Monday, July 27, 2015

Homework Series #5

Ballast Point puts out a periodic line of beers called Homework Series, which are one-time releases, separate from Ballast Point's regular beer production.   The Homework Series, which began in 2013, is brewed for the home brewer.   Each Homework Series bottle comes with a comprehensive recipe, list of ingredients, and detailed brewing instructions.

Ballast Point is up to number five in its Homework Series.  The previous four were a hoppy red ale (Batch #1), a Belgian-style double IPA (Batch #2), an English IPA (Batch #3), and a pumpkin beer (Batch #4).  To me, three of the first four were excellent.  The first in the series, Hoppy Red Ale, was so good and popular Ballast Point made two batches of it.  The English IPA was sublime and I can't remember a better pumpkin beer than Batch #4.  The hoppy Belgian double IPA (Batch #2) was nearly undrinkable, and the lone dud in the series.

The latest, Hoppy Belgian-style Pale Ale (Batch #5), makes up for Homework Series' previous Belgian-style effort, the nasty Batch #2.  Hoppy Belgian-Style Pale Ale was a cloudy, glowing gold beneath a white foam.  The pale ale smelled of yeast and fruit, and you immediately tasted the tart, immediately distinctive Belgian yeast (White Labs 575 Belgian Style Ale Yeast Blend) along with sweet stone fruit.  At only 6.8% abv, the beer's alcohol was subordinate to other flavors and mostly non-existent.  I found Batch #5 smooth and almost creamy, and its body light.  The lingering, bitter finish (from Belma hops), which became sharper as the beer warmed, earned Batch #5 the Hoppy in its name.

I have found that with some Belgian-style pale ales or IPAs, brewers compensate for the acute Belgian yeast strains and their prominent flavors by over malting or over hopping the beers.  This fight for flavor dominance can make Belgian-style pale ales or IPAs hard to drink, as big ingredients do not always complement each other.  Ballast Point went for subtlety and nuance in Batch #5, and brewed a drinkable, delicious beer, and is now four out of five in its Homework Series.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Firestone Walker and Duvel

Duvel Moortgat has made an investment in Firestone Walker.  Both Duvel and Firestone Walker are private companies so they did not disclose the specifics of the transaction, and it does not appear that either plans to provide details.  Here is Firestone Walker's press release.  Here is an interview with David Walker last week in The New School that gives more insight into the new relationship. 

I had forgotten that Duvel owned Ommegang and Boulevard, so the new Firestone Walker arrangement looks like a strategic match.  Ultimately, though, beer drinkers, will have final word on the transaction.  If Firestone Walker's beer quality drops, beer drinkers will stop buying its beers.  Enough deal talk, I need to find a pint of Boulevard's Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale, which has started to show up on tap lists around town.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Midwest Beers

I recently spent a week in the Midwest and tasted quality beers from Minneapolis to Chicago.  There was no shortage of craft beer - except if you try to buy beer at a grocery store in Minnesota, or apparently on a Sunday - and I did not go into a restaurant that did not have at least two local craft options.  Here are my thoughts on a few beers and a brewery:

Surly Brewing's Furious:  A malty IPA with a fantastic name.  I had it twice on my trip.  Once from a can, where I thought it marginal, and then a few days later on draft where it was stellar and proved why it is available all over Minneapolis.  At 6.5% abv I can't call it "furious," but it is a quality, full-bodied IPA, with a rounded bitterness. 

Revolution Brewing's Crystal Hero IPA.  Chicago's Revolution has a special series of beer called Hero, and I picked up a bottle of its Crystal Hero.  It is a single hop IPA brewed with Crystal hops.  It was a fresh, citrus flavored beer, and another Midwest IPA not afraid of a heavy malt bill.

Bent Paddle's Venture Pilsner.  It was clean, bready, sharp, refreshing, and smashing.  Venture was the best beer I drank all week (along with the stout described below).  When was the last time this blog called a pilsner the best anything?  Thanks to the employee at Downtown Minneapolis's Whole Foods for the recommendation on this beer.

Dangerous Man Brewing.  I managed to visit one brewery on my trip, Dangerous Man, located north of Minneapolis's downtown, across the Mississippi River.  I received a tip on the draft-only brewery from the same Whole Food's employee who told me about Bent Paddle's Venture Pilsner.  Dangerous Man's brewery and tasting room is located in an old bank building along a commercial street in a residential neighborhood.  The communal tables were filled with people enjoying a beer late on a warm summer afternoon.  A constant flow of locals were coming in to fill growlers, too, with several filling multiple growlers.

I didn't take a picture of the draft board, but I think there were eight or nine available options.  I had to try Dangerous Man's Rye IPA.  It was fine, and another IPA showing off its grain.  The Beer Rovette ordered the Cream Ale, which was far better than most cream ales I have tried.  It tasted like beer rather than an alcoholic dessert.  The star, by far, was Dangerous Man's Chocolate Milk Stout, a light-bodied stout that was big on flavor.  It was smooth and its roasted malts brimmed along with tastes of dark chocolate and coffee.  It was a delicious beer and was only around 5.0% abv.  Oh, and get this, I think Dangerous Man serves its full pours in Imperial pints glasses.  Heck Ya! 

During my week in the Midwest, I found that many restaurants and hotel bars focused on local or regional craft beers, and I didn't go to one restaurant that did not have a legitimate craft beer option.  The restaurant at the hotel where I stayed in Chicago only offered local craft beers - which included Wisconsin - and was marketing this feature.  The bad part was that none of the six options was priced less than $7.00, and all came in glasses smaller than a pint.  I had success in the Midwest finding and tasting beers I can't get here in San Diego made by small and regional brewers.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Gleaner

The Gleaner was brewed for Societe Brewing's second anniversary, and was recently re-released for Societe's third anniversary.  I picked up a growler of The Gleaner late last week and shared it over two nights.  I remember, after trying it last year, thinking that it was a fine saison, but a not great or standout beer.  My opinion this year, despite trying to keep an open mind, is similar to last year's (which I did not write down in a blog post).

The Gleaner, a cloudy beer, was a golden yellow and had a rough, white foam.  I could smell its herbs, especially the sage, as soon as I poured the beer.  The Gleaner's initial tastes were jarring.  I knew before drinking it that The Gleaner was not a typical yeasty saison, which did not bother me, since saison can be an experimental style.  I think I even grimaced, not from the herbs, which were more aromatic than flavorful, but because The Gleaner's ingredients were too discordant.  The yeast, hops, malt, and herbs did not mix well with me.  Plus, the alcohol at 7.1% abv, was too prominent, and became a flavor component.

Then something strange began to happen.  As The Gleaner sat in the glass it opened up and its uneven, independent flavors mellowed and began to blend together, softening the saison and easing the drinking experience.  The Gleaner went from being a disaster to a decent, but unexceptional beer, never quite recovering from its rocky start. 

Like last year's release, this year's version of The Gleaner suffers from immediate comparisons to Stone Brewing's superior Stone Saison, which is also an unconventional herb saison released in early summer, but which is a complex, lovely beer.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The King Is Dead, Long Live The King

Stone Brewing retired its original Ruination IPA, the first full-time bottled double IPA, earlier this spring and replaced it with Ruination 2.0.  Ruination was always my favorite of Stone's core beers.  Since Ruination's initial release in 2002 other breweries have produced stronger, hoppier, and bolder double IPAs, which left Ruination to drink more like an IPA than a double IPA.  For a brewery like Stone, which markets itself as a bold, trend-setting brewer, having its flagship double IPA taste like what is now considered an IPA was probably unacceptable.

I didn't see it then, but realize now, that Stone's release of Enjoy By IPA in the summer of 2012 signified Ruination's end.   Enjoy By is as muscular a double IPA as you will find, whether from Stone or any other brewer, and it fits with Stone's aggressive image.  I played a willing, if unknowing, part in Ruination's decline, buying far fewer bottles of Ruination since Stone released Enjoy By.  There is no need for nuance when you are assured a knockout, and Ruination 2.0, like Enjoy By, is more knockout than nuance. 

Ruination 2.0 is part of West Coast craft brewers' shift to high hop, low malt beers.  In its blog post discussing the retirement of Ruination and the introduction of Ruination 2.0, Stone states, "you can expect to encounter a version of Stone Ruination (i.e. Ruination 2.0) made bigger and bolder through the use of a revised hop bill including some new and exciting varieties," because when Ruination was introduced fewer high alpha-acid hops were available and the techniques to extract their hop flavors and bitterness were not yet invented. 

Ruination 2.0 delivers a big, oily hop mouthful that coats your entire palate.  I did not get a dominate citrus or pine flavor profile - I tasted both - but if pressed, I'd say citrus was more prevalent, along with a faint, underlying earthiness.  The beer poured a cloudy bright orange with a solid white foam, and it had a floral aroma.   There was a soothing level of sweetness that defrayed the beer's bitterness.  I tried to focus on Ruination 2.0's varied flavors but was distracted by how good it was despite its diminished malt.  I don't know how Stone can brew a beer that should be unbalanced chaos, but instead is smooth and delicious.  Like many of Stone's beers, Ruination 2.0 drinks bigger than its abv.  It has a substantial 8.5% abv, but I would not question it if someone told me the abv was higher. 

I was sad to see Ruination go, but Stone has unleashed a stellar encore to a classic, style-defining beer.  Ruination 2.0 will jostle for space in my fridge with Enjoy By. 

Bonus Food Pairing:  I am a beer and food pairing skeptic, thinking the whole concept overdone and over thought.  I am reminded nearly every night that beer goes with food, but rarely do the two enhance each other.   One beer / food pairing that works is Ruination 2.0 and dark chocolate.  I had a chunk of gourmet/artisan/hand-crafted/small batch/slow roasted/single origin, Tanzanian dark chocolate from San Francisco's Dandelion Chocolate when drinking Ruination 2.0 and was stunned at the symbiosis of the bittersweet beer and semi-sweet, bitter chocolate.   This delicious combination was so good it is making me rethink my beer / food pairing ambivalence.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Beer Blogger Returns

The Beer Samizdat returns after a year hiatus.  This is good news for anyone who likes to read an insightful, well-written beer blog.  Jay, the Beer Samizdat, was an important voice in beer blogging and I expect him to bring some grounding back to craft beer blogging.  He has never been afraid to name a lousy beer, or deflate an over-hyped beer, and that is needed now more than ever.  Craft beer blogging has become too enamored with its subject, and people need to know what beers stink and what breweries are shoddy.  I have fallen into this trap of late, skipping reviews of subpar beers, but I need to again call out the crap.

I want to read Beer Samizdat's opinion on new Bay Area breweries Cellarmaker Brewing, Fieldwork Brewing, and Four Point Beer Company, and other Northern California breweries like uber-hipster Ruhstaller, and Sacramento's Track 7 Brewing.   I want to know Jay's thoughts on the demise of malt and how too many new beers are just IPAs disguised with varying levels of ABV.  Craft beer has never been more exciting than it is now, and beer blogs have never been more boring.  The Beer Samizdat's return brings some edge back to a blogging culture with too many cheerleaders.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

West Coaster Blog

West Coaster's beer blog is posting a new article every day.  The always good, but periodic blog upped its output when San Diego beer writer Brandon Hernandez became Editor-At-Large in early May.  In addition to its comprehensive list of local beer events, the frequent posts are keeping readers up to date on beer news and providing beer reviews.  West Coaster's beer blog is worth a daily visit.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Big, Blind Put Down

SABMiller is buying London craft brewery Meantime.  This quote from a Financial Times' article on the transaction quotes SABMiller executive Susan Clark:

She said SABMiller had a record in nurturing local beer companies and added that the craft label was becoming less relevant.
 “The whole craft definition is one that over time we will see disappear. Craft for us is more about style, authenticity, than it is about the kind of label,” she said. “At SABMiller we love local variety and carefully nurture our 200 local and heritage beers.”

I cannot remember reading a more condescending comment on craft beer.   There are now more than 70 brewers operating in London alone, up from just 14 in January 2014, and buying one of them does not make SABMiller hip.  SABMiller can go ahead and believe the craft definition will disappear, but something is obviously happening in beer drinkers' behavior with that kind of growth.  Here in the US, from a statistic in the latest BeerAdvocate magazine (Issue #100), craft beer represented 11% sales of beer in 2014, up from 5% of sales in 2010.  I enjoy the myopic hubris of the big brewers.  They have already lost the consumer battle in many parts of the United States and appear to not even know it.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Incomplete Saison Ranking

Here is another ranking of beers from the website Paste.  This time it is thirty-five American saisons.  The results are linked to above for you to read, but it is an incomplete list of saisons.  Paste included saisions from brewery heavyweights The Lost Abbey, Crooked Stave, Prairie Artisan Ales,and Boulevard Brewing, but noticeably missing were master American saison brewers The Bruery, Hill Farmstead*, Jolly Pumpkin, Logsdon, Upright, Telegraph, and probably more, but those were the breweries I thought of while reading the article. 

Saisons are no longer exotic or niche beers, and the next time Paste tackles this style it needs to expand its review pool.  Paste states that possible reasons for the glaring exclusions were that some breweries would not ship beer, or did not want to participate in its survey (or, maybe, certain breweries did not want to give away free beer).  Any list of American saisons that does not have Logsdon's Seizoen Bretta, or Jolly Pumpkin's Baudelaire iO Saison, or The Bruery's Saison de Lente is a list short on depth and credibility.

I like Paste's blind tasting approach to ranking beers, which is why I have linked to its two lists.  The article does not state the methodology Paste used to judge its blind tasting but I am assuming it is the same as it used last month to rank 116 IPAs. 

Taste is subjective, especially in such an expansive style like saisons.   Prairie Artisan Ales' Prairie Ale was rated the number two saison but when I had it I thought it mediocre, not outstanding, while I found The Lost Abbey's Red Barn fantastic but it did not even crack the top twenty.   The top ranked beer was Side Project Brewing's Saison Du Blu (and Side Project came in at number three, too, with its Saison Du Fermier).  Another group of tasters would likely have had a completely different ranking of the same beers, which is what makes saisons such compelling beers, but this same quality also makes any kind of saison ranking hard to take too serious, especially when the ranking is missing some big name beers.

*The only beer I have tried from Hill Farmstead was a collaboration beer with a Belgian brewery, but Kaedrin Beer Blog has been raving about Hill Farmstead's saisons and other beers for years.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

IPA Blind Tasting

Last month, a website called Paste presented a list of 116 American IPAs, ranked based on a blind tasting of all the beers.  I liked the fairness of the methodology but do not fully agree with all the results, but since I have not tasted most of the listed IPAs, my opinion could be wrong.  Paste only ranked the top fifty beers, and chose to list beers 51 to 116 in random order, but we all know Redhook's Longhammer IPA must have anchored the bottom at 116.  The top beer was White Rajah IPA, from Ohio's The Brew Kettle (yeah, I had never heard of The Brew Kettle either).  Coming in at third was Ballast Point's Grapefruit Sculpin, the highest rated San Diego beer.  I like this distinctive beer but prefer regular Sculpin, which placed 20th.   Other San Diego beers in the top fifty include Stone's new Delicious IPA (6), Alesmith IPA (23), and Port Brewing's Wipeout IPA (48).  Stone IPA and Coronado's Islander IPA were the only other San Diego beers on the list and they did not make the top fifty.    In a blind tasting of IPAs, I hope I would have had the ability to place Stone IPA and Russian River's Blind Pig in the top fifty.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Ocean Beach: Habitus in the Solis

Mike Hess Brewing is opening a tasting room in Ocean Beach (I am not sure when it is scheduled to open, but the space is being built).   It will operate from the corner of Voltaire Street and Cable Street, a good location because it is nearly kitty-corner from the beer-centric, original OB Noodle House.  When Mike Hess Brewing's tasting room opens, Ocean Beach will have outposts for three breweries, with a Pizza Port restaurant on Bacon Street, and North County's Culture Brewing pouring beers and filling growlers on Newport Avenue.   Ocean Beach has become one of San Diego's beer destination neighborhoods.  In addition to the three breweries, there are a number of restaurants with outstanding draft lists, including two OB Noodle Houses, Raglan Public House, and The Joint.  

Thursday, April 30, 2015

New Hops

Sunset Magazine's May 2015 issue has a short article on new hops being used by brewers.  (Strangely, I cannot find an on-line link to the article, either directly from Sunset's website or the article's author Nino Padova's twitter feed.)  The five mini-profiled hop varieties are Azacca, Calypso, Galaxy, Jarrylo and Montueka.

I know it's annoying to reference an article and not include a link, but the reason I even mentioning the article is because the Azacca hop is being used by Stone Brewing in its new Ruination 2.0, a beer I have not yet tried.  The article describes Azacca as "intense citrus and pineapple flavors make this hop from Washington's Yakima Valley a new favorite with West Coast brewers."

Stone's description of Ruination 2.0 lists Azacca as one of multiple hops, and it will share flavor with Centennial, Magnum, Citra, and Simcoe.  I am expecting a big citrus profile when I finally drink Ruination 2.0.