.

This weekend, about a year later, I chilled one and tasted it. I quickly noticed what hadn’t changed.

Cue a thousand homebrewers out there saying, "Yeah, I could've told you that."

After two minutes of gushing, I was able to pour the remaining eight ounces into a glass. The color was a deep, dark copper, but chunky with suspended sediment and still very unattractive.

... but strangely photogenic.

The head dissipated quickly after pouring. The aroma was quite pleasant: tart, cider vinegar and dark fruit (raisin, black cherry, currant) with a hint of Grape Nuts. The vinegar notes suggest that an acetobacter infection was the cause of my gusher. There’s no discernible juniper aroma.

The flavor is better than it was a year ago, but exceedingly dry. It starts out rich and vinous, but quickly fades into a harsh, vinegary zing. If I concentrate after swallowing, I can almost detect an earthy mustiness lingering on my palate. Mouthfeel is practically nonexistent: it’s thin, but not refreshing.

Overall, JR 11/27 has gotten to a point where it’s drinkable, but barely. I certainly won’t serve it to any but my most adventurous friends (and maybe only with a blindfold). But if time hasn’t healed the beer itself, it’s changed my reaction to it. With sour beers being en vogue in craft brewing, this beer with its wild acetobacter isn’t quite the debacle today that it seemed like last year. I won’t reach for it next time I’m thirsty, but I’ll drink another to see how it changes.

I’ll also take a cue from those brewing sour beers, and try blending JR 11/27 with something else. On its own, it’s harsh. But blended with something maltier and more full-bodied, it may bring some complexity to an otherwise boring beer. I can think of a few bottles I have on hand that might benefit from its more “unique” characteristics.

So it seems I’ve learned something that will make me a better brewer, and surprisingly, a better writer. I didn’t get what I wanted out of one of my creations; and yes, that sucks. But with time and an open mind, I reacquainted myself with it on its own terms, and thought of a way to make it work. No one wants to scrap something they’ve created, be it a beer, a book or a batch of brownies. So appreciating one’s creation for what it is – not what it was supposed to be – is a valuable lesson for any creative person.

Of course I’ll do what’s necessary to avoid the unexpected in the future, like being even more careful about sanitation. But when the unexpected occurs, it’s good to remember that something interesting may come out of it – and that there may be something worth saving, even in our disappointments.