Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bigfork Brewfest a Successful Inaugural Event

Good weather, a good crowd and good beer combined to create quite a success for the inaugural Bigfork Brewfest on Saturday.  Perhaps a bit too successful. Brewers were left scrambling for more kegs when a larger than expected crowd fully drained some offerings in the first hour.  Yet, the hundreds in attendance didn't seem to miss a beat, enjoying the return of Black Star Lager from Great Northern, a couple of Madison River's and Tamarack's favorites, Bitterroot Brewing's seasonal CTZ single hop ale and a variety of others.

Temperatures in the 40s meant a pair of gloves and a nice fire were all that was necessary to enjoy beer outside in Montana at the end of February.  I suspect the timing, as well as being the inaugural event, made it impossible to predict the size of the crowd.  One volunteer said pre-sales of tickets early in the week were in the single digits.  That doesn't surprise me. This time of year the weather can be as great as it was, or snowing like mad.  It is always going to be a wait-and-see kind of event for attendees when it is held outdoors. The annual brewfest in Missoula in May has wild swings of crowd size depending on the weather.  As many as 6,000 were reported by one news story at last year's Garden City Brewfest when the sun shone and temperatures hit 80 degrees. I've been there other years with a few hundred braving cold winds. The turnout in Bigfork was impressive and Sick Pony provided a great, energetic musical background.

But what about the beer, you ask?  Brews were available from Bitterroot, Tamarack, Madison River, Great Northern, Blackfoot River, and Big Sky - though I'm curious why Big Sky was pouring Moose Drool and Trout Slayer from 12 oz. bottles. Blackfoot River brought its most popular, and excellent, Single Malt IPA along with a very good seasonal, Mardi Gras Red. After running out, they rustled up a keg of Double Black Diamond Extreme Stout, one of my favorites.

Our hands-down favorite was Great Northern Brewing's Good Medicine Imperial Spring Ale. It is by far my favorite of Great Northern's brews so far and I was impressed with its rich, full bodied flavor.  It was a dark amber color with an off white head. A strong initial malt taste gives way to a balanced hop bitter finish. The 8% abv gives it quite a punch. I'd give it four out of five hops on my scale.

Here's a few more shots of the action:

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Event Reminder: Bigfork Brewfest This Saturday

If you need a beer fix this weekend, the place to be is Bigfork, Montana for the first Bigfork Brewfest.  Eight breweries have signed up and the organizers are working on three more. The fun kicks off at 3:00 on Saturday in downtown Bigfork (you can't miss it) with live music, food, beer and K-9 keg pulls.  Tickets are $15 in advance and are available in Bigfork at The Jug Tree, Sotheby’s Real Estate, and The Raven, at Great Northern Brewing in Whitefish and at Glacier Brewing in Polson.  Tickets are also available at the event for $20.

Growler Fills will be there to take in the sights, sounds and tastes and bring you a full report. But nothing compares to being there. So kick the cabin fever to the floor and head to Bigfork on Saturday.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Highlander Beer Sponsors Missoula Celtic Games

Word on the street, well, Facebook anyway, is that Highlander Beer is sponsoring the first Celtic Festival in Missoula this July 31, 2010 at Caras Park. The Festival will feature Celtic music, Celtic food and dancing and, of course, Highlander Scottish Ale. Years ago, somewhere around 1999 if memory serves, I remember attending some Highlander games at the Missoula County Fairgrounds when Big Sky Brewing first released its Stone Thrower Scotch Ale.  Stone Thrower, a Big Sky seasonal, is on tap now out at the brewery (I sampled some last Saturday before picking up a growler of Bobo's Porter). Hopefully, Highlander's sponsorship of the first Celtic Festival will help kick off another great annual good time in downtown Missoula.

Highlander Scottish Ale is a year-rounder from Missoula Brewing Company, brewed under contract by the good folks at Great Northern Brewing Co. in Whitefish.  It pours a beautiful clear, dark red/amber with an off white head. The aroma is caramel/malt and the taste, like all good scottish exports (that's the beer style, not haggis), is very smooth and malt all the way. It stays smooth all the way through the taste profile.  There's just enough hops to provide a bit of balance, but that's it. It is medium bodied and sits at 4.6% abv which, combined with its smoothness, provides for a very nice session beer. Check out the Highlander website for more info about its history.

Name: Highlander Scottish Ale
Brewery: Missoula Brewing Co. (via Great Northern Brewing, Whitefish, MT.)
Style: Scottish Export (80 shilling).
Color: Deep red/amber with an off white head.
Packaging: draft.
Stats: 4.6% abv, 19 IBU.
Bought: Sean Kelly's, Missoula (and available widely on western Montana taps)
Ruling: Three and a half out of Five Hops. Very good, smooth Scottish Export.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Montana Beer Laws 102: Cheeseburger Anyone?

Do you guys serve food? It is a question asked frequently at Montana breweries' taprooms and one I've heard often. The answer is typically no (hold on, keep reading).  As we learned in the last installment of Montana Beer Laws, the sale of alcohol is a highly regulated matter and includes limits on how, when and what can be sold. That said, I haven't been able to find anything in the Montana statutes or Adminstrative Rules of Montana that technically prohibits the sale of food.  Yet, there are certainly practical reasons why it is difficult.

Montana breweries are licensed to manufacture, package and sell beer. They can sell beer to a wholesaler, directly to retail licensees and the public (all with limitations, of course).  As discussed last time, sales for on-premise consumption by a brewery are limited to 48 ounces per person, per day between the hours of 10 a.m and 8 p.m. And that's only if you qualify as a "small brewery," one that manufactures less than 10,000 barrels a year (one barrel is 31 gallons of beer). If you want to serve food AND alcohol beyond these times and limitations, you're going to need something other than a brewery license.  You'll need an all-beverage license, or potentially one of a couple of other less desirable choices.  The owners of a brewery license are generally prohibited from also owning one of the other kinds of licenses.

"But wait!," you say. How come I can get a burrito or cheeseburger at Bitterroot Brewing in Hamilton, pub food and wood fired pizza at Montana Brewing Company in Billings, and everything from pizza to grilled salmon and ribeyes at Tamarack in Lakeside?  "You must not know what you're talking about!"  Well, that might be true, but let me explain.

If you've been inside Bitterroot Brewing, you know that the restaurant doesn't sell beer and the brewery doesn't' sell food.  They're two separate businesses which happen to share some common area.  As described here, when you're sitting in the Tamarack Brewing Company Alehouse and Grille, you're not sitting at a brewery. You're sitting in a restaurant that just happens to have a great view of the fermenters in the separate brewery. Same goes for the Montana Brewing Company. The latter two have all-beverage licenses for on-premises consumption of beer (wine and liquor, too) and are not saddled by the restrictions applicable to "small breweries." Why? Because it isn't the brewery selling you the beer. The Great Northern Brewing Company is the latest brewery to make this change.  What was once their tasting room is now the Draught House, a restaurant with a separate alcohol license.  That's a significant benefit over merely sharing space with a food business.

These guys aren't "getting around" the beer laws. Obtaining brewery licenses or other alcohol sales licenses for on-premise consumption involves background checks, approvals of floor plans and even public hearings on occasion. Rather, these guys are creatively working within the overly complicated mish mash of Montana's alcohol laws to create the look and feel of a traditional brew pub.

I know what you're thinking. Why don't more breweries do the same thing?  Well, I haven't asked them (yet), but part of the answer lies in Montana's quota system for on-premise consumption licenses.  There are two quota areas for each county in Montana. One quota area is established for incorporated cities and towns and includes the area five miles out from the corporate boundaries (as drawn in a straight line).  The second quota area is for those parts of the county that fall beyond the five mile radius of an incorporated city or town.  In Missoula County, for example, all of the licenses within the city quota area have long been allocated.  If you want one of those, you'll have to buy and transfer it from someone else, to the tune of $1 mil plus for an all beverage license and $400K plus for a beer and wine license. [Note, those prices have dropped significantly in the economy that is 2009-2011.] Love it or hate it, that's the law of supply and demand for you.  That acquisition cost is obviously very burdensome. 

On the other hand, there remain a few unallocated licenses in the Missoula County quota area that can be obtained for the price of the application fee, which, depending on configuration, can be had for less than $1,200.  So, if you live out in the boonies, the acquisition costs - until the licenses have all been allocated - are fairly minimal.  Sounds great until you realize you're out in the boonies.  If the boonies (i.e. 5 miles outside an incorporated city and town) are a place like Lakeside, it can be a pretty attractive option.  If they're a place like Greenough, good luck.

One final note.  Montana's alcohol laws are complex and I have not begun to describe all the nuances and details. So take this post for what it is: an introduction to the general concepts and explanations for what you're seeing out there on the ground, not a treatise on how to obtain a license.

Next up? Montana Beer Laws 103:  HB400, a great success story.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentines Day Pint Glasses

Well, sure. I guess when you write a beer blog it's only natural that gifts from the heart might have a beer theme. Not that there's anything wrong with that. From my favorite valentine, I received a new set of official UK pint glasses. Awesome.

We were curious about the number etched underneath the crown because the number on this set differs from the remaining survivors of an earlier collection.  Apparently the numbers correspond to an individual trading standards officer operating under the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure quality control of pint glasses - ensuring that a pint really is a pint.  Licensed establishments in the UK are required to use certified pints. The number helps maintain the chain of accountability by being able to trace the glass back to whomever is charged with overseeing the accuracy of the measurement.  These glasses bear the number 562  and my original ones are 303.  I read where the newest glasses no longer bear the crown and instead contain the word "pint" and the letters "CE" for use throughout the European Union.

I assure you, I will be putting these to good use.

Maibock in Whiskey Barrels? Really?

Yes, really. Dead Guy Ale is a mainstay of Rogue Brewing. I've always been surprised it is a maibock because the hop profile seems too bitter, but nevertheless, that's what Rogue calls it. I've generally not found Dead Guy Ale, to my liking. But when I saw John John Dead Guy Ale on tap at the Rhino in Missoula, the curiosity got the best of me and I asked for a pint.

Rogue brews fine ales as well as spirits.  The brewmaster's name is John and the master disteller's name is also John. So now you know where the John John comes from. These two guys got together and decided to blend their two craft's together.  Beer John brewed up some Dead Guy Ale and drove it across the parking lot (I'm not making that up) to age the beer in some of Distiller John's whiskey barrels.The result is John John Dead Guy Ale, a maibock aged for three months in whiskey barrels. It is part of a new series of ales blending the beer and spirit divisions of Rogue. Apparently, they brewed 3,100 gallons of this one and you can find it on draft and in 22 oz. bottles. If you're lucky. Next up are the John John Juniper Pale Ale, Rogue's Juniper Pale Ale matured in Rogue Spruce Gin barrels, and the John John Hazelnut Brown Nectar, Rogue's Hazelnut Brown Nectar aged in Rogue's Hazelnut Spiced Rum barrels.

This John John pours a nice amber color with a white head.  The aroma is sweet.  The initial taste is a very pronounced whiskey. It is not at all what you'd expect for a beer of this color and that's part of what makes it such a fun one to drink. It flips your perception. There's certainly a hop hit in there as well, though the whiskey stays with you all the way through the taste profile. Rogue's offerings tend to be too bitter for me, but this one is a really enjoyable brew. Partly for the novelty and mostly because it is just darn good.  I'll certainly be looking for the next ones in this series.

Name: John John Dead Guy Ale
Brewery: Rogue Ales, Newport, OR.
Style: Maibock aged in whiskey barrels.
Color:  Light amber color with white head.
Packaging: draft.
Stats: 6.5% abv, 40 IBU.
Bought: The Rhino, Missoula.
Ruling: Four out of Five Hops. Unusual, fun, unexpected beer.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Quick Stop at Bitterroot Brewing for CTZ Single Hop Pale Ale

I had a few minutes to spare recently which pairs nicely with good fortune when you find yourself a few blocks from one of Montana's fine breweries. This time it was Bitterroot Brewing Co. in Hamilton, a comfortable spot with a regular line up of six beers nearly always on tap plus two or three "whims," or seasonal brews.

Bitterroot Brewing has live music on Thursdays and Saturdays and a pretty fun line up at that. There's also food available from a separate restaurant inside the brewery that shares the space. Good food.  Burritos, tacos, burgers and more.  You'll have to pay for your food and beer separately, but that's a small inconvenience for getting fresh food and fresh beer at the same spot.

I asked for a pint of their CTZ Single Hop Pale Ale, the latest in their line of single hop ales. Belgian Honey Trippel and Winter Warmer were the other two whims on tap, but I had to hit the road. I wasn't familiar with CTZ hops, so I did a little research.  It stands for Columbus/Tomahawk/Zeus which are three hop varieties that are commonly lumped together. Why, I wasn't able to learn, but I presume because they bear great similarities to each other.  They are considered super alpha hops, a loose category of hops with a very high alpha acid content (in the neighborhood of 14% to 16%) which is where the bitterness comes from.
CTZ Single Hop Pale Ale pours a cloudy, straw color and a fairly big white head. Cloudy because it is unfiltered. The aroma is a very strong citrus hop. The taste is hops (good, slightly citrus hop flavor) and a slight underlying maltiness with just the right amount of bitterness to make a crisp, easy drinking pale ale. It is great to find a beer like this among the traditional heavy winter beers, though I couldn't help but think how good it would be on a hot summer day. I'm betting they'll have something just as good by the time July rolls around.

Name: CTZ Single Hop Pale Ale
Brewery: Bitterroot Brewing Co, Hamilton, MT.
Style: IPA.
Color: cloudy, straw color.
Packaging: draft.
Stats: 6.33% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: at the brewery, Hamilton, MT
Ruling: Three and a half out of Five Hops. Crisp, nice Pale Ale.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mojo Risin' Double IPA

As the third beer in my IPA round-up, I popped open some Mojo Risin' Double IPA from Bolder Beer Company.  This is the first beer I've had from the folks at Boulder Beer, so I headed over to their website to check them out. It is a fun site that's worth a look around if only to listen to the sounds. Mojo Risin' is a double IPA version of Boulder's year round Mojo IPA with a ton (well, half ton, literally) of extra malt and "double dry hopped with Amarillo hops"

Mojo Risin' Double IPA pours a cloudy gold with some orangish/brownish color working in there and a white head. There is a strong citrus and slightly sweet aroma.  The taste is malty to start with a pleasantly bitter aftertaste. Overall, the mouthfeel is creamy and full bodied. At 10% abv, you know there's a ton of malt in there, but the hops are amped up to provide a good balance.  I can't find any info on how many IBUs there are. This is a really fun beer that takes most of the way through a pint to explore all the flavors.  The alcohol is present, but not overpoweringly so. Ultimately the citrus from the hops is what stays with you. I enjoyed it quite a lot. If I'm not careful, these double IPAs may become one of my favorite styles.

Name: Mojo Risin' Double IPA
Brewery: Boulder Beer Co., Boulder, CO.
Style: Imperial/Double IPA.
Color: Gold with orangish/brownish undertones; white head. 
Packaging: 22oz bottle.
Stats: 10% abv, ? IBU.
Bought: Worden's Market, Missoula.
Ruling: Four out of Five Hops. Very interesting, fun, double IPA.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Hop Henge Experimental IPA

The second beer in my IPA round-up is Deschutes Brewing's Hop Henge Experimental IPA. Deschutes has been tweaking this experimental IPA for several years now, though I haven't had it often enough to recognize the changes.  Hop Henge Experimental IPA is part of Deschutes' Bond Street Ales Series, three "hop-forward" seasonal beers that continue to add to Deschutes wonderful line up of inventive, interesting beers. Red Chair IPA and Hop Trip Fresh Hop Ale are the other two.

According to Deschutes, this year's Hop Henge uses several new hop processes and techniques, though they give no details which makes the information rather useless. It is dry hopped with Centennial and Cascade hops. In fact, there's a ton of hops.  The beer sports 95 IBUs which would normally send me running for the hills.  But it also sports 8.75% abv, providing a substantial malt base for an impressive balance.

Hop Henge pours a hazy medium amber color with a white head. I get a strong floral hop aroma. The taste is big floral hops over top a prevalent malt base.  It is fairly full bodied, though not creamy. I was inevitably comparing it to the Mojo Risin' double IPA which I'd had earlier in the day and found Hop Henge to be more of a straight up IPA without the complexity of Mojo.  The balance is very nice, despite the 95 IBUs and I found it paired well with some homemade crab cakes with cilantro lime sauce. Overall, the bitterness level was much less than I expected. It's a keeper.

As I was trolling around Deschutes' website, I saw that Deschutes' has released "Jubel 2010 Once a Decade Ale" that has been aged in Oregon Pinot oak barrels. I'm guessing it will be in pretty limited supply and might not make it over here to western Montana.  If you're lucky enough to find it, pick up two and we'll work a trade. 

Name: Hop Henge Experimental IPA
Brewery: Deschutes Brewery, Bend, OR.
Style: Imperial/Double IPA.
Color: Hazy golden amber with orange highlights; white head
Packaging: 22oz bottle.
Stats: 8.75% abv, 95 IBU.
Bought: Worden's Market, Missoula.
Ruling: Four out of Five Hops. Very nice IPA that pairs well with food.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Stone IPA

The crew at Stone Brewing Company make some fine beer and put it into some very informative bottles.  For years I only saw it in 22 oz bottles, but have recently noticed six packs showing up in the local stores.  Stone IPA has been around since 1997, though I'm just now getting around to trying it.  Chalk that up to my only recent interest and tolerance for hop featured beers.  Here's the first bottle I opened of the IPA roundup for Super Bowl weekend.

Stone IPA is a very attractive beer with a medium gold, clear body with a thick white head that lasts for quite a while. There is a strong flora hop aroma. I get an initial grain centered malt taste which transitions quickly to hop flavor and bitterness. This is a very pleasant IPA. The beer certainly features hop as all IPAs must, but the bitterness is kept to a level that allows you to enjoy the beer as well as enjoying good food with it, or another beer after it. This IPA features Columbus, Chinook and Centennial hops with "generous 'dry hopping'" to create the strong hop aroma and "crisp hop flavor" according to Stone. I'd say they delivered quite well.

Oh, and if you're out and about and spot some Stone Imperial Russian Stout or Stone Double Bastard Ale, pick me up a couple bottles and I'll gladly pay you back.  I haven't had either, but I'm guessing they're well worth the price of admission.

Name: Stone IPA
Brewery: Stone Brewing Co, Escondido, CA.
Style: IPA.
Color: Medium gold with a thick white head.
Packaging: 22 oz bottle.
Stats: 6.9% abv, 77 IBU.
Bought: local grocery store, Missoula.
Ruling: Three and a half out of Five Hops. Nice, enjoyable IPA.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Super Bowl: Good Food, Good Beer, Good Game

Given I'm much more of a college football fan than a fan of the pros, for me the Super Bowl is more an occasion to break out some good brew and whip up some good food.  The IPA round-up turned out to be a great success and I'll post the results quite soon.

Loyal readers know that crab cakes are a favorite and made for a great new year's eve dinner along with some coffee stout home brew.  Crab cakes once again were the dish of choice for the Super Bowl, this time paired with some jalapeno hush puppies and cilantro line sauce. Deschutes Brewing Co.'s Hop Henge Experimental IPA paired up wonderfully with the crab, cilantro lime sauce and jalapeno hush puppies. And the game? Not being partial to either team, I got just what I wanted: an interesting game that held my attention while cooking and keeping notes on the beers.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

An IPA Round Up

Thanks to a bit too much gluttony over the holiday season, I haven't been trying (or drinking) as many beers as became my custom (preference?) in a quest to return to my normal size. I'm pleased to report that my quest was quite successful, though other goals continue to take a swipe at my craft beer obsession.  Fear not, though. Growler Fills carries on.

I thought I'd open up something new, fun and exciting for the super bowl weekend and spotted a rather curious looking double IPA at Worden's Market in Missoula. That got me thinking. Why not make it an IPA round up kind of a weekend?  Hey, I don't pretend to be a constant source of other-worldly intelligent thinking, but one doesn't need too much inspiration when searching for a reason to buy new beer. So, with that in mind, I picked up three different IPAs to pop open and enjoy. My intent isn't to compare one to the other. Rather, these were three that happened to capture my attention when perusing the local selection.

Stone IPA, from Stone Brewing Company, Escondido, CA and Hop Henge Experimental IPA, from Deschutes Brewing, Bend Oregon, are fairly widely available. At least in the Northwest.  I don't know about Mojo Rising from Bolder Beer Co., Boulder CO.  I'll let you know how they turn out.

Tamarack Brewing: Pour Man's Porter

Work took me up to Kalispell this week which always gets me thinking about finding some new beer to try.  Kalispell isn't what I'd call a beer town, but there's a few spots here and there that occassionally have something interesting on tap. That didn't pan out this time, but there's a better reason for going up to Kalispell from Missoula. Whether you take the route east of Flathead Lake or west of the Lake, you're forced to drive by a brewery (though Flathead Brewing hasn't quite reopened yet).  Darn.

The west side takes you right by Tamarack Brewing Co. in Lakeside. Tamarack always has a couple of small batch brews on tap in addition to their regular lineup. This trip, they had brewed up a porter, a vanilla cream stout and one other I wasn't able to try.  I chose a full pint of the Pour Man's Porter to go with Tamarack Grill's excellent fish tacos.

Pour Man's Porter is very dark brown with some red highlights. It is full bodied and might be considered an imperial porter given the 8% abv.  I couldn't detect any aroma thanks to the great food smells filling the very busy place. The porter has fairly high carbonation, 35 ibus, a thin white head and is slightly sweet.  I get some pretty strong dark chocolate flavors, especially in the after taste. I rather liked it.

I also sampled the Vanilla Cream Stout.  Sampling is always a difficult way to get a good feel for the beer, but I wasn't in a position to have more than one. It usually takes me a full pint to adjust to whatever I'm tasting and also gives me a chance to taste it through some temperature variations (I tend to like beers in the upper range of serving temperature recommendations, if not a little warmer.)  Tamarack's vanilla cream stout has a pronounced vanilla flavor and, not surprisingly, a creamy mouth feel. The stout base is rather understated, showing only hints of roasted malts.  It has 7% abv and 30 ibus. I detected a slightly bitter or roasted malty aftertaste which nicely complimented the vanilla.  I'm now wishing I'd had a chance to have a full pint.