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…

Beer for the Shellfish…

We get our beer and wine deliveries on Wednesdays, generally, and when I come in to work mid-day, the first thing I usually do is check the beer cooler to see what new beers have arrived. I guess I slipped up the other day, though, because I missed one. Until a customer brought one up to the register later that afternoon. Whoa – what’s this? a new beer? and I haven’t tried it yet? Can’t tell you anything about it until I have one, now, can I?

The beer in question was the latest in Harpoon Brewery’s 100 Barrel Series, Island Creek Oyster Stout. Reading the fine print, just in case, I found that it was indeed a stout brewed with oysters. Hmmm. 5.5% abv, 35 IBU’s, and actually brewed with freshly harvested local oysters. I know it sounds really weird, possibly even disgusting. But this is not unique – there are a few current breweries who have experimented with the style, including Dogfish Head in Delaware. It’s also quite a historic style – the first mention of something similar is found in the writings of Charles Dickens.

I did hesitate a few minutes, I must confess – I have developed, in my adulthood, an allergy to shellfish. Or at least to mussels, so far. I have been spectacularly sick after eating mussels in Paris, Venice, and Chambly (Quebec). How would I do with a beer brewed with oysters? I decided to take the chance, as long as I could drink it at home.

It was very dark. The beer, I mean. Black, opaque, stout-like. With a thick beige head. I stared at it for several minutes, not quite daring to taste it. I was afraid. Would it taste like stout or like fish? or both? I approached the glass to my nose. So far, no fish. Just roasted malt, mild hop aroma, a few diacetyl, buttery notes… Perhaps it was psychological, but I did begin to detect a bit of a seaweed-like mineral scent. OK, time to taste it.

It was a mouthful – thick, full-bodied, smooth – before even tasting the beer itself, I could tell by the texture that it was very rich and smooth. The combination of flavors that hit me all at once included dark malts, roasted barley, salt/minerals, butterscotch, smoke… still no fish. There was a solid bitterness underlying the initial flavors, a roasted grain bitterness more than hops. Definitely a lot of roasted barley, a hint of sweetness. Still no fish. OK, so far so good. The aftertaste? Again, perhaps it was in my mind, but there was a mineral, iodine, salt-water, kelp-like taste way in the background. Not at all unpleasant, not offensive. Just… well, unusual in a beer?

If I hadn’t known it was made with oysters, I never would have guessed. I think I would have detected that there was something out of the ordinary in it, some additional ingredient, although it could have been a water-conditioning mineral taste. All in all, a very nice smooth, dark, roasty, stout.