Beyond the blur…

On Saturday, July 17, I attended the noon session of the 18th Annual Vermont Brewers Festival, at Waterfront Park in Burlington, Vermont. The numbers go like this: 39 breweries present, of which 19 were from Vermont alone, 188 (at least) different brews to taste, 10,000 people expected to attend the three sessions over two days. So much more than numbers, however.

I barely got tickets – I was reminded Tuesday night by my son that tickets were likely to sell out in advance, so I got online and checked – panic! – the website said they were already sold out for the noon session! I emailed several people, including the festival organizer herself, hoping someone could point me towards a couple of tasting tickets and a designated driver entry. While my homebrewer friends searched, I found out from the festival folks that the website had a bug, and that the session was not, in fact, quite sold out, although there were no DD tickets left. I grabbed two tickets quickly and decided to worry about the DD at the gate.

photo by Rick Scully

Saturday came, my wife and I picked up our friend Rick at a mutually arranged parking lot and off we went. Arriving in Burlington, we got in line (with a couple thousand kindred spirits) and waited for the opening. When we got to the gate, after about 20 minutes in line, there were, in fact, no DD tickets available at all. My poor wife was forced to go kill 4 hours shopping instead, while Rick and I talked to brewers, tasted beers, and generally enjoyed a beautiful sunny July afternoon. Enjoy we did. For $25, we got a 3 oz. glass and 15 beer tickets. We decided early on to choose different things from each brewery and swap so as to double our potential tastings. Over the next three and a half hours, I managed to taste 23 different beers from 15 breweries. Some were quite memorable, others not so much, but I can honestly say that I did not spit any out or dump any on the ground. I took hasty notes on each beer, thinking that some day I might want to develop recipes to clone them.

Among the highlights of the day were conversations with the brewer at Pioneer Brewing (Fiskdale, MA) who claimed to have used my book as a resource; with Patrick Dakin, brewer at Jasper Murdock’s Ale House (Norwich, VT), our nearest neighbor brewery; and a conversation, in French, with a guy from Brasserie Benelux of Montreal who was pleased that I ordered a beer correctly… Along the way, we ran into almost 40 of our regular customers from the Market, a few friends and neighbors, a few other old acquaintances from my old Seven Barrel and judging days, and got to hang out with my son and his girlfriend and a couple of their friends… All in all, an outstanding festival and a great afternoon.Turns out the evening session on Saturday was shortened due to dangerous thunderstorms, forcing people to leave with unused tasting tickets and some real frustration. We were glad we went to the early session, of course! Hope the organizers are thinking about a way to refund or otherwise make it up to those who missed out…

A list, then, of beers I tasted (as best I can remember) with a quick 1-5 scale rating:

Three Needs – Scotch Ale (3/5)

Pioneer BrewingIndustrial Pale Ale (4/5)

Brooklyn BrewingBlast (Stong IPA) 4/5   &    Local 1 (Belgian Strong Golden) 3/5

Beau’s All Natural“Grolsch” style lager 4/5

Perfect PearPorter 3/5  &  IPA 3/5

Harpoon 100 Barrel Series “Landbier” (Vienna Lager) 2/5

AlchemistBall & Chain IPA 4/5  &  Your Mother Pilsner 5/5

Jasper Murdock’sFuggle Pale Ale 4/5   &  Dark Humour (Black Witbier) 4/5

Northshire BreweryBattenkill Ale (brown ale) 2/5

BeneluxErgot (Triple Rye Saison) 4/5  &  Strato (Black IPA) 5/5

Dieu Du CielAphrodite (Vanilla/cocoa stout) 5/5  &  Pionnière (black IPA) 5/5

Bobcat CaféPocock Pilsner 4/5

Zero GravityMacerator Dopplebock 3/5  &  Solstice Gruit 3/5

Peak OrganicEspresso Amber Ale 3/5

Le Trou Du DiableLa Buteuse (Abbey Tripel) 4/5  &  La Penurie (IPA) 3/5

Naturally, there were many many more beers we would have liked to try, but a 4 hour session with 3000 people in line

photo by Rick Scully

doesn’t allow unlimited access. I noted the ones I missed and we are beginning to plan a couple road trips to make up for our gaps. If I had to pick a top three (of what I tasted) I would have to say, for now, that my favorite beers (not necessarily in this order) were:

Your Mother Pilsner from the Alchemist

Strato Black IPA from Benelux

Aphrodite Stout from Dieu du Ciel

So, did you go to the Fest? What were your favorites? The dialogue begins here…

Hot Enough For Ya?

Most of the US has been suffering from a real summer heat wave this past week or so, which has had a dramatic effect on the home brewing scene, at least on mine. I have not been able to bring myself to add any heat to my house, which is generally hovering around 82° – with dark shades down, windows open on the shaded side of the house, fans blowing out of upstairs windows, etc… It has given me a chance to catch up on some bottling and racking, though, and I currently only have 7 carboys full and no primary fermenters. The other reason for not brewing in this heat is that my water source is a shallow spring, which does get warmer in the summer months – probably 45°F instead of its winter low of 34°F. This has a dramatic effect on the wort chiller, slowing down my cooling time to almost triple – instead of 10 – 12 minutes, it can take 25 – 30 minutes to cool 5 gallons down to yeast pitching temperature. So, a pause in the action.

A secondary effect of the heat has been a rash of overcarbonated beers. In the last week I have lost 5 bottles and 2 mini-kegs – the bottles bursting, in one case all over the cellar, in another all over the floor and wall in the living room. The mini-kegs did not actually burst, but one end became distended and bent, and they launched themselves off of a shelf and onto the floor. Total casualty count: 12 oz. of Suffering Bastard Strong Ale, 24 oz. of a barleywine, and 24 oz. of a year-old Strawberry Blonde ale. I was able to salvage most of the 5 liters of Cherry Wheat Ale and another 5 liters of the Rye-P-A in the mini-kegs (in growlers and pitchers) but the kegs are not reusable. I think my wife is going to make a small-scale solar water-heater out of them…

I did get out and enjoy some beer as part of the 4th of July weekend. My wife and I went down to Boston to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park on Sunday, and although the Sox lost, it was, as always, an enjoyable afternoon. No, I do not pay $7.50 for a Bud Lite or whatever, but there is an Irish pub just behind home plate (heading up the right field line) where you can get draft Guinness, Harp and Smithwicks. Pricey, at $8.75 a pint, but relative to the other stuff, it’s a fair deal. If you look carefully, you can find Sam Adams and Harpoon in the park as well. And the Boston Beer Works is right there at the end of Yawkey Way. On our way back to the bus station, we hit the Rock Bottom Brewery for dinner (Stuart St. near the corner of Charles St.). Part of a national chain of brewpub restaurants, each one does its own brewing and menu according to local products and traditions. The menu is fine if you like steaks and seafood, but vegetarians and non-red-meat eaters willl have a more difficult time choosing a meal. AH, but the beer… My wife had a Munich Gold lager (an award-winner, in the Helles Lager category), I had the Improper Hopper IPA (very floral, bitter, a bit hazy, very tasty) and a cask-conditioned Dartmouth Stout (English-style), which was outstanding. In fact, probably the best draft stout I have had in many years.

Brew News – New Brews (and an old favorite)

I consider myself very fortunate to work where I work and to have an understanding boss like I have. I manage the homebrew department, but Wendy, the store manager, manages the wine and beer section. I am constantly appreciative of her willingness to try to get new and interesting beers in the store. Today was a great day – two new beers to taste and the return of an old favorite. A nice evening’s quaffing, worthy of a review.

I have always loved collaborations. I collected comic books as a kid (and on into my college years), and my favorites were always those issues where the characters from one series ended up teaming up with those of another (Spiderman with the FF, the X-Men with the Avengers, etc…). I also used to have a database to keep track of musicians from my favorite bands and their work with other bands…

Lately there have been a few interesting collaborations in the craft brewing industry, and here are two very successful ones.

Stone/Dogfish/Victory Saison du BUFF
Three of the most respected and most innovative of the craft breweries in North America, all known for their “extreme” approach to brewing, teamed up to create this most interesting beer. It’s a Belgian Saison, in style, but with the added intrigue of a dose of herbs – specifically, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Simon and Garfunkel would be proud. I’ve brewed with sage, rosemary and thyme before, but not parsley. I guess if you’re going to brew with three of them, you might as well go all the way to Scarborough Fair…

A nice moderately full-bodied ale, not very sweet, and, in this instance, quite herbal. The malt balances the herbs, the herbs complement the malt and the yeast, and in the end everyone is happy (if not hoppy)… 6.8% abv, no indication of IBU’s which suggests they may have skipped hops entirely… BUFF stands for Brewers United for Freedom of Flavor… and, just in case you missed it, the name is a play on the name “DuBoeuf”, the name of a real Belgian/French saison…

Sierra Nevada XXX #2 Charlie, Fred & Ken’s Imperial Helles Bock
Back in the winter Sierra Nevada introduced the first of their 30th Anniversary brews, a collaboration with Fritz Maytag of Anchor, a delicious Imperial Stout. This is the second of four, and it’s every bit as noteworthy. Co-designed by homebrewers and homebrew writers Charlie Papazian and Fred Eckhardt, the Imperial Helles Bock is a HUGE chewy, bready blond lager at 8.3% abv, smooth and and amazingly malty.

There are two more installments of the XXX series coming later in the year, and I for one am really looking forward to them…

Westmalle Dubbel
Ah, the Trappists. If you really want to know what Belgian beer is all about, you have to start with the Trappists and their amazing brews. Abbey beers, golden Tripels, and amber/brown Dubbels… Had I been born a more religious man, I might have considered becoming a Trappist monk just to be involved in the brewing of these heavenly beers… but alas, I must observe from the outside.
The Dubbel style is probably best exemplified by this brew, made in Malle, Belgium, by the brothers of the Westmalle Abbey. An outstanding strong brown ale, it has malty notes but is dominated by the yeast. I often describe the Trappist yeast profile as being almond/pistachio-like, and this is a superb example of that. Absolutely delicious, yet less full-bodied and less alcoholic (only 7% abv) than the tripels of Westmalle and other Trappist abbeys, the Westmalle Dubbel may be the best starting point to appreciate this unique class of beers.