Home » 2013 » May

How to Enjoy a Rare Beer

Tasting beers that are hard to come by requires some tough decisions. If you get multiple bottles of the beer do you set some aside to age? For how long? If you only get one or two bottles, do you share the beer with others or save it for yourself? With all the hype around the Westvleteren 12 release last winter I found myself considering these questions, so I thought I would review a few of the rare-beer situations that I have experienced.

Westvleteren XII

Last December Westvleteren 12 was released in very limited quantities in the U.S. and a few other countries. It was sold out immediately and will probably never be sold via retail again. What do you do with a beer that you will only be able to buy only once in your lifetime? I like this guy’s approach. He bought a six pack and enjoyed one immediately, saved one or two to try with some friends, and then set three aside so that he could taste the beer after it had aged one year, three years, and five years. That is patience!

Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA

This beer is released regularly and it is probably not difficult to find in some parts of the country, but this is a tough beer to get a hold of in the midwest. When I lived in Michigan there was a single store in the area that carried Dogfish Head, and when they got one or two six packs of the 120 Minute IPA they would put it on the shelf one bottle at a time so that more people would have a shot at getting it. It is not sold at all in Minnesota (or Wisconsin. or Iowa). I have only ever seen two bottles of this beer in my life. We bought that twelve ounce bottle for $10. This winter I paid a store clerk in Florida $15 to give me one bottle out of their aging cellar, and he only did so because I was from the other side of the country and I was buying a lot of other beer from him.

The 120 Minute IPA is extreme. This beer comes in at 15-20 percent alcohol by volume and hits the maximum of the bitterness scale. The brewery actually recommends sharing a 12 ounce bottle with a friend or two due to its potency, and that’s exactly how we enjoyed the single bottle that we bought – passing it around between four or five people one evening. We were still exploring the world of more extreme beers at the time so we found this beer too shocking to fully appreciate it. I still haven’t tried the second bottle, so I have to make a decision about whether I should try it soon or let it age for a while.

Surly Darkness

In the Twin Cities area the big craft brewer is Surly, and once every year they release a powerful Russian Imperial Stout called Darkness. This beer is released in a limited quantity and is sold in 750 mL bottles for $18-20 apiece. The release of the beer every October is called Darkness Day. Beer fans line up at the brewery starting the evening before the release just to get a chance to buy the beer, and it is quite a festival.

How do you enjoy a beer like this? One of my good friends scored a six pack of Darkness a couple of years ago. He enjoyed one or two right away, has been saving another bottle or two to for tasting when it has aged, and is holding back the rest for their trade value. If you look on Craigslist for this area you will see that there is a solid market for this beer (obviously this market is for the unopened collectible bottle, since re-selling the beer itself would be illegal). Older editions of this beer sell for a good return on investment. There is also a trade market for the beer – my friend has seen offers such as two bottles of the 2012 edition for one bottle of his 2011 edition. Not a bad deal.

Have you ever gotten hold of a rare or hard-to-find beer? How did you manage its enjoyment?

3 Reasons You Might Not Like Stouts or IPA’s

If you are new to the world of craft beer you may find beer styles like stouts and IPA’s off-putting. You might read home brewing blogs and beer review sites like Beer Advocate and notice that these styles dominate the lists of top beers, and you might have a difficult time understanding it. I’ve been there and I understand how you feel. Here are three reasons that you might not love strong beer styles…yet.

1. Bitterness is An Acquired Taste
The literature says that bitterness is an acquired taste for all people, so each of us needs to work our way into it. For the first couple of years after I turned 21 I would not go anywhere near the extreme ends of the beer spectrum. When you read beer reviews and listen to home brewers talk you might think that the only quality beers in the world are stouts and IPA’s. It is true that these are the beers with flavor that really stand out, but when you are first venturing into the craft beer scene it takes a while to be able to palate these flavors.

2. Soft Drinks Have Killed Our Finer Perceptions of Taste
After twenty or more years of drinking soda, fruit juice, and other sweet beverages we are not prepared for the harsher taste and texture of beer. Beverages like soft drinks have destroyed our sense of taste – that blast of sugar overwhelms your senses with a single artificial flavor which doesn’t leave any room for finer tones to be appreciated. You don’t drink a Pepsi and note a slight smokiness or hints of espresso in the flavor. Instead, you are slammed with the essence of super-carbonated “Pepsi-ness.” Learning to appreciate layers of flavors and aromas is a large part of learning to appreciate beers, especially the stronger styles.

3. You Haven’t Tried Enough Variety
My best advice for learning to enjoy strong beer styles is to try a variety of them. Beer really is an acquired taste.  I tried forcing down many beers that I didn’t like once I turned 21, but it wasn’t until I discovered amber and brown ales that I started to enjoy sitting down with a beer.  I didn’t like any IPA’s until I found the well-balanced Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, which is a strong IPA that has a lot more flavor to it than just hops. I didn’t like darker beers until I tried Anchor Porter. Your break-through beer might just be the next one you try.
Is there a style of beer that you are still learning to appreciate?

Left Out of the Conversation

BeerAdvocate.com is a website that serves as a forum for people to describe and rate beers. As I was cruising around there earlier I found this description of a certain beer’s taste by a person on the forum:

“Sweet on the tip of the tongue with a warm middle. A little note of alcohol warmth but well hidden. The dark fruits now come out with greater intensity and phenols from the yeast’s work let it be known.”

I don’t really get a good sense of how the beer tastes based on that description. I feel left out of the conversation, like the author is trying harder to appear sophisticated than to help others understand the beer.

Look as this description of the same beer by somebody else:

“Aromas are pleasant and come through more as the ale warms: musty, boozy, earthy, sweet, caramel, honey, fruity as it warms w plum & cherry. Tastes are boozy, rich, sweet, malty, fruity with plum, raisin, currant, rum, bready yeast, mossy, musty, earthy – great complexity!”

I’m not certain that it is actually possible to pull out that many distinct flavors from the beer, but at least I get a really good idea of how the beer tastes from the second description. It is truly a description of the taste, not of the experience of drinking the beer. This makes me think two things:

1. Get familiar with many different flavors so that you can recognize and describe them when tasting beer (or anything else).

2. Keep it simple and approachable. Don’t try to appear sophisticated or appeal only to the “True” beer tasters.
Have you had experiences in the beer world that have left you feeling left out of the conversation?

The Most Common Descriptive Terms Used In Beer Tasting

Lately I have been very interested in the art of beer tasting since readings Gary Vaynerchuk’s book Crush It!, which frequently references adventures in wine tasting. Recently I did a little exercise with beer tasting in mind, and it made me realize just how many home brewing and beer drinking terms I don’t understand – when I encounter them I usually skip over them or make a guess as to what they mean.

So here’s what I did:
I went through an entire home brewing supply catalog and highlighted every word that was used to describe beer tastes. My survey included 62 different beer kits that were described in the catalog, and from these I pulled out 192 descriptors of which about 134 were unique terms. It is important keep in mind, though, that these descriptions are being used to sell the beer kits. There were no descriptions of off-flavors or off-putting tastes (although “tar” was listed as a flavor in one of the stouts!). Even so, I think that the results are interesting, and they show me just how much I have to learn about beer tasting.

Here’s what I learned:

  • There are many, many flavors that I am not familiar with. If I am going to become a more prodigious beer taster I will need to become familiar enough with flavors like coriander, plum, and buttered pastry to pick them out of the complex flavor profile of a beer.
  • There are a bunch of terms in the advertising literature that are supposed to be luring me in, but instead they are blocking me out. Over the next few weeks I will be exploring terms like “nose,” “body,” “bouquet,” “finish,” “esters,” “phenolic,” “quaffable,” “dryness,” and “hop-bursting,” specifically with how they relate to beer making and tasting. I can make a pretty good guess as to what each word means given the context, but it is still just a guess.

Most Common Terms To Describe Beer Tastes:
My little study was not scientific – I sat down with a highlighter, turned on some loud music, and went through a single company’s catalog. Many beer styles are represented, from pale ales to Belgian ales to IPA’s and stouts. This wide variety of beer styles clearly necessitates a wide variety of descriptors. Even so, below are the top 6 general words that were used to describe the beer flavors. These six comprise about 22% of the total descriptors used in the magazine. The rest of the descriptors are just used once or twice.

  1. Fruity (used 10 times)
  2. Spicy (used 8 times)
  3. Caramel (used 7 times)
  4. Citrus (used 6 times)
  5. Coffee (used 6 times, including descriptions like light-roast, dark roast, etc)
  6. Floral (used 5 times, usually referring to hop flavor)

Finally, below are each of the descriptive words that I found in the catalog.  Are there any words below that you wouldn’t know how to use when describing beer taste?

All Descriptors Found In the Catalog:

apricot coriander hop-bitter shot of hops
baking chocolate cream hoppy smooth
big finish creamy textured hops smooth mouthfeel
biscuit character crisp lemon-citrus snappy
bitter chocolate character crisp finish light sweet malt sour apple
bitter orange peel dark fruit light-bodied spices
bittersweet finish delicate floral note lighter body spicy
bittersweet roastiness dried fruit lingering bitterness spicy cloves
bittnerness drier malt spicy English hop profile
black tea dry maltiness spritzy
bread dough overtones dry  and mildly bitter finish malty spine subtle fruit notes
bread tangles dry finish medium-bodied sweet
bready earthy medium-full body sweet finish
burnt earthy hop bitterness medium-light body sweet graininess
burnt caramel english biscuits modest bitterness sweet malt body
butter toffee estery multigrain bread sweet malt profile
buttered toast fig neutral finish syrupy malt
buttered-pastry sweetness floral maltiness nutmeg tangerine
candied citrus floral nose oats tar (!)
candy-like sweetness floral notes oilier mouthfeel tart
caramel flowers peppery finish toasty
caramel toffee flowery hops phenolic toffee
caramelized sugar fruity pine tropical fruit flavors
chewy minerals full-bodied plums turbinado sugar
chocolate ginger pumpernickel bread vanilla
chocolate liqueur grain-and-bread malt raisins warm cereal
cinnamon grainy flavor rich in malt complexity warming
citrus grainy sweetness rich spiciness warming alcohol note
citrus hop profile grainy-spicy ripe pear fruit wheat malt character
clean grapefruit roast grain
clean-finishing herbal roasted chocolate
cocoa herbal hops roastiness
coffee hint of grain roasty notes
complex finish honey rum
complex malt hop flavor rye

On How Beer Saved the World


The other day my wife and I watched “How Beer Saved the World.” It is humorous and entertaining, yet informative. We watched it on Netflix streaming, but it looks like it is also available elsewhere. It’s only 45 minutes, so I definitely recommend checking it out!

The Best of Each Beer Style

If you are a beginning home brewer you may or may not be familiar with the wide variety of beer styles that is out there for you to both brew and enjoy. There are many, many different styles of beer as illustrated in this Periodic Table of Beer from the University at Albany, but I thought I would discuss my favorite commercial example of the main styles of beer.

Keweenaw Brewing Company’s “Red Jacket Amber”
It took me almost a year after I turned 21 to find a beer that I liked the flavor of, and that beer was an amber. My favorite amber of all time is one you’re only going to find distributed in the upper midwest, unfortunately. This is the beer that sustained me through my college years and is my favorite beer to have with pizza. It’s Keweenaw Brewing Company’s Red Jacket Amber. This beer has an excellent smoky flavor, and it just never gets old. It knocks my socks off every time I have one.

Leinenkugel’s “Fireside Nut Brown”
It looks like I’m going to have to find a new favorite in the category of brown ales 🙁 To date, my favorite brown has been Leinenkugel’s Fireside Nut Brown, which was a winter seasonal beer that has recently been replaced by their Snowdrift Vanilla Porter. I like the porter, but I will always have a soft spot for the Fireside Nut Brown.

Deschutes “Black Butte Porter”
The chocolate flavors in Deschutes Brewing’s Black Butte Porter make it one of my favorite beers of all time. I can still remember the first sip of this beer that I ever tried – it had a major impression on me. So good!

Tallgrass “Buffalo Sweat”
Don’t hate me Guiness lovers, but I can’t stand the texture of nitrogenated beers. My favorite stout is Tallgrass Brewing’s Buffalo Sweat. It’s a lot more complex and flavorful than Guiness and most other stouts that I’ve tried.

India Pale Ale (IPA)
Dogfish Head “90 Minute IPA”
There is a huge selection of great IPA’s out there, but my favorite is Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA. I thoroughly enjoyed this beer when I lived in Michigan, but they unfortunately do not distribute in Minnesota so it has been a while since I’ve had one. I recently paid a premium to get one bottle of it on a trip to Florida, and now I’m waiting for just the right moment to enjoy it.

Scottish Ale
Odell “90 Shilling Ale”
Probably my favorite style of beer to drink next to a fire on a cold, snowy night is a Scottish ale. My preferred Scattish ale is Odell Brewing’s 90 Shilling Ale. It goes down so easily!

Sierra Nevada “Celebration Ale”
Winter seasonals can really vary from one to the next. They aren’t really a set style, mostly just beers to warm you up when it’s cold. I recently tried Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale and I was immediately impressed. It has a whole lot of flavor, and it definitely warms you up. This is another one that left a lasting impression with me.

Bell’s “Winter White”
I’m not much of a wheat beer fan, but I really like Bell’s Winter White. It’s a lot lighter than your typical winter seasonal but it makes you think of snow and it just tastes good.

Surly “Coffee Bender”
Really any style of beer could be a coffee beer. There are ambers with coffee out there, you hear a lot about coffee stouts, etc. The only one that I’ve ever taken to is the brown ale with coffee made by Surly, called Coffee Bender. In my opinion, this one gets the balance between the coffee flavor and the beer flavor just right. This is one that you can probably only find around the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, unfortunately.

Beer styles I just can’t get myself to care for:
Pumpkin Ales

What are your favorite examples of different beer styles?

What are Ales and Lagers?

There is some basic terminology that all beer lovers need to understand right away, such as the difference between an ale and a lager. Let’s keep this short and simple:

What is an Ale?

Ales, in general, use yeast that rises to the top of the fermentation vessel to do its work. They are fermented at room temperature (approximately between 60 and 74 degrees F). I have only ever home brewed ales, and I ferment them in my basement during the fall, winter, and spring when it is nice and cool.

Examples of Ales

Some various examples of ales include Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Bell’s Amber, and Newcastle Brown Ale.

What is a Lager?

Lagers typically use different strains of yeast that sink to the bottom of the fermentation vessel. Lagers are fermented at a cooler temperate (46-59 degrees F) which suppresses extra flavors that can be given off by the yeast. Historically lagers were fermented in caves and cellars that were consistently at those lower temperatures. I don’t have a cave, and unfortunately refrigerators do not hold a steady temperature (they cool off whenever they get up to a set temperature). Variation in temperature can be bad for the fermenting beer so if you want to home brew a lager you will have to buy a temperature controller to keep your refrigerator at a constant temperature.

Examples of Lagers

Some various examples of lagers include Budweiser, Saint Pauli Girl, and Hacker-Pschorr Original Oktoberfest.
Personally I prefer ales because they tend to be more adventurous than lagers, although a nice crisp lager can be very refreshing at certain times of the year.
Which do you like better, ales or lagers?

7 Ways to Filter Your Wort

Sediments in wort, such as hop leaves and cold break proteins, can clog up your wort chiller and cause problems in your beer. There are several methods of filtering debris out of your wort, varying in cost and effectiveness.

Filtering Hop Debris

If you are looking primarily to remove hop debris from your wort before running the wort through a chiller the easiest methods are screens and bags.


There are multiple screen systems available to remove hops from the wort, but they will only be effective when whole hops are used. Hop pellet debris will pass through most screens.

1. A false bottom in the brew kettle will catch hop debris while allowing the wort to pass beneath and through the outlet of the kettle.

2. A bazooka screen can also be used on a valve of the chiller inlet to keep out large hop debris.

3. A mesh strainer can be used to remove hops from the wort, but these are more likely to be used after the wort is already cooled and is on its way to the fermenter.

Hop Bags

4. Hop bags are a popular way to keep all hop debris from floating free in the wort. They are typically a small-mesh nylon bag that the hops are contained in, and the entire bag is allowed to float in the wort. Hop bags make filtering easy, but they are known to decrease utilization of the hops, taking away some of the flavor and aroma.

5. There are also different ways of using paint strainers to filter out hops. We like the method demonstrated by Billy at billybrew.com for its simplicity and ease of use. Paint strainers are a great way to filter out hops while still allowing for utilization of the hop oils, as the hops can float more freely in these bags than in hop bags.

Filtering Both Hop Debris and Smaller Debris

6. If you are looking to remove smaller items like cold break proteins from your wort it may be best to use a siphoning system. The best way to siphon wort out of the kettle without bringing any hops or proteins with is to first whirlpool the wort and then siphon out the liquid from the side of the kettle, away from the cone of debris at the center.

7. Filters can be added to the end of the siphon to ensure that no debris is caught. Many auto-siphons and racking canes come with a filter tip, but you can also use a copper scrubber to keep sediment out.

Have you tried any of these filtering methods? How did it work for you?

Beer vs. Wife, Round 1: Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale

There is only one way to separate the good beers from the great beers, and that is have my wife Kylie render judgement. I have pretty particular tastes when it comes to beer but I can get myself to enjoy just about any style. Kylie, on the other hand, expects great things from her beer. We recently sat down with a bottle of Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale. Here is what she had to say about it.

We stopped at the Keweenaw Brewing Company tap room between our wedding ceremony and reception :-)
I had pictures of the beer but I lost the camera so this is a picture of Kylie and I at the Keweenaw Brewing Company tap room on our wedding day 🙂

Packaging: The foil is a goofy concept but it looks good. They emphasize the age of the brewery on the packaging and the style of the bottle and label fit well with that.

Appearance: Thick ivory head, not very lacy. Reddish brown in color, high clarity.

Smell: Not great, can’t really pick anything out. Maybe some amber-like skunkiness. [Kylie is NOT a fan of amber beers!]

Taste: Sharp, followed by a gentle flavor. Light body. Light finish that fades quickly.

Overall: On a scale of 1 to 10, I give it a 4. Not great but not bad. I feel pretty neutral about it. A little too close to an amber for my taste. Catch me on a hot summer day and my opinion of it would be swayed more favorably. This is my idea of a nice light summer beer.

For some contrast, here was my overall impression of the beer:
“Very drinkable brown ale, almost leans toward the amber category. Goes very well with cookies 🙂 This would be a great beer to have next to a roaring fireplace during a blizzard. 6/10.”

Have you ever tried Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale? What was your impression of it?

3 Ways to Cool Wort Even Faster

You’ve been using a wort chiller to cool your beer quickly. You’ve seen the dramatic results that wort chillers give you compared to an ice bath. Maybe you want to cool your wort even more quickly, though. Or maybe you live in a hot climate where the groundwater is warm and the tap water doesn’t cool wort to a sufficient temperature when you use a wort chiller. Here are three quick tips for improving your wort cooling process:

1. Increase the cooling rate by whirlpooling the wort.

Re-circulating the wort in the kettle with a whirlpool helps to cool it more quickly. If you are using an immersion wort chiller the whirlpool will increase the flow of the wort past the cold copper tubing of the chiller. If you are using a counterflow wort chiller or plate wort chiller the whirlpool will introduce cooled wort that has already run through the chiller into the wort that has not been cooled yet, bringing down the temperature of the wort in the kettle.

Whirlpooling has the additional advantage of collecting sediment in the wort at the center of the brewing kettle so that the wort can easily be siphoned off, leaving the debris behind.

2. Decrease outlet temperature by placing your counterflow chiller in an ice bath.

If you are using a counterflow wort chiller and groundwater just isn’t doing the job of cooling the wort far enough, try placing the chiller in an ice bath while the water and wort are flowing through it. The ice water will cool the tap water that is running through the outer layer of the chiller, and that water will in turn cool the wort even more.

3. Decrease outlet temperature by running water from an ice bath through the chiller.

If you need to cool your wort more than your tap water temperature will allow, you can create an ice bath and feed the water from the bath through the chiller. You can feed the water with gravity, or you can pump it through to increase efficiency and ease.

Have you tried any of these methods for cooling your beer more efficiently? What were your results?