Mash Tun #6

The Mash Tun is back! This regular series is my little mish mash of beer experiences, thoughts, and other tidbits. It is named after, of course, the large brewing vessel used to mix brewing grains with hot water kicking off all sorts of pleasant reactions that make beer what it is. It seems appropriate then that this segment contains some of those various odds and ends that continue to catalyze my facsination with beer. For this renewed edition, I’ll be sharing one particular resource that has fueled my curiosity recently as well as share a tasting of a brew from one of the most storied breweries in Germany. Let’s do this!

Beer As Art
One of the quirks of my personality is that I tend to get very excited to the point of obsession over topics that interest me. Many years ago, I started following the Beautiful Game, that is, soccer. I couldn’t content myself with simply picking a team, learning some of the rudimentary rules, and then simply enjoying the game. I spent months devouring everything I could get my hands on that illuminated every angle of the sport–players, leagues, personalities, history, tactics, and more. I couldn’t get enough. In much the same way, when I dove head long into my beer exploration back in 2010, I consumed whatever new information or knowledge about beer and brewing I could find. In fact, this blog is a result to that obsession.

tasting beerMuch of my earlier obsessive curiosity has resurfaced the past couple of months, and I have found myself once again seeking out whatever insight into beer I can get my hands on. One such resource that I’ve recently come across is the wonderful and informative book by Randy Mosher call Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink. Randy’s book is about the best thing I’ve ever read that paints a comprehensive picture of the multifaceted experience that is beer. He touches on just about every area including grain brewing’s rich history, beers intimate role within culture, as well as all of the nitty gritty about methods, styles, presentation, and tasting.

What fascinates me most about this volume though is Mosher’s obvious passion for beer. Throughout the book, he poetic waxes about the beauty, transcendence, and eloquence of the fermented drink. You get the impression as you read that this is his love letter to brewing. At one point he writes:

Beer is democratic. It does not depend on the finest real estate or limited geographical designations. The many choices made by the maltster and brewer create aromas, flavors, textures, and colors, transforming a few simple commodities into exquisite works of art. Anyone with skill, passion, and creativity can learn to make great beer. As a taster, each glance, each telltale whiff and studied sip of beer can be like peering into the soul of the man or woman who brewed it. This dependence on a human rather than a heavenly touch is one of beer’s great delights. (Mosher, 2)

He succeeds in educating on the various aspects of the beer world while at the same time passing his deep appreciation on to his reader as well. I’m not even finished with the book yet, and I can already say that he has given me enormous amounts of fodder to feed my deepening passion.

But, the book has also had a humbling effect. I’m reminded once again of how much of an amateur I am when it comes to beer. There are a lot of people out there who know so much more and have had a wider range of experiences than I. I’m still trying to develop even a basic ability to discern and fully appreciate what I’m tasting when I drink a beer. This realization is far from discouraging though. In fact, it has inspired an even greater inquisitiveness.

An Evening with Weihenstephaner
Nowadays I don’t get much opportunity to enjoy high quality German brews. This is a far cry from the last time I was writing on this blog when every trip to the grocery store yielded a different sampling of the German tradition. Living in Germany certainly had its advantages. That’s not to say that every bottle I bought at the market was the dark and malty deliciousness we tend to associate with Germany. The same industrialization that watered down American and British brewing with its weak Pilsners and pale lagers has had similar effects in Deutschland. Consolidation in recent decades has led to many of the traditional Starkbiers going the way of the dodo. A hand full of traditional breweries are still doing their thing, and fortunately for us many of these outstanding beers are available here in the US. One of these pillars of traditional German beer is also known as the oldest brewery in the world: Weihenstephaner.

vitusFounded in 1040 as part of the Benedictine abbey of Freising in Bavaria, the original brewery catered mostly to the resident monks and the occasional aristocrat. Since the brewery was secularized in 1803 (in the 20th century, it became known as the Bavarian State Brewery), its traditional beers have been enjoyed by an increasingly wider and appreciative audience. In addition to the German mainstays like Pilsner, Helles and a nice Hefeweizen, Weihenstephaner brews a renowned Doppelbock known as Korbinian as well as a hefty Weizenbock, the Vitus, which I recently was able to get my hand on.

Weizenbock is one of my favorite styles. As a Weizen, it exhibits mosts of the familiar attributes of German wheat ale–fruity and phenolic aromas, bready malts, unfiltered appearance, and ridiculous amounts of creamy head. But, a higher gravity and darker grain bill give them their more robust caramel flavors and higher ABV. It’s a perfect beer for those long, dark winter days warming the heart and the belly.

Weihenstephaner’s Vitus falls right into this profile. Poured out of the bottle into a tall, tapering Weizen glass, a dense, tan head quickly fills its container releasing a wonderful banana and clove aroma into the room. As the carbonation begins to settle, the beautifully hazy, amber color becomes evident. Once in the mouth, the caramel sweetness takes over and is tempered only by a mild toasty flavor and the slightest Noble hop bitterness. This is a nice full-bodied but very drinkable beer that has a lively and sweet mouthfeel. While not as good as Schneider’s version of the Weizenbock, the Vitus has reminded me why I love this style so much.

I enjoy these moments that I get to relive some of my German beer memories. In a land like the US dominated by hopped-up malt bombs and crazy experimental brews, it’s nice to sometimes delight in one of the classics.


3 Years. That’s how long it’s been since the last time I published on LSB. Not sure if that qualifies as a hiatus or outright abandonment. Either way, it’s been a while. A lot has changed since the last time fresh words appeared on this page. My family has grown by a couple of kids. And, we have relocated from the traditional beer culture of Germany to the Wild West of brewing, America. Life has thrown us a bunch of personal curveballs, and after many ups and downs existence is beginning to settle down a bit.

Cyberspace absenPhoto Jan 01, 8 58 33 PMce doesn’t necessarily mean my beer journey was also put on hold. Far from it. Over the past three years, I’ve been blessed to taste some pretty amazing brews, travel to some remarkable brewing locations, and expand my passion and knowledge of the wonderful world of beer. As life has begun to afford me more time and monetary capacity, I’ve had a renewed hankering to pick up this blog as a way to process some of my beer adventures. The purpose of Love.Serve.Beer. is the same as always, but I definitely bring an changed persepctive than from the last time I’ve written.

One thing that has changed has been an added sense of modesty. When I first began my beer exploration, my ambition to know and master all things beer was sky high. I wanted to elevate my experience to the level of aficionado, and I coveted to taste the renowned “greats” like Pliny, Dark Lord, and Westy. But, as the axiom goes, the more you learn, the dumber you are.  I realized that any thought of becoming some sort of beer connoisseur was silly–at best I’m a dilettante, and at worst a total wannabe. There is just so much to this thing called beer that any attempt I can give to learn would be merely scratching the surface.

The other big change as it relates to beer is my surroundings. As I mentioned, about two years ago we moved from Cologne, Germany back to the United States where we finally settled in the Chicagoland area. The move has shifted my focus from the traditional and, at times, stodgy environment of Germany to the dynamic world of American brewing. Needless to say, I’ve missed being around the best Bocks, Pilsners, and Kölsches the world has to offer. But, the new surroundings of the US has definitely had its perks.

So, this brings me to today. For a while, I’ve wanted to resurrect this blog as a way of recording all that I taste, learn, and experience. I don’t necessarily gravitate toward some of the big names and popular trends like I may have before. My demured attitude and different location means that I’ll probably write more about local expressions of the craft beer revolution. (Don’t get me wrong though. If a bottle of Speedway Stout somehow lands in my lap, you bet I’ll write about it.) But like before, I don’t pretend to be an expert in beer. Instead, I just want to offer up the thoughts and insights of a normal guy who likes beer.

This month I’m coming up on a beer anniversary of sorts.  Last October, I took a trip with some friends of mine to some of the Trappist monasteries of Belgium.  It was my first real experience delving into the world of Belgian brewing and ended up being the impetus for my awakened passion for all things beer.  One of the disappointments of that trip though was missing out on a visit to Brussel’s most well-known Lambic producer, the Cantillon brewery.

As a commemoration of that momentous occasion, I decided to take a day trip this past week back to Belgium.  My primary concern this time around though was logistic.  Since Belgian beer is so hard to come by in my neck of the woods, this would be a perfect chance to stock up on some of my favorites.  Essentially, I was going for an international beer run.  But, like a good beer tourist, I was determined to utilize the opportunity to hit a few must-see beer locales in Brussels with Cantillon at the very top of my list.

You really can’t pick a more nondescript location for a brewery.  Nestled in a narrow warehouse-type building in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood of the city, the brewery has been in continuous operation here for over a hundred years.  Still owned by the Cantillon family (actually run by Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the son-in-law of the last Cantillon), this establishment is a monument to tradition craft of brewing.  It is indeed the last remaining brewery in Brussels that brews Lambic beers using completely traditional methods.

While guided tours are available in many circumstances, most people who make the trek to Cantillon get treated to a very informative self-guided tour through the brewery operation.  And, for someone who has done his fair share of brewery tours, this one is probably the most unique experience I’ve ever had.  The hallmark of the brewery is its vintage nostalgia.  Most of the equipment used in the brewing process by Cantillon are the same machines used over a hundred years ago.  Large copper brew kettles and rows of oak barrels are the standard here.

One of the most interesting features of Cantillon’s atmosphere are the cobwebs.  Brewing traditional lambics, Cantillon stresses the use of organic ingredients in their brewing process.  That means dealing with lots of grains and fruits like cherries and raspberries, which, in turn, translates into lots of insects hanging around looking for a feast.  Since the brewery shies away from non-organic methods such as pesticides, they combat this menace more naturally using spiders.  The entire brewery is strewn with thousands of cobwebs and spider webs.  We were told that its forbidden for any employee to disturb a web no matter where it may lie.

All of these features give the inside of the Cantillon brewery a very earthy mystique.  But, their methods certainly translate into some amazing beer.  At the end of the brief tour, visitors are offered a tasting of a few of the brewery’s main beers – a Gueuze, which is a blend of young and 3-year-old Lambics, and either a Kriek or their Gambrinus, which are Lambics with sour cherries or raspberries respectively.

I confess that I’m really not a Lambic fan.  The barnyard funk of spontaneous fermentation is definitely an acquired taste.  But, the beers produced by Cantillon are amazing.  Of course, all of their beers have the typical sour flavors found in Lambics, but each of the beers I sampled had an outstanding smoothness and drinkability.  Once your palate grows accustomed to the sour tastes, the many subtleties of the Lambic emerge.  These beers seem to have the flavors and character of brews from a long-forgotten age.  Back before the sterile mechanization of modern brewing methods, all beers would have at least some measure of this earthy, natural sourness.  It’s this traditional flavor along with the highly crafted subtlety that make Cantillon a historical treasure.

On my first trip to Belgium over a year ago, I was able to pick up a few bottles of Cantillon Lambics at a beer store in the city.  Since that time, these bottles have been sitting in my dark, cool closet aging slowly.  I’ve been waiting for the right time to whisk them out of their lagered state and pop them open for my enjoyment.  After this most recent visit, I definitely have a much deep appreciation for this dying art of brewing.  Perhaps this is a poetic moment to pull out those forgotten bottles in salute to this one-of-a-kind brewery.

Founders, Keepers

I must admit that I had some pretty grand blogging plans for my current trip to the United States.  I had intended to write at least weekly on my various explorations of American craft beer.  As you can see though, these intentions have mostly gone unfulfilled.  The biggest problem has been reliable internet access.  For the majority of our time in the States, we have stayed with family who live in rural Ohio where internet connectivity is extremely problematic.  This has meant that most of my internet time has had to come through brief visits to the local Mcdonald’s.

Don’t let my lack of blogging give the impression that I have not been pursuing my beer passions while in the US.  Far from it!  In fact, I have had some pretty awesome experiences that have included some pretty amazing brews.  So, I thought that I would at least throw out a brief post sharing my run in with a rather famous brewery from here in the Midwest.  This brewing operation was not on my original brewing “must taste” list, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to sample some of these beers.  During a recent excursion to a highly rated beer store in Dayton, Ohio, I had the good fortune to acquire a few bottles – including a hard-to-find brew – from the Founders Brewing Company out of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

I knew that Founders had a sterling reputation among craft beer enthusiasts here in the States.  Much of their rise to predominance is vaguely familiar in terms of craft breweries.  Like so many other outfits in the US, Founders was started in the 1990s by a couple of homebrewers with an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit.  After many years of unimaginative brewing, the company was stagnate and on the verge of bankruptcy.  At this point, the two partners, Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers, decided to change their strategy.  Instead of making what they called “well-balanced but unremarkable beers”, they followed their hearts and began brewing beer they would enjoy – brews with complexity, flavor, and depth of character.   This marked the beginning of Founders’ rise to one of the most esteemed breweries in the world.

As I mentioned above, I stopped by a well-known beer outlet during our stay in Dayton, Ohio.  Browsing through their selection, I came across a few shelves stocked with Founders beer.  Seeing their offerings, I was reminded that Founders had just recently released their Kentucky Breakfast Stout – a bourbon barrel-aged Imperial Stout that is released in limited amounts once a year to much fanfare.  I figured it was a long shot, but I asked the employee stocking the shelves whether they had any bottles of KBS left in stock.  She flashed a doubtful look and said she would check behind the counter.  After a quick glance, she let me know that they had sold out.  Much to my surprise though, she then offered to give up a bottle from her personal stash and allow me to purchase it through the store!  So, I left that afternoon with a bottle of KBS as well as a few other offerings from Founders.

So, what about that beer?  This beauty poured a pure, deep black with creamy, beige head. The aroma is coffee and licorice filled my nose. Taste was something spectacular!  There was amazingly smooth and complex with flavors of coffee, chocolate, and bourbon alcohol. On top of that, I found a nice lactose sweetness on the tail end that made it seem like for a split second you were drinking chocolate milk. The mouthfeel was amazing – smooth and creamy, not overly viscous, just perfect. This is truly one of the best beers out there.  Thank you lady from Belmont Party Supply!

I pick up a few other Founders beers that afternoon, but the one other brew I wanted to share here was their take on the classic Porter.  Aside from the Baltic Porter I had while visiting Three Floyds, I have never had the pleasure of trying a Porter before.  I must say, that if all Porters are anything like this offering from Founders, I am hooked!   The appearance of the Founders version was a solid black color with medium, beige head. The nose was sweet with roasted malts, coffee and some toffee.  And, boy did it taste good – amazingly delicate and complex with dark chocolate and coffee dominant but notes of roasted grains. The real strength of this beer was its hop profile – perfectly balanced with the malty sweetness.  It had a pleasant hop grassy and spicy hop notes that’s not overly bitter, which, combined with a nice medium body and creamy texture, was great on the palate.  Unlike Imperial Stouts, the real flavors of Porters are not overwhelmed by a heavy body, high alcohol, and huge malt bill.  The delicacy and balance have really sold me on this style of brewing.

Well, that’s a quick update on my ongoing introduction to American craft beer.  So far, it’s been an awesome experience.  My only heartache comes from the fact that there is so much to sample.  The more that I try, the more excited I get about the American craft brewing scene.  I’m slowly becoming convinced that the good ol’ US of A is brewing the best beer in the world right now.  It’s a great time to be a craft beer lover in America.

I have always found it comical that the state tag line for Indiana is “Crossroads of America”.  Essentially, with this statement you are verifying that Indiana is merely monotonous countryside one drives through on their way to somewhere else.  Perhaps it is an oversimplification to say that Indiana is just a 140 mile wide expanse of farmland.  The dedicated Hoosier can certainly point to places like Indianapolis to show that the state has its cosmopolitan side.  Regardless, anyone who has driven through Indiana on I-70 can testify to the state’s overwhelming rural uniformity.

When it comes to brewing, then, Indiana would not strike the casual observer as a hotbed of great craft beer.  Seeing the repetitious scenes of farmland and prairie rolling past your car window would probably dispel any notion that this land could be fertile ground for a brewing revolution.  In fact, if one were so inclined to make stereotypical judgments based on socio-economic level, you would probably believe that you were in staunch BMC country.  Whether these judgments are accurate or not, I won’t venture a guess.  But, it was surprising to me that one of the most respected breweries in America can be found in the Hoosier State.  For those of you out there who love beer, you have probably already realized that I’m talking about Three Floyds Brewing in Munster, Indiana.

Although Munster is situated in the northwestern most corner of the state – which is essentially an extension of Chicago – the area and its brewery are firmly imbedded in the life and culture of Indiana.  I actually have a personal connection with this part of Indiana.  My mother was born and raised only a few miles from Munster in the suburban town of Highland.  My aunt, who still calls this area home, would proudly call herself a Hoosier.  Even though I was raised in neighboring Ohio, I still try to make it back often to this place that half of my family calls home.  And, indeed, our trip from Chicago to Ohio a few weeks ago provided the opportunity to reconnect with this side of the family as well as the chance to make a very important excursion – a stop at Three Floyds!

Aware of the immense popularity of Three Floyds, I decided to hit their brewpub on a quiet Thursday afternoon.  I had also invited a very dear friend and fellow beer lover to drive up to Munster and meet me at the brewery so that I would have a drinking partner in my beer odyssey.  However, the recent outrageous gas prices convinced my friend to stay home.  Not wanting to pass up this opportunity, I headed to Munster by myself.  “Just great,” I thought. “Drinking alone – one step closer to alcoholism.”  Alas.  No use letting a silly little thing like alcohol dependence stop me from an amazing brewery experience.

The drive into Munster from where we were staying was a journey through American suburban sprawl.  Strip malls, Rite Aids, and Wal-Marts littered the path to Three Floyds.  The brewery itself is located in a bland, unassuming industrial park surrounded by distribution warehouses and tech firms – not exactly the type of place you’d expect a brewing operation.  Like a hermit crab, the brewery and brewpub inhabit the shell of one these old warehouses.  I was really surprise to see that the ample parking surrounding the brewhouse was completely occupied.  Not an encouraging beginning to my evening.

Walking into the brewpub, I was met with a completely packed out bar with a dozen or so people just standing around waiting for a place to sit.  Considering it was 6pm on a weekday, I was surprised to see the place so crowded.  As it turns out, the fact that I came alone proved to be an advantage in muscling myself a stool at the bar.  The dark pub had a very indie, Greenwich Village feel (not that I have ever been to a bar in Greenwich Village, but you know what I mean) – various pieces of pop art as well as beer paraphernalia hanging on the walls; a couple of tattooed, post-modern twenty-somethings tending the taps behind the bar; and a host of young suburban professionals enjoying their craft beer at dark-stained oak tables.  In all, a very appropriate locale to enjoy some world-class beer.

I ended up sitting next to an older gentleman at the bar who I found out was a regular at the brewpub.  He let me know that the crowds I was so surprised to see were a normal thing for Three Floyds.  In fact, if I had arrived any later, he said, I would have had to wait in line outside.  I counted my blessing that I had found a place to sit and proceed to peruse their beer menu.  Naturally, they had on tap the line up of standard Three Floyds offerings – Alpha King, Gumballhead, Robert the Bruce – as well as some intriguing limited selections that you’d only find at the brewpub.  Additionally, I was surprised to see them offering beers from other craft brewers from around the world including some of their competitors like Founders and Sun King.  Good for them.

But, I wasn’t there to partake in anything other than the best that Three Floyds had to give me that evening.  So, what about the beer?  For my first selection, I decided on one of their special offerings, their Baltic Porter called Topless Wych.  I had never tried any type of Porter before, so I was somewhat flying blind on this tasting.  The beer poured a deep black with creamy, off-white head that quickly dissipated. The aroma was heavy with roasted malts with notes of coffee and chocolate. After a few swigs, it became obvious that the taste was similar to the nose with coffee being the most predominant. On top of this, there was also hints of licorice and dark fruits.  What I really liked about this beer was the medium but delicate body and smooth mouthfeel which revealed the craftsmanship behind the brew.

For the second round, I wanted to diversify my experience by trying something paler but with a stronger hop character making an IPA the ideal choice.  Enter Three Floyds Dreadnought Imperial IPA.  Let me just say off the bat that this beer was amazing.  The appearance is what you’d expect from an IPA – slightly hazy, light orange color with medium head. The nose was what really blew me away.  As soon as the bartender pushed the half pint in front of me, an aroma of citrus especially mango and peach met my nostrils. The taste was just as extraordinary with the huge mango and peach flavors up front and a nice malt base underneath. Then there was the hops. Floral and citrus hop flavors were really powerful in this beer leaving behind a strong bitterness on the palate. Although the hops were heavy, the bitterness was not overwhelming being balanced by the malts. This was truly an outstanding beer.

Unfortunately, I had to bring my evening at Three Floyds to a close.  Being alone, I had to wisely limit my alcohol intake knowing I had to get behind the wheel eventually.  But, the trip was definitely worth the effort.  As a parting gift, I grabbed a six-pack of their Alpha King Pale Ale to go.  As I enjoyed this beer and a few others since my trip (including their Robert the Bruce Scottish Ale – Yum!), this amazing place is quickly climbing my list of favorite breweries.

Three Floyds has confirmed, as far as I was concerned, its elite reputation among craft breweries.  These guys have really proven how brewing beer can be an art.  I was sad to leave, but excited to continue exploring all that this brewery has to offer.  Although Indiana may be least among the states, it has shown through outfits like Three Floyds and others to be a real player in the craft beer scene.

Mash Tun #5

Well, I’m writing my very first post from the Land of Freedom.  Our trip across the Atlantic Ocean went off without a hitch, and now my family and I are hanging out in the Chicagoland area before heading off to Ohio.  One of the first things I did once arriving in the States was find the closest specialty beer store.  I was able to pick up a few miscellaneous brews to kick off my American beer experience!  So, this Mash Tun will look at two American craft beers – one from right here in the Windy City and another from the Bluegrass State.

Goose Island IPA
I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I have never had an India Pale Ale.  It’s awful, I know.  Unfortunately, it’s a style that’s not very prevalent in Germany, so there hasn’t been much opportunity for me to get my hands on one.  Needless to say then, I was looking forward to finally experiencing this beloved brewing tradition.  To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I would like the hoppy profile of the IPA.  German brewing is not known for their heavy use of bittering hops.  Well, I had the chance to try my hand at the IPA my first full day back in America.

Although Goose Island wasn’t on my list of must-drink beers during my trip to the US, the brewery has been on my radar for a while.  During my initial beer shopping excursion, I had a slot left in my “build your own 6-pack”, so I picked up their take on the India Pale Ale.  This brew pours a slightly hazy orange color with light, quickly dissipating head.  The nose is citrus including orange and a little lemon plus sweet malts and nice dose of grass and floral hops. With orange and sweetness being balanced by grassy and floral hops flavor dominating, the taste resembles closely the aroma.  I was really pleased with the nice strong hop flavor which was not overly bitter. The brew had an amazing mouthfeel with light crispness, lively carbonation, and smooth aftertaste.  With one IPA now under my belt, I can definitely say that I’m looking forward to many more to come.

Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale
I’m noticing that it is a huge trend in craft beer right now to brew using casks from liquor distilleries.  By far the most popular is bourbon barrels, but I also seen beer from brandy and other whiskey casks.  Personally though, I have never experienced beer from this unique brewing art.  Come to think of it, I don’t think I have even had bourbon before.  It just so happened that the friends we were staying with in Chicago were big fans of a particular barrel aged beer – the Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale from the Lexington Brewing Company.  According to my friend, it’s actually illegal to export the beer out of Kentucky making it a particularly distinctive acquisition.  I’m skeptical of the accuracy of my friend’s information, but I was nonetheless excited to give it a try.

I like cool bottles.  For some reason, beer coming from a cool bottle just seems more drinkable.  This brew comes in a classic, almost antique style bottle with a black silhoette of a horses head on the label.  Out of this bottle pours a rich copper beer with medium off-white head. Of course, you get the strong whiskey scent right off the bat along with a nice malty sweetness. The taste is heavy on the bourbon with some vanilla and a slight fruity sweetness as well. The really nice thing about this beer, in my opinion, was how it felt on the palate.  The brew is very smooth – almost silky – as well as well-balanced with a medium body making it very drinkable.  It wasn’t the mind-blowing experience that some people might make it out to be, but the bourbon barrel-aged beer is a definite must-try.

If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, you’ll know that my wife and I have been living the expatriate lifestyle here in Germany going on two years.  Living on this side of the Atlantic has afforded me the opportunity to delve deeply into European beer culture – particularly Germany and Belgium.  In fact, it was a trip to Belgium that first inspired me to learn all that I could about the brewing arts.  Although I’ve really loved experiencing all that Europe has to offer beer-wise, I regretted the fact that I didn’t discover true beer enjoyment while I lived in the States.

I have always enjoyed good beer though.  Even when I knew nothing about the craft beer scene, I was aware that there was a difference between the BMC stuff and the high-end, quality brewing.  However, the most exposure I have ever had to the American craft beer world was a memorable trip to New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado.  Aside from them, I have virtually zero experience with true American craft beer.  Fortunately, that’s about to change.

This coming week, my family and I will be making our very first trip back to America since we left almost two years ago.  Since I’ve last seen those amber waves of grain, I have become an entirely different beer drinker – hopefully, a bit wiser and more discerning.  So, I’m really looking forward to taking advantage of our time in the States to become more acquainted with amazing American beer.  I have even come up with a “most drink” list of particular brewers that I want to concentrate on while I’m there.  Since all of our time will be spent in the Midwest, I’m focusing on some of the most well-known breweries from that region.  So, without further ado, here’s my American Beer Tour 2011 road schedule:

1.  Three Floyds Brewing in Munster, Indiana. We will actually be flying into Chicago and from there making are way across the Midwest visiting friends and family.  Luckily, my aunt lives a mere 10 minutes away from Three Floyds brewery and pub in northwest Indiana.  This world-renown brewery is going to be my first stop.  Unfortunately, I’m going to miss Dark Lord Day by a few weeks, but that’s not going to dampen my excitement for getting my mitts on some of their other beers.  In particular, I’m looking forward to trying out their Alpha King pale ale and Dreadnought IPA on top of anything special they might be serving at their brewpub.

2.  Bell’s Brewing in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Originally, we had planned on making a stop in Michigan which meant that a side trip to Bell’s would have been warranted.  Unfortunately, plans change and we won’t be going near Kalamazoo.  That isn’t going to deter me from making this awesome brewery a priority.  I’m hoping to procure various beers from the brewhouse formerly known as Kalamazoo Brewing Company over the course of our trip.  At the top of my list are, of course, the famous Hopslam Ale and Expedition Stout.  But, anything else I can come across, I’ll probably pick up too.

3.  Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, Ohio. Being a native Ohioan, there’s a good amount of pride knowing that one of the best breweries in America can be found in good ol’ Cleveland.  What I like most about this brewery is their excellent pale offerings.  In a craft beer world, where the heavy hitters like Stouts and IPAs seem to get all of the glory, it’s refreshing to find a brewery that can make some mind-blowing pale brews.  I’m especially looking forward to GLB’s Dortmunder Gold and their Burning River Pale Ale, both of which have earned high praise over the years.

4.  Hoppin’ Frog Brewery in Akron, Ohio. Just south of Cleveland is the old rubber capital of the world, Akron.  In this rust-belt town of some 200,000 people, you’ll find this small but quality brewery.  It’s definitely the least known of all the brewhouses on my road tour, but it’s definitely got some great beer.  In particular, I’m hoping to try their B.O.R.I.S. the Crusher Oatmeal Imperial Stout as well as their intriguing sounding Hop Master’s Abbey Belgian-style Double IPA.

Well, those are the highlights.  Of course, there will be specific entries in the weeks to come sharing my experiences of these various breweries.  Aside from these four, I’m hopeful that I will also encounter a few random surprises along the way.  If you have any suggestions of Midwestern breweries or beer that I have to try, feel free to point me in the right direction.  Bottoms up!  We’ll see you in America!

For this week’s post, I had originally intended to review a well-known local microbrewery and brewpub here in Cologne.  At the last minute though, my plans to visit the locale with a friend fell through, so I’ve been scrambling to find something to post for this week.  Therefore, I’m going to do what every good college student does when they’re up against a deadline – find something you did in the past and recycle it!

Well, it really isn’t a complete recycle job.  I’ve been a fan of the Badische Staatsbrauerei Rothaus for a long time.  However, I’ve only ever sampled their Pils, which is incidentally one of the finest German Pilsners out there.  Just recently though, Rothaus’s seasonal spring beer, their Märzen Export, has started showing up on store shelves.  I figured this would be a good pinch-hitter for this week’s entry.

Like so many other German breweries, Rothaus was original founded as part of a monastery.  In 1791, the abbot of St. Blasien Abbey, a certain Martin Gerbert II, established a small brewery in the upper Black Forest region of southern Germany.  In this economically challenged district, the dutiful abbot wanted his new brewery to help support development in the surrounding area.  The monastery’s brewing activities did not last long though.  In the wake of the Napoleonic invasions, the region was secularized in 1806, and ownership of the brewhouse was transferred to the Grand Duchy of Baden.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the small Rothaus brewery remained confined to this remote and picturesque country.  Through the years, the brewhouse survived revolutions, fires, depressions, and wars.  After World War I the monarchy was abolished, at which point the brewery found itself again under new management – this time the new federal state of Baden.  As a state-owned operation, the brewery didn’t make many waves in the German beer scene.  This all changed in the 1990s, when under the leadership of a former state official the brewhouse doubled its output.  Rothaus, still owned by the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, enjoys a sterling reputation that extends far beyond the Black Forest.

So, what about the beer?  As part of my sampling, I was able to snag their classic Pils, their Hefeweizen, as well as their seasonal Märzen Export.  While Rothaus beers are not the kind that are going to turn a lot of heads, there is some really quality in this line up.  Let’s start with the Märzen!  This brew pours a nice deep golden color with medium, somewhat fizzy head.  Sticking your nose in the glass, you get an aroma that is sweet malts with a particularly fruity emphasis.  The taste is mostly the corresponding sweetness including some nice fruity notes, particularly grape. The hop flavors are grassy but subdued with very little bitterness.  All in all, it’s a nice representative of the Märzen.

From the bottom-fermented, we move now to the ale arena and Rothaus’s take on the Hefeweizen.  The appearance on this sucker is a relatively clear orange color with some sediment and a huge, creamy head.  The nose is dominated by the Weizen notes – banana, clove, and some floral elements with a flavor profile that is heavy on the banana on the front end.  In contrast, there is a light, herbal hop bitterness that moved the beer into a crisp finish.  The palate was the most disappoint part of this beer.  The mouthfeel was pretty watery, especially for a Weizen, with a distracting fizzy carbonation.  The brew had some amazing flavors but couldn’t quite deliver on the palate.  Regardless, it was a pretty delightful Weizen.

If you’ve been reading this blog at all, you know that I’m on an ongoing search for well crafted German Pilsners.  Rothaus’s version is one of my favorite brews in this style.  The beer has all of the characteristics of a great Pils.  There’s the classic clear, golden appearance along with the sweet bread and malt aromas.  The taste is sweet with the bread and slight floral elements coming through.  But, there’s also that crisp grassy hop flavor that balances the sweetness very well.  This is definitely the kind of beer that you want to keep stocked in your frig.

I’m a sucker for breweries that have not only quality beer but a long history.  After over 200 years of brewing great beers, Rothaus has proven that they’ve got the stuff.  Although these brews aren’t super flashy, they are definitely quality.  In a country that is slowly loosing its grip of its brewing reputation, Rothaus is steadfast holding the line of good brewing craftmanship.

Mash Tun #4

The good times keep on rolling in beerland.  I’m in the process of researching a very unique beer locale in my adopted home of Cologne.  On top of that, my family and I are preparing for our first trip back to the States since we moved to Germany a year and a half ago.  Needless to say, my plate is pretty full.  What a perfect time for a new Mash Tun!  This edition explores some beer geek terminology as well as a tasting from a rather famous Munich brauhaus.

The Animator
One of the most storied breweries in the Munich beer pantheon is the Hacker-Pschorr Brauhaus.  This renowned brewer can trace its history all the way back to 1417 when the Hacker brewhouse was founded in Munich.  For several centuries, the two brewing families of Hacker and Pschorr remained distinct entities although they were related through intermarriage.  After surviving world wars, economic crises, and the ever turbulent changes in the beer market, the two houses finally merged in 1972.

I’ve been able to sample a few selections from this famous Munich establishment recently including their Münchener Hell and Sternweisse wheat beer.  The other day though I came across their Animator Doppelbock in the store, so I decided I had to do a write-up about this one.  Their take on the Doppelbock is one of their best rated brews, which meant I had some high expectations going in.

Out of the 500ml bugel bottle the beer poured a reddish-brown, hazy color with only a little off-white head.  The aroma was grainy with some fruitiness and hints of caramel.  The taste was mostly those malted grains with a corresponding sweetness that included some slight hints of fruit (perhaps peach?).  The most disappointing aspect of this beer, in my opinion, was how it sat on the palate.  For a Doppelbock, it seemed a little too watery and light.  Along with very weak carbonation, the mouthfeel didn’t leave much to be desired.  So, on the whole it was a pretty average Doppelbock – certainly enjoyable, but not nearly what I was hoping for from a brewery with such a reputation.

Not Quite NA Beer
I’ve been exploring the vast universe of beer now for about six months.  In that time, I’ve learned that there is a very specialized vocabulary when you’re talking about beer.  Whether it’s phenolic or a growler, if you’re going to be a beer geek, you gotta learn the language.  One such phrase that particularly interested me lately was the term “session beer”.  Usually, you find it a sentence like:  “Wow!  I’ve just downed 4 pints and I’m not totally wasted.  This would make a great session beer!”

BeerAdvocate defines a session beer as “any beer that contains no higher than 5 percent ABV, featuring a balance between malt and hop characters and, typically, a clean finish – a combination of which creates a beer with high drinkability.”  The goal of a good session beer is that it permits the drinker to indulge in multiple glasses without the messy consequences of intoxication.  Apparently, the term is rooted in blue collar England where factory workers were only allowed a certain period (or “session”) in between shifts where they were allowed to drink.  Therefore, they would seek out particular beers that could quench their thirst without leaving them shnookered when they returned to their jobs.

From the craft beer perspective, a good session beer needs to be light on the ABV but still meeting a high standard of quality and drinkability – meaning Miller Lite need not apply.  To this point, I’m not sure how many true session beers I’ve come across.  Typically, the high-octane brews are the ones that get the most attention in the craft beer world.  But, the next time I’m at the brew pub with friends, I’ll know what to look for.

The Belgian Tripel

For my most recent tasting of various Belgian Tripels, I tried to think of some clever way to introduce it all in this post.  I wanted to come up with some sort of witty word play on triple, so I toyed with the idea of somehow referencing things like the triple play, Triple H, Triple Crown, triple lutz, and the Triple Entente.  It was all pretty lame.  This is understandable considering the creative and high reasoning center of my brain has slowly deteriorated over the last week due to near continuous exposure to music from Fisher-Price toys.  So, I decided to just put creativity and wit aside and jump right into the nitty-gritty.

In a recent post, I described my disappointment in one very famous Tripel.  I’m not sure if I had a bad batch or if the entire style just wasn’t my flavor.  But, Westmalle’s version just didn’t sit well with me.  It seemed so bland and monotone.  Considering the reputation that Westmalle has in the craft beer world, I figured I must had missed something.  I decided that I had to get to the bottom of this Tripel business, so I picked up a few more well-known examples in my recent shipment from the Bierzwerg.

It turns out that the story of the Belgian Tripel begins with the very same Westmalle brew that I found so uninspiring.  The term as we use it today has relatively recent origins.  In the mid-1930s, a Belgian brewery called Drie Linden first applied the term Tripel to a strong pale ale.  The head brewer also was connected with the Trappist brewery of Westmalle, and through this influence the monks released their own version of the brew under the name Superbier.  After World War II, Westmalle began tweaking their recipe by adding more hops which resulted in the Westmalle Tripel we know today.  Since then, countless other brewers in Belgian have taken up the term Tripel to describe their golden, hoppy, stong pale ales.

As far as its characteristics are concerned, the Tripel is a very interesting style.  Much like Pilsners, the Tripel should have a bright golden color with little to no haze.  Aromas should be mainly fruity including bananas, lemon, or other citrus, depending on the make.  There should be a fine malt-hop balance with a strong sweetness and corresponding bitterness in the finishing.  The typical ABV range for most Tripels is between 8% and 11%, which means that the brew can carry quite a bunch for such a pale beer.  Although the alcohol esters are certainly present, the best Tripels are able to balance and subdue their high alcohol content with their finely tuned malt bills.

My exposure to Belgian Tripels thus far has been very miniscule with only Westmalle’s and St. Bernardus’s versions counting toward my tasting experience.  With these two samplings, I couldn’t have found two greater extremes.  My opinion of the Westmalle was dubious at best, but I found the St. Bernardus offering to be a magnificent drinking experience.  To widen my horizons, I was able to acquire three new varieties: Tripel Karmeliet, Kasteel Tripel, and the Maredsous 10.

First up in the Tripel taste test was the brew from the Brouwerij Bosteels called the Tripel Karmeliet.  This beer has a tremendous reputation to say the least.  Both BeerAdvocate.com and RateBeer. com each have this monster in their list of top five Tripels with it hitting the number one spot in the latter.  The aroma was right in line with the typical profile for Tripels – strong fruit esters with an emphasis on citrus along with some nice spice notes.  The taste is what actually surprised me about this beer.  It can be best described as vinous almost like you were drinking a glass of wine.  There was also some of that citrus flavor, especially lemongrass, coming out as well.  On the whole though, I really wasn’t blown away by this take on the style.  It definitely didn’t live up to the hype that I perceived surrounding this beer.

The next victim in the Tripel sampler was the Kasteel Tripel from Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck.  This brew was probably the most disappointing from the bunch.  The appearance and aroma were right in line with what you’d expect – golden clear with a nose full of citrus, other fruits, and spice.  But, the taste left little to be desired.  For starters, this beer clocks in at 11% ABV making it one of the stronger Tripels out there.  Unfortunately, the brew didn’t do much to mask this high alcohol content, making the experience a little like drinking cough syrup.  Sure, you had the usual suspects present – decent fruit esters with a nice medium hop bitterness in the finishing.  But, the alcohol combined with a not so pleasant mouthfeel made this brew a chore to finish.

Finally, there’s the Maredsous 10 from the Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat.  Since this brew comes from one of the largest beer conglomerates in Belgian, I actually had slightly lower expectations going into it.  However, this beer proved to be a wonderful drinking experience and the winner of my mini Tripel taste test.  Again, the appearance and aromas were right in line with the style description we’re familiar with.  The taste is nice and complex with a wonderful balance of mild fruits including the typical citrus as well as grapes and a little banana.  The surprise was in the hop bitterness towards the finish, which was much more prevalent than any the other Tripel I’ve had.  It proved to add a very remarkable character to the beer.

Now that I have a little more experience with the style, it’s amazing to me just how diverse the various offerings out there are.  In the few tastings I’ve had, I have had some exceptional brews and some not so noteworthy ones.  For a style that enjoys such high regard, it surprised me that there could be so much disparity in not only the character but the very quality of the beers that I tasted.  Disappointing beers included, I can say that the endeavor has been worthwhile.  I’m happy to say that through the likes of brewers such as Maredsous and St. Bernardus, my appreciate of the Tripel has been opened wide.