Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

What's on tap for New Year's Eve? Good beer, of course. And what goes best with good beer? Good food! So for this New Year's Eve we whipped up some homemade crab cakes with creamy roasted red pepper sauce and followed that up by breaking out some new homebrew (shown here in the one liter bottle). It's a medium bodied coffee stout with a subtle coffee flavor, coffee aroma and light enough to serve as a session beer.  Which isn't what I was going for (I was shooting for more body), but it is still a very drinkable brew.  I enjoy home brewing, but it always gives me that much more appreciation for what the pros do.

Happy New Year!

Joe Bong Coffee Porter

Count up another success for Kettlehouse and their ever rotating selection of fun, small batch beers.  I didn't have a chance to ask about this one, though I did overhear that there wasn't much left. From the title, I assume it has an old bongwater porter base, but there's no mistaking a hefty quantity of coffee added in. This one is available in pints at the Myrtle Street location on nitro. It has a strong coffee aroma and taste and the thick creamy head typical of a nitro beer. I get a lot of chocolatey undertones with a slight coffee (hop?) bite towards the end.

Name: Joe Bong Coffee Porter
Brewery: Kettlehouse Brewing Co., Missoula, MT.
Style: Porter with flavors.
Color: Black with a creamy off white head.
Packaging: draft at the Myrtle Street location.
Stats: ?% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: Kettlehouse Brewing Co.
Ruling: Four out of Five Hops. Great pairing of coffee and porter.

Montana Beer Laws 101: Dude, Where's My Pint?

If you've ventured into a Montana tap room, you've probably read the signs or otherwise been informed of the limited amount of beer you can purchase to consume on site. Or perhaps you wondered why there's no food for sale. Or, to your horror, discovered at 8:01 p.m. that the taps were shut off until the following day. The hows and whys are a product of the complexity of Montana's alcohol laws and the culture that has risen up to protect them.  That Montana has these crazy laws regulating tap room sales at all is a product of compromise within and without this culture. Among these laws are wonderfully encouraging phrases like "It is the intention of this section to prohibit brewers and beer importers from engaging in the retail sale of beer." (16-3-213(1), MCA). I won't pretend to delve deeply into the details, but can have a little fun describing the basics.  For this post, we'll take a look at tap room sales.

Like other states, if you want to sell beer or other alcohol in Montana, you've got to have a license - and there's a variety of them. At some point, I'll put together a list. The system is heavily regulated and represents a fascinating insight into decades of legislative wrangling.  When breweries started popping up again in the 1980s, selling pints at the breweries wasn't allowed. That didn't come along until 1999 (gasp!).  Here's the current text in the Montana Code (Sec. 16-3-213 (2)(b), MCA) providing for the on premise sale of pints:
A small brewery may, at one location for each brewery license, provide samples of beer that were brewed and fermented on the premises in a sample room located on the licensed premises. The samples may be provided with or without charge between the hours of 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. No more than 48 ounces of malt beverage may be sold or given to each individual customer during a business day.
There's a bunch of information in these three sentences. First, the beer doesn't have to be sold. It can be given away to your favorite beer bloggers (hint, hint). In any event, it can only be sold between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. and there's a limit of 48 ounces per person per day. The picture accompanying this post is Kettlehouse's method of keeping track of your state mandated limit.  Note that sales can only happen in a "sample room" located at the brewery. The Department of Revenue has interpreted a "sample room" to include a deck or a patio as long as it "is immediately adjacent to the brewery sample room and can only be accessed from the sample room."  (42.13.601, A.R.M.) The deck or patio must also "be enclosed in such a manner as to restrict its access and view from the general public on the street or sidewalk." See, Bayern's, Glacier's and Blacksmith's patio spaces, to name a few, look that way for a reason.

Lastly, you might be wondering what a "small brewery" is. A small brewery is "a brewery that has an annual nationwide production of not less than 100 barrels or more than 10,000 barrels."  (Sec. 16-3-213 (2)(a), MCA.) If you've thought it was odd that Big Sky Brewing in Missoula doesn't sell pints at the brewery, there's your answer.  Whether they would like to do so or not, they can't, given their annal production of more than 10,000 barrels of beer. Which raises an interesting issue. We reward the success of our Montana grown breweries by cutting off a popular and profitable outlet for their beer. 

In the next installment: Montana Beer Laws 102: Cheeseburger anyone?

Mogul Madness Ale

Since it is the great holiday week between Christmas and New Years, I took the liberty to stop in at the Rhino in Missoula one afternoon to catch up with a friend and see what new beers were among the 50 or so on tap. I'm usually pining for snow each day of winter and figured a Mogul Madness might be something of a snow dance or homage to the snow gods. If you're in a store and spot a Rogue Ale bottle (typically 22 oz bottles) check it out. Rogue Ales' bottles are some of the most informative in the business, always including great  information on IBUs, gravity, ingredients and the like. For some reason, though, the brews don't often mesh well with my particular taste buds (they have a wide variety and I intend to keep on trying!).

This one is a winter ale for hop heads. It has a brownish color with red highlights and a thick white head (looks redder in the picture than it was).  There's a ton of citrus hop flavor and strong hop bitterness. True to Rogue's description, the hop bitterness and flavor lingers for a long time.

Name: Mogul Madness Ale
Brewery: Rogue Ales, Newport, OR.
Style: described as a Winter Ale.
Color: Medium brown with white head.
Packaging: draft (also available in 22 oz bottles).
Stats: 6.5% abv, 77 IBU.
Bought: The Rhino, Missoula.
Ruling: Three out of Five Hops. Hop lovers rejoice.

Glacier Chaser Marzen Lager

As a malt preferring beer drinker, Marzens have long been a favorite. Marzen style beers were originally brewed in March and brought out during the time of Oktoberfest  and are frequently labeled as Octoberfest beers. They are rich, malty, somewhat toasty beers without being too sweet. The lagering helps bring out the malt flavors.  They are typically full bodied and very smooth. Perhaps a little too smooth.

Great Northern's version didn't disappoint and I'd say it is an interpretation of the style with a bit of individuality. It is bottle conditioned (natural carbonation) with a good amber color and a nice white head. It is medium bodied with an initial malt taste transitioning to a light hop bitterness finish. There was a floral hop aroma which is a departure from the malt aroma that is typical for the style. It was smooth, enjoyable and disappeared fast from my glass.

Name: Glacier Chaser Marzen Lager
Brewery: Great Northern Brewing, Whitefish, MT.
Style: Marzen/Oktoberfest.
Color: Amber with white head.
Packaging: 22 oz bottle.
Stats: 6% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: Grocery store, Kalispell.
Ruling: Three and a half out of Five Hops. Good, smooth, really nice Marzen.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Keeping Up With the Beer Scene

There's a lot going on in the world of beer, even just in Montana, and it is tough to keep up.  A great way to keep on top of current beervents is to keep a close eye on Grizzly Growler. Tim is a pro at this and provides frequent updates on events, beer reviews, beer news and a variety of related items from Montana and beyond. He's got an "in" with many of the brewers and others in the industry and that's great for the rest of us. Plus, he has kind words for Growler Fills, encouraging those of us in the trenches who regularly take one for the team by getting out to try new beers.  Its a tough hobby, but . . . .

Widow Maker Lager

This beer from Red Lodge Ales had just been put on tap at Brooks and Browns in Missoula when we stopped in before heading to the Wilma to watch the national championship game with 1,000 of our fellow Griz fans. Alas, the Griz didn't prevail, but the beer was a winner. It is a golden bock, with a light golden color, white head and strong, smooth biscuit/grain flavors.  For those not familiar with the style, golden bocks (also known as helles bocks) are deceptive beers.  The light color can trick you into believing the flavor might be as thin as a domestic macrobrew.  Yet, this Red Lodge Ales version is a medium-heavy bodied beer with great full malt flavor, a bit of hop bitterness to the finish and 6.5% abv.

If you're interested in trying a golden bock beer and need the bottled variety, I recommend Gorden Biersch's Blonde Bock (malty, biscuit flavors, medium hopped, 7% abv, beautiful light golden color) which will give you a good introduction to the style. I've seen six packs regularly at Missoula's Good Food Store and occasionally at Missoula's Worden's Market.

Name: Widow Maker Lager
Brewery: Red Lodge Ales, Red Lodge, MT.
Style: Golden Bock (Helles Bock).
Color: Light golden with white head.
Packaging: draft.
Stats: 6.5% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: Brooks and Browns restaurant, Missoula.
Ruling: Three and a half out of Five Hops. Good, smooth, enjoyable golden bock.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

North Fork Organic Porter

Ever find a beer that just "does it" for you? You know, one of those beers that perfectly fits what "beer" ought to taste like and you're always happy to see on tap?  Blackfoot River Brewing's North Fork Organic Porter is one of those beers for me. Flathead's Peg Leg Porter was another, but Flathead Brewing is no more.  North Fork Organic Porter is a full bodied brew packed with great roasted malt flavor. It finishes with a great coffee-like bite.  Blackfoot describes it as a traditional English-style porter. Frankly, I don't know that I've had a traditional English-style porter and would put this one more in the robust, American style given its full body and higher hop levels.  It doesn't matter. This beer does it for me. I only wish I could find it more often.

Name: North Fork Organic Porter
Brewery: Blackfoot River Brewing, Helena, MT.
Style: Robust Porter.
Color: Dark brown, almost black with red highlights and a tan head.
Packaging: draft.
Stats: 6.5% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: Blackfoot River Brewing, Helena, MT.
Ruling: Four and a half out of Five Hops. An excellent robust porter.

Barrel Bomber Stout at Glacier Brewing Co.

Montana is indeed a great place to be a craft beer fan, especially with breweries popping up in many small towns like Lakeside, Stevensville, Wibaux and places in between. Glacier Brewing sits up the hill from downtown Polson at the southern end of Flathead Lake.  I've always wondered why Polson doesn't have a Dairy Queen, but that's a different story for a different blog.

I've only stopped in to Glacier Brewing Co. twice, partly owing to the fact that Polson isn't as much a destination as a pass-through when you live in Missoula and partly because it isn't open on Sundays when I'm often headed back through Polson from some activity to the north.  I'm not entirely sure what the tap room is trying to be. It is a bit of a mix of Kettlehouse's Myrtle street location with the yard sale couches and cluttered appearance and Blacksmith Brewing with its barnwood and western theme. There's a large outdoor area that looks like a great place for summer refreshments. 

I got the timing right recently and stopped in for a pint of Barrel Bomber Stout, a whiskey barrel aged stout that is part of their One Barrel Batch series of specialty brews. There have been a number of whiskey barrel aged beers popping up in Montana's tap rooms lately, probably owing to - and I'm totally guessing here - the Montana Brewers Association's efforts to obtain and distribute the barrels to its members. I've had Tamarack's Vanilla Bourbon Stout and Blacksmith's Pulaski Porter aged in bourbon barrels and enjoyed both of them. Judging by the name, it appears Glacier started with their Slurry Bomber Stout, a dry, sweet stout, and aged it for four months in whiskey barrels.

Though Glacier describes it as lightly carbonated to showcase the deep flavors, I think this one could benefit from a little more carbonation.  It is also possible I got a bad pour because there was zero head on it which I thought was odd.  The bourbon flavor is distinct with a dry stout base. The hop bitterness, aroma and flavor is minimal as intended. It is opaque black, medium-light bodied and interesting, though not overly complex. To be fair, I had recently stumbled upon The Abyss, the most complex and highly treasured whiskey barrel stout made and the timing probably wasn't good for a comparison. They aren't intended to be the same style of beer, but the mind often gets in the way of a fair consideration.  If you've had Glaciers' Bomber Barrel Stout, I'm curious to know your impressions.  Remember, its all relevant.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Where to Find Beer: Blackfoot River Brewing Co.

Real Good Beer, Made By Real Good People.  That's their slogan. It is a good slogan, though a more accurate one might be "Damn Good Beer, Made by Real Good People".  But I can see how the authorities might frown on a slogan like that. No matter how accurate. Blackfoot River Brewing is an unquestionable success story among the many positive things happening in the Montana beer scene.

I can't say that I know these guys, but I first met them around 1997 when they started out as Howling Wolf Homebrew Supply on a side street off Last Chance Gulch in downtown Helena. I got my first homebrewing equipment from them along with plenty of tips and recipes, some of which I still keep in my files to use as a base for a new creation. I remember talking to Brian about their plans to start a brewery.  At the time he said they intended only to serve the Helena market and weren't interested in getting any bigger than that. Well, thank goodness that sentiment went by the wayside. It wasn't long after I moved to Missoula in 1999 that I saw one of their taps pop up at a restaurant downtown and now they're practically everywhere. Why? It's Damn Good Beer, Made by Real Good People.

In mid-November I was in Helena and had a couple of hours to stop in at their newish tap room. I took the "growler fills here" picture I've used on the blog there.  It was a Tuesday evening, but even at 4:30 p.m. there was a lively crowd and a steady stream of people coming in to fill up growlers.  The crowd kept getting bigger, louder and livelier every minute of the two hours I was there. The tap room has a very attractive, easy going vibe with plenty of space to enjoy your limit while meeting with friends. And since this is Helena, you never know who might show up with the state capital only a couple miles away.  On this evening it was the state's attorney general who was glad-handing while taking in a pint, though I couldn't tell which brew was his choice. 

As for me, I checked out their Holy Hop Back Pale Ale, released that day, and followed it up with a Northfork Organic Porter, an outstanding robust porter that has been in my top ten beer favorites since my first taste of it. Same goes for the Double Black Diamond Extreme Stout, a full-bodied trip through great roasted malts. Though I am definitely a malt head, I've grown to really enjoy Blackfoot River's Single Malt IPA as a fantastic showcase of hop flavor, aroma and bitterness without being so bitter that your taste buds fall off. The Organic Pale Ale is a great warm weather, crisp, session beer with just the right amount of hops to be easy drinking. Well worth a trip when you're in Helena and well worth finding on tap when you're not.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Abyss

In three or so years, this very limited production brew from Deschutes Brewing Co. in Bend, OR has already reached mythical status. It is an imperial stout with licorice and molasses with approximately 30% aged in oak and oak bourbon barrels. I tried to get my hands on some the past three releases without success. Part of the problem has been Montana's restrictive beer laws which were only recently changed to make the sale of this beer legal in Montana. I was even in Portland at a Whole Foods Store a couple of years back soon after its release, but the folks in the store told me they'd sold out of 20 cases in a matter of a couple of hours. Yeah, it's that hot.

Year four is my lucky year. Several cases of The Abyss showed up at Worden's Market in Missoula two weeks ago. I grabbed two bottles while having some lunch and still managed to keep a cool, calm exterior expression.  I also immediately wondered if I should have bought more, a slightly uneasy feeling I corrected a few days later. I figured I'd drink one and save one, but now I've got a bit more flexibility. Plus, when you pick up a beer with a "best after" date stamped on the side, you know you're going to want to do some comparison tastings.  In this case, the "best after" date is October 2010. Holy cow.

But that was only the first half of my luck. Last weekend on a purely-for-the-fun-of-it trip to Kalispell, we stopped in at one of our favorite restaurants, the North Bay Grille, just a block off the main drag through the center of town. Friday night was Kalispell's Holiday Art walk and the frigid temperatures had not yet set in. Downtown was as lively as I've ever seen it and the lightly falling snow seemed perfectly ordered up by the local chamber of commerce. As the bartender read off the list of tap beer, I was stunned to hear "the Abyss" as one of the offerings.

Frankly, I wondered if the folks at North Bay Grille knew what they had on their hands, but they appear to be more sophisticated at these things than the average crowd. (They've only got one keg, so you'd better hurry down.)  In fact, they seemed to take delight in someone ordering up a pint. Yes, a pint. I've never been served an 11% abv beer in a full pint glass. All the other high gravity beers have been served in a smaller snifter glass - partly due to the high alcohol and partly due to the shape of the glass which concentrates the aromas of these powerful brews. Can't say I was complaining, though, especially since I had a safe ride back to the hotel.

Deschutes describes The Abyss as having immeasurable depth and even that grand pronouncement may be an understatement. I've never enjoyed pondering a beer more and had to return the next night for another pint.  It is a huge beer. Dark, rich, complex, chewy and robust. The aroma is dark malt and alcohol. There is more hop bitterness than I expected and the alcohol is very warm and pronounced. There is a sweetness there, but it isn't syrupy.  The flavors keep coming at you long after the swallow - always with a roasted malt base, but a variety of other flavors arriving and departing. There's chocolate, both milk and dark. I detected less bitterness once it warmed a bit and a slight bourbon taste began to come through. A subsequent business trip allowed me to have a follow up pint and I found the bourbon to be much more pronounced, though it is hard to determine at times whether I'm tasting the bourbon or just the strong alcohol. Each sip remained interesting and brought a sly grin to my face. Ahh . . . a lucky year, indeed.

Name: The Abyss
Brewery: Deschutes Brewery, Bend, OR.
Style: Imperial Stout with flavors.
Color: Very black, with a dark brown head.
Packaging: 22oz bottles; draft (both very limited quantities).
Stats: 11% abv, 65 IBU.
Bought: Worden's Market, Missoula (bottles); North Bay Grille, Kalispell (draft).
Ruling: Five and a half out of Five Hops. An unusually incredible experience with beer

Friday, December 4, 2009

Finally made it to Belt

Belt, you say? Yes, Belt. Montana, that is. Sitting 20 miles east of Great Falls, Belt could easily be 40 miles from the middle of nowhere. From the main highway a mile from town, you wouldn't even know it was there, thanks to its location tucked down into a steeply banked river bottom.  You can't see it from the highway. All your eye notices is the rolling agricultural fields and the Highwood Mountains to the east.  But Belt does have a brewery, and that's what took me there.

I first got a taste of Harvest Moon Brewing Co. when I did a double take at the Jackson Creek Saloon in Montana City back in the 90's. I asked the bartender what the odd looking tap handle was and she relpied "Pigs Ass Porter." Now who can turn down a taste of that? Ever since, I've had Harvest Moon on my list of places to visit, but Belt isn't exactly a convenient destination.  Fortunately, I found myself a few miles away one day back in November and decided to make the trip.  If you do the same, call ahead. There don't appear to be any regular operating hours.

On my visit, the tap room only had four brews: Pigs Ass Porter, Beltian White, Charlie Russell Red, and one I can't recall.  I was a bit disappointed because I've had them all and am always looking for something new to try.  Unlike most of Montana's breweries, it is clear that Harvest Moon isn't focusing on tap room sales as a major component of its income. But Beltian White and Pigs Ass Porter are popular staples in many of the grocery stores I frequent and tap handles are prevalent around western Montana's restaurants and bars.  They appear to be doing well and for good reason. The beer is good. A couple of years ago, Harvest Moon was making a nut brown ale for sale at Riley's pub in Helena that was perhaps the best I'd ever tasted.  Not sure if it is still on tap, but I'm hoping for another chance to try some other creations from Harvest Moon.