The magic when beer is aged in barrels.
In another life, I would have been a cooper—you know, a cask and barrel maker.
That’s because even the relatively basic maintenance we perform on the barrels in our brewhouse is enough to inspire me with appreciation for the craft of barrel construction.
The slow, patient work of bending nature into a watertight vessel that develops through years of use remains a mystery to most. But now that breweries large and small are expanding their offerings of beer aged in oak, this is prime time for beer fans to get some basic knowledge about barrels and how they’re used.
And, as with most beer questions, there’s often a short answer and a very, very long answer.
Well, here’s the medium answer for those who have ever wondered what those stacks of wood are doing hidden among the stainless steel tanks at your local brewery. And for those who’ve wondered how barrel aging produces beers described as big, bold, complex and unforgettable.
Thousands of Years in Under a Hundred Words
Oak has been used for millennia to transport dry goods and liquids, including beer. Tales of Catherine the Great requesting British Imperial Stout brewed strong enough to make the trek to Russia, German lager slumbering inside cool mountain caves, and the extra hopping required to get IPAs to British colonial soldiers are all well entrenched in beer lore. And for some American history, before Prohibition beer was not found in stainless steel tanks.
The unsung hero in these stories is the humble vessel: the barrel.
Which Wood, Which Use?
In the world of wood barrels, oak is the tree of choice. American, French and Eastern European oak are the three largest families in widespread use for barrels but trees grown to the rigorous specifications of coopers come from many regions. Some countries (France in particular) have forests protected by law solely for producing oak designated for barrel making.
As you might expect, different regions produce oak of drastically different character. In a very general sense, American oak tends to be sharper and brasher, while European oak is richer and deeper—that’s generalizing very broadly. The brewer selects the type of oak, accordingly, depending on the desired flavor to impart to the beer—vanilla, spice, smoke, musk, tea, coconut, tannin, floral, fruity or any of the myriad flavors of oak.
Another barrel fact: America’s bourbon frenzy results in about a million spent barrels each year, since the law requires new, charred oak barrels for making bourbon. Finding uses for those excess barrels has inspired many a brewer, including those at Goose Island Beer Company, credited with the first barrel-aged beer—Bourbon County Brand Stout in 1992.
For those not satisfied with this simplification of the complex science of oak rearing, Wood and Beer is an approachable and informative book for casual and intense beer fans alike.
To Bubble or To Sleep?
The two primary uses of wooden vessels are for fermentation (bubble) and conditioning (sleep) of beer. Primary fermentation can be sparked by the brewer pitching fresh yeast into the wort (unfermented beer) or spontaneous fermentation using yeast and bacteria living inside the barrel wood.
Fermentation in barrels rather than stainless steel provides modern brewers a powerful tool: fermenter dynamics. Without getting too deep into the topic, certain ale strains benefit from fermentation in shallow, wide vessels rather than tall towers of steel. For much of brewing’s history, fermentation would have occurred in relatively stubby tanks, so a barrel is a fitting vessel for these rustic yeast strains.
For example, for Belgian lambic the wort is pumped from the brewhouse into coolships (think giant swimming pool of beer!) to be cooled and inoculated by wild yeasts in the air. Then it’s transferred into barrels for fermentation and aging.
Developing True Barrel Character
Prolonged aging and conditioning of beer in barrels post-fermentation is where true barrel character shines—the smooth, full-flavored complexity. In the case of “clean” beers with no wild yeasts or bacteria involved, the beer picks up nuanced flavors from the wood itself as well as notes of whatever lived in the barrel previously—wine, spirits, coffee, whatever.
The challenge for brewers is preparing a beer that will both complement and be enhanced by the character of the barrel and the previous liquid. Barrels holding everything from maple syrup to hot sauce can be used, so balancing punchy flavors and making them meld with the beer is both art and science. Careful recipe development and blending different barrel projects together are key, and when executed well, can push beer to a different level of complexity.
Aging beer in a whiskey barrel is relatively straightforward: contact time between the beer and the barrel’s liquor and oak happens fairly quickly, and longer aging will soften and meld the flavors. But, in the case of “wild” beer—with earthy characteristics—the oak and spirit character of the barrel are amplified by the existence of bacteria and yeast that put the beer through a secondary fermentation.
With wild or funky barrels, the barrel is a living vessel that continues to develop and morph the beer as compounds produced during brewing and fermentation are consumed slowly by the organisms in the oak. These projects can rest for a few months to years as the beer develops.
While “clean” barrel aging is very intensely focused on the recipe and marrying the beer to the barrel, wild barrels require the brewer to let projects drift and give the critters in the oak time to do their magic. To add more factors to the process, in our own cellar, we’ve also seen beers change dramatically through seemingly small external variations, like fluctuations in humidity and temperatures.
From there, the brewer changes hats and becomes a blender—a practice that looks more like wine-making as the brewer/blender must select the correct barrels and flavors to achieve the desired result.
How Big Can You Go?
As you can tell, there’s a tremendous amount involved—just about oak—even before you get to the technical side of barrel construction. From tiny boutique barrels to 100 BBL foudres (3,100 gallons), breweries are constantly expanding their oaken flotillas and using new techniques to produce beers of singular character.
So, next time you see one of those bearded guys or … well, likely not bearded gals, but still identifiable … kicking around the brewhouse, ask them about their barrel projects. Then watch how passionately they care for these ancient beauties.
A former Spanish and English teacher who began brewing beer in the garage of his Malvern home, Dan Popernack opened La Cabra (Spanish for the goat) last year to meet the needs of his growing fan base. The seven-barrel, two-story brewpub and restaurant across from the Berwyn train station has gathered accolades from the likes of Craig LaBan (“impressive take on lambic”) and Philly Mag (2017 Best Brewpub, ‘Burbs). 642 Lancaster Ave., Berwyn. LaCabraBrewing.com.
Move over hops. It’s time to appreciate malt. Local malt.
There’s a call from beer holding on line one. It’s asking for its malt back.
Maybe that’s not fair. It’s not like malt has gone anywhere. It’s still a crucial ingredient—the “backbone of beer”—especially noted in beer styles such as barleywines, bocks, brown ales, Vienna lagers, dunkels (dark lagers), ESBs (extra special bitter) and altbiers (German style brown ales).
But if your primary recent exposure to the craft brewing world has been limited to occasionally perusing a few beer lists, you could be excused for thinking that big hoppy beers, or sour beers, or barrel-aged beers are the best, the most popular, the beer snobs’ faves.
For the hop heads, there are beers bearing names like HopDevil, Hop-it, Hop Nosh, Hopsecutioner, Hop Hunter, Hopslam, Hop Stoopid, Pure Hoppiness and Hop Bomb.
So, whither the malt bomb?
Hop-tricity was explored in the April issue of County Lines when Tim Floros of Levante Brewing in West Chester wrote about the contribution and popularity of hops in today’s beers. Now he and two other area brewers—Brian O’Reilly, Brewmaster at Sly Fox, and Chris LaPierre of Iron Hill—weigh in on the also-compelling subject of malt through their own eyes as well as the palates of their customers. And to further your malt-ucation, I check in with local malt producers.
First, Malt 101
After water, malt is the most common ingredient in beer. Because it adds color, flavor and sugar, it’s also extremely important to the brewing process. Plus, malt gives beer that classic golden color.
Unlike hops, malt is produced, not grown. And most malt comes from barley, the preferred brewing grain. Because the starch of unprocessed barley can’t be directly fermented into alcohol, barley is first processed into malted barley or simply … malt.
What’s the Cliff Notes version? The barley is air dried, then sprinkled or soaked, allowed to germinate, and finally the germination is stopped with heat. The amount and duration of heat create different types of malt for different types of beer. (Skipping details here because there are hundreds of kinds of malt.) Suffice it to say that longer and deeper roasting produces darker beers. Brewers can buy raw grain and malt it themselves, buy malted grain, or buy malt extract, the third option giving less control over the final product.
In contrast to the bitterness from hops, malt adds a certain sweetness to beer, with flavors described as grainy, toasty, honeyed, nutty and caramel.
Final fact: about 90% of the world’s malt is used for beer, with the remainder used for things like whiskey, milkshakes, baked goods and candies (think Whoppers).
For the love of a good malt-forward beer
In the craft beer industry and at Levante Brewing, Floros has seen consistent interest in malt-forward beers but “from a smaller, less vocal contingent.”
In contrast, LaPierre finds little, “if any, rise in demand for malty beers.” Even those most identified with packing a big malt flavor and alcohol level—such as barleywines and scotch ales—have lost favor, in his experience.
Somewhere in the middle, O’Reilly observes, “more and more beer drinkers are appreciating beers that are balanced. So it doesn’t matter if it’s hop-forward, malty or fruity.”
Certainly, balance is a key indicator of well-made finished beer.
LaPierre is pleased to see that while the malt-centric beers may not be finding popularity now, German lagers—with their delicate and complex toastiness, but no caramel or dark roasty notes—are. In addition to Iron Hill’s tried and true (not to mention award-winning) Vienna Lager that’s been around for most of the company’s 20 years, he cites other local breweries making quality Vienna lagers, including 2SP, Neshaminy Creek and Pennsauken’s Double Nickel.
Maibock is another style that shows off the grain bill quite well, and LaPierre is likewise a big fan. He explains, “I love maibocks. To me that’s what malt tastes like. I’m also a fan of altbier. That firm malt body that backs up the bitterness and that signature toast from a little bit of black malt is what defines that style.”
O’Reilly is on the same page adding, “I think the real balance in a German-style bock beer is to have the rich and firm malt character balanced with a gentle dryness so that the beer does not finish sweet. If it’s right, it can be like magic.”
Source local, brew local, drink local
The open land west of Philadelphia is home to vast expanses of fertile farmland. It may come as no surprise, then, to see that local farmers and malt houses have increasingly been engaging the region’s brewers with eye-opening and inspiring partnerships.
Deer Creek Malthouse in Glen Mills opened in 2012 as the state’s first commercial malt house since Prohibition. Co-founder and former owner Josh Oliver talks with great pride of the work and relationships built through the last five years at Victory, Levante, La Cabra (in Berwyn), Free Will (in Perkasie) and many more. He says, “90% of the flavor in malted grains that see their way through to the finished product are from the work of the maltster.”
Yep, the maltster.
One of Levante’s most recent local malt brews—Earl of Newlin—is a Colonial tea beer that used Deer Creek farmed and malted grains milled at the 18th-century Newlin Grist Mill. Floros was excited about this project and adds, “the addition of Earl Gray tea and spices that were used in the Colonial era gave this beer a unique citrus flavor and aroma.” He expects Earl of Newlin to be on tap for a limited time this summer.
At Sly Fox, Brian O’Reilly looks at the small local farmers and maltsters and reminisces: “We want to support local agriculture and maltsters. We are giving them a chance, just like beer drinkers and publicans did for us 20 years ago when we first got started.”
In one of the country’s most unique and full-circle projects, Sly Fox is in its second year of working with local farmer Ned Foley’s Two Particular Acres in Royersford and Double Eagle Malt in Huntingdon Valley. The grain is grown on Foley’s farm, then malted by Double Eagle, before being sent to Sly Fox to create the Circle of Progress ale that’s served exclusively at area Wegmans’ pubs. The final step is for organic waste from the restaurant and bar that serve the beer to be returned to Two Particular Acres, where it becomes compost for the field where the next grain crop is grown. Full circle, indeed.
Foley sees a huge upside in the coming years for both suppliers and producers. “I believe that most brewers are always looking for something to distinguish themselves and many are willing to take risks to stay out in front. Adopting the principles of the local food movement would therefore seem logical.”
Supporting him in this endeavor is Alan Gladish at Double Eagle. “Brewers and distillers recognize the value, that increasingly consumers are seeking products with local ingredients, and brewers who offer that can differentiate themselves. There’s something tangible about seeing the farmer and the field where the grain was grown,” says Gladish.
Foley is eager for the day “when we are all discussing the terroir of Montgomery County versus Chester County or the terroir of grain raised with traditional fertility versus compost as fertility.”
“The possibilities are endless,” says Foley. “A pint of beer is a magical thing when it combines sustainability, soil health, local food artisans and the local food movement in one glass.”
And just maybe malt will pick up that call on line one.
Bryan Kolesar, local to Chester County, has been writing about beer for over ten years and maintains a blog, BrewLounge.com. His book—Beer Lover’s Mid-Atlantic—is available online and in physical bookstores. It’s a complete 416-page guide to breweries, brewpubs, beer bars and homebrew of PA, NJ, MD and DE.
Why are our tastes so increasingly hop-centric?
IPA (India Pale Ale) is an acronym that’s pretty hard to avoid in the beer world today. You see it written on the draft lists at your favorite bars and restaurants, sitting on the shelves at the grocery store, and stacked to the ceiling at the local beer distributor. It’s undoubtedly the fastest growing style of beer in the U.S. and is becoming ever more popular around the world.
Why are we so obsessed with IPAs? To some, that’s not a simple question to answer, but we’ll try to dive into why these beers are so cherished and how our taste buds have become so hop-centric over the years.
What are hops?
Hops are the cone-shaped flowers harvested from the vine of the hop plant (humulus lupulus), a member of the cannabaceae family, which also includes cannabis. Yup, hops and marijuana are very closely related.
Unlike marijuana, hops produce a resiny powder called lupulin. This powder contains acids and essential oils that contribute bitterness, flavor and aroma to beer.
Brewing is certainly just as much of an art form as it is a science, but brewers and scientists alike have been trying to unlock the secrets of the flavor and aroma compounds found in hops for decades.They still don’t have it completely figured out yet.
All the while, hops themselves keep changing to meet the demands of beer lovers around the world.
The Evolution of Hops
For hundreds, if not thousands of years, hops used for making beer were harvested in the wild. Around the 9th and 10th centuries AD, Roman Catholic monks in Europe recorded growing their own hops in the small gardens of monasteries that focused solely on producing beer for themselves and their surrounding community.
As the years went by, hops became more widely accepted as the gold standard for bittering, flavor and aroma in beer. Everyone from the Germans to the British, Czechs and the American Colonists began cultivating their own varieties of hops that maintained very specific flavor and aroma profiles characteristic to their respective growing regions and tastes.
British hops, like the Fuggles and East Kent Goldings varieties, ranged from earthy and floral to delicate, citrusy and spicy. These were used in porters, bitters and classic pale ales.
German Hallertau and Czech Saaz hops were mild in bitterness, floral and spicy. They were used in German lagers, wheat beers and Czech pilsners for their clean “Noble” hop character.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries things started to get really interesting.
Serious hop shortages in Europe and the U.S. caused by mildew, pests and disease led to governments, universities and breweries around the world forming hop research programs. The goal of these programs was to find new hop varieties that, while disease and pest resistant, had all the desired properties of the hops commonly used to make the popular beer styles of that era.
These breeding experiments started with blending wild American and Canadian hop plants with British and German (Noble) hops. As a result of these new hybrid breeding techniques, hop varieties such as Cascade were born.
Cascade, with its floral, grapefruit and spicy characteristics, was made popular in the U.S. by breweries like Anchor and Sierra Nevada in their famous, game-changing pale ales of the 1970s and 1980s.
Many would argue that this was the beginning of the modern IPA and the start of the American craft beer revolution. And I’d agree.
Fast Forward to the 21st Century
While Cascade and Centennial hop-based beers ruled the craft beer roost in the 1990s, hops continued to change with the times. IPA lovers, dubbed “Hop Heads” by the craft beer community, wanted more and more hop flavor and aroma in their beers.
West Coast-style IPAs took the world by storm. Private hop growers began to breed more unique hop varieties such as Simcoe, Amarillo, Citra and Mosaic. These proprietary varieties had even more acids and essential oil content in their lupulin powder, thus providing even more floral, tropical fruit, piney and earthy flavors and aromas to beer.
Breweries like Stone, Victory and Lagunitas expanded globally and started exporting their hoppy creations to Europe, the South Pacific and Asia.
Although the world markets were still dominated by mass produced, light, Pilsner-style beers, beer drinkers’ taste buds began to change.
Innovation in the South Pacific
New Zealand and Australia have been at the forefront of this “Hop Head” revolution as well. New Zealand, known for their world-class wine production, developed hop varieties that many consider to have “New World” flavors. These include favorites such as Nelson Sauvin—with hints of white wine and berries—and Motueka—with its fresh lime and tropical fruit character.
One of Australia’s great hop innovations has been the Galaxy variety with its passion fruit and citrus aromas. In combination with newly discovered U.S.-grown hops, these South Pacific varieties are in high demand for making a new style dubbed the “NE IPA.”
The “NE IPA”
Here in the U.S. the latest craze is the Northeast or New England Style IPA. These beers look, smell and taste very different from the original West Coast IPAs of the early 2000s. They appear straw colored and cloudy from the use of large amounts of flaked oats and wheat in the mash. This gives the beers a thicker, silk-like mouth feel and a long-lasting white head of foam. Along with the cloudy appearance and great mouthfeel of the beer comes a huge, juicy hop punch of flavor and aroma.
This style of IPA tends to bridge the gap between the hardcore IPA-drinking “Hop Heads” and the everyday beer drinker because of its lack of bitterness compared with West Coast IPAs. Plus there’s the presence of extremely pleasant and fruity hop character.
Where do we go from here?
Who knows where the wonderful world of craft beer will take us next. Will we continue to innovate and experiment with new hop varieties and combinations? Will we use these new hybrid hop creations to create new styles of beer? Or, will we decide we want to revert back to the Old World styles of beer that were not so hop dependent?
One thing we can say for certain is that no matter what beer you find yourself drinking, rest assured there will be hops in it. At this point, the love of hops is in our DNA.
Tim Floros is co-founder and brewmaster at Levante Brewing. His fascination with, and passion for brewing, as well as hops, began nine years ago and led him to brewing professionally. He places an emphasis on innovative recipes showcasing different hop varieties and other unique ingredients sourced locally and from around the world. Levante’s mission is to create beer of exceptional quality and freshness for Philadelphia’s suburbs and beyond. 208 Carter Dr., West Chester. LevanteBrewing.com.
Local beers continue to earn medals at the Great American Beer Festival—with a new crop of winners announced in early October.
Beer lovers rejoice! It’s time for the annual Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver. But, don’t get too excited—tickets sold out in about an hour months ago.
This three-day tasting festival, October 6–8, is open to the public, but the real action is behind the scenes where the GABF serves as the world’s largest commercial beer competition. Now in its 35th year, the GABF—produced by the Brewers Association, a trade group dedicated to promoting America’s craft brewers—is the most prestigious annual competition for American brewers.
I’m happy to report that our area breweries have a history of success at the festival—a history I expect will continue.
From the Early Days
At the GABF’s inaugural year in 1982, with fewer than 100 breweries in the country, the competition awarded simply first, second and third place in a Consumer Preference Poll. Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing were winners. In 1986, Philadelphia’s own Dock Street Brewery took third place for its Dock Street Amber Ale.
By 1987 the competition format used today was born, with judging for basic styles—such as porter, stout, wheat, American-style lager—in addition to the Consumer Preference Poll.
Fast forward to 2015, when 1,552 breweries entered 6,647 beers for judging in an industry that, as of a few months ago, boasted 4,656 breweries. Last year 285 GABF medals were awarded across 93 categories. In addition to hosting a Beer Geeks bookstore and Silent Disco, the GABF now recognizes competition categories such as chili beer, experimental beer and arcane styles, such as historical beer.
Interesting, but where did all that beer come from and how were those beers chosen to compete? Some award-winning area brewers shared their insights on the process—good background as we wait to hear the 2016 winners on October 8.
Go Ahead, Judge My Beer.
Today countless opportunities exist for commercial breweries to have their beers judged in competitions by accredited judges. From small, local competitions to media-driven, blind-tasting competitions, a brewery can get feedback from far beyond its own tasting room.
That said, most brewers interviewed for this article focus on the two most significant U.S. competitions—GABF and the World Beer Cup (WBC), held this past May in Philadelphia.
Ken Buonocore, co-founder of Conshohocken Brewing Company, said “The GABF and WBC bring a sense of credibility in both their judging process and their logistics, and are recognized by breweries and consumers alike.”
Philadelphia-based Nodding Head Brewery’s founder Curt Decker agrees. “We’ve only ever entered GABF and WBC. There are a lot of competitions that don’t have the wide range of entries. I feel that GABF and WBC are the most prestigious and respected for American brewers.”
Most brewers interviewed concede luck as well as brewing high quality beer are needed to shine at the competition, but they all strive to do their best. Mark Edelson, Iron Hill Brewery’s director of brewery operations, said, “When putting Iron Hill together, one of my personal goals was winning a gold medal at the GABF. We won it our very first year with our Lodestone Lager in the Helles category! So early on we looked towards GABF as validation that we were making some of the best beer among our craft brewing peers. This continues to be our motivation today.”
What Makes an Award-winning Beer?
Beers judged at the GABF are shipped to Denver two months before the judging and awards ceremony, making lead time and shipping distance considerations for choosing what to enter into competition.
Brewing unique batches of beer strictly for competition is not something this group of brewers does, save for minor tweaks of a recipe for a year-round brand. This sentiment is underscored by Chris Trogner, co-founder of Tröegs Independent Brewing, based in Hershey: “Competitions get the same beer our customers get.”
Brian O’Reilly, brewmaster at Sly Fox Brewing Company, in Phoenixville and Pottstown, sends the maximum submissions allowed—five beers—and says he and his team choose beers based on what they think will stand out with the judges. They’ll choose from two to four different recent batches of the same beer trying to determine “if one is more appropriate to send than another.”
Head brewer and production manager of Stoudts Brewing Company in Adamstown, Brett Kintzer has a similar approach. “We usually try to pack and ship beers that were recently bottled, since beers will always be best when fresh—with a few exceptions, such as entries in barrel-aged and sour categories that might do better with some aging.”
Adherence to style guidelines, which judges are expected to follow, is an important factor in a brewery’s choice of which beers to send to competition and which category to enter in.
Nate Walter, head brewer at McKenzie Brew House (Devon, Glen Mills, Malvern), said this: “In determining the best beers for submission, we lead with sensory evaluations first—sight, aroma, then taste. We want to enter the best beer possible. For specific style guidelines, we want to make sure the beer is suitable given the competition and category.”
Iron Hill has a long track record of winning awards—75 awards since 1997 from Iron Hill’s 12 locations—and their success is no accident. “To put our best foot forward, we never enter a beer we haven’t brewed and tasted before. We enter many of our house products, some of our tried-and-true past winners, and throughout the year we note some standouts when we’re doing our regular tasting panels. Each location’s brewer submits a list of beers they think will be standouts, and we vet the lists to see what we think will be competitive,” said Edelson.
The GABF judging process is as professional as most brewers will find. Care is taken to ensure the integrity of the competition—from intake of the beers to blind serving by trained stewards.
At the 2015 competition, 242 accredited judges tasted their way through multiple three-hour sessions over three days. Judges are not permitted to participate in style categories their brewery had entered, and participants are encouraged not to discuss in the media which beers were entered before judging.
In large categories—such as American-style India Pale Ale (IPA) where 336 entries were submitted in 2015—these precautions may seem like overkill. But other categories—such as American-style dark lager with only 24 beers—caution is more understandable.
Nodding Head’s Decker has great respect for judging in these two major competitions. “Most styles have multiple rounds of judging, and you may have your beer at a first-round table that appreciates your take on a style, and it advances and eventually wins. Or, you may end up at a table with a judge or two whose taste and interpretation are different, and the beer never gets past the first round to the medal round. Many great beers never win medals.” Nodding Head’s biggest award-winner—Ich Bin Ein Berliner Weisse—scored three silver and two bronze medals since 2003.
And the Gold Medal Goes To ...
After thousands of beers have been judged by hundreds of judges over three days, awards are presented. At Tröegs, Trogner recognizes that “Awards are a nice way for everyone at the brewery to give themselves a pat on the back for all the hard work. It also helps breweries gain a little credibility among our industry peers. The success of Troegenator has been a key to the success of Tröegs,” winning six gold, two silver and three bronze medals since 2006.
Kintzer at Stoudts has a similar view. “I hope consumers realize the importance of brewing consistent quality beers year after year and for such a long time, in our case almost 30 years. It should be a testament to our products, and the tried-and-true methods of achieving that quality.”
At younger breweries such as Conshohocken Brewing, started in 2014, head brewer Andrew Horne adds, “It’s a great way to get our name out there, build our reputation, and validate the quality of our process.”
By the time you read this, the GABF for 2016 may well be over. Yet many brewers interviewed cited being proudest of their first major award— “You never forget your first” was a common refrain. Iron Hill first won for its Lodestone Lager at 1997’s GABF; Conshohocken Brewing’s Puddlers Row ESB (extra special bitter) debuted at the 2016 World Beer Cup; and Tröegs began its winning ways for Troegantor Double Bock in 2006.
Other brewers point to more recent wins as sources of pride. McKenzie Brew House took home silver for It Was a Dark and Stormy Night at the 2013 GABF; Stoudts had success with Oktoberfest winning in 2004, 2007 and 2015; and Sly Fox earned medals in the last three consecutive GABFs for its Grisette.
For 2016 GABF, will Iron Hill’s Russian Imperial Stout continue its dominance? Can Conshohocken’s Puddlers Row or Stoudts’ Maibock add another medal? Will Sly Fox’s Grisette show up on stage for year number four?
The next time you’re at your favorite brewpub, ask if they have some beer with new medals to show off.
Or ask for a GABF winner by name. Cheers!
Bryan Kolesar, local to Chester County, has been writing about beer for over ten years and maintains a blog, BrewLounge.com. His book—Beer Lover’s Mid-Atlantic—is available online and in physical bookstores. It’s a complete 416-page guide to breweries, brewpubs, beer bars and homebrew of PA, NJ, MD and DE.
And That’s Cool.
Find great taste at area craft breweries and beyond this summer.
Hot summer days are upon us and, luckily, the craft beer business has never been hotter. Statistics from the recent Craft Brewers Conference in Philadelphia showed that while the total U.S. beer market volume was down 0.2% in 2015, the craft beer segment was up a substantial 13%. And, the number of breweries (4,269) as of December 31, 2015 represented an impressive 15% increase over 2014.
A big part of that brewery increase is related to the growth of the craft beer sector. As this sector of beer brewing—referred to through the years as micro, craft and more recently, independent—has matured, opportunities to experience its tasty products have multiplied.
And this is great news for craft beer fans!
A quick way to find great taste is to visit the hot breweries closest to your home turf. And fortunately, here in the western Philly region, we have a wealth of brewing talent to sample. Searching for breweries that are medal winners at beer judging competitions—like the Great American Beer Festival last fall (more on that in October’s column)—is one way to organize your pilgrimage.
Or let the more recent and prestigious World Beer Cup awards presented in Philadelphia be your guide. Gold medals went back home with Stoudts (for its very seasonally appropriate Maibock), Lancaster Brewing (for a black lager called Jump Seat), and Iron Hill of Lancaster (for the perennial excellent Bedotter Belgian Tripel). Go for the gold!
Scoring silver medals were the Iron Hills of West Chester (Overload Coffee Imperial Stout) and Media (for the Solzhenitsyn, an imperial stout, and the medal-winning mainstay Russian Imperial Stout), as well as Conshohocken Brewing Company (for the stylistically very well-done Puddler’s Row ESB—extra special bitters). And a bronze medal went to Spring House Brewing Company, south of Lancaster, for its Kerplunk Imperial Chocolate Stout. All worth trying.
What else is hot: A number of young, growing breweries are finding their footing as they celebrate first, second and third anniversaries. As other previously small- and medium-sized breweries grow much larger (think Victory Brewing), beer fans are finding value in the new, small quality brewing establishments that are quickly filling the void.
What’s trending down: The Brewer’s Association reported that 67 brewing establishments nationwide closed in 2015. But, there was only one closing in our region!
The hot breweries mentioned earlier clearly impressed the World Beer Cup judges. Happily, the styles they’re brewing are popular with beer fans as well.
Yet, as most beer drinkers know, the ubiquitous IPAs (India pale ales) have shown tremendous sustained popularity over the years. And as IPAs became the first choice of craft beer novices, the “bitter beer face” was an oft-sighted facial reaction to drinking these often intensely bitter hopped beers.
But now, other styles are showing noteworthy growth. In fact, a cousin to the bitter face may be the “sour beer pucker face,” which is spotted with increasing frequency. If you spend much time at bars with diverse beer menus, you’ve likely noticed the growing popularity of the wild aromas and flavors in the broad category of sour beers—brewed intentionally to be acidic, tart or sour (e.g., Belgian lambics and German goses).
Wild, actually, is a perfect descriptor. The primary driver of the unique aromas and flavors—ranging from fruity to funky—in these sour beers are the yeast and bacteria used in the fermentation process. “Wild” can refer to “out in the wild,” as in airborne yeasts and bacteria that are permitted to fall into the open fermentation vessels. Similarly, the wild flavors and aromas can come from the same yeasts and bacteria locked away in the nooks and crannies of wood barrels used for aging beer.
Some breweries use controlled versions of these critters propagated, grown and maintained in a lab. Other breweries, such as Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, Maine, continue the open-air fermentation in vessels called Coolships or Koelschips that allow contact of the cooling wort with the surrounding air.
What else is hot: Coffee is appearing in everything from brown ales to stouts to even, yes, IPAs. Saison-style beers, often referred to as Farmhouse Ales—rustic, light body, dry finish—have never been hotter. Hard Ciders, while not beer, are taking off with the beer-loving public.
What’s trending down: We need another year or two to see if pumpkin beers are cooling off.
Too Hot to Hold
You’ll need a special piece of glassware to hold that hot beer appropriately. As I wrote in the January issue of County Lines, glassware has become a critical component in beer appreciation. Festivals feature souvenir tasting glasses. Beer dinners provide special glasses to use during the pairings and a clean one to take home. Bottle shop tastings include glassware giveaways.
What else is hot: You’ll see other functional merchandise such as bottle opener/memory sticks, slap-koozies and coasters.
What’s trending down: The common, straight-edged, stackable shaker pint glass continues to lose popularity among both retailers and beer aficionados.
Competition Yields Hot Collaborations
You may have noticed an intersection of pop culture and craft brewing like never before, with craft beer commercials and product placement in television shows and movies. Breweries such as BrewDog (Scotland) and Dogfish Head (Delaware) have had their own TV shows and others have worked to create specially themed beers.
For brewing collaboration, one of the earliest examples happened in 2006 between Adam Avery and Vinnie Cilurzo of Avery Brewing Company and Russian River Brewing Company, respectively. The beer was called Collaboration, Not Litigation and was an answer to a decade overflowing with cease-and-desist orders and other legal actions between breweries competing for brand names, shelf space and consumers.
What else is hot: More theme beer. HBO collaborated with Brewery Ommegang on a series of beers tied to the Game of Thrones television show. The Walking Dead has its own Blood Orange IPA made by Terrapin in Georgia. There’s even an Iron Maiden tribute beer made by a UK brewery.
What’s trending down: The scene may be more competitive than ever, yet the enduring original spirit of craft beer is still alive. Brewers enjoy getting together and consumers get new beers from these new relationships. Whether there’s a downside to that, time will tell.
Forecast Calls for More Heat
Some beer styles are perfectly suited for the heat of summer. Classic German- and Czech-style pilsner, lightly tart German gose ales, and light American wheat and German Hefeweizens quench a summer’s thirst.
Others bring the heat to the party. Nationally, the Ballast Point Habañero Sculpin takes the already wildly popular IPA from San Diego and adds a noticeable blast of habañero heat. Locally, Free Will Brewing Company’s Safeword IPA packs a blistering wallop of habañero peppers that lingers, even while tempered, barely, by sweet mango fruit.
What else is hot: Beyond these spicy habañero beers, breweries have been known to add such offbeat ingredients as cayenne, lemongrass, cucumbers, gingerbread and even parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (in Victory’s collaboration with Dogfish Head and Stone Brewing Company—Saison du BUFF) much to the delight of their big flavor-seeking fans.
What’s trending down: While lovers of extreme flavored beer continue their rabid support of these unique brews, some say it’s time to dial it back and return to solid traditional style beers.
Hot on the Beer Trail
As beer’s popularity has continued to grow, tour group operators and tourism agencies have responded accordingly. Beer and Ale Trails have popped up and string together local collections of brewing establishments—Philly Brew Tours hits 15 spots and the Susquehanna Ale Trail includes 14 breweries and brewpubs. Participating breweries often offer specials and incentives to visitors at each stop.
What else is hot: For those with more vacation time and larger budgets, try pilgrimages to the source of your favorite beer styles—English bitters, German lagers and Belgian Trappist ales. There’s a tour to fit your thirst.
What’s trending down: Drinking and driving. With car services and tour operators of every stripe available, there’s no reason to get behind the wheel after enjoying a great beer.
Bryan J. Kolesar, local to Chester County, has been writing about beer for over ten years and maintains a blog, BrewLounge.com. The summer of 2015 brought his first published book—Beer Lover’s Mid-Atlantic—to both online and physical bookstores. It’s a complete 416-page guide to breweries, brewpubs, beer bars and homebrew of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware.
Consider marking life’s milestones with a different drink.
Beer is often referred to as an affordable luxury. And this is mostly true, given the majority of the world’s agreed-upon finest beers could be found for under $20 per bottle for years. That price point may have crept up recently to more like $40 to $50, putting aside any questionable retail pricing practices.
Compare this with the price of a bottle of highly touted wine. While life-list wines can set you back thousands of dollars per bottle, the world’s best beer is still attainable for under $50. Simply put: you can claim to be toasting with the finest, at a reasonable price, if you choose beer. So, boost the cachet of your celebration with great beer—without breaking the budget.
Have you ever celebrated a major accomplishment with a fine beer? I’m not talking about when you won the championship, then chugged the cheap stuff in the locker room celebration. I’m thinking along the lines of life’s major milestones, marked with a few big bottles of memorable, satisfying, not-so-cheap beer.
With this month’s issue focused on weddings, let’s take a look at how nuptials and other momentous occasions can bring beer front and center at significant times of your life.
With This Beer, I Thee Wed
Weddings are such multi-faceted occasions, you’ll likely need a case or two of celebratory special beers along the way.
Use the initial announcement dinners to impress future in-laws with your ability to navigate the beer menu—an increasingly important adult skill. With a few basic questions, you’ll be able to select the right beer for each future family member—whether they like sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, chocolatey or fruity. Though it didn’t happen overnight, now even mid-tier restaurants offer draft and bottle lists complete with descriptions that include flavor and aroma notes, along with price and alcohol level.
For the bachelor party or golf outing, some six-packs of canned local beer should come along for the excursion. Large breweries are installing massive canning lines and even smaller craft breweries use mobile canning units to keep up with consumer demand for this attractive, portable beverage package. (There are places where glass bottles are not welcome.)
And it’s not just the run-of-the-mill, year-round beers that brewers put in cans. You’ll also find seasonals and higher-end beers showing up in metallic containers. Look for the sought-after annual releases of Tröegs Nugget Nectar from Hershey and Monk’s Blood from 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco. You may want to consult the experts at specialty retail beer stores or at online beer rating sites (BeerAdvocate and RateBeer) for more suggestions.
For the ladies, modern bachelorette parties are now being held in the brewhouse and breweries. I recently visited a new production brewery and arrived to a bevy of bridesmaids enjoying attentive service from the brewery staff and beer as fresh as what could be found just steps away. A food truck/catering business supplied the food to balance the alcohol.
On the wedding day itself, though, the occasion calls for the best you can find. Recall my original comment about some of the best bottles of beer in the world priced at under $50 each?
A personal favorite, Mariage Parfait from Belgium’s famed Boon Brewery fits the bill perfectly. Why fill the toasting glasses at the reception with cheap sparkling wine when you can raise a glass with one of the world’s finest beers? And the bonus: the name translates as “perfect wedding,” ideal on the big day. Choose the Geuze version of this beer with a noticeable sour fruit profile or the Kriek version bursting with an eye-popping cherry red color in the glass, befitting the day of love.
If you don’t want to share your unique beer selection with all your guests, be sure the bride and groom get a full glass and each member of the wedding party a bottle to take home.
After weddings, children often follow, and not too far behind. When the time comes, how can beer play a part in celebrating the birth and maturing of your children? I’m glad you asked.
It might not be as obvious, but look at breweries that create special occasion beers, such as beers marking the brewery’s anniversary or significant seasonal events—like Oktoberfest or Christmas. Buy two bottles at the release each year—one to drink fresh and one to add to your child’s collection. Save and share those special bottles when your progeny reaches legal drinking age.
Beer lover’s tip: Choose beers high in alcohol, as these tend to fare better with time, as do bottles that are corked and capped to reduce the speed of the beer’s deterioration from oxidation.
Cool Beer for a House Warming
Throwing a housewarming party or being invited to one provides yet another milestone for popping the cork on great beer. Whether giving or receiving, you won’t disappoint when the gift basket is filled with items from an area brewery—a freshly filled growler of beer, special-release bottles, appropriate glassware and a prepaid brewery tour pass.
Here in Chester County, we’re blessed with well-established breweries that have everything you need for a memorable gift basket: Iron Hill Brewery (multiple locations), McKenzie Brew House (multiple locations), Sly Fox Brewing (Phoenixville & Pottstown), and Victory Brewing (multiple locations), as well as newer arrivals making their mark—Bog Turtle Brewery (Oxford), Boxcar Brewing (West Chester), Kennett Brewing Co. (Kennett Square), Levante Brewing (West Chester) and Stable 12 Brewing (Phoenixville). By the time you read this, Tuned Up Brewing in Spring City, La Cabra Brewing in Berwyn and Chatty Monks Brewing in Phoenixville should all be much closer to their opening dates.
Imagine the surprise—and eternal gratitude—when you present a gift basket of beer and swag from a new brewery. And not yet another toaster.
Working Overtime for Your Just Beer-wards
You likely don’t make a practice of drinking on the job, but your career probably provides a few occasions to celebrate with beer outside the typical office happy hour.
Got a big promotion? Completed a major project? Signed a big client? To take the celebration to another level, check out a special bottle of something like DeuS [sic] from Brouwerij Bosteels in Belgium. It’s a beer brewed the traditional way but fermented and finished (complete with yeast dégorgement—removal of the yeast sediment) much like a fine Champagne. Yet another reason this is perfect for a celebration.
At the end of the day, sigh a contended sigh that the day’s work is done, though more is to be done tomorrow. Take a sip. Beer still is an affordable luxury to mark the high points of your life.
And sometimes it’s the small things that make big memories. Cheers!
Bryan J. Kolesar, local to Chester County, has been writing about beer for over ten years and maintains a blog, BrewLounge.com. The summer of 2015 brought his first published book—Beer Lover’s Mid-Atlantic: Best Brewerys, Brewpubs & Beer Bars—to both online and physical bookstores. It’s a complete 416-page guide to breweries, brewpubs, beer bars and homebrews of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware.
The battle of tastes great, less filling was won by beers with great taste. Here’s how to find them.
Do you like the beer you’re drinking? Yes? Well then, good. You may not want to read more because there’s not much that’s better than enjoying what you’re sipping.
But, would you like to take your beer appreciation a step further? Do you want to know why you enjoy it? Dive deeper into the process of savoring great beer? If so, then read on ...
Serve It Up
Does glassware matter? I get asked this question quite a bit, and my answer—as with many things—is to not overthink it.
If nothing else, you’ve got to pour the beer into a glass to more fully appreciate it. So, you have to grab some type of glass. One of the best all-around designs is a snifter—it simultaneously allows for both the capture and the release of aromas as a result of the glass’s shape. Any glass with a wider bowl at the bottom and a slightly smaller opening at the top works as well.
Try this at home: Look for a brewery’s gift pack of beers that might include a piece of glassware. One of my favorites is an easy-to-hold 500 mL glass emblazoned with the brewery’s logo.
Don’t try this: Das Bier Boot. Might be fun for a college kid to drink from a boot-shaped glass but for an adult, better to display it on a shelf as a relic of your rowdy past.
Next level: Once you’ve begun your path to drinking a variety of beers, a common next step is collecting glassware specific to styles and breweries. Be forewarned—you’ll likely need a separate cabinet.
Check It Out
As you eagerly anticipate the first sip, first observe the beer. Is it pitch black? That could suggest a malt base producing dark chocolate flavors. Cloudy? That suggests an unfiltered beer and presenting a variety of yeast-driven fruit aromas and flavors. A foamy head? Excessive carbonation can interfere with the intended flavors in beer.
Try this at home: Pour several beers of the same style (e.g., Pale Ale) into separate glasses and observe how the use of different malts can affect the color of the same style of beer.
Don’t try this: Use a penlight at happy hour—unless you can handle the scorn of being labeled a beer snob.
Next level: Download an SRM chart (standard reference measure) as a handy reference to identify typical color intensity levels by beer style—from the pale straw of Pilsner to the rich dark brown hues of Imperial Stout.
Sniff It, But Don’t Scratch
Next, focus on the aroma. Sense of smell certainly plays into sense of taste, so this step is critical. By taking time to smell your beer before drinking it, you’ll encounter some variety of malt-driven aromas (roasted, smoke, chocolate), hop-derived aromas (citrus, floral, dank), and yeast-centric aromas (fruit, spice, and yes, even “funk”).
Try this at home: Pick up a few different Stouts and look for roasted aromas, notes of chocolate, or smoke. To compare and contrast, find some German Hefeweizens and try to detect yeast-driven aromas such as banana and clove.
Don’t try this: While moderate swirling is good, aggressive swirling to the point you spill the beer is unnecessary and looks sloppy. So, too, is dunking your nose in the beer.
Next level: Find beers advertised as single hop beers or single malt beers to sample. This will help you hone your senses to identify specific grains and hop varieties.
Time to Taste, Finally
As with aroma, the combination of malts, hops and yeast will affect the beer’s taste. The interplay of the type, amount, and duration of use of all three in the brewing process determines everything from the look to the aroma, flavor and alcohol level.
Barley, typically the dominant malted grain in beer, often showcases itself with a variety of hallmark flavors such as toasted, nutty, sweet and chocolate. Rye can bring a spicier character to the glass, while oats can help soften the texture—or “mouthfeel”—of a beer.
Hops, when added early in the brewing process, bring forth a harsher bitterness in contrast to hops added very late in the process, which contribute more to the aroma than flavor. And yeast, with its magical fermentation by-products, offers up a seemingly never-ending set of flavors such as bananas, strawberries or pineapple.
Try this at home: Grab some German or Czech Lagers and contrast the clean German malts with the spicy Czech hops. Or, go bigger and find some Imperial IPAs that pack a big wallop of hops sporting both pine and grapefruit flavors.
Don’t try this: Spit. Unless you’re a professional conducting a five-hour judging, you shouldn’t need to worry about inebriation from a small sampling of beers. Enjoy the full experience of the tasting from sight, to smell, to taste, to, yes, even the aftertaste.
Next level: Do a blind test. Find a trusted friend to purchase a variety of beers, pour them into opaque glassware, and allow you to sample without the prejudice of seeing the bottle labeling or colors that can taint your overall assessment.
Above all, have fun with your beer tasting. Don’t let setting expectations or stressing about the process of tasting beer interfere with your pleasure. I’ve conducted tastings where I simply ask a binary question such as: Do you like Beer A? or Do you like Beer A or Beer B better?
Enjoy the experience and the journey, for another beer awaits you at the end of each hard earned day. Cheers!
Bryan J. Kolesar, local to Chester County, has been writing about beer for over ten years and maintains a blog, BrewLounge.com. The summer of 2015 brought his first published book—Beer Lover’s Mid-Atlantic: Best Breweries, Brewpubs & Beer Bars—to both online and physical bookstores. It’s a complete 416-page guide to beer-lover’s destinations of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware.
Move over Pumpkin Spice Latte. America loves Pumpkin Beer.
By October, summer is a distant memory. Children have traded beach towels for backpacks, teachers are establishing a rhythm with their newest batch of impressionable minds, and we’re all pulling scarves and sweaters out of storage. After 90-ish days of increased idleness, summer reading and sunburn, I greet autumn as a welcome change. More to the point, October holds a special place in my heart, as both my birthday month and the start of the holiday season—counting Halloween as a holiday. I look forward to the tenth month of the calendar every single year.
There’s something comforting about the crisp air, the smell of bonfires and, of course, the beers of autumn. For craft brew drinkers, each season holds its special pleasures. Yet fall is the pinnacle for beer fans and for good reason—there’s Oktoberfest and then there’s pumpkin beer. Along with imperial pumpkin ales, pumpkin sours, pumpkin stouts and porters, barrel-aged pumplin brews, and even pumpkin shandies and ciders.
What better time to think more about this seasonal brew?
The origin of pumpkin beer starts much further back than its recent revival, which began anew in the 1980s and continues to grow with every harvest. But the pumpkin beers of today are a far cry from their predecessors of bygone centuries.
As the first Colonial settlers struggled to make use of the resources available in the New World, compromises and creativity were inevitable and beer-making was no exception. Although grapes and grain were readily available in the Old World, settlers in America were driven to seek out new fermentable sugars on which to experiment.
Because of their abundance in the Colonies, pumpkins were on the top of that list. Tonics made from these gourds were common in early Colonial America, consumed for their health benefits. Many of the first brews used pumpkin as a substitute for traditional brewing grains. Other fermentables included acorns, apples and corn—those who aren’t fans of pumpkin beer should think a moment about acorn beer!
No lesser home brewer than George Washington is cited as having a recipe containing molasses and a mixture of accessible spices—licorice, anise, cinnamon.
As improved farming methods in the New World increased the availability of various brewing grains, the need for sources of alternative sugars diminished and brewers returned to more conventional English and German brewing ingredients and methods. And so pumpkin beers were on the wane.
Return of Pumpkin Beer
Fast-forward almost 200 years and the pumpkin—formerly the main component of the beer—has been all but replaced by malt and the spices associated with Thanksgiving dessert—nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice and ground ginger to name a few. In fact, many of the “pumpkin” ales on the market may not contain an ounce of their namesake, but this omission doesn’t make them any less delicious or desirable. For the “pumpkin pie in a glass” varieties, some bartenders coat the rims of glasses with cinnamon and sugar when serving a slice—I mean a pint.
Starting around 1985, Buffalo Bill’s Brewery in Haywood, California is credited with being the first to re-popularize the style, using George Washington’s recipe as inspiration. Only 5.2% ABV (alcohol by volume), the golden amber of their America’s Original Pumpkin Ale has low spiciness and mild pumpkin flavor, yet still tastes like beer. And its year-round availability makes it perfect for Halloween any time.
Plenty of Pumpkin Beers
The variety of pumpkin beers now available range in size, shape, look and taste as much as the family Thanksgiving dinner spreads we all look forward to each year. Some beer blogs count as many as 400 varieties—and still growing.
Since pumpkin is not a strong flavor, the taste can be as subtle or strong as a brewer desires. And so approaches vary from brewers adding hand-cut and even roasted pumpkins into the mash, while others prefer using puree or just pumpkin flavoring. The resulting pumpkin ales tend to be mild, with little bitterness, a malty backbone, and most with discernable spice. Local brew, Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale, for example, adds actual pumpkin to its mix, as does Boxcar Brewing.
As the most popular seasonal beer by far—it can be 10 to 15 percent of a brewery’s output—pumpkin beer’s popularity continues to grow. “Seasonal” pumpkin beer can often be found as early as July, though the most popular brands may be sold out by the time the frost is literally on the pumpkin.
Although most who enjoy the style have an opinion on the “Best Pumpkin Beer,” they hardly agree on which one. Some prefer a lighter, easier drinking ale moderately hopped with a hint of spice, while others prefer a sweeter and boozier beverage with higher alcohol levels and a heavier body. I think each style plays a role, and personal opinion is probably the best judge of which pumpkin beer is “best”—a good reason to sample widely.
Pumpkin Beer’s Future
Perhaps the reemergence of pumpkin beers was an acknowledgement of those who came before us—a look at the history of American brewing. Maybe the development of pumpkin beer is one that mirrors American customs, a fluid notion that constantly evolves. Or perhaps the real hero of this story is the pumpkin itself—the simple squash that became an American icon.
Enjoying a pumpkin ale can evoke the same sort of response as we each search for that perfect blend of sweetness and spice that reminds us of fall, family tradition and perfect Thanksgiving memories. Cheers!
Founder and owner of Boxcar Brewing Company, Jamie Robinson has grown the company from the original brewery to include a brewpub at 142 E. Market St., both in West Chester. The two-story entertainment venue and brewpub allows Boxcar to pair their local brew products with signature pub food. Boxcar’s flagship brew, The Passenger, took Gold and Bronze medals (2010 & 2012) for Best English Mild Ale in the U.S. Open Beer Championship. Other favorites: Mango Ginger Pale Ale, 1492 APA, and of course, Mr. Pumpcan. BoxCarBrewingCompany.com.
The growing interest in flavorful, low-alcohol beers—like session beers—has paved the way for beer cocktails.
In my younger and more incorrigible years, my relationship with beer—and alcohol in general—was focused primarily on availability. It wasn’t a question of what to drink, but simply if I’d be drinking. Ah, the days when evenings were spent in the comfort of a friend’s basement slowly sipping on a bottle of fine whiskey or in a local field frantically attempting to empty all 24 cans before being chased away by an irate farmer.
One drink I remember from that period was what we called “po-mosas” or poor man’s mimosas. This beer cocktail was a creative concoction of malt liquor cut with the cheapest orange juice available. Perhaps it was our attempt to bring some class to 40 ounces of flavorless booze, or more likely legitimizing daytime drinking by adding a breakfast ingredient to our early morning imbibing.
Whatever the reasoning, that was my first and crudest exposure to the wonderful world of beer mixology.
As the palate matures, with it comes a greater appreciation for flavor combinations. Experimenting with both subtle and bold ways to manipulate brewed beverages opens up a world of possibilities.
While I don’t claim to be a professional mixologist, nor believe there’s a right or wrong way to enjoy your favorite beverages, I do want to share some of my mature experiences as a professional brewer and shed light on some options for tasty beer cocktails—their origins, popularity and recipes—with a focus on summer sipping.
Breakfast Drink of Champions
Since we must start somewhere, why not with breakfast?
Perhaps the best-known and most popular morning drink is the Bloody Mary, the mainstay of brunch menus everywhere. Far less known is its lighter, beer-based cousin, the Michelada. Although many variations exist throughout Mexico and Latin America, most versions of the drink use beer, lime juice, spices, peppers and various sauces—teriyaki, Worcestershire, hot sauce and the like. This drink is often served in a chilled, salt-rimmed glass and, like its popular cousin, is said to be ideal for nursing a hangover.
The story behind this spicy, flavor-rich beer cocktail traces back to Club Deportivo Potosino in Mexico. It was there Michel Esper would order his beer in a special cup called a chabela, with lime, salt, ice and a straw, as a kind of beer lemonade. Soon other customers began ordering the drink as “Michel’s lemonade,” which eventually became michelada. Variations of this drink use clamato—a tomato and clam juice mixture.
In the last few years, versions of these drinks have been produced and pre-packaged by large breweries. In my opinion, there’s no substitute for fresh ingredients and certainly no substitute for a professional bartender, educated and well seasoned in his craft.
Later in the day when you’re looking for something to slake a summer thirst, the answer is another beer cocktail, the Shandy!
Although a wide variety of ready-made shandies have come to market in the last ten or so years, I’ve yet to find one that does justice to a fresh one. The true art behind this drink is all in the ingredients, flavor profiles and balance.
At the most basic level, a shandy is beer mixed with a soft drink—carbonated lemonade, ginger beer, ginger ale—or with apple or orange juice, mixed in about equal proportions. The mixing yields a lower alcohol content, which some folks prefer to adjust upward by increasing the proportion of beer, using hard cider lemonade, or adding a shot of limoncello liqueur.
Multiple versions of the origin of this drink exist, but most agree the name is a shortened variation of the British term, shandygaff, referring to beer cut with ginger beer or ginger ale and dating back to around 1853.
Shandies today in the U.S. are much closer to German Radlers, a beer cocktail said to first be mixed when a group of cyclists enjoying a refreshing beverage after a ride realized the beer supply wouldn’t last the day. Their solution was to mix the remaining brew with a lemonade-like drink to stretch the supply.
Recipes for shandies are limited only by your imagination and access to ingredients. The Epicurious recipe uses homemade lemonade and sprigs of mint, Buzzfeed had 23 recipes online, and those in search of sour taste add grapefruit juice. Customization is encouraged.
The version currently served at Boxcar Brewpub is a variation of both the English and German styles. After extensive and enjoyable experimentation, we found a combination that hit the sweet spot, so to speak: using our Passenger Ale—an English Mild Ale—mixed with sparkling lemonade and garnished with an orange wedge. The freshness this cocktail provides is far superior to any pre-packaged imitators.
When creating your own shandy recipe, remember that the flavor profile of the base beer ultimately decides the type and amount of non-alcoholic mixers used. And it’s wise to steer clear of mixers with artificial flavors and sweeteners. No diet ginger ale or fake lemon!
Whatever your taste buds fancy, a shandy can be a refreshing alternative way to enjoy your favorite brews with a bit of a twist under a sweltering summer sun.
Micholadas and shandies are only the tip of the brew-based beverage iceberg. I recommend you make this summer memorable by exploring and inventing your own beer cocktails.
Start with the Snakebite, a drink popularized in England using lager-style beer mixed with hard apple cider (thus, not a shandy). Then try the Summer Hoedown, a wheat beer and watermelon combination—light, flavorful and refreshing. The perfect way to use that other half of a big watermelon.
Perhaps a Stout Float—a beverage/dessert hybrid pairing vanilla ice cream with the rich coffee or chocolate flavors of your favorite stout—appeals. Or for another hangover chaser, mix up a Red Eye, from the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail, with beer, tomato juice and Tobasco or try the variation that uses beer, tomato juice, vodka and an egg.
Whatever your preference, beer cocktails bring a fresh perspective and new life to one of man’s oldest fermented beverages. Experimenting with juice, fruit or spice additions can be almost as rewarding and challenging post- fermentation as it can be pre-fermentation.
These beer variations may encourage those who ordinarily opt for white wine or a non-beer cocktail to try beer in a unique way. This taste experience may just make a beer believer out of a wine-spritzer-drinking skeptic.
I certainly don’t miss the days of the “po-mosas,” but I do value them as a gateway to appreciating the art of beer mixology. I hope you give one a try! Cheers!
Founder and owner of Boxcar Brewing Company, Jamie Robinson has grown the company from the original brewery to include a brewpub at 142 E. Market St., both in West Chester. The two-story entertainment venue and brewpub allows Boxcar to pair their locally brewed products with signature pub food. Boxcar’s flagship brew, The Passenger, took Gold and Bronze medals (2010 & 2012) for Best English Mild Ale in the U.S. Open Beer Championship. Other favorites: Mango Ginger Pale Ale and 1492 APA.
So many ways to enjoy your favorite craft beer
Most beer is consumed in two very familiar ways—draft and bottled. But with the explosion of craft beer comes the revival of some tasty historic delivery methods for beer that were too long forgotten. The craft movement brings not just choices for what beer to drink, but also how to drink it.
This gives me an excuse to share some of my favorites—Cask Conditioned Ales, Nitro Beer, Growlers and Cans.
Cask Conditioned Ales
From my younger days, I recall the common misconception that folks in Britain drank their beer warm and flat—the very opposite of the clear American preference for an ice-cold, fizzy brewski. What I came to learn as part of my beer education was that the Brits were actually drinking cask conditioned ales—some of the most flavorful beers I’ve ever tasted.
Just to clarify, this time-honored British beer-drinking tradition is not to serve the brew at room temperature as many believe, but at cellar temperature—about 55°F. Certainly not cold enough to turn the mountains blue on a Coors Light can, but a far cry from a tepid 75°F.
Finding a pub that serves cask conditioned ales is getting easier and easier. Just look for the long upright wooden (or ceramic) handle and a bartender pulling it like he’s doing reps at Planet Fitness.
Let me explain why you should try a glass, beginning with a little history.
Cask conditioned ales are brewed just like any other beer, but the final fermentation is carried out in—you guessed it—a cask, which allows it to carbonate naturally. Casks, known as firkins (11 gallons), were delivered to pubs to finish fermentation. There, in the days before refrigeration or modern keg systems, beer was stored in the tavern cellars, keeping it at a cool 55°F.
Taverns had employees who took care of the beer, known as cellarman—a position almost as important as the brewer. The cellarman was responsible for ensuring the beers finished their fermentation and were properly set up for serving.
When ready, casks were hooked up to a hand pump, known as a beer engine, and the barkeep “pulled” a proper pint from the cask to the glass. This type of system resulted in beer much lower in carbonation and higher in temperature than what Americans generally drink.
Most American pubs today have no such cellar, so they and craft brewers find various ways to recreate this method of serving ales. Why would anyone today want beer served in this manner? The higher temperature and lower carbonation of the beer bring out and enhance the aroma and flavors, making it a far superior way to experience high quality ales.
You can now find cask conditioned beers in many brewpubs and pubs that sell craft beer. It’s worth a try.
Get To Know Nitro
Nitro is a method of serving beer that’s gained popularity over the last 20 years, and is most recognizable as the method used for serving Guinness draft. Poured slowly, the beer shows bubbles cascading up through the glass, forming a thick, creamy head on top—thick enough to float a bottle cap!
This serving method was perfected by Guinness, once the largest brewery in the world. Realizing that traditional cask conditioning was not practical for selling beer in Guinness’s many far-flung markets, they developed a method that gave beer some of the benefits of cask beer, yet could be used in any pub. This serving method produces beer that’s lower in carbonation and uses nitrogen (not nitro glycerin or nitrous oxide) to produce that wonderful cascade appearance when poured, plus the characteristic thick, creamy head.
This method, more often used with porters and stouts (see January County Lines for more on those fine beers), brings out and accents wonderful characteristics of the beer. At Iron Hill, we’ve put the same batch on tap side by side—part with normal carbonation (with carbon dioxide) and part on nitro—and there’s always a noticeable difference with nitro producing a smoother, creamier mouthfeel.
Most brewpubs and craft pubs will have a nitro tap on one of their draft towers, such as Sierra Nevada Brewing, Sly Fox Beer and Yards Brewing Company. Go ahead and ask for a beer “on nitro.” You might just like it.
Growlers are Growing
The popularity of the growler—a dark glass jug (usually 64 oz.), sometimes resembling a moon-shine jug, used to fill beer from the tap and take home—has also exploded with the proliferation of craft beer production.
The growler itself dates back to pre-Prohibition days, when retail liquor stores didn’t exist. People brought beer home by going to the local tavern and filling a galvanized bucket. Legend has it the term growler comes from the fizzing noise the beer made as it sloshed around on the way home.
Fast forward to today, when most brewpubs don’t sell their products in retail stores or in buckets. The growler is a perfect way to offer customers who loved craft beer an opportunity to enjoy it at home. In Pennsylvania, pubs are also permitted to sell growlers, and as their tap selections have grown, so has customer desire to buy these beers for take-out.
If you enjoy a certain beer at your local brewpub, ask them if you can take some home to enjoy later! Just remember to refrigerate it and drink it within a few days for best flavor.
Yes, Craft Beer in a Can
Last month marked the 80th anniversary of the first canned beer. I hope you celebrated appropriately. For the longest time, this package option was rife with problems related to flavor. It wasn’t until the 1970s when the largest brewers introduced the aluminum can with a protective interior coating—rather than tin-plated steel cans—that beer in cans took off.
As craft beers grew in popularity, their roots were based in traditions, ingredients and flavors making beer in cans far from anyone’s mind. Then, in 2002, Oskar Blues, a Colorado pub and brewery, successfully put craft beer in a can. And craft beer drinkers around the country said, “why not?” especially since cans keep beer fresh longer by eliminating damaging effect of light and oxygen. The can became cool among craft beer drinkers.
And now craft cans are readily available everywhere. Even Iron Hill offers take-out cans a few times a year, and Sly Fox went so far as to create a 360 degrees opening on top. Glass bottles are restricted in so many venues—think stadiums, parks and pools—that craft beer lovers couldn’t enjoy their favorite beverage while out for a day of fun. Happily, with the proliferation of the craft beer can, now they “can.”
Four more ways to enjoy craft beer. Cheers!
Mark Edelson is Iron Hill’s Director of Brewery Operations. Under Edelson’s leadership, Iron Hill’s hand-crafted beers have received 42 medals in 18 consecutive years from the prestigious Great American Beer Festival (GABF), which also named Iron Hill “Large Brewpub of the Year” in 2005. In addition, Iron Hill has earned 25 medals at the biennial World Beer Cup, including the coveted award for “Champion Brewery & Brewmaster – Small Brewpub” in 2010, 2012 and 2014. IronHillBrewery.com.