27 September 2008

Jack's Pumpkin Spice /Dogfish Head Punkin (MO/DE)

Two pumpkin ales from different sides of the track.

Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale: This is from A-B, specifically Michelob (the bottle is etched with the Michelob name), which is turning into A-B's ambassador to the craft beer world. 5.5% ABV. It pours clear copper with a head that doesn't last. The smells reminds me of a pumpkin candle or something. It doesn't taste like real pumpkin, but what does? What we perceive as pumpkin is probably mostly about the complementary spices. In this case, cinnamon comes through the strongest against a caramel, amber ale body. I like the dry finish and the malty aftertaste; I don't like the light, fizzy body, which isn't rich enough for fall.

Dogfish Head Punkin Ale: This one is a bit more red in color and slightly hazy. The aroma is sweeter with a touch of vanilla, but that doesn't come through in the taste. Instead, it's malty, spicy (more allspice and nutmeg than cinnamon), and rummy. Like Jack's, it doesn't taste to me much like real pumpkin, and if you told me it was a Rum Raisin beer I might have believed you. But Punkin (7% ABV) still has a lot going on, and a nice medium-full body.

It isn't fair comparing these two, as the DFH costs at least 50% more. Is it worth the extra dollars? I'd rather drink one of it than two of Jack's, but I'd bet most civilian beer drinkers would prefer Jack's. I don't like either any more than Pumpking, but I'd gladly pay for DFH Punkin again.

25 September 2008

Beer in Airports

MSNBC is fronting an article about the rising quality of beer available in US airports. This is just part of a larger trend to turn on airports into shopping malls (not that I'm complaining). The article links to Cheapflights.com's brief Beer Lovers’ Airport Guide.

My own local airport doesn't have anything decent (at least last I checked), but on a recent trip I had a chance to try Columbus Pale Ale in an airport in Ohio. Good beer. Still, air travel being what it is nowadays, that's one place I feel like I need a scotch instead of a beer.

23 September 2008

Blue Point Oktoberfest (NY)

This is apparently the first year this Long Island brewery has produced (or maybe just bottled) an Oktoberfest. 5.0% ABV, 28 IBUs.

It pours a clear copper with a lame lager head. No surprise that this is malty, particularly upfront, but it isn't caramel-ish. This shouldn't be surprising ("noticeable caramel or roasted flavors are inappropriate" -- BJCP style guide), but a lot of American Oktoberfests seem to taste of caramel. Or maybe that's a problem of perceptions. Blue Point's hops come through at the end to dry it out, but I also detected a somewhat ale-ish aspect to it. Butter? Oak? (Chardonnay? No, that's not it.) The body is medium-light and pretty heavy on the carbonation.

So not a bad beer, but not a great one. Looking at my photo, the empty body seems to exert some sort of force bending the glass toward it, which is kind of neat, but I still haven't tried an Oktoberfest that really blew me away.

Update: A Joe Sipxack column from the Philadelphia Daily News describes the conflict between the BJCP Oktoberfest style guidelines and what's currently served in Germany. Interestingly, it's the current German brew that is "dumbed down":

The big Munich breweries still export their familiar dark version, including the original Spaten Ur-Märzen. But the variety they pour at the festival is closer to a much lighter Dortmunder or Helles style, experts say.

Oktoberfestbier "has evolved into a ubiquitous light lager," Brewers Association president Charlie Papazian wrote in an online column, "light on hop character and, I think, dumbed-down to appeal to the masses."

20 September 2008

Schwelmer Alt (GER)

My first Altbier. It pours a clear chestnut color. It's quite light in body with soft carbonation. Goes down really smooth (just over 4% ABV). Yet, this isn't a watery tasting beer. It's described as a "unique, hoppy altbier" on the label, but this is an old school, European definition of hoppy. Instead, the beer is more malty, slightly toasted and very slightly raisiny. The hops kick in near the end, but they only bite so much. The aftertaste has a lot going on, but what came through most to me was unsweetend cola. This wasn't particularly attractive, but I think I may have been drinking it too warm.

I've liked what I've tried from this brewery in the past, the Pils and the Weizen. I'm less convinced by the Alt, but I'm still getting to know the style. It certainly is different. It turns out that some American beers I've seen around with are attempts at altbiers (Otter Creek Copper Ale, Long Trail Ale, Southampton Secret Ale).

19 September 2008

Oktoberfest in Pictures

Slate magazine's Today's Pictures piece currently points its camera on Oktoberfest, with images from Munich both recent and old. It's not as interesting as many of their other topics (check out Spetember 9th's Burning Man photos for a take on an enitrely different festival atmosphere), but a good way to kill time for the last half day of the week.

17 September 2008

True Brew Nut Brown Ale


It's funny. I never had the slightest interest in homebrewing, but this summer I suddenly got the itch and it wouldn't go away, so I succumbed. There were two main reasons I wasn't interested in homebrewing:

  1. Sanitation. Who wants a hobby that stresses cleanliness so heavily?
  2. I'm not a big drinker. I mean, I like beer a lot, but I like to drink as many different ones as possible rather than a bunch of the same. What would I do with two cases of possibly mediocre suds?
But for whatever reason, I took the plunge. I bought a basic equipment kit (plastic pail, no wort chiller or anything) and a True Brew Nut Brown Ale kit. My guide was Palmer's How to Brew, which I might write about in a separate post. I also tried to read as many web pages as possible about the hobby.

The True Brew Nut Brown Ale kit includes Munton's ingredients: a can of hopped light LME, one pound each of pound of amber and light DME, a pound of brown sugar (!), specialty grains (chocolate malt, dark crystal and black patent), Fuggles finishing hops, and Munton's Dry Yeast.

I brewed this first batch on one of the many unfortunately hot weekends in July. I prepped as much as possible and things went well... up to a point.

My first mistake was dumping my sanitizer when I thought I was done with it. I ended up needing more for items I'd forgotten about. My second problem was cooling the wort. Despite only doing a partial boil, it took me way too long using an ice bath. On hindsight, I should have stirred the water outside the pot (or stirred the wort inside it) to get some convection going. I impatiently pitched my (re-hydrated, as per Palmer) yeast at 73-74 degrees.

I also didn't aerate the wort enough, and the top off water I used had been boiled, which I think means it lost most of its oxygen. I stored my fermenter in a basement storage area that was a tad over 70 degrees, but the temperature inside the vessel was in the high 70s when fermenting. This meant quick fermentation, but also some wayward esters. The FG never made it below 1.020 (it was supposed to be 1.012-14). The OG was supposed to be 1.050, though I never verified that. Poor attenuation. Poor brewing, I suppose, although I've discovered that a lot of people have problems with Munton's regular dry yeast.

About bottling day, the less said the better. What a mess. Someone's going to say I should switch to kegging, but I really don't want to invest more money until I brew a few more batches. After bottling was done, I really needed a beer, and what I had (something from Flying Dog, I think) was the best beer I’d ever drank if for no other reason than I had no need to de-label the bastard afterward. (For the record, Hoegaarden labels are super easy to remove, but don't even bother with St. Peters.)

I poured my first beer two weeks after bottling, four weeks after brewing, and it was murky and, of all things, a tad astringent, powdery on the back of the tongue. Did I boil the specialty grains? I don't think so. But that was the only bottle that felt like that. In successive beers I've tasted a bunch of wrong flavors, though it seems to be improving. Maybe it will taste good someday. What's always been good about it is the big, fluffy head that sticks to the glass as you drink it, as well as the spot on carbonation (I used 3.5 ounces of corn sugar instead of 5, in part due to my high ending FG).

So overall, what do I make of it? In cooking terms, homebrewing seems like a cross between making chicken broth and baking, in its emphasis on sanitation and precision, respectively. This isn't the casual stew or soup making we all know and love. It has a comical ratio of doing-to-waiting. And it isn't necessarily value for the money; better to think of those dollars as coming out of your hobby/entertainment budget than your beer budget. Nonetheless, I can't wait to brew again, and spend hours planning my next batch, not to mention the batch after that.

16 September 2008

American Ale

Now is the time when Budweiser American Ale is launched (caution: slow-loading site). I believe it's already available on tap is some places, plus some promotional bottles are out there. Anyone tried it yet? There are a handful of reviews at the rating sites.

This is different from previous attempts by the big boys to go after craft beer drinkers. It isn't a sub-brand -- it says Budweiser right on the admitteldy sharp-looking bottle -- and has a huge ad buy behind it. In fact, I don't think it's aimed at craft beer drinkers. I suspect A-B would like some respect from beer geeks, but all the purchases in the world from us isn't going to cut it. They need to tap a bigger market.

So despite bragging about using Cascade hops (aimed at those of us who know what those are), the brewers have to use a light touch. Someone who's never had much other than BMC or Molson or Heineken has to drink it once and not wince from citrus bitterness. A-B can't wait for people to build up a tolerance to hops, as many of use have done. And A-B can't treat it as a gateway beer. Gateway to what? Someone else's product?

Added: from an About.com article called "Beer by Committee":

So they started with a grain bill of pale and caramel malt. Then they
developed a hop bill with four different varieties: Palisades for bittering, Willamette, Saaz and Cascade for aroma and finishing. Then they brewed four identical beers but used different yeast in each one. These four beers were brought into the tasting room where the new products panel tasted them and decided which strain to use. Once the choice of yeast was settled they then brewed six versions of the beer and dry-hopped with six different hops. They decided on Cascade in the same way as they did the yeast strain. After that it was a matter of fine tuning the beer and establishing things like alcohol content. Beck said that he relied on the panel during this stage. He added that they were still making adjustments and was eager to get our input.

13 September 2008

Weihenstephaner Korbinian (GER)

A "dunkles starkbier" from the oldest of the old German breweries. Sometimes I think I love this style, sometimes I don't. What turns me off is when alcohol burn comes through and is coupled with licorice/anise. This isn't a problem here. Korbinian is a red-tinged, dark brown (though still translucent) lager with a super smooth, creamy texture. Big malts all the way, tasting of caramel and toffee sweetness and some dark fruits. Very faint bitterness. The finish is mocha and is wonderfully long, and not too sweet. It's almost too easy drinking for its own good at 7.4% ABV and $3 or so per 500 ml.

The brewer's website suggests drinking this with "smoked meat and fish," presumably meaning smoked meat and smoked fish, as this would be horrible with filet of sole. I kind of think that really good beers are better alone, and this is really, really good.

11 September 2008

Dundee Oktoberfest (NY)

A couple of months ago, The Session topic was anti-seasonal beers. I didn't participate because I don't often drink out of season. Maybe I should have written about that. I try to eat seasonally as well, but the reasons are different. With beer, a local stout in summer is more environmentally friendly and fresher than a German hefewiezen, but I'd still rather drink the latter. Some of this is due to weather, but even then, I could just sit inside turn on the air conditioning. Ultimately, I just like the idea of drinking different styles during different times of year. It's a bit like sports. In early August, I'm sickened at the sight of pre-season football on TV. Once September hits, however, I'm ready to go. So it goes with beer. Dundee Oktoberfest is my first autumn beer of 2008.

JW Dundee's Honey Brown Lager may have saved Genesee Brewing Co. in the 1990s. Now the brewery is named High Falls, the sub-brand has dropped JW and 's, and the bottle label has been smartly redesigned.

The Oktoberfest pours clear copper which the label brings out as a matching orange. "Be full-bodied," the neck label says, but this is quite light. It's also highly fizzy, which gets in the way of the flavor. It's mildly sweet with a slight twangy quality coming through at the end. Not a poor tasting beer, but not satisfying (maybe you have to drink 3 or 4). I kept trying to suck more flavor out of it.

I'd guess the rollout of the new Dundee has bumped sales temporarily. Will it last? I wish them the best, but it's tough now that the really big boys are trying to enter the market as well. Dundee is competing with Saranac, not with Ommegang, so they don't need to be world class in quality. Instead, they need good distribution and marketing.

07 September 2008

Football and Beer

So the NFL season is now underway (Thursday night doesn't feel like the real thing if your team isn't playing). I think this is pretty clearly America's national sport. Unless told otherwise, I assume every American male is an NFL fan. I cannot make the same assumption about baseball.

I'm not one who thinks you need go macro when watching sports, but I'll play along when among non-geeks. Today it was Molson Canadian for me. Not really so bad at first, but the 24 ounce can doesn't do it any favors. You really can't drink this at all warm, and two 12-ouncers would let me keep one in the fridge while sipping the other. All told, not a bad beer for a special teams inspired rout. On top of that, events now suggest that the AFC East may be competitive this year.

06 September 2008

Smuttynose Farmhouse Ale (NH)

This is a Smuttynose Big Beers seasonal that I'm catching late in its run. Still, the bottle dating implies it will be drinkable through 2011, so there's no concern about staleness.

This saison pours coppery orange with a big white head. It's medium-bodied with wonderful soft carbonation. The taste is primarily fruity -- maybe apricots and peaches -- and secondarily spicy. There's a touch of sourness involved as well, but the aftermath for me leans more toward fruity and maybe sugary. It would be nice if it were drier, but still, it's very, very good, a warm weather beer with great depth of flavor. It's over 7% ABV and tickles the ribcage a bit.

Before this. I think I've only ever had two saisons: Ommegang Hennepin, one of my favorite beers, and Southern Tier's disappointing Cherry Saison. I'd rank Smuttynose right up there with Hennepin. I haven't tried them side by side, but I think Hennepin is more perfumey and perhaps a bit wilder, while Smuttynose's take is fruitier. It may be a little late in the season to be drinking saison, but if you find it, this Big Beer is worth two purchases: one for now and one for the cellar.

BTW, the brewery's current seasonal is the intriguing Wheat Wine Ale, carrying a back story of a labeling battle with the Tax and Trade Bureau.

02 September 2008

Custom BrewCrafters EPA (NY)

This is kind of exciting: Custom BrewCrafters has started bottling their beer. Located about a half hour's drive south of Rochester in Honeoye Falls, Custom BrewCrafters creates private label beers for many area restaurants and bars. Under their own name, they've also sold growlers at the brewery and a few other places. Only recently have they expanded their facilities for bottling.

This English-Style Pale Ale is "a well balanced amber ale with a smooth, dry finish," according to the label. Those expecting something like Sierra Nevada or Anchor Liberty will be disappointed. CB's brew leans more toward malt sweetness than hop bitterness, and the hops are herbal and floral. The malt base is slightly caramel or maybe toffee (and, admittedly, a touch watery), but the finish still pulls back dry. It's supposedly 5.1% ABV, but feels lighter. It's also quite low on carbonation by US standards (good!). This strikes me as a decent interpretation of the style, which isn't to say it's what American beer drinkers are yearning for. However, I like it, and am glad they went all English on us.

There's still the issue of the name. "Custom BrewCrafters" accurately depicts what the company originally set out to do, but is all wrong for a craft brewery. The label also calls it "CB's," which sounds like a forced nickname . But now that they're selling six packs, it's probably too late to change.