Monday, December 21, 2009

Soaking up some local love

There were plenty of reasons to celebrate at Trappeze Pub tonight. First, the local craft beer institution turned 2 years old today. While more and more bars in Athens are offering craft beers and microbrews, none match the combination of selection and beer knowledge offered by Trappeze. In addition, local brewery Terrapin Beer Co. was on site for the debut of its new Belgian style imperial stout, Dark Side. While there was quite a crowd on hand, I managed to squeeze up to the bar and began the night.

First up was a cask featuring a dry-hopped version of Terrapin's Rye Pale Ale. Thanks to my neighbor at the bar, Mr. William Orten Carlton ("Ort" is an Athens bar staple, early cultivator of the Athens music scene, and featured writer for Athens' Flagpole Magazine), who politely yielded in ordering his second serving of the hoppy rye concoction, I was able to get a pint of the cask ale (although, it wasn't without much perseverence and a careful tipping of the cask by bartender Kathleen. Ort was rewarded for his sacrifice by receiving the last pint out of the cask, and we dove in together. The beer was amber in color and very murky, undoubtedly due to the yeast and hops residing in the bottom of the cask. An off-white head about a finger's width tall lasted only long enough for me to first observe it, and then fell, leaving little lacing in the glass. Upon first taste, the familiar sharpened sweetness of the original Rye Pale Ale stood strong, but gave way to a nice fresh and preserved hop flavor, reminiscent of white grapefruit. My attempts to pin down exactly what variety of hops were used (per my tongue and the Terrapin crew) were to no avail. I was offered a guess, however educated or uneducated it may have been, by a Terrapin staffer of Cascade. I also overheard more than once around the bar that the hops had been grown in-house, although I was never able to confirm it with anyone. Whatever the variety be, I think the dry-hopped Rye was not just an interesting variation on one of Terrapin's flagship brews, but an elevation of the original Rye itself. I was impressed with just how well the sharpness of the rye and the fresh hops complemented one another, and would definitely love to see an encore of this beer. Many might have been turned off by the glass I ended up enjoying. The yeasty, hoppy beer in my turtle pint glass probably wasn't the same as the first pint enjoyed from the cask, but why should it be? Drinking a cask ale is an experience. From the tapping, to the interesting and creative small-batch variations, to the often short window of time it's available, a cask ale is just as much about everything happening around the cask as what's in it. I found nothing unpleasant about the pulpy matter in my glass. If anything, I enjoyed the even closer connection I was offered to the hops that went into the beer.

I finished the Rye as I spoke with Ort about past and planned field trips to breweries and craft beer-loving towns (look out Asheville, my list of places to visit within a weekend just doubled). Next I ordered my primary intention for tonight's visit: Terrapin Side Project No. 9 The Dark Side, a Belgian Style Imperial Stout. Dark Side unsurprisingly pours a deep brown, and provided a quickly retreating tan head (exhibiting more French than Belgian tendencies). Dark, roasted malts combine with almost bittersweet chocolate hints to provide a robust yet smooth taste, further complemented by a velvety mouthfeel which reminded me of dark chocolate even more. Upon dissection, hops are certainly present, but don't at all try to stand in the way of the emphasis on the malt characteristics. This is a heavy stout, and would serve well as a winter warmer, so I really appreciate the timing of its release. Overall, this is another solid entry in Spike's Side Project series. That said, I can't say I'm running out first thing in the morning to pick up a bottle of the new stuff. I thoroughly enjoyed Dark Side and as hard as it is to set my local-brew bias aside, I don't find this beer incredibly new and unique in light of Wake 'n' Bake Coffee Oatmeal Stout and Depth Charge Espresso Milk Stout, a collaboration between the Athens boys and Left Hand Brewery. Sure it doesn't have all the same notes and nuances the other more similar stouts contain, but I just get much of the same feeling about them all. On its own, the Dark Side is a very well-built stout, but considering the repertoire of Terrapin's beers, it just doesn't stand out from the other dark, roasted, chocolate, and  sometimes coffee combinations.

With two beers down and the crowd at Trappeze beginning to thin, I was able to actually grab a stool and speak with Kathleen (who was recently featured in an article spotlighting the bar in Athens Food & Culture Magazine...and I promise I'm done with the local media plugs, however both I've mentioned are awesome reads and free if you're ever in Athens to pick one up). Needing something to bring me back from the Dark Side, I ordered a refreshing old standby: Bell's Two-Hearted Ale. The keg had just recently gone down, however. It seems I have a knack for wanting the one thing of which a bar has just run out, but I've learned that it usually means I should just try for a completely different style. If I wasn't going to come full-circle with my hop-bursted Bell's, then I might as well stick with a winter warmer. As Kathleen listed some of the newer arrivals, the Mikkeller Christmas Porter jumped out. Mikkeller has just recently come up on my radar, and since then I haven't stopped hearing about it. A Danish brewer more than a brewery, Mikkeller operates out of the facilities of various other breweries, traveling around Europe and the United States and creating some highly acclaimed beers in the process. I recently acquired a trio of Mikkeller single hop IPAs that I am waiting to try as long as hopefully learn more closely the characteristics of each hop variety (perhaps knowledge that would have been useful during my first beer). After all that I'd heard, my third beer became an easy decision. The "Christmas porter" turned out to be Mikkeller To From (or From To, according to some labels on previous years' bottles, which include blanks right on the label making it an easy and obvious beer to give for Christmas). So how was my first taste of Mikkeller beer? Let me just say those Cascade, Warrior, and Simcoe bottles sitting at home have a lot to live up to now. A deep, nearly burnt flavor (think the fine line between creme brulee and charred creme) first hit my tongue and gradually faded away without a detectable hop note. The absence of a heavy, lingering dark malt aftertaste almost begged me to take another sip to remember what it tasted like. As I got further into the porter, I was able to detect different, yet subtle flavor notes, although identifying them wasn't so easy. Cinnamon and what I might best describe as pine became more noticeable as I continued to drink. The mouthfeel was light for such a dark and complex porter, which I could certainly appreciate as my second dark beer in a row. I was surprised to find that the alcohol content topped out at 8%, however, a little lower than what I had anticipated while tasting it. This is a great Christmas beer and served well as my introduction to Mikkeller beers.

I had another great night at Trappeze with an excellent group of beers and beer-loving people. Congratulations to Trappeze on a wonderful two years, and to Terrapin for yet another Side Project release!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Home(brew) is where the heart is...

     Within a month of my 21st birthday, only several weeks of craft beer consumption under my belt and still quite limited in my knowledge of the brewing process, I had already decided that I wanted to homebrew my own batch of the beverage with which I was now fascinated. About four months later, I got my first chance. After discussing homebrewing avidly with my friends, one of them, Tim, received a brewing starter kit for his birthday and enlisted the help of a few of us to help him. Soon, we went back to Athens' local Blockader Homebrew Supply to get the ingredients for our first beer. After consulting the staff, it was decided that a brown ale would be a good candidate for our first homebrew, as it was comprised of a relatively short list of ingredients and was also pretty forgiving of rookie mistakes made while monitoring fermentation.

The next night, on November 5, six of us gathered in a basement to lose our homebrew virginity. We used a partial mash recipe, something I was quite happy about. While I knew it'd be best to not dive into making the most complicated beer possible, I just didn't think my enthusiasm for finally making a homebrew would be quenched with an all-extract kit. I regret one thing about our first brew: in our beer infancy, I didn't ask, nor would I probably have comprehended, what grains and hop varieties we were supplied with at Blockader. Nonetheless, we eagerly began and prepped all of the equipment. While steeping the grains and adding the malt syrup, and probably to the dismay of many fellow homebrewers, we shared several bottles of wine. Hey, we didn't have any beer yet...what were we supposed to do? Finally we added hop pellets during the boil as instructed, first a bittering dose and then a late aroma addition, something I haven't seen in many other brown ale recipes. Once the boil was finished, we waited for the wort to cool...and we continued to wait, maybe having another bottle or two of red. The expense of a wort chiller suddenly seemed reasonable. It was a late night, but we had completed brewing, and were one step closer to enjoying our own beer.

After two weeks of fermenting, a few of us enjoyed another night of camaraderie while bottling. Our entire brewing experience was about friendship, so we decided to bottle in bombers that would allow us to share our beer with each other and with new friends. The ale bottle-conditioned for another two weeks, and was then ready to enjoy...well almost. While the finished beer still hadn't been tasted and there was no guarantee it would even be palatable, we wanted to make sure it looked good. Several witty names generated and discovered already existing later, it was decided that the name First Time Brown Ale would adorn the bombers. We made labels and had them applied, most without wrinkles, just in time for First Time's debut. The beer was finally unveiled, exactly one month later, at a Christmas party attended by all six original brewers. So how was it?

First Time Brown Ale poured a deep brown, still barely transparent when held up to light, with a thick, light tan head about two fingers in height. The head retention was impressive, already instilling me with a sense of pride before I had even tasted it. The aroma was dominated by dark, chocolaty notes with no detectable hops. When sipped, rich malts first hit my tongue, giving way to a lingering nutty mocha flavor, kept in check ever so slightly by a faint hop bitterness. After tasting it, and with what I now know about different grains, I would guess that the specialty grains we added were biscuit and chocolate malt. The nutty flavor was not as strong as beers dubbed "nut brown" ales, but reminded me a little of hazelnuts. The bite of carbonation was a little strong at first, but seemed more pleasant and subdued when the beer reached a more appropriate serving temperature for brown ale around 45° F. Perhaps only because I was a little skeptical of its flavor initially, the malt syrup seemed to remain an obvious part of the finished product. This might, at least in part however, just be me negatively attributing the heavier body and mouthfeel of the dark malts on the back of my tongue to the dark malt syrup. Overall, our first homebrew was a great success.

After only my first taste, my mind was soaring way past this first base beer, dreaming of chocolate, peppers, fruits, and all kinds of other adjuncts. First Time Brown Ale is an easily enjoyed, very drinkable beer, although I doubt anyone has enjoyed it quite as much as the six of us who created it. The few critiques that emerged from evaluating First Time offer places to focus on improvement during our next brew. With our first step complete, I eagerly look forward to our progress down the road to becoming homebrew pros...or amateurs...on the road to becoming great homebrewers.