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.