Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What's New?

In the seemingly endless march of new-to–Georgia breweries it can be hard to keep up with the flood of new products into the state. More importantly, it can be a challenge for customers to sift through the hundreds of beers on the shelf of their bottle shop or local pub and find just the right one. In some respects, beer shelves are starting to look like wine shelves in that there are more choices than most folks can meaningfully process and the fall back ends up being their favorite brewery or a reliable style. In other cases, ‘newness’ is regarded with particular esteem and those beers are not judged by the same standards as time-tested classics that are cast aside due to the drinker’s familiarity with them. So there’s a balance between venturing out into the world of the new yet not regarding newness itself as a virtue. “What’s new?” is a question our staff gets every day and, luckily for us, it’s rare that we don’t have a pile of new beers for folks to try any day they stop by. In many ways, it’s also heartwarming to see steady and growing sales of the time tested classics.

It seems we all got much more than we imagined in the wake of the 2004 state law changes. It used to be that one could name every state labeled craft beer on a page or two. Today, I suspect that even the Department of Revenue doesn’t know which beers on our shelves are supposed to be here and which ones arrived in the trunk of someone’s car. The good news is that the beer landscape is forever changed for the better and that customers now have more choices than most of them can process. This has opened up a whole new age of exploration where beer drinkers must take an active part in defining their own taste as opposed to settling for one of the 10 craft options available at their local grocery store. In this process we learn something about ourselves that we might not have otherwise discovered, and find ourselves engaged in a never-ending journey that has a quirky way of rewarding us in the most unexpected ways.

Beer is steeped in tradition and has a wonderfully rich history – part of which is innovation, creativity and rewarding the brewers that keep at it long enough to make something that sticks.

I can’t remember what the bad news was.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Allagash Fluxus 2009

It seems that nothing is off-limits and no ingredient is safe at Allagash brewery in Maine. Allagash is a relative new-comer to Georgia but has been brewing beer for over a decade. Rob Tod, Allagash's owner and brewmaster, launched Allagash with a handful of beers (most notably their White Ale) and plodded along for some time spreading the word about their Belgian-inspired ales with an American flare. Things didn't really get shifted into high gear until they started trickling out their amazing limited release specialty ales that were not only amazing but amazingly hard to get your hands on. That component of the brewery grew to the point that they have been able to expand their line of limited release beers to include unique and delicious newcomers each year. 

Fluxus was brewed for the first time in 2007 (the above label is of Fluxus 2007) to commemorate Allagash's 12th anniversary. Fluxus means 'continuous change', which perhaps best describes the personality of one of the nations most innovative breweries. Each year they brew a new batch of Fluxus that is not only a new recipe but a totally different style. This years' Fluxus is a Belgian-style Saison brewed with Sweet Potatoes and black pepper. 

The guys at Allagash were generous enough to prepare for us a special cask of this years' Fluxus that exceeded any expectation we might have had for their creation. The creamy carbonation from the cask conditioning was a perfect complement to this wonderfully complex, yet balanced beer. We found the sweet potatoes peeking through towards the end of each sip and the black pepper lending a surprisingly rewarding spice in the finish. This is clearly a beer that the guys at Allagash spent their time on and thought through well in advance. I can't imagine potatoes being easy to brew with or black pepper being easy to balance in a beer yet they have achieved a masterpiece that is well worth seeking out. We tip our hats to the gentlemen from Maine who continue to surprise us with their creativity and their willingness to take a chance on some very unlikely ingredients.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tapping Duck-Rabbit

This evening was a first for Trappeze. We tapped two casks in one night and they we both from The Duck-Rabbit brewery in Farmville, NC. Duck-Rabbit Brewery is the self-proclaimed 'dark beer specialist' and they have stuck to their guns in an industry that views pilsners and wheat beers as an imperative to a successful production brewery model. Furthermore, they have ventured beyond the typical dark beer to include some off-the-beaten-path styles that are largely over-looked by todays craft brewers.

Paul and Ryan from Duck-Rabbit prepared two special casks for the evening: the first was a cask of their soon-to-be-released Schwarzbier and the second was a cask of their brown ale that was dry hopped with Citra - a newcomer hop that boasts bright lemon/grapefruit notes and presents like an ultra Cascade. Both casks were among the best ever tapped at Trappeze and did much to reinforce our enthusiasm for the job that our North Carolina neighbors are doing with great beers. After the commotion of the tapping ceremony settled down, I dove into the Schwarzbier right off the bat. This little-known style has been a favorite whenever it has found it's way to our taps and tonight was no exception.

The Schwarzbier is a German-style black lager that is made with mostly Pilsner malt and enough black patent, roasted, or chocolate malt to give it a deep color and a tasty roasted flavor. This doesn't take as much roasted or black malt as you might think - perhaps less than 5% of the total grain bill will suffice to create this wonderful rich, roasted lager that still maintains a light, agile body and, blindfolded, would pass for a fine German Lager any day. This style has suffered from a bit of an identity crisis in the US as many beer drinkers associate color with the density or 'heaviness' of a beer. The Schwarzbier brings us the best of both worlds as it delivers a deep, complex malt profile while also being distinctively light bodied. Duck-Rabbit's Schwarzbier pours mahogany-brown, as one would expect from a Baltic Porter, yet is light bodied and refreshing. Deep notes of dark chocolate emerge through the finish of each sip and are complemented by a complex array of herbal and resinous hops. Each sip is exceedingly rewarding and finishes with a crisp dryness that invites you to partake of yet another delicious sip.

I understand that this style likely has limited marketability as the average US beer drinker has been inundated with messages of low-calorie drinkability - but I submit to you that this may well be a style that deserves your attention. There are very few domestic producers of Schwarzbiers (or Black Lagers) - worth mention is Fort Collins Kidd Lager and Sprecher Brewing Company's Black Lager, but more appear on the market every year. In many ways they satisfy the itch for something large and complex while also delivering on the promise of refreshing quaff-ability. This variant of the Munich-Dunkel style originally found favor with German ale drinkers desirous of clean, crisp lager beers with rich malt profiles. This marriage of dark malts and bottom-fermented lager beers has existed since the mid-1500's and like it's wheat counterpart, the Dunkel Weiss, continues to be a favorite among European beer enthusiasts. It is exciting to see U.S. craft brewers exploring these esoteric styles and developing variants that are both true-to-style and excellent.

Any night you tap a cask it is much like opening a special gift from a friend. In the case of the brewer, even they do not know exactly what you will get. There is a risk on their part that is taken. Some casks are tapped and pour flat and murky, others emerge as an especially excellent version of their creation. Tonight was certainly one of the latter.

Thanks Duck-Rabbit

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Yeast gone wild

For most craft beer drinkers beer is either malty, hoppy, or both and in varying degrees depending on style. Hundreds of pints later the craft beer enthusiast has navigated through many different styles, as well as their sub-categories, learning the subtle nuances of how slightly more roasted grain and shifts in ABV can push a beer into an entirely new style. Just when all of this is starting to make a lot of sense, your friend introduces you to a Geuze, Lambic or Flanders Sour that blows every pre-conceived notion of what you thought beer was. For some, the experience serves to remind them that they never want to drink one of those bitter creations ever again, but for others, it is the first step down a whole new road of discovery. 

I have heard brewers say that nearly 70% of what we taste in a beer is attributable to the yeast. There is no denying yeasts role in beer production. Without these unique organisms what we call beer would only be very sweet barley water. The yeast eats all of this sugar and its excrement is CO2 and alcohol - two major contributions to our favorite beverage. In many of the massively hopped or huge barley beers that we encounter on a regular basis, it can be difficult to hand yeast most of the credit for their bold flavors. In the case of sour beers, there is no denying the dominant and indispensable role that yeast plays.

The yeast we are most familiar with in ales is Saccharomyces cerevisiae and in Lagers Saccharomyces pastorianus. Their signature flavors do much to define the specific beer styles that are fermented with the many selected strains of both species. Sour beers involve an entirely different microflora that often comes from the open air. In the case of most sour ales the primary fermentation organism is the wild cousin of Saccharomyces - Brettanomyces. "Brett" lives on fruits and grains as well as in the air and on most surfaces. Before commercial yeast strains had been developed, beer was fermented by these wild strains that floated into the open fermentation vats. 

"Brett" fermented beers take on distinctively wild flavors that range from tart citrus to earthy/herbal notes to dominant barnyard flavors. One significant difference between Saccharomyces and Brettanomyces is the fact that Brettanomyces have the ability to eat nearly all of the sugar in the wort, where Ale and Lager strains of Saccharomyces only eat so much sugar and then stop. The absence of sugar is why the Brettanomyces fermented ales are typically super tart. 
These sour beers are a bit of an acquired taste and are not for everyone. For many long-time craft beer drinkers they are at the very top of the food chain and I think there are a number of good reasons why. First, it takes a dedicated craft drinker to persist beyond the initial blast of acetic acid to the massive complexity that reveals itself after the taste buds have settled down a bit. Second, after spending years drinking high ABV beers that have big residual sugars there is something quite refreshing about these fully attenuated beers that have only 5ish % alcohol yet drink like something with 12%. Third, if you have ever had one too many sweet beers you will learn the very next morning why they are to be consumed in limited quantities. The sours, however, rarely deliver the characteristic big beer hangover. 

Lambics, Sours, and the like offer the craft drinker a whole new frontier to explore and, in my experience, have been an exciting and rewarding departure from the typical craft selection. That's not at all to say that I don't have a soft spot in my heart for the many wonderful craft beers that find their way onto our taps. My hope here is to cast some light on a style that is often overlooked or avoided  entirely. The enjoyment of craft beer is a life-long journey of discovery. What makes this journey of discovery so exciting is finding new paths and new inspired products along the way. I trust you will find the sours a road well worth exploring and a style worthy of the most discerning palate. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Dinner with Terrapin and Left Hand

It would be hard to imagine a better way to spend the evening than at a beer dinner. For those of you who have yet to experience the pleasure of a beer dinner, it is basically a gourmet feast of 5-6 courses that are carefully paired with outstanding beers. Of the many beer dinners we have done in the past, we usually stick to having a single brewery and showing off their portfolio of beers in the context of excellent food pairings. On occasion, we venture out and throw down with two breweries. Last night was one of those nights.

The guys from Left Hand Brewery pulled into Athens on the afternoon of July the 13th and I found them hanging out at Jittery Joe's Coffee Roastery where they were participating in a documentary of their much anticipated collaboration beer with Terrapin. Jittery Joe's has prepared a special coffee roast for this years collaboration which is an Espresso Milk Stout - the aptly named 'Depth Charge'. Terrapin has had a long running relationship with Jittery Joe's as the source for their coffee in Wake-N-Bake and wanted to involve our home town bean roaster in this special effort with Left Hand. One of Left Hand's flagship beers is their Milk Stout and it didn't take long to figure out the potential that this beer would have with Spike's knowledge of using the coffee bean in a beer.

Tuesday mid-day Spike and Ro (Left Hand's Brewer) doughed in and began the process of birthing their second collaboration beer. Nothing sexy here - much of brewing involves hundreds of pounds of grain being milled into hot water on very hot days (like today). It takes a very special person to fall in love with this and these guys are certainly two that have. One of the most exciting things about the craft beer industry is witnessing the genuine camaraderie that exists between great brewers. There is nothing forced or artificial here, just a deep rooted respect for their trade and for each other that expresses itself in the most natural way - building a great beer together.

Later that evening the guys made their way down to Trappeze Pub and we dove head first into a night that was sure to be packed with great beer and great food. The evening started at around 6pm with a beer and cheese reception that featured Left Hand's Milk Stout and Terrapin's Oaked Big Hoppy Monster. Both beers were paired with complementary artisan cheeses. Terrapin's Oaked Big Hoppy Monster dancing with a sharp Stilton and Left Hand's Milk Stout blending with a creamy Pond Hopper.
 As folks settled in, it became apparent that we were looking at a larger than expected crowd as nearly 85 guests found their seats. The first course arrived and the night was underway with a very special cask of Terrapin's Maggie's Farmhouse Ale that Spike had prepared for the dinner. This latest installment in Terrapin's ongoing Side Project series was met with great enthusiasm from all and the unsuspecting cask was drained of it's precious contents within the hour. Next up was a cask of Left Hand's Sawtooth ESB. Sawtooth dates back to the inception of Left Hand and is one of the best examples of the ESB style brewed in the US. The Sawtooth cask reminded us all of why we love cask ale. Delicate and delicious malts intermingled with herbal and floral hops tapped fresh, and unadulterated by filters and bottled gas. The soft carbonation from the cask allows each ingredient to pop out and express itself with a vibrant freshness that is not experienced in a standard keg. 

From there the beers got progressively bigger with a year-aged keg of Terrapin's Gamma Ray, Left Hand's St. Vrain Tripel, last years Terrapin/Left Hand collaboration - Terra Rye'zd, and a desert featuring Left Hand's Oaked Imperial Stout and Terrapin's Wake-N-Bake. As I listened to Chris, Dustin, Ro, and Spike talk about their breweries and their beers through the course of the night, I was struck with how much these guys love what they do and how much they care about each other. The night quickly resembled the kind of family banter that one sees around the Thanksgiving dinner table with stories being exchanged and the light-hearted familiarity that comes from genuine relationships. I felt a deep sense of humility and gratitude that I was there to share in these moments and that we were privileged to have an evening with theses guys. 
The spirit of craft beer has always been about sharing something special with someone you care about. Just the other day I poured a La Folie for an old friend who was trying it for the first time and experienced the excitement of discovery as he processed it's tart complexity, paused, and exclaimed "That's exquisite". It's in those moments that you realize all of this is way bigger than your pub or this beer. It's a vast family of women and men who share a common love for the well crafted pint and are willing to pursue it tirelessly. It's a community stimulated by invention, creativity, and discovery - and it's still in it's infancy. 

Hang on for the ride.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Don't forget the little guys

As we ride the craft tidal wave it's easy to get pulled along by the current of massive hops and coffee, chocolate, caramel, toasted, roasted, dark fruit grains that largely typify modern craft beer. In all fairness, these big beers are the exciting newcomers and have been the driving force behind this growing and flourishing craft beer revolution. They are the very beers that press the boundaries of what we imagined was possible with beer and have forced the industry to create whole new style designations to capture them accurately in our current vocabulary. They are the beers that win the fancy awards, get the hot articles published about them, and compel beer enthusiast to stand in line for hours just to get a 6 pack.

It seems that in all of the excitement, their little brothers have been a bit left out. This occurred to me the other day as I was sipping a Wells Bombardier and marveled at the amazing balance and complexity that had been packed into this very approachable and low ABV beer. I also thought back to the many 4-5% abv beers that I had brewed over the years and was reminded of how very difficult it is to craft a truly interesting and tasty session beer. Extreme flavors generally strike the palate as something exciting and arresting which is why big hoppy beers and Russian Imperial Stouts get the consumers attention right off the bat while the more subtle malts and hops of a British Bitter or a German Pilsener take a bit more pensiveness to tease out. 

It is amazing what you will find upon further consideration of these great beers. Because the hops and malts are not blasting your taste buds where they become quickly overwhelmed, you can really begin to experience the light caramel and toffee malts as well as the delicate herbal and floral hops typically found in the Blonds, Lagers, Bitters, and so on. Achieving balance in this more naked environment is a tremendous challenge. Brewers have very little to hide behind when the big roasted malts and the resinous hops are diminished in the recipe. These are the beers where technique and skill matter most - where a temperature spike in fermentation, or a bit too much hops can quickly turn the beer into something very different that what had been planned. Off flavors and improper cellaring or conditioning of these beers shows up as a major flaw as opposed to something that gets conveniently intertwined with the colossal flavors of a big beer. 

So, the next time you're browsing the bottle cooler of your favorite store, consider taking a second look at the many wonderful beers that have fallen off the radar because they can't boast "120 IBU's". I think you will be refreshed to become re-acquainted with the subtle beauty these beers have to offer and will be challenged to pause and think about the ingredients that would otherwise flow right past your tongue on the way to your belly. These more diminutive flavors are easily and often overlooked but they are there and are often well worth the additional effort needed to find them. 

Remember, the unexamined beer is not worth drinking.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Saison: The new American summer ale?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of tasting Terrapin's upcoming Sideproject. It was very young and still in the primary fermenter but I could already tell that this beer is going to shape up to be something quite nice. Spike's latest creation is a Saison - a style that has been around for eons in Europe but has just recently surfaced as the seasonal of choice among many of America's best brewers. 

In the past few years breweries like Lagunitas, Great Divide, Victory, and many others have released their versions of this traditional Belgian farmhouse ale that have been met with broad acceptance from craft beer lovers across the country. America's growing love for the Saison has prompted Belgian breweries like St. Feuillien to brew a Saison that is designed exclusively for the US market. Other breweries like Brasserie Dupont and De Glazen Toren have seen a steady increase in their US sales of Saisons as well. 

To take a step back, Saison's originally were low-gravity, open fermented ales with moderate amounts of wheat that were produced in the winter for the farm hands to drink during the late winter and spring. The Saison's bigger brother - the Biere de Garde was a higher gravity version that was a beer for storage (as the name indicates) that was consumed during the summer and fall. The pioneers of the commercial Saison adapted the practice of very high temperature fermentation as the native yeast were very slow to ferment at lower temperatures. In Phil Markowski's authoritative book Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition he reports that Brasserie Dupont ferments their Saison Dupont at 92 degrees F in an effort to attenuate the beer in a reasonable period of time. In talking to Spike at Terrapin, he is fermenting his Saison at 90 degrees - which is a radical departure from the typical 64 degree fermentation of pale ales. This high temperature fermentation not only produces a relatively dry beer but also leaves a wonderful bouquet of citrus and tropical fruit esters along with grassy yeast notes that has become the signature of the Saison. 

So why the recent rise in popularity for this little-known Belgian style? I think it has much to do with the fact that the Saison is one of the few styles that is massively complex while being light and infinitely drinkable. The dryness of the Saison makes it a crisp and refreshing beer for the hot months and the citrus and tropical fruit esters and the wild grassy yeast notes make it a rewarding and interesting beer for even the most demanding palates. 

While some of the best examples of the style still reside in Belgium with De Glazen Toren's Saison d'erp Mere, Brasserie Dupont's Avec Les Bons Voeux, and Brassiere Des Geants Saison Voisin, American brewers have come a long way and are making world-class versions of this old world ale. The new American Saisons are a shining example of the tireless innovation and creativity of craft brewers and, as far as I'm concerned, they are welcome to occupy our taps for the hot summer months to come.