Tag Archives: Craft Brewers

BOM Club Tasting Notes: August 2015

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PlumpJack Wine & Spirits brings you this month’s beer club tasting notes for August. This month, we look at English craft beer from two different angles. In Coniston Bluebird Bitter, we’ve got a fairly traditional British beer, but its high bitterness takes it a shade beyond the balanced approach of so many British bitters, and the brewery, which opened in 1995, is one of the pioneers of the English beer revival. The second beer for this month is Modus Vivendi, The Wild Beer Company’s flagship English old ale soured with wild Brettanomyces yeast and aged for months in used wine and bourbon barrels. It taps into a sourness more famous in Belgium and the US, but with a yeast that is wildly English.nike free 3.0 v2

Cheers!

Rich Higgins, Master Cicerone

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It’s 2015, and English craft beer brewed has fully come into its own. It’s making waves in pubs, shops, and the media, and the beers are even starting to make their way to the US. In 2014, Britain had about 1,300 breweries, and most of them stick to traditional English ales (which are “craft” in their own right, having never slid entirely into industrial mediocrity the way American beer did prior to starting the craft revolution). Traditional English ales are often about balance, subtlety, and, well, tradition. The English craft brewers of today are brewing with American hops, higher bitterness, wild yeasts, non-traditional ingredients, while cobbling nooks for their oak barrels and second-hand dairy equipment and revitalizing urban cores and country barns alike. Frankly, English craft brewers are hard to differentiate from their Yankee counterparts, which shows how far craft beer culture has come in what many regard as a stodgy, albeit high-quality, beer culture. The more esoteric and extreme beers didn’t happen overnight, though, and pioneering breweries like Coniston Brewing Co. helped lay the foundation for flashier brewers like The Wild Beer Co.

Bluebird Bitter Coniston Brewing Company, Coniston, Cumbria, UK   4.2% ABV   
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ConistaBrewing Tucked in the center of the cozy town of Coniston in the Lake District National Park is Coniston Brewing Co., nestled on the shore of Coniston Water (that’s English for “lake,” to you and me). Ronald and Susan Bradley owned the Black Bull, the town’s 400-year-old pub, and in 1994 they opened a small brewery in a building behind the Black Bull in order to provide fresh beer for the pub.
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They hired their son, Ian Bradley, as brewmaster, and retained brewing consultant David Smith to write the recipes. Within just a couple years, David’s flagship bitter recipe brewed by Ian won Britain’s highest beer award: it was crowned Champion Beer of Britain at the 1998 Great British Beer Festival. The beer is a triumph of English malts, English hops, and English yeast: incredible biscuity maltiness from heirloom Maris Otter malts mingles with orangey, earthy bitterness from classic Challenger hops, while subtle poached pear aromas from the yeast soften the bitterness and garnish the malts. I was surprised to learn that Bluebird’s name is actually more macabre than bucolic: “Bluebird K7” was the rocket boat piloted by daredevil Donald Campbell, who died in 1967 in a famous boating accident at 300 miles per hour on Coniston Water.
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Virtually every British brewery brews a “bitter,” often called an ordinary bitter to distinguish it from the brewery’s slightly stronger bitters, which in turn sport names like best, special, premium, and extra special. While Bluebird Bitter does, in fact, taste bitter, not all bitters are markedly bitter. Bitter, as a style of ale, earned that moniker in the 1930s and 1940s, decades after porter and IPA had had their heyday and wartime rationing and ingredient taxation had reduced much English beer to low alcohol and low bitterness levels. In a time of fewer and fewer beer choices, English pub-goers ordered either “mild” ale or “bitter” ale, two colloquial names that eventually coalesced into distinct beer styles.
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While Bluebird doesn’t set out to be a self-styled “craft beer,” it shows its crafty soul in upending a complacent English beer cart, a beer envisioned in a 1990s brewpub as a single-hop beer charged with the boldness of more than 35 bitterness units (more than most pilsners). If Bluebird was a wake-up call to the steadily diminishing character of English ordinary bitters, Coniston used its momentum and offering more craft brewery calling cards, such as a slightly stronger Bluebird XB with American-grown Mount Hood hops, a crisp, decidedly un-English Continental pilsner, as well as a towering, 8.5%-ABV barley wine (which was crowned Champion Beer of Britain in 2012). But it all started with Bluebird Bitter, still a classic expression of characterful English brewing.
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Pour Coniston Bluebird Bitter in a large glass and make sure sure you let it warm up a bit from refrigerator temperature. Like many English ales, it’s way too tight at fridge temperature, and only shows its soft maltiness and the fruitiness of its hops and yeast when it’s warmer than 45 degrees; 55 is perfect. It’s a gorgeous burnished orange color with a persistent white head of foam. It smells like pears, dried orange, biscuits, and a hint of waffle with butter and maple syrup. A sip of it greets your palate with pronounced, black-tea-like bitterness, a bright Pippin apple freshness, along with dashes of bread dough, woody thyme, and ginseng. Complex, savory yeast flavor and a whisper of salty, sulfate minerality accompany the finish. It’s light in body but bready at the same time, amazingly smooth and plush for only 4.2% ABV (on cask in Britain, it’s even lower alcohol at 3.6% ABV). Pair this, as brewer Ian does, with fish and chips, or else enjoy its versatility with cheeses, veggie lasagna bianca, saag paneer, or falafel and baba ghanoush. In addition to fried food and cooked veggies, it finds great harmony with minerally foods like asparagus, artichokes, and even seaweedy ramen and hijiki salad.
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Modus Vivendi The Wild Beer Company, Shepton Mallet, Somerset, UK   7.0% ABV

Beer is generally made from four ingredients: water, malted grain, hops, and yeast. Brewers Andrew Cooper and Brett Ellis founded The Wild Beer Company to brew each of their beers with a “5th ingredient,” be it fruit, oak, or time. When they became drinking buddies, Cooper was training to be a certified Beer Sommelier (a European Cicerone equivalent) and Ellis was an out-of-work California chef who had moved to the UK to marry his English girlfriend. They homebrewed and mused over pints, finally having their eureka! moments while drinking Jolly Pumpkin La Roja and George Gale’s Prize Old Ale. La Roja, from a Michigan craft brewery, was oak-aged, winey, toasty, delicious and beguiling; Gale’s Old Ale is sherryish, toffeeish, and tastes like dates dipped in wine. These are beer flavors and attitudes Cooper and Ellis decided were too rare in England, so they opened their own craft brewery to do something about it.
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To harness the ever-elusive 5th ingredient, Cooper and Ellis tap into a variety of influences, including Ellis’s culinary training, Cooper’s knowledge of beer history, and the terroir of Somerset’s dairy and apple country, south of Bristol and Bath, where the brewery is located. Their proof-of-concept beer is aptly called Modus Operandi, though in the States it’s sold as Modus Vivendi (I can’t find the reasoning online, but my guess is that Ska Brewing Co., Colorado-based brewer of Modus Hoperandi IPA, encouraged the renaming). Modus Operandi/Vivendi is based on a traditional English old ale, a chewy, malty, toffeeish ale often brewed as a winter warmer. Old ales age well, and they tend to develop some winey, sherryish acidity with age, sometimes with a tinge of Brettanomyces yeast. Brettanomyces is Latin for “British fungus,” and while Belgium is more famous for its Brett-influenced sour ales, when Brett was first identified under a microscope, it had been harvested from aged English old ales and stock ales, which often have subtle scents of cellar, wool, and dust (and sometimes pineapple or Juicy Fruit flavors) and a touch of lactic acidity. The barnyardy and horsy flavors Brett is known for are from Brettanomyces species cultivated in Belgium; the British strains on the other hand tend to be less feral in flavor. In 2012, Cooper and Ellis toured the orchards near their farm brewery, picking apples and fermenting them into cider using only the wild, indigenous yeasts and beneficial bacteria on the apple skins. Then they pitched the resulting mixed yeast-bacteria culture into their first batch of old ale and let it age for 3 months in barrels, allowing it to transform into the mature, sour, oaky, terroir-driven Modus Operandi/Vivendi. They first used bourbon barrels for the aging, but found the finished beer lacked some of the desired fruitiness and complexity, and now they age in a mixture of bourbon barrels and red Burgundy wine barrels from Le Grappin. In a 2014 interview with The Grill And Barrel blog, Ellis summed up Modus Operandi quite nicely: “It is the beer that Andrew and I built the brewery to brew and we are only now getting to know that beer.”
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Modus Vivendi pours an attractive garnet brown-mahogany beneath an off-white head of fine bubbles. Immediately, the bouquet promises a complex beer, showing scents of strawberry, hazelnut, chocolate, sherry, licorice root, and rooibos tea. On the palate, it invites you more deeply down the rabbit hole, showing sourness like goat cheese and Balsamic vinegar, the brambly earthiness of an aged red Rioja, and echoes of once-raisiny, once-toffeeish malts that have fermented to a tart, winey dryness. Barrel-aging has dropped out the classic balance and malty treacle of this English stock old ale, and it has emerged from the chrysalis poised, lean, and muscular, trading tradition for attitude in a brave new world of English beer. Pair this beer with rich, earthy dishes, like roast chicken with mushroom sauce, apples and sheep’s milk cheese, New England clam chowder, or Issan-style catfish — sweet, sour, salty, and pungent with garlic and fish sauce.

BOM Club Tasting Notes: July 2015

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               PlumpJack Wine & Spirits brings you this month’s beer club tasting notes for July. This sunny, summer month we turn to gose, a German style of sour beer. Gose has quickly become a trendy beer with zesty, savory sourness. Let’s raise a couple glasses of gose this month, tasting a clean, precise, session version from Off Color Brewing in Chicago, and sipping an artful, barrel-aged version from Colorado’s Paradox Beer Company.

            Prost!
Rich Higgins, Master Cicerone
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Back in January of 2012, we featured a newly imported beer from Leipzig in this Club. At the time, it was a rare sighting of an esoteric sour German beer style, and I was excited to give the beer some daylight. The beer was Bayerischer Bahnhof brewery’s Gose, resurrected and brewed by a pioneering craft brewery in the center of Leipzig. Leipzig’s beer culture had somberly deteriorated during its time in the Eastern Bloc, and Soviet culture and pilsner economics had turned this city — home to dozens of gose taverns in the 1800s into a tomb for this tart, spiced ale.
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Gose (pronounced GO-zuh; different from Belgium’s gueuze, which is pronounced GEU-zuh) is a low-alcohol, low-bitterness, slightly sour, spiced wheat ale. Gose derives its name from the town and river where the style coalesced: the town of Goslar, on the Gose River, 100 miles from Leipzig. Goslar was a salt mining center in the Middle Ages, and its well water is naturally a bit salty. In addition to brewing with this salty water, beer in pre-industrial Goslar and Leipzig was fermented in part by bacteria that produce lactic acid. Thus, for centuries the wheat beer from this area was slightly salty and slightly sour. Historically it was common to add spices to beer, and dash of coriander became a common addition to gose. As Goslar’s mining economy faded and Leipzig became a larger, industrial city, the center of gose consumption moved to Leipzig in the 1700s. Unfortunately, in the 20th Century wars and Soviet occupation were not kind to East German breweries, and between 1945 and 2000 gose was only intermittently brewed.

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In the past 3 years, a hundreds of American craft brewers, and even handful of new German breweries, have added gose to their line-up and gose’s future is looking up. Not for the first time, the exuberance and growth of craft beer in the US saved a style. (Last February, Thrillist published an article claiming craft beer had jumped the shark in embracing gose; I hope you’ll disagree after tasting this month’s beers.) Fitting nicely into the fast-growing thirst for sour beers, gose has helped add diversity within the sour beer range. Gose satisfies a demand for sour beer in a faster, less-expensive production cycle. I call it a “fresh sour,” since it doesn’t take any longer to ferment than a non-sour beer, and it’s meant to be drunk fresh and not be aged. Just as yogurt and bread dough will sour within a couple days, gose wort turns from wheaty and bland to zesty and tart within just a few days, courtesy of fast-souring lactobacillus bacteria. The beers lack the complexity of a lambic or a wild ale, but just a few weeks after brew day, they’re in mugs out in the marketplace, while more complex sours sit in barrels (and on brewery ledgers) for months or years longer.
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Gose is also press-ready — freedom in a glass — as American brewers play with this spiced, sour style that had lingered as a non-compliant, red-headed step-child appendix in Germany’s Reinheitsgebot brewing culture. This side of the Pond, hey: adding verboten spices and flavors, is, in a way, what American craft beer is all about! The most successful American contributions to beer history are all upsets to established beer recipes: look at steam beer (brewing lagers at warm San Francisco temperatures), American lagers (sneaking corn and rice into pilsner’s malt bill), and American pale ales and IPAs (using bold, brash American hops in place of delicate, refined European hops). Where the Saxons stopped at salt and coriander in their gose recipes, Yankee ingenuity is infusing goses with delicious blasphemies like cilantro, lemon verbena, hibiscus, marionberry, and sumac.
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Troublesome Off Color Brewing, Chicago, Illinois, USA 4.3% ABV
Much like bakers, Off Color’s brewmasters John Laffler and Dave Bleitner keep a couple lactic fermentations in their Chicago brewery. A baker calls it a sourdough starter or a mother, and pinches off a portion of this sourdough to knead and bake into that day’s sourdough bread, and replenishes the mother with some fresh flour and water to be soured overnight for the next day’s bread. That concept is alive and well in liquid form at craft breweries like Off Color. In two rigged “farmboy” tanks, Laffler and Bleitner keep a population of lactobacillus bacteria happy, borrowing some lactically-soured beer from time to time in exchange for keeping those sour tanks topped up with fresh wort on brew days. Lots of breweries (not the majority, but not a few) keep “lacto beer” on hand to blend into the mash tun, into the wort kettle, and into fermented batches of beer — in small and large amounts, tweaking pH here and adding bready, yogurty tartness there. German brewers do it, too, and in concert with pasteurization, it’s a valuable way to add a hint of refreshing acidity without letting a beer become more sour during its time in the bottle. For Troublesome gose, Laffler and Bleitner hew to the modern German approach, brewing a base plain wheat beer, harvesting and pasteurizing the exact right amount of lacto beer for blending, and adding it to the wheat beer along with salt and coriander to create a subtle, precise, refreshing beer. It’s the perfect biergarten beer, whether you’re in Leipzig, The Loop, or on Lombard Street: drinkable (gulpable, really), refreshing, and great with sunshine, sweat, and sausage.
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Troublesome is a hazy, pale straw color, pouring into the glass beneath a fleeting white head. It smells supremely doughy, with faint hints of orange peel, meyer lemon, and hay. It’s the ultimate refresher, drinking easily with slight sourness, saltiness, and woody spice. It explores tastes that most beers ignore: it’s a balance of sour and salty (both of which tease the faintest sweetness from the dry malts), rather than being a tangle of bitterness and residual sugar as most beer styles are. Though it’s low in alcohol and sweetness, its mouthfeel isn’t thin, instead offering nice breadiness to chew on (it is a wheat beer, after all). Troublesome shows gose’s softer side, and is a supremely refreshing craft beer that can be the beer geek’s quaffer or the quaffer’s geeky beer. Drink it with a burrata salad, a plate of sushi, bagels with schmear, lox, and capers, or a Chicago hot dog.
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Skully Barrel No. 25 – Salted Sumac Gose
Paradox Beer Company, Woodland Park, Colorado, USA 7.6% ABV

 

 

 
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Gose is the inspiration for Paradox’s Skully #25, but it breaks the mold in some anachronistic ways, both into the past and the future. This is to be expected from a brewery whose ethos is to be “unflinchingly wayward.” Gose is normally a clean, stainless-steel-fermented wheat beer bolstered by salinity and tinged with simple acidity; charting a new path while borrowing from age-old traditions, Skully #25 (like all of Paradox’s beers) is entirely fermented in oak by a host of wild Colorado yeasts and bacteria. This slow, rustic fermentation in used chardonnay barrels produces the style’s requisite lactic acid, but also imparts depth, complexity, and structure that take this beer beyond the clean lines of a Germanic beer. The beer’s tartness is accompanied by the wild microflora’s earthy, barny hints of wet wool and goat cheese. Also, rather than showing other goses’ snappy finish, Skully #25’s aftertaste is a lingering, wheaty breadiness layered with the oak’s slightly drying tannins and oxidized softness. Rather than relying on the woody, lemony hints of coriander for aroma, sumac is used to show hints of lemon blossom and a wind-swept, piney, thyme-like scent (it reminds me of the garrigue scent that’s prized in coastal Mediterranean wines) along with lip-smacking, sour berry hints like red currants, all while sea salt mixes with oaky toast to evoke a beachy, sandy element.
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Brewer and blender Jeff Airman drew inspiration from sumac when he enjoyed its complex flavors on a trip to Istanbul. For Airman, the “challenge was to bring all these ideas together in liquid form while creating a balance between them that kept nothing in the shadows.” White wine barrels, coolship, wild yeasts and bacteria, sumac, sea salt, lactic acidity, sour beer from Rocky Mountain Foothills via Goslar and Leipzig. That’s quite a list, and fraught with potential for over-exuberance, gimmickiness, and imbalance. But a taste of this beer reveals that it’s all there; balanced, complementary, graceful, and delicious.
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Skully Barrel No. 25 pours a golden orange hue topped with an attractive, sturdy head of foam. Its bouquet is complex, like a walk through an open-air market in Casablanca or Guadalajara, wafting scents of sourdough, corn masa, pomegranate, pineapple, herbs, and spices, amidst a breeze of beach and barnyard. A sip brings in a wave of smooth, salty, lactic sourness that’s supple and supported by oak tannins. On the mouthfeel, the hardness (from salt, acid, carbonation, and tannins) is perfectly balanced by the creamy nature of the lactic acid, the bready wheat malt, and the smooth oxidation from barrel aging. Skully #25 sidesteps the simple, freshness of a traditional gose, but wayward Paradox has crafted a delicious, savory, supple sour ale, expanding along the way the conversation around what a gose can be. Serve it alongside a board of salumi and aged sheep’s milk cheese, or pair it with Moroccan-style couscous with apricot, za-atar, and harissa. It especially loves all kinds of fish, including olive-oil-poached tuna, clams in Chinese black bean sauce, and even uni draped over garlicky pasta.