Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Style Spotlight: Cream Ale

A while back, I was trying to do a style of the week. It was going well for a while… and then work got busy – and stayed that way. But I really want to stick with style guidelines and talking about them for a few reasons. One, I think a lot of misinformation about styles swims around on the interwebs - such as the idea that a "Double IPA" is somehow authoritatively different from an "Imperial IPA". I'll never forget getting into a disagreement about that with a bartender in Seattle where I was told that he was right, I was wrong, and there was a reason he was BEHIND one of the country's best bars and I was not.

Someone didn't know how to earn tips.

Two, I'm taking the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) exam in September, and this will help me study. Knowing and understanding different styles is not just based in tasting them, but knowing what properties are typical of the style as well as their history. Finally, I want to focus on commercial examples of beers that not only exemplify styles but are available in the KC metro area. I'm going to stick with the BJCP guidelines for now because I think it's a good – and standard – starting point for style recognition. And seeking out commercial styles that I can get here will only help me study. (Study... yeah, that's the ticket...)

Today's style is Cream Ale, partially because I recently came back from Milwaukee and had a New Glarus Spotted Cow (which you can't get outside of Wisconsin or internet trades. What was I just saying about KC availability?). But also because I think it's a style that has several misconceptions about what it is. No, it doesn't have cream in it. It doesn't have lactose or anything dairy-based at all. And it's not because it's served on nitro or has a creamy mouthfeel (that's called Smooth Ale across the pond). It's actually a pretty old style, one which managed to survive Prohibition (shudder).

So what is it? It's one of the truly American styles (along with California Common) and was initially created by ale houses in the states to compete with American lagers. Though it is fermented with ale yeast (though some breweries, like Genesee, use lager yeast), it's fermented at cool temperatures then lagered for at least a few weeks. Ale yeasts typically throw esters at warmer temperatures, and fermenting them at lower temperatures keeps the fruity esters at bay. It also often includes corn as an adjunct (a very American ingredient!) to create a slightly sweet but still crisp flavor.

The result is a clean, light ale that is neither bitter nor malty, is highly carbonated, and very refreshing. It's the lawnmower beer of the ale world.

Some examples:

- Anderson Valley Summer Solstice Cerveza Crema (I need a beer just typing that out)
- Genesee Cream Ale
- Rogue Honey Cream ale

If you're ever in Wisconsin, do yourself a favor and pick up a Spotted Cow. It's definitely worth tipping (back). har har.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Home from the Great Beery North

Well, that was a whirlwind. We drove up to Ames last Tuesday night and had dinner at Olde Main downtown then stayed overnight at a hotel nearby. The food was pretty decent, and the beer was OK, but I probably won't go out of my way to go there again. Instead, if you're up in that area seeking out brewpubs, check out Court Ave or Raccoon River.

Wednesday's 4-hour drive took us to just south of Minneapolis, where the 2010 National Homebrewers Conference was held. We stopped at Blue Max and picked up a few cases of beer (MOSTLY REFRIGERATED!!) that we can't get in the KC area, loaded up the car, and headed to the hotel. After we registered for the conference, we headed to Happy Gnome for lunch, which ended up being one of my favorite places. The food was tasty and so was the beer; we got a 5-beer sampler that included, in order of preference:
  • Surly Abrasive (IIPA)
  • Tyranena Benji's Chipotle Imperial Porter
  • Ommegang Zuur (Flanders red)
  • Fulton Sweet Child o'Vine (IPA)
  • Dark Horse Perkulator Doppelbock (coffee doppelbock)
I'd heartily recommend the first three; the Fulton was limp and uninteresting, and the Dark Horse was down right undrinkable. Too thin on the mouthfeel, too much coffee, and not enough malt to really be a solid doppelbock. Oh well.

The trip went down a little like this...

BJCP reception at Summit. After dinner and a few Summit beers, we all poured ourselves small glasses of traditional semi-sweet mead and walked around the room where small jars of various tinctures and additives were laid out. Juniper, rose, mint, tannins, acids, and other ingredients were there for us to experiment with blending and tasting. It was a unique opportunity and the most useful thing I took away from it was that traditional mead really needs acid and tannin, just like white grape wine.

Seminars started in the afternoon. We went to lunch at Barley John's and enjoyed both the food and beer. I got the sampler (see slideshow) with lunch and enjoyed all the beers, but their porter & wild rice brown were my favorites by a long shot. Sessions took place in the afternoon, and "Pro-Brewers Night" was in the evening. Breweries set up booths around the banquet hall where we could sample their beers and collect brewery swag. While a fun time, the after-party up in the hotel was where to be that night.

Seminars all day long. I learned about specialty malts, mead making tips, optimal yeast conditions, and maturing beer. There's something special about going to a conference where everyone's hung over at the 9am sessions and no one's trying to hide it.

Friday night was one of the most entertaining and incredible experiences I've had in a while. It's club night, meaning that homebrew clubs can sign up to set up a booth and pour beer made by club members. The extent to which some of these clubs go for this event is amazing; I think my favorite in terms of decor was the MASH unit. Check out some of the photos below.

The last day of the conference didn't go without its own merits, though the hangovers were gaining on everyone. I went to sessions on extract brewing, cidermaking, cask conditioning, blind taste tests, and how different sugars affect beer (the base was a tripel). The final social event was a banquet put on by Sean Paxton (homebrewchef) and all the beer was donated by Rogue. Salad, chicken, rice, and dessert - all made with Rogue beer ingredients and paired with a Rogue beer. Check out the menu (scroll down to the "Conference Awards Dinner Menu" section at the bottom).

We didn't win any medals, but two of our beers made it to Mini Best of Show (sort of a semi-finals round for the category), so that was an honor in itself. It's only adding fuel to the fire for next year's competition.

Click on a photo to make it larger. I highly recommend reading the letter to Mark Stutrud (owner/founder of Summit), 5th photo in.

Here's more information on the sessions that were available.
Presentations will be posted when they become available.

Check out the trailer for next year's conference. See you there?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, to NHC we go!

Alas! The National Homebrewers Conference is just around the corner, and I'm pretty damn excited to go (except for the 9-hours-of-driving-each-way thing)... Some of the highlights of the conference, for me, include:

  • BJCP Judge Reception on Wednesday. It's at Summit Brewing Co and will include a talk on cask vs. keg beer as well as a large educational session on varietal honey and mead.
  • Pro Brewers Night on Thursday. Check out all the craft breweries that will be there. Oh boy oh boy!
  • Club Night on Friday. Homebrew clubs across the country can sign up to host a booth and share beverages made by their members as well as pimp some awesome hardware. Pro-brewers night is sure to be a lot of fun, and the creativity and skill demonstrated by homebrewers always impresses and inspires me.
  • Seminars! What would the NHC be without its informative sessions on how to make better beer, mead, and cider? There are a few sessions I can't wait to attend, including the Meadmaker of the Year panel and a session on yeast by Wyeast's quality control manager. And speaking of quality control, KC's own Jennifer Helber, founder of the Boulevard Quality Lab, and KC's Beer Pairing Examiner, will be presenting on bottle conditioning. Way to represent, KC!

    Though it's a homebrewer conference, anyone can attend. The focus is on beer education, and many of the seminars cover ingredients, processes, and trends in home brewing. However, all of the topics could be of interest to beer enthusiasts as well. After all, learning about how different yeast strains affect fermenting beer isn't just a homebrewing topic. If that just isn't of interest, you can just buy "social package" tickets, so you can hang out on the town while all the beer nerds attend class, then go to the evening events for all the fun.

    In addition to the social events and seminars, part of the conference includes the final round of homebrew judging to determine the national category winners in beer, mead, and cider. Awards are also given to Homebrewer of the Year, Meadmaker of the Year, and Cidermaker of the year. The brewer who obtains the most points during final round judging is awarded the Ninkasi award. You get 6 points for each first place, 4 points for each 2nd place, and 2 points for each 3rd place.  You can imagine that winning Ninkasi means submitting a hell of a lot of homebrew...

    We've got three beers in the running (American standard & premium lagers and Imperial IPA) and are pretty damn anxious to find out how we'll fare. The awards ceremony is on Saturday night, so we've still got a little while until we find out. Ninkasi is out of reach this year, but you never know what the future will bring...

    Sunday, June 6, 2010

    Summerfest and the Living's Easy

    It's no surprise I'm a fan of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and their products. The quality of their beer is outstanding, and their commitment to the craft beer community is constant. Everyone knows their Pale Ale, of course, but their German Hefeweizen (Kellerweis) is one of the best I've had from an American brewery. They're coming out with a new seasonal this fall (nixing their Anniversary Ale), named "Tumbler". It's an American Brown in IBUs and original gravity, but hopped with English-style hops (Challenger and Yakima Goldings). But we'll have to wait until late summer/early fall to see that in stores.

    You can, however, pick up Summerfest now, and I recommend you do so. It's a Pils brewed with American two-row and Munich malts, and is hopped with both German and Czech noble hops (Perle and Saaz, respectively). The end result is a beer that is light in body, but with plenty of grainy malt flavor and spicy hop aroma and bitterness. There's also a bit of lemon in both aroma and flavor as well, but not enough to take over the beer. The high carbonation and lingering bitterness really make this a thirst-quencher, but a light lager it is not. There's plenty of maltiness there to keep you interested.

    I really enjoyed this beer and was disappointed it was the only one I stuck in a mixed six-pack. Next time, an entire sixer it is.

    Saturday, June 5, 2010

    Summer's Here

    There are a few things I love about summer:
    • Sitting/eating/drinking outside
    • Fresh summer beer that's light and refreshing

    OK, maybe "a few" is an exaggeration.

    A couple of weekends ago, we hiked on over to 75th Street Brewery and checked out their brand-spanking-new beer garden. It's in the old Kennedy's space; they ripped the roof right off and slightly redesigned the layout into a great partially-covered beer garden. Some hop bines are growing up one wall and over the top; they should provide some shade this summer and for years to come. There's a bar out there, too. I snapped a couple of pictures with my (new!!) cell phone (that has a camera on it!!):

    As a side note, they had a ginger mango wheat on tap for American Craft Beer Week; I ended up drinking an entire pint of it and wanted more. It was lightly fruity and refreshing; the ginger gave the beer a little sweet spiciness, and the mango wasn't overpowering or too sweet. Great for summer, and if you see it there I recommend ordering a pint. My only complaint about it was that I would have liked a bit more carbonated. It was, however, quite enjoyable.

    Last night we walked down to Swagger, then back up to Waldo Pizza, for a Friday night on the town. My first pint at Swagger was a $3 Czechvar (known as "Budvar" outside the US & Canada; the Czechvar name is thanks to labeling and trademark laws). I'd never had it on tap before, and it sounded perfect after a 1.5 mile walk in 90-degree heat. I'm always up for a non-skunked Czech Pils, and this one did not disappoint. Cold, grainy/malty, and a wonderful dry bitter finish. I heard one of the bartenders say they ran out, but I'm not sure if she was referring to keg or bottle form. In any case, if you do see Czechvar on tap and don't have an aversion to beers that finish dry & lightly bitter, order up a pint. It's perfect for a hot & humid Kansas City evening.

    On our Waldo Pizza stop, I ordered a Goose Island Summertime- their version of a German Kölsch. It immediately imparts a lemony-citrus aroma and follows through with that in the flavor. Body's nice and light and, like the Bohemian Pils, well-carbonated.

    We enjoyed our own version of our Waldo-Crawldo, but you can be a part of the official pub crawl in what I think is KC's best beer neighborhood next weekend for $5 (in advance).