Beyond the Bottle: This Year’s Beers

beer-lineupI tend to avoid annual predictions because they tend to sound like they could have been true last year, at least in beer. Every brewery’s done an imperial stout, double IPA, an oaked beer, some form of questionable sour, and (soon!) a series of hazy IPAs. Most ingredients that are even remotely acceptable in brewing have been used. Every non-technical hop pun has been taken. Things doing well get piggybacked quickly. Exhibit A: fruit IPA. Exhibit B: hard soda.

But! In the spirit of the new year, some looks forward: Hazy IPAs are blowing up, inevitably. Kettle-sour approaches will probably also hit a peak in 2017, with knowledge of the practice spreading to anyone who wants to have a go, though I doubt most are in it for the long haul. These beers have a rough lactic edge more often than not, and complexity usually isn’t there. For producers of more traditional sours: a kettle-sour fallout likely can’t come soon enough. A friend works with South African hops, and (from everything I hear) they’ll be popping up more frequently next year, with strong debuts in beers by folks such as Firestone and Bottle Logic. Interest in newer varieties—and awareness of hop-variety relevance—have probably never been higher. I’d prefer to see hard sodas fizzle. 2017 won’t be the year of the dunkel.

If we haven’t already, we’ll likely reach Peak Tropical in 2017, as we’ve had so many inroads in that direction as of late: lots of breweries with fruit IPAs, tons of interest in new tropical-inclined hop varieties (from New Zealand, Australia, etc.), beers that emphasize ‘tropical’ in their marketing (with or w/o fruit additions), countless new IPAs named via some tweak of the words “juice” and/or “juicy”, etc. We’re all looking for our tropical beach somewhere.

Beyond the Bottle: In Search of Haze

hopfenweisse-croppedI touched upon some of the highlights from this year’s Great American Beer Festival in my last column—but left out one of the main side missions. Like many of you, I’ve been tasting examples of hazy IPAs (aka “Vermont-style IPAs”, aka “New-England-style IPAs”, etc.) as I happen to cross paths with them. But I hadn’t had a chance to seriously go down that rabbit hole until recently. My upcoming Trending column in our January issue of All About Beer will be focused entirely on those hazy, murky, milkshakey incarnations of IPA, as well as whether or not, you know, brewing IPAs that look like grapefruit juice might trigger the apocalypse.

Short answer: Maybe.

The Great American Beer Festival happened to have half a dozen or so serious takes on the trend, like the yeast-hazed Green Acres from Virginia Beer Co., the heavily dry-hopped Sun Temple IPA from Colorado’s Yak and Yeti, or the high-protein Mass Riot from Prison City in upstate New York. Folks are using a variety of techniques to generate haze in their IPAs, from minimally flocculating yeast strains to high-protein malt bills—to just dry-hopping the bejeezus out of it—following in the footsteps of hazy-IPA trendsetters like The Alchemist, Trillium and Tree House. While many drinkers are completely against the trend of having a hazy/murky version of IPA gaining ground, others (like me) are finding them engaging and, often, an exceptional way to focus on juicy hop flavor and aroma. Presuming they’re fresh.

Have you been diggin the haze? Loathing it? Seeing more examples locally? NorCal’s seeing tons of breweries getting on board, and everything suggests 2017 is looking ever more hazy.

Beyond the Bottle: Highlights from GABF

kris-ken
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.

Cheers!
Ken