Thursday, November 26, 2009

Where to Find Beer: Topper's Cellar, Helena, MT

If you live in Helena and love good beer and wine then you already know this. If you don't live there, but find yourself in Helena for a visit, head over to Topper's Cellar for one of the best retail selections of wine and beer anywhere in Montana, and many places beyond.  When I lived in Helena many years ago, Topper's was a gas station and convenience store with an unusually fantastic beer and wine selection. Topper's later moved into its own building on Helena Ave. within sight of the city's malfunction junction of Montana Ave and Lyndale Ave and is now dedicated solely to wine and beer.

The architecture of the building is curious, but interesting - not quite fitting the historic architecture of the city, but not really all that out of place either. Inside, the beer is separated into various regions or countries and sorting through it all will take you a while. But that's a good thing, right? The wine selection is equally good and Topper himself if always willing to educate, recommend and talk wine and beer.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Cutthroat IPA

Is there a better way to figure out your Thanksgiving dinner menu that to kick back at your local brewery? I think not. So, we headed off to Blacksmith Brewing Co. in Stevensville, MT (again) on the Saturday before Thanksgiving to ponder the intricacies of stuffing recipes and turkey brines while enjoying some of our favorite brews (cranberry molds sold separately).

Cutthroat IPA is one of Blacksmith Brewing Co.'s regular brews which it describes as a "west coast IPA."  I'm not entirely sure what that means except that most American versions of the traditional styles tend to have quite a bit more hop aroma and bitterness that the original English style guidelines would suggest and often a bit more alcohol.  Thus, take a regular beer style, add more hops than normal, and add "American" or "west coast" to the title and you're there. I don't mean that as a knock on the styles - not in the least. My favorite beer style is often called an "American stout" which would probably best be described as a dry stout with extra hops, creating a more "robust" feel to the beer.  But I digress.

Cutthroat IPA is golden in color (once again the Blackberry camera fails me, making it look more red than it is) with a good thick, white head, medium body, and a very strong floral hop aroma. It checks in at 6.2% abv and 45 ibus. Next door to the Blacksmith Brewing Co. is the Burger Shack.  When you're hungry, walk on over to the take out window and order up one of their 1/2 pound Angus beef burgers and hand dipped onion rings. You'll thank me later when you pair that up with a Cutthroat IPA. Better yet, just buy me one of each and we'll call it good.

Name: Cutthroat IPA
Brewery: Blacksmith Brewing Co., Stevensville, MT.
Style: IPA.
Color: Golden.
Packaging: draft at the brewery.
Stats: 6.2% abv, 45 IBU.
Bought: Blacksmith Brewing Co.
Ruling: Three and a half out of Five Hops. Good IPA that pairs well with the Burger Shack. .

Update: Tamarack's Vanilla Bourbon Stout

Back in late October I had the good fortune to stop in at Tamarack Brewing Co. and sample some of their Vanilla Bourbon Stout.  I predicted it wouldn't last long enough for me to get back there to enjoy more than just a sample, but I got lucky.  I was able to make a return visit this week and fully dive into this beer.  Served in a snifter glass, this beer was every bit as good, if not better, than I remembered.  The bourbon was a little less strong tham the first go round which might be because I knew what was coming. The overall balance of flavors was excellent. Bourbon hits you right off the bat while the vanilla rises up toward the aftertaste.  While there is no pronounced hop bitterness or hop flavor, there are plenty of IBUs to keep this beer from being syrupy sweet.  High gravity beers are often served in snifter glasses, partly because the high alcohol suggests a much smaller serving is appropriate and partly because the shape of the glass concentrates the wonderful aroma.  This aroma of this one will definitely turn you on, though a full pint just might be in order.

Bitter Root Brewing Winter Ale

This winter warmer showed up at the Old Post pub in Missoula last Saturday and I had to give it a try. Crystal clear and a bright amber color, this is a very drinkable beer in a fairly classic winter warmer style. Which is to say that the malt has a fairly strong initial presence, but it gives way to plenty of hop bitterness.  Bitter Root describes it as having a mild spice character, but I'll admit the spice never arrived for me.  One member of our group, Jenesy, said the aroma was just like banana laffy taffy.  I disputed that description until she pulled out a piece and we all had a whiff. Well, I'll be darned. Indeed, there was a resemblance, but that wasn't a bad thing as odd as that sounds. Its not like banana laffy taffy actually smells much like bananas. A very enjoyable brew.

Name: Winter Ale
Brewery: Bitter Root Brewing Co, Hamilton, MT.
Style: Winter warmer.
Color: bright amber.
Packaging: draft.
Stats: 6.46% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: Old Post Pub, Missoula, MT
Ruling: Three and a half out of Five Hops. Enjoyable winter warmer.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

High Gravity Bongwater

Yes, you read that correctly. Along with Brick and Mortar Porter, High Gravity Bongwater is one of two beers Kettlehouse Brewing Co. brewed to celebrate the passage of Montana's House Bill 400 which increased the amount of alcohol allowed in beer from 8.75% abv to 14% abv.  Kettlehouse has long been famous for its Olde Bongwater Hemp Porter which is a classic robust porter with a twist - a slight nutty flavor that comes from the addition of Hemp seeds, about a half pound per 16 gallon keg. High Gravity Bongwater is a imperial version of the original and weighs in at 9.5% abv.

Served in a 9 oz snifter glass, it is dark brown/black with a light tan head.  It does not have a pronounced aroma, but the taste was excellent. I detected a slight smokiness with fairly strong roasted malt flavors.  There is a big mouth feel and a bit of an alcoholic note, but not as much as you might expect.  The first time I tried it I found it to be quite different than the original Bongwater with much more pronounced roasted malts - so much so that I considered calling this one an imperial stout rather than a porter, as Kettlehouse categorizes its. The second time I tried it about two weeks later, I detected much more of the chocolate undertones and less roasted malts and found it to be squarely in the imperial porter category.  It was probably my taste that changed, not the beer.  It doesn't really matter what category it is in. Just call it delicious.

Name: High Gravity Bongwater Imperial Porter
Brewery: Kettlehouse Brewing Co., Missoula, MT.
Style: Imperial Porter.
Color: Very dark brown to black.
Packaging: draft at the Myrtle Street location.
Stats: 9.5% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: Kettlehouse Brewing Co.
Ruling: Four out of Five Hops. Excellent imperial porter with great roasted malt flavors.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Swapping Stories and Drinking Beer

Beer is the ultimate beverage for gathering round and catching up on all the news of the day. That's especially true if you're a craft brew fan and enjoy discovering something new. I met my friend Dave at the Rhino in Missoula this past Sunday to get the scoop on his recent trip to Greece. With 51 taps, there's always something new to try. Some you're sure to like, some you may not, but you won't go thirsty.  And now that the Rhino is smoke free, it is easier than ever to stop in, try a couple and get caught up.

Blackfoot River Brewing Co. OPA (Organic Pale Ale; Helena, MT):  This is an easy drinking, medium bodied pale ale with a good balance of hop and malt. Good hop aroma with a pleasant, mid range hop bitterness. Light golden/straw colored with a white head. It has a crisp taste that is perfect on a hot summer day and quite good as a session beer. 5.2% abv.

Bear Republic Brewing Co. Hop Rod Rye Ale (Cloverdale, CA): Full bodied, rich and complex, this beer packs in a huge 90+ IBUs into its dark amber/red package. Though the alcohol is 8% abv, you never get a strong alcoholic punch thanks to the tons of hop. The underlying malt prevents the hops from getting too out of hand, but make no mistake, the hops dominate.

Bear Republic Brewing Co. Racer 5 IPA (Cloverdale, CA):  Golden color with a thick white head, it has a very good floral hop aroma. There is a fairly strong hop bitterness and flavor in this medium to full bodied IPA, but the bitterness is never tongue splitting.  It has a surprisingly smooth finish. Alcohol is 7% abv and there's 75 IBUs in there. I've seen this one in 22 oz bottles at the stores with better beer selections around town.

Mendocino Red Tail Ale (breweries in CA and NY):  This light amber colored ale was medium bodied and very smooth and balanced. 

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Brick and Mortar Porter

Brick and Mortar Porter is one of two beers Kettlehouse Brewing Co. brewed to celebrate the Montana Legislature's House Bill 400 which significantly increased the amount of alcohol allowed in beer, opening up a range of new beers for Montanans. Kettlehouse calls this one a Belgian Imperial Porter and serves it at the new Northside location in 9 oz snifter glasses. Imperial, because of the high alcohol content at 11.5% abv.  Belgian, because of a blend of Kettlehouse's house yeast and Belgian Ale yeast.  Like their Disc Down Oatmeal Brown Ale, this combination essentially creates a style not recognized in the beer annals, which is exactly the point (though Stone Brewing Co. brewed one this year as well). Described as strong and robust, there's no disagreement about its strength. There is a very pronounced alcoholic note and this one hits you right away.  It is syrupy sweet with a huge mouth feel. I don't find it to be very robust, though, which I generally associate with a rather pronounced bite from hop bitterness and, typically, roasted malts. There is a porter base here with smooth chocolate undertones, but no discernible hop aroma or flavor.  This one is malt all the way.

Name: Belgian Imperial Porter
Brewery: Kettlehouse Brewing Co., Missoula, MT.
Style: Imperial Porter with a twist.
Color: Very dark brown to black.
Packaging: draft at the Northside location.
Stats: 11.5% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: Kettlehouse Brewing Co.
Ruling: Four out of Five Hops. Excellent example of a strong imperial porter with a twist.

Disc Down Oatmeal Brown Ale

I found this one at Kettlehouse Brewing Co. in Missoula last weekend. The Myrtle Street location, that is. On nitro. This is the first time in my craft brew drinking history that I've ever seen a brown ale on nitro. Stouts and porters, yes. Even found an Imperial IPA on nitro once, though I can't remember where.  Now that I think about it, this is the first time I've ever tasted, or even heard of, a brown ale with oatmeal. But that is classic Kettlehouse. There are a lot of innovative brewers in Montana which makes it an excellent place to be a fan of craft brews.  Few push the envelope quite like Kettlehouse. 

This beer has classic brown ale elements - well balanced malt and hops with a slight nutty/earthy taste, little aroma, light to medium bodied, and an overall easy drinking session beer.  But this one adds in oatmeal for a slightly fuller mouthfeel and, combined with the nitro, creates a bit of a creaminess not found in your typical brown ale. Starts out with a typical nitro bubbling, clarifying to a dark brown with red highlights ( as usual with the camera on my blackberry, the picture is darker than the real thing). No notable hop aroma, but finishing with a bit of hop bitterness.  Well worth seeking out if you're in Missoula, but you'd better get there soon.

Name: Disc Down Oatmeal Brown
Brewery: Kettlehouse Brewing Co., Missoula, MT.
Style: Oatmeal Brown Ale.
Color: Dark brown with red highlights.
Packaging: draft.
Stats: ?% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: Kettlehouse Brewing Co.
Ruling: Four out of Five Hops. Wonderfully innovative brown ale.

Obsidian Stout

I've loved this stout for a long time. It is exactly what a robust stout should be. Strong roasted malt with a bit of a bite. Great dark chocolate aroma. Lots of coffee flavor like a good Italian or French roast with a bit of chocolate undertones.  Deschutes Brewery in Bend, OR consistently brews some of the best year-rounders as well as some of the most interesting and enjoyable seasonal and special reserve brews.  I've got a bottle of Black Butte XXI hidden away waiting on the right occasion to pop open.  I've tried to get my hands on some Abyss for years now without success. But really, I'm just posting this one as an excuse to put up the picture. I took it this summer while enjoying the new fire pit up near Rollins on Flathead Lake one summer evening. Ahh . . . .

Name: Obsidian Stout
Brewery: Deschutes Brewery, Bend, OR.
Style: Robust Stout.
Color: Very black, with a dark tan head.
Packaging: 12oz bottles.
Stats: 6.4% abv, 50 IBU.
Bought: Common in many grocery stores with a decent beer selection.
Ruling: Four and a half out of Five Hops. Classic robust stout.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Where to Find Beer: Blacksmith Brewing Co., Stevensville, MT

If you're not paying attention while driving down the no-longer-sleepy streets of Stevensville, Montana's oldest community, you just might miss Blacksmith Brewing Company. And that would be a crying shame. This is a great place. I wish they would lay off the hops sometimes, but that's nitpicking. And really, I'm not just talking about the beer. Blacksmith Brewing Co. is the total package: good beer in a great setting with a great vibe.

On my third visit, after hiking in the Bitterroot several months ago, we were enjoying a Pulaski Porter when we noticed Tom Catmull setting up for some live music.  It didn't take long at all for the taproom to fill up and the music, beer and conversation flowed freely.  And nothing about that is unusual at Blacksmith. Live music is a Wednesday and Saturday staple at Blacksmith - as much a staple as the consistently good beer and friendly, comfortable atmosphere.

The building once housed a blacksmith shop and many of the interior finishes were recycled or preserved from the structure during the remodel. Burned into the barnwood walls are brands from the valley's ranches. They've got food from local vendors a couple nights a week and you can bring in your own or order up from some of the local restaurants and have it delivered.  Even kids are welcome (there's root beer on tap) and contribute to the welcoming, community hangout feel of this place. I've been to a lot of Montana's breweries and it is hard to imagine one with a better vibe than Blacksmith.

The beer is good, and I think the Pulaski Porter is one of my favorite robust porters. On a recent visit, I was lucky enough to try a pint of the Pulaski Porter aged for two weeks in bourbon barrels. (Thumbs up to the Montana Brewers Association for getting its hands on a bunch of whisky barrels and offering them up to its members breweries.) Two weeks was more than enough time to contribute a strong bourbon aroma and taste to this already great porter. But don't expect to find it since they were down to their last few gallons (ah . . . the beauty of lucky timing). The seasonals change frequently and have included a variety of styles. Small batch, quickly rotating (and disappearing) brews are a hallmark of many of Montana's breweries ensuring there is always something new to try. 

Mike, the brewer, is obviously a hop head and I found their initial offerings from the Amber through the IPA to have a fair amount more hop bitterness than the styles would call for, or my malt loving palate would prefer.  So, I was glad to find the Backwoods Barley Wine on tap during my last visit, showing that a hop head brewer can do a fantastic job featuring malt. The PD Pale Ale is a great brew highlighting hop flavors and aroma, but I'll leave it to you to ask the Blacksmith folks what the initials represent.  Next time you find yourself 25 miles south of Missoula, get off Highway 93, head into Stevensville and stake out a seat.  

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Backwoods Barley Wine

Big beer. Really big beer. There's no other way to describe this one. Tons of malt flavor with a strong alcoholic note and a syrupy mouth feel. That's what you're going to get when you've got a beer at 12.3% abv.  I initially detected a slight hop bitterness finish, but wasn't so sure after making it to the end.

Don't let your non-craft brew friends try this one or you'll probably scare them off for life. Served in half pints, it "wouldn't be prudent" to have more than one, though the allure is certainly there. It is a fun beer to sip and savor and try to figure out not only how to describe the color (which is lighter than the picture suggests) but what flavors you're tasting. I can't quite figure this one out, but I know I like it. Like many of Montana's breweries, the folks at Blacksmith are not afraid to develop small batches of interesting beer to keep us entertained and coming back to see what pops up next.

Name: Backwoods Barley Wine
Brewery: Blacksmith Brewing Co., Stevensville, MT.
Style: Barley Wine.
Color: Reddish with brownish (I stink at colors); white head.
Packaging: draft only.
Stats: 12.3% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: at the brewery, Stevensville.
Ruling: Four out of Five Hops. Very good example of the style. Big malt flavor and heavy alcohol.

Red Lodge Porter

I like having a reason to visit Red Lodge, a small Montana town in a great setting with some not-so-hidden gems of good food, beer and scenery. Unfortunately,  I don't get a reason very often and Red Lodge isn't exactly "on the way" to very many places.  Unless you're from Belfry. Which I'm not.  But every time I head to Kalispell, a mere seven or eight hour drive northwest of Red Lodge, I find this porter on tap at the North Bay Grille.

I've seen it described as an American style porter, though I have a little trouble putting it in that category. I think that's because I'm a fan of robust porters, so anything that isn't robust makes me lean toward calling it a London style.   It is definitely a more traditional porter, and one that is very smooth and easy to drink. And there's no mistaking the chocolate with underlying coffee tastes. Every sip brings strong flavors of chocolate with just enough coffee/roasted malt flavor to keep it from turning sweet. 

Name: Red Lodge Porter
Brewery: Red Lodge Ales, Red Lodge, MT.
Style:  Porter.
Color: Very dark brown to black.
Packaging: draft
Stats: 5.75% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: North Bay Grille, Kalispell, MT.
Ruling: Three and a half out of Five Hops. Smooth, very drinkable porter.