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Archive | June, 2007

Beer in wood: The old is new again

Is this your tongue?You already knew this, but this beer in wood thing isn’t exactly new. For centuries brewers fermented and conditioned their beer in wood because they had no alternative.

And some didn’t quit that long ago.

Wisconsin and Minnesota newspapers are carrying a story about the challenge the the Wisconsin Historical Society has in figuring out what to do with a couple of 100-barrel (3,100 gallons) casks donated by Stevens Point Brewery in Steven Point. Some were used until 1995.

Stevens Point Brewery had 28 “vats” in various sizes to get rid of when it switched from wood to steel. Some were converted into hot tubs or pizza ovens.

Dixie Brewing in New Orleans was still still aging some of its beer in 1912-vintage Cyprus wood tanks until Hurricane Katrina shut down the brewery in 2005. Dixie is rebuilding, but it seems unlikely the tanks will be used again. Dixie only phased out its wooden fermenters in 1987.

The photo at the top was taken in Bube’s Brewery in Mount Joy, Pa., in 1995 – before a microbrewery opened within the complex. I came across these wooden fermenters when I walked through an unmarked door in the basement. I’m not sure if you can visit this area these days. (Perhaps Lew Bryson can tell us).

Back to Wisconsin, where the story is about the challenge Joe Kapler, museum curator for the historical society, faced in finding a place to store two 9-foot-by-8-foot vats.

In the long run they will be displayed at the historical society in Madison in an exhibition on beer-making.

“You can talk until you’re blue in the face about the history of brewing in Wisconsin, and words and images are indispensable. But objects, in their intimacy, or their scale in this case, help people connect with things on a tactile level,” he said.

“Just having these two objects will go a long way in telling the story.”

Beer history. Preserve when you have a chance.

Session #5: There’s room for everybody

Beer with a view

The SessionAl at Hop Talk reminds us that round 5 of The Session is coming up next Friday and that any and all bloggers are invited to join us.

The topic/theme is atmosphere:

So, we want to know about the “Atmosphere” in which you enjoy beer. Where is your favorite place to have a beer? When? With whom? Most importantly:


If we’re talking one place and one companion then this is pretty easy. I’m sitting on my back portal and drinking a beer with Daria. (Thus the photo on top.) I don’t think you need to ask why.

But I choose to tell you about a single great beer drinking experience from the upcoming week, and this one offers above average prospects.

Tonight we’ll drive through the Rio Grande Bosque and Los Ranchos to a barbecue place with a nice enclosed patio and a decent selection of beer. Perhaps I’ll have a draft Skinny Dip from New Belgium or maybe Stone IPA from a bottle.

We’ll stop almost next door and see Joe Sausage, a tiny one-man operation where the sausage is hand-made and fresh. Tomorrow is our homebrew club’s annual summer social – on the other side of that mountain. Everybody brings a dish to share, something to grill and beer, homebrewed and/or commercial. Two years ago I had the best bottle of Westvleteren 12 (hand carried from Belgium just a few weeks before) that I’ve ever tasted about five steps beyond the garage back door. (Details like that you remember.)

We might buy sausage with green chile (and several other spices, always hard to pass up) for the grill or we could go with Hopwurst, which is made with Il Vicino Wet Mountain IPA. I like that you’ll often see two growlers behind Joe’s workspace, one marked “for personal consumption.”

And if I’m not telling you about tonight or tomorrow at The Session next week it will be because Sunday evening on the portal, Tuesday at the Triple A game between the Iowa Cubs and Albuquerque Isotopes (locally brewed Isotopes Amber surely buries whatever Duff might taste like) or Wednesday was too good not to describe. Wednesday, July 4, we’ll be cooking out at friends, who live a little higher than us and have an overarching view of multiple displays of fireworks.

Ron introduced the topic of atmosphere sometime ago at Hop Talk:

We will be lucky sometimes and a perfect beer atmospheric condition will present itself. It might be bumping into friends while out to dinner and you end up chatting for hours. Or, perhaps, you are on vacation with your loved one and you find a secluded spot on the lake where you truly get to unwind.

The theme within this theme: “While life is not all about beer, beer is all about life.

Trendspotting: Barrel-aged beers

Barrel-aged beer

It’s one line in a two-page spread – so the impact won’t be the same as if Oprah were to declare her love for IPAs (headlines across the the country scream, “Hops Sales Soar Through The Ozone Layer”) – but the current BusinessWeek reports on The Food and Wine Classic in Apsen, Colo., calling it a leading indicator of food trends.

And those trends would be?

“We’ll be hearing a lot more about Spanish and Greek wine, unusual pairings such as wine with chocolate, hand-cured meats, and barrel-aged beer.”

Before you get too excited, let’s consider how much more – oh, just for instance – Miller Chill there is out there for us to buy than there is barrel-aged beer. Give your favorite better beer store a call. I’ll wait. And they had? Maybe some Rodenbach Grand Cru if you’re lucky. Perhaps Jolly Pumpkin La Roja? Less likely.

The Angel’s Share from Lost Abbey? They had that and you didn’t hang up the phone and get immediately in the car? Shame on you.

So where are these beers going to come from?

You read about barrel-aged beers, but how often do you see them? There were 87 entries in the wood- and barrel-aged categories at the Great American Beer Festival, and some other wood-aged beers entries in other categories (Belgian sour beers in particular).

One of the medalists was Wooden Hell from Flossmoor Station in Illinois. That’s brewer Matt Van Wyk up above. The photo is courtesy of Todd Ashman, formerly of Flossmoor Station and now at Fifty Fifty Brewing in Truckee, Calif., who collected barrel shots from across the nation for a talk he gave last year at the National Hombrewers Conference. This one came from Flossmoor assistant brewer Andrew Mason.

You’ll notice his “barrel room” is on the small side. The city of Rio Rancho, N.M., will go through more Blue Moon White this weekend than those barrels would hold.

With four 60- and six 130-hectoliter foders New Belgium Brewing must have the largest wood capacity in the country. To the best of my knowledge, Lost Abbey Brewing in California is the next largest with 130 wine and spirits barrels, and many of those are waiting for beer. Brewery Tomme Arthur recently authored a delightful blog post about barrel filling season.

(A little background: Most wine barrels hold 225 liters, a little less than 60 gallons. A barrel of beer, the measure we use most often, equals 31 gallons. A barrel of beer will produce about 13.8 cases of 12-ounce bottles, or two kegs. A barrel of wine yields 25 cases of 750ml bottles – but of course that’s almost two barrels of beer.)

When Russian River Brewing’s production plant is up and running (yes, I need to write more about that) the barrel room will hold more than 325 wine barrels so RR could produce 560-plus beer barrels (31 gallons) a year. Given that some beers will age longer, keeping barrels filled takes times, and still other reasons, 400 to 500 barrels a year seems more likely. That’s half the production of your average brewpub – and we won’t see any of it until 2009.

So back to all those GABF entries. Brewers are interested. Heck, New Holland Brewing in Michigan has 50 wood barrels at work right now, and the barrel display at Upstream Brewing in Omaha will take your breath away.

The list goes on. Flossmoor is up to 12 barrels, Jolly Pumpkin continues to add barrels, Cambridge Brewing outside of Boston has a captivating barrel cellar. Maybe I should just post a bunch more barrel-room photos.

But we have still to go looking. Sprecher Brewing in Wisconsin sells (or sold, they may be gone) a wonderful Dopplebock aged in bourbon barrels, but produced only 389 of the one-liter bottles. New Holland just rolled out Moxie, a sour ale aged in wood and only 424 750ml bottles are available.

The same day that Lost Abbey released Cuvee de Tomme the brewery sold all 480 375ml bottles that will be available until the next bottling (in the fall). Obviously underpriced at $15 apiece.

Cheap by Aspen standards – and heaven forbid Oprah finds out about these barrel-aged beers.

Hey, I found more flavor wheels

Can’t help myself, it seems.

I’m not sure I understand Zarfhome, or who Zarf might be, but he or she has done the heavy lifting with a rather complete list of Flavor Wheels of the World.

You’ve got stuff from perfume people, beer, wine, coffee, chocolate, maple products and some other lists.

A cheese flavor wheel is mentioned but without a chart. The most complete I could find is Sartori Foods’ Italian Cheese Flavor Wheel.

You don’t want to be a supertaster

Is this your tongue?What did I learn from Mike Steinberger’s three-part series at Slate about sensory perception and tasting wine?

Probably more if I had I wanted to dive into the science. Give him credit was not being afraid to get geeky. This was a serious investigation into tasting physiology, but in a tongue-in-cheek (yes, tongue) way that meant his ears were surely burning when we read it. Who is this guy who thinks he is a supertaster, and why should we be impressed by his über wine-tasting skills?

For me, he confirmed what I already knew: You, me, we don’t want to be supertasters, Super Tasters, or whatever you want to call somebody with an abnormal number of taste buds. I first read about concept in Elin McCoy’s Emperor of Wine, her biography of wine critic Robert Parker.

Sounds cool doesn’t it, to be super when it comes to tasting? But do you think this is what sets Parker apart? After all, he had is nose insured for a million dollars, not his tongue. What’s amazing is his ability to taste, blind, a wine he had 20 years ago and tell you what it is. Makes your realize there is as much happening in his brain as his nose or his mouth.

Fact is that supertasters experience flavors, and sensations on the tongue, more intensely. Chiles? Maybe not such a good idea. Hoppy beers? More bitter than Sam Calagione intended. Artichokes? No way. Gee, you’d be looking over your shoulder every time you dipped your bread in olive oil.

Does that sound like fun to you?

Then there is the other question. As scientists learn more about the relationship between nose and taste is there the chance they will find that our perceptions are so individual that looking to others for recommendations has little value?

All of which raises, for wine writers, a truly buzz-killing possibility: Is there a grand fallacy at the heart of what we do? Those of us who review wines do so in the belief that our evaluations, while obviously subjective, are of some value to consumers. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that taste perceptions may be even more individualistic and idiosyncratic than previously imagined — and if our noses and tongues all operate on such different wavelengths, then who’s to say what’s good or bad? Is it really possible to agree about the attributes and virtues of, say, a Napa Cabernet, or are we — wine writers and wine consumers — just conning ourselves into consensus?

Might we not say the same about beer?

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