Beyond the Bottle: Highlights from GABF

Kris & Ken at the 2016 GABF

I didn’t screw up anything badly last year, and was pleased to get invited back as a judge for this year’s Great American Beer Festival in early October. (As a relevant side note: I also got to hang with Rare Beer Club owner Kris Calef out in Denver this year, and he definitely was on the hunt for some new and exciting selections for the club.) Overall: 3 days of judging + 3 days of festival.

Of the World Beer Festivals (and upcoming Beer Quest in Charlotte) I help organize with our team over at All About Beer, the majority of the events are happening in our company’s home state of North Carolina. The GABF awards are a lot more interesting when you have a horse in the race, such that (in addition to our NorCal peeps and such), it was a blast to see many of those North Carolina breweries we work with take home a disproportionate bunch of hardware this year. NoDa took gold for their Nodajito. Hi-Wire took gold for Zirkusfest. Wicked Weed won a silver for their Lunatic… And, seemingly out of nowhere, Brown Truck Brewery from High Point, North Carolina was awarded an assortment of medals (including gold in the American- or German-style light lager category, over Coors Light) as well as Very Small Brewing Company of the Year. So not shabby for a brewery established in 2015.

Additional key notables: Pabst took home Large Brewing Company of the Year (and will be joining us for Beer Quest next month). Our editor John Holl and I got sneak peeks of some amazing stuff, including High Water’s new barrel-aged Campfire Stout (with the un-barreled version taking home a gold medal in the Specialty Beer category the next morning). We got a sweet 2016 judge cooler from Mountainsmith (way better than last year’s cutting board). The judging panels were packed, and I ended up reviewing about 150 beer entries over the course of three days—a wee sliver of the 7,227 total entries in this year’s competition. Also: I got to witness a brewery nearby at the Saturday awards ceremony go bonkers when they found out they’d won a category I’d judged the medal round of, which was particularly cool + edifying. The fest and judging rounds ran like clockwork, and I already can’t wait for next year’s event.

Beyond the Bottle: Group Projects

the-rare-barrelWe’re in the thick of festival season at All About Beer—every brewery rep on the east coast I’ve talked to today has cursed October’s existence, and not without justification—and we’ve got two festivals of our own plus the next issue overhead. Thankfully, this job includes good distractions, and I was lucky enough to get behind the scenes for two recent group projects.

First: I got to be one of the blenders for Firestone Walker’s XX Anniversary Ale—usually a spot reserved for local winemakers who actually know how to blend things. I didn’t, but my bread-making/blending partner Arie caught me up to speed quickly—and we decided on a solid blend to compete against eight other teams of Paso-Robles winemakers. Our mix (30% Parabola and 15% Bravo, scribbles suggest…) wasn’t the winner, but the top blend—via one-man-blending-show Scott Hawley of Torrin Winery—was delicious and debuts October 29th.

Second, as another group project, I got to hang with some great folks for The Search for the Rare Barrel down at Berkeley’s The Rare Barrel, judging a flight of their various blonde sour ales to help find a very special combination of yeast characteristics (to serve to ferment many future barrels of beer). The winning barrels from our preliminary flights were then judged by panelists from The Rare Barrel, Lauren Salazar from New Belgium, and Vinnie Cilurzo from Russian River. (If you’re heard of the famed barrel pH1, that’s what this project was about.)

The winning barrel gets released the last week of September. Back to spreadsheets! #festlife

Beyond the Bottle: Wood & Beer

elevation-elevated-psaPart of my job includes keeping up on the latest reading. One of our Rare Beer Club features this month is a wheat wine aged in Sauvignon Blanc barrels, and the technical beer book I’m currently exploring happens to be Wood & Beer: A Brewer’s Guide, by Dick Cantwell and Peter Bouckaert, which came out this summer. I got my sample copy via the Brewers Association, and this book in particular is nice to finally see. Wood-aged beers have gained massive levels of interest in the past ten years or so (an early page of the book notes 85% of U.S. breweries were using wood to somehow influence their beer in 2015), and this book’s been a long time coming. I recall first hearing about it at least four or five years ago via a barrel-savvy brewer friend up in NorCal—back when he was the one attempting to tackle this book project.

The book takes on everything from heady science to the really hands-on, blue-collar work of creating liquid-tight cooperage. It was particularly neat, going through it, to see how many of the main breweries cited were familiar from The Rare Beer Club. I learned Brouwerij Boon is notable for not only having its own cooper on permanent staff, but also for keeping whole tree trunks on site for the making of new staves. Cigar City’s got a gadget called the Spinbot 5000—allowing them to use recirculating infusion to get more out of various wood additions like American oak and Spanish cedar, in a shorter period of time. And there’s a detailed look into the blending practices of our friend Ron Jeffries over at Jolly Pumpkin, one of our long-time Rare Beer Club supporters, including the challenges of blending foeders of all different sizes. If you don’t know your vanillins from your furfurals, you’ll find some interesting bits.


Beyond the Bottle: Long Live Slow Sours

panil-barriquee-bottleI touched upon this very briefly in my last column, but wanted to dig a bit deeper into quick and kettle sours, particularly as The Rare Beer Club’s featuring the slow-process Panil Barriquée.

For my latest Trending column in All About Beer Magazine, I tasted through a few dozen sour beers that had been made via quick- or kettle-souring techniques—which are becoming way more popular as of late. The chemistry gist is this: most sour beers (and most beer generally) is fermented after its boiling process, and takes weeks or years to transform available sugars and such into useful things like alcohol, carbon dioxide, and the tart acidity of a sour ale. In quick- or kettle-sour beers, Lactobacillus bacteria (like in Berliner weisse) is added under ideal circumstances before the boiling process, creating a strong vein of lactic acid in a day or two. The subsequent boiling prevents said Lacto from infecting a brewery’s non-sour equipment, which, beyond time savings, also means you don’t have to invest in actual sour equipment.

Don’t get me wrong. I did manage to track down a few quick-sour beers that are worth the effort, including two really nice (if curiously named) releases from Smog City Brewing Co. in Torrance, California: Cuddlebug (with welcome peach and apricot nuances) and Snugglebug  (showcasing raspberry and boysenberry additions). Two super-good renderings that manage to work around the core limitation of these beers: the quick-/kettle-sour process will, even if you do everything right, only yield a quite simple, pronounced lemon-custard-y sourness that (as far as I could find) works best when tempered by other ingredients… What I’m getting to is probably some form of the following: Looking to rekindle that love of lambics, and other slow-brewed, complex sour beers? Tasting through a couple dozen kettle sours might help.

Beyond the Bottle: New Coffee Beers

mikkeller-koppi-ipa-citra-wachuri-bottleMy role at All About Beer has recently expanded a bit, beyond overseeing our reviews system and managing the beer side of our World Beer Festivals (etc.), to include a new column. It’s slowly|amusingly turned into me taking deep-dives into parts of the beer world I don’t like.

Fruit IPAs, coffee beers (I’m an outlier here) and, most recently, quick-/kettle-soured beers. My beer-loving wife, normally on board for pretty much anything (except smoked beer), has been like: You’re on your own. Fruit IPAs, coffee beers, quick sours: couple dozen at a time. No help. Our sink’s usually drunk. The recycling bin contents makes us look like odd pirates.

Don’t get me wrong. Some folks love these. But I cannot for the life of me say that my heart beats faster when a new kettle sour appears on the shelf. Fruit IPAs still, generally, just make me wish for normal IPAs (ideally loaded with late hop additions). But the newer coffee beers were, surprisingly, pretty great.

(I’ve also been threatened with having to review hard sodas. … Not really. I volunteered.)

Coffee beers: I’ve been jaded by so many iffy ones in the past. But this time around our top picks were stellar—and all from SoCal: Modern Times City of the Dead (barrel-aged coffee!), Stone Americano Stout (seamless) and AleSmith’s new Hammerhead Speedway. All glorious, and making me regret bad words I’ve spoken about coffee beers in the past. (Stone’s Mocha IPA has been a standout new release in the time since then.) With cold-brewed additions and boutique-roaster collaborations like never before, we’re just starting to approach peak coffee.