Sunday, December 30, 2007

It might not be October, but...

...I'm drinking Staghorn Octoberfest from New Glarus Brewing Co. in New Glarus, Wisconsin and it's pretty darn tasty. A hazy amber-orange lager, this bottle of Staghorn does not disappoint. The nose is definitely full of malt aroma with a hint of caramel corn. Not the best aroma in a beer, but Staghorn lacks in aroma, it makes for in taste. Toasted and caramelized malts mix with just a touch of hops, paving the way through some sweet and tawny malt flavors towards a fairly dry and somewhat tart finish. A nutty character emerges as this lager warms up, making it even more enjoyable. The complex flavors are somewhat difficult to describe, so I'll just sum up by saying that this is definitely my favorite fest beer of 2007.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Search for Quality American Lager - Part 2

I finally found it!

I've finally found some Capital Special Pilsner. I regretted not picking some up at the brewery after a visit back in November. Silly me thought that I could find some of this great beer around Chicago, and I did find some, but I had to look pretty hard. I ended up finding this beer at the Binny's in Des Plaines at the corner of Golf Road and Elmhurst Road.

I believe that Capital Special Pilsner is one of the best pilsner-style beers in America; certainly the Midwest. When fresh, this beer has an incredible hop aroma and spicy taste that is built upon a foundation of crisp pilsner and toasted malt. The finish is clean and fairly balanced with just the right amount of lingering hop bitterness. The body and the color are both light; making this a very refreshing beer.

Goose Island Christmas Ale

Every year I look forward to the coming of Christmas beers. In recent years, I've been particularly fond of the Christmas Ale from Goose Island Brewing Co. of Chicago, Illinois. This mahogany ale has a wonderful spicy, hoppy aroma that covers up the scent of all the toasted and caramel malts in this brew. Hearty pine and citrus hops play well with the flavors of caramel and lightly roasted malts. The finish is assertively bitter (the brewery says 50 IBUs), but as the hops fade, the sweetness of the malt lingers. The brewery says the flavor of this beer will continue to improve over five years and I believe 'em. This beer is well-hopped, but I think I can detect some faint spices (other than hops) in the background. I'd certainly like to see how this beer might change. My guess is that the hops might fade and some hidden complexity (masked by the hops) might surface over time -- at least that's been my experience with beer that I have homebrewed. I made an extra hoppy barleywine a few years ago and it was interesting how the hop flavor mellowed over time, the hops becoming less aromatic, but their flavor mutating into more of an earthy, woody character instead of the original citrus and pine.

Monday, December 17, 2007

He's not mad, but he is hoppy

You'd think that a brewery called New Holland might be interested in creating variations on Dutch beers (lagers, Trappist ales, etc.), but the New Holland Brewing Co. of Holland, Michigan offers a wide variety of ales that seem to be more inspired by American and British brewing traditions than the Dutch.

For starters, lets look at one of my favorite New Holland beers; Mad Hatter Ale. Visually, it's an appealing ale. The white head on top of this deep golden ale settles to a fine layer of foam leaving bits of sticky lace on the sides of my glass. The Hatter is an intensely hopped ale (or India Pale Ale as some purist would say) that has a very floral aroma and a bright peppery, fruity (pineapple?) flavor enveloped in what tastes like a single pure malt. The finish is resiny hoppy and fairly memorable, with a bit of grapefruit and that pineapple again. A decent India Pale Ale for sure.

I visited the New Holland brewpub in downtown Holland back in June of 2004. A few years earlier I had visited the brewpub in its original location, adjacent to the brewery, in what seemed like a garage. It was kind of a care-free, hip location and I kind of missed its Bohemian feel when I finally checked out the new place which seemed more like a standard brewpub (kettles and other equipment on display, nice wood bar, dining room, etc.). The new place seemed to pay homage to the old by serving the beer in a mason jar with a handle. We happened to stop by the new brewpub during "Hatter Days", which featured (of course) Mad Hatter India Pale Ale served "hatterized" or served on draft and pushed through a water filter filled with whole leaf hops. Impressive. The picture above and to the left shows me admiring the contraption. We sampled some of the "hatterized" Hatter and it burst with some much soporific hops that it almost knocked me out.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Pontificating on porter, pigs and cleanliness

After a few batches that seemed to be infected, I got up the courage to brew again a few weeks ago, but not before replacing some of my equipment and thoroughly cleaning and sanitizing it. The only equipment I replaced was my bottling wand, which I really didn't replace, but got rid of altogether. Now I'm just using a piece of hose that I fit onto my bottling bucket. I cleaned all my equipment with B-Brite then sanitized some parts with One Step and others with a dilute solution of Iodophor.

I brewed a spiced porter and it seems to have turned out okay. The spices I used included licorice and juniper berries. I added an ounce of licorice pieces with about 15 minutes left in the boil along with an ounce of crushed (dried) Juniper berries. The licorice pieces didn't really dissolve like I thought they would, so I fished them out with a slotted spoon at the end of boil. I didn't strain the wort since I wanted the fermenting wort to be in contact with the berries. The other ingredient included four pounds of Alexander's Pale liquid malt extract, one pound of Munton's dry malt extract, one pound of chocolate malt, one pound of Victory malt, a half pound of 150L Crystal and a half pound of brown sugar. The hops were all Simcoe, with a half-ounce added at the start of the 60-minute boil and a quarter-ounce at 30 minutes. This mixture was fermented with Wyeast 1028XL. Fermentation started in about eight hours. The wort fermented for about eight days in my primary fermenter, then I transferred it directly to the bottling bucket. The beer was packaged in one party pig and 12 22-ounce bottles. I added a half ounce of dry Simcoe hops to the pig.

So far, after about three weeks, the beer tastes good. I've just tasted it from the party pig so far and the dry hops are pretty evident. There's a definite pine scent from the hops that is noticeable in the nose and on the palate. Beyond that, the beer has a roasted coffee flavor mixed with an almost burnt caramel sweetness, followed by the sting of black licorice and then a rather dry, but licorice-accented finish. A rather delicious porter, that is rather sessionable, which is sort of my requirement for "pig" beer. There's something about beers poured from a Party Pig; I think it has to do with how the beer is pushed through a diffuser when it's tapped. I've noticed that the pig makes my beers (especially the darker ales) taste like they've been tapped from the cask. The carbonation is very smooth much like in naturally carbonated, cask-conditioned ale. Sometimes, about half-way through the pig starts pouring mostly foam, but waiting for the foam to settle is a small price to pay for a compact method of having cask-conditioned ale at home!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Brigand: robbed of its flavor

I came across a beer today that I haven't seen in awhile. A Belgian beer from Van Honsebrouck that I've enjoyed on and off through the years called Brigand. I picked up a single 33-cl bottle which I enjoyed this evening at home. This particular bottle had plenty of carbonation that formed a dense bright, white head that slowly fell living a thin layer of bubbles and thick collar. The aroma was sweet and accented by grain, much simpler than I remember. Faint bits of floral hops mixed with sweet malt and a fairly sugary sweetness. The hotness of alcohol was present in the finish with was dry and fairly short, leaving the heat of alcohol and a slick sensation. The mouthfeel was very smooth and accented the somewhat clean flavor for a Belgian ale.

A decent beer, but not the same complex ale that I enjoyed in the early 1990s. I discovered this beer many years ago in Mokena, Illinois, at a store on U.S. 45 called Miska's Country Food & Wine (if I remember correctly). The place had a ton of craft and imported beer with a lot of it in coolers. They seemed to always have something new and interesting. One of these new and interesting beers was Brigand. It came in a 750-ml corked bottle with cool artwork of a Brigand (a historical term for an unsavory type of mercenary or outlaw), but what really got our attention was the price: $3.99 a bottle. We were quite happy to pay this for a Belgian, but also suspicious of the contents of said bottle. Aside from the price, the other quality of this bottle that piqued our interest was a streak of yeast that was stretched down the sides.

My first impression of Brigand (back in 1993) was that it had a rustic, fruity character. The hop character was somewhat spicy, but muted, and the strength of the beer was rather evident. The beer's rusticity was represented by a profound earthy, yeasty character. Overall, we were very impressed with the beer's complexity and the yeasty character suggested to us that Brigand would be a good ale to cellar. I decided to keep some bottles of the beer in my basement (not quite a cellar), but most of these beers would be consumed within a few months time. However, one particular bottle was set aside and I managed to keep this bottle for about six or seven years. We learned these $3.99 bottles were marked down because they were considered old. How did we know this? Well, the brewer printed the bottling date on the cork of each bottle. Most of the bottles I remember enjoying back in the early 1990s were bottled in 1989 and 1990.

Now, fast forward to New Year's Eve 1999. Remember that single bottle of Brigand that I stashed? We popped the cork on NYE 1999 with the assumption that bottle was filled in 1989 or 1990, so it would be about 10 years old. I was worried the beer would be flat or undrinkable. It was neither: it had plenty of carbonation, it's rusticity had significantly mellowed, yet the complexity remained. The date printed on the cork was April 1989 (if memory serves). It was a sublime beer that was worth the wait.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Good brew? Czech!

I stumbled upon a very dry Bohemian Pilsner called BrouCzech. I found it at Trader Joe's the other day for around $6 a six-pack. Apparently it's made at the Nova Paka brewery in the Czech Republic. Their seems to be a decent webiste for the beer, but I'm not finding much buzz about the brand elsewhere on the Internet (RateBeer, BA, etc.).

BrouCzech Pilsner is a deep golden, almost amber pils with a really wonderful nose that exhibits a combination of grassy, spicy hops and an almost cinnamon-like aroma of toasted malt. It's a very smooth lager whose Saaz hop character reminds of what Pilsner Urquell used to taste like some years ago. This is a beer that tastes so pure I swear I can taste the minerals in the water the brewery used for brewing. I'm really diggin' this brew this evening. Kudos to the Downers Grove Trader Joe's for stocking this beer!

Monday, December 03, 2007

The search for quality American lager

I recently made a trip to south central Wisconsin and stopped in (just before closing time) at the Capital Brewery. I hadn't been there in a few years and was rather impressed with myself that I found the place. I had a couple of friends with me who hadn't been there before and I really wanted them to see the place. We had planned to maybe take a brewery tour, but instead we just checked out the tasting room and gift shop.

We had very delicious brewery fresh pints of Capital Special Pilsner. We didn't feel the need to take any Capital beer home with us as we're lucky enough to find a good range of Capital beers in the Chicago area. However, it's been a couple weeks since our trip and I've been unable to find any Special Pilsner. I finally broke down and bought some Wisconsin Amber, sort of thinking that I was settling for something less than what I really wanted. I don't know why I was so wary; I'm thinking that I had a not-so-good bottle of Amber somewhere and that turned me off. So, I picked up a single bottle as part of mixed six-pack of beer at Trader Joe's and I have to say I wish I would have picked up a whole six-pack of the Amber; it's a very tasty lager. It's certainly not brightly hopped as the Special Pilsner, but it strikes a tasty balance between crisp toasted malts and hops. I wish more American craft brewers produced lagers as tasty as Capital.