IBA Challenge

Saturday night saw the culmination of months of discussion, research, secrecy and of course actual brewing. A small group of brewers submitted their take on the elusive but much-discussed new style, Black IPA or, as we decided to call it that night, the IBA (India Black Ale). The idea for this event started back in July when several of us attended the Vermont Brewers Festival and tasted a few breweries’ interpretation of the style. There followed the realization that no one had really yet defined it, and, although there were commercial examples out there, there was no consensus on its parameters. I decided to brew one, which led a few of my friends, colleagues and customers to also try their hand at it. We decided to pick a date and come together, IBA’s in hand, to compare, taste, judge, critique, etc.

The Guru judges - photo by Scully

In the end, seven different brewers rose to the challenge, and fourteen people, including six of those brewers, got together for pizza and snacks, and proceeded to judge the beers. I “ran” the event, being the only BJCP trained judge on hand. I started by explaining a little bit about the BJCP program, the exam, and how competitions are run. I handed out a judging procedural and scoresheets, and away we went. The seven entries, brewed by Rick, Ben, Aaron, Tom, Jake, Adam and me, were expertly poured and served to the waiting judges by steward extraordinaire Mollie. We took a few minutes with each beer, looking at its color, clarity and head, sniffing the hop and malt aromas, sipping, swirling, chewing and generally appreciating the complex flavors. We had divided the group up into a brewers’ panel (Rick, Aaron, Jake, Tom, Ben and me, Adam being absent), and a “people’s panel”, with Rich, Carol, Sarah, Evan, Adrienne, Walter and Anne. The idea was to choose a Brewers’ Choice, based on technical merit (i.e closest to style, authentic) and a People’s Choice, based on which beer was most drinkable.

Jake, our host - photo by Scully

Discussion at both tables was lively. With several different cups in front of each of us, we realized quickly that all seven were quite good. There were minor “flaws” – a couple were too light to be “black”, a couple seemed to lack in hop aroma, one had coffee in it, one had a molasses/vanilla taste… in the end, both tables agreed on the same three as their top choices. After a break to eat a little more, we came back to work and pitted those top three head-to-head, and argued the merits of one against the other. We finally settled on our top choice, second and third.

The Brewers’ Choice and People’s Choice were both awarded to the same beer, by a narrow margin, a brew called “Black Jacques Shellac”, proudly presented by Ben. He also brought along a keg of the same beer conditioned and dispensed with a nitrogen mix – completely different texture, aroma and taste. My IBA placed second with both panels, and Tom’s was the third choice. A bottle swap ensued, and Ben was asked to choose the next target brew – looks like we will be tasting  American IPA’s some time in March! Before we split up and went home, we were treated to a taste of Adrienne’s Holiday Porter, aromatic with vanilla… Yum!

It's a tough job... - photo by Scully

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…

A Beer Made in Heaven

If you’ve read any of my ramblings here over the last few months, it may have occurred to you that I hold Sierra Nevada and Anchor in very high esteem. They are two of the true pioneers in the craft brew world, two of the originals and two breweries who continue to innovate and yet hold true to their roots and to their principles. Any new brew from either of these breweries is worthy of at least a try.

I was very pleased to see an ad a few weeks ago (in Brew Your Own, I think) for the Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary Ale. I vowed that I would get ahold of some, come what may, and review it for my legions of followers (how many in a legion, he wondered aloud…). That day has come, the Sierra Nevada XXX arrived in the market today, and I have been sipping at it for the last couple hours. First, I read the label – not only was it brewed by Sierra Nevada, but the “guest brewer” was none other than Fritz Maytag, owner and brewmaster of Anchor. And it’s a big stout, 9.2% abv. What’s not to like? “Fritz & Ken’s Ale” – already, I am inclined to grab another couple bottles to put away for a year or more…

So, the beer itself: DARK, opaque, reddish-black (when held in front of a very strong light), gorgeous tan head, nice thick foam (think mustache-coating)… The aroma is malt, roasted barley, caramel, burnt sugar, coffee… Full-bodied, rich, devastatingly malty… lots of dark malt but lots of caramel/crystal sweetness too. The hops take a while to notice, with all that malt, but they are quite nice – bitter, but in balance. The finish is not dry, nor is it too sweet – again, a nice balanced malty flavor, emphasis on the roasted barley and dark malts… quite a bit of alcohol, very warming… I’m talking out loud here, I realize… Yes, you are witnessing a tasting live, as it happens…

Hey, this is one hell of a beer. Go get some. Period. Unless you don’t like full-flavored beers. Then this is not for you.

Ken, Fritz, you done good. Thank you!