Friday, April 30, 2010

Beer Club, Volume Eight - Saisons!

Well, it appears that spring has finally sprung in Minnesota. About damn time. I thought it was time to start introducing the group to some beers that go down well in the summer so that they don't try drinking an imperial stout when mowing the lawn and accidentally revert back to Miller Lite.

Wheat beers/witbiers/hefeweizens were all on my radar but I decided to start with my personal favorite of the summer styles, saisons. Admittedly, I needed to brush up on some good examples myself as I had tried less than ten different ones before April's Beer Club meeting.

I knew that I wanted to do Lift Bridge's Farm Girl and Surly's CynicAle, both because of the local angle and because they're damn good beers. Another one that was a personal favorite had to make the cut so Goose Island's Sofie was on my short list. A visit to the Four Firkins helped round out the lineup with Alvey's help. He recommended Ommegang's Hennepin (I felt silly for forgetting that one) and also Saison Dupont which he said was the classic example of the style. A couple new arrivals, Victory Helios and Great Divide's Colette rounded out the list.

I had tried five of the seven beers on the list and I usually like to try most of them before Beer Club so I bought a 375ml bottle of the Saison Dupont and drank it on Sunday. I was a bit leery when I saw it came in a green bottle and pretty disappointed when I popped the top and smelled some skunky aromas. Luckily though, the smell faded quickly and it turned out to be a pretty good beer.

After October's meeting, I realized how devastating it can be to have an awesome beer in the middle of the lineup followed by a less-than-awesome beer. I hadn't had Sofie since last year and had only tried it twice but I was confident enough in my tastes to move the Dupont from the end of the lineup. To cover my ass though, I put Hennepin at the end with Sofie second to last because I knew I liked Hennepin and I knew it was another renowned example of the style. My fear was that the skunky aroma in the beginning would turn the guys off a bit to it and I didn't want to finish the night on that kind of note.

Beer Club Monday rolled around and we were a little light compared to the full capacity Trappist month in March but that was OK with me, I love good attendance but I think about six people is the perfect number and that's exactly what we had. We started off locally with the Farm Girl and the Cynic which both surprisingly had some mixed reviews.

The new litmus test that I started using is "Would you drink this beer over Miller Lite (or whatever your favorite macro was) if they were the only two beers in a bar?" and also "Would you drink this over Summit (or whatever your go to easily accessible standard craft beer is) if they were the only two beers in a bar?" For the most part, everybody picked the saison in question over the macro with a couple exceptions but they didn't necessarily beat out the go to craft beers for as many people.

Note - I don't use Summit in that second question as a slam to Summit at all. On the contrary, I use it as my example because for about a decade now, I've walked into every shit bar just hoping they have Summit because they've done such a good job getting into bars in Minnesota that they're my oasis in an otherwise bad lineup of taps.

We moved on to the Colette which for some odd reason was Great Divide’s first appearance in Beer Club. They make some incredible beers (Yeti, Hibernation Ale, Titan, Hercules) and I’m glad the group finally got exposed to them. The Colette seemed to be one of the middle of the road, everybody liked it enough that they’d drink it again but there was no raving about it. I had it at right in the middle myself but will seek it out to drink more.

Then came the Helios. Oh my, I wasn’t ready for this one. Or should I say, the group wasn’t ready for this yet. My first experience with “da funk” came from Saison Brett from Boulevard last year. It’s kind of hard to describe other than using the term funky. Well, Helios has it too. Now don’t get me wrong, I personally didn’t think it was a bad thing and neither did Brett but we’ve come across it before.

Convincing the rest of the group was a whole other thing. My question was and remains, how do you tell someone who’s getting into beer that aromas of “barnyard funk” and “horse blanket” not only not bad but sought after? The Helios wasn’t too overpowering but for Pat, Phil and Paul L, it was shit. Literally.

Pat's reaction to da funk

Brett and I liked it and Paul U was on board for the most part but the other guys were less than enthused and choked down their samples. I’m thinking we could have some issues for certain styles in Beer Club’s future. But we’ll cross that bridge to the barnyard when we get to it.

Next up was Saison Dupont, considered by many to be the epitome of the saison style of beer and was once named by Men’s Journal as the best beer in the world. It went over very well. It did have a bit of the skunky aroma which I learned from Brett is actually more of a sulfur aroma, or DMS (dimethyl sulfide) in the very geeky section of the beer world. The thing about it with this beer was that it luckily faded quickly after the initial pungent punch to the nose and the beer ended up being very enjoyable. It did spark a good discussion about aromas and the difference between skunky and DMS notes.

Brett popping his (former) favorite saison

Next on the list was Sofie. Up until this point, this was my favorite saison and it remained in the top slot after going up against the others as well. It was the winner of the night in a landslide and even prompted Brett to change his mind on his favorite saison. If this stuff keeps happening, I might start to think I know something about beer!

Beer of the Night

The final saison of the night was Ommegang's Hennepin. It went over well but also a bit uneventful. I should have trusted my instincts and moved Sofie to the end but at least Hennepin was liked by most and wasn't a bad beer to end the nig ht on.

We finished the night with a few random beers including Matt Schiller's "Double Broken Tap" Imperial IPA (142 IBU 8.4 ABV). Matt's another home brewer that I met via Twitter. He brought me a couple bombers of his beer one night after work and after we drank one together, I grudgingly decided to save the other to split with Beer Club. It's a damn good beer and everybody loved it. Can't wait to drink more of it one day.

Matt's Double Broken Tap IIPA

Thus ended another successful Beer Club. I'm not sure that saisons went over real well for the whole group, but at least we were all exposed to something new and will hopefully continue to try more of this unique style of beer.

***Note - One thing that I wanted to mention was the perception of price in regards to packaging. The main reason I picked Helios to add to the lineup was because I thought it would be good to have a very affordable option and since it was only $3.99 a bomber, it really fit the bill.

One comment I always hear about Surly is how they're so expensive because $10-12 for a four pack of cans isn't what people are accustomed to paying. Well, the "cheap" bomber of Helios comes out to about 18 cents an ounce and the "expensive" CynicAle comes out to about 16 cents an ounce. All perception.

I'm not trying to knock Helios or say that Surly is the new cheap beer on the block, I just wanted to mention it so that you're always aware of what you're actually paying for a beer. The Hennepin was another good lesson in paying attention. If you buy a 750ml of cork and caged Hennepin you'll pay about $8 for it. If you buy a 4 pack of 12 oz bottles you'll pay about $10-11 for it. The 750ml costs about 32 cents per ounce, the 4 pack costs about 22 cents an ounce.

Bottom line is do the math, figure out the best value for your dollar and be able to afford more good beer.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Beer Club's First Field Trip

One of the things I had envisioned when I was coming up with the idea of Beer Club was that we'd do some field trips as a group. While some very loose versions of "group outings" had occurred (Josh & I going to Surlyfest, Paul & Paul & I going to Winterfest), a true group outing had yet to happen.

Surly was very high on my list because of its closeness and because of how much we all love their beer but the first one to actually come about was Brau Brothers. It started in January when they were doing a tasting at the Four Firkins and I spoke with Dustin about us possibly coming out. He seemed to be more than happy to have us so I started thinking about putting something together.

I later saw Dustin and his brother Trevor when Paul & Paul & I were at Winterfest and we once again spoke about the group going to the brewery for a visit. After plenty of emails to the group, we decided on April 10th as the date that would work for the most people. It was on.

I wanted to make sure it was a good sized group so I encouraged people to bring significant others and any friends that were interested and by the time it the day came around there were seven of us from Beer Club with seven other guests. The more I thought about it, I realized that New Ulm was less than an hour away from Lucan so I also set up a private tour of the Schell's brewery for the same day.

The day of the tour we all met at Brau Brothers at or around 11:00 for the tour. The Brau Brothers tour reminded me of the Surly tour because most of it takes place in one big room. Dustin told us about the day to day happenings of the brewery, the history of it and plenty of other info that we all wanted to know.
Besides that, we all got to have some good conversation with Trevor Brau and Dale Brau as well as sample plenty of beer from the nine taps that were flowing. I can tell you with some certainty that there were some new fans of some of the beers, notably the Sheephead. I got lots of positive feedback about that beer. Eventually everybody broke off into smaller groups and spent the rest of the time talking with each of the Braus and just having a good time.

We were told about Brau Fest, which will happen the first weekend in June. I really want to make it and hopefully can get a small group of friends to go too. If you don't have plans currently, mark it on your calendar and come have a beer (or ten) with me.
One thing I'd like to reiterate is how much I love to support not just a local brewery like Brau Brothers, but to support a great group of guys like the ones who run the place. All three of them were very genuine guys that you'd want to sit and have a beer with, no matter where they worked. One of the very cool things about the day was that they didn't charge for the tour, they just asked for a donation to the local Lions Club and we were more than happy to oblige.

After the tour we decided to stop by the Brauhaus for some food and to check out their offsale beer which included (of course) Brau Brothers. One of the things I noticed on their website and for some reason thought I needed to try was a "Beyond Insanity Wings Challenge". Since this is a beer blog and not a "Man vs Food" blog, I'll spare you the gory details. I will say though that in hindsight, I'm not sure it was a smart idea on my part. Apparently the success rate is only 15%. But I did it and will now be immortalized in Lucan on the plaque inside the Brauhaus. Look for me if you're ever there!

After we finished up in Lucan, we all drove to New Ulm to hit Schell's Brewery. A regular tour is $3 per person and if you want to set up a private tour for your group, it's $60 or $3 per person, whichever is greater. I figured even if there were only 10-15 of us that paying the extra $2-3 per person would be worth it to have the tour all to ourselves. We ended up with 18 people because four others joined us in New Ulm.

I had been on the tour several times before, most recently in January of this year, but each time it's a little different. Sometimes it's because every tour guide has their own style and set of information that they decide to share with you. Sometimes it's because new events are going on. Sometimes it's because a new gift shop & tasting room just opened. Sometimes it's because of whatever. Bottom line is that even if you've toured it before it's worth your while to check it out again.

Since I wrote a bit about Schell's a few months ago when I toured it, I don't have a ton more to add about it. One very cool part of the day though was being able to do both of these tours on the same day to compare and contrast how different they are.

Brau Brothers is a very small operation that opened only a few years ago and they are making beers that are very current in today's craft beer world. Their lineup fills several different niches and no matter what you like, you should be able to find something. Included in that lineup, they have a great flagship pale ale, a very drinkable cream stout, a light lager and even a big & complex sipper. Their tour consisted of basic background on the brewing process, how they got the company going and some plans for the future.

Schell's on the other hand, is a pretty good sized brewery that is the second oldest in the country and has a lineup of beers that very much sticks to their 150 year history of brewing German style beers. Their beers are in no way as diverse as Brau Brothers but they have a proven history of success. Their tour consisted of a detailed historical background of both the brewery and the family that has been running it since day one. They talk about how to keep their history alive in modern times and sustaining both their success and the Schell's tradition.

I'd also like to mention that we had a wonderful tour guide at Schell's. From the minute the tour started she was very chipper and friendly to everybody and did a great job putting up with a group full of wise crackers and comedians. She let us hang around well past our hour tour and answered a ton of questions that we had. Schell's is lucky to have a sweetheart like her working for them.

After the tour was over, about half of us visited another staple of New Ulm, Happy Joe's pizza parlor. I mention this for two reasons. First and foremost, if you ever make it to New Ulm you have to eat there, and I would highly recommend the taco pizza. Second, they had the new Grain Belt Nordeast which had just come out three days prior and wasn't even in the Schell's sampling room yet.

If I had known how fun this day was going to be it would have happened a long time ago. Kudos to the entire group for mobilizing and making this happen. Everybody contributed in a positive way to make the day a huge success and that includes not just the Beer Club members but the guests as well. Everybody did a great job asking questions, engaging in good conversation and representing what the craft beer community can be like.

I'm not sure what the next field trip is going to be but after this experience I can promise two things. It'll be soon and it'll be a damn good time!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

I'd have another beer in Mexico

When we were planning our trip to Mexico with Dayna and Noe, there was one usual part of traveling that didn't enter the equation for me because I didn't expect to find a brew pub or a local brewery to visit and I was just hoping to find drinkable beer period.

Now, in my efforts to tow the line between beer geek and beer snob I try to stick to the notion that my real favorite beer is the one I'm drinking at the moment. So rather than be sad that there was no Mexican brewery that made an Russian Imperial Stout or a double IPA I was hoping to find a beer that was drinkable. Since Mexican beer made me think of Corona and the skunk ass juice that you find in that bottle, I wasn't hoping for much.

When we got to Noe's hometown of Buenavista de Cuellar, he introduced me to his favorite beer - Victoria. He said it was one of the beers that wasn't distributed nationwide for some reason but was still very good. I was hopeful when I saw it in a brown bottle rather clear and in 90 degree weather, cold and refreshing are the most important characteristics that a beer can have. Luckily, Victoria was both. Nothing out of the norm, just a very decent lager that Dogfish Head might call a "lawnmower beer" and it really hit the spot whenever I drank it. It complemented both the the food and the weather down there very well. I later found out that it was made by the same company that makes Corona, Negra Modelo, Pacifico, etc. No matter, Victoria really hit the spot down there. I also found out that it goes very well with goat!

When we traveled to Acapulco for a few days we were lucky enough to have an all inclusive package at the hotel. I knew this meant that I was going to be limited on what I could drink for beer and was a bit nervous when I saw that meant only Corona. Whatever... when in Rome, er I mean when in Mexico, right?

Well I had a few things working in my favor. First, they had big BROWN bottles that it was served from, like the one on this page. So unlike every previous Corona that I had tried in the States, this beer wasn't guaranteed to be light stuck. In fact, I didn't have one skunky beer anywhere in Mexico and I don't think it was a coincidence that I stuck to brown bottled beer.

The second thing I figured I had going for me was that I was in Mexico drinking a Mexican beer. Not exactly like drinking Abrasive Ale from that was made 4 miles from my house but still much better than a beer that travels across the boarder and customs, etc. When you have that short of a shelf life for a beer, every day helps.

Lastly, I was sitting on a freakin' beach in Acapulco. Really, a substandard beer wouldn't be able to ruin my day. It was another beer that fit the bill for me and went down well. I made a point to buy a Corona shirt while I was there, but one that also had Acapulco on it. It's a good reminder to me that beer is best when it fills the need that you currently have.

The third beer that I drank several of when we were in Mexico was Negra Modelo. I actually first had this our first day in Acapulco at Amigo Miguel's. We were traveling all morning, had problems checking in and by the time we got there for lunch, all I wanted was a beer. After trying Vicky's already I figured I'd go with Negra Modelo after Noe told me it was his second choice of Mexican beer.

A combination of my thirst, my need for a beer and the price tag (right around a buck a bottle) led me to drink several of them at lunch. At the time, they tasted as good as a beer can taste. This was another beer that I had probably tried sometime in the past (like Corona) but wasn't crazy about because it wasn't as fresh as it could have been, I wasn't in the mood for it or just didn't like as much because I wasn't drinking it while staring at the Pacific Ocean. (Just for the record, it was legal for me to be drinking it in the car).

My beer experience in Mexico was actually a microcosm of my entire experience in Mexico. I really learned to appreciate another culture and their way of doing things while simultaneously realizing how much I take for granted at home. I didn't get to pop the cork off a Belgian quad while I was south of the border but I did find beer that tasted damn good at a ridiculously cheap price (we even drank a few at the coffee shop across the street from where we were staying).

I won't likely find another Victoria in the States and I'm thinking I won't roll the dice ordering a Corona in a clear bottle but I'll gladly drink Negra Modelo when the situation fits and one day when I return, I'll be more than happy to have another beer in Mexico.