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Category 23: Looking for harmony in beer

Samuel Adams Longshot Homebrew Contest Category 23Perhaps it’s because I live in a state where Area 51 is famous, but Category 23 has an ominous ring to it. Particularly when you are asked to judge the category in a homebrew competition. Strange beers, experiments, successful and otherwise.

This year the Samuel Adams LongShot American Homebrew Contest is all about Category 23. There will be no judging of pilsners, pale ales or stouts. Just beers that fit in Category 23 as defined by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP): “This is explicitly a catch-all category for any beer that does not fit into an existing style category. No beer is ever ‘out of style’ in this category, unless it fits elsewhere.”

Not every beer entered need be crazy. This is the category where you’d enter a honey ale, for instance. But it is one where wild and inventive beers are welcome (a honey ale aged with wild yeast and wood chips). A bottle of Chocolate Chili Bock — released only to make a point and not for sale to the public and pictured above — accompanied the press release about the contest.

“. . . as the years go on, the number of entries with unique ingredients that don’t fit into the first 22 traditional categories have multiplied,” Boston Beer founder Jim Koch said for the press release. “So why not channel all the creativity that we know is out there in the homebrewing community and see what they can come up with? My taste-buds are ready!”

Boston Beer celebrates its 25th anniversary this year — today, in fact, because it was on Patriots’ Day 25 years ago that Koch began deliver beer. The Wall Street Journal had a story today, the Boston Globe last week.

Maureen Ogle, author of “Ambitious Brew,” summed it up nicely in the Globe when she said Koch “remains innovative and he’s constantly experimenting. A lot of the other craft brewers lost sight of that when they expanded.”

It seems fair to add the turn the LongShot contest has taken to a list that starts with Triple Bock (1993).

Back to the contest. This isn’t like the knife fight in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” There are rules. You can read them here. What’s noteworthy, given plenty of discussion in the blogosphere about the proliferation of “beer styles” and beer evaluation in general is that a) Category 23 makes room for “beers without homes” (to steal a phrase from Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey Brewing) without adding new categories and b) because of what’s central in judging this category.

In part: “A harmonious marriage of ingredients, processes and beer. . . . The overall rating of the beer depends heavily on the inherently subjective assessment of distinctiveness and drinkability.”

Isn’t that how we should assess all beers? Of course. It’s just more obvious when you aren’t focused on if a beer conforms to style guidelines.

A few details

* As in the past, three regional judging competitions will take place to narrow the entries down. Three finalists from each region (9 finalist total) will move on to a second round of judging.

* The second round of judging will take place in Boston, with four finalists earning a trip to the 2010 Great American Beer Festival, where winners will be announced. The two winning beers will be brewed and distributed nationally.

* Details are at the Samuel Adams website. After signing in, click on No. 4 on the right, then the Longshot logo.

Sam Adams sharing hops with smaller brewers

Jim Koch, Samuel AdamsJim Koch sent a big old hops valentine to smaller breweries on Thursday. Ten tons worth.

He told them that Boston Beer, brewer of the Samuel Adams beers, will sell 20,000 pounds of hops that otherwise would not be available to smaller breweries. The company will sell the hops at its cost, which is considerably less than they would bring on the open (or “spot”) market.

Koch revealed the offer to Brewers Association members Thursday in a forum for association members, telling them:

“For a couple of months now, we’ve all been facing the unprecedented hops shortage and it’s affected all craft brewers in various ways. The impact is even worse on the small craft brewers — openings delayed, recipes changed, astronomical hops prices being paid and brewers who couldn’t make beer.

“So we looked at our own hops supplies at Boston Beer and decided we could share some of our hops with other craft brewers who are struggling to get hops this year.”

The brewery will sell 10,000 pounds of East Kent Goldings from Great Britain and 10,000 pounds of Tettnang Tettnangers from small farms in the Tettnang region in Germany. Both are “aroma hops,” horribly under appreciated and the kind being dissed by brewers chasing alpha, but at the same time becoming crazily expensive.

Samuel Adams will limit the amount sold to any one brewery in order to assure as many as possible get hops.

“The purpose of doing this is to get some hops to the brewers who really need them. So if you don’t really need them, please don’t order them,” Koch wrote. “And don’t order them just because we’re making them available at a price way below market. Order them because you need these hops to make your beer. We’re not asking questions, so let your conscience be your guide.”

This is explained in the “Hop-Sharing Program” area at the Samuel Adams website (you will have to verify your age). The FAQ answers most of the questions I’ve been receiving during the day. (These are not “left over” hops for instance; in fact they haven’t even arrived in the country. Boston Beer will be glad to use them if any aren’t claimed.)

I know whose beer I’m drinking tonight.

Hofbräuhaus Double Bock revisited

Gee, I wish I’d received the press release before we were in Las Vegas and I went looking for a doppelbock to try for The Session rather than a few days ago.

For the second straight year, the Hofbräuhaus Las Vegas is pouring a draft beer that is truly special – even by the standards of this beer hall that’s been redefining great-tasting beer for Las Vegans and visitors alike since 2004.

The Hofbräuhaus Las Vegas was able to obtain 50 kegs of this rare brew with the powerful punch (it contains 8% alcohol) and ultra smooth taste. Like all the Hofbräu beers served at Hofbräuhaus Las Vegas, this very special brew was imported fresh from Munich, Germany.

Made completely without preservatives, the Double Bock at Hofbräuhaus Las Vegas can be had only as long as the 50 kegs hold out – and it is a delicious treat not to be missed: this true Double Bock is made with a unique blend of pilsner and Munich malts, which eliminates bitterness, despite its higher alcohol content.

In addition, the Double Bock uses more hops in every batch than the other beers at Hofbräuhaus Las Vegas, and the beer is aged twice as long. The result? A surprisingly light-colored brew (compared to the dark, bitter mass-market American beers claiming to be “Double Bock”) that is amazingly smooth on the palate with a faint sweetness, which completely hides the fact that every delicious sip runs about 16 proof!

According to Hofbräuhaus Las Vegas president Stefan Gastager, Hofbräu Double Bock is more familiar to European beer drinkers; many Italians even use it as an aperitif, to whet the appetite before a meal. “Obviously, it is very special to be able to provide this great tasting beer with the storied history to our guests for a second year in a row,” Gastager said. “It’s not often that a beer of this magnitude is available in the United States; I invite everyone to come in and experience this great tasting brew while it lasts, but be careful this beer is very strong!”

. . . compared to the dark, bitter mass-market American beers claiming to be “Double Bock.”

Do you know of a Double Bock other than one from Samuel Adams? What kind of statement is the press release making about the doppelbocks brewed in Munich (where the style originated)?

Just trying to figure out whose bows are being shot across.

Samuel Adams creates an ode to noble hops

Samuel Adams Hallertau PilsnerBack for a second time, Samuel Adams Hallertau Imperial Pilsner remains a beautiful — if big at 8.8% abv and 110 IBU — tribute to the Hallertau Mittelfrueh hop. Or Mittlefrüher as it is spelled in the Halltetauer region of Bavaria.

Lew Bryson already provoked a long enough discussion about calling it imperial pilsner, inspiring a nice treatise on balance by Stephen Beaumont. Consider those topics dealt with.

Instead, some answers to the question “Why?” The short answer is: “Mittelfrüh (Mittelfrueh)”

“We think they are the best hop in the world,” Boston Beer founder Jim Koch said when the 2005 vintage was released. “We wanted to showcase them. It is neat you can get all those flavors from one hop variety.”

Mittelfrueh aroma

Mittelfrueh Aroma

There’s a technical aspect to this you may already know. Or not. Basically, IBU stands for International Bitterness Units and an IBU is one part per million of isohumulone. Brewers calculate how much bitterness to expect based on the alpha acid percentage of particular hops, the amount of hops used and the utilization (length of boil is most important; there are other factors and let’s stop there).

The most efficient way to add bitterness is by using high alpha hops (with AA percentages ranging from the mid to high teens) This is true even for international lagers hopped below the threshold at which you can can taste hops. What isn’t efficient is using a low alpha hop like Mittelfrueh (3-5% AA).

In fact most international lagers include about two ounces of hops per barrel (31 gallons). Boston Beer uses one pound per barrel to make Boston Lager. The brewers tossed in 12 pounds per barrel (100 times the amount in an international lager) in the Halltertau Pilsner.

“Twelve pounds,” Koch said, sounding downright giddy. “While we were doing it Dave Grinnell (one of the brewers) referred to it as a reckless amount of hops.”

The brewers created several test batches, managing to come up with beers in which the IBU topped 140. That’s measured. Most of the time when you see a small brewery cite IBU it’s calculated. As the amount of hops increase efficiency drops dramatically and those calculations aren’t particularly accurate. Few Double (Imperial) IPAs actually reach the 90s when checked with proper measuring equipment.

The calculated IBU on the batches at Boston Beer were well above 300. “We were in the range where all bets were off,” Koch said. “You have to place it under an analyzer to get an accurate measure.”

He found the version in the 140s was too bitter, so the brewers blended in a 100 IBU batch and eventually found a sweet spot in the 110-115 range.

Mittelfrueh flavor

Mittelfrueh Flavor

The beer is cloudy — the brewers didn’t want to filter out the hop flavor, bless them — and doesn’t look particularly pilsner-like. The Mittelfrueh doesn’t come off as particularly delicate in this quantity — and matched against a solid one-two punch of malt and alcohol — but proves you can turn the flowery-citrussy-spicy hop flavor volume way up without the discordant impression you get from a cheap pair of speakers.

The illustrations here come from a book put together by the hop growers in Hallertau, and for it they commissioned panels to evaluate the intensity of both the aromas and flavors of their hops. Notice (above) how the hoppy/bitterness impression of Mittelfrueh changes from aroma to flavor.

“We don’t like it when the discussion about hops is focused only on alpha acids,” said Dr. Johann Pichlmaier of the Association of German Hop Growers. Once again skipping most of the geeky details, Mittelfrueh has a surplus of hop oils that help qualify it as a “noble” hop.

Koch agrees. “Hops are not primarily about IBUs. Hops are about a bounty of flavors,” he said. “With this beer your tongue is indelibly imprinted with the cornucopia of flavors you can get only from noble hops. There’s a reason brewers treasure these hops; a reason they cost more.”

First time around the brewery publicized the (crazy) bitterness units in the beer. This time there’s no mention of IBU.

That’s the right way to talk about hop flavor in general and Mittelfrueh in particular.

What’s good for Sam . . .

Speaking of the “big picture,” news today from Boston Beer bodes well for the craft beer segment.

The brewer of Samuel Adams beers reported core shipment volume increased 22.8% in the second quarter. It also indicated distributor sales of the Boston Beer brands to retail (depletions) increased approximately 17% from the second quarter 2005.

In a company press release, founder Jim Koch said: “We are once again pleased with our quarterly depletions growth. The continued growth of the craft beer category, in which Samuel Adams is the leading brand, demonstrates the consumer trend of trading up to more full-flavored, richer-tasting beers.”

Sam Adams commands about 19% of the craft segment (Sierra Nevada is second with about 8.7%) and its sales were up 8% in 2005 while craft sales grew 9%.

You shouldn’t be surprised if more small breweries report similar results.

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