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Colorado breweries fund organic hops research

New Belgium Brewing has awarded a $20,000 grant to a Colorado State graduate student to further her research on growing organic hops in Colorado.

Odell Brewing — located in Fort Collins like New Belgium and CSU — has been supporting Ali Hamm’s work for several years.

Hamm’s plan is to figure out what kinds of hops grow best under organic conditions in Colorado. “Nobody thinks about growing hops in Colorado – well, not until this year,” Hamm said.

New Belgium currently uses organic hops from New Zealand in its organic Mothership Wit, and obviously would like to be able to use some that aren’t shipped half way around the world.

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.

There’s more than flavor in a flavor wheel

Lauren SalazarBefore we get to the Slate three-part series on sensory perception and wine a few words of wit and wisdom on that topic from Lauren Salazar of New Belgium Brewing, who spoke Friday in Denver at the National Homebrewers Conference. (That’s her on the right, during a mock judging last year in Seattle, staged for the shooting of American Brew.)

Things I learned I would have added to the earlier discussion here about the mysteries of how (and how we might measure what) we smell and taste:

– To those scientific types who argue that senses of sight, touch and hearing are concrete and smelling and tasting are not her answer is simple. “Yes they are,” she said. “Seeing is not believing. Smelling and tasting is where it’s at.”

– There a second “flavor” wheel (I put the quotation marks around flavor because we’re really talking flavor and aroma), this one just for byproducts of oxidation. If you’re sitting on a tasting panel at New Belgium and call out a beer for being oxidized you can’t stop there – you have to be more specific. This goes to quality control, and more about that in a few paragraphs.

– She presented four samples of Fat Tire dosed with chemicals that reproduce flavors such as acetaldehyde (green apples) and diacetyl (butterscotch; buttered popcorn at higher levels). Although we often cite these as off flavors when judging beer (there are even boxes to check on a BJCP scoresheet) they aren’t inappropriate in every beer.

A bit of green apple in Budweiser is part of its flavor profile. Hints, heck more than hints, of butterscotch make British ales taste like British ales.

“Diacetyl is one of the first words you learn (in judging beer),” Salazar said. “We are American brewers. We are paid to hate diacetyl. You know how much British brewers hate us for that?”

When I posted the flavor wheel last week, Jonathan wrote that the majority of the descriptors on the wheel don’t describe particularly pleasant flavors. Yep. And I think figuring out how to keep the good ones in and the bad ones out – sometimes in beer that is going to be shipped across the country and maybe mishandled along the way – is a craft.

During the lengthy discussions of “what is craft beer?” (start here) I’ve seen it suggested that Sierra Nevada Brewing and Stone Brewing were craft but no longer are because they grew into production breweries.

That’s poppycock. Both Sierra Nevada and New Belgium have new state-of-the-art bottling lines that will take your breath away, but we’re back to the early question: Is the Big Foot (or Mothership Wit) in the glass any different because it passed through a technically superior bottling line?

Salazar and her husband, Eric, oversee the New Belgium barrel program. La Foile is essentially hand bottled. That beer is something we expect from a great brewery.

Salazar also administers a quite sophisticated quality analysis program at New Belgium, with 24 tasters sitting on her in-house panels. A couple of months ago at the Craft (my italics) Brewers Conference Matt Gilliland of New Belgium talked about “Total Oxidation: Exposure and Increased Flavor Stability.” One measure of success is that after beer changes hands several times over the course a few weeks in the distribution system it is still “true to brand” in the glass.

That’s something else we expect from a great brewery.

View from atop New Belgium

Peter Bouckaert

New Belgium Brewing’s Peter Bouckaert gestures into the distance while giving a tour to members of the media who were in Colorado during the Great American Beer Festival, making a bit of a joke we’ll get to in a moment.

This view is from the roof of the brewery. The building under construction is the new packaging facility. When it is complete New Belgium will be able to brew and ship 850,000 barrels of beer per year – and that’s capacity for the current site.

What then? If you know just where to look in this photo you’ll spot Anheuser-Busch’s Fort Collins brewery (current capacity 10 million barrels) in the distance. New Belgium will take that over in 2010, Bouckaert said, smiling while adding “just kidding” in case the A-B employees on the tour (which next went to the A-B plant) were worried.

New Belgium shipped 370,000 barrels in 2005 and will likely sell about 435,000 in 2006. That number is constrained by the currently packaging line, which runs 24/7. “We’re bottling gold,” Bouckaert said.

Among items on display in one of the brewhouses (below) is the original five-hecoliter system that Jeff Lebesch began brewing on when he and his wife, Kim Jordan, started the brewery in the basement of their home. In front are a couple of the wine barrels that Bouckaert began experimenting with in the late 1990s (eventually producing La Foile). The Fat Tire bicycles to the right are examples of those each employee receives after one year of working at New Belgium. After five years they get a trip to Belgium.

NBB brewhouse

The photo below shows a mini-shrine hanging on one wall of the hospitality area of the brewery. Call it beer folk art.

NBB shrine

Beer as green as they come

Today is the day everybody – thank goodness, not everybody, but a lot of body – drinks or at least talks about green beer.

Kudos to Wired magazine for writing about the environmentally friendly, if not truly green, beers of Brooklyn Brewery and New Belgium Brewing.

Brooklyn recently followed the lead of New Belgium in committing to wind power to provide 100% of the brewery’s energy needs. “It’s the right thing to do, and not too many years down the road it will be a common choice,” said Brooklyn co-founder Steve Hindy.

New Belgium gets 70 percent of its power from wind-powered turbines, producing the rest with an innovative in-house system.

New Belgium puts its waste water inside closed pools filled with anaerobic bacteria. The microbes feed on the water, rich in nutrients from the brewing process, and produce methane gas, which is then pumped back to the factory where it becomes electrical and thermal energy.

CEO Kim Jordan indicates that New Belgium doesn’t plan to stop at 30%, although the system cost $5 million.

“It’s a gratifying way to use money, to try and push the envelope and the practice of alternative energy,” she said. “It’s our goal to completely close that loop, so all our energy use comes from our own waste stream.”

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