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Session #59: With a little help from his winemaking friends

The SessionFor The Session #59, host Mario Rubio provides these marching orders: “Let’s talk about what we drink when not drinking beer.” Alan doesn’t approve, and — to be honest — I’m feeling challenged.

We do drink other stuff in our house. We had Tom & Jerry’s when we decorated our tree, enjoyed homemade eggnog on Christmas, chatted at length over a wonderful bottle of Italian wine a few nights ago. But those aren’t things I’m keen on writing about.

When The Session began nearly five years ago the premise was pretty basic. Pick a theme, write about it, maybe focus on a specific beer. Not sure how to do that with eggnog.

Matt BrynildsonSo let’s talk beer, pretending this one qualifies because winemakers played a major role in creating it. Firestone Walker XV. Which — like for X, XI, XII, XIII and XIV — a bunch of otherwise grape-oriented guys help blend. I wrote about X for Imbibe magazine, and a some of the others here. Most notably XI, with more fawning here.

Now that I’ve stocked up on XV I’ll fess up. It might be as good as XI. Of course, this is totally my palate talking. You might not agree at all. I’ll let you know how the two compare in a couple of years, assuming I can actually stand open that last bottle of XI. Looking at the blend for XV — 76% barley wines, no dominant anchor, Double Jack (fueled by dry hop aromas that are bound to fade) — I wasn’t all that optimistic. But there’s already deep dark character beyond the rich fruitiness that’s downright beguiling. And hints there’ll be something different next year, then something altogether different the next.

Fifteen Paso Robles area winemakers showed up this year to contribute their opinions about the blend — or perhaps simply to drink beer — and Firestone Walker brewmaster Matt Brynildson set them off in groups of two and three. Each group came up with a favorite mixture, brewery workers replicated the blends and the winemakers voted to determine their favorite.

Brynildson now has 600 barrels to draw from, and emptied almost 200 for XV. I’m pretty sure that means there’s going to be a XVI and that plenty of winemakers will show up to help.

Firestone Walker 11 and friends

Firestone Walker Anniversary BeersFriday I snapped a photo of the three bottles of Firestone Walker anniversary beers, posted them to posterous and promised drinking notes, an oath automatically repeated at Twitter and Facebook. A bad idea, and I can’t even blame the alcohol since we hadn’t poured any beer yet. Fact is I didn’t take any notes and I’m not sure I’d have much new to tell you if I had.

You can find glowing adjectives all over the Internet, and I’ve already written about the process in detail, both here and in print. So a few brief observations:

– One of my friends at the table said he’d read some comments on the line that Eleven (released in 2007) had started to go downhill. Not the bottle we opened, at least to my taste. I have one left and will wait at least two years before opening it.

– Last year, when we pulled together bottles of Eleven, 12 and 13 we decided just two at a time was probably enough. We really should stick to that plan. The newest release and one older. Certainly they are different, more like cousins than siblings, but they also are 10% abv (if you are lucky enough to have squirreled away a 10) and stronger. Besides, it’s a anniversary beer, one that a lot of work went into, and opening a single bottle seems to be a celebration unto itself.

– I sometimes struggle to explain what I mean when using the word texture to describe a beer. It’s not just mouthfeel, but also the layers of flavors and aromas. The best way to understand what I mean it so drink one of these anniversary beers.

– The 14 (the newest, in case all these numbers we leaving you feeling a little lost) has a hop brightness not present since the 10. Will that change how the beer ages? Be patient.

Of course we talked about the beers as we drank them — even looked at the blending notes — as well as other things beer and things not beer. That’s the way it should work.

When I got home I thought of the conversation I had with winemaker Matt Trevisan that became New Beer Rule 6 (The best beer was in the empty glass.)

Once again, I ran out of Eleven first. Dang, I’m going to miss that beer. It will be a tough last bottle to open.

Trader Joe’s beer wins international award

Eric ToftWe’ll get to the Trader’s Joe beer in a moment, but first other news from Nuremberg, where the European Beer Star Awards were handed out today.

American breweries won 25 medals, second only to Germany. Boston Beer (Samuel Adams) grabbed four, including one gold, while Oregon breweries Deschutes and Caldera won three each. Deschutes took gold for Bachelor ESB and Abyss, while Caldera had the top IPA, besting Firestone-Walker’s Union Jack (which has been winning everything recently, including this competition in 2008). Sixteen different American breweries won medals.

Personally, I was delighted to see Surtaler Leicht from Private Landbrauerei Schönram in Bavaria win gold as a European Light Lager. It captured the silver last year and I waxed romantic about it for Session #25. Schönramer Pils — I highly recommend the unfiltered version at the restaurant on the brewery grounds — also won gold.

As I’ve mentioned before Schönram brewmaster Eric Toft (pictured here) is a native of Wyoming.

OK, back to Trader Joe’s. Mission Street Honey Blond — brewed by Firestone-Walker — won the bronze in the Specialty Honey category, finishing behind Samuel Adams Honey Porter and Dogfish Head Midas Touch. At $5.99 a better deal than Two Buck (really Three Buck) Chuck, I think.


Roll out the barrels, Part I

Cambridge Brewing barrels
Stephen Beaumont and Jon Abernathy have added their voices to the chorus singing the praises of barrel-aged beers.

Let’s hope everybody is right and more barrel-aged beers are on the way. Right now I’d settle for larger production runs of what’s available.

After writing a story about blending for Imbibe magazine and one about barrel-aging in the current DRAFT magazine I’ve got notebooks full of information that didn’t quite fit and I need to tell somebody about.

Even though I’m still in research mode.

I suggest you start with the DRAFT article. It may be all you need, but should you want more here’s the first of a couple posts on the subject (for now).

There’s not enough to go around

I pointed out how rare these beers are last summer and received several e-mails and comments from people alerting me to barrel-aged beers I might not have known about.

In fact, the number of individual beers being aged in barrels would be quite staggering. Problem is that we are talking a few dozen barrels from a microbrewery here, maybe a single one from a brewpub there. When I was at Berkshire Brewing in Massachusetts last summer I was startled to walk around a corner and see 11 used bourbon barrels (each full of beer) on metal racks.

But the short version of the math I did for DRAFT: Each weekday in USA Today Jerry Shriver recommends a wine. He only chooses wines with a case run of at least 8,000. Why send people looking for something they’ll never find? There isn’t a single barrel-aged beer produced in that quantity.

Consider two upcoming releases.

On Monday, Deschutes Brewery will release the second edition of The Abyss, an imperial stout aged in French oak and bourbon barrels. The first batch (December 2006) disappeared in the blink of an eye. And that’s before the beer was named “Best Stout in the World” by Men’s Journal and won gold medals in several major competitions.

On Saturday, Port Brewing/Lost Abbey will sell Red Poppy Ale for the first time. There are but 60 cases of 375ml bottles, each bottle priced at $15 with a limit will be four bottles per customer. The only way to get the beer is to visit the brewery. Think they’ll have any trouble selling out?

There are barrels and there are barrels

We commonly talk about beer production in terms of barrels, each one amounting to 31 gallons. “The Imperial Brewery just installed a 30-barrel brew house” or “New Belgium Brewing sold 485,000 barrels last year.”

Wood barrels that once contained wine or spirits — or in some cases are being used for the first time — generally hold between 50 and 65 gallons and will yield about two beer barrels.

You might say I lied about nobody producing comparable to 8,000 cases. Firestone Walker ran about 5,000 beer barrels through its Union system last year and sold hundreds of thousands of cases of beer with a measure of oak flavor. The brewery began the year with 36 wood barrels in the Union and boosted that to 42 because of demand.

How it works: The base for what will become Firestone Walker Pale and FW Double Barrel ferments in steel. Approximately 20% is transferred into the Union after the first day of fermentation and that remains in wood for seven days. What’s blended back with beer fermented in steel becomes Double Barrel Ale. The brewers then blend about 15% of Double Barrel with un-oaked pale ale to create Firestone Walker Pale.

It most accurately should be called a barrel-fermented beer, but one that perfectly showcases some of what wood adds. Firestone has released two barrel-aged beers, the cleverly named Firestone 10 and Firestone 11.

There are barrels and there are chips

Firestone Walker UnionTo produce 5,000 (beer) barrels of oaked ale to use in blending brewers at Firestone &#151 these are people at work, because this is not a matter of hitting a switch and watching beer flow magically from one container to another — must rack beer into wooden barrels well over 2,000 times, then rack it back into steel after a week.

It is ridiculously labor intensive and of course a some beer is lost along the way. It’s hard to believe they can do this and only charge $6.99 to $7.99 a six-pack.

Barrels are a pain in the butt. When I walk into either of two wineries near my house I know I won’t see any barrels. Both use “chips” in the aging tanks to add wood flavor to their products (both red and white wines). They aren’t really chips but wood blocks. The winemakers don’t want too much surface area (which you get with smaller chips) or they’ll end up with excess wood character.

Is this a shortcut? Sure. But it beats the heck out of paying more than $1,000 for a French oak barrel (the going price) and dealing with getting large volumes in and out of barrels that hold 60 or so gallons.

That’s why Anheuser-Busch ages its Winter’s Bourbon Cask Ale in tanks along with bourbon barrel staves rather than the thousands of barrels it would otherwise need. Speaking of people at work, somebody still has to lay those staves in the massive tanks and take them out when the beer is done.

Fine beers are produced using chips, beers like Great Divide Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout (French and toasted oak chips) and Stone’s Oaked Arrogant Bastard (which to my taste fares better after it has some time in the bottle).

Oops, that’s more than I intended to write and covered less ground. We’ll resume this soon.

Firestone 11 and a ‘Tale of Two Matts’

Firestone 11I’ve already ragged on Firestone Walker for the Plane Jane names attached to spectacular anniversary beers. So to be constructive I should suggest a sexy alternative to “Firestone 11,” the beer they’ll be lining up to buy today at the Firestone Walker taproom in Paso Robles, Calif.

With apologies to Dickens let’s call it a “Tale of Two Matts.” And quote a bit from the opening of his similarly named novel: “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”

The Matts are Matt Brynildson and Matt Trevisan, the brewmaster at Firestone and winemaker at Linne Calodo Winery respectively. The former had everything to do with brewing, aging and assembling the beer. The latter sat in on sessions that determined the blends for “10” and “11.” As important to me is how generous Trevisan was with his time in a long conversation that helped me understand what makes this beer different.

The foolishness? The labor and time involved compared to what income the sale of 500 cases will bring. The wisdom? It’s in the glass.

Coconut. Vanilla. Oak tannins. Texture. Bourbon. Brown. Chocolate. Dark cherries. Smoke. Earthy/herbal.

That’s how my notes begin. Then, Do we really need to deconstruct this beer?

My thoughts turned to a conversation with Trevisan about blending “10.” “I told them they didn’t have to sit there and pick it apart to find the best one,” he said. “You didn’t necessarily want the one you had the most to say about. Ultimately it’s a beverage to enjoy.”

So Daria and I were pretty much done chatting about our impressions of the beer, even if they did keep coming. For instance, when I poured out the last of the 22-ounce bottle and kicked up the head anew a sudden whiff of rose perfume appeared, recalling Rochefort’s beers. Where the hell did that come from?

We enjoyed the beer but we talked about how much we like the Christmas tree we cut Friday, how many days we should appropriate for the Canadian Rockies next summer, and more stuff you don’t give a hoot about.

Instead, you’re here to find out what makes this beer different, perhaps special. Could there be a one word tasting note?

OK. Texture. It’s rich and velvety on the tongue, but finishes with enough leathery coarseness that it doesn’t leave a sweet impression. I suspect that’s one of the reasons such a wide array of flavors come together so well.

Class dismissed.

The rest of a “Tale of Two Matts” is optional reading.

Matt BrynildsonFirestone 11 is a compelling beer with a captivating back story. I wrote about the blending of Firestone 10 in the current Imbibe magazine.

Also, check out Sean Paxton’s recently posted Blending Firestone Walker 11 with Matt Brynildson for photos far more illustrative than my words. Don’t miss the “Bourbon Dot.”

Before we get to the nitty gritty geeky details comparing “10” and “11” let’s back up a bit. When Brynildson hit upon having area winemakers help with the blend, Trevisan — who stocks up on a variety of Firestone Walker beers to serve winery workers during harvest — was one of of the first he called. Wine Spectator has characterized him as one of the “Young Turks” of the Central Coast.

Handed a glass of Abacus, a barley wine, that was a composite taken from several barrels Trevisan asked instead for samples from individual barrels. A conversation with him about wood makes the reason why obvious.

French Oak versus American Oak is just the beginning, because he’ll tell you about different forests around the world. He described two oak trees, each one on a slightly different part of his property, each developing differently in its own microclimate.

“It starts with how the cooper chooses his trees,” he says. Where the wood is dried (think Oregon Coast versus Mojave Desert) and otherwise how the cooper treats it make as much difference as variables that are more easily quoted, like the level of “toast” (when a partially assembled barrel is placed over a fire and charred). For instance, when a winemaker or brewer buys a new barrel it will be described along these lines: American Oak, Medium Aroma Toast, 24 months (the time spent seasoning).

Trevisan says too many winemakers want barrels with the same specs to produce the same flavors. “That takes the human element out of it,” he says. “If I have two barrels I like the idea of the left one and the right one tasting different.”

Assembling those flavors, of course, is why Matt consulted with Matt. “I always work off what I call liquidity. What’s the weight in the mouth? How to you want the wine perceived?” Trevisan says. He returns often to the word “viscosity,” and the importance of flavor at mid-palate.

That may mean something a little different in wine than beer but relates directly to the impressive texture of Firestone 11. A fair complaint about some high alcohol “extreme beers” is that they start with an intense blast of aromas and flavors, but there’s little depth by mid-palate. That’s not the case here.

Make no mistake, Firestone 10 and Firestone 11 taste quite different. We’re not talking about the difference between the 2006 and 2007 vintages of Pinot Noir from a winery. We’re talking the difference between a barley wine and a really big brown ale. The geeky details:

Firestone 11
– 82% Bravo (an Imperial Brown Ale brewed in August 2006)
– 16 bourbon barrels, 5 brandy barrels, 2 retired Firestone Union barrels (new American oak)
7% Rufus (a Continental Styles Imperial Amber brewed August 2007)
– 1 bourbon barrel, 1 rye barrel
7% Velvet Merkin (a regular strength Oatmeal Stout brewed October 2007)
– 2 bourbon barrels
3.5% Parabola (Russian Imperial Stout brewed February 2006)
– 1 bourbon barrel

Firestone 10
– Abacus (Barley Wine) 46%
– Bravo 16%
– Parabola 11%
– Ruby (Double IPA) 8%
– Walker’s Reserve (Oak fermented Robust Porter) 6%
– Hemp Ale (American Brown) 6%
– Double Barrel Ale (oak fermented English Pale) 6%

A 22-ounce of Firestone 10 sold for $9.99 when it was released last year. The suggested retail price on “11” is $16.99.

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