Thursday, November 29, 2012

Growler Fills Craft Beer Lovers' Gift Guide

The holiday season is upon us.  There's nothing left from Thanksgiving but the . . . well . . . leftovers.  Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday have taken their usual casualties. And if you're like me, you're still wondering what to get that craft beer lover in your life for the holidays.

Fear not. We have you covered. (As do half the other beer bloggers, breweries, and other beer writers looking for a blog post this time of year). Here are several suggestions to make your holiday shopping that much easier.

1. Hydroflask Growler

What else would we at Growler Fills suggest first, but a new growler.  Sure, most of us have a pile of the standard glass ones lying about or rolling around in the truck, but feast your eyes on this beauty.  The Hydroflask 64 oz. growler is impervious to light and vacuum sealed to keep your beer cool far longer than glass.  It's so good, even Garrett Oliver might approve.  Well . . . no . . who am I kidding. (Oh, and I don't have one yet, hint, hint.)  Check your favorite brewery which might have a logo branded one for sale.

Cost: $50 on average, though there are occasional sales.  Get it Here.

Looking for a truly unique growler? Head to Tim Carlburg's site for handmade, custom pottery growlers. 

2.  Built NY Beer Totes

Ever taken some bottles to a friend's house only to have them viciously clank together or fall off the back seat on the drive over?  Or packed away a few bottles in your luggage while praying the airline doesn't crack them open all over your clean shirts?

Well, here are some totes made from neoprene that are perfect for carrying bottles to an event or protecting them while hanging out in your luggage.  They're a bit pricey, but way better than fooling around with bubble wrap (which, the TSA will cut off your bottles to inspect, I might add).  These totes keep the bottles separated and well padded.  I've tried them out on several flights and they work great.

Cost: appox. $20-24 for a 6-pack tote depending upon color; and $11-15 for the 2 bottle wine tote which easily holds bombers. Get the 6-pack tote here. Get the 2 bottle tote here.

3. Hops Chart

Need some useful man-cave art for the homebrewer in your life?  The Hops Chart is an awesome piece of useful art covering the bitterness, flavor and aroma for a wide variety of hops.

Cost:  $30.  Get it here. 

4. Beer Books

Sure, the internet has tons of information about beer and brewing (all of it true!) but there's still something satisfying about holding a book in your hands, especially when they're as entertaining as they are useful. Here are two new books that have caught our eye recently (and hopefully show up under the tree this year).

IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale, by Mitch Steele.  This one explores the history of the India pale ale, includes brewing tips from brewers, covers techniques from water treatment to hopping procedures and includes 48 recipes ranging from historical brews to recipes for some popular current IPAs. Mitch Steele is from Stone Brewing. If there's one thing Stone knows, it's hops.

Cost: approx. $14 online; $24.95 list.  Get it here. 

For The Love of Hops:  The Practical Guide to Aroma, Bitterness and the Culture of Hops, by Stan Hieronymus. Stan's latest book explains the nature of hops, their origins, hop quality and utilization, including a whole chapter about dry hopping.  It also has a a reference catalog of more than 100 hop varieties and their characteristics. If you love hops - and I know most of you do - this looks like a fantastic book.  It will be released on December 16, but you can pre-order with the link below. In the mean time, you can enjoy Stan's blog here.

Cost:  approx. $14 online; $19.95 list.  Get it here.

5. Brewing Equipment

Teach a woman to drink, she'll drink for a day.  Teach a woman to brew . . . . well, you get the idea. I've still got all my initial brewing equipment from my first batch in 1997 and have added numerous pieces, parts and upgrades over the years.  Brewing starter kits are reasonably priced and will end up being the gift that keeps on giving!

Your local homebrew shop is a great place to go to pick up a starter homebrewing kit, such as Summer Sun Brew Supply in Missoula, or F.H. Steinbart Co. in Portland, OR.  You'll get great hands-on advice from the folks at your local shop who can also provide continuing advice about the brewing process, brewing supplies, and additional useful equipment.  Northern Brewer (shown), Midwest Supplies, and Williams Brewing are popular online shops, each of which have basic and deluxe kits to get you started.

Cost:  $80 - $300+ depending upon complexity.

6.  Beer Glassware

We became converts to style-appropriate glassware after taking part in a comparative glass tasting session back in July which you can read about here. Yes, we still enjoy beer out of just about any and every glass, but having a great glass really does make a difference.

This Speigelau set is the one we used during the comparative tasting session and they are excellent glasses.  Pricey, but excellent, and I've purchased additional ones to have on hand.  They are also available in boxes of two glasses in individual styles if you prefer just the tulips, for example.  The Set includes one each of wheat, tall pilsner, lager, and what they call a stemmed pilsner glasses.  The lager glass is excellent for IPAs, pale ales, etc. while the stemmed pilsner is perfect for higher gravity beers, despite the name.

Cost:  $40-50 for the set; 20-25 for individual styles in boxes of 2.  Get the set here.

On a recent trip back to Virginia, my folks asked for some glasses they could use for the occasional beer that would look good and function well for a variety of styles without being too pricey, or taking up an entire cabinet with 4 different types of glass. I chose these tulip-like glasses and was impressed by the feel and function.  The 17.5 oz size was perfect for allowing enough room for beer and head formation as well as sharing smaller amounts of higher gravity beers.

Cost: $26 for a box of 6.   Get it here.

7. Growler Fills T-Shirt

Need we say more? These great looking t-shirts are a fantastic way to show off your love of craft beer and help support our efforts here at Growler Fills.  The front has our logo while the back has our tap handle on the right shoulder.  T-shirts are only $15 plus shipping.

Cost: $15.  Get it here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

November Run Wild Beer Run Goes to the Birds

Chicken actually.  Because, according to Run Wild's Chancellor of Libations, Pat Cross, chicken is almost like turkey.  This being the first beer run following Thanksgiving, it's only natural to head to Double Front Chicken.  You kind of have to know Pat for any of this to make sense. 

That being said, this month's Run Wild Missoula Beer run takes place at Double Front Chicken at 122 West Alder Street in Missoula.  As always, the fun gets started at 6:00 p.m. with a 5 mile group run followed by beer, food and conversation with fellow runners.  All skill levels are welcome.  Remember to bring your headlamp. It's plenty dark at 6:00 p.m. this time of year.

Need another incentive?  Run Wild will announce an upcoming Beer Run contest where you can win free beer for a year (in the form of one beer at each beer run in 2013. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Higherground Brewing and Summer Sun Team Up for Homebrew Competition

Think you brew some pretty tasty home brew? Here's a chance to put your best to the test with a homebrew competition sponsored by Hamilton, MT's Higherground Brewery and Summer Sun Brew Supply (with locations in Hamilton and Missoula).  Participants will compete for $400 in prizes to go with the pride of winning best brews.   Here's the scoop:

To enter, drop off three 12 ounce bottles of homebrew during the week leading up to Saturday, December 15, along with a $5 entry fee at either Summer Sun Brew Supply location (310 1st St. in Hamilton, and 838 W. Spruce Street in Missoula, just down from Draught Works Brewery), or Higherground Brewery.  They'll keep it refrigerated until judging.

On the big day, Saturday, December 15, judging will take place at 1:00 p.m. at Higherground Brewery with prizes awarded at 5:00 p.m.  Stick around after that for some live blues music at 6:00 p.m. Of course, all day long you'll be able to grab a pint of Higherground's great beers and one of their fantastic stone fired pizzas.

For the initial competition, they are keeping the categories simple: Light Beer, Amber Beer, Specialty Beer, and IPA.

Proceeds from the competition will benefit the Glen Hay Falconer Foundation, whose mission is to contribute to the Northwest craft brewing community by providing opportunities for professional and aspiring brewers to further their knowledge and expertise.

Questions?  Send them to

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Craft Beer Bubble: An Irrational Exuberance?

Not surprisingly, with the meteoric rise in the number of craft breweries over the past several years comes concerns about there being a craft beer bubble on the horizon. That was the subject of a recent article about San Diego's craft beer scene in the San Diego Union Tribune.

San Diego County now has about 60 breweries with another 24 in planning.  That's a staggering number, especially for those of us hanging out in Montana.  We may have the county's 2nd most breweries per capita, but our 36 breweries are spread out all across the gigantic big sky of the 4th largest state.  That's land, not people.

The article includes this gem of a quote from the co-founder of Stone Brewing, San Diego County's largest brewery:
“We are in a time of irrational exuberance in craft brewing,” said Greg Koch, co-founder and CEO of Stone Brewing. “We are like a Third World bus, with all these people hanging on to the roof. Sooner or later, we are going to hit a bump in the road.”
That makes sense to me in an area with 60 breweries and 24 more on the way.  Limited tap and shelf space will forever make it a challenge to bring new products to the market.  When that's your primary means of generating revenue, you'd better either be darn good, darn unique, or darn connected.

Large, regional and national craft breweries still represent a small slice of the 2,100+ craft breweries in the U.S. and that's probably going to stay the case.  And as I write this sitting in a more rural part of Virginia, I'm reminded there are many pockets of the U.S. where the craft beer boom remains a novelty - nowhere near bubble status. Good craft taps remain the exception, not the norm, and the selection at most larger grocery stores resembles that of truck-stop convenience stores back in Montana.

That's not a dig, just a comparison.  Conversely, the area has two bottle shops with great selections, including beer from Idaho we can't even get in Montana.  (And breweries keep telling me Montana's laws aren't a hindrance to distributing in Montana? Uhh . . . .)  Craft breweries are becoming more common and Virginia's Devil's Backbone took top honors at the recent Great American Beer Festival.

Is Montana approaching a bubble?  Montana is definitely in the midst of a craft beer exuberance, but it hasn't reached the irrational stage.  The Montana Brewers Festival in October drew 2,400 beer fans to a fantastic collection of 70+ all-Montana brewed beers.   As Ryan reported, there's a fifth Missoula brewery seeking start-up funding.  A second brewery is under construction in Butte (Butte Brewing Co).  Columbia Falls' Desert Mountain Brewing Co. is close to opening.  While not all current breweries may survive, Montana has not reached a saturation point where each additional brewery has a significant cannibalistic effect.  Some effect, yes, but that's rational competition, not irrational exuberance.

Tell us, is there a craft beer bubble on your horizon?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

International Stout Day is November 8, 2012

The 2nd Annual International Stout Day is nearly upon us, taking place on Thursday, November 8, 2012.  In the words of it's creator:
International Stout Day is a worldwide celebration of the iconic beer style, Stout. Taking place in homes, pubs, breweries and restaurants; it’s all about celebrating the craft beer revolution, relishing in this beloved beer style, sharing your photos, tasting notes and events with the world.
What the heck.  I love a good stout and have a few in the beer fridge I've been waiting to try. While this made-up-beer-holiday hasn't quite caught on like IPA day, you can still earn a badge on Untappd by checking in a stout and perhaps take part in a stout-filled event at a bar or brewery near you.

What do the GABF Competition Results Tell Us?

The winners of the 2012 Great American Beer Festival Competition were announced during the Festival on Saturday, October 13 and, as always, there were some surprises.  Or maybe the fact that numerous awards were won by breweries even the seasoned beer fan hasn't heard of is no longer any surprise at all?

For 2012, the Brewers Association awarded 254 medals in 84 beer categories covering 134 beer styles.  There were 4,338 beers entered in the competition from 666 breweries from 48 states, Washington D.C. and Guam.  The 185 beer experts who served as judges came from 11 countries.  To say this is a big, prestigious competition is an understatement.  It's the biggest in the world.

It's also expensive to participate.  Entry fees run hundreds of dollars. The number of breweries who can participate at the Festival is capped due to space limitations. (One hundred ten additional breweries were allowed in this year due to rearranging the space at the Colorado Convention Center.) The first five beers entered in the competition must also be served on the floor at the festival and the competition beer must be shipped separately from the festival beer.  Only once the floor space is filled can breweries enter beer only for judging. These costs and space limitations help to explain why only 8 out of 36 Montana breweries chose to attend this year.

But I digress.

As has become common, the style with the most entries in 2012 was American Style India Pale Ale with 201 beers.  The Gold medal was awarded to Tap It Brewing Company of San Louis Obispo, CA. Ever heard of them?  Thai Me Up Brewery of Jackson, WY, won Gold for the Imperial IPA category out of 128 entries.  Heard of them?  What about Brickstone Brewery in Bourbonnais, Ill., which won Gold in the American Pale Ale category out of 109 entries? I hadn't heard of any of them.

Devils Backbone Brewing Company of Rosewood, VA, won eight medals, the most of any brewery and was named the Small Brewpub and Small Brewpub Brewer of the Year.  I actually know something about Devils Backbone only because I was making a list of places I wanted to visit the next time I go to Virginia.

Last year, Sun King Brewing (Indianapolis, ID) also grabbed eight medals on its way to winning Small Brewpub and Brewer of the year. I had a chance to tour Sun King in July and it's as industrially unassuming as most of the others its size I've visited. And makes really good beer.

On the way to their success, all of these "unknown" breweries beat out many of the big boys like Deschutes, Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer Co., Boulevard, Dogfish Head, and Firestone Walker (all of whom have enjoyed their own success at the competition through the years).

What does this mean?  Size - and fame - don't matter. Chances are, your local brewery just might be the next Sun King, Devils Backbone, Tap It, or Thai Me Up.

There are beers with mythical status like Dark Lord, Kate the Great, Kentucky Breakfast Stout, and Pliny the Younger which require good fortune merely for the chance to try them.  Many live up the hype, but I've often wondered at what cost.  The hype creates black markets, undue competition, and hard feelings.*

Worse, it may leave you feeling like your local brewery - far removed from the fame and hype - doesn't measure up.

If the results of the GABF competition tell us anything, it's that great beer can be found anywhere. And everywhere.  I had one of those "whoa" moments this summer when I sat down to a "Death Star Imperial Stout" at Tamarack Brewing Co. in Lakeside, MT. It was a beer I expected to be good, but had to pause for a moment to figure out if I really was tasting something THAT good.  I was.

These kind of moments happen from time to time.  That's one of the great pleasures of exploring craft beer from places near and far.  Seek out those mighty beers with all the hype when you get the chance and see what you think.  And remember, the next unknown, unheralded beer you try at your favorite neighborhood brewery (or a brewery you happen to stumble upon) may just rearrange your entire beer world.

 * Don't get me wrong, I love trying these mythical beers when the opportunity comes along. I love that brewers seek to make these kind of beers and I don't begrudge them when they achieve this kind of success.  It's the reaction from a segment of the beer geek realm that's of concern. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

No, We Don't Have to Respect It

An article published in the The Atlantic's online site yesterday is making the rounds in the beer world with the provocative headline "Light Beer: You Don't Have to Like It, but Respect It."  The Atlantic's partner site published the story the day before with the less provocative and potentially more palatable headline "Scientific Reasons to Respect Light Beer."

It's a good read if you have the time and inclination, but this paragraph sets the stage rather well:
What few drinkers know, however, is that quality light beers are incredibly difficult to brew. The thin flavor means there's little to mask defects in the more than 800 chemical compounds within. As Kyler Serfass, manager of the home-brew supply shop Brooklyn Homebrew, told me, "Light beer is a brewer's beer. It may be bland, but it's really tough to do." Belgian monks and master brewers around the world marvel at how macro-breweries like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors have perfected the process in hundreds of factories, ensuring that every pour from every brewery tastes exactly the same.
Hmm . . "every pour tastes exactly the same."  Honestly, that IS an incredibly impressive feat.  But my caffeine-free, diet Dr. Pepper tastes exactly the same everywhere, too.  And I enjoy drinking it.

For the most part, the article pushes much too far in its attempt to elevate the craft of brewing a light beer in comparison to all other varieties of beer.  Take this passage, for example:
The fermentation process is what truly separates the competition. Light beer relies on a temperamental yeast that needs to be activated, stored, and monitored at precise temperatures to yield the proper flavor. At the Newark Brewery, the lager yeast is stored at 32°F when it's not in use, slowing down the yeast's metabolism to near zero. "We basically put the yeast to sleep, so it doesn't freak out," says Tiago Darocha, the plant's general manager. When the yeast emerges from hibernation, it's given a specific mission. At all 137 Anheuser-Busch breweries around the globe, Budweiser and Bud Light undergo exactly five and a half days of primary fermentation and 21 days of lagering, all at 50°F, plus or minus one degree. Any warmer and the beer could end up thick and flabby, instead of "clean, crisp, and fresh."
Oh, right.  Because Brettanomyces, Saccharomyces, Lactobacillus and Pediococcus yeasts/lactic acid bacteria are incredibly easy to handle. Barrel aging is a breeze.  You can whip up a lambic in no time.  Mash and fermentation temperatures are irrelevant to porters, stouts, IPAs, pale ales, doppelbocks and weizens.

Anyone who has brewed a few batches of homebrew can fully appreciate the work done by commercial brewers of all shapes and sizes.  More often than not, I have nothing but respect and appreciation when I sit down to a flavorful pint.  The average beer geek also recognizes there's a consistency problem at some local breweries and others still haven't figured out how to barrel age.  Producing the exact same product that relies on crop commodities with yearly variations at 137 facilities around the globe is indeed a very impressive process. 

I can, and do, respect the process, the engineering, the science and people who have managed to design a system that creates an incredibly consistent product over millions of barrels a year.  But I don't have to respect the product itself.  Just think what all this impressive work could produce if they put their efforts toward making something like, say, an Octoberfest?  Oh yeah, the guys at Sam Adams already figured that one out . . . .

Want respect? Admit your multimillion dollar advertising campaign found success when you stopped trying to convince people the product tastes good.  Better yet, put the same effort into creating session beers with a variety of interesting flavors we can enjoy.

The Session No. 69: The Perfect Beer World

This month's Session* topic is hosted by Jorge at the Brew Beer and Drink It blog who raises the topic of The Perfect Beer World.  Jorge asks:
What is something you would like to see change… something that will take us closer to the Perfect Beer World? The topic is wide open… even if you think that what you want to change for the better is not important or ridiculous… share it!
By way of example, Jorge mentions wanting to see more breweries add gruit or "real ales" to their line ups.

My idea for the Perfect Beer World takes a different direction and popped into my head immediately upon reading the question. My Perfect Beer World would have one set of standardized beer laws which promote free choice in an open market. 

Is that too much to ask for?

It's not a ridiculous suggestion from a global perspective, but it's ridiculous to think it would happen.  For one, it's a highly charged topic filled with under and over-tones of religion, politics, morals, wealth, and massive turf wars.  For another, it's a decision left largely to each state, virtually eliminating any ability to standardize the laws.  That is a ridiculous combination of issues to tackle.  Still, it's my Perfect Beer World.

It's a beer world that would have plenty of shelf space and no shortage of tap handles. It would have easy distributor contracts and plenty of capacity to get any product to market.  In Montana, it would mean getting rid of the quota system for alcohol licensing which currently fosters turf wars and actually reduces access to craft beer, innovation and open markets.

Other states would get Montana's growler friendly regulations and self distribution rights. Alabama and Mississippi would get to homebrew.  Pennsylvanians could mix up a six pack and buy a whole case at the same store.  Everyone could get high gravity beers.

Yeah, that's my Perfect Beer World.  What's yours?

*Today is the first Friday in November which means it's time to take part in The Session, a collective effort of beer bloggers around the world to write on a common topic once each month.