Archive for June, 2009
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.
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.
It’s an innocuous enough question. Many of my friends have a beer that is near and dear to their hearts. One that conjures up memories of that corner pub in London or the intimate cafe in Amsterdam where they spent some summer evenings years ago. The question has often been posed to me by fellow beer lovers and I have never been able to come up with an answer for them or for myself. Some days I can’t imagine anything nicer that a tart Ommegang Rouge, other days I crave a Peche Mortel and just yesterday I had a Moylan’s Hopsickle that was quite nearly perfect. There are so many great beers out there that it would seem almost unfair to crown one as the king – especially knowing that next week I’ll simply have to change the list.
In a recent edition of Beeradvocate magazine the question was posed – is oaking beer a fad? The article included quotes from folks like Jim Koch of Sam Adams, officially declaring oak aged beer a fad. Jim Koch is no stranger to oaked beers. Samuel Adams produced what was one of the first commercially viable Oaked American beers with his Utopias – a beer that would probably be undrinkable without the oak that balances out the scorching 27% alcohol. It is also worth mentioning that Utopias has only been produced for 6 – 7 years and is produced in extremely limited quantities.
Many others have followed suit and released oaked versions of their biggest beers which sometimes even eclipse their parent in popularity and sales. So I suppose ultimately the question is – is this a fad or is it the natural outcome of an evolving American palate that is constantly looking for something new and more extreme or just something different? Is adding chocolate to beer a fad? Are fruit beers a fad? What about adding maple syrup to beer? I would speculate that the first Belgians who made bigger beers with candy sugar took some heat for not respecting the German Purity Act. It probably was dismissed at the time as ‘faddish’.
It looks like there are two components to this definition that are key: 1). That the practice or interest is short-lived. 2). That the practice or interest is followed with extreme zeal. It would be difficult to comment on the first point until sufficient time has passed. The second point could definitely be explored in the present. If we think back to fads we knew well growing up, one that comes to mind right off is the Swatch Watch. For those of you who don’t remember, the Swatch Watch was a colorful, low quality watch made from rubber and plastic that every kid had to have if he was to avoid all of the stigmas that come from possessing bad fashion sense. Inside of a couple of years Swatch had sold hundreds of thousands of these garish and impractical timepieces (most did not have any hour markers and were very difficult to actually tell time with). Only a few years later, any cool kid wouldn’t have been caught dead with a Swatch. The ‘exaggerated zeal’ aspect of a fad has to do with folks blindly following a convention in the interest of not feeling like the odd man out. Isn’t that why we call it a fad- because we all recognize the ephemeral nature of it and the silly ‘me too’ zeal behind it?
For my part I would hesitate to put oaked beers into this bucket. There is a very practical aspect to oaking beer that is likely to have it hanging around for a long time. That is, the fact that oak beers really taste good to a lot of craft beer drinkers and that oaking big beers helps to bring into balance big hop profiles, massive malty sweetness and alcohol heat. Some beer drinkers don’t mind any of those flavors being out of balance and prefer the non-oak version. I’ve found though, that plenty of people are excited to try their favorite beers with the added toasty, smoky, vanilla oak goodness in it – and actually prefer it. I might be going out too far on this limb, but maybe it’s like putting Ketchup on fries. French fries taste pretty dang good on their own and we’ve all eaten them without Ketchup and enjoyed them but it takes them to a whole new level when they are dipped into a fresh dollop of Ketchup. It’s a new way of experiencing the fries that, for many, adds greatly to the experience.
Ultimately only time will tell if oaking beer ends up going down in history as a fad. There are allot of brewers putting their beers on oak in response to a market that is developing a palate for oaky beers. It’s still on the fringe but is growing. My money is on it sticking and becoming another one of the many options presented to customers when they visit their favorite pubs or bottle shops. What are the ‘fad criers’ really saying? That people shouldn’t oak beer? That it is no longer cool to oak beer? That oaking beer is passe because they have already been doing it for years? Does anyone who is still reading this rant even care?
Some folks criticize our American obsession with trying to categorize every micro-category of beer in the world. I ran into a guy at our local brew shop who was buying ingredients for a Belgian Tripel. He asked me what I was brewing and I replied, “I’m working on a Belgian Strong Golden with no candy sugar”.Â He replied “What’s the difference between a Tripel and a Strong Golden anyways? F*** BJCP.” Well, there’s plenty of difference between a Tripel and a Belgian Strong Golden. Not that we should over-intellectualize beer but it is helpful to know what we are drinking. Context and standards are a helpful framework for articulating what it is that we enjoy most as well as a mechanism for staving off confusion. If I mention the plant ‘Quercus falcata’ to a fellow horticulturist not only will she know that it is an oak tree but she will know that it is a very specific one – the Southern Red Oak. Botany’s taxonomic nomenclature system allows for the two of us to be clear on what we are discussing instead of just generalizing that it is a tree as opposed to a shrub.
Some style designations have cropped up in an effort to categorize the many new types of beer coming down the hatch. The American Strong Ale category is certainly one of them. As innovation in brewing continues to drive the craft industry there is a constant struggle to label and categorize each new product that makes it’s way into a bottle. American Strong Ales is a category that does not show up in the BJCP style guidelines unless you include American Barleywines which are a sub-category of Strong Ales. However, American Strong Ales are a well populated style that exists in force on the many beer rating sites we find in .comville. Beeradvocate has an extensive list of American Strong Ales that range from Dogfish Head’s Immort to Stone’s Arrogant Bastard and Hebrew’s Jewbelation. I guess they are all relatively dark beers that are all above 7% (their definition of American Strong Ales includes dark American beers between 7% and 25% ABV). It would be safe to say that these are derivatives of the Strong Ale category that is compiled of Old Ales, English Barleywines, and American Barleywines. This basket is designed to catch the many creative high gravity, non-conforming offerings of American craft breweries.
After having brewed many Belgian-style ales in the past few years I was longing to make something with bold west coast hops and a clean, aggressive American Ale yeast. I settled on a recipe that involved piles of roasted malt, Special B (I have a hard time making anything without Special B) and a bag of Marris Otter. I used Amarillo, Simcoe, Cascade, and Magma in this 8% beast and steeped course ground Trappeze coffee beans in the finish. After kegging I used 3 different oaking treatments in an effort to see which would yield the best result.
These big beers take time. They have been on oak for nearly a week and will likely need a few more. We grow accustomed to drinking plenty of flat unconditioned beer in the process of figuring out when our beers are just right and this is no exception. Who knows if this one will be a winner or another notch on the belt of experience. In the mean time I have brewed the above mentioned Belgian Strong Golden Ale in the spirit of Malheur (no candy sugar) and can’t wait for this one to come out of the fermenter. It was one of the most beautiful beers I have ever crafted from a standpoint of color and pre-fermentation flavor. I am considering putting half of it into a 7 gallon Single Malt cask I just bought from a distillery in NY. We’ll see. I think all of the twists and turns is what keeps this exciting. There’s always something we take away from each batch that inspires us to do something better on the next and hopefully create something that stops the mouths of our beer-geek friends long enough for them to enjoy the pint in reverent silence.