Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I Got Schooled

I recently went to my first Barley's Beer School, which Paul A Ner of KC Beer Blog and KC Hop Head also attended. Though they beat me to the punch on their posts, here's my take on the evening.

The night's event featured brewers Steven Pauwels and Jean-Marie Rock from Boulevard Brewing and Orval Brewing, respectively. The two brewers have been the buzz of the craft beer world lately as news of their upcoming collaboration beer spread. Just a couple of weeks ago, the brewers got together at Boulevard’s facility and recreated one of Rock’s first brews, an Imperial Pilsner made with Pilsner malt and Czech Saaz hops. This recipe has not been commercially brewed in over 30 years, as Rock developed it while at a different brewery. He later joined Orval in 1985 as brewmaster and has focused his efforts on maintaining the quality of Orval’s beer production.

Though the monastery’s history reaches back to the 17th century, the brewery we know as Orval today came into existence in the late 1920s. While it started out just making cheese, the monastery expanded to beer production and became one of the world’s seven Trappist breweries. During the past several decades, Orval has only made two beers:  Orval and Petite Orval (made specifically for the monks and only available at the monastery).

Our first lesson at Beer School was about the production of Orval, as it is unique among the Trappist ales. The process includes dry-hopping and the addition of Brettanomyces (“Brett”) just prior to packaging.  While the hoppiness of the beer subsides over time as the hop acids degrade, the funky character of the Brett yeast takes over and changes the beer over time. Rock suggested cellaring several bottles of Orval and sampling them over a period of five years to note the substantial differences in the character of the beer as it ages.

We were provided with 2-3 ounces of Orval to taste and experience. The beer is a pale orange color with a fragrant citrusy and light hop aroma. Its flavor is lightly bitter (from the hops) and acidic (from the Brett), with a dry finish. It has a moderate-to-high level of carbonation, which lends a refreshing quality to the beer.  You can find Orval at most liquor stores with a decent Belgian beer selection (even McGonigles) or at beer bars such as Barley’s, Flying Saucer, and The Foundry.

Our second lesson of the evening was about the upcoming Imperial Pilsner. Rock spoke of his interest in doing this collaborative brew to go “back to basics,” and Pauwels added that “the goal is to use really old techniques because they make really good beer.”  Since the beer needs to be lagered, it will not be available until late January or early February. I’m really looking forward to this beer, as there are not many Imperial Pilsners on the market and the ones I have had were fantastic. The most accessible ones to us are made by Boston Brewing Co (Samuel Adams) and Rogue. They’ll be more floral and less spicy than a Pilsener made with Czech Saaz hops like the collaboration brew, but they should give you a reasonable impression of an Imperial Pilsner.

The final lesson of the evening introduced one of Boulevard’s upcoming releases, Harvest Dance. It’s a wheat wine with some creative flair. Wheat wines are closely related to barleywine, but have both wheat and barley in the grain bill. The wheat gives it just a hint of a soft mouthfeel, similar to a Hefeweizen. Harvest Dance is also hopped solely with Citra hops, a new American variety that possesses fruity characteristics. Finally, it is fermented with Boulevard’s Belgian yeast strain and a bit of Muscat grape juice is added to the beer just before packaging for bottle conditioning. All of these ingredients put together create a beer that is a bright, dark-golden color with a tropical fruit aroma and flavor. The aroma smacks you with banana, while the flavor of the beer presents mango and a lot of pineapple; the finishing flavor is all Muscat. If you can't tell already, it is a somewhat sweet beer and as a result would be great for dessert. I’d pair it with a plain cheesecake or pound cake; the tropical fruit qualities of the beer would match either perfectly.

Barleys’ next beer school will be held on Nov 16th and will focus on the raw materials used to make beer.  Brewers from Boulevard and 75th Street Brewery will be speaking on the topic and fielding questions. Something tells me there will also be samples...

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