Friday, October 30, 2009

Where to Find Beer: Tamarack Brewing Company

Tamarack Brewing Co. in Lakeside, MT is doing some great things with beer.  Sure, they've got a nice stable of always available beers, but that's not what I like most about them.  Rather, their quick rotation of small batches of creative beers means there's almost always something new on tap, or just around the corner waiting to be explored.  I was pleasantly surprised recently to find three such beers on tap, Headwall Double IPA, Great Pumpkin Brown Ale and Vanilla Bourbon Stout.

Tamarack is a bit different than most breweries in Montana.  When you head into the facility to belly up to the bar, you're not actually in the brewery, despite the fermentation tanks being a mere arms length away. Check out the picture to the left and you'll see the great tap set up with the tanks in the background.  Those tanks are only accessible through a separate entrance.  Thanks to Montana's quirky brewery laws a traditional "brewpub" isn't possible.  Tamarack has managed to create a facility that has the look and feel of a brewpub while still complying with Montana's laws.  Thus, when you order a beer or some of their very good food, you're buying it from a separate business, not the brewery.  (I'm assuming all of this, since I haven't had a chance to confirm by asking.)  That explains why the beer sales are not limited by amount or serving hours like Montana's tap rooms.  This separate business has its own alcohol sales license, in this case a full liquor license, and is not making direct sales from the brewery.  Unfortunately, more breweries in Montana's main cities are unlikely to be able to create a similar environment. The costs of obtaining an alcohol sales license isn't economical thanks to Montana's quota system.  But enough about that (and more later in another post).

When you first enter Tamarack you'll want to check out the chalkboard with a list of the day's taps.  The first six on the board are their year-round available beers.  They are good, though none rising to the height of a top ten list for me. I'd generally rate them around three out of five hops.  The Yard Sale Amber is growing on me and the Switchback Stout is a fine medium bodied stout. It is in the seasonals where Tamarack really excels. See the reviews below for the Headwall IPA, Great Pumpkin Brown Ale and Vanilla Bourbon Stout. It takes a lot to be able to keep things fresh. It takes capacity, for one, which not everyone has. It takes creativity along with the skill to implement it. And it also takes a bit courage  - the courage to put out something new and sometimes challenging and hope it will be embraced by Montana's beer drinkers.  These are all things Tamarack is doing well.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Headwall Double IPA

Wow. This is a freakishly good beer. And odds are by the time you're reading this post it is long gone.  As of yesterday, there were only 2 or 3 kegs left.  I sampled this one at the brewery about three weeks ago and knew it was something special. On this return trip was I able to take in an entire pint.  Tamarack released this beer on Oct. 1 in celebration of HB 400, the Montana legislation that significantly raised the permissible content of alcohol in beer, thus opening up a wealth of creativity for Montana's breweries and beer drinkers.

Everything about this beer is big.  Big malt, big hops, big mouth feel.  It is complex and incredibly interesting. Unfiltered and cloudy, it is a dirty brown color with hints of red with a white head.  It isn't the prettiest beer, but you quickly stop caring. Good hop aroma kicks this beer off, but immediately transitions into a strong malt taste. Oddly, I did not detect a strong alcoholic note despite the high abv.  At 91 IBUs I braced myself for an expected slam of hop bitterness that never came.  Oh, don't get me wrong. That strong malt taste is followed by a very full hop taste and plenty of bitterness.  But there's never a tongue splitting bitter moment you might expect with 91 IBUs.  In reality, it isn't all that surprising given the amount of malt necessary to reach 9.1% abv.  That much malt does a good job of balancing out the high IBUs. This beer takes you on a trip across a range of flavors.  It is one to savor and discuss.

Name: Headwall Double IPA
Brewery: Tamarack Brewing Co., Lakeside, MT.
Style: Imperial IPA.
Color: golden brown with hints of red; white head.
Packaging: draft only.
Stats: 9.1% abv, 91 IBU.
Bought: Tamarack Brewing Co., Lakeside.
Ruling: Five out of Five Hops. Freakishly good beer.

Vanilla Bourbon Stout

This is another fine example of Tamarack's creativity and, you might say, courage. I got a sample of this one, but did not have time to try an entire pint. Dang. I'm reluctant to admit I'm not likely to get back up there before this one is sure to be gone.  Aged three months or so in bourbon barrels, this one immediately hits you with strong bourbon and vanilla. Just as advertised. And that's real vanilla, too. The roasted malts of a good stout are there, too, but they take a bit of a back seat to the bourbon and vanilla.  This one is fun. Big bold flavors, a full mouth feel and lots of complexity.

I'm told the bourbon barrels have been refiled with a hefeweizen for the next three months. Huh? Now that's one I'm going to have to seek out just for the novelty factor. Creative. Beer courage. I'm curious to see just how that one's going to work. 

Name: Vanilla Bourbon Stout
Brewery: Tamarack Brewing Co., Lakeside, MT.
Style: Stout with added flavors.
Color: Black.
Packaging: draft.
Stats: 7.5% abv, 30 IBU.
Bought: Tamarack Brewing Co., Lakeside.
Ruling: Four out of Five Hops (based on a small sample). Complex and interesting flavors make for a fun beer.

Great Pumpkin Brown Ale

Sometimes through no fault of your own you manage to have good timing. That was the case with me when I stopped by Tamarack Brewing Co. recently on the way back from Kalispell.  Just 30 minutes before I stopped for lunch, the fine folks at Tamarack had added this beer to their line up.  A couple of months ago, Tamarack had a batch of Nut Brown Ale on tap that was very good, but didn't last long.  I doubt this one will either.  It is a typical American Brown Ale style, which is to say that it has a bit more carbonation and hop presence than a British style.

The pumpkin pie-like spice (nutmeg and clove) is immediately noticeable in the aroma and taste, though it definitely compliments the brown ale without overpowering it. Well, truth be told, I guessed the nutmeg right away, but didn't get the clove. The flavors get a bit more subtle as you get accustomed to the new flavors. Malt with subtle nutmeg flavors give way to a pleasant and slightly bitter hop finish.  This is a very enjoyable, very drinkable fall ale.

Name: Great Pumpkin Brown Ale
Brewery: Tamarack Brewing Co., Lakeside, MT.
Style: Brown ale.
Color: Dark brown, slight tan head.
Packaging: draft.
Stats: 5.4% abv, 30 IBU.
Bought: Tamarack Brewing Co., Lakeside.
Ruling: Three and a half out of Five Hops. Smooth brown ale with subtle pumpkin pie flavors.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Frog Hop Fresh Hopped Pale Ale

I'm a big fan of the trend popping up at a variety of breweries for using locally grown, fresh hops to make a seasonal brew - which means September here in the Northwestern U.S. Frog Hop Fresh Hopped Pale Ale is Great Northern Brewing Company's version. This one is the 2009 brew. Great Northern's website makes it clear that this will be an annual brew that will vary from year to year depending upon available ingredients. Combining fresh hops, local agriculture and creative brewing is a trend we definitely need to support. Great Northern describes this as having "intense citrusy cascade hops and green grassy notes" which "dominate the flavor and aroma." I'd have to disagree. This is a tasty beer, but fairly unremarkable. There is no significant hop aroma. Certainly, the hop flavor predominates (over the malt), but this beer doesn't showcase the hops, which is what I'd like to see when featuring locally grown ingredients. Hop bitterness is fairly mild. The color is a little lighter straw/golden color than how it looks in the picture.

Name: Frog Hop Fresh Hopped Pale Ale
Brewery: Great Northern Brewing, Whitefish, MT.
Style: Pale Ale.
Color: light golden.
Packaging: 22 oz. bottle.
Stats: 5% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: The Good Food Store, Missoula.
Ruling: Two and a half out of Five Hops. Easy drinking, tasty beer, but hop should be better featured.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pulaski Porter

Definitely one of my current favorite beers, Pulaski Porter is a fantastic robust porter made at Montana's one year old Blacksmith Brewery down in Stevensville. I like porters to pack a punch and this one does. Intense dark malt that avoids being sweet. I'm thinking this one would pair well with a slice of chocolate cake with chocolate icing.

Name: Pulaski Porter
Brewery: Blacksmith Brewing Co., Stevensville, MT.
Style: Robust porter.
Color: Black.
Packaging: draft only.
Stats: 7.0% abv, 25 IBU.
Bought: The Old Post, Missoula; at the brewery.
Ruling: Four and a half out of Five Hops. Rich and intense .

Lupulin Fresh Hop Ale

Found this one on draft downtown while searching for something new to try. Despite the name and the incredible amount of hops used to make it, the bitterness is not overpowering and overall nicely balanced. Great hop aroma and flavor. Very drinkable. Available only on draft from September through November, though I doubt this one will be easy to find in these parts. Either I've not noticed before, or they weren't advertised, but wet hop ales seem to be springing up quite frequently in the last year or so. "Fresh" or "wet" hop ales are made from the fresh hops soon after harvesting rather than the traditionally used dried hops.

Name: Full Sail Lupulin Fresh Hop Ale
Brewery: Full Sail, Hood River, OR.
Style: Pale Ale.
Color: Deeply golden.
Packaging: Draft only.
Stats: 5.8% abv, 70 IBU.
Bought: The Rhino, Missoula.
Ruling: Four out of Five Hops. Great hop flavor and aroma.

Estate Ale

As a general fan of most things made by Sierra Nevada I noticed the new Sierra Nevada Estate Ale on tap locally this weekend and then in bottles in a local store. I only remembered to take a picture once half of it was gone. It has quite a bit of hop bitterness - a fair amount more than Sierra's Pale Ale. I started to warm to it toward the end of the glass once I got accustomed to the amount of bitterness. Sierra says all the barley and hops are grown at the brewery, thus making it one of the world's only estate-made beers.

Name: Sierra Nevada Estate Ale
Brewery: Sierra Nevada, Chico, CA.
Style: Pale Ale.
Color: Amberish.
Packaging: draft; 24 oz. bottle.
Stats: ?% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: The Rhino, Missoula.
Ruling: Three out of Five Hops. Hops are the feature - flavor, aroma and bitterness.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Keelhauler Scotish Ale

Full bodied malt flavor gives way to a nicely strong hop finish. The balance is excellent.

Name: Full Sail Keelhauler Scottish Ale
Brewery: Full Sail, Hood River, OR.
Style: Scottish Ale.
Color: Deep copper.
Packaging: 22 oz. bottle.
Stats: 6.8% abv, 45 IBU.
Bought: local store.
Ruling: Four out of Five Hops. Nicely balanced, very drinkable Scottish ale.

Southern Hemisphere Fresh Hop Ale

Name: Southern Hemisphere Harvest Fresh Hop Ale
Brewery: Sierra Nevada, Chico, CA.
Style: Pale Ale.
Color: Deep golden/amber.
Packaging: 24 oz. bottle.
Stats: 6.7% abv, 66 IBU.
Bought: local store.
Ruling: Four out of Five Hops. An excellent, very drinkable pale ale.

Jah-va Imperial Coffee Stout

This is a downright huge beer with a full body mouth feel that borders on syrupy. Prominent alcoholic presence that along with the sweetness overpowers the typical dark roasted bite common in stouts. It was not what I expected, given the vast majority of coffee stouts and porters I've tried have been very robust with a typical coffee bite. This one immediately reminded me of Widmere's Snow Plow Stout which uses milk solids to give that huge mouth feel and very sweet finishing touch. This is a complex beer built for sipping and sitting. Judging by the brewery's website, Southern Tier has a wide variety of very complex and interesting beers that I'd love to get my hands on. Let me know if you find any.

Name: Jah-va Imperial Stout
Brewery: Southern Tier, Lakewood, NY
Style: Imperial Coffee Porter
Color: Black
Packaging: 22 oz. bottle.
Stats: 11% abv.
Bought: local store.
Ruling: Three point five out of Five Hops. A curiously sipable complex stout.

Full Sail Imperial Porter

An excellent big, bold, robust porter with lots of roasted malt flavor that is surprisingly drinkable. I've found this one a couple of times around town and finally pulled it out of the fridge to try. Full Sail says it is available March to April in "very limited availability." It is well worth finding. A bit more of an alcoholic presence than two of my favorites, the now gone Peg Leg Porter by Flathead Brewing (R.I.P.) and Pulaski Porter at Blacksmith Brewing. But you would expect that in an imperial porter.

Name: Full Sail Imperial Porter
Brewery:Full Sail , Hood River, OR.
Style: Imperial Porter (robust).
Color: Black.
Packaging: 22 oz. bottle.
Stats: 7.5% abv, 60 IBU.
Bought: local store.
Ruling: Four out of Five Hops. An Excellent, very drinkable porter.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Redhook Double Black Stout

Let's kick this off with an outstanding beer, currently in my top ten list. Last winter, Redhook re-released a brew that never should have disappeared. It definitely delivers on its description as an "imperial stout enhanced by coffee and dark malts with a big roasted flavor." It is a robust stout with a complementing coffee flavor that is distinct enough from the roasted barely to pack a flavorful coffee bite, but is not over powering. Despite being an imperial porter, the alcohol is not a prominent taste as often occurs when the percentage gets a bit higher (not that there's anything wrong with that). I managed to score a case of it at a ridiculously low price and only have one bottle left. This beer kicked off Redhook's limited release series which began in '08. Sadly, I've seen no indications that it is coming back for '09.

Name: Double Black Stout
Brewery: Redhook, Woodinville, WA.
Style: Imperial Stout (robust) with coffee.
Color: Black.
Packaging: 22 oz. bottle.
Stats: 7.0% abv.
Bought: local store.
Ruling: Five out of Five Hops. Outstanding robust stout.