Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Highlander Beer Sponsors 2nd Celtic Festival Missoula

Last year's first Celtic Festival Missoula was a huge hit with Celtic road bowling, fast flowing Highlander Beer, and the Young Dubliners all knocking it out of the (Caras) park. Celtic Festival Missoula returns this summer and Highlander Beer is once again a primary sponsor.

Mark your calendars for Saturday, July 30, 2011.  The Young Dubliners and their awesome, energetic brand of Celtic rock return to headline the music lineup. They're worth the price of admission alone and go great with some Highlander Scottish Ale, a great Scottish export session ale. Spokane's An Dochas joins the festivities this year along with a number of local bands, fiddle groups and dancers.  Even the heavy downpour couldn't stifle the party last July and you'll definitely want to save the date. For more information, check out the website.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The "Chain" Conundrum: A San Diego Experiment

I admit I have a thing for Starbucks. I like the burnt bite of espresso in my mocha. I frequent local coffee joints too. If they produce a similar deep, rich espresso bite, I'll be a repeat customer. Where Starbucks excels is consistency. My favorite independent joints share this trait and add quality atmosphere to the mix.  Starbucks actually ticked me off when corporate "retrained" all their employees a couple of years ago to try and turn Starbucks back into a "neighborhood" coffee shop.  No! I'm perfectly happy getting the consistently good beverage I'm wanting without being peppered with ten questions about how my day is going in a false effort to replicate my favorite independent joint. Accept who you are Starbucks.

But I digress.  Sort of. The beer world has its own chains. We recently took a trip down to San Diego to escape what has become the longest winter in Missoula's history. (I exaggerate, but only a little.)  The sun was as warm and the sea air as pleasant as you're imagining while reading this and I'm perfectly happy to make you a bit envious for a minute. I like getting an urban fix every once in a while.  I really like having a wealth of new things to check out. Particularly if there might be beer involved.

San Diego has roughly 32 breweries in its extended area, though that number includes multiple sites of a couple of them.  It is a thriving beer scene with many bars and taverns dedicated to local craft brews.  So, with a choice like that, would you step into "chain" brewery or restaurant to grab a beer?  We did.

I suspect your gut reaction to that question is the same as mine - a strong "heck no!" Nevertheless, it is important for someone to do the research and bring you thought provoking information.  It might as well be us. The two we picked were Rock Bottom Brewery and Yard House.  The "why" is a combination of factors.  Curiosity is one of them. Convenience is another. In the Yard House's case, the lure of 130 taps is pretty strong for a craft beer writer. As you walk San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter on a busy night you're endlessly bombarded by people hawking the attributes of one restaurant to the next.  Trying to choose can become paralyzing and it is almost easier to look for the familiar. Until you get the scoop from insider information or your own experimentation, it can be tough to know where to go to find the gems.

Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery has 35 locations across the U.S. with a relatively familiar menu of good brewery restaurant standards. Each location has a core selection of the same beer, but the beer is brewed on-site and the brewers have flexibility to brew their own signature beers. A bartender at a hip nearby joint that features local beer sneered a bit at the idea that Rock Bottom would have beer worthy enough to compete with San Diego's finest. It is a sentiment held by many beer connoisseurs that goes along with the "chain" conundrum.  Thus, with curiosity and perhaps a few preconceived expectations we stopped in to give it a test.

I don't profess to have enough experience with the 32 breweries of the San Diego to be knowledgeable of the whole scene. We did try enough local brews to know they run the gamut from the marginal to the exceptional.  The two we tried at Rock Bottom were Hop Bomb IPA and Sunset Imperial Stout.  The verdict?  Both were very good, exceeding expectations and far better than a few local, non-chain beers we tried. Hop Bomb IPA (7.6%, 68 ibus) was a medium gold color with a thicker, white head and a strong pine hop aroma. Flavors of spicy pine hops dominate with a big hop bitterness punch up front that backs off to a nice balanced finish.  I didn't keep notes of the stout but remember it having a creamy smooth mouthfeel with tons of chocolate flavors. Would Rock Bottom become a favorite destination?  Probably nothing more than an occasional visit given all the other great places to go, but any notion that a "chain" can't brew good beer was certain dispelled.

Yard House bills itself as the world's largest selection of draft beer and has 29 locations with seven more on the way soon. Our friendly bartender told us San Diego's location has 130 taps and, that night, 116 different beers (the picture below isn't even half of them).  There were a few "house" beers but the majority were a combination of standbys from the larger craft breweries and a number of local and regional brews.  We were told only two of the taps rotated. Really? Out of 130?  The extensive restaurant menu has something for everyone and we found the food quite good and the atmosphere lively and fun.

But here's the odd thing.  We had trouble finding beers we wanted to try.  Many are familiar ones we've tried before or can regularly get at the grocery store.  Several of the ones we sampled seemed mainstream with no "wow" factor or enough to hold our interest.  There IS good beer there. Lost Coast Downtown Brown (Eureka, CA) is a very good brown ale with quite a bit of character.  Locally brewed Green Flash West Coast IPA provided a huge hop aroma to go with excellent citrus (and a touch of pine resin) hop flavors. Our conclusion of Yard House? Quality still beats quantity. There's no reason to shun Yard House because it is a chain and the large draft selection provides a great opportunity to explore a range of beer styles, particularly for someone just catching the craft beer bug.  But for the more advanced craft beer lover, the lack of rotation provides little chance for exploration.  Plus, with a few exceptions the "wow" factor beers aren't present, even though there's plenty of support for local breweries.

None of this should be taken as a complaint. Just a reminder to keep an open mind and you'll run into some unexpected finds from time to time.  And did I mention the warm sun and pleasant sea breezes of San Diego?

Rest assured, we definitely made it to some great local joints and found some fantastic local brews which we'll write about soon.  Plus, we made a list of places we did not have time to check out for our next trip.  If you find yourself walking around the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego looking for a bite to eat, we recommend the Urban Bar & Grill and Searsucker.  Neither are beer destinations, but the food at both is excellent as is the atmosphere.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Where To Find Beer Series

We love to feature great places to find beer here at Growler Fills.  It provides a shout-out to those in the business while helping you discover new places. What is a great place to find beer? It could be a brewery, a restaurant, a bar, a grocery store, a bottle shop, a tap room, your fridge . . . . . really, anywhere!  It doesn't need to have a huge selection of taps or the biggest selection of bottles.  It just needs to do what it does well, in support of craft beer.

We started a new page to collect all the links in our Where to Find Beer Series to make it easy to sift through them.  The posts will appear on the blog where they always do and we'll add a permanent link on the Page. There's a few up so far and we've got a couple more to add once we get around to writing about our recent trip to San Diego.  There's lots more to come, too.

Remember one thing, though, please. This is no contest. If you don't see a favorite up there, no worries. Heck, there's six or seven places in our home town we haven't even written about yet.  Though we wish we got paid to travel around exploring craft beer, we've got full time jobs and can only travel so much. When we do, we keep an eye out for great places to find beer.

We're always up for an invitation to your favorite place and gladly take suggestions, too.  Where is your favorite place to find beer?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Big Sky Brewing Irish Stout

Last year, Missoula's Big Sky Brewing Co. began a series of limited release beers available only in Montana, to the dismay of fans in the 23 other states where Big Sky is distributed. The latest release, just in time for this week's St. Patrick's Day, is Irish Stout.  Here's Big Sky's description:
Butte American once had the largest population of Irish outside of Ireland. Our Northern Rockies Irish Stout is a tribute to those hardy souls. A cream-bodied session beer, black as the inside of a copper mine, Big Sky Brewing's take on a venerable classic hits you right in the chops with a powerful does of chocolate and coffee flavors and kiss o' sour mash. So relax, enjoy and tap 'er light.
Sounds good, eh? So let's check it out.  Big Sky's Irish Stout is indeed black with some ruby highlights on the edges and a small, light tan head that disappears quickly.  The aromas are of roasted caramel malt.  It is medium bodied and smooth (though not exactly creamy) until the wonderful coffee bite finds you in mid swallow.  Dark chocolate flavors are present with roasted malts taking the front seat.  Coffee flavors dominate the aftertaste. 

At 5.2% (and 35 ibus), this is indeed a beer you can session and there's quite a lot of flavor in there. It definitely isn't a traditional Irish dry stout and that's a good thing for this robust stout lover.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What are You Enjoying for St. Patrick's Day?

Sure, I'll admit it. I've had a few glasses of green beer in my days. Well, thin plastic cups are more the order of the day for the crowded streets of Butte or the packed bars of Missoula during the rollicking celebrations of St. Patrick's Day.  Guinness Draught will certainly be the choice of many, though I prefer the sharp coffee bite of a robust stout to the dry, understated flavors of a traditional Irish dry stout.  Guinness improves greatly when mixed with ice cream or forming the base of a decadently delicious Irish car bomb.

Locally, Big Sky Brewing Co. released their latest brew from their limited 406 series, Irish Stout. You'll find it at the brewery as well as on local shelves in six packs.  I haven't had a chance to try it yet, but the description certainly has me curious ("powerful does of chocolate and coffee flavors and kiss o'sour mash").

My long time favorite, Bayern Brewing Co's Killarney Red Lager, is a tribute to Butte America brewed, ironically (and quite well), by a Bavarian brewmaster. If you're celebrating in Missoula, head downtown to Sean Kelly's Public House on Pine Street at 7:00 tomorrow for the tapping of a wooden keg of Killarney and one of the many performances from the Celtic Dragon Pipe Band.

What's your beer of choice for St. Patrick's Day?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Growler Fill Clarification Bill Headed to Governor

Montana Senate Bill 203, allowing on-premise beer retailers to fill growlers for off premise consumption, sailed through the House of Representatives on an 86-12 vote last week and is now headed to the Governor. As with any bill, the Governor has four options.  He can sign it, recommend amendments and send it back, veto it, or take no action and it will become law after 10 days. Presumably, this one should get a signature.

Filling growlers from taps at bars (on-premise beer retailers) has not been too common a practice, yet became the subject of controversy last year when the Department of Revenue suggested it violated state law. SB 203 makes the practice expressly legal which is good news as brewery related, but not owned, "tap rooms" become more popular.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Bitter Root Brewing Co. Red Dread Imperial Red Ale

Bitter Root Brewing brought a keg of Red Dread Imperial Red Ale to Missoula's Winter BrewFest last month and it was the first beer to run out. There's a good reason for that. It is a great brew.

Red Dread Imperial Red Ale is a spring seasonal first brewed last year, but being bottled in 22 oz. bombers for the first time this year.  It packs 8.7% abv into its cloudy, deep copper-red rich body. It has a fluffy beige head. Nice, spicy - with a touch of citrus - hop aromas say hello in a big way. Spicy hop flavors and hop bitterness dominate the early flavors, but they're layered over a big caramel malt base. It is brewed with 8 specialty malts and dry hopped with Citra and CTZ hops.  The beer is big, but the balance between hops and malt is kept nicely in check.  The aromas and flavors strongly resemble a double IPA. Despite the high alcohol, the beer stays very pleasantly drinkable, making it a dangerous pleasure.

If you missed out at the Winter BrewFest - or, like us, were ready for more - you'll find 22 oz bombers available for sale around western Montana for an impressively reasonable price ($3.49 at Missoula's Worden's Market recently).

Monday, March 7, 2011

Flathead Lake Brewing Co. of Missoula to Hold Grand Opening

Flathead Lake Brewing Co. of Missoula unofficially opened last November to the great delight of beer drinkers in Missoula.  In a flash, it has become a favored destination for craft beer lovers seeking great beer in a lively atmosphere and some darn good food, too. Now, FLBC of Missoula is ready to make things official with a weekend grand opening.

This Friday and Saturday, March 11 and 12, 2011, FLBC of Missoula invites everyone out for beer, food, merchandise discounts, special prizes and live music.  The live music gets started at 8:00 p.m. with "Royal Reggae with Supa J" on Friday night and "The Bad Larry's" on Saturday night.  The beer will be flowing well before then. Stop in and find out why we named Flathead Lake Brewing Co.'s IPA2 one of our Montana Year-Round Beers of the Year for 2010.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Full Sail LTD 04: Single Malt, Deep Flavor

Back in 2007, Full Sail Brewing Co. (Hood River, OR) released the first of its new LTD series of seasonal beers.  LTD 01 was a medium bodied, copper colored bock.  LTD 02 was a light bodied helles bock.  LTD 03 was a crisp, medium bodied pilsner-style lager.  I had the impression when the series started that each brew would be a one-and-done production, but they've come back a few times here and there. That's a good thing. I've particularly enjoyed the LTD 02.

New this year, LTD 04 is a single malt, single hop lager that packs a lot of flavor into it's crystal clear, pale gold body.  It was released back in mid-December, but I've not seen it in Missoula until this week. The aromas are of a malty grain with no noticeable hops.  There are smooth caramel malt flavors over a fairly high carbonation.  It is very pleasant to drink with quite a full flavor on a medium, crisp body.  The 7% abv is not what you're likely to expect from the pale golden color, but definitely matches the depth of flavor.

LTD 05 is due to be released this month and is a "copper colored lager is refreshingly smooth, with a hint of dark roast and a clean hoppy finish" according to Full Sail.  That sounds pretty darn good, too.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Red Lodge Ales Broken Nail Double IPA

Red Lodge Ales has a nice IPA that makes for good summer drinking called Bent Nail IPA.  It's bigger brother, a double IPA, is creatively named Broken Nail. This one pours a very clear medium gold color with a rather thick white head.  The aroma is sharp with citrus hops and perhaps a touch of underlying caramel malt. It's an 8.5% abv brew, but has a much thinner body that you might expect for that hefty of a beer.

Initial flavors are strongly citrus and pine hops with a moderate amount of hop bitterness. There's a good caramel malt base, but it never overtakes the hops. Quite a lot more citrus develops as you enjoy the pint. Finally, much more malt comes through as it warms.  It is available around Montana and beyond in 22 oz bombers at a very reasonable price.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Halftime at the Montana Legislature

Today marks the 46th day of the 2011 Montana legislative session and follows the four day "transmittal break." Montana has one 90-day legislative session every other year and the transmittal deadline is an important benchmark.  General bills must be passed by the house/senate and sent to the other chamber on or before the 45th day of the session (the "transmittal deadline").  Miss that day and the bill is dead.  Non-general bills, such as appropriations, revenue, referendum, and interim studies, have later dates.  Stick with me. That gets important in a minute.

As the Montana Legislature starts its second half, let's take a look at the status of bills pertaining to craft beer and a few other alcohol related topics.
  • SB 202: Shifting tap room hours.  As discussed here, this bill died in committee on a 10-1 vote. 
  • SB 203: Allowing non-brewery growler fills.  Passed the Senate 49-1 and transmitted to the House.  The House Business and Labor Committee has scheduled a hearing for March 4, 2011 at 9:00 a.m. 
  • SB 29: Mandatory alcohol server and sales training.  Squeaked out of the Senate on 25-24 vote. Transmitted to the House and referred to the Business and Labor committee.
  • SB 215:  Reducing markup on liquor sold by the State based on the amount of Montana produced ingredients used in the liquor.  Passed the Senate 39-10 and transmitted to the House which referred it to the Appropriations committee. 
  • SB 250: Requiring on-premise consumption licensees to install cameras photographing all individuals entering and leaving the premises.  Tabled in committee and missed the transmittal deadline. 
  • SB 289:  Increasing the amount of liquor a microdistillery can sell a customer for off-premises consumption. Passed the Senate 45-5 and transmitted to the House.
  • SB 389:  Allows brewers to import non-beverage ingredients containing alcohol for use in blending and manufacturing and revising the tax. Hearing set for March 23, 2011 before the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee.  This bill is not subject to the transmittal deadline for general bills.
  • HB 63: Allows nonprofits to raffle or auction alcoholic beverages for fund raising. Passed the House 86-12 and transmitted to the Senate.  The Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs Committee had a hearing on Feb. 20, but no action has been taken. 
  • HB 540: Increase the amount of alcohol allowed in "confectioneries." Tabled in committee and missed transmittal deadline.
Several other proposed bills were never introduced including a bill to eliminate the prohibition on shipping wine into the state.

You may recall I mentioned no one seems ready to step forward and deal with the mess of a licensing system we have in Montana.  Well, that's changed.  Sen. Zinke, who carried SB 202 (and others), has asked the legislative staff to draft a bill to create an "interim study on reform of alcohol and gambling licenses."  The text of the bill is not yet available, so I don't know any of the details.

Interim studies are not subject to the transmittal deadline for general bills, so there is still time to introduce it. (I told you we'd get back to that.) They do require an appropriation to fund the study, which may be a tough sell in this session. Regardless, it would be a good first step toward getting everyone around the table to help move Montana's craft beer industry forward.