Tuesday, February 26, 2008

More People Drinking Better Beer

"Information Resources, a Chicago company that tracks the sale of beer and other grocery products, said craft beer sales rose 16.7 percent from $493 million in 2006 to $575 million in 2007, marking the second straight year of double-digit increases....The Great Lakes Region — comprised of Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio — saw a 28.1 percent increase in sales from $54.4 million in 2006 to $69.6 million in 2007. Sales for the region have more than doubled since 2003."

Full story here.

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Monday, February 25, 2008


This weekend I had the unfortunate displeasure of attending Capital Brewery's Bockfest, held on their grounds annually in Middleton, Wisconsin.

The event celebrates the special limited release of Capital's blonde bock, as well as their Maibock, which is supposed to herald the arriving of spring. It generally features a band, contests, and for some reason, fish that are thrown off the roof into the crowd below. In other words, it has all the makings of a good time: unfortunately, it wasn't.

Bockfest was a tragic victim of its own success. We arrived at 12:30, a mere half an hour after the taps opened, and the grounds were already well over what should have been its capacity. The "grounds" were essentially just a series of large lines; in fact, I would guess that 90% of the people actually at the event were waiting in a line.

Perhaps line is even too generous of a description; it was more "totally disorganized mob waiting for beer." There was absolutely no order to the lines, which made waiting in them, or even finding the end of them, extremely challenging.

Now, I don't mind waiting in lines for things; I've been known to frequent a crowded bar. But the prospect of getting beer in these particular lines was slim; they didn't seem to be moving, and stopping interlopers from accessing the mob at all points was impossible. We waited in line for 90 minutes before we gave up and left.

My primary gripe was of course the lack of access to beer. A secondary gripe was in the crowd that the event seemed to attract. This wasn't the beer lover class that I see at the Great Taste of the Midwest, or other beer related events; this was a weird mix of sorority girls, UW college drunks, and small town folks bussed from outlying bars who had bought ticket packages to get there and get beer. It felt more like Milwaukee's Summerfest on a Friday night than a beer celebration (full disclosure: I have NEVER had trouble getting beer at Summerfest, no matter how crowded it gets; I'm definitely not slamming the 'fest).

All this for the privilege to pay bar prices for beer!

I'm not sure how Capital can save this event, but it definitely needs to be saved from itself. My advice would be to sell pre-sale tickets. I think this would have the effect of limiting attendance, while guaranteeing admission to those who are genuinely interested. If Capital wanted to keep costs for attendees down en lieu of the door price, they could lower beer prices slightly. I'm sure that although the attendance would be lower, the brewery could clear as much revenue by actually selling more beers to fewer people.

As it stands, I would advise anyone to avoid Bockfest until Capital can save it from itself.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Beer of the Week

I know that I am somewhat heavy on the Wisconsin beers on this blog, but what can I say: it's the land of my birth, and it happens to make some damn good beers.

I am relocating soon, from Madison to Minneapolis, so the beer will probably take on a more national beer scene scope, but fear not, many quality Midwest beers will still be featured.

With all that said, our beer of the week once again comes from Wisconsin, this time from Rush River Brewing in River Falls, near the Twin Cities on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Rush River was founded by two native Midwesterners, Dan Chang from Milwaukee, and Nick Anderson from Minneapolis.

I first encountered Rush River while living in Minneapolis a few years back. I saw an Amber Ale I had never seen before on tap at a local watering hole. I asked the bartender about it, and he said he wasn't sure, but thought that it was from Minnesota. I took a gamble and was pleasantly surprised by the balanced character of this delicious American Amber.

Fast forward a few years, and I get an email from a loyal BOTB reader:

"Have you ever heard of Rush River? Their Bubblejack IPA is awesome! Pick up a sixer when you get a chance!"

Whoa, whoa, whoa. IPA? Sixer? These were things I had never seen from Rush River. It became a mission to investigate. I was passing through Hudson, Wisconsin (also near the MN-WI border), and stopped at a liquor store to check the local wares. Sure enough, Rush River's "Bubblejack IPA" greeted me on the shelves.

Bubblejack, although it sounds more like a "Cannabis Cup" winning strain than a beer, is truly representative of the India Pale Ale style. It pours an unfiltered cloudy orange color with a minimal white head. The smell is fainter than some IPAs you'll come across, but the hoppy aromas of grapefruit and floral citrus are definitely there.

The taste is very well balanced, with the hops standing loud and proud, but not slapping you in the face. We all know that an IPA should be well hopped, which Bubblejack is, but it isn't like some beers that hit you over the head with a hop-mallet. There are some notes of graham and bread in there, and a subtle malt body too. At 6% ABV, this IPA is definitely right in the alcohol range of the style.

Judged against other IPAs, it's not as fragrant as it could be, and perhaps just slightly (ever so slightly) over-carbonated, but the balance is perfect, and the body and overall complexity of the flavor are awesome.

Cheers to Rush River; hopefully we'll be seeing more of your quality brews around in the near future.

Links of Interest:

Rush River

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Can Beer Predict the Election?

In the ridiculous realms of the "blogosphere" and the "punditocracy" you'll often hear about the infamous "who would you rather have a beer with" test for presidential hopefuls. Does such a question actually hold sway? Can it accurately predict the outcome of an election?

Prior to the 2004 election, The Economist released a survey showing that Americans would rather have a beer (or coffee for you puritans and mormons) with George Bush than John Kerry by a margain of 56% to 44%.

Another poll, the Zogby/Williams Identity Poll, showed that 57% percent would prefer to quaff a beer with Bush, who ironically is a former alcoholic.

For this election, the National Beer Wholesalers Association is putting that very question to the masses on the internet, and last I checked, Barack Obama had a commanding lead over all other contenders with 43% of the vote. John McCain comes in a distant second, drawing only 20% of the beer drinking electorate.

At a recent campaign stop in Wisconsin, Mrs. Clinton stated that the country doesn't "need to have a beer with the next president. We had that president." But in a savvy move in the beer loving Badger State added "But you know I'd be happy to have a beer too. We can talk about how to solve our problems. (here)"

But if any state could be gauged by the beer poll, it's Wisconsin, a state where beer drinking is as interwoven into the state's identity as cheese and Green Bay Packers football. Wisconsin held its primary last night, drawing out over 1 million Wisconsinites in below zero temperatures, who in fact confirmed the results of the beer poll, with 58% of the Democratic vote going to Obama, 622,303 votes overall, nearly triple the votes for Republican front runner John McCain.

If the beer question remains as accurate as it was in 2004, and as accurate as it reflected the Wisconsin primary, then the American populace will soon be toasting to the first black President in the history of the United States.

Cheers to Obama for handily winning the beer-loving Badger State last night.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Obama Slamma

When politicians and alcohol mix, it's often a terrible combination: (insert Ted Kennedy joke here).

However, in Kenya, the fame of a certain Kenyan-American is creating a whole new kind of political brew-ha-ha.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Beer of the Week

We've been talking about lagers this week, and briefly touched on the golden pilsner and pale lager styles that dominate the tastes of the beer drinking world. Many American beer snobs don't want to give these styles the time of day, perhaps having been soured to the style having come of beer drinking age in a country full of mass-produced flavorless light lagers. But a well made pilsner or golden pale lager is a thing of craft brewing beauty, and one needn't look further than the German pioneers to find a delicious example.

Paulaner Bräuerei of Munich, named for the founder of an order of beer making monks, has been brewing beer since the 1600s. Paulaner is probably best known for their "Salvator" (latin for "saviour") doppelbock. In fact most German (and some American) doppelbocks still use the "-ator" suffix to denote the doppelbock style.

Besides it's legendary doppelbock, Paulaner also produces a Pils (pilsner), a delicious weiss, and an oktoberfest märzen that might now rival the Salvator in popularity in America. Paulaner also makes a delicious Munich style helles (pronounced "Hell-us"), known in America as "Paulaner Original Munich Lager" that is our Beer of the Week.

The Paulaner Lager pours a beautiful rich golden color with a minimal head that leaves some lacing as you drink it. It smells fresh, crisp, and clean, with a hint of malt, and a trace of fresh cut grass type hop aroma. Being this is a pale lager, the aromas are faint, so take a sniff before you start to drink it.

The taste is surprisingly malty and rich, with a nice medium-bodied mouthfeel. The carbonation is lively, dancing around your palette. Its 4.9% ABV, combined with its crisp finish, makes this is a beer you could certainly "session" (drink many a pint) with. That said, please quaff in moderation.

If you have a friend that is a macro drinker, and you want to introduce him/her into the larger world of delicious beer, Paulaner's lager might be a good introduction. It has better ingredients than most American macros (no rice or corn in here), has a more complex malty taste, but yet is still a beer you can have a few of and not be overwhelmed. Here's to the Germans for creating the perfect "everyman" beer.


Links of Interest:

(I would put the link to the Paulaner website here, but having visited it, you won't really get to much info from it unless you can speak German. Even the "Facinating Facts" section of the English website version is totally in German.)

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

More Lager, Please

We started a discussion of lagers on Tuesday, but of course, there is much more to say.

As I mentioned, lagers have been brewed in central Europe for the last 500 years. In fact, in the days before refrigeration, Europe was divided into ale and lager regions: the mild climates of England and Belgium lending themselves to ales, and the mountainous inland regions of Bavaria and Bohemia lending themselves to lagers.

Like ales, there is not just one variety of lager, though you will often times find beers labeled as if there were. There are bocks, maibocks, doppelbocks, Munich helles, dunkel, oktoberfest, pilsner and more.

Leading up to the Beer of the Week, we'll focus on the pale lager family for now. Pale lagers encompass the vast majority of commercially successful beers around the world, from Miller High Life to Red Stripe to Heineken; however as any beer drinker can tell you, there are considerable differentiations even within this family.

The birth of pale lager begins in one of the points of the "golden triangle of brewing," Munich, Germany (the other two points being Plzen, a.k.a. Pilsen, and Vienna). In the mid 1800s, Spaten Brewery of Munich was run by Gabriel Sedlmayr. Mr. Sedlmayr embarked on a tour of Europe to see what the brewing world had to offer, in the hopes of improving his own brewery's techniques. He brought back some of the pale malt stylings of the pale ale brewers in England and applied them to his brewery. It wasn't an overnight success, but Joseph Groll, another German brewer, took some of these techniques over to Plzen, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and created what would be an overnight success, a revolution in brewing that will probably never be topped.

As the story goes, the brewers of the city of Plzen dumped a whole batch of ale into the river, that they agreed had been contaminated by wild yeast, bacteria, or both. They decided to take advantage of some of the new techniques being used in nearby Munich to make more stable beers.

Groll was hired to bring the German lagering method to the thirsty citizens of Bohemia, and arrived to find an ample supply of hops, lagering caves, and the proper yeast needed to make a good lager. Groll didn't settle for the same old style they were making over in Deutschland, he upped the ante.

Groll eliminated the roasted barley, and kicked the hops up a notch. The resulting brew was golden, crisp, and refreshing. The uniquely clear and golden beer was so popular that the brew and the technique spread, eventually acquiring the name of the city, Plzen, or Pilsner. Pilsner Urquell, still brewed to this day in Plzen, is the result of Groll's ingenuity.

We can talk more about Pilsners later, but needless to say, it was a huge success. Nearby brewers in Dortmund took notice and modified the style to create the Dortmunder Export style we know today, and it took a little while, but brewers back in Munich, including Spaten, took notice of Pilsner's success and made their own adaptation, known as a helles, German for "pale."

More to come on the Munich Helles variety tomorrow.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Why Not Lager?

A friend of mine, a reader of this blog asked me once, "Why is it so hard to get a good pilsner in America?" Since a pilsner is but one style of the lager family, and it seems that in the American brewing revolution, all lager beers are rare, the question might well have been, "Why is it so hard to even find a good micro lager?" The answer lies in the production methods that differentiate ales from lagers.

As you may or may not have noticed, the West Coast and Colorado factions of the microbrew scene are extremely heavy on the ale side of the fence. While most of us can appreciate a good IPA or American Amber, the divide is not simply a matter of taste.

Lager, German for "store" or "stock" (not "to age" as some people may tell you), is a family of beer styles produced in central Europe for the last 500 years. Lager is differentiated from ale in the yeast that is used to produce it. While ale yeast ferments at the top of the tank at warm temperatures, lager yeast ferments at the bottom in colder temperatures.

As amazing as it may seem, this is a result of humans breeding yeasts into two ideal strains. While bakers yeast and brewers yeast were once the same thing, a long process of selectivity and mixing with wild yeasts produced the two major brewing strains we know today.

The low temperatures needed for lager beers (0-5 degrees Centigrade) mean that in order to brew these styles, the brewer must have an environment in which there is a cold and constant temperature. Unless you have access to some caves, setting up an area for this cold brewing is prohibitively expensive for home- and microbrewers.

If you are of the grassroots brewing movement, chances are you honed your skills on ales, not lagers, and your recipes and habits are suited as such. Thus, if you were to start your own brewpub or micro, you probably would not have the equipment or experience necessary to produce a decent lager.

Additionally, lagers have to be lagered...that is, stored. Lagers must be stored for weeks or even months to attain their unique flavors. Capital Brewery of Wisconsin produces a doppelbock called "Autumnal Fire" that takes nine weeks to finish its cycle; two beers I recently reviewed take an amazing nine months to finish. Therefore, it is also expensive for microbrewers to produce a beer that is sitting around a long period of time before it can be sold. The cycle is longer, eating up more of the brewery's space and resources, and making demand forecasting much harder.

The combination of difficult production conditions and storage requirements make lagers a tall order for small brewers, though many small brewers do produce good lagers. We'll talk more about the family of lagers and good lager beers later in the week.

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Beer of the Week

Winter has been raging this year in Wisconsin, and I've needed a lot of beer to get through it. Most of them have been of the winter warmer stripe, but I need to mix it up now and again. Variety and beer are, after all, the spices of life.

Kalamazoo Brewing of Michigan is home to the Bell's family of beers. Perhaps best known for their "Two-Hearted" IPA and their "Oberon" summer seasonal, Bell's also makes a winter seasonal, which interestingly enough is a wheat ale called Bell's Winter White.

The Winter White is in the Belgian Witbier style, although in my opinion, it's a little thicker and a little sweeter. If you're going to market a wit as a winter style, those are both good things in my estimation.

Like most Belgian wits, it smells of orange and corriander. It pours a hazy orange color, kind of like a Blue Moon, and has a dense white head that quickly fades away. The mouthfeel is a bit heavier than a normal wit, and the carbonation is nice and noticeable. There is definitely that yeast presence in there (it's a mix of Hefe and Wit yeasts) and a tangy sweetness finishes it out.

I've had better wits, but for an American, and for this "winter-modification" that Bell's has done, it's really quite good. If you need a break from sweet ales and heavy stouts this winter, try out Bell's Winter White.

Links of Interest:

Bell's Beer

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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Beer is proof God loves us...

And so is the sun. The sun allows us to grow barely and hops, heats our planet, and makes life possible. Solar energy is the oldest form of energy on our fine earth, and for at least the next 4 billion years, it is also renewable.

Other than basic horticulture, what does this have to with beer?

Well a brewery in beer and hippie friendly Oregon has gone and combined two of my passions into one operation: brewing, and renewable energy.

The Lucky Lab Brewery of Portland uses a solar thermal system to heat up the water, which for brewing must get up to 160 degrees. I was wondering how this system could allow for the brewing of beer in winter, but according to the Lucky Lab's website they were able to get the water to 145 just last week, and the system is also supplemented with traditional heat.

I have to say that I was impressed by the 145 degree achievement in the grey Portland winter, and I'm sure that the system will have absolutely no trouble come summer. Given the vast amounts of hot water needed to run a brewery, the Lab is truly that: an experiment in environmental efficiency for small scale brewers. After a few years of operation, the Lucky Lab will be able to provide a real world example of carbon free heating, and give other brewers a cost/reward example as well.

I've never been to the Lucky Lab, but I can guarantee that I will make it a point to go the moment I set foot in Portland. I applaud their efforts from a brewing and environmental standpoint, and wish them nothing but hot water and cold brews.

If you live in Portland, or know someone who does, tell them about the Lucky Labrador.

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Friday, February 1, 2008

Beer of the Week

Our BOTW this week is another high alcohol bock from Germania. Schloss Eggenberg Urbock 23 hails from the Schloss Eggenberg Brauerei in Austria, and like this week's BOTWE, EKU 28, is kept in the cellar for an astounding 9 months.

The resulting bock is perfect for winter consumption: high in alcohol, smooth, and creamy. Coming in at 9.6% ABV, the Urbock 23 is potent, and the smell and taste reflect it.

The nose has a mingling of alcohol, honey, and fruit bursting out from a nice dense white head; lacing is very nice. The mouthfeel is thick and ueber-creamy, perhaps even creamier than the EKU 28. The carbonation is perfect, and the alcohol dryness at the end is the perfect stop punctuation for a honey-like sweetness that seems to mingle with rum.

I've heard this brew refered to as the "cognac of beers" (not to be confused with "the champagne of beers"), and rightly so; this is a beer that is meant to be sipped, savored, and shared. Prost!

Links of Interest:

Schloss Eggenberg Urbock 23

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