Friday, January 29, 2010

Great Northern Brewing: Celebrating 15 Years

I'm guessing many visitors to Montana are quite surprised to find such a thriving craft beer culture. With 25 +/- breweries at any given time for a state with fewer than one million people, it is a bit hard to fathom. And guess what? I'd hazard a guess there's room for more.  Breweries, that is. Montana's brewers have shown they can thrive through a variety of business models, some with popular and busy tap rooms and keg sales, but no bottling, others that cater almost exclusively to keg sales and bottling, and many with a combination of everything.  Some have taken the leap into canning their premium brews believing, correctly, the craft brew drinking population is sophisticated enough to recognize cans are not inferior to glass as a beverage delivery device.

Great Northern Brewing in Whitefish is celebrating its 15 year anniversary and invites everyone to take part in the celebration on February 6, 2010.  I received this nifty poster via e-mail this week with the details.  As an added incentive they'll be releasing the return of Minott's Black Star Double Hopped Golden Lager, eight years after it was last brewed.  You can read the details on the re-release of Black Star over at Grizzly Growler here and here.  I remember drinking Black Star Golden Lager when I arrived in Montana back in the 1990's and am anxious to taste it again. Great Northern also produced a Dark Lager version which I quite enjoyed, though it has also disappeared.  There do not appear to be any current plans to bring back the Dark Lager, but I did put in a plug for its return.  If you find yourself near Whitefish on Saturday, Feb. 6, stop by and take part in the fun.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Discombobulator Dopplebock

With a name like Discombobulator it has to be . . . . . . . well, dangerous, probably. It is a regular seasonal from the Kettlehouse Brewing folks and I stopped in for my first pint of it this past weekend.  Discombobulator pours a dark mahogany brown with a fairly white head. It has a very malty/caramel aroma.  The strong malt initial taste transitions into a slightly bitter aftertaste, with something in there that is slightly astringent or even burnt tasting. I'm not sure what it is, but I've noticed a similar taste in the aftertaste of Kettlehouse's Hemptobersplif. By astringent, I don't mean in a offensive way, just a noticeable presence. Kind of like how some dark coffees have an astringent finish to them. I'd be curious to know what it is. According to Kettlehouse's website, this beer carries an 8.5% abv with 22 IBUs,  though the board in the brewery suggested this batch came in at 7.8% abv.

Name: Discombobulator Dopplebock
Brewery: Kettlehouse Brewing Co., Missoula, MT.
Style: Dopplebock.
Color: Dark Mahogany
Packaging: draft at the Myrtle Street location.
Stats: 7.8% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: Kettlehouse Brewing Co.
Ruling: Three out of Five Hops.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Glissade Golden Bock

Glissade Golden Bock appeared in our local grocery store within the last couple of weeks and you know I had to give it a try.  There's two reasons for that. One, I'm a fan of golden bocks (and other color bocks, for that matter). And two, Sierra Nevada's consistently good quality.  It is a new beer from Sierra Nevada, released this month.  I saw a press release suggesting it is the first of several new beers to be introduced by Sierra Nevada, though I have no idea what is coming next. Last summer, I took a strong liking to their fresh/wet hop brews.  With those, Sierra did a great job of featuring the flavor and aroma of hops without being overpoweringly bitter.

Glissade Golden Bock on the other hand isn't about hops. And that's true to the style for golden/helles bocks. This one pours a see-through light golden color that trends a little towards yellow.  Frankly, it is a beautiful beer. It has a thin white head that disappears fast which is common for a lager. It has a fairly strong malt/grain aroma that leads into an initial taste to match.  There's a fairly high carbonation level and a nice balance of hops.  The hop bitterness level doesn't take away from the featured malt, but does keep the malt in check to keep it from becoming too sweet. The finish is grain, which I tend to like in a golden bock. It is easy drinking and quite enjoyable.

Name: Glissade Golden Bock
Brewery: Sierra Nevada, Chico, CA.
Style: Golden Bock.
Color:  Light gold, white head.
Packaging: 12 oz. bottle.
Stats: 6.4% abv, 42 IBU.
Bought: local grocery store.
Ruling: Three out of Five Hops. Nice, smooth, balanced golden bock.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bobo's Robust Porter: Funny Name, Great Beer

What I'm about to say might be considered blasphemy by some in these parts, but I'll say it anyway.  Big Sky Brewing's regular lineup of beers doesn't really "do it" for me. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying it's bad beer. Far from it. I'm just reinforcing the basic tenant of this blog which I describe under the "Its All Relative" section in the side bar.  Taste is subjective.

But plop down a few of Big Sky's seasonal and specialty brews and we're talking a whole 'nother story. Ivan The Terrible Imperial Stout? Awesome. I'm still waiting for the right occasion to open up and compare a 2008 bottle with a 2009 bottle. When I picked up a bottle of Big Sky's limited release of Bobo's Robust Porter last winter, I knew I'd need to stock up.  So stock up I did, though it disappeared all too fast.

Frankly, having seen nothing on Big Sky's website that suggested Bobo's would become a regular thing, I was surprised (and thrilled) to see it back in stores and at the brewery last week. Bobo's is a robust porter and, as Big Sky says, "robust" is a bit of an understatement as far as porters go. It is medium-full bodied with a roasted malt/coffee like punch. Bobo's pours a solid black with a dark tan head.  It has a strong roasted malt/earthy aroma with hints of coffee and chocolate.  There's a great coffee-like bite to it provided by the roasted malts and relatively aggressive hop levels. I even get a slight smokiness before it finishes with strong dark chocolate flavors. As a big fan of robust porters, this one sits high among my favorites.

As for the name, legend has it that Bobo was a pretty resilient Chihuahua, but you'll have to get the full story from the fine folks at Big Sky Brewing.

Name: Bobo's Robust Porter
Brewery: Big Sky Brewing Co., Missoula, MT.
Style: Robust porter.
Color: Black, with a dark tan head.
Packaging: 12 oz bottle.
Stats: 6.2% abv, 30 IBUs.
Bought: Worden's Market, Missoula, MT.
Ruling: Four out of Five Hops. If you're a fan of robust porters, you'll be a fan of this one.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Flathead Lake Brewing Co. Revival

Tim Jacoby is the new-old head brewer for Flathead Lake Brewing Co. and he tells us the brewery is indeed shooting for a March reopening.  Tim was the brewer at Flathead Lake from June 2007 through the end of 2008. He was trained by Travis Zeilstra of the Montana Brewing Company over in Billings which makes some great award winning beer. From my own experience, it is clear Tim has learned the craft well and can take credit for his own great skills.  Tim reports he will be producing some of the old favorite beers (good news!), but will also be bringing in some new yeast strains and grains to experiment with new styles and flavors to compliment the food the brewery will be serving for the first time.  Yet another reason for spring to get here soon!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Mud Slinger Spring Ale and Beer from the Big Boys

I've talked to a lot of craft beer drinkers with whom I share a curious tendency. When a brewery gets "too big" we tend to turn up our nose and figure there's no more "craft" to the craft brewing. I've heard this a lot about Sam Adams. Same with Widmer once they were bought out by Anheuser Busch. "Bought out" really isn't a correct description, but that's how many beer drinkers think about it.  Redhook merged with Widmer a couple of years back. For some reason, when the locals do well, we celebrate, but if they get too big, we rebel. I recently overheard a group of knowledgeable beer drinkers talking beer around pints at the Rhino in Missoula. One of them said he was embarrassed to admit he'd picked some Sam Adams Imperial Stout over at Worden's Market.  Trust me, I'm not chastising. I'm just articulating what I know to be a common feeling. It is a feeling I have to fight in my own world of beer exploration.

The reality is, the big boys make some great beer. Sam Adams Octoberfest is one of my fall favorites.  Their chocolate bock is a really fun, interesting beer. For the very first post of this blog, I described one of my all time  favorites, Redhook's Double Black Stout. Why mention all of this? Because it all went through my head when I spotted Redhook's newest offering in a local grocery store today: Mud Slinger Spring Ale.

When you live in Montana, seeing a "spring ale" show up in mid-January is a bit of a cruel tease.  Spring is a long way away. I decided to grab a six-pack because Mudslinger Spring Ale is, somewhat surprisingly, a nut brown ale, one of my favorite styles.  It's apparently a re-branding of what Redhook previously called, rather simply, nut brown ale.  Names aside, this is a very drinkable beer. Redhook calls it a typical American brown ale style and uses six different malts. It pours a very pleasing clear reddish brown with a slightly off white head.  The aroma is strong malt which carries through with the taste as well.  There's a good amount of nuttiness to this beer and good caramel levels. Hops are not featured, but there's enough of them to make this a balanced beer. It is smooth and goes down very easily. I'd call it medium bodied. Alcohol is 5.8% abv. It may be beer from the big boys, but I'll be drinking more of it.

Name: Mud Slinger Spring Ale
Brewery: Redhook, Woodinville, WA.
Style: American Brown Ale.
Color: Clear reddish brown.
Packaging: 12 oz bottle.
Stats: 5.8% abv, 30 IBUs.
Bought: Local grocery, Missoula, MT.
Ruling: Three and a half out of Five Hops. Very good, easy drinking, nutty brown ale.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

"On Nitro"

On various occasions in this Blog, I've mentioned that a beer was available "on nitro." What does that mean, you might be asking?   Most beers are carbonated with carbon dioxide to varying levels typical of the style of beer or the brewer's whim.  An English brown ale might have relatively low carbonation while a west coast pale ale usually has very high carbonation.  Carbonation can be either artificial or natural.  With artificial carbonation, the most common method, CO2 is forced into the beer and occurs rather quickly. The amount of carbonation is easily controlled and consistent.

Natural carbonation is often referred to as "bottle conditioned" where the carbonation occurs naturally through reactions that occur in the bottle or keg after bottling/kegging.  A bottle conditioned beer is metabolically active because it has live yeast remaining in it, an essential element for natural carbonation. A small amount of additional malt or other fermentables (i.e. sugars) are added to the fermented beer just before bottling. (Commercially, there's a way to do it without adding extra fermentables, but I'm speaking from a homebrewer's perspective.) Once in the bottle, the yeast remaining in suspension consumes the additional malt/sugars with the byproduct being CO2 gas (and a little alcohol).  Because the bottle/keg is sealed, the pressure builds up and the CO2 gas dissolves in the beer and the beer is "carbonated."  Yeah, yeah, I know. Get on with the "nitro" thing.

Typically, pressurized CO2 is used to push the beer from the keg to the tap. When a beer is "on Nitro" the gas used to push the beer is a mixture of nitrogen and CO2 in roughly a 75/25% mix. The nitrogen displaces quite a bit of the dissolved CO2 in the beer and creates a thick, creamy head (think Guinness) and a very smooth, creamy mouth feel.  The different style tap you see is necessary because the pressure used to serve beers on nitro is much higher.  There is a restricter plate/screen in the tap that the beer is forced through which causes the nitrogen to break out of solution and create the thick, creamy head.

The cascading bubbles you see when the beer is first poured are the nitrogen bubbles.  Because much of the CO2 is displaced, a beer on nitro often tastes a bit flatter.  I find that it also tends to temper the flavors and bitterness somewhat. At the start of my craft brew drinking days, serving beer on nitro seemed reserved for stouts and porters. But in today's wide open world of beer experimentation you'll see practically any style served up on nitro from time to time.  The three pictures here show Kettlehouse's Disc Down Oatmeal Brown on nitro as it transitions from the initial pour with the cascading bubbles to the thick creamy head.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Tale of Two Black IPAs

Black IPA. Huh?  This was a new one for me, though after reading up about it one could certainly say black IPAs are a strong trend. Whenever enough brewers set out to try something like this it invariably triggers a debate about beer styles. Create a critical mass around a central theme and the beer gods just might create a new beer style for the books.  This doesn't happen often, but did occur in the past few years with double (or imperial) IPAs. Which brings me to the point of this post: What is it?

My first experience with a black IPA was down at Blacksmith Brewing Co. on Jan. 2.  The name drew me in: Black Iron IPA.  The taste had me ordering a second pint. As you've probably guessed, Blacksmith's Black Iron IPA is black (yes, the picture stinks). It has an off white/tan head and checks in at 6.2% abv.  It has a bit of an earthy aroma (dry hopped with columbus hops) which matches with an underlying earthy taste. What is unusual about this IPA is the addition of chocolate and black malts which contribute both color and flavors.  This is a very balanced beer from the initial taste all the way through the aftertaste.  The hop bitterness is less pronounced than in Blacksmith's more traditional Cutthroat IPA, likely due to more of a balance with the chocolate and black malts.  You can clearly taste the roasted/chocolate malts and it contributes a wonderfully interesting flavor. Blacksmith describes it as an "out of the box" IPA and they clearly delivered.

A few days later I was in a local grocery store and spotted Widmer's 2010 "W" Brewmaster's release: Pitch Black IPA. Though I'm not usually a fan of Widmer's brews, my curiosity was running quite high at the discovery of a second black IPA in less than a week.  The label describes it as having "a pinch of black malt and a splash of roasted barley."  No surprise, the color is black and there's a few red highlights in there. It has a white head and 6.5% abv. The aroma is hop all the way (I smell cascades) as is the taste.  There's a moderately high hop bitterness level.  Once I adjusted to the hop level I found it to be a pleasant IPA, but that's it.  There's nothing more than color contributed by the black malt and roasted barley. Curious, I checked out Widmer's website and found the answer.  "We add a modest amount of a specially made debittered black malt to give this IPA a very dark color but without the characteristic dark malt flavors."  To which I thought, why bother?  Don't get me wrong, I'll have no trouble finishing out the six pack.  But once past the momentary curiosity of the unusual color, it's disappointing the Widmer folks did nothing more with the beer.

I'll have to try a few more before joining the debate about creating a new style category for black IPAs.  I can't imagine creating one simply because of a different color.  But if more brewers are using the roasted malts to add color and flavor, they might be on to something.

The winner here?  Hands down, Blacksmith's Black Iron IPA. Changing the color is fun, but introducing new flavors is far more interesting.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Next Beer on Tap" at The Raven, Woods Bay, MT

Lisa at The Raven restaurant and bar in Woods Bay, MT, a few miles south of Bigfork, sends word of an awesome idea. They've now got voting cards at the restaurant allowing beer drinkers to vote for what Montana brew gets to be "Next Beer on Tap."  I'm occasionally surprised at the relative lack of tap rotation at my favorite joints and it's great to see The Raven getting interactive and keeping it fresh.

With Tamarack, Glacier, and Great Northern nearby, there's a lot to choose from just in the immediate area. And it appears Flathead Lake Brewing, located just across the highway from The Raven, is set to reopen in March.  So, while you're in the area at the Bigfork Brewfest, head down to The Raven and cast your vote.  Or stop in anytime for one of the best views of the lake while dining and drinking.  I took this picture there to taunt friends during a visit back in June. It worked. Thursdays bring extra incentive: $1.00 off pints and growlers each week on Thirsty Thursdays.

Coming Attractions: Bigfork Brewfest, Feb 27

I just got word of an exciting new addition to Montana's brewfests and a great reason to visit Bigfork, MT in late February. The Bigfork Brewfest will be held Saturday, February 27, 2010 from 3:00 until 7:00 p.m. in downtown Bigfork.  They will be closing a portion of Main Street for the event and local favorite Sick Pony (indie/rock/bluegrass) will provide live music. Fortunately, there will also be a fire pit. (I don't think those petunias are still lining the street this time of year).

I'm told six Montana Breweries have agreed to participate and they're waiting to hear back from three more, bringing an all Montana brew lineup to the event. There will be food booths set up and, of course, you'll only be steps away from Bigfork's great restaurants and the always great burgers at the Garden Bar. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the event. Great hotel rates are available and if you'd like more information, contact the organizers at

Bigfork is a fun place and if you're needing a reason to check it out, this sounds like a great one.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Blacksmith Brewing, Music and Fall Line Winter Ale

Yes, I've blogged about Blacksmith Brewing Co. before and it won't be the last time. It would be my "home" brewery -  that comfortable place that's easy to stop by at a moment's notice - except for the fact it is 25 miles south of Missoula. We headed down the Saturday of the new years' first weekend, partly as a reason to get out of town and partly to drink some great beer and hear some great music. (Sorry for the unusually dark pictures. It happens.)

Tom Catmull and Johnny Two Bones provided three hours of great entertainment and once again Blacksmith provided a great venue. It's the perfect adult entertainment (no, not that kind). Since Blacksmith, like all of Montana's "small breweries," must stop selling beer at 8:00 p.m., the music starts at 5:00, is over at 8:00, and you can still get home to bed at a reasonable hour.  Yeah, yeah, pipe down. I know we're not the only ones who appreciate that. The Burger Shack next door was closed for the weekend which opened up a new opportunity. At the brewery's suggestion, we ordered up a pizza from Kodiak Jax (which delivers, starting at 5:00) and had an excellent meal that paired great with the beer and music. Call it a bit of a temporary last hurrah before getting to work knocking off the holiday pounds.

What was on tap? Pulaski Porter, Black Iron IPA, Barleywine, and the new Fall Line Winter Ale were favorites among our group. I started off with a Winter Ale, taking notes and trying to figure out a flavor I wasn't able to recognize. Winter Warmers are a rather undefined style, but commonly have higher alcohol (to "warm" you), fairly strong malt and hops, and quite often have added spices.  Blacksmith's Winter Ale was cloudy with a medium brown color, off white head and a malty aroma. Malt dominates the initial taste, transitioning to a pleasant hop bitterness with a slight spicy note. It is full bodied and a nice mouthfeel with 8.5% abv. Very drinkable with a curious mix of tastes. And that flavor I couldn't identify? Juniper berries. 

Name: Fall Line Winter Ale
Brewery: Blacksmith Brewing Co., Stevensville, MT.
Style: Winter Warmer.
Color: Medium brown and cloudy; off white head.
Packaging: draft only.
Stats: 8.5% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: at the brewery, Stevensville.
Ruling: Three and a half out of Five Hops. Very nice winter warmer with curious flavors.

Reviewing Beer

Interested in creating your own beer reviews, or simply want to join the discussion? The folks over at BeerAdvocate have an informative guide that will give you plenty of guidance to get started. You'll also find articles on beer styles, glassware and much more, plus thousands of beer reviews. Read the guide to reviewing beers and then have a look at some (or a lot) of the beer reviews. One clear theme should emerge: there's no wrong way to review a beer. Some reviews are quick and dirty, others extensive. But perhaps the most important theme? Taste is individual. Remember that and you're well on your way.

I didn't start this blog to review beers. I started it to keep notes about the beers I've tried - to remember them, compare them, learn about them and have fun with them. So far, so good. There's no magic to it. I look at it, smell it, taste it, think about it and do it again. I keep notes in my blackberry as I'm tasting. Those notes are a saving grace.  I'm amazed at how little I sometimes remember even a few days after I try something.

Don't worry, learning about beer, reviewing beer, talking about beer - knowing something about beer - doesn't make you a beer snob. That only happens when adopting a condescending attitude toward someone else's preference or knowledge. It is far easier and fun to enjoy what you enjoy, try something new, and join the conversation.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Moylander Double IPA

There was a time not long ago when I figured I would never welcome a strong dose of hops into my beer world. But that was before I tried IPAs like Blackfoot River's Single Malt IPA and Tamarack Brewing's Headwall Double IPA and realized IPA doesn't have to mean tongue splitting bitterness. Sure, hops are featured, but flavors and aromas often dominate more than the bitterness.  When it comes to double IPAs there's a level of malt present that creates a very interesting style often transitioning sharply between strong malt and strong hop flavors.

I picked this one up at Topper's over in Helena, but have seen it in bottles around Missoula, if memory serves correctly. Moylan's Double IPA is a big beer with a big white head and a very large mouthfeel. It has a strong floral, almost earthy, aroma.  It finishes with strong hop bitterness, but there's a lot of malt in there, too. Moylan's, like Rogue, is another brewery that does a great job sharing information about their beers. I'll be on the lookout to try more from these folks.

Name: Moylander Double IPA
Brewery: Moylan's Brewing Co, Novato, CA.
Style: Double IPA.
Color: Cloudy, light copper, almost orange color.
Packaging: 22 oz bottle.
Stats: 8.5% abv, 90 IBU.
Bought: Topper's Cellar, Helena, MT.
Ruling: Three and a half out of Five Hops. Fun, interesting, big IPA.

Beer In the New Year

2010 is here and that's sure to bring many more beers to try. Some we'll love and a few might not make it to the end of the glass. But if 2009 was any indication of where craft brewing is headed in Montana (and beyond), we've got a lot of reasons to get excited. Grizzly Growler reports that Flathead Lake Brewing Company is reopening, this time as both a brewery and a restaurant. I'm curious to see whether the old favorites are coming back or if a new brewer brings a whole new approach. I'm also curious to see how they'll fit a restaurant into their already cozy space. I've heard rumors of a new brewery coming to Columbia Falls, but have yet to get concrete confirmation.

Brewers in western Montana show no signs of slowing and continue to give us reasons to come back time and time again. Hopefully the new year will bring plausible excuses get back to Butte, Helena, Bozeman, Billings and beyond to experience all Montana's craft brewers have to offer. Well, I'll probably need some help with that. So raise a glass, try a new beer and tell us what's going on out there.