Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

28 October, 2015

A Confluence of Fine Flavors from Eau Claire: Rowdy Rye from Northwoods Brewpub

The Northwoods Brewpub up in Eau Claire recently announced that it is pulling up stakes and moving to Osseo, about 20 miles south. The new facility means more room to brew more beer and also a venture into the world of distilling. The food side of the business is being deemphasized and the brewpub is presumably severing its connection to The Norske Nook. Fans of lefse and pie can take solace knowing that Osseo is home to the ur-Norske Nook so, while you won't be able to get your lefse wrap in the same building, it will be available down the street.

When the brewpub opened back in 1997, it was, to the best of my knowledge, the first microbrewing venture in Eau Claire in the nine or so years since Hibernia Brewing closed. (Hibernia was the first brewery I ever toured, well before I was of legal drinking age, sadly.) Northwoods caused something of a sensation in 2010, at least for old timers in the western part of the state, when they began brewing Walter's, a brand thought lost to the ages in the mid-80s when the brewery closed and became Hibernia. A friend who attended college in Eau Claire in the 80s confirmed that nouveau Walter's tastes just as bad as the original.

Northwoods doesn't seem to get much love in the craft beer world of Wisconsin. I put this down to limited distribution (e.g. - Woodman's East no longer carries their brew which is where I always saw it) and the stigma of the lack of a year-round IPA. (At least according to their website and my memory.) This being the case, the brewery is expanding which makes me wonder where the beer is being sold. The Twin Cities, perhaps?

The Wikipedia article on Hibernia Brewing features a quote from Hibernia's president Mike Healy: "The worst mistake I ever made was trying to sell the beer in rural areas." How well does craft beer do in northern Wisconsin? My impression is that it doesn't do very well.

Valkyrie Brewing up in Dallas (about 50 miles north of Eau Claire) sold most of its beer in the state largest metros. Brewmaster/owner Randy Lee told Robin Shepard "About 80% of our production is going to Madison and Milwaukee." Black Husky up in Pembine faces a similar dilemma, although it will be resolved soon when the brewery moves to Milwaukee. Brewmaster Tim Eichinger told the Wisconsin State Journal's Beer Baron, "Up here you don’t get a whole lot of craft beer." Furthermore the Baron notes that the vast majority of retailers that carry Eichinger's beers are in Madison and Milwaukee.

Then again Spotted Cow is ubiquitous and Capital Amber was almost everywhere I went the last time I was in rural northern Wisconsin. There are brewpubs/breweries in Florence, Hayward, Somerset, Menominee, and Superior. But northern Wisconsin is home to most of the counties with the highest unemployment rates in the state. What impact do tourists have? It would be interesting to find out how much beer O'so and Central Waters sell in Portage County and environs.

I am going to cease the arcadian speculation now because I have come to praise beer from up nort, not to bury it.

Today we have Northwood's Rowdy Rye. I bought it at the brewery (are their beers still available in Madison?) where there are refrigerated six packs as well single bottles to assemble one's own. I was in Eau Claire to attend a wedding which had a trailer with three or four taps of Northwoods' brews so I drank a fair amount of their beer that weekend.

Rowdy Rye is light amber in color. The beer was hazy yet still pretty. My pour gave me a fairly dark tan head of about ¼". There were a few stray bubbles going up. My nose caught the rye first. I absolutely love rye – in beer as well as in bread. I'm trying to convince various companies to add it to toothpaste, deodorant, toilet paper, and muslin. (Without success, I must admit.) I mean, what would you rather armpits smell like on a hot summer day: "sport" as conceived by some poindexter chemist who was beaten up in high school by the football team or the lovely spiciness of rye? (And so I remain contented with beer and bread.)

After the sharp, spicy rye aroma came, alas, butter. It would seem this bottle was inflicted by diacetyl. The buttery scent was moderate at first and became less prominent with successive sniffs which also picked up a little bit of fruity sweetness – think apricots and dates – plus a hint of citrus. Rowdy Rye's grain bill is 42% rye and so the massive cloud of spicy rye that permeated my dining room was to be expected. It is also brewed with Cascade hops which probably gave the citrus note on the nose.

The taste was similar to the aroma with rye and its sharp black peppery flavor out front. Thankfully the diacetyl was subdued here with only a slight buttery flavor present. Carbonation offered a little bite and some dryness. I was surprised at how clean the beer tasted. I think this was because all those fruity esters were overpowered by sharper, less sweet flavors. A little bit of malt sweetness in the background and some citrus zing from the hops complemented the rye's dominance.

I was also surprised at how lager-like the finish was. It was rather dry with the rye spiciness and a mild earthy hop bitterness taking their final bows before shuffling off. My glass ended up with some pretty good lacing. Long, narrow bands of foam lined the glass.

I had Rowdy Rye prior to drinking this bottle and I caught no butter aroma or flavor. The diacetyl here was a rather minor impediment because the flavor is dominated by the earthy, spicy rye. The hops added a little citrus which means that, overall, sharper flavors prevail. There's a nice zestiness to the beer which, combined with the medium-light body, makes this a most refreshing brew. (I initially had Rowdy Rye during warmer weather and can vouch for this.) As someone who likes rye, this beer gets high marks. And as someone who is not a hophead, I appreciate the moderation in hopping show here. The hops abet the rye rather than attempt usurp its position at the top of the flavor chain.

Junk food pairing: Pair Rowdy Rye with southwestern snack mix. The salt will bring out the barley malt a bit more and the chili flavor accentuates the zing that the rye and hops give the beer.

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26 October, 2015

Now let's show them what our Spectra beer can really do!: Spectra Trifecta by Founders Brewing Co.

I don't believe I've ever reviewed a beer by Founders before. This is probably because I don't drink much of their beer although Red's Rye is probably my favorite IPA. Sadly, that beer went draft only back in the spring of 2013.

At about the same time that Red's Rye bottles began to go unfilled, Founders became a sponsor of ArtPrize, an annual art competition in Grand Rapids, MI, Founders' hometown. Each year the brewery brews a special beer in honor of ArtPrize with proceeds from sales going to the competition. This year the brewery gives up Spectra Trifecta, a Kölsch brewed with chamomile, lemongrass, and ginger.

The Kölsch is a rather underutilized brewing canvas, if you will. The style is not about big, domineering flavors wrecking your palate; it's about trying to find some kind of balance amongst a bit of cracker flavor from the malt, some fruitiness from the yeast, and hops. It just has a certain simplicity that lends itself well to running roughshod over Reinheitsgebot. In theory, anyway. Flat 12 Bierwerks has a Cucumber Kölsch (which I rather liked) and didn't Vintage Brewing here in Madison add some sumac to Sister Golden Ale a year or two ago?

Spectra Trifecta is a bit darker than your average Kölsch being a slightly deeper yellow than most I've come across. It was hazy and, curiously enough, had an abundance of particulate matter – lots of small white flecks. Up top it had a nice, foamy white head that lasted only a short time. However, there were many a bubble making its way up the glass.

The beer had a potent aroma as I could smell it when the glass was nowhere near my nose. I caught the pleasing mélange of sweet, floral chamomile and spicy ginger. The botanicals were also quite prominent in the taste. The chamomile tasted less sweet than it smelled and so its floral flavor was highlighted. The ginger tasted raw and pungent while the lemongrass played a more supporting role with its sharp, citrus taste being rather subdued. Carbonation added a little bite. Underneath all of that I could discern some cracker-like malt flavor along with a hint of the fruitiness from the yeast. Not much in the way of hops to be had. It was crisp and clean, having been fermented at cold temperatures and had a nice light body.

At the finish the lemongrass came out from behind the shadow of its botanical brethren to take a much more prominent place while the ginger and chamomile slowly faded. There was also some bitterness here that was reminiscent of strong black tea. It was like mix of herbal hops and chamomile. There was just a minimal amount of Schaumhaftvermoegen left on the sides of my glass.

Where was this beer over the summer? At 5.9% A.B.V. it's not a session beer but the piquant botanicals here add a rich, zestiness to the beer that would have been perfect in the sun. Chamomile adds wonderful floral taste while ginger and lemongrass add sharper, citrusy flavors. Spectra Trifecta is more gruit than Kölsch, I suppose, as the malt, hops, and yeast flavors are all rather subdued. Having been lagered, the botanicals are a bit more distinctive here than in more traditional-minded gruits I've had.

Junk food pairing: Spectra Trifecta goes well with guacamole, especially if you scoop it up with lime flavored tortilla chips.

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Keep the Linalool. I'll Have the Malic Acid: Appleweizen by Pearl Street Brewery

While I may not be writing about Oktoberfests again this autumn, that doesn't mean that brews of the season have fallen off my radar. To wit: Pearl Street Brewery's Appleweizen.

Despite the fact that I like both apples and beer, I don't get overly excited about apple beers. The ones that I can recall having are Furthermore's Fallen Apple and New Glarus' Apple Ale although I'm sure I must have drunk others at some point. The former combines apple cider with a cream ale while the latter does so with a brown ale. Both beers are okay by me although the apple tends to overshadow the beer. Malt sweetness isn't given much of a chance to stand in contrast to the tartness of the apple. I can drink one and am happy to move onto something different.

Pearl Street takes yet another tack and combines the juice from Honeycrisp apples with a hefeweizen. The German wheat bier is known for its fruity esters and phenols so I was intrigued enough to buy a six pack. That and the Appleweizen just looked so lonely sitting next to empty shelf space where the shiny new Linalool IPA had been.

One thing that I like about summer is that there's more daylight and thusly it is easier for someone like me who is completely incompetent at still photography to take decent photos. Now with daylight on the wane, my pictures are, generally speaking, plummeting to new depths of lousiness. This one, however, isn't too bad. You can see that Appleweizen is a lovely beer that radiates a golden hue. You can also tell that it is quite clear. My pour produced a small frothy head but what little there was lingered for a spell. My photo also shows that the wealth of bubbles there were moving upward through the brew.

What my picture cannot show is the wonderful aroma. Unsurprisingly, apple was the first thing that caught my nose. It smelled like fresh cider with a moderate tartness. After that I caught some of the expected esters/phenol aromas that one normally gets from a hefeweizen, namely, clove and banana. It was quite a fruity extravaganza. There was also some grain/wheat scent to be had but, really, the smell here is all about fruit.

Appleweizen is a paragon in truthful advertising. As with the aroma, a fresh apple cider taste stood out in the taste with a nice moderate tartness. The hefeweizen yeast provided a wealth of esters/phenols for my tongue with banana and bubble gum flavors. Much to my delight, the apple flavors were prominent but not overwhelming. I could taste the beer underneath. In addition to all the fruit and a spot of wheat and malt, all those bubbles gave the taste a little dryness and an almost champagne-like sparkly sensation.

The beer finished slightly dry with the carbonation, apple tartness, and some herbal hop bitterness all pitching in. Sadly, my glass was left with very little Schaumhaftvermoegen. Just a spot here and there as most of the foam slid gently back into the beer.

Pearl Street has brewed a really nice apple beer. It has a medium-light body which was fairly smooth and when combined with all the carbonation makes for something that goes down easily. It's just very light and nimble on the tongue. Yet it also has lots of flavor. The apple was tart and tasty but it did not consign the hefeweizen flavors to an estery oblivion. Appleweizen is 5% A.B.V. and is a fine "salute to the fall harvest", as the brewery advertises, and a great late summer/early fall beer. Drink it now while our thermostats still reach near the 60 degree mark.

Junk food pairing: Pair Appleweizen with Buffalo Blue Cheese Combos. You'll love the pas de deux that the sweetness from the beer and the saltiness of the Combos engage in. in addition, the sharpness of the blue cheese flavoring and the gentle chili heat contrast nicely with the more restrained fruitiness of the brew.

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21 October, 2015

A Sterling Example of an Oktoberfest: SurlyFest by Surly Brewing Co.

I do believe that this will be my final Oktoberfest/Märzen (pedantic aside for the day: that's pronounced "Maer-tsen") review of the season. That's not to say that I don't have any autumnal beers at home but I am almost certain that none of them are Oktoberfests. (I reserve the right to buy Staghorn, however.) And so before I get to the main course, I will note that I was in Chicago recently where I had Oktoberfests by Sam Adams and Revolution and found both to be wanting. They just both tasted watery to me instead of having nice, rich malt flavors. The lesson is, if you're in Chicago and want a good Oktoberfest, stick with Metropolitan's Afterburner.

It's been a while since I've had some Surly. A friend moved to the Twin Cities a few years ago and he'd occasionally bring some beer from his new home back to Madison when he visited. I got to try Hell, Cynic, and Bitter Brewer back in 2012. This past summer the Minneapolis brewery began distribution in Wisconsin so I need not rely on the kindness of kith making cross-border runs any longer.

Truth be told, SurlyFest was a late addition to my Oktoberfest arsenal. I had thought that I'd bought all the Oktoberfests I could handle when I heard that SurlyFest was brewed with rye. Memories of drinking Great Divide's Hoss danced in my head so I just had to give it a taste. I love rye in beer.

My SurlyFest poured a light amber and was clear. I got a nice head of about ¾" which was tan and loose. It took its time in dissipating which meant my glass was quite nice to look at for a while as I struggled (and failed) to get a decent photograph. There were a goodly number of bubbles going up the glass. My picture notwithstanding, this was a really pretty beer.

While I knew that SurlyFest was brewed with rye, I was unaware that it was dry hopped. Dry hopping is the process of adding hops to your beer as it ferments. The aromatics of the hops remain as they are not boiled away. Had I known this I wouldn't have been taken by surprise by SurlyFest's pungent hop aroma. It smelled very floral but I also discerned a bit of citrus in there too as well as some spiciness as if from a Noble hop. I discovered that the beer was brewed using a single hop – Sterling – a hybrid of (mostly) Saaz and Cascade. Knowing this I must admit it smells just like one would expect having only read the list of hops from which it descends.

In addition to the hops, I could barely make out some bread and caramel malt aromas as well. They were there but well-hidden beyond a wall of lupulin.

At this point I was ambivalent. On one hand I enjoyed the wonderful Sterling hop aroma but on the other I feared that all of the malt goodness, including my beloved rye, would be overwhelmed by botanicals.

Upon tasting the beer I was right to worry. The hops came rushing at my tongue in a tsunami of floral and herbal flavors. They also provided some zesty bitterness which was complemented very well by the spicy rye. Underneath all of that was a malt backbone that I could feel more than taste. The beer had a firm medium body so I knew that there was barley malt in there somewhere but I could barely taste it. I nearly cried when I read that SurlyFest was brewed with Melanoidin – the Helen of Malts, the malt that could launch a thousand beers. I should have been drowning in toasty malt gluttony yet I just kept tasting hops. That's not completely true. I could actually taste the malts, just not very much. There was some toast to be tasted along with hints of sweeter malt flavors like bread and caramel but, as with the aroma, they were mostly hidden beyond a wall of hops. Oh, the carbonation added a little bite too.

SurlyFest finished very dry with a lot of hop bitterness that emphasized the Saaz roots of the hops with its spicy flavors and put the floral and herbal ones in the back seat. I found the hop taste here to be overly astringent and it was worsened by the fact that the flavor lingered for no small amount of time. Bringing things full circle, my glass was left with some wonderful Schaumhaftvermoegen on all sides. SurlyFest was definitely pretty from the first drop to the last.

Unfortunately, the presence of rye in SurlyFest got me to buy the beer but the lure of the toothsome grain proved to be a Trojan horse as this beer is really about the hops. In their defense, Surly does declare that this is not a typical Oktoberfest. Three kinds of rye and Melanoidin malts should be sending me into fits of ecstasy but there's just too much hop flavor here. I'm happy to have a hoppy bouquet and, indeed, SurelyFest smells wonderful. But let me have the malt in the taste.

Beyond having dashed my hopes and expectations, SurlyFest isn't a bad beer. I do think it could use a bit less hops to allow the malt through but the rye spiciness is really tasty and the Sterling hops smell and taste great. I would note that, however you cut it, the hops in the finish are just too acerbic.

Junk food pairing: I am recommending deep fried cheese curds this Oktoberfest season. I'm also willing to bet that the salt from some fried curds could be just the thing to bring out the elusive malt flavors of SurlyFest.

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19 October, 2015

Sibling Rivalry: 2014 & 2015 Über-Oktoberfest from Leinenkugel Brewing Co.

Leinenkugel's Big Eddy series began back in 2007. Named after the springs where the brewery in Chippewa Falls was built, the series boasts beers that are big and boozy and aimed squarely at the microbrew crowd. First came a Russian imperial stout but I'd swear that there was also an imperial IPA released in 2007 that I sampled down at the Echo. (Holy grapefruit, Batman!) I recall that Big Eddy meandered for the first several years of its existence with some releases being bottled while other were draught-only. I also think that the styles were pretty random and randomly released. About two or three years ago the series settled down and a more or less stable line-up and release schedule were set. (Though I gather Leines reserves the right to tinker as they wish.)

Today I present what I believe to be my first ever vertical tasting blog post. I'd love to say that I used my tremendous foresight last year and planned this all ahead of time but, alas, I just realized a week ago that I still had a couple bottles of Leine's vintage 2014 Über-Oktoberfest in addition to a fresh four pack. "And so," I thought, "why not see how last year's batch fared?"

Because my photography skills are about as good as Neville Chamberlain's diplomatic skills, you can't tell from looking that the photos (2014 above, 2015 below) but the 2014 brew was slightly darker. The elder beer was a deeper shade of amber, though only just. Both were clear. The 2014 iteration had a tan head which dissipated fairly quickly and was quite effervescent with many a bubble heading upwards from the bottom of the glass. Its younger sibling had a one-inch head that was a bit lighter – I wrote "off white" in my notes – and was nice and frothy. There was a fair number of bubbles going up from the bottom of the glass but not as many as the 2014.

Visually the beers are very similar. As I moved onto the nose, I could sense a Cain Complex developing. The older beer smelled syrupy sweet with caramel and honey all over the place. On the other hand, the fresh beer's aroma had more to offer. My olfactory receptors caught some delectable toffee sweetness but there was a nice savory bready aroma and some earthy hops too.

The sibling rivalry continued on the tongue. 2014 was smooth but syrupy and heavy while 2015 was lighter. The older beer tasted very sweet with caramel and honey from the nose being joined by stonefruit like peach. There was a hint of grain here but this was a Maginot Line of bread that was overpowered by a blitzkrieg of malty sweetness. I caught a hint of grassy hops plus some carbonation but they could offer only token resistance.

In addition to a lighter body (not light, mind you) the new 2015 brew provided a variety of flavors in addition to big malty sweetness. There were definite toffee/honey flavors here with more than a modicum of sweetness but there were also grainy flavors like were like bread plus roasted ones that brought some great melanoidiny/toast flavors to the fore. I could also taste the alcohol (it's 8.5% A.B.V.) just a bit and the carbonation offered just a bit of dryness. There was some subtle herbal/grassy hop flavor but it was firmly underneath all the malt.

Unsurprisingly, the older beer finished with the cloying sweetness slowly fading while a hint of spicy hops tries its best to balance things out. Also unsurprisingly, it fails. The newer brew finishes dry with a more earthy/grassy hop bitterness that lingered. Neither beer bestowed much Schaumhaftvermoegen on my glass although the 2015 beer left a few decent patches.

The lesson here is that Leine's Über-Oktoberfest does not age well. Not in my basement, at least. Drink it while it's fresh. The year-old beer had a heavy body which was reflected in a flavor that was cloyingly sweet – think Hallmark levels - and not much else. The 2015 brew was lighter and much less sweet. I enjoyed the toasty malt flavors quite a bit. Leines says the beer has 35 I.B.U.s from a combination of Mt. Hood and Spalt Select hops. The hops were very subdued until the finish when all that pesky malt was finally out of the way. Considering the premise here, an Oktoberfest with more intense malt flavor than normal, more booze, and more robust hops, Über-Oktoberfest goes down rather easily. This is not a beer to quaff during an Oktoberfest party but it was very tasty and held back the cold on a chilly autumn evening.

Junk food pairing: I had my road to Damascus moment a few weeks ago and will again preach the word of the curd: eat deep fried cheese curds with your Oktoberfest brew. A double order is required with Über-Oktoberfest.

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16 October, 2015

I Am Become Ethanol: Atom Smasher from Two Brothers Brewing Co.

From the far side of the Cheddar Curtain comes Atom Smasher, an Oktoberfest from Two Brothers Brewing Company in Warrenville, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. The brewery opened in 1996 which makes it something of an elder statesman in the world of microbrews but it started distributing here in Wisconsin just this past summer. From my vantage point, Revolution, Half-Acre, and Pipeworks get the lion's share of hype for Chicago area breweries while Two Brothers keeps it steady as she goes without all the fuss.

Their autumnal seasonal is not simply another Oktoberfest. The brewery notes that it differs from its German counterparts by being aged in oak foudres which are large casks normally reserved for aging wine. Aging beer in oak casks or on oak staves or with discarded parts of Amish furniture is gaining in popularity. While not ubiquitous, a new oaked beer now appears on shelves seemingly every couple of months. Having recently had Karben4's Oaktober Ale, I was keen to find out how our neighbors to the south approached a silvan brew. Atom Smasher is also distinguished from its counterparts in Munich by its rather high alcohol content, coming in at 7.7% A.B.V.

Atom Smasher was a lovely clear amber. My pour produced a moderately sized head – maybe a quarter inch – that was off white and frothy. It lasted…a moderate amount of time. It neither disappeared posthaste nor stuck around until I got halfway through the beer.

The arboreal aroma was quite distinctive and could be smelled even with the glass being at some distance from my nose. There was no mistaking this for your typical Oktoberfest. The style is malt-centric and the expected grainy scents were prominent. There was biscuit and a sweeter, caramel smell too. In addition, I caught fruity, berry-like notes.

Just as with the aroma, oak was the first thing I tasted. This was not some subtle woody notes in the background – it was right up front. At first I found it to be a bit much but the oakiness mellowed upon subsequent sips and the clean malt flavors came through. I was very pleased to taste some nice, soft bready flavors along with those of toast/roasted grain. Considering the beer's color and aroma, I was very surprised at the lack of sweetness in the taste. There was just a hint of it and I suspect that the carbonation and woody flavors dulled the sweetness. Two Brothers claims there are 22.6 I.B.U.s in Atom Smasher but I couldn’t taste that much. I tasted some herbal hops, but only just.

Atom Smasher finished dry and oaky with a firm bit of spicy hoppiness that lingered. The bite from the carbonation was also noticeable. Sadly, there was only the slightest trace of Schaumhaftvermoegen in my glass.

I'm still pretty green when it comes to oak aged beers. I've had one that was homebrewed a few years ago and now I am finding slowly consuming its commercial cousins. Atom Smasher is less oaky than Karben4's Oaktober Ale but there's nothing subtle about the woody flavors here. Atom Smasher is also a lager so it has a clean flavor that allows the grainy flavors to come through. I enjoyed the bread and toasty malt flavors as well as the paucity of sweetness. I also liked the oak flavor here although I found it pushing the limits of my tolerance for the flavor. Any more would have been drinkable, certainly, but my limit would have been one. The hoppy finish helped ease the abundant oak.

If Atom Smasher has anything that would impede multiple servings being consumed in a session it is the 7.7% A.B.V. which betrays its smooth, medium-light body. This is an easy-drinking beer but one can easily forget that it doesn't lack for booze.

Junk food pairing: As I've been doing for the past couple weeks with other Oktoberfests, I will urge you to pair Atom Smasher with deep fried cheese curds. The salt will bring not only the curds but also the malt in your beer alive. ALIVE!

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14 October, 2015

A Beer Fit for a Feast Day: Patron Saint by Wisconsin Brewing Company

This was one of my most anticipated beers of 2015. Kirby Nelson's Oktoberfest at Capital was generally well-regarded and, when he left for new digs at Wisconsin Brewing Company, a coterie of friends and I were looking forward to tasting another fine rendition of the style. One friend met Mr. Nelson at a store last year and inquired about the potential for a WBC Oktoberfest. He replied that he was planning one "with a twist". We fretted that it would be an India Pale Oktoberfest or some such thing. Then news came that the beer had been brewed and was christened "Magic Marzeniac". More news came saying that it had all been promptly shipped off to Appleton. What the deuce?!

Wisconsin Brewing Company released an Oktoberfest this year and refrained from limiting its distribution to Appleton or indeed any city in the Fox River Valley. The beer was also renamed Patron Saint. I'm not sure if the beer was reformulated this year or not. I did find a website stating that Magic Marzeniac was 6% A.B.V. while Patron Saint is only 5.6% so it seems likely that the formula was tweaked, if only slightly.

Patron Saint poured a gorgeous copper color. Very much in the minority of Oktoberfests I've had this year with most so far being of lighter color and with less of a red hue. The beer was clear as expected. I got a rather large head that was tan and loose. It also seemed to stick around for a while. There were some stray bubbles making their way up the glass but only a few.

The aroma was not overly promising. It was rather sweet - as if Nelson let loose a bit too much caramel malt. My nose also detected a slight metallic smell along with a touch of herbal hoppiness. Fortunately, the taste was quite an improvement over the aroma. The beer had a medium body and was soft on the tongue. While there was some definite malt sweetness which was like toffee, my preferred flavors which were more like bread and melanoidiny toast were also present. Something also gave a slight nuttiness as well which I really enjoyed. A modicum of carbonation and a hint of some spicy hops made an honest effort to even out the malt assault but they could only do so much. There was also a vinous flavor which I had a hard time pinning down. I've tasted it before in beer and whenever I do I am reminded of vermouth.

This off flavor was a bit distracting but certainly not overpowering as the other malt flavors shone through. Furthermore it was not an unpleasant flavor, merely unexpected. The finish was fairly dry with grassy and spicy hop notes coming through. My tankard was left with some really nice Schaumhaftvermoegen with it being littered around the whole of the glass.

I'd imagine that Kirby Nelson must struggle at least a little bit to differentiate his WBC brews from those he brewed at Capital. I mean, there's little difference to my taste between the amber lager he brewed out in Middleton and the one he's brewing now. Maybe he's using Mt. Hood hops in the stead of Liberty or some such other minor variation. The same applies here. Vinous flavor aside, Patron Saint is much akin to the Oktoberfest he brewed at Capital for decades. The primary difference seems to be that Patron Saint is a bit hoppier. Mind you, it's not as hoppy as something like Milwaukee Brewing Co.'s Hoptoberfest but there's definitely more hop than I recall from years past in the taste and finish. There's just a bit more balance rather than letting the malt run completely roughshod over the hops.

Junk food pairing: You must pair any and all Oktoberfests with deep fried cheese curds. You will love how the salt accentuates the malt. It's like putting Pleasoning on your hot dish. It is just that good.

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08 October, 2015

Drinker Easy With the Beer That Really Fits You: Kölsch from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

Woodman's East is doing its level best to rid itself of Sierra Nevada's summer beers. The brewery's summer variety packs have been callously riven asunder so that the bottles within can be sold individually. (Perhaps tellingly, their Oktoberfest was getting the same treatment.) I've already tried the variety pack's Nooner Pilsner and now it's time to investigate the Kölsch-style brew.

Ah, the Kölsch. The official bier of Köln (Cologne), Germany. From what I've read, the Kölsch as we know and love it today originated in the early 20th century. It's a light beer brewed with a top fermenting yeast but fermented at temperature slightly lower than normal for an ale. It is also lagered, i.e. – stored for a few weeks at cold temperatures. The appellation "Kölsch" is protected and defined by the Kölsch Convention which states that, if it ain't brewed in Köln, it ain't a Kölsch.

The beer's ale-lager hybridization seems to stem from both Köln's 17th century Reinheitsgebot laws which banned bottom-fermented beer and the rise in popularity of the very same. Hence the beer has one foot in each world.

Sierra Nevada's take on the style pours a lovely light straw color and is as clear as the day is long. I got a fine, fluffy white head in my stange that would not quit. There's wheat in the beer and I do believe that there are proteins in wheat which help keep the head on your beer longer. It is my understanding that wheat is not a common ingredient in the Kölsch over in the Fatherland. My stange had a modicum of bubbles making their way up.

The aroma was at once familiar and inviting yet also novel and intriguing. As expected it had that light cracker smell as well as the distinctive fruitiness from the yeast which comes across to my nose as being a berry-apple hybrid. I was not expecting, however, the piney hop notes to be accompanied by floral and citrus ones. I presume the floral ones come from the Strisselspalt hops which I'm seeing used more often as of late, while Simcoe provided more the citrus notes.

The beer's taste just smacked of summer. It had a light body that never tasted thin. It yielded a clean cracker taste with the apple-berry yeast flavors from the aroma making a return engagement. The carbonation added some dryness and the beer had a moderate bubbly taste. The novel floral hoppiness was present on the tongue as well with no small amount of pungent flavor and paired nicely with more subtle citrus ones.

On the finish the beer proved moderately dry with more bite from the carbonation and some peppery hop bitterness joining its floral cousin. My stange was left with a goodly amount of Schaumhaftvermoegen in thick webs.

Sierra Nevada has done themselves proud with Kölsch. The floral and fruity hop aromas and flavors add a nice new twist without overshadowing the traditional grain and yeast elements. Carbonation and some more traditional German hop bitterness gave the beer some bite. On the other hand, the clean, crisp malt flavors and the floral & citrus hops made for a brisk, fresh adventure on the palate. At 5% A.B.V. the beer is deceptively quaffable so it's best drunk from the traditional stange.

I've not drank much Sierra Nevada the past several years until quite recently. I used to drink their Pale Ale quite frequently back in the early and mid-1990s and still do occasionally when it's the least hoppy offering at a party. But their recent takes on German styles have been quite impressive and I'll definitely be giving them a second look.

Junk food pairing: Pair Kölsch with Cheez-It Zingz Chipotle Cheddar. They're made with corn masa flour for authentic Mexican Crunch™ and the subtle smokiness makes for a nice counterpoint to the cheesiness of the underlying cracker and contrives to sublimate the fundamental botanical-grain dichotomy of the Kölsch.

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07 October, 2015

When It's Cold Outside and You Want to Drink In: Afterburner by Metropolitan Brewing

Chicago's Metropolitan Brewing began distributing here in Wisconsin this past spring which means I can enjoy their beers more often instead of having to wait for trips down south. Co-founders Tracy and Doug Hurst are both from Wisconsin: she from the Milwaukee suburb of Greenfield and he from right here in Madison. Doug attended the UW and took the infamous Plants and Man course where you can brew beer in lieu of writing a paper. A roommate of mine in college took this class and brewing the beer became a project involving everyone in the house and my first involvement in the production of the sweet, sweet nectar.

Metropolitan opened in 2008 and has been forging its own path ever since. Perhaps because of the Hurst's Wisconsin upbringing (and hence exposure to breweries such as Capital and Sprecher) as well as the time Doug spent in Germany learning his trade, the fateful decision was made to brew lagers with no concessions to the preternatural preoccupation with hops. I met Tracy earlier this year when she was in town introducing drinkers to her beer and instead of boasting about a brotastic cascade of citrus hop flavors, she emphasized the comity between malt and hops.

The brewery currently has three annuals along with six seasonals. Afterburner is Metro's Oktoberfest that is released in September (instead of July). I'm not sure when Metropolitan began brewing it but I do believe that it was draught-only early in its life and was first bottled in 2013.

Afterburner is a beauty of a beer, eh? It is a lovely light copper and clear. My pour produced about ¼" of loose, off white head that dissipated fairly quickly. Either that or I spent a long time trying to get a decent photograph. Surprising to me was that there were only a few stray bubbles going up. This beer appeared almost still. The aroma was full of malty goodness. There were biscuity notes but also some sweeter ones that were akin to figs and a hint of caramel too. My nose also caught just a hint of spicy hops.

The beer's medium body was replete with a great combination of malt flavors. As was expected, there were bread/biscuit tastes along with some stonefruity sweetness. As Afterburner's copper color let on, there was also a welcome roasted grain flavor that was like well-done toast. It had a bit of nuttiness to it as well. Lurking underneath the malty mélange was a bit of peppery hop in addition to a little dry bite from the carbonation.

The clean malts gave way at the finish to a moderate dryness from both the carbonation and some mild spicy/peppery hop bitterness. My glass was left with just a little Schaumhaftvermoegen towards the top.

Afterburner is perhaps the very model of a modern Märzen beer. The clean maltiness is spearheaded by bread and biscuit flavors but bolstered by a touch of sweetness and the nutty taste of roasted grain. This winning combination is kept together by the hops which never seek to overpower, only to complement. I can't find any info on the ingredients so I don't know what kinds of hops were used nor if German malts are in the recipe. Afterburner is 6.1% A.B.V. so it is perfect for chilly October evenings.

Junk food pairing: Deep-fried cheese curds. I cannot even begin to describe the depths of malt gluttony you will wallow in when eating deep-fried cheese curds with your Afterburner.

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06 October, 2015

"O'zapft is" In a Can: Oktoberfest by Bull Falls Brewery

Another Oktoberfest review and today’s victim, er, exemplar comes from Bull Falls Brewery in Wausau. A newcomer to the Madison market, the brewery was established in 2007 by brewmaster Mike Zamzow and his father Don who named the brewery after the city's original appellation, "Big Bull Falls". This name referred to a stretch of rapids on the Wisconsin River which flows through town. 2013 proved an auspicious year for Bull Falls as the brewery completed a $1.5 million expansion and gained wider distribution. Cans of their brews finally hit store shelves here in Madison this past summer.

Bull Falls has a fairly traditional line-up of English and German styles. There's nothing extreme nor very much that would send Reinheitsgebot purists ducking for cover. Five Star Ale, an amber ale is the biggest seller while Hop Worthy IPA and a bourbon barrel stout seem to be concessions to current trends. Yet Zamzow's first beer for the brewery was Oktoberfest and the first beer brewed in the new expanded brewhouse a couple of years ago was Oktoberfest. According to Robin Shepard Zamzow brews his Oktoberfest using a German (continental?) brewing technique called decoction mashing which involves taking some of the mash (i.e. – the admixture of grains and water) and boiling it in a separate vessel for a time before returning it from the kettle from which it came. Shepard maintains that the process "accentuates the smooth malty flavors in the finished beer".

I'd heard that decoction mashing is what gives German beers that melanoidin/Maillard reaction flavor which I think of as being a bit like bread crust or lightly toasted bread. It's grainy but not sweet; it's rich yet not cloying. Having spoken with some brewers and read more accounts on the Interwebs it seems that American brewers are split. Some think decoction is what gives that flavor while others think it's the malt varieties. One of the great mysteries of our time.

Bull Falls' Oktoberfest pours a lovely deep gold color. It is as clear as the day is long. My pour produced about one inch of foamy off-white head. There were a few bubbles making their way upwards from the bottom of the glass. The beer looked so pretty and I just couldn't wait to breathe in its aromatic goodness. I found that there were the expected and most welcome bread and yeast aromas but there was also the smell of metal. It wasn't ferric to my nose and it also wasn't overpowering. I held out hope that this off smell didn't make it into the taste.

Thankfully it did not and my tongue was instead greeted by some fine, clean malt flavor, delightfully decocted. There was the bread as on the nose but also an earthy sweetness like fig or date. A touch of carbonation on the tip of my tongue and a pleasant bit of herbal & spicy hop bitterness did their level best to balance the malt but it was not to be. Still, they provided some nice contrast. It had a smooth medium body instead of leaning onto the thin side as had Lazy Monk's Oktoberfest earlier that day.

It finished with a bit of that stonefruity sweetness lingering along with a mild herbal bitterness. I have to admit that I have really enjoyed all the herbal hop flavors in these Oktoberfests the past several days. My glass had a nice ring of Schaumhaftvermoegen towards the top where the head had given way to the beer but nothing beneath it. Harumph.

Bull Falls' Oktoberfest is a solid brew. It looks gorgeous with its golden hue and ample foamy head. Any dirndl-clad maiden would be proud to be seen serving it. It tastes great too. I loved the decocted bready malt flavors. The beer also had a moderate malt sweetness which was fine but I prefer less. I will also admit to thoroughly enjoying the herbal hop flavor here after the more spicy flavors in the pilsners I'd been drinking previous to the Oktoberfest binge.

Junk food pairing: As has been noted here previously, deep fried cheese curds are the sine non qua of any Oktoberfest drinking session. Well, after the beer itself, that is. The salt accentuates the smooth malty flavors of the beer perfectly. And there's cheese involved too.

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05 October, 2015

Thank You For Our Daily Liquid Bread: Oktoberfest by Lazy Monk Brewing

I spent some time over the weekend at Stalzy's Deli's Oktoberfest celebration which featured an abundance of both domestic and imported Oktoberfest beers as well as a curious excess of Anglo folk and country-flavored music. Having spent time quaffing Oktoberfests or autumnal beers from Karben4 (Oaktober Ale was a bit heavy-handed on the oak but still good), Summit (sprightly and bubbly – the champagne of festbiers), Schell's (a bit less malty than I'm used to yet very tasty), Next Door Brewing (NextDoorberfest ale was earthy/nutty with a vinuous element to boot), Paulaner, und Hofbräu (classic step-mashed {?}, melanoidin goodness), one would think that I'd have reached peak Märzen and needed a bumptious pale ale to recover from malt madness. Nein!

Lazy Monk Brewing opened up in Eau Claire about four years ago. The brewery was founded by Leos Frank, a native of The Czech Republic who began homebrewing when he discovered a dearth of Czech-style beers in his adopted homeland. The brewery flies under the Wisconsin craft beer radar as it has limited distribution and Frank focuses on malty lagers instead of hoppy pale ales, although they do have a couple of IPAs. To the best of my knowledge Lazy Monk began distributing outside of the Chippewa Valley only last year. Still, business is apparently good as the brewery will be moving to a new location in Eau Claire next year.

I was at the brewery a couple of months ago and rather impressed at how they took an industrial space and had transformed it into a fair simulacrum of what I think a Central European tavern would look like. Mr. Frank was even behind the bar. The Dulcinea and I enjoyed a flight before delving into a couple pints. Even I must declare the Rye IPA to be the finest in Eau Claire.

Mr. Frank's Oktoberfest was a beautiful gold and crystal clear. Unlike my last Oktoberfest, I managed to get a nice head with about an inch of creamy off-white foam in my glass that lingered for a while. There were a few stray bubbles going up my glass. The aroma was full of bready scents as I expected but there was also a modicum of sweetness to it that was like honey and apricots. I could smell no hops but admit that I had a slightly stuffy nose no doubt because of the transition to autumn.

While the hops may have been absent from the nose, they were certainly present on my tongue after taking a sip. They had a moderately strong herbal/peppery flavor which complemented the clean bread and bread crust flavors of the malt. I tasted little carbonation and also found little sweetness which was rather surprising given the sweetness in the aroma.

It finished fairly dry with that herbal hop bitterness lingering for a short time. I think the carbonation added a just little bite here as well.

The beer was a bit hoppier than I'm used to for the style but I suspect this is simply because the malt flavors here were rather subdued. I appreciated the bready flavors along with the absence of sweetness but the beer simply tasted a little watery. The rich malt flavors were rather more in the background than is to my taste. Because of this the beer had a medium-light body instead of one a little heavier which is what I'd expect. This medium-light body coupled with hops that are more herbal than spicy also makes the beer a bit more easy-drinking than a typical Oktoberfest. My can went down like a helles.

This is by no means a bad beer – the malt was very tasty and I really enjoyed the mellower/more herbal hops. It just lacks the fullness I expect from the style.

Junk food pairing: As I have determined previously (thanks Curd Girl!), deep-fried cheese curds are the junk food pairing par excellence for the Oktoberfest. The salt really throws the wonderful bready malt flavors into sharp relief.

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04 October, 2015

Just Say Yes to Oktoberfest: Oktoberfest by Sierra Nevada und Brauhaus Riegele

The folks at Sierra Nevada have set themselves "on a mission to explore the roots of Germany’s festival beers" and so they will be pairing up with a different German brewer each year to brew an Oktoberfest. For the inaugural batch Sierra Nevada has collaborated with Brauhaus Riegele in Augsburg. Brauhaus Riegele was established some time ago. Indeed, at the time in 1386, the last white person to step foot on the North American continent was Leif Erikson.

About 150 years after Brauhaus Riegele came into existence the Märzen-Oktoberfestbier also came into existence. Bavaria introduced laws on at least two separate occasions in the 16th century regulating the brewing of beer during summer months. The first law or laws were put on the books in 1539 followed by a decree in 1553 which declared that beer could only be brewed from 29 September through 23 April. I'm not sure how the decree of 1553 differed from the laws on the books in 1539 nor am I exactly sure why the laws were enacted in the first place.

Some sources say brew kettle fires were too frequent in the summer months and so brewing was relegated to the other seasons during which the medieval Bavarian version of Smokey the Bear declared the fire risk to be low. Personally I think this is apocryphal. Methinks it's one of those goofy myths concerning the Middle Ages just like that one portraying medieval people as being too dumb to find potable water and so they drank beer and wine all day, every day.

More likely is the other explanation I've come across which is simply that beer spoiled in the summer's heat.

Regardless, a 16th century text refers to beer called the "Merzen" ("March") or "Sommer Byer" ("summer beer"). Brewers spent the final weeks of winter/earliest weeks of spring brewing beers that would spend months in either cellars or caves lagering away until the warmer weather hit when they'd emerge from their hibernation.

The ur-Märzens were dark beers and surely consumed during fall festivals. In the 1840s the style got a bit lighter as brewers, including Spaten's Gabriel Sedlmayr, began experimenting with new paler malts. In 1871 Spaten re-darkened the beer a bit and gave it the appellation Oktoberfestbier that we know today. There are six breweries in Munich that get to use the "Oktoberfest" appellation. Everyone else has to use Oktoberfest-style or Märzen. By the early 20th century the Oktoberfest was once again a dark beer. At some point in the 1990s the beer was considerably lightened but this version of the venerable style seems to be available at the Oktoberfest grounds exclusively. However, Paulaner did export some of the lighter brew to the States a couple years ago as Oktoberfest Wiesn.

As for how the taste of Märzens have changed over the years, I'm not sure. Ur-Märzens must have been smoky owing to malting practices in the Middle Ages. I'm sure they had a fair amount of hops in them as well to help them keep over the summer months but the hop flavors must have faded considerably by the autumn. My guess is that the style has always been malt-forward and was probably rather sweet until fairly recently. From what I can tell, American brewers today tend towards an amber-colored brew that is malty and often rather sweet. Some breweries, including Milwaukee Brewing Co., have opted to load their version of the styleup with hops.

Let's see how the Sierra Nevada/Brauhaus Riegele collaboration turned out. (Finally!)

It pours a light gold color – much more in line with Paulaner Wiesn instead of the more common amber color of American takes on the style. The beer was clear and my pour produced no head, which I found odd. Think of photos of dirndl-clad maidens carrying kurgs of bier at Oktoberfest. All the krugs have nice heads on them. I'd have thought the use of German Steffi malt would have guaranteed a big, foamy head. Must have been my poor pour. Still, the effervescence was evident with all the bubbles forming on the bottom of the glass and going up.

Oooh, the aroma was fine – it was mostly bread with a touch of sweetness in the background that was kind of like bread dough, honey, and/or stonefruit. This boded well for my dream of a malty, melanoidiny, Maillard reactionary barley nectar.

I was not disappointed by the flavor. Beer should be like this year-round. It had a nice medium body imbued with all the clean malty flavors I crave (most of them, anyway) – bread crust, toast, and yeast. While I'm not smart enough to know if I was tasting the bountiful harvest of actual Maillard reactions, I can say that I thought I was because the malt sweetness was quite subdued. Carbonation added a little acidic bite while also abetting the dryness of the spicy hops. This contrapuntal chorus made for a nice, but not overwhelming, contrast to the mellifluous malt backbone.

The beer finished dry with spicy/peppery hop bitterness lingering well after the beer had gone down into the old brooko. Alas and alack, my glass was left just a smidgen of Schaumhaftvermoegen.

Despite this beer being on the foam-challenged side of things, it was simply marvelous. It lacked the sweetness of many domestic Oktoberfests and really emphasized wonderful bready and yeasty flavors. Sierra Nevada says that it was looking to bring the "style back to its authentic roots". I suppose it depends on which roots they're talking about but the German hops and German grains, including the rather rare Steffi malt, certainly produced a fest bier that tastes much more like the Oktoberfests of Munich than most American versions of the style.

This collaboration with Brauhaus Riegele created a great beer that adhered to German tradition. It will be interesting to see with whom they partner next and if tradition will find itself tweaked a bit or perhaps even thrown out the window.

Junk food pairing: I will say it now and will say the same thing for all Oktoberfests: drink this beer with deep-fried cheese curds. There's just something about adding deep fried grains to liquid grains and how a dose of salt just brings all the grainy goodness alive in your mouth. Plus you get fat and cheese that has even more fat.

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