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Friday, February 25, 2011

What Ales You? Saranac's Latest Mixed 12 Pack

Sherman on the Mount
By Rick Sherman
What exactly makes a beer a craft beer? In noodling around the web a bit I found some good definitions. One very simple one was from Homebrew-center.com:

 "An American term which refers to beer brewing using traditional methods.This type of beer is brewed to be distinctive and flavorful rather than appeal to everyone."

I rather like that definition.

The Brewers Association refers to a craft brewery as one that is "small, independent and traditional." All three of those words are qualifiers - but what do they mean?
Small: Less than 2 million barrels per year.
Independent: An alcoholic beverage industry member (not a craft brewer) cannot own more than 25% of the brewery.
Traditional: Must have an all-malt flagship beer or have at least 50% of its production in either all malt beers or beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten the flavor (in other words, not rice or corn.)
           -(www.examiner.com)-

So craft beers (or microbrews if under 15,000 barrels per year are sold) by definition are not brewed by any of the big mega-brewers (macrobrews). But as the sale of microbrews began to cut into the bottom line of the big guys, the macrobreweries began to take notice. By 2009 craft beers accounted for only 6.9% of the total dollars of retail sales of beer in the U.S. However the sales had been gradually trending upwards over the last several years. So, rather than be satisfied with the other 93.1% of the beer dollars out there, the Big Two breweries (Anheuser-Busch/InBev and Miller/Coors)  decided they wanted in on the craft beer boom as well.
This has taken two forms. One is to create beers like Budweiser's American Ale, where the familiar brand name was left intact, but the brew was tweaked to make it appeal more to the craft beer market. Miller has done a similar thing by adding lime and other flavorings to their lite beer. Trouble was most dedicated craft beer drinkers weren't about to buy a Bud (even if it had the word "ale" after it - and they sure weren't about to buy one of those God awful lite beers no matter what they added to it ) when there were so many diverse craft brews out there to choose from.

Coors hides their association with B-M
The second, some might say more insidious, approach was to create pseudo-craft beers. Miller/Coors has it's Blue Moon series of beers. Michelob has Shock Top. A-B has also introduced Beach Bum Blonde Ale and Jack's Pumpkin Spiced Ale. A-B "craft" brands include Red Bridge, Skipjack Amber and Wild Blue - as well as owning shares in Seattle's Redhook Ale Brewery. While Millers/Coors owns Leinenkugel and Killian's Irish Red. Meanwhile Craft Brewers Alliance, Inc. - a conglomerate of four of the major craft brewers: Red Hook, Widmer, Kona and Goose Island - has reportedly been targeted by A-B for takeover.
So what's the big deal? InBev has the money and the power, if they want to buy up some of the more successful craft brewers, so what? It's the American way (realizing, of course, that InBev is a Begian company). I have no problem with companies making money. I like to think that what separates the craft brewers from the corporate brewers is that the crafters got into this business because of a love of good beer, however I am sure that they are not averse to turning a buck as well. And certainly if A-B or M-C want to brew beers that mimic craft brews, more power to them. The problem is there is just so much shelf space in any grocery store's beer aisle and just so many taps in any bar, and the macrobreweries have the power to dominate that space and those taps.

The danger in all this is that the craft brewers who don't hook up with the big guys could be driven out of business. And those who do could lose control of the beers they produce as the parent company eyes the bottom line, pushing for cheaper (i.e. less flavorful) ingredients while looking for broader appeal. And we could be back to the same old same old. Couldn't happen? But it already did. After Prohibition was repealed, the number of breweries in the US grew to 498 in 1940. By 1983 that number had dwindled to 80, operated by 50 companies as small, regional breweries were bought up or forced out by the big guys. And they all pretty much produced the same beer. Using inexpensive ingredients such as rice and corn which contributed little to the flavor and counting on the power of Madison Ave,  U.S. beers developed a reputation as being bland and tasteless. The introduction of light beers did little to help this.

Today there are over 1,500 breweries operating in the U.S. - more than in any other country - producing the most varied array of styles and flavors in the world. We are in the midst of a brewing Renaissance. And for the 6.3% of us out here who appreciate the flavor and diversity of craft beers, that is a wonderful thing indeed.

What Ales You? - Well This Mixed 12 Might Just Be the Cure
At January's BOTB meeting at Mike and Diane's we checked out Saranac's newest mixed 12 pack - "What Ales You," and threw in a couple other ales from Lake Placid Brewing to round out tasting. Saranac's "What Ales You" mixed 12 contains 6 different beers, however two of them, the Irish Red Ale and the Irish Stout, we included last month. So this month we tackled the rest of the brews. We again used the same evaluation form as before, rating each beer by aroma, color, flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression - keeping the first four areas as objective as we can and saving our subjectivity for the last part where we rate it from "can't stand it" to "can't get enough." Then, of course, we have the comments which are purely subjective. So without further ado...

1. Saranac Pale Ale - Saranac's flagship beer, this is a classic English Pale Ale made with Crystal malt and Cascade and East Kent Golding hops. It weighs in at 5.5% ABV and has a 13.50 original gravity. A coppery amber colored beer, it pours with a full, rich head. The initial aroma is toward the hoppy end of the spectrum. The flavor starts out with a nutty maltiness and finishes with nice hop bite. Mouthfeel was right in the middle and our overall impression was very favorable, falling just one notch short of "can't get enough."
Comments: "As said before, this is truly a boat beer; When I think of pale ale - I want it to taste like this; More of an English style Pale Ale; Nice pale ale; The Cascade finishes it up - cleans it up; Better than Sam Adams."
2. Saranac Brown Ale - This is an American Brown Ale brewed with American two-row Pale, Victory and Chocolate malts as well as Cascade and Columbus hops. It's a medium amber color - halfway between amber and brown on our scale. There is a distinctive, warm malty aroma at the pour with a nice frothy head. The flavor was very balanced, with a full mouthfeel. This one was near the top of our overall impressions scale. At 5.3% and the balanced flavor this makes a terrific session beer.

Good time for a Saranac Brown Ale!
Comments: "Nice beer; Hearty; Nice winter beer - to warm the cockles of your taste buds; Nice finish; How about including this in the 12 Beers of Winter? Seems like a perfect fit; Perfect beside a warm fire on a cold winter's day; Could drink this all night; I hope they'll keep this as one of their core beers
 As you can see, this one was quite popular with all of us.

The women take a "hike" while we research.
3. Saranac Amber Ale - Most amber ales lean heavily toward the malty side and go easy on the hops. Saranac added a solid dose of Cascade and Fuggle hops to balance the sweetness of the Honey and Extra Dark Crystal malts they use.The result is a very balanced beer with a deep amber color, a malty aroma and a flavor that leans toward the sweet end of the spectrum. We judged the mouthfeel as a bit shy of full, but very pleasant. Overall impression put this again just short of "can't get enough." A very drinkable beer.
Comments: "Sweetest finish, session beer - have a few in the evening type beer; That's a good beer; Very similar to the Brown Ale; Easy drinking, nothing offensive or objectionable about it; Don't taste any fruit or caramel; I get a little caramel undertaste."


4. Saranac India Pale Ale - Saranac's IPA (an American IPA), like their Pale Ale, has become one of Saranac's core beers. Fully hopped, but not over the top, it's brewed with North American two-row malt and Cascade hops. At a modest 5.8% ABV it is not particularly strong for this style. A kind of honey colored, the hops aroma hits you right off. And the dominant flavor is those Cascade hops, providing that taste, somewhat reminiscent of grapefruit, that is the hallmark of a good IPA. This one we scored an enthusiastic "Can't get enough."
Comments: "Creamy, lacy, off-white head; Nice beer; One of my favorites of the Saranac line; One of their - and our - staples; A regular in my fridge."


5. Lake Placid Ubu Ale - Next up we checked out a couple of brews from Lake Placid Craft Brewing. Ubu Ale is their flagship ale. It is an English strong ale. It's a deep mahogany color with a rich malty aroma. It's a solid 7% ABV and has a full mouthfeel. The flavor tends toward the sweet end of the spectrum with a nutty maltiness and hints of toffee. Nice hint of hops. Overall impressions were very positive leaving it just shy of "Can't get enough."
Legend has it that Bill Clinton used to have this shipped to the White House.
Comments: "What you wish Guinness would taste like; Kind of reminds me of Guinness 250 which I liked more than Guinness; This is a good beer; Finishes sweet; Hadn't had this in a while and I like it even more than I remember."



6. Lake Placid Craft Brewing India Pale Ale - Another really good IPA, and one that is a little stronger than the Saranac. The aroma was strongly hoppy. It poured a deep copper color. Again the hops dominate, but there is a little more maltiness here than the Saranac. At 6.8% the warming sensation of the alcohol is more noticeable than Saranac as well. Full mouthfeel. It earned a hearty "Can't get enough" from all present. A really good beer. I wish it was more widely available.
Comments: "Nice eye appeal; Nice lace, nice malts; bitter finish; complex flavor; the best of Placid; A little maltier than Saranac, but no less hoppy - a bigger beer; A good acquisition by Saranac; I could drink this all night long (Sorry Gerry!)


A Couple of Shout-outs
We also got a chance to try Grindstone Brewery's Winter Blues Rye PA. It was awesome! Grindstone's brewmaster Mike Watkins does it again.






Had Southern Tier's IPA - Excellent beer.




I also tried Lagunita's Brown Shugga' - Looking for something really different - give it a try. With the name I thought it would be really sweet - but I was pleasantly surprised. There's the caramel malt flavor enhanced by a kind of molasses/brown sugar taste - but then it is nicely balanced by a strong hops presence. 9.9% ABV so it's a big beer. Real nice sipping beer.

Sláinte!
The BOTB Guys








Thursday, February 3, 2011

So Many Beers - So Little Time


Sherman on the Mount  
Whereupon Your Humble Blogmeister Pontificates on the Ales of the World 

Over the last several years it's been exciting to see the growth of craft beers throughout the U.S. What was for a while essentially a West Coast then East Coast phenomena is slowly spreading to all those areas in between and even into the South. It's great to walk into a grocery store and see a beer aisle that looks like this:
As opposed to one dominated by Budweiser, Coors and Miller products. Now, I have nothing against those beers and have been known to partake of them when nothing else is available. My problem is the mind-numbing (or taste-bud numbing) sameness of these brews. I know that many people are fiercely loyal to one or the other of them, but the truth is there is little difference between them. Try a blind taste test with the big three and throw in a Blue and a PBR and a Genny. It would be very difficult to tell one from the other (even more so if they are all Lights). And truly, that's what the big boys want because then it comes down to advertising and branding. Now, just for kicks, throw Saranac's Lake Effect Lager into that blind taste test mix for example. Even the least discriminating of palates could pick that out because it's different and distinct. Yet it too is a Lager just like the others.
My point is that for years the major brewers fought the beer wars not with brew masters but with ad execs. Image and packaging were the weapons, not innovations in style and flavor. But craft beers have brought true variety and choice to beer drinkers thirsting for bold, full-flavored brews.

January BOTB - A Little of This and a Little of That

At January's BOTB meeting at Hal's we realized we had a rather daunting and unwieldy task in front of us. As often happens, each member will bring along a beer or two that looked interesting and add it to the pot. This has resulted in a growing number of interesting brews as we cast our collective nets far and wide to haul in something new and different. But this also creates a bit of a dilemma. Namely, we suddenly realized we had sixteen different beers to taste. While I will agree that "too much beer" is a rather foreign (dare I say blasphemous) concept, my guess is that by the eleventh or twelfth we perhaps could not do justice to the beers. Ergo, we made the tough decision to limit the tastings to only seven. The seven we choose were an eclectic group and therefore once again have judged each on its own merits. 
This months Magnificent Seven:

Two from Saranac: 
Irish Red Ale and Irish Stout

Two from Middle Ages: 
Dragon Slayer Imperial Stout and Druid Fluid


Three from Wisconsin (Courtesy of Dan's son Evan - thanks Evan):

Capital Brewing's Capital Pilsner

New Glarus Brewing Company's Spotted Cow and Moon Man No Coast Pale Ale

1. Saranac's Irish Red Ale 

This was one of the two limited release brews offered us by Saranac this month. This one would definitely fit well in the Session Beer category as it has an easy to take 4.5% ABV (by contrast Budweiser weighs in at 5%). The aroma we found to be somewhat malty, but not extremely so. The color was a deep copper. Mouthfeel was toward the full end of the spectrum. Taste was rather typical of its style: a malty sweetness with nothing overpowering. Not a strong hops presence as you might expect. Overall impression fell right in the middle with some rating it above average, some below. There were a number of comments with a mini battle of words pitting this against Killian's Irish Red: "Nice label; a good football beer' I could drink this!; I don't care for this beer - the aroma and the lack of hops; I like it better than Killians; I disagree; It has more body than Killians; It is a good session beer - it is what it is."

2. Saranac Irish Stout
Stouts seem to bring out the most disagreements among the BOTB Guys. Nobody hates them, but some are fonder of them than others. So Saranac's Irish Stout made for a lively discussion. It has all the characteristics of a stout, with its deep black color, rich, malty aroma, full/thick mouthfeel and sweet malt flavor with hints of coffee. It is a solid 5.5% ABV. The overall impressions averaged out to good side of average, edging toward the "can't get enough" end of the scale. But again we were all over the place on this one. Comments: "Nice lacing - a lingerie lace; I don't care for most stouts; I'd buy that; A good snow blower beer; I can drink this; It's a good solid Irish Stout; It's not real smoky, almost a burnt malt; (and a typical BOTB suggestion) Hop it up a little more."

3. Middle Ages Dragon Slayer Imperial IPA
Middle Ages Brewing Company in Syracuse, NY produces an impressive array of beers, several of which we have reviewed in the past. Particularly impressive are their selection of high octane brews. Complex, rich and full bodied, these beers are uncompromising and the antithesis of the Imbev family of cookie cutter beers.
Dragon Slayer is a take-no-prisoners kick-ass Russian Stout. 9.5% ABV puts it right up there in the barleywine territory. It's not for everyone, which for me is high praise. The aroma is malty. It pours an opaque coal black, with a rich, full head. The flavor is complex and big, with chocolate undertones. It scored between average and can't get enough with some loving it some not so thrilled. Comments include: "Beautiful head and lacing; I can drink this; Heavy; Too much of a roasted flavor - it's over the top; This is a helmet beer - with a strap!; A nice beer to be enjoyed with Polish food (the food theme for the meeting); Chocolaty; Big flavor."

Middle Ages Druid Fluid

Druid Fluid marks a new style for the BOTB Guys. It's a barleywine. Barleywine is a strong ale which originated in England. The name comes from the fact that it is often nearly as strong as wine, typically clocking in at somewhere between 8% and 12%. It is made with grains rather than fruit, so it is in fact an ale. Bass No. 1 Ale was the first beer sold as a barley wine in 1900. Barleywines are rich, full-bodied and complex.
Druid Fluid, an amber colored ale, has a deep malty aroma, not surprising since it is brewed with six malts. Full-bodied and rich with a sweet, malty taste and warm alcohol mouthfeel. Our overall impression came out just shy of "can't get enough." Not shabby for a niche beer such as this. But again there was a mixed bag of opinions. "Too sweet; Very strong, with a sweet taste, it seems you either love it or hate it; a little grape-y for my taste; Certainly not a session beer!"

Capital Brewery of Middleton, WI - Capital Pilsner
Capital Pilsner is a German Pilsner style beer. It's a mild beer at 4.7%. The aroma quite honestly was not pleasant. It was described variously as, "bready, yeasy, skunky, dirty socks." Ouch! Hate to hammer any craft brew, but honestly the aroma alone was very off-putting. The color was very pale. It has a thin mouthfeel and the taste somewhat sweet. General impression fell just shy of "can't stand it." Comments: "Almost like a light wheat beer; definitely a lawnmower beer; After shoveling my car out of the snow bank I could drink that."

New Glarus Brewing Company - Spotted Cow

Our second beer from Wisconsin, and we were beginning to wonder if there was something in the water in this Midwest state. Described as a farmhouse ale, Spotted Cow is another mild beer at 4.8%. There was very little in the way of aroma and the color was pale yellow. Mouthfeel was thin and there wasn't much flavor. Kind of reminded me of one of the Imbev or Miller/Coors beers. No discernible hops presence and little in the way of maltiness either. Comments: "Would be a golf cart beer - when you want to shoot a good score; After shoveling, maybe a 'knock back' beer; Not objectionable, but why bother?: Incidentally, their web site suggests paining this beer with, anomg other things, brats and Limburger sandwiches.

New Glarus Brewing Company - Moon Man No Coast Pale Ale
After a couple of disappointing Wisconsin brews we approached this one with some trepidation. Hated to see  the Badger State go 0 for 3. Gotta' like the name "No Coast Pale Ale." The pour was encouraging with an unfiltered cloudiness that gave the pale color some character. The aroma gave us more hope as we detected the presence of hops which we had missed in the last two. The flavor was that of a decent pale ale with a faint hoppy bitterness. The overall impressions fell right between "can't get enough" and "OK." Comments: I'll tell you what, I could drink that; Wisconsin's best effort so far."

We did have three other beers which we choose not to rate officially for no other reason than we decided to just do seven. These all were unanimously well received. We agreed that they were all in the "can't get enough" category. 


Sierra Nevada's Harvest Wet Hop Ale

Three Heads Brewing - The Kind India Pale Ale

Brown's Brewing Company
India Pale Ale

All in all another day of good food, good friends, good music, and of course, good beer.

How Beer Saved the World

You might want to check out this fun bit of fluff from the Discovery Channel. It tells the story of beer and it's many virtues in a light-hearted hour, mixing somewhat silly animation with over-the-top narration and a fair amount of history. It's an interesting show, however I would have liked to have seen a similar thing done with a little less frivolity. It sort of undercuts the interesting bits of trivia and history of brewing. The little animated bits are just goofy and not particularly funny unless you're a five-year-old. It's almost like the producers said, "Well, it's beer after all, so let's not be too serious here." 
Also be prepared; it's underwritten by Miller/Coors so about 90% of the beer labels you see are either Miller or Coors. It's like we're in some bizarro universe where Budweiser doesn't exist. However, there is also no mention of craft brews either and the death of the small breweries with the rise of the mega-breweries. Nonetheless it makes for a diverting hour.