Friday, December 21, 2007

Holyday Beers

Now that we are just about out of Advent (you did give up alcohol for Advent, didn't you ;o)?), here is a lineup of reviews to help you decide what beers to drink between Christmas and Epiphany. Thanks to JM for the delightful reviews of an impressive line-up of Christmas/Winter ales. I tacked on a few of my own tastings to round things out.

I want to wish all of you a blessed remainder of Advent, a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

Goose Island Christmas Ale (Reviewed by JM)This was the first beer up for review in the 2007 Search for the Best Christmas Ale. Initial thoughts: this ale is definitely a keeper, a nice "middle-of-the-road" beverage that goes well with winding down on a cold winter's eve. It didn't knock my socks off, but it was certainly pleasant.

It poured a nice deep amber color, even a touch of brown. Had a respectable head at first, but it evaporated too quickly. The carbonation was just this side of "heavy", but this too passed before long. Included in the tapestry of flavors, I detected hints of orange peel, some all-spice, vanilla, perhaps a touch of ginger, and a faint whisper of raisins. The flavors that dominated, however, were strong hops, brown sugar, caramel, toffee, and nuts. This beer is classified as an English brown ale. Mouthfeel was very crisp, and surprisingly light, given the complexity and richness of the flavor. Perhaps the thing that was missing in this ale was a stronger presence of Christmas spices - granted, there was a dusting of all-spice, ginger, and orange to be detected, but these flavors needed to present themselves in a more striking fashion for this ale to really feel like "Christmas". I give it a 7 out of 10.

Wychwood Brewery "Bah Humbug" Christmas Ale (Reviewed by JM)—The second beer I sampled in the 2007 Search for the Best Christmas Brew was an unheard-of (for me, anyway) brew called Bah Humbug! (Wychwood Brewery, out of the UK). I paid $4.00 for the pint bottle, but the package seemed worth it - apparently the guys in marketing had done their job. The label featured an endearing cartoonish sketch of Ebenezer Scrooge in night-clothes, holding a candle and being haunted by Marley's Ghost.

Ah. Dickens. The Christmas Carol. Bring on the Yuletide. The description on the back of the bottle, written by the head brewer, promised a "rich, full bodied, Christmas Ale, brewed from the choicest hops and malts." Ok! We'll give it a try! This Winter Warmer poured a murky reddish-orange-brown with a respectable head, but the head vanished rather quickly. The label did not mislead - the malts were right up front from the first sip. It was a bit difficult to untangle the tapestry of flavors at first. The "close-your-eyes-and-smell" test suggested baking gingerbread and orange peel. Maybe a shade of dark molasses as well ... yes, definitely something dark, and sweet, and bitter. But also comforting - Grandma, baking holiday goodies in the kitchen.

Still, the flavors were sufficiently blended that none of them overpowered, or even really stood out, for that matter. The top notes were fruity and even a bit tart, but these quickly vanished into the malty mist. At various points I thought I detected just a hint of pine, which was quite nice. Lower in the mix, near the bottom, was the suggestion of butterscotch, toffee, molasses. The hop-malt-yeast foundation remained strong throughout, and made this a little like eating a special loaf of Christmas bread. The mouthfeel was more creamy than smooth, which, in my opinion, is befitting a Christmas beer. The drawback of this Winter Warmer was that it occasionally tended in the direction of "too sour", or even "chemicalesque." This was not the rule, mind you, but one sip in about every ten took me to the edge, and I had to concentrate to "listen" for the flavor hidden in the almost-offensive. It never achieved sourness or a full chemical taste, it just leaned in that direction once in a while, for some reason. I can only assume that this is because of the alcohol content or the malt-dominance - but the beer was only a 6.0% ABV. That shouldn't have posed any kind of a problem. On the whole, a tolerable beer. The packaging and overall presentation added quite a bit to the experience, and even made up for some of this beer's lack of pop and shimmer. It's a good beer, but a quiet beer. Nothing flashy, just some nice Christmas flavors subtly imprinted on a large malt canvas. I give this a strong 7 out of 10.

Samuel Adams Cranberry Lambic (Reviewed by JM)—The third beer of the Best Christmas Beer review, this Cranberry Lambic by Samuel Adams was probably the most quirky - and disappointing - of the lot. Poured light pink with a large frothy head, quickly fading down to what, in the end, looked like a glass of sparkling berry champagne.

This is classed, officially, as a Fruit Beer, but it barely qualifies as a real beer at all. True, there was a strong presence of yeast throughout, but this beverage was ultimately very one-dimensional and bland. True to the name, the most dominant flavor was that of tart cranberries, with perhaps a hint of plum, but overall smothered in yeast. It was a lot like I imagine it would be to drink a loaf of cranberry bread - lots of yeast, lots of cranberry.The mouthfeel was crisp and sharp, with lots of bubbles - again, very like a champagne. The aroma was almost an exact match for the taste - very, very powerful scent of yeast and tart berries. I won't say that this wasn't an enjoyable beer - I had no trouble drinking the entire bottle. It would be a nice beverage to serve at the end of a large meal, as a kind of liquid dessert. But as a stand-alone beer, it lacked severely. No real complexity of which to speak, and any more than one-to-two bottles would undoubtedly lead to a sugar-induced headache. Most people, I think, would find this beer too tart. The clash of the yeast and tart berries can be a bit much, admittedly. The finish is very dry, leaving the lingering taste of the sour cranberry. I give this a 5 out of 10.

Delirium Noël (reviewed by JM)—This was the beer I had been anticipating. After falling head-over-heels for Delirium Nocturnum, I was very excited at the prospect of trying the Delirium Noel, a dark Belgian ale. The familiar pink elephant that is the mascot of the Delirium products sports a Santa hat and winter scarf on the label of this bottle - a nice touch, I thought.The pour was a cloudy and rich amber color, with a good thick head that showed some staying power. On closer inspection, there was some sediment swirling in the glass, a constant stream of bubbles running up the side.

The smell was very yeasty, as you would expect from a Belgian ale. Now and then, I thought I caught a whiff of apple cider mixed in with the yeast. And then, the first taste. Wow. Creamy, creamy mouthfeel, with a lovely blend of apples and malt/yeast. Perhaps a hint of cherry in there somewhere? What was most amazing is how well this brew masked it's 10% ABV. I expected some of this to come through in the flavor, but it was barely noticeable - aside from the warming sensation it created, of course. Although it was definitely fruit flavor that spoke the most loudly in the initial tastes, it would be misleading to call this a fruity beer. This is a rich Belgian ale with plenty of meatiness to it, a substantial body, a nice apple-slanted top end, a thick yeasty bottom end, and a heavy carbonation that makes the whole presentation sparkle and pop. However. This is not really a Christmas ale. It lacked the necessary dimensions of spice - the ginger, cinnamon, orange peel, clove, etc. - that would make it a true yuletide brew. It's not a bad beverage by any stretch. I would drink it again, for a special occasion (but not more than one, due to the ABV and richness). But in this particular contest, it was holly and plum and cocoa and spice that I was looking for, and I just didn't find it in this beer. So-good beer, even better-than-good, but even though I might normally rate this a strong 7 out of 10, for the purposes of this series of Christmas beer reviews, I give it a 5 out of 10.

Anchor "Our Special Ale" 2005 (reviewed by JM)—And now for something completely different. The next beer in the 2007 Christmas brew review was actually a 2005 bottle of Anchor Brewing Company's Our Special Ale (2005). As the bottle explains:"This is the thirty-first Our Special Ale from the brewers at Anchor. It is sold only from early November to mid-January. The Ale's recipe is different every year, but the intent with which we offer it remains the same: joy and celebration of the newness of life."So how does a "vintage" 2005 brew hold up to scrutiny after two years? Pretty darn well.

It poured a dark, muddy brown - just this side of black, in fact. A small head that quickly faded, and some nice lacing finished out the presentation. The smell was immediately strong and recognizable: molasses and vanilla, dark malt and brown sugar ... sweet, but with just a hint of tartness. Buried deeper in the bouquet was a suggestion of pine - very interesting. The fragrance was actually quite amazing - I don't remember the last brew I had that smelled so strong. The taste was incredibly complex and, for that reason, enjoyable. It took my breath away at first, but finished with an eye-opening "ah-ha!" as I began to recognize the various flavors in the tapestry: pine again, brown sugar, ginger, smokey molasses, roasted malts, some light spice, a certain kind of "woodsy" backdrop, dates, perhaps a bit of cocoa or dark chocolate, and ... figs? Yes, yes, figs. What a pleasant surprise!I was certainly impressed with this beer. After all the adjectives have been spent, and all the similies used up, there is one thing left to say: it was just plain good. No real carbonation to speak of, which meant a very smooth drinking experience. Great creamy mouthfeel, and those wonderful smatterings of eyebrow-raising flavors that evoked all sorts of nostalgia. This is what Christmas should taste like. This is what Christmas should feel like.For its amazing drinkability, for its unique combination of Christmas-appropriate tastes, and for properly evoking a spirit of Christmas and pleasant memories, I give this beer a 9 out of 10.

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale (reviewed by JM)—After the syrupy-sticky sweetness of the Anchor Our Special Ale, this brew by Sierra Nevada - Celebration Ale - was an amazingly refreshing contrast. This IPA poured a lovely dark orange color, and left some nice lacing. The smell was quite powerful: lots and lots of hops, lots and lots of citrus (more grapefruit than lemon, say), and a strong dose of floral to balance it out. The scent reminded me very much of Founder's Red's Rye. It's a beautiful scent, and very inviting.The taste was not much different from the scent. Immediate splash of citrus and hops (bitter and tangy at first, like biting into a grapefruit peel), followed by a medium-body malt. There may have been a touch of pine in this one, but it was hard to tell with all of the citrus hops blazing away in the forefront.

The mouthfeel was snappy, with a good deal of carbonation - which played an extremely effective complementary role to the citrusy flavor. The whole ensemble felt very light and refreshing, while not at all lacking depth or character.The 6.8% ABV made itself present in the mix once in a great while, but for the most part, the alcohol stayed quiet in the background. Still, the hard citrus-and-hops character makes this beer good for sipping, not for gulping. I noticed that, as the beer warmed up a bit, the flavors got a bit more balanced, and the citrus splash settled down quite a bit. This, of course, only made it all the more enjoyable. Perhaps the next bottle I get will stay out of the fridge altogether.As a Christmas brew, this IPA was acceptable. I would definitely serve it at a Christmas party as a special holiday drink. The shades of orange peel in the top end of Celebration Ale make it work as a Christmas beverage, but it would also be nice if there were a few more spices thrown in - perhaps some ginger and all-spice, to round it out.Great beer, good winter drink. I give it an 8 out of 10. (Editor's Note: I concur with JM that this is a wonderful brew and gets at least an 8 out of 10.)

Thanks again to JM for some great reviews. Now here are a few I tried this season.

Point St. Benedict’s Winter Ale (reviewed by DP)—Great label, with a likeness of St. Benedict reading an illuminated manuscript by candlelight. The beer pours a beautiful rich brown with a slight orange cast. Clean nose with just a hint of clove. But the taste, alas, does not match up with the look. The bittering is out of balance and is a bit too aggressive. But the real problem is a pronounced, lingering astringency in the mouth and on the finish. They had to have tasted this at the brewery. I think they got some tannin extraction on this one and couldn't bring themselves to dump the whole batch, so they just went ahead and bottled it up anyway. Bad move and quite unpleasant. I dumped out more than half the bottle. St. Benedict definitely deserves better than this. Rates 0 out of 10. (Reviewed by DP)

Schell Snowstorm Ale (reviewed by DP)—Pours a light brown with a nice stable head. Clean but very faint malt on the nose. Faint spice. A tiny bit of astringency on this one too. Also a bit of a chemically finish. Rates 3 out of 10.

Anchor "Our Special Ale" 2007 (reviewed by DP)—First off, good for Anchor Brewery for cutting through the PC junk and saying “Merry Christmas & Happy New Year” on the label. This beer is very dark brown, with a huge, billowy, long lasting head. Smells like dark dried fruit, chocolate, rum, and cinnamon on the nose. A sip…..Wow! This is different. The spicing is unlike anything I’ve had in a beer before. I'm pretty sure there’s some cinnamon in there. But what is the rest about? I confess, I had to look around on the Internet and one other reviewer got it, I think—a hint of anise. And to me it tastes a little like Concord grape - but let's just call it plum, in keeping with the season. Nice thick mouthfeel, in keeping with the style. Very good. Rates 8 out of 10.

Avery Old Jubilation Ale (reviewed by DP)—Wonderful stuff. Thick, sweet, molasses, raisins, and caramel. Great malt backbone with a perfect hop bittering. This beer carries its formidable 8.0% ABV very lightly. So forget the spices. All you need for a great winter ale is plenty of chewy caramel and raisins. Loved it. Gets a 9 out of 10.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

A New Favorite and a Couple of Oktoberfestbiers

I have recently discovered a beer that easily takes a place in my Top Ten Beers I Go Back To Again and Again (something will have to get knocked out of that list.)

It's Abbot Ale, from the Greene King Brewery ( I stumbled onto this beer by accident—bought it on a whim while scanning the shelves—and am I ever happy. Basically, British pale ale is my favorite style of beer. And Abbot Ale is a really distinct and enticing example of this style. You will often hear British ales described as "fruity" or "estery". Well, if you want to know exactly what that means, taste an Abbot Ale. You may love it and you may hate it—remember, De gustibus non est disputandum—but at least you'll know exactly what distinctive British ale character is like.

It pours a rich mahogany, with a slightly orange cast. The taste is incredibly complex—slightly spicy, fruity, estery, and bold. This beer holds together to the very end, even as it warms to room temperature. You can sip away on one of these all evening (if you have that sort of will-power) and the last warmish sip will still be delicious and satisfying. I buy it in cans and don't let that scare you off—modern cans are a great way to package premium beer; they're much better than those crazy clear bottles. If you are a British pale ale afficionado like me, or if you want to try a striking example of the style, I highly recommend Abbot Ale.

I know this is November now, but I must include reviews of a couple of oktoberfestbiers that I recently tried on a business trip (and hey, Oktoberfest is held in September anyway, so there's no need to quibble about months.) The first is Paulaner Oktoberfest Märzen from that great monastic brewery (albeit no longer run by monks.) Oktoberfestbier is a lager beer, brewed using special strains of yeast that ferment in cooler temperatures and then further cold conditioned for a smooth, clean taste. This beer pours fairly light for the style and is indeed smooth and rich. Very malty, with a balanced hop finish. Good stuff.

Even better, however, is the Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Märzen. This beer has more of everything, compared to the Paulaner. It has a richer, coppery red color. It is spicier, with a distinctively sweet, caramel note. It is smooth and crisp. Hands down this is my favorite example of this wonderful German style, which is readily available as a real treat this time of year.

I haven't yet brewed an oktoberfestbier, but if I ever brew a beer even close to as good as the Hacker-Pschorr (or even the Paulaner) I'll call myself a brewer.

Pumpkin Beers

Happy All Souls' Day! In keeping with the season, I thought it would be nice to review a round-up of pumpkin ales. You should still be able to get at least some of these in your local store, although you'll want to pass up at least one of them, I think........

Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale (reviewed by DP): The word that came immediately to mind when I took my first sip of this beer was, "Yikes!" This beer is way too heavy on the cinnamon and the spicing in general has an artificial quality to it—in fact, it tastes a lot like an apple Pop Tart. And it has a medicinal finish that is just short of nasty. It's reasonably priced, but you'll be much happier if you pay a few shekels more for something that's actually good.

The "Pumpkin Ale" by Post Road Brewery poured a lovely dark orange/brown, and smelled fantastic - hints of pumpkin and clove spice in the bouquet. But where is the taste that goes along with this scent? It's missing. The taste is more like a slice of raw pumpkin, with a few moments of ... what is that? Bubble gum? Strange. It looked and smelled better than it actually tasted. The taste is actually a bit bland. Disappointing. (Reviewed by JM.)

Here's another review of Post Road's entry: After visiting two well-respected liquor stores in my area and speaking with the most knowledgeable beer aficionados at each, I chose Post Road first. At each store I was assured that this was “the pumpkin ale” to drink. And so, I purchased and entire six-pack, confident that I would finish it rather quickly.

Wrong. I was disappointed. While this ale could not fairly be described as offensive to the palate, neither is it particularly tasty or interesting. There were hints of pumpkin and spice in the aroma, to be sure, but precious little of anything I would have expected in terms of flavor. No pumpkin. Mild spice. That’s all. In fact, I was so perplexed after the ringing endorsements given this ale that I wondered if perhaps I wasn’t suffering from a cold. Perhaps my taste buds were off? So I tested my nose and palate on another beer. No problem. Olfaction and gustation each checked out just fine. It was the beer. (Reviewed by MF.)

On the other hand, there is this bottle from Buffalo Bill's Brewery, also called "Pumpkin Ale." It poured a bit lighter than the Post Road, a bit more amber. But my goodness, the taste ... heavy splashes of clove and cinnamon spice. Much sticky sweetness. This is the closest thing to drinking a slice of pumpkin pie I have ever experienced. A nice long finish, with a lingering aftertaste. I can't say anything bad about this beer. It came as a single bottle in a sampler six-pack - but I will definitely go back for a full six-pack of nothing but this ale. Truly amazing. (Reviewed by JM.)

Also outstanding is the "Punkin Ale" by Dogfish Head Brewery. The spicing in this beer was clean and assertive. The emphasis seemed to be on allspice and ginger with the cinnamon appropriately sitting a little more lightly in the mix. A wonderful, creamy mouthfeel and smooth, subtle carbonation contributed to the exact sensation that JM touched on above, that of eating a slice of pumpkin pie. As is typical, the perceived sweetness of this beer rises as it warms. Its higher-than-average alcohol (7% ABV) brings a nice warming sensation. This is a finely crafted beer which should be sipped and savored. (Reviewed by DP.)

Another fine entry is Southampton Pumpkin Ale. This pumpkin ale is brewed at Southampton brewery, Saratoga Springs, NY. Hitting an even 6% on the alcohol meter, Southampton describes their brew as “ale brewed with Pumpkin and Spices (Cinnamon, Nutmeg and Allspice).” And indeed, it delivered on all of the above. The aroma of pumpkin and spice was pleasing but not forced or overpowering. As expected, I found that the longer I drank the ale (and the more it warmed up), the more pronounced the pumpkin and spice became. The pumpkin was subtle and smooth, and the spices did not overwhelm the pumpkin overtones. This brew pours a very inviting golden-brown and has a nice, smooth mouth-feel. All in all, after tasting a few pumpkin ales, I would have to say that they can be very enjoyable. But it is perhaps a good thing that they are seasonal. (Reviewed by MF.)
And finally there is this seasonal entry from Blue Moon . I found this beer to be pleasant, but unremarkable. There is nothing wrong with it—the hop balance is good and the spicing is clean, albeit subdued. But to me it's a bit too dry and crisp—I would wish for more of a caramelly sweetness and a thicker mouthfeel in a beer in this style. I enjoyed this, I would drink it again if one was offered to me, but probably I won't buy this again. (Reviewed by DP.)

The tastings have definitely inspired me to have a crack at homebrewing a pumpkin ale.....but it'll probably have to wait until next year.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hog Roast and Homebrew!

Whew, I'm finally getting around to posting again. Thanks to everybody for their great comments and feedback via e-mail. I'll try to keep the updates coming more regularly.

For starters, I noticed that we got a mention on Jamil Zainasheff's podcast the other day. Check out the very start of the "Christmas Beer" episode to see what they had to say (then check out my original comments here.)

The big event beer-wise in our neck of the woods was an annual picnic that we had a week ago Saturday. When we moved here to rural Wisconsin we started holding annually what we called our Harvest Festival. It has typically been attended by well over one hundred folks and features lots of great locally grown food and, in these later years, homebrewed beer as well. A crowd of over one hundred sounds like a lot and it is, but in our Latin Mass apostolate the kids outnumber the adults by a fairly significant margin. This bodes very well indeed for the future of the Latin Mass and it also cuts down on the amount of beer that one has to provide. (If you want to know more about our Latin Mass apostolate located in the beautiful rolling hills of Wisconsin, you can check us out a bit here. The picture above is a Solemn High Mass at our apostolate on Easter of 2005. That's my son Christopher on the far right.)

Often the feast has been at our place, but this year's harvest festival (or Whoop Ti Doo, as they called it) was held at the home of our friends, the Schuh's. The featured "guest" was a whole roasted hog, cooked to perfection by our friend and fellow-Latin Mass afficionado, Jim Schroeder. (That's Jim Schroeder and Jim Schuh helping that pig off the truck and out of its cage.)

This year I supplied the beer and I had three varieties on tap. The first was a pale ale, in the British style. This was from a very simple recipe of two-row pale malt, a bit of 60L crystal malt, and a bit of biscuit malt, bittered with Fuggles hops and fermented with a British-style ale yeast (specifically, SafAle S-04 dry yeast.) This batch was made from all grain and was about three months old when consumed. In my opinion the bittering was off--I have very, very hard water from my well and I believe that this is causing some off-bittering problems in my all-grain beers--but the crowd enjoyed it anyway. I have started cutting my water 3:1 with distilled prior to brewing and it seems to help.

The second beer was a brown ale. This batch was a real milestone for me in that it was my first ten gallon batch. It takes only a fraction longer to do ten gallons than five, so if one has the equipment and limited time (like me) it's a really great way to go. It's definitely best to know ahead of time that you can consistently make decent beer, though, since it's pretty sad having to throw away five gallons of homebrew, let alone ten. In the end, I actually got 11 1/2 gallons of beer out of this batch and that will take some explaining.

This was from a recipe I got from Jamil Zainasheff's podcast on Mild Ales and indeed, this was supposed to be a mild, which is a relatively weak beer which still has a lot of flavor. This recipe has a British pale malt base and was heavy on the chocolate and darker crystal malts. But for some whacky reason, my wort [pre-fermented beer] prior to fermentation was way, way too strong. I must have gotten very good efficiency in extracting the sugars from this malt, but I also must have accidentally added too much two-row pale malt because it was physically impossible for my wort to be that strong based on the original recipe. I had to add additional water to this batch and in the end I got 11 1/2 gallons. I split this wort into two fermenters. In a 5 gallon fermenter I used WYeast 1968 London ESB yeast. In another fermenter with 6 1/2 gallons I used SafAle S-04 dry yeast. The only difference was the yeast and the two batches turned out radically different. The 1968 batch is much crisper and has less perceived sweetness, with a sharper coffee note coming through. The S-04 batch is breadier, sweeter, and the caramel and toffee notes really shine out. I prefer the S-04 batch, but I served the 1968 batch at the hog roast because I thought perhaps it would appeal more to a broader crowd. It was indeed a big hit.

Finally, I served out a very basic stout that I had made from a can of Ironmaster pre-hopped Irish Stout extract, supplemented by about 1 1/2 lbs. of dry malt extract. I steeped some additional roasted barley and chocolate malt and fermented this batch with Nottingham dry yeast. This is a very quick and easy beer to make but, after about two months of aging, really comes out smooth and creamy. At the picnic, not as many folks tapped into this stout, but those who did enjoyed it.

By the way, I'm really sold on these pre-hopped cans of malt extract. Between my wife, four kids, church, job, and farm, I don't always have a lot of time to brew. Sure all-grain beer is more challenging to make and frequently better to drink. But some homebrew is better than no homebrew. So forget about the snoots who think that brewing from extract is for yokels. Don't let the best become the enemy of the good. Just Brew It!

All three beers were a big hit and it was a joy, in the fullest sense of that word, to share my creations with a crowd of appreciative people. This is one of the things I love most about this hobby--it's not just about making beer that I can drink myself. It's about sharing something that I have crafted with pride and bringing some good cheer to others.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Kegging My Beer

As this blog unfolds I will get into the details of homebrewing, in hopes that perhaps some newbies will give it a try and that some veterans can share their knowledge. Starting at the back end of the process on this entry, I kegged a batch of beer this weekend, a simple brown ale for a big picnic coming up on October 6. Bridget, as you can see, is fascinated by this process. For the beginners, the large glass container on the left is called a carboy. It is used to ferment the beer in a sealed, microbe-free environment. The one pictured holds 6 1/2 gallons. The typical batch of beer is 5 gallons, so a 6 1/2 gallon keg has plenty of head space above the beer for the foaming that takes place during fermentation.

Please notice the nylon carrying harness. I highly, highly recommend you buy one of these if you use glass carboys. They are cheap (around $12) and I have heard too many horror stories of broken carboys and trips to the emergency room with ghastly cuts. It's not worth it, mates. Get a harness or switch to plastic fermenters.

While Bridget watches in amazement, the beer is being siphoned into a 5 gallon stainless steel keg. I bought a kegging set-up about three years ago and it is fabulous. A five gallon Cornelius keg, commonly used for soft drink dispensers, can hold one whole batch of beer at a time. Just sanitize the keg and your racking cane and tubing, siphon the finished beer into the keg, and hook it to a CO2 tank to carbonate, chill it, and dispense it. No muss, no fuss. But, as with most time savers, it comes at a cost. You'll need a CO2 tank, regulator, keg(s), fittings, tubing, and at least one tap. A kegging setup will set you back about $200-$250. Still, for me it has been a great investment, since I brew at least twice as much with the kegging system as without.
Bottling is the alternative and, for me at least, it's a big hassle. You have to clean the bottles, sanitize the bottles, siphon the beer into a bottling bucket to mix with a bit of priming sugar which will generate the carbonation, fill the bottles, cap them, move them to the cellar, then clean up. With my other responsibilities I find it daunting.

There is one additional time savings with kegs versus bottles that will take a bit of explaining. If you read much literature on homebrewing you will find reference to "secondary fermentation". This means taking the beer out of the first fermentation vessel after fermentation has died down and giving it some aging time in a second fermentation vessel. This aids in the clarity of the beer and the aging gives it time to mellow. Now, as I will explain in a later posting, for lagers this secondary fermentation period is essential. But many homebrewers are finding that for your standard ales it is not. It used to be thought that too much time in the primary fermenter would cause off-flavors. But now homebrewers find that up to four or five weeks in the primary is no problem at all. So I now leave my beer in the primary for three to four weeks, then siphon it straight into the keg, saving the intermediate step of sanitizing a secondary and siphoning into that. I am optimizing my process for speed.

That being said, bottling is a perfectly reasonable option and is much less expensive. More on this in future postings.

THE big thing to remember when you are either bottling or kegging is to keep the oxygen out of the beer! Always remember that before fermentation starts, oxygen is your friend because the yeast need it to be healthy and grow. But after the beer is fermented out, oxygen is your enemy. This was the number one problem I had when I first began homebrewing--when I would rack (siphon) the beer into another fermenter or into bottles I would inadvertently introduce too much air. The beer would taste fine for a few weeks, but then would start to take on some very strong, unpleasant flavors. So now I'm very careful to siphon very gently, always keeping the end of the hose below the liquid line. In fact, when I keg I purge the bottom of the keg with CO2. That way, the beer flows in under a blanket of inert gas and is protected from the oxygen in the air.

After the beer is in the keg (note the empty carboy), I take a hydrometer sample. A hydrometer is a device that lets you measure the amount of dissoved sugar in a solution. This beer had a final gravity of 1.018 (distilled water is 1.00), which means that it will be fairly sweet. This is a little high for what I was shooting for, but should be just fine. I always taste the hydrometer sample, just to get an idea if there's any problem with the beer at this point. This one tasted fine.
Finally, I pressurize the keg a bit and set it in the cellar to age a little more. I have found that it's really not worth getting my nose into a batch of beer until it is at least two months old. Prior to that, it really doesn't taste that great. A little aging, but not too much, generally improves most beers tremendously.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gluten-Free Beer

This weekend I blew out my knee playing with my kids; don't know all the details yet, but it's probably one of those surgery things. Anyway, sitting in a chair, feeling sorry for myself, provided the perfect opportunity/excuse to crack open a bottle of Founder's Devil Dancer Triple IPA. This beer weighs in at a whopping 13% alcohol by volume and it is simply incredible. If someone hasn’t tried homebrewing they have no idea how hard it is to do a 13% alcohol beer that is that perfect and clean, with nothing poking out. Big beers like that are very hard to pull off, with a lot of technical challenges. This one was smooth and pristine, even as it warmed to room temperature which is where flaws really begin to show. It is not at all complex—my guess is that the grain bill is very simple and that Founder's utilized a California Ale yeast strain which ferments very clean. Distinctively sweet, but not cloyingly so, with a perfect high hop level to balance that sweetness—Devil Dancer has a thick mouthfeel and a distinct alcohol presence that is warming but never harsh. Absolutely incredible and by all means one of the best barley wines (or triple IPA, if you want to go with the new-fangled nomenclature) I have ever had. Highly recommended if you can get it locally (which, alas, I cannot—I won this bottle in a bet.) I do not recommend tearing up your knee just to have an excuse, but if you do then this beer certainly represents a significant consulation.

Now, to the main topic of this posting. A reader "eramlow" wrote in the comm boxes:

Hi - Does anyone know of a beer made without barley/hops? I acquired a taste for beer at the same time I found out I was allergic to barley. I got emergency room sick from Hops Bar and Grill best Barley beer...Is any other grain a good substitute for barley? Would it still be considered beer? Thanks!

This a very interesting posting and it piqued my curiosity. My understanding is that usually when somebody gets very sick from beer it is caused by an allergy to gluten, which is present in the barley which is the primary ingredient in beer. If somebody was allergic both to barley/gluten and hops, well that would probably eliminate the category of beer entirely.

But a gluten allergy alone still leaves the field somewhat open. I have seen gluten-free beers on the shelf for a couple of years now and have also seen articles regarding homebrewing gluten-free beers, so this posting prompted a little more research on my part.

First, some practical exposure. I traipsed home with a six-pack of "New Grist" gluten-free beer from Lakefront Brewery ( This beer won a gold ribbon in the Experimental Beer category at the 2006 Great American Beer Festival, so I thought it stood a good chance of being at least representative of what one might expect from a good gluten-free beer. (And yes, it is considered beer, which is the general label applied to any non-distilled alcoholic beverage that is made from malted grain.)

New Grist poured very pale and had a grassy aroma. There's also a faint green apple aroma there and this note carries through to the aftertaste. My wife and I agree that this beer both smells and tastes a bit like our homemade hard cider. (In fact, if I was suddenly struck with gluten intolerance I would probably switch over to hard cider.) After you swallow, way on the back of the tongue there is a faint bubblegum note. The beer has no head retention at all. Pleasant hop bitterness. It's refreshing. It's a decent summer beer.

Wikipedia has an interesting article on gluten-free beer ( which includes the note that "Statements from brewers such as Sapporo, show that their scientists feel confident that their product is non-harmful to those who are gluten intolerant." My guess is that Sapporo relies heavily on rice as a major fermentable and it's pretty thin.

Apparently, however, there are more robust beers made without gluten and a surpisingly large number are reviewed here, I would be interested in trying some of the more highly rated ones, but they're not available in my area.

In terms of homebrewing, you can brew a gluten-free beer but it becomes a lot more difficult. A number of interesting recipes can be found at and a fairly detailed article on the various techniques involved can be found at the Brew Your Own site, "Gluten-Free Brewing" (By the way, I subscribe to Brew Your Own magazine and can recommend it.) Judging by that article, it looks as if extract brewing is the way to go--only the most intrepid homebrewer would brew from all grain, since at this point that involves malting your own sorghum (or other non-glutenous grain) and then conducting a very technically challenging triple decoction mash to convert the starches in that grain to fermentable sugars.

The bottom line is that someone who is allergic to barley/gluten can indeed continue to brew and drink beer, but that beer will have a decidedly different character from beer brewed from barley. If it was me, I would probably switch my emphasis to wine and hard cider and take the loss of my enjoyment of barley-based beer (and single malt scotch!) as a substantial sacrifice to offer up.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Three Reviews By JM

I'm pleased to post three reviews from a CBR veteran. I would also like to note that the CBR met recently in Chicago to taste a wide variety of beers. We tasted four from the Founder's Brewery in Grand Rapids, MI ( — Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale (reviewed below), Reds Rye Ale (also reviewed below), Rübæus Raspberry Wheat Ale, and Devil Dancer Triple IPA (sporting a whopping 13% alcohol by volume!) Individually we enjoyed some more than others, but we all agreed that each beer was outstanding for its style. Hats off to Founder's!

Thanks to JM for these reviews and thank too for all the great comments in the com-boxes. We're off to a fantastic start!

Dirty Bastard Scotch Ale is brewed by a local Grand Rapids brewery (Founder's), and I'll be quite curious to head down there sometime in the next few weeks to actually try this beer from the tap.

The pour was very deep amber, and the initial scent was a very powerful - almost overpowering, in fact - alcoholic odor. Just beneath that scent were traces of generic "roastiness" and perhaps some caramel.

The first mouthful, as might be expected, contained a burst of that alcohol flavor that was so strong in the odor. It was almost too much, honestly - made the beer just ever-so slightly over-bitter. Fortunately, the mouth-feel was very creamy, with just a bit of carbonated bite, and the after-taste contained hints of dried fruit (mostly raisin), toffee, and that unidentifiable "roastiness" again.

It was quite addictive, actually, and I had to stop myself from drinking too much, too fast. I wanted to enjoy it, at $9.50 for the six-pack. Plus, the almost 9% alcohol content warranted a bit of patience in drinking. Something about that combination of the caramel/toffee, dried fruit, and scotch-style "zing" made me want to keep putting more in my mouth. The high alcohol content created a warming sensation in the belly, and that lasted for nearly an hour - very much like drinking real scotch.

Founder's own review of the beer is pretty close to reality: 'Dirty Bastard is complex in the finish with hints of smoke and peat paired with a malty richness, finalized with a good bit of hop attitude. This beer "ain't fer the wee lads".'

Red's Rye Ale: Wow! Hello, hops! As soon as I cracked the cap off of this bottle and started pouring this sweet amber-brown liquid, the room smelled like grapefuit and flowers. I did something a bit different this time and drank the beer at room temperature, to see if the flavors were any more pronounced. This made the mouthfeel a bit more creamy, I think, and the flavors did seem a bit more "present", as suspected.

The immediate splash of fruit and flowers in the mouth soon gave way to a very strong rye flavor, which really made this beer interesting. If the fruity-floral top notes were a bit of "mouth candy", the rye made it more mature and full. Not much of a finish on this one, though.

About 3/4 of the way through the glass, some of the malty/rye bitterness faded away and - I hadn't noticed this before - a very noticeable but not overpowering raspberry and wheaty kind of flavor started to shine through. Those last three or four swallows were wonderful. The 6.8% alcohol content wasn't really noticeable in the flavor, but I don't think I'd drink more than two in a night. Overall, a nice mix of citrus, berries, and malt. I give it a 9.5.

From the Founder's web site:

"Pours a spectacular crimson red with a creamy tan head. Brewed with four varieties of Belgian caramel malts imparting a sweet richness. Red's Rye is impressively balanced with its hop bitterness and huge citrus bouquet achieved from the immense amarillo dry hop. The generous amount of malted rye used accentuates a spicy crisp finish."

Genesis 10:10--The label is what attracted me the most, I'll admit it. The beverage description did its part to add to the seduction: "brewed with our chosen specialty malts, hops, brewers yeast and pomegranate juice." Yes, pomegranate juice.I figured, what the heck, I'm a modern Catholic who's hip to the new wave of Jewish-Catholic relations, at least, insofar as it means drinking a beer brewed by "He'brew - The Chosen Beer" company (Schmaltz Brewing Company). The brew is called Genesis 10:10 - which reads, speaking of Nimrod, "The beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar." I'm sure the meaning of this verse in correlation to the beer's name becomes clearer and clearer the further into the bottle you get. The color is a deep shade of red. It almost looks like wine if you're not paying attention. A fair bit of lacing, and a nice creamy head tops it off.It's not too bad, but I doubt I'd buy it again. The promised pomegranate flavor is there, but its very subtle, and gets quickly overpowered by the boat-load of hops bitterness. Actually, by "pomegranate" I mean generic fruity-ness; it's not readily distinguishable as pomegranate juice. The malt is pretty overpowering as well, which makes for a slightly bitter aftertaste. Hard to describe this one, frankly, because it keeps changing the more it warms up. The fruit becomes much more pronounced the warmer this beer gets. Very interesting. I would drink it again if someone offered it to me. But I probably wouldn't spend money on it again.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Ten Beers I Go Back To Again and Again

This list does not exactly comprise my top ten favorites, although it's close. If it did then certain really spectacular beers, like Fuller's 1845, Chimay Grande Reserve, Old Rasputin's Russian Imperial Stout, or several of the fabulous beers from the Founder's Brewery in Grand Rapids, MI would be on here. But those are too expensive or (for me) too inaccessible to be regulars. Rather, this list is of the ten beers that I find myself going back to time and again. They're consistently good and readily available, at least at my locale.

There are some beers that could have been on this list—notably some of the offerings from the Samuel Smith brewery. But they come in clear bottles and the CBR is officially boycotting all beers that come in clear bottles. That is a rant for another posting.

So without further ado, here are ten of my old friends:

Guinness Extra Stout—A classic. This beer is black and very assertive with roasted grain, coffee, and molasses on the palate. It's rich, tangy, well balanced. Great. Like all ales, this should not be drunk too cold. This is the foreign export extra stout version, not the more watery draft version. I like the draft version with its nitrogen pour and creamy head, but it's just a totally different animal. To my tastes, this wins hands down.

Fuller's London Pride Pale Ale— An incredibly well balanced beer. I think that for me this represents the quintessential example of a British pale ale. Smooth, not overly hoppy or overpoweringly malty. Classic British flowerly hop presence. Perfectly balanced and every sip a pleasure. Incredibly good.

Fuller's London Porter—This beer blows me away; I can hardly believe how good this is. This very dark brown (not black) beer starts with slightly thick mouthfeel that leads to a creamy, slightly roasted, slightly bitter but perfectly balanced follow-through of porter perfection. Bittersweet chocolate, coffee, and I catch a touch of licorice. The first time I tried this, I had a Fuller's London Pride and the London Porter in the same evening (12 Aug 2002) and I have never tasted two such great beers together, ever.

Tyranena Bitter Woman IPA—You may not be able to get this fabulous beer where you are. It's brewed here in Wisconsin and I love it. A very complex malt palate (the brewery lists 2-row, Vienna, Carapils, Wheat, Caramel malts in the grain bill) is supported by a very assertive but absolutely clean bittering. Citrus and pine notes prevail on the nose and the palate. An outstanding American IPA (India Pale Ale). Get it if you can!

J.W. Dundee's Honey Brown Lager—Mildly sweet, distinctive honey finish, mildly malty, and fairly low hop bitterness. Nice rich brown color. Smooth and infinitely quaffable. I have drunk a lot of this and I keep coming back for more. It is reasonably priced to boot.

Sleeman Original Dark—To my taste this is a dead ringer for Newcastle. In fact, it more often tastes the way Newcastle should taste, since it seems nigh unto impossible to get a fresh bottle of Newcastle. Sleeman, on the other hand, is brewed on contract right here at the La Crosse City Brewery, so I have an easy time getting it fresh. It's a brown ale, slightly nutty with nice caramel and a hint of molasses. Great.

Young's Double Chocolate Stout—Made with cocoa and chocolate malt (hence the double chocolate in the title) this is a silky, smooth, dessert-style beer. Very low hop bittering. It should not be consumed too cold—if you start it on the cold side it will get much better as it warms up. This beer should not, repeat NOT, be drunk with a meal. It's totally ruined by food. Drink it by itself or with a rich dessert.

Samuel Adams Cream Stout—This is not as sweet as I would expect from a cream stout. The roasted and coffee notes are pronounced, the chocolate less so. Starts almost tart when very cool, but sweetens as it warms. Nice hefty mouthfeel and a perfect malt and hop bittering balance. This is widely available and, at least in my locale, can often be had on sale for a very good price.

Samuel Adams Boston Ale—Note this is the Boston Ale, not the Boston Lager. The Boston Lager is okay—the Boston Ale is really yummy! This ale stands in the British style; it is decidedly malty, with the hop presence perfectly balanced. This beer is slightly fruity, but only mildly estery so it is more tame than some British ales. A rich mahogany in the glass with a nice stable head. This is hard for me to find locally, but when I travel I try to grab a six pack. I come back to it again and again, which is why it's on this list.

Goose Island India Pale Ale—I have not generally been a fan of the Goose Island products. Neither the Honker's Ale nor the Hexnut Ale from this Chicago microbrewery do a thing for me. Some years ago I somewhat reluctantly bought a six-pack of the India Pale Ale because it was on sale and I had never tried it. Wow! This medium bodied beer has a slightly thick mouth feel. The first sip shouts, Hops! The strong grapefruit notes indicate that there are almost certainly Cascade hops here, but probably at least two other varieties as well bringing a pleasing complexity. The finish is markedly bitter, but with a nice balance of malt and a very slight sweetness. Great!

Please share some of your own favorites in the Comments. What beers do you go back to time and again?

Friday, September 7, 2007

Some Resources on How to Make Your Own Beer

Making your own beer is a lot of fun. I've been homebrewing for about six years now. It hasn't been easy for me and I've had more than a few batches that have gone to the hogs, but by sticking to it I've gotten to where I can pretty consistently make beer that I and my friends enjoy. In the photo at left you can see a batch of British bitter bubbling away in my cellar.

I'll be posting more on my own homebrewing adventures, but to kick this off I'd like to give you a few resources on how to get started.

  • There are a lot of places from which to buy homebrew supplies. I have had great service from the guys (and gals) at Midwest Supplies: You can download their catalog from the site and you can also get a free how-to video from them which is a great deal. I don't make anything for the referral, but tell them that I recommended them if you happen to buy something there.

Web Resources:

  • I also appreciate the expertise of Jamil Zainasheff, Note that you'll have to endure some lockerroom language and talk in some of these shows and this detracts from their professionalism. But Zainasheff has won more homebrewing awards than any other individual and he knows what he's talking about.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Welcome to the Catholic Beer Review

Welcome to the Catholic Beer Review, a blog for Catholics (and all others, of course) who love their beer. I am David Palm, your blogmaster and president of the Catholic Beer Review.

CBR was formed by a few guys who share a love of great beer and started comparing tasting notes.
Beer may seem a mundane topic to those who don't venture far beyond the "tinted waters"—as the late Michael Davies (RIP) referred to the Budweisers and Miller Lites of the world. But in fact this drink is endlessly fascinating. Ostensibly it contains just malt, water, yeast, and hops. But the permutations that exist within just those basic ingredients are legion.

Beer also holds a venerable place in our Catholic history, with some of the greatest breweries in the world being founded and run by Catholic monks.

CBR is a forum for tasting notes, beer history and trivia, and information about crafting your own tasty brew. And since we are traditionally-minded Catholics here, it's important to throw in a little Latin lingo. Our motto is simple: De gustibus non est disputandum, colloquially translated, "There's no disputing matters of taste."

À votre santé!