Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Some Different Fall Beer Ideas

These fall beers put an American twist on German flavor

This comes from Don "Joe Sixpack" Russell, Philly beer aficianado. We like much of what he has to say. This may, perhaps, have something to do with the fact that we had entirely enough Oktoberfest beers this past weekend. Or maybe because we are drinking one of his recommendations even as we type...hell, just read it.

OKTOBERFEST, THE definitive autumn beer experience, begins tomorrow with the ceremonial tapping of Spaten in downtown Munich.

If you're going to do it up right, you've gotta get your lederhosen and dirndls over to Germany and celebrate by guzzling from a stein in one of the traditional Oktoberfest beer tents.

But if you can't make it across the Atlantic, there are always plenty of well-mannered American knockoffs that faithfully observe the flavor and character of the original, orange-colored lager. Known also as Marzen beer, this is an easy drinker as the weather turns cool. It contains a bit more malt than your standard lager, and it's aged longer for a smoother finish.

But forget that stuff this year. Call it heresy, but I'm going looking for a fall beer that isn't an Oktoberfest.

And I don't mean pumpkin beer.

What I'm looking for is a nice, shapely transition from the thin-bodied thirst-quenchers of summer to the strapping headbangers of winter. If it were a woman, she'd be Katie Couric - sweet and wholesome, somewhere between Paris Hilton and Etta James.

Thankfully, in recent seasons, small brewers have turned out an assortment of fall beers that fit the bill. They're more complex than a lager, thanks to the use of ale yeast. And they're frequently spiced with more assertive hops.

On first swallow, yes, these fall beers go down with the same sweetly smooth flavor you'd find in a typical Oktoberfest. But take a second, and you discover a distinctly American twist on a standard German beer.

Here's a sixpack of American fall beers. They're mostly low in alcohol (about 5 percent), so find a friend and sample 'em all. And, sure, if you need to get into the mood, feel free to play a little oompah music.

Flying Fish Oktoberfish (Cherry Hill, N.J.).

A stealth Oktoberfest, it's an ale posing as a lager. The brewer says it's made with Dusseldorf Alt yeast, known for producing a very clean, lightly sweet flavor. Still, this brew finishes with a tart slap. Think of it as Sister Theresa with a ruler on your knuckles.

Weyerbacher AutumnFest (Easton, Pa.).

Only a sharp-eyed label-peeler will notice the tiny "ALE" printed on the bottle. If you went by looks and taste alone, you'd think it was a classic autumn lager. This is a gorgeous beer, the color of the burnt orange leaves that fall along the river drives around Columbus Day. The aroma reminds me of those hard spiced cookies Mom used to pack in my lunchbox.

And the flavor? It's well-balanced with just a bit of hop bitterness.

Sierra Nevada Harvest Ale (Chico, Calif.).

If there's a father to the harvest ale style, it's this one. Available only in limited supplies on draft, it gets its name from the late-summer harvest of fresh hops. Unlike most ales hopped with dried flowers (or even concentrated pellets), this beer's so-called wet hops are rushed straight to the brewery and into the kettle. Take a long draw from your pint, and you get the gardenlike aroma of freshly cut grass.

Redhook Late Harvest Autumn Ale (Portsmouth, N.H.).

In the words of the brewers, this is an "homage to the autumnal equinox." Try saying that after a couple of these bottles, which are available only in the East. This is yet another fall beer that is really a tribute to hops, balanced nicely with roasted German malt.

Southern Tier Harvest Ale (Lakewood, N.Y.).

This inventive western New York brewery had a little fun with a standard pale ale. The malt seems roasted, giving it a bigger bite than most pales (think Melrose Diner white toast, hold the butter). And that's a nice complement to the lemony Palisades hop flowers.

It pours gold but goes cloudy in the glass, then fills your nose with a huge, hoppy aroma.

Magic Hat Jinx (Burlington, Vt.).

Dark, but that's a deception. Yes, it's a bit stronger than most of the others in this sixpack (7 percent alcohol), and you'll detect some smokiness. But this medium-bodied ale goes down pleasantly. You'll want to pull it out at sundown on the last gasp of an Indian summer afternoon.

Full disclosure: We love the Southern Tier Harvest, not so keen on the Redhook, need to revisit the Magic Hat, and are dying to try the Sierra Harvest. As for the other two, we shall see, but we are a fan of Weyerbacher in general. For more from Joe Sixpack click here.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

It's Official: Hops are Hot (and Wet)!

This comes from the Wall Street Journal via the Pittsburgh Post Gazette via the Internet, but we found it interesting and didn't want to risk losing it.

To toast a new crop, brewers roll out 'wet hop' beer

By Conor Dougherty, The Wall Street Journal

First there was Beaujolais nouveau. Now comes beer nouveau.

The end of the growing season has been celebrated by everyone from apple growers to winemakers, but lately brewers have started marking the renewal of their own annual cycle, with beers that are brewed with hops picked only a few hours before. Called "fresh hop," "wet hop" or harvest beers, they begin appearing in late September, typically on tap and lasting only until the kegs run dry.

Harvest ales started showing up in the last decade or so in hop-growing regions like Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. But as the style catches on and more farmers plant hop yards, the beer is increasingly found outside of its traditional home. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. sold its Harvest Ale in all 50 states last year, up from five in 2000. Late next month Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Del., will release its first fresh-hop beer, Fed-Extra Mild, an English-style ale with two varieties of hops: one freshly picked and shipped overnight from the West Coast, and a second grown in an employee's yard. And while the majority of wet-hop beers are poured from tap handles, some brewers are now bottling it. Denver's Great Divide Brewing Co. started bottling its Fresh Hop Pale Ale three years ago, and now the brew is distributed in seven states including Texas, Florida and Massachusetts.

The season's first hops are also cause for festival-style celebration. At O'Brien's Wet Hop Beer Festival held at San Diego's O'Brien's Pub, bar owner Tom Nickel plans to serve 35 beers this year, double the number at the inaugural event two years ago. (New names at last year's festival included Hop Trip from Deschutes brewery of Bend, Ore., and Last Hop Standing from Blue Frog Grog & Grill in Fairfield, Calif.) While so-called craft brewers are leading the trend, industry giants have also taken notice: Last year an Anheuser-Busch brewery in Fort Collins, Colo., released its Front Range Fresh Harvest Hop Ale for festivals and at Anheuser-Busch tour centers.

These beers are the latest expression of brewers' obsession with hops, the sticky green cone of the Humulus lupulus plant that gives beer its bitter flavor. Classically, beer has four main ingredients -- the others are water, yeast and grain, typically barley. Before hops, brewers had balanced the sweet taste of malted barley with herbs including yarrow, coriander and ginger. Around 900 years ago they began adding hops, which imparted flavor and also served as a preservative.

Much more recently, hops became a rallying point for U.S. craft-brewers -- a movement that took off in the 1980s as a reaction to the big-brewery beers that critics dismissed as too light, too watery, and too stingy on the hops. Bitter became better for a subset of craft-brew drinkers, many of whom tend to measure a beer's worth in proportion to its hoppiness. The measuring stick is the International Bittering Unit, or IBU, with the biggest beers logging in at 100 plus IBUs. Mainstream brews from Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors are typically around 10 or 20 IBUs.

The hop infatuation has resulted in a game of chicken among brewers, who have continued their effort to out-bitter the next guy -- as evidenced by beer labels that boast mixed hops, extra hops or triple hops. Stone Brewing Co. in Escondido, Calif., calls its Stone Ruination India Pale Ale "a liquid poem to the glory of the hop!" Delaware's Dogfish Head has pioneered a pair of hop-enhancing technologies, including a "continuous hopping machine" that adds hops gradually over up to two hours of brewing instead of throwing some in at the beginning, middle and end, as is customary. The brewery also invented a method for delivering a final hoppy hit to kegged beer by running it through a hop-stuffed chamber before it hits the pint glass. Dogfish Head calls the device Randall the Enamel Animal, and some bars and beer stores have also started serving "Randalled" beers.

But for a few months in the fall, brewers stop worrying about more hops and focus instead on fresh hops. When first plucked from its stalk, a hop flower is green and about 60 percent water by weight. For brewing purposes, hops are usually dried and refrigerated, or made into pellets that resemble rabbit food. Wet-hop beers use flowers that have been picked just hours before, so they still possess the volatile flavors that are lost during processing. Brewers compare beer made with these moist hops to a meal cooked with just-picked herbs -- entirely unlike one made with dried oregano and parsley from the back of the pantry.

A fresh-hop beer can often, in fact, be less bitter than a corresponding version with dried hops, and instead is powered by floral, citrus tastes. The retained oils line the inside of the mouth and have a tinge of greenish, vegetal flavors. (Many brewers recommend drinking their wet hops with a glass of water.) It's easy to taste the difference between a normal brew and a fresh-hop version -- though that isn't always a good thing. "If you're not careful you can end up with a beer that tastes like lawn clippings," says Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery.

Brewing, of course, has a long tradition of following the seasons. Before refrigeration, beermakers were eager to get their hands on the first hops of the season. They tended to make beers in the fall that highlighted them, before switching to maltier beers as stored hops lost their character. (Germany's Oktoberfest is a slightly different story: The two-week festival now marks the fall with copious amounts of beer, but got its start as a wedding celebration.)

Randy Mosher, a beer author and instructor at Siebel Institute of Technology, a Chicago brewing school, says there's little historical precedent for using hops within a few hours of picking. "What people are trying to do with craft beer is put people in touch with their food again, and remind them that they're drinking an agricultural product," he says.

Fresh-hop beers started popping up about a decade ago when Sierra Nevada brewed its first Harvest Ale. The style attracted other brewers, and there are now several dozen versions available. Sierra now makes three wet hop beers, including one using "estate grown hops," while Steelhead Brewing Co. in Eugene, Ore., last year made a pair of fresh-hops, "Fugglerama GBP 1" and "Fugglerama GBP 2," with two varieties of Fuggle hops. There's even a nascent movement among brewers to grow their own: Today in Kearney, Neb., Trevor Schaben, owner of Thunderhead Brewing, plans on heading out to a hops field 10 miles from his brewpub to pick with a handful of customers (it's the brewpub's second attempt at a wet hop).

Though wet-hop beers inspire brewers' creative fancies, they also pose a logistical challenge. Many breweries are set up to use pellet hops, which are much easier to filter out than the leftover plant matter from wet hops. A wet hop requires a special filter or trapping system to keep the debris out of the finished product.

But the bigger problem is getting the hops in the mix before they've spoiled. Victory Brewing Co. contracts a refrigerated truck to collect hops from a grower in upstate to New York then drive straight back to the brewery in Downingtown, Pa. Come fall Russian River Brewing owner/brewmaster Vinnie Cilurzo gathers about a a dozen friends and family members to pick hops on a quarter acre plot a few miles from his brewery in Santa Rosa, Calif. As they pick he begins brewing, then throws in the hops as they arrive from the field. Sierra Nevada uses two varieties -- Centennial and Cascade -- that have different picking periods that overlap for a day or so. The brewery sends a truck to collect the last of the Cascade harvest, then to another field to collect the first of the Centennials, then back to the brewery in Chico, Calif. "I never know what day it's going to be," says brewmaster Steve Dresler.

And for brewers who don't have their own hop farm, this often means paying to have fresh hops sent overnight, multiplying their hop tab. One thousand pounds of hops from Washington state grower Yakima Chief, for example, runs about $2,800 for overnight delivery, compared with $400 for the same amount by slower shipping. Because fresh hops contain so much water, brews that incorporate them can require several times more hops by weight, boosting the price even more. Russian River charges $165 wholesale for a keg of its HopTime Harvest Ale, $50 more than it charges for its Imperial Pale Ale, and $6 per pint in its brewpub, $2 more than it charges for other beers.

But for calendar-watching beer drinkers, the once-a-year brew is worth the splurge. "It's like being able to get vegetables from the farmer's market," says beer aficionado Richard Sloan, a computer programmer from San Diego. "You better be there, or they're gone."

A Taste of the Harvest

Brewers and brewpubs will release fresh-hop beers starting in late September, mostly on tap. Here is a sampling:

BREWER/LOCATION: East End Brewing Co. Pittsburgh
BEER NAME: Big Hop Harvest Ale
COMMENT: This year-old brewery will release its second wet-hop beer this year. The Big Hop Harvest is a variation on the brewery's India Pale Ale, a hoppy brew called Big Hop IPA, but has 7 percent alcohol, compared with Big Hop's 5.8 percent.

BREWER/LOCATION: Left Hand Brewing Co. Longmont, Colo.
COMMENT: Most wet-hop beers are poured from the keg; this Colorado brewery sells its variety in bars as well as in 22-ounce bottles distributed to 15 states. The beer is named for the Warrior hops the brewery gets from Washington state.

BREWER/LOCATION: Rogue Ales Newport, Ore.
BEER NAME: Hop Heaven
COMMENT: For three years, Rogue has brewed a wet-hop beer using Newport hops grown on a farm about two hours from the brewery. This year the company is switching to Centennial hops, and the resulting beer will be ultra-bitter, the brewer says. It will be available on tap nationwide.

BREWER/LOCATION: Russian River Brewing Co. Santa Rosa, Calif.
BEER NAME: HopTime Harvest Ale
COMMENT: Russian River has made wet-hop beer since 1999, with distribution mostly on tap in California. This beer has a grassy taste -- a common feature of fresh hops -- with melon and lemon-zest flavors, says brewer Vinnie Cilurzo.

BREWER/LOCATION: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Chico, Calif.
BEER NAME: Harvest Ale
COMMENT: Sierra Nevada has made its harvest ale for 11 years, one of the first breweries to do so. Kegs of the beer make it to all 50 states, but it still pays to live near the brewer: Sierra has other wet-hop varieties mostly for local distribution.

BREWER/LOCATION: Victory Brewing Co. Downingtown, Pa.
BEER NAME: Harvest Pilsner
COMMENT: Most wet hop beers are ales. This is a rare harvest lager -- in the Pilsner style -- that uses hops grown in upstate New York and trucked to the Pennsylvania brewery just after they're picked. Its brewer touts its "earthy, spicy" taste.

BREWER/LOCATION: Pelican Pub & Brewery Pacific City, OR
BEER NAME: Elemental Harvest Ale
COMMENT: Cool link and pics. Looks like a really interesting joint. Perhaps we shall be lucky enough to visit one day.

A Good Beer Blog

We know what you're thinking, and no, it's not this one. This blog is by a Canuck, goes by the name of Alan from Ontario. He does a nice job, and we enjoy that it often has a very Upstate-centric lean to it. He has several correspondents, but Alan's tend to be the best entries. He has good taste in beer, knows his stuff, and is no stranger to Ithaca and Syracuse. You won't be wowed all the time, but give it a read periodically. We guarantee you'll find some good stuff on there. Make sure to check out the archives too. We'll add it to our blog roll for your convenience.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Ripped From the Headlines!

Best of the brews: Penn Brewery's Weizen is champ among tasters again

Editor's Note: This is how we blog, by cutting and pasting the works of others. We did add loads of great links (almost 50) for your edification. We hope that you try them sometime. Every beer mentioned is linked to its description and rating at Beer Advocate. We have yet to try anything from Penn (even though our boy, Lew Bryson, is a big fan). We think we'd best try some soon. Perhaps you should as well.

(Our thanks to Bob Batz Jr., Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, our latest unwitting guest scribe. Thanks as well to our embedded reporter in the Syracuse office for directing us to this.)

Penn Brewery is proud that its Weizen, or Bavarian wheat beer, has been judged a grand champion for an unprecedented fifth straight time at the U.S. Beer Tasting Championship.

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
The naming of Penn Brewery's Weizen, or Bavarian wheat beer, as Grand Champion for five years running at the U.S. Beer Tasting Championship is "truly amazing," said Jeff Glor, a co-founder of the event. The beer was also named by Men's Journal magazine as one of the 25 Best Beers in America.

Penn Brewery to mark 20 years

Penn Brewery recently held its Restaurant 20th Anniversary Party featuring a German buffet, beer specials and entertainment. It's a sort of warm-up for Oktoberfest, set for September 15-17 and 22-24. On those Fridays and Saturdays, you can enjoy the music, food and Penn Oktoberfest (as well as Weizen) in the outdoor fest tents. For more: www.pennbrew.com. Bojangles will hold our first annual Oktoberfest on Saturday, September 23. There will be lots of good stuff there, too. More soon...

It's also just been named one of the "25 Best Beers in America" in the October issue of Men's Journal magazine.

For the summer competition of the U.S. Beer Tasting Championship's 12th annual competition, judges examined 358 beers from 129 breweries. In each of a dozen beer categories, the USBTC named both a grand champion and the best entry from each of six U.S. regions.

USBTC co-founder Jeff Glor said other beers have had great runs in the competition, but none as long as Penn Weizen's, which he called "truly amazing."

The story in the current issue of Men's Journal, meanwhile, ranks Penn Weizen 13th of its 25 picks, lauding it as right up there with Germany's Weihenstephaner Weisse, "with the hazy, bright gold color, banana-bread aromas (which come from esters produced by the yeast), lemon- and orange-rind flavors, and general chuggability that make traditional German wheat beers perennial warm-weather favorites."

Penn's Tom Pastorius said the hefeweizen (it translates as "yeast wheat") is becoming the North Side brewery's most acclaimed beer, having won silver, gold and bronze medals at the Great American Beer Festival (in 1997, 2000 and 2002) and the silver medal at the World Beer Cup (2002).

"We know a few things about the correct way to make it that I don't think anyone else in the U.S. knows," Mr. Pastorius said, adding, "There were some good breweries making some good beers in this competition, so this is a particularly gratifying award."

Pennsylvania has three other USBTC grand champions:

In the maibock category, St. Boisterous from Victory Brewing Co. in Downington (one of 17 maibocks judged).
In the bitter/ESB category (19 beers), Purist Pale Ale from the Appalachian Brewing Co. in Harrisburg.
In Belgian/French Specialty (25 beers), Farmhouse Amber Saison from McKenzie Brew House in Chadds Ford.

The other grand champions:

India Pale Ale (64 beers): Big Sky IPA, Big Sky Brewing Co., Missoula, Mont.
Pale Ale (37 beers): New River Pale Ale, New River Brewing Co., Atlanta, Ga.
Amber/Red Ale (21 beers): Ruby Red Ale, McNeill's Brewery, Brattleboro, Vt.
Golden Ale/Kolsch (25 beers): Poleeko Gold Pale Ale, Anderson Valley Brewing Co., Boonville, Calif.
Bock/Doppelbock (28 beers): Subliminator, Frederick Brewing Co., Frederick, Md.
Pilsner (35 beers): Tuppers' Hop Pocket Pils, Old Dominion Brewing Co., Ashburn, Va.
Dortmunder/Helles (19 beers): Portsmouth Lager, Smuttynose Brewery, Portsmouth, N.H.
Fruit Beer (25 beers): Generation Porter, Sprecher Brewing Co., Glendale, Wis.

Pennsylvania brewers took 11 of 20 regional champion and runner-up spots in the Mid-Atlantic/Southeast region.

For the rest of the winners, methodology and other details, visit www.usbtc.com.

Meanwhile, the more subjective "25 Best Beers in America" in the current Men's Journal also include other Pennsylvania brews: Stoudt's Pils (from Stoudt's Brewing Co. in Adamstown), which ranked No. 3, and Victory's St. Victorious Doppelbock at No. 22.

Cleveland's Great Lakes Brewing Co. gets two best spots, for Holy Moses White Ale (7) and Burning River Pale Ale (14).

Other best beers ranked and described in the article are:

1. Firestone Walker Pale Ale (Pasa Robles, Calif.)
2. Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA (Milton, Del.)
4. Russian River Temptation Ale (Santa Rosa, Calif.)
5. Avery Mephistopheles' Stout (Boulder, Colo.)
6. Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale (Boonville, Calif.)
8. Full Sail Session Lager (Hood River, Ore.)
9. Rogue Brutal Bitter (Newport, Ore.)
10. Bell's Expedition Stout (Comstock, Mich.)
11. Southampton Double White (Southampton, N.Y.)
12. Smuttynose Big A IPA (Portsmouth, N.H.)
15. Ommegang Hennepin (Cooperstown, N.Y.)
16. Samuel Adams Black Lager (Boston, Mass.)
17. Sprecher Hefe Weiss (Milwaukee, Wis.)
18. Alaskan Amber (Juneau, Alaska)
19. Deschutes Broken Top Bock (Bend, Ore.)
20. Lost Abbey Avant Garde (San Marcos, Calif.)
21. Jolly Pumpkin Bam Biere (Dexter, Mich.)
23. Allagash Interlude (Portland, Maine)
24. Alesmith Speedway Stout (San Diego)
25. New Glarus Yokel (New Glarus, Wis.)

For the past two annual best beer rankings, visit www.mensjournal.com.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Olde Saratoga Brewing Company

We have been so busy lately moving and traveling to visit breweries that we have neglected our duties as a blogger. Time to remedy that. We recently made our first real trip to the Olde Saratoga Brewing Company (they almost have their own website!), and we came away impressed. Olde Saratoga is an interesting place. Their main function is actually as the East Coast brewing arm of Mendocino Brewing of California. Factoid that may interest only us: Mendocino opened as California's first brewpub in 1983.

Saratoga's brewery is located just off Broadway, the main thoroughfare of Saratoga Springs. This place, at least the public part of it, is set up just like any real bar. It has a dart board, a couple of televisions, a few high pub tables, and long bar in the center. There is also a cooler at the end of the bar with several of their beers available to go as six packs or mixed singles.
Olde Saratoga doesn't have a traditional liquor license for selling beer for consumption on premesis. They get around this by offering handsome logo pint glasses for $4 each. These glasses come with (at least) two fills of your beverage of choice. We're talking full pints here, too, not shot glass sized samples. This brings us to the beer. Ah, the beer. When we visited, they had an impressive variety on tap:

Mendocino Summer Ale
Saratoga Lager
Red Tail Ale
Red Tail Lager
Blue Heron Pale
White Hawk IPA
Eye of the Hawk Select Ale
Black Hawk Stout
Black Eye (blend of Eye of the Hawk and Black Hawk)
'05 Winter Ale (Double IPA)
Talon Barley Wine
Kingfisher Lager

Mendocino, for some reason, enjoys naming beverages after predatory birds. We highly recommend both the Summer, a fine Belgian White, and the Winter Ale, an absolutely fantastic Double IPA. Everything else is at least solid. Many of their beers can also be found at popular prices ($4.99 a sixer) in Albany. Mendoncino does all of the North American brewing of Kingfisher Lager, which is India's most popular beer. Just an educated guess on our part, but we think their brewing it may have to with this. Olde Saratoga also does contract brewing for, among others, Southampton Publick House of Long Island, and Schmaltz Brewing Company - makers of He'brew Kosher Ale. Roughly a third of Olde Saratoga's brewing capacity goes to Mendocino brews, a third is dedicated to Kingfisher, and the remaining third to contract brewing. They brew up to 30 different kinds of beer in a year and recently underwent an expansion to up their nearly maxed-out capacity. The tasting room is open 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Friday and noon to 10 p.m. on Saturday. We highly recommend a visit.