Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

26 May, 2015

Hops? We Don't Need No Stinking Hops! - Snowflake 2015 Gruit by Vintage Brewing

A recent column by the Wisconsin State Journal's Chris Drosner reviewed Small Town Brewery's Not Your Father's Root Beer, a beer, unsurprisingly, flavored to taste like root beer. Drosner wrote:

But beer purists — and they are a vocal lot — will say that Not Your Father’s Root Beer is not a beer because it lacks one ingredient considered essential to beer: hops.

Who are these "beer purists"? It's funny. Do beer bottles say "malt beverage" on them or "hop beverage"? Here's how Wikipedia defines beer: "Beer is an alcoholic beverage produced by the saccharification of starch and fermentation of the resulting sugar." Now, do you boil grains to get fermentable sugars or do you boil hops? People were consuming beer long before the use of hops came along.

I didn't know this until I looked it up but the ancestral home of the beloved hop is China. The plant made its way west and found a home in the gardens of ancient Romans who ate the shoots. As far as Western civilization and brewing is concerned, the first record of hops used in brewing comes from 822 C.E. in a list of rules written by Abbot Adalhard documenting how his abbey was to have been run. Tenants of the abbey were to collect hops and a tithe of malt and hops were given to the porter to brew beer.

Hops were growing in the wild in Europe during this time and it wasn't until the 11th or 12th century that hops were first cultivated commercially by some enterprising folks in Northern Germany. From here, their use spread although there was resistance that took decades, if not centuries to overcome.

So, if medieval brewers weren't brewing with hops, then with what did they flavor their brews?

Various and sundry divers botanicals. "Gruit" or "grut" refers to not only hopless beer but also to the botanicals used to flavor beer. It seems that the most common ones were bog myrtle, yarrow, and rosemary. However, many other herbs, spices, barks, etc. were used including juniper, mugwort, heather, sage, caraway, ginger, et al.

As someone who is not a hophead and who grows tired of liquor store clerks only being able to suggest some kind of hoppy pale ale or apologize for not having Pseudo Sue in stock, I decided to try all of the gruits I could this year. Granted, there are few but I gave it my best shot.

Every year Scott Manning at Vintage brews "a new and unique 'snow flake' beer- always a fresh new recipe and never the same brew twice." This year he brewed a gruit which he described as a brown ale with mugwort, licorice root, sweet gale, chicory, chamomile, and orange peel. Not a hop in sight. (Praise be to St. Gambrinus!) I got to taste this year's gruit while it was still in the tank and I was really looking forward to the finished product.

As befitting a brown ale, the beer is a deep reddish brown and is also clear. My pour produced a small head that disappeared fairly quickly. Some bubbles could be seen in the glass. Considering that Scott basically threw the whole spice rack into this brew, I was surprised that all my nose could pick up was roasted grains and an unidentified floral scent. Heck, maybe it's just my nose. Despite my proboscis not being overwhelmed, the aroma was very fine.

As for the taste, the brew was very smooth but had a fairly thin body. I first noticed roasted malt sweetness that was bread-like. On top of this there was a nutty flavor that I presumed was the chicory. Where I would normally expect to taste some sprightly hop bitterness, I found myself pleasantly surprised by a floral flavor along with a hint of licorice. Mind you the beer didn't taste like you were digging into a plate of begonias but rather a more subdued flavor similar to how rose hip jelly doesn't have a sharp, pungent floral flavor. At the finish, I could taste something minty and a bit of bitterness as well that was akin to that of a Noble hop. I believe that the mugwort provided the former while the sweet gale gave the latter.

If you had any ancestors in medieval Europe, you don't have to contract the Black Death to feel a connection to them. Instead you can quaff this fine gruit. I'm not a malt expert but I believe that the invention of malts that didn't taste like the smoke of whatever was fueling the fire that kilned them wasn't until the 17th or 18th century. And so I'd guess that, if you were to invite your ancestors to dinner (which humans don't seem keen on doing), they'd probably wonder just what the hell they were drinking. Having said this, I thoroughly enjoyed Scotty's vintage 2015 gruit.

With a body on the thin side and an A.B.V. of about 5%, this is certainly a brew for the warmer months. The floral taste and minty finish also contribute to the sense of this being a beer for nice spring days and the summer months. I really like how the floral flavor contrasts with the earthy malt/chicory base. These are all mellow flavors with the malt segueing into the botanticals seamlessly. Honestly, I didn't miss the hops at all.

Junk food pairing: Eat Cheddar Cheese Cracker Combos along with your Snowflake gruit. The salt accents the botanicals while the cheese provides a vaguely sharp and creamy contrast to the malty sweetness.

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04 May, 2015

Getting Better With Age: Terrance by Lakefront Brewing

Lakefront's My Turn series began in 2011. These limited edition beers showcase the potatory predilections of the brewery's employees and not just those who specialize in zymurgy. Front office folks also get to proclaim their tastes.

Terrance came out in 2013, if memory serves, and is a Kölsch. Sadly, I recall bottles of it languishing on the shelves of Jenifer Street Market. Apparently most Madison microbrew drinkers are like Madison Craft Beer Week co-founder Jeff Glazer who craves "weird or exciting or creative" brews. If it's not laced with an exorbitant amount of hops, isn't soured with bacteria from the brewmasater's toilet, or isn't aged in a Malort barrel, well, why bother? On the other hand, this left plenty for me and perhaps a few others who don't prize novelty above all else in beer.

The Kölsch is a specialty brew of Köln (Cologne), Germany. The beer we know today goes back to around the turn of the 19th century. Lagering (i.e. – storing the beer in temperatures that approach freezing for a couple of months) was quite hip and trendy at the end of the 19th century time yet Köln was still under the influence of its own Reinheitsbegot laws which outlawed bottom-fermenting beer. Not wanting to miss out on the trend of the day, brewers there used top-fermenting yeast but lagered their beer. The term "Kölsch" (or "Koelsch") is a protected appellation so only beers of this style brewed in the Köln area can rightly use the name. Hence the use of "Kölsch-style" on Terrance and other American iterations.

By all appearances, Terrance adheres to the conventions of the style. It is clear and straw-colored and looked mighty fine in my stange. Kölsches are supposed to be well-carbonated and my pour had lots of bubbles making their way up to a nice, fluffy white head. The beer had a slightly fruity aroma with yeast and bread smells also being prominent.

Like the color, the Kölsch is supposed to be light-bodied and Terrance hits the mark. It had the perfect biscuit/cracker flavor from the pale malts that was just slightly sweet but there was also a vaguely berry-like fruitiness to it, a flavor derived from the yeast. Hops were faint here but I could taste a subtle Noble spiciness underneath everything. The carbonation gave my tongue a little zing as well. That spicy hoppiness returns in the finish and made it fairly dry.

My glass was decorated with an abundance of Schaumhaftvermoegen.

As I noted above, Terrance was released in 2013 which means that the bottle reviewed here has been sitting in my cellar for a stretch. I recall drinking this beer fresh, however, and I think that it has improved greatly with age. Back in 2013 Terrance had a heavier mouthfeel with a bit more sweetness and it tasted more of dough than my preferred clean, biscuit flavor. The doughy taste seems very common in Wisconsin Kölsches with Point's Three Kings Ale, Leinenkugel's Canoe Paddler, Sand Creek's Groovy Brew, House of Brews' Prairie Rye, and the new Parched Eagle's Golden Ale all having this taste. Exceptions to this rule include Big Bay's Wavehopper and Vintage's Sister Golden Ale (the reformulated one). Not knowing exactly how all of these beers are brewed, I will say from my little experiment here that, generally speaking, more lagering seems to be needed for Kölsches.

My aged Terrance was extremely tasty. It had a clean taste in which the fruity flavors from the yeast and the biscuity ones from the malt are allowed to come to the fore. The hops were subdued and I wouldn't have minded just a bit more of them. Terrance's 4.2% A.B.V. paired with its crisp flavor makes for a fine brew on a hot day.

Junk food pairing: The Kölsch style is all about subtlety and so I recommend a junk food on the mild side. Pair (aged) Terrance with Monterey Jack Cheez Its.

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