Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Few More Vacation Beers

Yesterday, I posted a few brews I enjoyed on my recent trip back to Virginia. Today I'm doing the same thing, finishing out the list while we finish out the month of June.  Until the last few days, it didn't really feel like June in Missoula. Cold temperatures and regular rain wreaked havoc on the garden, but kept the sprinkler system turned off.  It looks like it will be a summer without fresh from the garden cucumbers, but the lettuce is loving life.  While it is possible to make beer with hot chili peppers, I've yet to see anyone do it with an abundance of left over spinach. 

Troegs Brewing Company in Harrisburg, PA, has been one of my favorites since I first discovered their brews a fews years back on an earlier vacation. I can't get them in Montana, so I look forward to finding them when I head to the East Coast. I picked up two this time. First up was Troegs JavaHead Stout. JavaHead is an oatmeal stout that passes through Troegs' "hopback vessel" on its way to the fermenter. The hopback vessel acts like a french press and is packed full of whole leaf hops and a bed of coffee beans.  That's according to Troegs description, since I don't happen to have a hopback vessel of my own. Frankly, it kind of sounds like a good name for the Delorean in the Back to the Future movie series.  Anyway, this beer is black with a light tan head.  The aroma is a bit sweet with some roasted malts and coffee. The flavor is rich and very smooth.  I get flavors of dark chocolate mixed with coffee and a coffee like bite to the finish.  Overall, the coffee flavor is fairly muted. It compliments and blends with the roasted malt rather than becoming featured. It packs 7.5% abv with 60 IBUs. I thought it was excellent.

Next up from Troegs I tried a bottle of Rugged Trail Nut Brown Ale. Truly nutty nut brown ales are one of my favorite styles of beer. This one hit the mark. It is dark brown with red highlights and an off white head. The aroma is strong caramel sweetness.  The initial taste is also a very prominent caramel malt flavor which transitions into a nutty balance along with a slight hop bitterness. What is surprising is the wonderful depth of flavors in a beer that has only 4.4% abv (28 IBUs).  Can you say "session beer"? Troegs can.

Lest you think I only picked up beers from the malt spectrum, I took a break from the malt and popped open a beer from Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, VA called Full Nelson, A Virginia Pale Ale.  The brewery is in Nelson County, VA, and I appreciated the play on words. It pours a cloudy, orange-copper color with a white head. There's a slightly fruity aroma. Light fruity hop flavors dominate, but at 5.9% abv (60 IBUs), there's a healthy malt backbone, too. The finish was mildly bitter and the brew has a nice balance overall. It was a good brew for a hot day, which it was. Blue Mountain Brewery has its own hop farm with more than 200 Cascade hop rhizomes.  That's worth a future tour. 

Finally, (well, there were others, but I'm running out of steam) I rather enjoyed Saranac Malt Brewing Company's Pale Ale. It has a slight fruit/citrus initial taste and is pleasantly bitter and crisp. I found it to be a wonderful hot weather pale ale that finishes with a bit of bitterness and hop citrus.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Few Vacation Beers

As I mentioned here, a great benefit of an out-of-state vacation is the opportunity to find some beers you just can't get back home.  That's especially true when your trip takes you back near a place like the Vintage Cellar. Here's a short rundown of a few of the beers I had a chance to try while enjoying my vacation back to the New River Valley of Virginia.

Right off the bat I spotted a couple bottles of Weyerbacher Brewing's Old Heathen Imperial Stout hanging out in the spare fridge of the folks' house.  If memory serves it was left over from a six pack I'd picked up on a previous trip a year prior. A year in the fridge? Yep. Did not seem to phase this 8% abv deliciously decadent imperial stout. It is very dark brown to black with a tan head with aromas of dark chocolate. Flavor is slightly sweet with a mixture of dark chocolate, a bit of roasted malt and even a hint of smoke. It is smooth and medium to full bodied.

A lunch with friends took us to Bull and Bones Brewhaus and Grille on south main street in Blacksburg, VA, a year old brew pub with a nice selection of hand crafted brews.  Blacksburg is home to Virginia Tech, my alma mater, and Bull and Bones brews up a brown ale called, paradoxically, Maroon Effect, named after one of the university colors. They've played with the malts a bit to give the beer a slight maroon color. There's a slight nuttiness to the beer with classic brown ale undertones.  There's more sweet malt in the finish than many brown ales, but that suits me just fine. I rather enjoyed it.

On tap at Oddfella's Cantina in Floyd, VA, I had a pint of Oatmeal Porter from Highland Brewing in Asheville, NC. The color was very black with a thick tan head. It was a robust style porter with lots of roasted malt flavor. A bit of bitterness comes through in the second half of the flavor profile. It was smooth with a full mouth feel and some coffee and toffee flavors. I found it to be very good, although I did not get any of the creaminess usually associated with adding oatmeal to a porter or stout.

An afternoon with a few relatives took us to the River Company Restaurant and Brewery outside Radford, VA. I grabbed a Southwest V IPA which paired well with the warm evening. It was light gold with a good white head and floral hop aroma. This crystal-clear beer had the prominent hop flavor and bitterness you'd expect for an IPA, though the Chinook and Amarillo hops certainly create a different flavor profile.  It has a crisp aftertaste and moderate bitterness in the finish.  The IPA was good, but the River Company really shined with their Dumpster Dog Porter.  Named after the brewer's late dog who was rescued from a dumpster, this is a robust porter that pours very black with an off white head. There is a coffee and roasted malt aroma.  It is smooth with a touch of creaminess, though the moderately high roasted malt flavors dominate.

I've got a few more vacation brews to post later including two from one of my favorite breweries, Troegs.

Monday, June 28, 2010

(1/2) Marathon Training Update

Pneumonia sucks.

Precisely one day after posting this entry extolling how wonderful my half marathon training was going I was handed a serious change to my training plan.  I headed out for my regular Wednesday evening training run with the Run Wild Missoula group thinking I would run through the return of a head cold I’d had a couple of weeks before.  I was scheduled to run an 8 miler, but cut it to 6 when my energy turned from bad to BP bad.  I was lightheaded, dizzy and hemorrhaging snot.  By the time I’d made the drive back to the house, I was shaking hard from chills and had a fever of 103.6.  This was not a cold.

It didn’t take long to diagnose walking pneumonia, but even the quick hit of antibiotics couldn’t keep me out of bed for the next two days.  Fast forward nearly three weeks and I’d managed to run exactly twice.  Both of those runs took place in the heat and humidity of my trip to Virginia in a misguided attempt to dislodge the crud that stuck to my lungs like the soap scum on my shower. Uh . . . . scratch that last part. 

What does pneumonia do to you?  Annoyingly and repeatedly makes you think your strength and energy are returning . . . until you try to exert either. That, and preventing your lungs from taking up sufficient amounts of oxygen for anything more strenuous than pouring a bowl of cereal. From a seated position.

In two and a half weeks I missed 70+ miles of running at a time during the eighteen week training schedule when you really focus on building up endurance. Only through cautious optimism and a bit of bull-headedness was I able to get back into the training.  The 14 miler I reeled off while over in Spokane a week ago was important more for the psychological reassurance than the training effect.  With thirteen days until race day (Sunday, July 11) I’d say I’m back to about 90% on the energy front and about 80% on the lungs. Pushing the pace makes my lungs object. Yeah, that's normal, but I'm tired of feeling the air fight through the crud. 

During my down time I missed running. Not just because I was falling behind on my training, but because I’ve reached the point where I enjoy getting out on the roads several times a week.

Oh, and did I mention I got hit by a car while running? That happened two weeks before the pneumonia. Fortunately, it was at low speed and I only suffered some cuts on my hand.  The driver, on the other hand, needs a new bug deflector and some hood work. I thought briefly about calling the cops, but I was only a mile into my evening run.  I wanted to finish it and didn’t want to wait around. See? I’ve caught the bug.  So I ran to a nearby restaurant, washed off the blood, wrapped up the cuts and finished the run.

One of the many things I’ve learned during my training is how important the mental aspects are. Some days everything lines up and running feels like a . . um . . er. . . walk in the park.  Other days it’s a struggle to overcome low energy, or aches and pains, or stressful distractions, or all three.  Setting goals is important, but even more so is revising those goals when perfection doesn’t land on race day. 

When I started running back in January, I thought it would be a minor miracle if I could work my way up to 13.1 miles at a 9:00 minute/mile pace.  I hit that mid-way through my training.  I revised my goal to try for 13.1 miles at an 8:30 pace.  I wasn’t likely to hit it in the short amount of time, but it felt good to set an ambitious goal. Then pneumonia hit and the effects linger a month later. I’ve had to revise my goals again, back to the 9:00 minute/mile pace.  After all the training, finishing is a far better result than failing to hit an ambitious goal.  Besides, I’m guaranteed a personal record.  I’ve never run a race.

So wish me luck. My training hasn’t been what you’d call smooth and I could use a little. If you’re running or walking the Missoula Marathon or Half Marathon, let me know. I’ll gladly share a beer with you when it’s all done. I know what it took to get you there.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Old Schoolhouse Brewery Hooligan Stout

With the World Cup well underway, I thought a beer named Hooligan Stout was the perfect complement to pick up on a recent weekend trip over to Spokane. As I was rummaging around in the fridge for something to help celebrate a birthday this weekend, it seemed like the right time to pull it out. That and the 4-1 total drubbing Germany put on England in the knock out round. I'm never quite sure - is it a big win or a big loss that tends to bring out the hooligans?

Hooligan Stout is brewed by Old Schoolhouse Brewery in Winthrop, WA, a town I had to look up to have any idea where it is. Let's just say you have to zoom way out on Google Maps before finding the closest recognizable larger town.  Located in a old schoolhouse (you knew that was coming) complete with bell tower, this two year old brewery and restaurant looks like it is having good fun with its beers.

Hooligan stout pours black with a small, off-white head that disappears fairly fast. Then again, its quick disappearance could be my pour or glass. It has a full mouth-feel and starts off a bit creamy and sweet before finishing with a nice amount of roasted malt, chocolate and hop bitterness. The creaminess comes partly from the addition of oatmeal.  It runs approximately 7% abv. I found a bottle at Enoteca in Post Falls, ID and haven't seen it around Missoula or Western Montana.  It is a quality beer and next time I'm over towards Spokane I'll be on the look out for one Old Schoolhouse's other choices such as Epiphany Pale Ale or Uncle Big's Brown.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Floyd, VA and Shooting Creek Farm Brewery: Part II

From what I read, Shooting Creek Farm Brewery sits tucked away down a narrow out of the way road in a remote part of Floyd County, VA.  Then again, that describes just about everything in Floyd.  Try finding the County's two wineries, Chateau Morrisette and Villa Appalachia, without some good directions and you'll quickly learn.  Both warn patrons not to use their usually handy gps units for directions. Nevertheless, the remote location was part of a controversy that held up Shooting Creek's brewing license before the brewery agreed to not serve beer on premises. 

Shooting Creek's beer is easier to find than the brewery. I saw it all over Floyd and other parts of the New River Valley during my recent visit. We stopped in at Oddfella's Cantina on the Friday night of my trip for some great food and a celtic music jam session before heading over to the Floyd Country Store for the Friday Night Jamboree.   Oddfella's Cantina had two beers on tap, plus a nice selection of bottled beer. On tap were Highland Brewing Co. (Asheville, NC) Oatmeal Porter and Shooting Creek Brewery Red Tractor Ale. Oatmeal Porter? Yeah, that's where I'm going to start nine times out of ten. But that's for a later post.

Shooting Creek's Farmhouse Stout was on Oddfella's beer bottle menu, so I ordered one after enjoying the Oatmeal Porter.  Our server came back to tell me they were out, but they did have Shooting Creek's Capsicum Stout if I'd like to have that instead.  Huh? Sure. Who wouldn't want to dive into a perfectly fine stout brewed with habanero peppers?

For years I've grown hot chili peppers in my garden.  I usually do two types: Mucho Nacho, a mild version of jalapeno that is great for quesadillas and nachos and Ring of Fire, a cayenne-like pepper that is great for drying and use in stir fries.  Not once have I ever thought of using either in beer.

I think my family enjoyed the beer more than I did.  Mind you, they didn't try it. They simply had fun watching my reaction.  Apparently my face turned red, though I'm disputing that claim and there are no pictures to prove otherwise.  I started with a sip and found the initial flavor to be a mild chocolate-focused stout base. This was followed by a mild heat from the peppers that caught at the back of the throat.  It was an interesting mix. As I took bigger swallows, the heat and pepper flavor increased and became the dominant flavor, though always with a stout background.

I'll say this. I'm glad I tried it.  I've tried hundreds of different beers, a number with various adjuncts like fruit, spices and chocolate. Some work for me, some don't.  In this case, it didn't work. One was enough.  But I'm quite glad the brewers went for it. Without a doubt there are some out there who will dig this beer.  One of the great things about craft brewing is the infinite variety a brewer can create with varying combinations of just a few ingredients. Frequently rotating, experimental batches of beer are the hallmark of our craft brewers and keeps us coming back time and time again.  

During my visit I had a chance to try two other Shooting Creek Brews, Red Tractor Ale and Buffalo Brown Ale and brought a third one home to Montana, Rebel Ale. I'm not quite sure what  the Red Tractor Ale was trying to be, though that's probably due to my unfamiliarity with the "old world Alt-beer" style. It is brewed with an heirloom corn grown on Shooting Creek's farm. That's totally cool. It was a dark reddish brown with an off white head.  I picked up a slightly malty aroma.  It had a medium body and the flavors of the malt base remind me of Alaskan Amber.  There's some floral hop flavor, but the bitterness is fairly balanced. I kept picking up on some flavors that I couldn't identify, though they had a biscuit like quality.  I'm guessing that was the corn.

As for the Buffalo Brown ale, one sip had me hooked. It pours a medium dark brown with an off white head. There's a caramel malt aroma which matches the caramel malt flavors. The base is slightly sweet, though it is well balanced with a fair amount of hops that come through in the finish.  It is smooth and easy drinking.  At 7.5% abv, it is well outside the norms for a brown ale, but I'm not complaining.  That gives you a sense of the malt base this beer packs. I'm sorry I only had one to try.

I dig these guys and their handbuilt, homegrown and handcrafted ethic.  They're off to a great start in Floyd County, Virginia and I hope to get to try more of their fun brews.

[Part I of Floyd, VA and Shooting Creek Farm Brewery is here.]

UPDATE:  Unfortunately, as of June, 2011, the brewery has closed.  Sad news.

UPDATE No. 2:  Though Shooting Creek has not reopened, two of its beers have been revived.  Per this February 7, 2014, Roanoke Times blog post, Blue Mountain Brewing is now brewing Shooting Creek's Rebel Rye and Buffalo Brown. 

Monday, June 21, 2010

Terminal Gravity Breakfast Porter

Terminal Gravity Brewing's Breakfast Porter is a fascinating beer. On a recent weekend trip over to Spokane, WA, we stopped in at the Steelhead Bar and Grill on a whim and a quick look at the menu.  The place has a modern industrial look with a great vibe and great food at reasonable prices. When you go, get the Creole Shrimp appetizer.  That alone will have you going back.  It also has a nice rotating selection of beer on draft, most from the Washington and Oregon area. We asked for a sample of Spokane's Northern Lights Brewing's Crystal Bitter Ale and Enterprise, OR's Terminal Gravity's Breakfast Porter.

Our most excellent server admitted she wasn't an expert on beer, and when she brought the sample of Breakfast Porter we were sure she had it wrong.  In sample size - poured in a small rocks glass - it was medium red. That's right. Red. Not black or dark brown.  Never one to complain about a sample of beer, though, I looked past my skepticism and had a taste. What did I find? Chocolate and roasted malt. As in porter. What's going on?

As you can't see in the picture (mine always turn out darker than reality), a full pint pours darker, but it is still an odd brownish-red. Terminal Gravity calls the color "plum" and I have to say that's a good description.  They also describe it as "not your average porter." I'll say.  It was an interesting experience to have one expectation based on color, and quite another when the flavors come across the tongue. It is a london-style porter which generally means it is a bit lighter and more refreshing than a robust porter such as Big Sky's Bobo's. I couldn't get the aroma, thanks to the wonderful smells coming from the restaurant's kitchen.  As for flavor, I found it to have a bit of a hop presence at first while finishing with the traditional roasted coffee and chocolate malt flavors.  By design, it is a fairly thin porter and one I could easily see being a session beer. I've never seen Terminal Gravity's beers over in Missoula, but I'm quite ready to give some more of them a try.

Where To Find Beer: Enoteca, Post Falls, ID

On a recent weekend trip over to Spokane, WA, we took a quick exit off I-90 to stop and have a look at Enoteca, a wine and beer store in Post Falls, ID. It sits in a small strip mall on busy Seltice Way.  When I stopped in, I was fresh off a visit to the Vintage Cellar which I had explored only a couple of weeks before and led me to initially make an unfair comparison in the world of beer specialty stores. Yet, as I learned from the comments below, Enoteca has 386 brews and growing.  Enoteca's current niche is in a variety of specialty, interesting brews.

Enoteca groups its beers by variety, rather than by region and brewery. The vast majority are 22oz and 750ml bottles of specialty brew.  In other words, you won't find a six pack of Deschutes' Black Butte Porter, but you will find 22oz bottles of Black Butte XXI, Jubel Ale 2010 and the Abyss (there are a few six packs mixed in).  I picked up a bottle of Denver, CO's Great Divide Brewing's Espresso Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout and Winthrop, WA's Old Schoolhouse Brewery's Hooligan Stout.  There was lots more to choose from, too.  Not surprisingly given the packaging, the beers tended to be big and bold. That's not a complaint. I do think a bit more space devoted to some IPAs, pale ales and some lighter, crisper brews would be good, particularly during the hot months of the year (and that's coming from a malthead).

Enoteca offers frequent wine and beer tastings and classes and has a sizeable area devoted to such fun. They also do a great job with their website which includes updates on new beers in stock along with lots of other information.  All in all, the store earns a Growler Fills Seal of Approval.

[Note: This post was updated on Nov. 8, 2010 to reflect new information.]

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hop In The Dark Cascadian Dark Ale

Black IPAs are all the rage. Though I don't know quite what to call them. As this blogger notes, it is a bit odd to call something both black and pale at the same time. The Brewers Association's style guidelines recognized this contradiction and decided to call the style "American-Style India Black Ale." This name recognizes the style's combination of an American IPA base with the introduction of roasted malts. Bartenders everywhere should bone up on the difficult task of deciphering between patrons asking for an IPA and an IBA.  And don't forget Big Sky Brewing's IBA, which wasn't black at all.

According to the style specifications, an American-Style India Black Ale should have "medium high to high hop bitterness, flavor and aroma with medium-high alcohol content, balanced with a medium body" and "a moderate degree of caramel malt character and medium to strong dark roasted malt flavor and aroma."  It should not have "high astringency and high degree of burnt roast malt character."  I'd say Blacksmith Brewing's Black Iron IPA fits nicely into this category.

To make matters even more confusing, Deschutes Brewery popped out a new Bond Street Series brew (along with Hop Henge and Hop Trip) called Hop in the Dark Cascadian Dark Ale. It's a black IPA . . . err . . uh . . . . an American-style India Black Ale  . . . um . . . cascadian dark . . . . oh, never mind. What I can tell you is the beer pours black with ruby highlights and a super big, off-white head.  Deschutes says this IPA "adds deep roasted malts to alter the hue and slightly smooth the edges." I'd agree.  The aroma is very strong cascade hops.  The initial taste is earthy and smooth, but that quickly disappears into moderate hop flavor and bitterness.  The finish is moderately bitter, but there really is a smooth edge to the whole beer.  I quite rather enjoyed it and I'm finding the style to my liking.

Update:  While on a weekend trip to Spokane June 18-20, I had an opportunity to have a couple of pints on draft at the Post Street Ale House.  I have to say, I enjoyed the beer even more.

Name: Hop In The Dark Cascadian Dark Ale.
Brewery: Deschutes Brewery, Bend, OR.
Style: Black IPA, IBA . . . whatever.
Color: Black with ruby highlights. Off white head.
Packaging: 22oz bottle.
Stats: 6.5% abv, 70 IBUs (according to the label).
Bought: Rosauers, Missoula.
Ruling: Three and a half out of Five Hops. A very good example of an emerging style.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Floyd, VA and Shooting Creek Farm Brewery: Part I

While growing up in the New River Valley of southwest Virginia, Floyd was a nearby, quintessential cross-roads, rural town. Sitting a few miles north of the Blue Ridge Parkway, it served largely as the service center for the agricultural areas that still surround it. It had a bank, two classic general stores, the Blue Ridge Café and the usual collection of small professional offices with insurance agents, lawyers and doctors. One summer during high school, I rolled in and out of Floyd while working the area’s tree fields, shaping Christmas trees by hand with a machete. Tree after tree after tree after tree. . . . . Along with tree sap, I collected the worst case of poison ivy ever and a pretty good laceration to the shin.

Floyd still has the only stop light in the County. The Blue Ridge Café still serves up great southern diner food. But now Floyd is a fascinating collision of rural southwest Virginia and love-your-mother-earth society. There's new investment, too. The Floyd Country Store continues to host the Friday Night Jamboree where hundreds turn out to flatfoot to live bluegrass music and visit with neighbors over ice cream and the store’s collection of Carhartt clothing, bluegrass CDs and enamelware. Stop in and you’ll be transported back to a time when such events formed the social fabric of the community (and still do). It's a major venue along The Crooked Road, Virginia's Heritage Music Trail along with the Carter Family Fold, the Ralph Stanley Museum and others.

Over the past fifteen years, the Floyd area has attracted a significant artist presence. Galleries in town display numerous locally made craft items and sustainably produced agricultural products are easy to find. A new wine tasting room has popped up featuring area wines and cider and Nancy’s Candy Co. has opened an outlet store. That’s a bit of a misnomer given there’s nothing “outlet” about the huge selection of tasty treasures. There’s good food, too. The menu at Oddfella’s Cantina is as pleasantly eclectic as its curiously mismatched tables and chairs. We were treated to a live Celtic music jam session as we dined on asparagus pastry puff appetizers, mahi mahi tuna specials and chicken and rice chimichangas.

There’s beer, too, though not without a struggle. The nearby Shooting Creek Farm Brewery faced significant opposition from some in the community who worried that a new tap room in the rural county would lead to hazardous driving, increased traffic, noise and sinful drinking. As a compromise, Shooting Creek agreed not to serve beer on premises. I tried some over dinner at Oddfella's Cantina and picked up several bottles as my introduction to Virginia brews. Only a year and change into their brewing, it's clear Shooting Creek isn't afraid to toss the Reinheitsgebot off to the side and get inventive with their beers.  More on that in Part II.

For more on Floyd, check out this Roanoke Times article written by a reporter who was apparently cruising the town the same night I was there.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Where to Find Beer: Vintage Cellar, Blacksburg, VA

As a craft beer drinker I am most definitely not stuck in a rut. Sure, I have my favorite year-rounders and seasonals that frequently inhabit the fridge, but I'm always on the hunt for something new. Getting to hunt in new territory is one of the great parts of vacations.  My most recent vacation took me back to my home town in the New River Valley of Virginia. And that means a visit to Vintage Cellar in Blacksburg.

Vintage Cellar sits in a refreshed, but nondescript strip mall on Main Street on the way in to downtown Blacksburg. If memory serves, it was previously located in another not-so-refreshed strip mall on the other side of the street.  Regardless, step inside and you'll be treated to an exceptionally good selection of beer and wine.  Not exceptionally good for southwest Virginia. Exceptionally good for anywhere.  I don't know how many different brews they've got, but the number is in the hundreds.  Fortunately, you can purchase individual 12 ounce bottles so a tasting nut like me can put together a great mix and match package.  They'll also ship if you happen to be in a state where that's allowed. 

The selection of beer is heavily weighted with east coast breweries, out through the midwest and into Colorado. That was perfect for me because I have plenty of access in Montana to beers in the western half of the U.S.  They do have a smaller selection of west coast beers as well as a good number of Belgium and other European imports.  I chose several from Virginia breweries and a few from long time favorites Troegs and Weyerbacher (both in Pennsylvania).

And the wine?  I noticed it on my way back to the beer, but the tunnel vision and single track mind carried me straight to my goal. You can see it on the left in this picture.  I hear it is a great selection.  The next time you're near Blacksburg, VA, take a trip to Vintage Cellar and be sure to allow plenty of time to explore.  Vintage Cellar earns a gigantic Growler Fills Seal of Approval.

Monday, June 14, 2010

On Coffee and Beer in Southwest Virginia

One of the great things about out of state vacations is the promise of a whole new array of beers to try. Take a trip to a beer town like Portland, OR and you’ll drive yourself silly trying to map out a way to take in the City’s 30+ breweries.  With more than 1,500 breweries now fanned out across America, it is no longer a big surprise to find a good craft brewery near wherever you may be.  Even out-of-the-way spots often lend themselves to unexpectedly good adventures.

Such was the case during my recent trip to visit family in the New River Valley of southwest Virginia. Seventeen years ago when I moved to Montana I remember friends and family asking, perhaps a bit too seriously, whether mail was still delivered by pony express.  I'll admit it took me a little while to get past the stereotyped notion that a place like Montana must be well behind everyone else in everything from culture to modern conveniences to . . . well . . . beer.

Not true.  Well, for most things.

Southwest Virginia is an interesting mix. Largely rural in settlement, it is home to small towns, great outdoor amenities, agriculture and some of the best bluegrass musicians you’ll find anywhere. It is also home to Virginia Tech, my alma mater, an incredible research institution spanning subjects from engineering and architecture to agriculture and veterinary medicine to bioinformatics (what?), natural resources, theater and arts and medicine.  The university lends an international flavor to what otherwise feels just like the rural, southern area that is southwestern Virginia.  But unlike Montana, until recently the area didn’t have much in the way of beer.  Or coffee. Step in to any restaurant and you'd find the same macro-taps. And espresso? Didn't even know it wasn't spelled with an "x."

In many ways, western Montana’s culture tends to be tied to Portland and Seattle, known respectively for their beer and coffee.  Both craft beer and craft coffee have been around Montana since well before I moved out in 1993.  Each exploded during the mid to late 1990s.  Montana now boasts 25 breweries, a pretty impressive number for a spread-out state with fewer than 1,000,000 people. Check out any busy corner in Montana’s cities and you’ll spot a small shack dispensing drive-through espresso. They're not always good, but at least you don't have to go far to get your fix.  Sit-down coffee shops remain busy throughout the day.  Montana’s tap rooms are frequently standing room only. Some of Montana's breweries even use locally roasted coffee in their brews.

Switch to southwest Virginia and it is still a struggle to find good coffee, but craft breweries are starting to pop up, following a similar pattern with wineries.  When I left Virginia, there were only a handful of wineries around the state. Now there are more than 150 turning out some fantastic wines.  I don’t think there was a single brewery in the state, but the number has risen steadily during the past few years to more than 30 (I'm having trouble getting an accurate number, which I've seen as high as 56).  For craft brewing fans, that’s something to celebrate. And taste.

I wasn’t in Virginia long enough this trip to get out and explore many breweries, but I did have a chance to try a few local brews.  I also stopped by Blacksburg, VA's Vintage Cellar and picked up several other east-coast beers I can’t easily get out west.  Vintage Cellar is one of the best beer and wine stores you'll find anywhere. Over the next week or so I’ll post some reviews and info from my trip.  It was a great reminder that craft brewing is alive and well, even in places you might not expect.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Blacksmith Brewing Co. Vienna Lager

Over Memorial Day weekend, we took a drive down to Stevensville to check out two of Blacksmith Brewing Co.'s latest releases: Black Iron IPA and Vienna Lager.  Black Iron IPA is back by overwhelming popular demand.  Give it a try and you'll understand why.  As I wrote when it first came out, it is a wonderful collision of west coast IPA and some roasted malts.  This batch is every bit as good.

New on tap was Blacksmith's interpretation of a Vienna Lager.  According to the beer style guidelines, a Vienna Lager has a malt forward flavor profile with just enough hops to balance the beer nicely. It should have a light toasted flavor from the Vienna malt with a moderately rich malt aroma and a light reddish to copper color.  Blacksmith's version trends a bit more gold than red or copper.  It has a good, thick white head and I get a slight floral hop aroma. The flavor has a strong malt base with a medium body and much more hop bitterness than expected.  That's typical of nearly every American version of a European original, though I think the amount of hops here takes it well outside the style guideline.  It sits at 5.8% abv and isn't as crisp as you expect for a lager.

Though I seem critical of the beer, my criticisms only apply to comparing this brew to the style guideline.  I think Blacksmith missed on them.  There's simply too much hop aroma and bitterness to fall within what one expects for a Vienna Lager.  Ultimately, the beer ends up featuring the hops more than the malt.  That said, this is a very enjoyable beer. It is smooth, easy drinking and - style guidelines aside - has a nice balance of malt to hops.  Frankly, the extra hops make it a bit more summer kind of beer. I'll definitely have it again if I can get down there before it runs out.

Stone Brewing Co. Levitation Ale

Over the past few months, I noticed six packs of Stone Brewing's beer showing up in stores around Missoula. This is a good thing. Stone makes some great beers, but they'd previously only been available in 22 oz. bottles. Sometimes that's more than you want, though they're very conducive to sharing.

I picked up a six pack of Stone's Levitation Ale for a warm weekend a couple of weeks ago. The only warm weekend of the year in Missoula thus far. And it is June. I guess that's par for the course, but it is getting old.  Anyway, Levitation Ale pours a dark copper color with an off white head. It has a light floral hop aroma.  An initial malt taste gives way quickly to a fairly pronounced bitterness which also dominates the aftertaste. It is medium bodied and I'd put it in the pale ale category.  At only 4.4% abv, this beer is proof that you don't need a lot of alcohol to have lots of flavor.

The hop flavor is on the piney side of things rather than a citrus, though Stone says differently (hey, they know better than me, that's for sure, but I didn't get citrus when I tasted it). The bitterness isn't over the top, but overall I didn't find this brew to be very remarkable overall. I should probably ask a hop head for a second opinion on this one. Any volunteers?

Name: Stone Levitation Ale
Brewery: Stone Brewing Co, Escondido, CA.
Style: IPA.
Color: Medium gold with a thick white head.
Packaging: 12 oz bottle.
Stats: 4.4% abv, 45 IBU.
Bought: local grocery store, Missoula.
Ruling: Three and a half out of Five Hops. Good, hop featured pale ale with a malt backbone.