Well, I made it all the way through. There were a few days of struggle, a few pushes. In the end, I had the gumption to get it done. 30 days and many beers – but each night a Christmas ale – are complete.
There were highs thanks to De Dolle and Hair of the Dog – and there were lows due in part to Ninkasi and Bridgeport. But all in all, I loved each evening. The beer did as I had hoped: restored Christmas to its rightful jolly state.
Throughout the process, I posted a blurb about each beer on our Facebook page. After 30 days, I made my choices. Here are the results:
Top 5 Beers – Overall Quality:
1. De Dolle Stille Nacht 2009
2. Hair of the Dog Doggie Claws 2009
3. Troegs Mad Elf
4. Nogne O/Jolly Pumpkin/Stone Special Holiday Ale 2009
5. Great Lakes Christmas Ale
Honorable Mentions: Brasserie Thiriez, Goose Island 2009 Xmas Ale, Fremont B-Bomb, and Silver City Old Scrooge
Top 5 Beers – Christmas Style:
1a. Nogne O/Jolly Pumpkin/Stone Special Holiday Ale 2009
1b. Great Lakes Christmas Ale
3. Anchor Christmas Ale 2010
4. Maritime Jolly Roger
5. Thirsty Dog 12 Dogs of Christmas
Honorable Mentions: Eggenberg Samichlaus, Silver City Old Scrooge, De Dole Stille Nacht, and Breckenridge Christmas Ale
Top Beer Description:
Most of the time when I wrote these reviews, I was half intoxicated at a bar typing on my phone. The quality of the review depended on my motivation level and surrounding conversations. Some beers were cheated, others were given too much (See De Dolle Stille Nacht for “too little” and Fremont Abominable for “too much”)
My favorite description came from drinking an Anchor Christmas Ale at Collins Pub in Seattle:
The Xmas ale is their staple, a seasonal release of many years. This year it tastes like some took a glass of milk, nuked it, dropped in 5 gingerbread houses and a black tea bag and put it in a laundry machine for 6 hours. After that, I drank it. It’s delicious, a fine example of Christmas flavors.
Top Memory of 30 Days of Christmas Ale
One night, Timperial came and surprised me with a party pig (finally, my own tap) and a bottle of Brasserie Thiriez Noel. We got sentimental:
I have a pretty good story about this brewer. Timperial and I drove out to West Flanders one morning to visit Saint Sixtus Abbey and drink the Westvleteren 12. After we got biblical, we decided to peruse the towns. We visited St Bernardus, shot the shit with local Woesteners, and proceeded to make the journey across enemy lines (kind of a joke) to France.
Escalbecq is literally 10 kilos across le border. The border is an unrecognizable line where my Tom Tom starts speaking french. We pulled up to a shanty of a farmhouse and went searching for Daniel (owner of Brasserie Thiriez). We bumped into a brute of a man (seinfeld Kramer reference) who had on denim suspenders and a weird rat tail haircut. I engaged him in conversation. He stared blankly and retorted: “oui?….” imagine the most confused vocal tone on earth, in French. That was this guy.
After nearly 10 minutes of charades, awkward hand signals and phony sign language – he finally understood “Daniel” and illistrated that he was sleeping. This guy? Le brassuer.
He also finally grasped my guzzling booze depiction. He led us to the farmhouse and we – extremely awkward – downed a few samples an bought a few bottles. On the way back to Belgium (10 kilos), we road soda’d a blonde and laughed hysterically at the hijinks. Tonight, we formed a consensus that a return was a necessity.
Thiriez makes amazing beer. They have one of the best yeast strains I have ever tasted. Grassy, earthly, active – but clean – it’s always a different experience under each cap. The Noel is phenomenal. It has a clean, yet significant scent. It packs a mouthful of cherries, strawberries, vanilla, and hay. There is no denying the French farmhouse styling – and we love it. A lively beer with a fresh scent yum.
All in all, it’s the best Thiriez brew we’ve had. Kudos to Bottleworks for pulling this guy in. If it’s on the shelf – it’s a must buy.
It was a good ride. Look for a repeat, with all new beer, next year.
This one is brought to us by Amateur Hour, our good friend Erik Baldwin. Enjoy….
Home Brewing is a Lot Like Fishing
(And other observations of mildly compulsive pleasuredrinkers)
In the same way that a lazy parent bribes an annoying child with candy to stay quiet during an important phone call, the Beer Blotter Crew bribes me with promises of public exposure to keep my fingers out of the sparge during the brew process.
Act One: The Dedicated Amateur
Amateurs like to speculate. From our position, hovering like fruit flies around the rotting tomato of professionalism, we’ve learned that the best way accomplish any goal is to slightly modify expert instructions by adding our own clever shortcuts. Flying in the face of safety, logic and tradition, the dedicated amateur can turn even the simplest task into a labyrinthine convolution of do-overs and back pedaling. This is evidenced clearly in the homebrew process.
“Wow, that looks pretty lumpy” (Poke the sparge with my car key)
“That’s not sanitary. You could contaminate the entire batch”
The dedicated amateur knows the best way to deal with a contamination issue is to hope for the best.
“Nah, It’ll probably be ok, my car keys are pretty clean, as far as car keys go. I drive a BMW”.
Act Two: Yeah, I’ll be back in a minute
Anybody who’s ever brewed beer at home knows it’s a waiting game. Waiting for water to heat up, waiting to add grain, waiting for wort to cool down… Bah. The dedicated amateur recognizes these gaps in productivity as opportunities to drink beer somebody else has conveniently brewed for you.
Because of repeated and prolonged absences during the brew process, much of the amateur’s understanding of how beer is made is gleaned from questions ex post facto.
“So, did you guys add the hops yet?”
“No, we’re just sanitizing the kettle right now.”
“Oh, for sure, yeah. Let me know if you need anything, I’ll be inside for just a quick second.”
(2 hours pass)
“Boy, that malt really smells good, when are you going to add it?”
“That’s trail mix. I brought it to snack on.”
The dedicated amateur, above all else, knows better. When he sees someone struggling at a simple task, such as seating a cork firmly into a carboy, he is more than willing to do it right for them.
“Damn, this cork isn’t fitting right.”
“Here, let me try it.” (plop) “Yeah, no, it doesn’t fit. Somehow it fell right in. Is that a problem?”
“Get the hell out of here.”
The Northwest Brewing News has rolled out its annual Reader’s Choice Poll – its time to vote. The Brewing News is a national brewing publication, severed into seven regional publications. Our good friend Geoff Kaiser writes for the Northwest edition, when he’s not manning the ship at Seattle Beer News.
Every year, the Brewing News holds a poll asking its readers to select the very best in the Northwest. Categories for best brewery, brewpub, bar, beer store, home brew shop and perhaps the most heated category – best bartender – are divided state by state. You may vote on the best Northwest beer for each style, as well.
When going through this poll, we noticed that we hit a few stumbling blocks. How do you pick between Hair of the Dog & Cascade Brewing? Is Uber Tavern a better place to grab a beer than The Dray? What the heck is down in Northern California? Don’t be ashamed to have to Rate Beer yourself a group of candidates, as long as you have actually experienced the pub, brewery or beer you intend to choose. But, if you are stuck – let us recommend a few:
Best Imperial IPA
Even with heavyweights like Russian River, Hopworks, Walking Man and Midnight Sun in the mix, and with Washington rising stars Boundary Bay and Port Townsend making their own cases – there can still be only one choice for us. Black Raven’s Wisdom Seeker licked the competition at Brouwers Hopfest. We have no reservations about this choice.
Best Strong Ale
The Northwest has always somewhat lacked in the big beer categories. But, there is no doubt that one strong ale has dominated the Northwest for many year – Hair of the Dog’s Fred. Alan Sprints has been making this beer for ages. If you have a vintage bottle laying around, you know what makes this complex ale so special. Vote with confidence.
Best Sour Beer
For years, I would probably have said that Russian River had this category killed with Consecration. But after recently tasting Cascade Brewing’s Noyeaux, I have reservations. Noyeaux was recently described in a post by our very own Timperial Stout. Check this one out before you mark down one of Russian River’s excellent choices.
Best NorCal Brewpub
We pushed Russian River out of the competition above, but here they take the cake. Backed by unprecedented selection and incredible beer food – there is no better place to grab a collection of beer and a delicious meal.
Best Washington Brewery
Some would say Boundary Bay has the history and fanfare to deserve this award. Some would say that Black Raven is the young gun that should take the title. We don’t disagree, but lets consider a 3rd choice – Snipes Mountain Brewing? You might think we are crazy but the Sunnyside, Washington brewer has been turning heads. Just about everything that brewer Chris Miller has put out of late, has shocked and awed. Food for thought.
Best Washington Bartender
Wow, we have some great bartenders up here in Seattle. We have a ton of love for Rachel up at Naked City, Natasha at The Dray and certainly Amy, down at Collins Pub. These three wonderful ladies have excellent beer IQs and care about their patrons. This gives them serious consideration.
But, to find someone who can advise, entertain, and take excellent care of you, all without being a giant asshole – priceless. Chris Cavanaugh is that guy. Chris can be found at three, count them, three amazing beer spots in Seattle. Once a fixture at Brouwers Cafe, Chris had to leave to tackle cancer. Once he returned to the bar, Chris grabbed spots at Elysian Brewing (Capitol Hill), The Stumbling Monk, and time behind the bar at Brouwers Cafe. There is one reason that he is at these three places – everyone loves him! Chris will give you great attention, wonderful advice, and excellent entertainment. Not once have we ever heard one person dislike him. Vote for this man.
So take a stab at the poll and let your voice be heard! You can access the poll by following this link. Got any other suggestions for choices, please post them in the comments below.
**Let me take a brief moment to apologize on the delay for our Hopfest in review article. We are working on something epic with two writers. For now, Erik provides a taste of our day.***
Every now and again, I run across a beer that’s so interesting, so tasty and so different than my normal preference, I become mildly obsessed with it, and spend most of my time trying to track it down. At Brouwer’s Hopfest last weekend, I found just such a beer.
Midnight Sun Brewing Co’s XXX Black Double IPA was my favorite beer of the festival. Before you ask, yes, I had a Wisdom Seeker and a Blind Pig and an Ace of Spades, and all the standouts. I even had a few very limited Firkins and a cask beer or two. Those were all exceptional, don’t get me wrong, but the XXX stood out for a couple good reasons.
Having spent most of the morning in a blissful hop-induced delirium, the surprise of XXX’s sweet, almost stouty malt profile was like taking a sip of lemonade on a hot day. The mouthfeel was almost as creamy as a good porter, but it finished strong with a not-to-dry, but fully developed hop bite.
Again, touting the wisdom of our very own Timperial Stout, balance is king. He taught be that over-emphasizing one flavor can lead to an underwhelming experience. I’m going to state my almost assuredly unpopular opinion that Russian River’s Blind Pig is a one-trick-pony. Sure, it’s an impressive trick, but drinking what is essentially hop extract got old after about 8 ounces.
Midnight Sun, however, has crafted a beer with such depth…such complexity, that one schooner wasn’t nearly enough. Unfortunately for me, I have to wait until January when they begin shipping it down to Washington, where it will be exclusively available in 22oz bottles for only a few months.
**Amateur Hour is our new (first) column, written by wordsmith Erik Baldwin. When Erik is not writing, he’s playing in Seattle band, The Beats, Man. After a way too long and irritating departure – Erik is back to talk about his journey to beer.***
Most people start to realize at some point that beer with flavor is preferable to the alcoholic bilge water your grandfather drank. What they don’t realize, however, is that there is more to flavor than just hop intensity and bitterness.
I can’t tell you how often I hear from people who jump on the microbrew train and constantly tell people “I’m really into hoppy beers”. Well, friend, I’ve got some news for you. There’s more to life than Pales and IPAs.
Here are a couple styles that usually don’t have an over-developed hop profile that I’ve been experimenting with lately.
This antique Belgian style originates in Wallonia (The French-speaking half of Belgium) and is typically known as a “farmhouse ale”. That is to say, the farmers pretty much kept it to themselves for a long while. It’s a lighter, low ABV style that goes down nice and easy after a hard day plowing the barley fields. You could call it the Gatorade of beer, but even I would cringe.
Look for a bubbly, smooth golden brew with strong yeast flavor and hints of peppercorn and citrus. Outstanding examples include Dupont’s mysteriously smooth-yet-bitter Avec les Bons Vœux and the always impressive and delightfully spicy Double Mountain Bon Idée.
Now, before I get ahead of myself, I have to admit, I’ve become completely obsessed with sour ales. The depth and variety of sour beers increases everyday, and brewers keep finding ways to make them better and more creative. So what’s the story?
The sour style is at its heart a “happy mistake” that Belgian cellar-dwellers stumbled upon ages ago. At some point, an unhappy brewer realized his batch had been inoculated by wild yeast floating around his caveau. He was in luck, though, because it turns out wild yeast turns the Belgian red or brown ale into a delicious, effervescent delight of a beer.
Expect sours to run a range from bright, golden strong ales to deep, rich browns and ambers. Most have a shockingly flavorful front, full of berry and wine notes. Some are much more tart than others, so experiment a bit and find out where your taste lies.
Some outstanding examples include Cascade Summer Gose, which, incidentally has salt added at some point during the boil, and Russain River Consecration. Now, I could write an entire post about Consecration alone, so I’ll save the majority of the details, but let me just say this: it is brewed with red currants and aged in oak Cabernet-Sauvignon barrels, weighs in at 10% ABV and drinks like champagne.
So, who needs IPA anyway?
Next week: IPA: the world’s greatest beer.
I don’t anything about home brewing. Its a fact.
Ok, well its a partial fact. Subjectively, many would say I know nothing about home brewing – and I would never argue. The extent of my knowledge comes from a half-cocked reading of Charlie Papazian’s Complete Guide to Home Brewing. Good book, little absorption without action.
So its time to take a numbskull, absolutely overdue step and put together a system. How do I do it? Where do I go?
Well people like to talk about the internet these days. Apparently its a resource. We start and end the bulk of our daily research at the world wide web, without knowing the reliability of our sources. But this is a reader powered world. Content produced by bloggers is tangible and it makes sense. So I decided to trust my instincts and start with a Google search bar.
Here are some quick flash in the pan ideas, my research and my proposed result. In the end, I’d love it if you would share your feelings about these proposals in our comments below.
What is Home Brewing?
There is a must read: the aforementioned Papazian brewer’s bible – The Complete Guide to Home Brewing. Get the book, read it and then begin your search for additional questions online.
Charlie is a teacher. In that respect, he knows exactly how far to push you before you begin to ask questions. His writing is simple, basically scientific, and practical.
But what really would help is a starter system as you peruse the book. If you have a friend that has a stove top system, I would implore you to read a chapter and then go and dabble. Translating the words into tangible actions will make the experience better – I can almost guarantee.
Once you have a better understanding of brewing basics – peruse the web for answers. The Home Brewers Association has a nice website; so does Basic Brewing Radio, who offers a podcast. All it takes is Google and a search term.
How Do I Build My Own Brewery?
Lets not get too excited. Building a “brewery” is not simple. I thought it might be – I was a bit rambunctious.
Take it slow and do not over invest if you do not have to do it. Do not simply think about how much beer you can make – but the cost of ingredients, how it will be fermented, where it will be fermented and how it will be stored. Answering these follow up questions will dictate the type of system that you build.
For me – the converted sankey keg system was the perfect size. This system will allow us to brew 12 gallons a beer each brewing session.
Converted kegs are relatively easy to construct. Homebrew Heaven, in Everett, Washington took our old kegs, cut the tops, added gauge portals and spigots and returned them to us in just a week. Oh yeah – and we got a nice lid for the kettle.
There are three main types of converted keg systems:
(1) 3 Tier System (Gravity Based With No Pumps)
(2) RIMS (Recirculating Infusion Mash System)
(3) HERMS (Heat Exchange Mash System)
Each system has its pluses and minuses, based mainly on the battle between cost and ease of use. You can read more about it at this nice online debate.
The optimal type of keg system is wholly dependent on you, your budget and your stress level. For us, we have decided to go inexpensive, and easily alterable. Thus, we will be building a wooden three tier structure that can easily be obtained, built, modified and tossed out if we decided to upgrade.
A gravity system allows us to focus more on the brewing process (ingredients, temperature, variables) and not the equipment (pumps, hoses, etc.). Though it would be nice to be afforded all of the convenience, love and sex appeal of a single level RIMS or HERMS system – we are going basic.
How Do I Build My Brewing Structure?
Well, lets assume that I want to make a 3 tier structure. I do, so this is easy.
We need to first determine whether or not we will be able to weld this sucker. If so, great. If not, no big deal – wood exists. There is a growing misconception that only metal racks will suffice. Unfortunately, metal racks mostly require welding (or good tools to bore holes/cut pieces), are extremely heavy and get really hot. A wooden structure can solve most of these problems, as it is lighter, more easily fastened and dammit – more appealing to most.
But what about the fire hazard? Do not worry about the heat. Find yourself a nice diagram and you will see that heat is projected upward. Get yourself a nice burner (see below) and you will see that it is mostly shielded, keeping heat inside.
To add extra protection, you can fasten sheets of 3/4 inch plywood below the burners to prevent heat from escaping towards your structure. You can also add a sheet of metal to the bottom of your burner that can be spaced off the plywood using washers. This allows a nice air vent between the wood on your structure and your burner’s bottom.
What Type of Heating System?
There are systems (like HERMS) that do not require gas/propane heat sources. If you go that route, you likely do not need to read this article. You probably are more ambitious than me.
Again, we aim to keep it simple. If you are using a normal gas/propane heating system, you want to make sure you have adequate burners. Lets discuss some of these options.
Bayou Classic is the leader in outdoor propane burners. They make systems from anywhere between 25000 BTU (British Thermal Unit – measurement of heat) to north of 200000 BTU!
Other burner outfits like King Kooker make similar products, but they do not seem to be as well received by the brewing community (though there are always those who swear by them).
But there is clearly a consensus that the Bayou Classic Kick A Banjo Cooker is the best burner on the market. Kicking out a mind-bending 210000 BTU from a 10 inch cooking surface, the Banjo Cooker can get your pot boiling in half the time of more conventional cookers and even has a 30 PSI regulator that makes high pressure brewing a reality.
For those of you ambitious folks, the Kick A Banjo Burner can be purchased as the burner only for roughly $25.00-40.00 out on the web. You can buy these burners if you intend to weld the burner into your upscale brewing rig. For us, the stand-alone version with the add on regulator does the trick at $70.00-80.00 a piece.
Get 1, 2 or 3. If you get three – awesome. If you can only afford 2, ditch the mash tun burner and turn out a quickly boiled liquor tank and kettle wort. If you can only get one, best to use it on the liquor tank so that you can get your sparging water to boiling temp in no time.
How Do I Make a Beer?
Once you have your system screwed together, your new converted kegs cleaned and ready to roll, and your burners fired up – we need to make beer. Well, I already told you that I am not an expert so I’m on that same road with you. Luckily I have been traveling down that road for some time and found a few nice guides to help you make a tasty beer.
The Brewing Network – This is a collection of beer brewing recipes, tips, techniques and how to’s. Its definitely the location of my primary resource – once we begin brewing. Its repertoire includes the Jamil Show (read below), Brew Strong and Sunday Meet. Check out the podcast on developing your own yeasts!
Beer Recipes.Org – Amazing mass of beer recipes from around the world. Not much else to say here – there are a ton.
Beer Recipator – This website is very useful if you have to convert a lot of things for batch size, metric units, etc.
Homebrew Chef – Sean Paxson makes awesome food with amazing beer. His food recipes are unmatched and if you get the opportunity to eat at one of his beer dinners – do it. Sean also publishes interesting beer recipes that both look good and can be easily understood. Check out the Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA clone recipe he published. Yes, please.
The Jamil Show – The Jamil Show is probably my favorite read on brewing recipes. Its also the source of the 120 Minute IPA recipe above. Each week award winning homebrewer and author Jamil Zainasheff, along with co-host Jon Plise, covers a specific beer from a well-known brewer – and tries to clone it. Wow – cloning Nogne Porter?!
Remember, your local homebrew shop has a ton of recipes as well. Check them out when you go to pick up your ingredients.
I hope that you all foray into homebrewing soon. Please let us know if you have any additional information that might help us as we begin our own journey. Leave any comments below!
Choose the right beer for the circumstance. BBQ’s demand a crisp, refreshing beer that won’t make you sluggish in the sunshine. Disregard stouts and porters; daytime drinking of these black, grainy monsters is best left to the experts. Also, avoid beers with high ABV like trippels and imperials. It’s early in the day, after all. Passing out in direct sunlight can lead to nasty consequences.
Consider a summer seasonal, like Deschutes Twilight. It’s a fairly light, well-rounded pale sporting good hoppy front flavor and subtle maltiness. At 5.0%, it’s not going to ruin your horseshoes game, either.
If that’s still a bit stoogey for you, you’re probably ready to graduate from my column. Nonetheless, I’d recommend a red ale. Oft touted as “the epitome of balance”, reds offer a combination of sweet malt flavors and sharp hop tones.
One of my new favorites is the Ninkasi Believer Double Red Ale. The list of things that make this beer outstanding is ridiculously long. Impeccable mouthfeel, perfectly roasted malty front, tangy, not overly bitter hop finish. It’s everything you could ask for. My one gripe about this beer as a BBQ beverage is that it’s 6.9%, meaning you can’t pound them all afternoon and expect to put on a good show at the volleyball court.
So take it from me, fellow amateurs, there’s no excuse for stoogeyness. Not, at least, as far as your beverage choices are concerned.