Speed-Dating Beers, Part 1

You may have questions about the title of this post. “Speed-Dating Beers? Perhaps he means ‘Speed Dating while Drinking Beer’?”

Although I have never speed-dated, I have to think that drinking beer while speed-dating would probably make the whole process a lot more fun.

But no, what I mean is that we actually speed-dated a lot of beers. The event was called “Live Beer Blogging”, and it worked like this: The organizers sat us down at tables with our laptops, iPads and other tools of dissemination. Someone at a microphone said “Ready… Set… Go!”

<Swoof!> A brewer appeared at each table, poured a beer, described the beer and answered questions, all while everyone tasted the beer, then frantically blogged and tweeted about it. Five minutes later, the microphone dude said, “Change!”

<Swoof!> The brewers rotated to new tables, poured a beer, described the beer and answered questions, all while everyone tasted the beer, then frantically blogged and tweeted about it. Five minutes later, the microphone dude said, “Change!”

You get the idea.

This happened ten times. Yes, ten different beers in just under an hour.

There were a few small problems. First of all, apparently Massachussetts liquor laws had an issue with letting this event occur at the hotel, so we were bussed to Burke Distributing out in the suburbs of Boston. Now, this was a beer warehouse, so it lacked two things that every beer bloggers’ event should have: lots of internet connectivity, and lots of washrooms. The organizers tried to solve the connectivity problem by setting up two local “hot spots” — but these were pretty narrow pipelines to the wider world, and with 150 bloggers all trying to blog live, our connection ranged from tenuous to non-existent. (Elaine & I simply typed notes to be blogged later. Think of it as a live recording.)

The other vexation — the single washroom — drew longer and longer lineups as the event progressed.

One might say that a limit on output was the underlying issue with both problems.

Beer #1: Fatty Bampkins Cider

Our first beer was actually a cider. That may seem weird, but craft cider goes hand in hand with the craft beer market, and like craft beer, has seen huge growth in the alcoholic beverage market. (One of the conference’s sponsors was Woodchuck Cider.) In Ontario, cider’s market share has actually grown faster than craft beer, which is saying something.

Fatty Bampkins Maine Hard Cider — named after the owner’s dog, an overweight chocolate Lab — is an Irish-style cider made by Maine’s Blacksmiths Winery only twice a year, using eight different varieties of apples that are pressed separately and then blended in a certain proportion. The cider is fermented using four varieties of yeast and then, most unusually, is aged four months in bourbon and rye barrels before filtering. (It is not pasteurized.) Since only yeast is added to apple juice, the product is certified gluten free.

The cider we were tasting was their “standard” 4.5% abv cider. (It actually emerges from fermentation at 7.5%, but since Maine limits hard cider to 7%, they blend the cider with fresh juice to bring the alcohol down to 4.5%. They also have a dry cider that receives less juice and therefore clocks in at 6.8%.)

The cider has, as you would expect, a fresh sweet apple taste, with a light, clean mouthfeel, but there is also a woody thing happening at mid-taste that contributes to a quick, dry finish.

The sweetness makes this a patio cider rather than something I would pair with most food. Nevertheless, it would probably go very well with light patio fare such as chips & dip.

In Ontario in 2012, an unusually warm March that had apple trees blooming prematurely was followed by a killing frost, effectively destroying 90% of the 2012 apple crop. When I asked the brewer (ciderer?) how Fatty Bampkins had been affected, I was told that Maine apples had not been touched by the disaster; however, the price of all apples in Eastern North America rose 20%, and Blacksmiths had made the hard decision to eat the higher cost of apples in 2012 rather than raising their cider prices.

Blacksmiths plans to make perhaps as many as 18 different varieties of cider. For the moment, Fatty Bampkins Cider is distributed throughout New England; Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and New York can expect to see it soon.

Beer #2: Baxter Summer Swelter

Baxter Summer Swelter

Baxter Summer Swelter

Baxter Brewing is the only brewery in Maine that cans rather than bottles their entire line-up. Baxter’s believes this is better for the environment, better for the beer (no light-struck tastes), and better for you, since cans can go places that bottles cannot.

Summer Swelter (4.7% abv) is a very creative unfiltered wheat ale, brewed with citrussy American hops, lemon & lime peel, lemongrass, and Kaffir lime leaves. It pours with a pale lemon colour and the wheat gives it a fluffy bright white head. The light aroma is citrus, tending towards lime. The wheat gives a characteristic taste of lemongrass, but lime notes are also present. Given the lightness of the taste, the sudden appearance of bitterness at mid-swallow leading to a long bitter finish is a suprise.

A glass of Summer Swelter would be great during a real summer swelter, especially paired with fish and seafood. Depending on the dressing, it could also go well with some salads.

Baxter distributes in Maine and Massachusetts.

Beer #3: Backlash Catalyst

Backlash is a tiny nano-brewery, the husband-and-wife team of Helder Pimentel and Maggie Foley. They have contract brewed 20-barrel (23.5 hL) batches out of Paper City Brewery in Holyoke, Massachusetts since 2011.

Backlash Catalyst

Backlash Catalyst

Their calling card has been Belgian styles with large doses of hops — it is no coincidence that the “B” of the “Backlash” logo is a set of brass knuckles. Their latest release is a series of three double IPAs that use the same grist bill but feature a different variety of hop. In the case of Catalyst (8.5% abv), the featured hop is Amarillo.

Catalyst pours a hazy light gold with a off-white head. Surprisingly for a Belgian-style ale, the nose is hops rather than yeasty esters. Likewise the taste is all hops from front to back — big, bitter hops that pretty well overhelm everything in their path, leading to a very bitter, lingering finish. Whew. Did I mention the hops? Did I mention the brass knuckles?

Pairing this monster with food would be a matter of finding something that could stand up to Catalyst — I would suggest a strong curry, smelly cheeses or savoury game.

Not a balanced approach at all, but I would be interested in trying the other two IPAs in this series to see how the taste varies due to the different hop varieties.

Helder & Maggie might produce 1,000 hL this year, and only distribute to the Boston area.

Beer #4: Thomas Hooker Saison

Thomas Hooker Saison

Thomas Hooker Saison

Steve Andrews, the head brewer of Thomas Hooker was our host (well, for five minutes at any rate.) Thomas Hooker Brewing actually started life as the brewery attached to the Trout Brook Brew Pub in Bloomfield, Connecticut. However, when the brewpub folded in 2006, new owners renamed the brewery after Thomas Hooker, Puritan founder of nearby Hartford, and re-purposed the small brewery’s annual production of 12,000–15,000 barrels (14,000–18,000 hL) for general distribution.

Steve described how his 6.9% abv saison starts with a sour mash and Saaz hops, then is dry-hopped with local Connecticut hops and spiced with black peppercorns before being aged in Chardonnay barrels.

The saison pours a hazy antique gold, with a fine-beaded persistent ivory head. The nose is fruity, with light pear notes, a touch of cloves, and a perfuminess that might come from the Chardonnay barrels. The mouthfeel is light and effervescent, with pears and apples at the front, and a spiciness – possibly from the yeast, perhaps from the peppercorns, probably from a combination of the two — at mid-taste. The finish is quick and dry. Overall, my impression was of a very dry pear cider.

In terms of food, you could go two ways with this: either match spice for spice with some peppery Cajun, or go for the dry cider approach and match to aged cheese.

Beer #5: Slumbrew Happy Sol Blood Orange Hefeweizen

Slumbrew Happy Sol

Slumbrew Happy Sol

OK, bear with me while I drill down through this: Slumbrew Beer (no, I didn’t get a chance to ask about the name) is the brand produced by Somerville Brewing Company of Somerville, Massachusetts, founded by Jeff Leiter and Caitlin Jewell. Slumbrew beers are contract brewed out of Mercury Brewing of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Got that?

This hefeweizen is brewed with Massachusetts honey, orange peel and coriander, and fermented with blood orange juice.

As the German name suggests, a hefeweizen is made with a large proportion of wheat. The wheat provides more protein than barley, which often causes a hazy appearance, and always produces a billowy white head. Happy Sol is no exception, pouring a rich hazy gold, with a thick, fluffy persistent ivory head. The nose is all yeast-driven esters, although the usual banana notes are replaced by citrus. The taste is light, effervescent and crisp, with orange peel around the edges and some spiciness from the coriander. The finish is likewise light and crisp.

This is a summer beer that calls out for light summer patio grill fare — chicken or jumbo shrimp, accompanied by a fruit salad or watermelon.

Slumbrew is currently distributed in a fairly diverse group of states: Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Illinois, Virginia, New Jersey and Louisiana.

Next post: Speed Dating with Beer continued…

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