Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Festival 2012

This past weekend, I attended The Festival. What festival? "The" Festival, obviously!

The Festival was an event showcasing the import catalogues of two of the United States' biggest beer/mead/cider importers: Shelton Brothers and 12%. This was a stunning two day, three session event which featured many of the world's most famous, highly rated, and hard-to-find beers, and it also marked the first time that several small, esoteric brewers had their beer poured and tasted on US soil.

Nearly every brewery's brewer was in attendance. Whether hailing from New Zealand, Belgium, Japan, or Germany, most often the individual pouring and describing the beer was the man or woman who made it. This was of course an amazing opportunity for the taster, but also for the other brewers; they, too, are beer lovers after all!

At times, I felt I was in the beer world's equivalent of Fenway Park. Fans of all ages huddled around around their favorite superstars: "Look! There's Urbain Coutteau from De Struise!" "Oh my gosh! That's Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, founder of Mikkeller!" "Gasp! Isn't that Jean van Roy of Cantillon?" Tipsy, rabid fans, everywhere! (And I'd be lying if I said I wasn't one of them.)

For myself, this event gave me an opportunity to become more familiar with many of my European favorites. (I am, admittedly, one of the Urbain groupies.) But more than that, it afforded me a chance to encounter beers I have never before had, often beers I had never even heard of. Without this event, it would have taken me years (and countless dollars) to visit each of these breweries and taste the beer. But now, I have a few new favorites to look out for.

What follows is the short-list of my own personal highlights, the standouts, and the beers I would encourage the reader to taste if ever given the opportunity (and, if the brewers and importers have their way, that opportunity should become a lot more frequent in the coming months).

Best Overall Beer

Brasserie Cantillon: Single-Barrel Lambic 2 (Belgium)

Runner Up: Zwanze 2010

Brewing sour beers (Lambics, Krieks, and Gueuzes), Cantillon is one of the world's most renowned breweries. Founded in 1900 by Paul Cantillon, the brewery has been handed down four generations to its current brewmaster, Jean van Roy. 

I have been familiar with Cantillon for many years but had never had an opportunity to taste it. Honestly, I was a little concerned: when a beer (or anything, for that matter), gets this much hype, it's pretty hard to live up to the expectation.

But Cantillon did.

There are few beers in the world that cause me to actually melt. It's a feeling of being in the presence of something so awesome that it thoroughly overwhelms your senses. And despite a tremendous number of great beers at this festival, only two beers elicited this response (Cantillon being one of them).

Jean was pouring eight different beers, three of which was an Oude Lambic aged in three different barrels since March 27, 2010. It was remarkable to compare the three: two of them were wildly tart and astringent, but barrel number two was perfectly rounded, excellently balanced, sour and tart, but not overwhelmingly astringent or mouth puckering. Fruity, spritzy, green apple, Wow! This beer is now the benchmark of what a sour ale really is. I really feel lucky to have tasted it!

Best German Beer

Freigeist Bierkultur: Geisterzug Gose

If it weren't for Cantillon, this would have been my Gold Medal beer.

Perhaps due to the fact that I spend about 25% of the year in Germany, I have become obsessed with great German beer. I am determined to find the standout German brewers who are willing to experiment and work outside the box. Look no further, Mr. Kirchoff: you found your man!

The lineup of beers. Also amazing was Abraxis:
 a smoked Berlier Weisse
Sebastian Sauer is the brewmaster of Freigeist Bierkultur [no website available], a small brewery in North Rhine-Westphalia, and he is really interested in redefining German beer. When I asked him if his beer is available in other parts of Germany, he only laughed. "No," he explained, "German's aren't interested in this type of beer."

How sad! Here is a phenomenal brewery, but his entire market is outside the country! He explained that Italy, Spain, Austria, and now the US are his biggest market (I heard an identical report from Urban Winkler of Klosterbrauerei Weissenohhe). Thankfully I still spend the majority of my time in the US, and I already look forward to tasting this beer again.

Runner up: Urban Winkler and
his doppelbock.
Sebastian's Gose is easily the best damned Gose I've ever had (so sorry, Leipzig!). Ever so slightly sour, there's lots of coriander, and an excellent woodiness that was unlike anything I had tasted. In fact, I couldn't even identify the flavor until I asked him. Sebastian explained that he includes spruce branches to the end of the boil, harkening back to more ancient German brewing techniques when spruce branches were the only way to strain the wort. 

He truly found the perfect amount, because it wasn't at all piney, but rather had a depth I've never experienced in a Gose. I know I can hardly wait for Freigeist Bierkultur to arrive in Massachusetts, because I may have found one of my new favorite beers.

[As an aside, I also want to thank Sebastian for several good suggestions of beers to look for in Germany. Apparently a new brewery is opening up in Berlin this summer, and he seems to think it will be pretty outstanding.]

Strangest/Most Unique Beer

Mikkeller: SpotanKoppi (Denmark)

Bizarre. Simply bizarre. Well, and a litte awesome.

SpotanKoppi from famed brewery Mikkeller is a spontaneously fermented coffee IPA. Hoppy, sour, and fresh coffee all rolled into one. One sip just makes your mouth and head go "Huh?"

It's a beer you should really try once, but you just might want to share the bottle.

Best Label

Omnipollo (Sweden)

Omnipollo is the brainchild of Henok Fentie, the one-time marketing manager of Swedish pub group Bishop Arms. He studied Belgian brewing techniques with Dirk Naudts of De Proef in Ghent, and has since launched four different beers. At The Festival were Leon (pictured at right), a 6.5% single malt IPA with champagne yeast; and Mazarin (the bottle on the left), a very hoppy session pale ale. 

Both beers were very nicely crafted, but the label is what really caught my eye. Both labels are painted by Stockholm-based graphic designer and illustrator Karl Grandin. 

I really believe a great label is among the most important aspects when considering a beer's distribution. When I walk into my local beer shop, I see a sea of beers I've never tasted, and many I don't know. When consumers are faced with a choice of unknowns, and all other variables are equal, we buy the most attractive product. This is a beer that doesn't even name the brewery or style on the front of the bottle; if I want to know more about it, I have to pick it up! Now, Henok has me physically holding his product, and I'm thus much closer to buying it. Clearly this is a brewery that thinks about marketing!

Honorable Mentions

Brouwerij't Gaverhokpe (Belgium) 
Koerseklakske: 5.5% Saison
Extra: 12% Quadruple
Gueuzerie Tilquin (Belgium)
Gueuze Tilquin: 6.5% Gueuze
't Hofbrouwerijke (Belgium)
Bosportter: 8.5% Tripel
Hill Farmstead (USA)
Double Citra IPA: 8% Imperial IPA

Biggest Disapointment

Brouwerij Westvleteren: Westvleteren 12° (Belgium)

Westvleteren 12 is (and has been for several years) the #1 rated beer in the world. It is mighty hard to find: brewed by monks at the Abbey of Saint Sixtus, they take great care in limiting the consumption of their beer. If one wishes to purchase it... well, I'll let the monks speak for themselves:

"The Westvleteren [beer] is sold exclusively at the abbey store, and only after having made a reservation by telephone.

  1. See our web page Up-to-date Information for information regarding when reservations will be accepted for which beer and how much beer can be reserved at any one time.
  2. At the time indicated, call us using the beer phone number (+32 (0)70/21.00.45)
  3. Then you can make an appointment (date and time) with the beer phone operator, providing the license plate number of the car which will be used to pick up the order."

This festival marked the first time that the Monks of St. Sixtus have allowed their beer to be sold in the United States. It is the first time that the beer has been legally poured on US soil. You can imagine how excited everyone was to have the opportunity to buy some Westy 12 for themselves (even at the steep price of $85 for a six pack).

Westvleteren 12 is my all-time favorite beer. The first time I had it was with a friend in Dem Haag: my first time in Belgium, we found a place that had bottles for sale. I had not previously  heard of it, but I was forever changed: I had never realized beer could be so extraordinary. 

Several years later, my wife and I went out to the monastery and sampled their lineup of beers in their café. It was the first time my wife experienced great beer and it converted her forever (it is the only time I have ever seen her order – and drink – more than one beer.)

That same year, I pulled off one of the greatest trades in my life and swapped a case of Dogfish Head 90 for a case of Westy 12. I continue to savor those bottles.

I consider myself very lucky to have had so many opportunities to taste this rare beer, and, as such, I know the beer pretty well.

But the beer poured at The Festival wasn't the Westvleteren I know and love so dearly.

It was watery, full of an upfront bubblegum flavor, lacked all the richness of dark dried fruits, was missing the intense spiciness of clove, cinnamon, and allspice, and was as one dimensional as it could be. It not only wasn't the best beer in the world, it wasn't the best Quadruple in the building.

And I wasn't the only one saying it. There were a lot of people who had never before tasted this beer, and the majority of tasters I spoke to concurred: it was good, but it certainly wasn't great.

So what happened? Believe it or not, I was so disturbed by it that I ruminated on it as I fell asleep Saturday night. I could only come to four possible conclusions:

  1. Having never brewed in such quantities before, the monks made a mistake and didn't follow the recipe perfectly.
  2. Having never prepared beer for shipment, the monks didn't budget time properly and had to rush the aging process, thus producing a less complex beer.
  3. Similar to the conjecture above, the beer is actually exactly as it should be, but the monks shipped it too soon, and these bottles need to age in a cellar for several months before they are ready for drinking.
  4. The distributors and handlers of the beer did a poor job, and the beer was stored in bad conditions thus damaging the product.

The last hypothesis doesn't seem likely: considering the same distributors moved every beer in the building perfectly, I'd wager they treated Westy 12 with kid gloves. But the first three theories are entirely reasonable to assume.

If the third theory is correct, this beer, if left alone, will be truly wonderful and life changing given time. I really hope that that's the case. But, as I decided not to buy it after tasting it ($85 is a pricey gamble), I suppose I'll never really know.




Sunday, June 10, 2012

Search for Germany's Best Pilsener

When one searches Beer Advocate for the world's best Belgian Quadruple, the top beer listed is from Belgium. In fact, the top four beers are from Belgium.

When one searches for the best English Porter, the top beer listed is from England; and when one searches the best American IPA, top best beer listed is from the USA.

But when one searches for the best German Pilsener, the best offering listed is not from Germany (it is from the USA). A German beer is listed second.

But it's even worse on the other top beer review site, RateBeer. On RateBeer (which has a predominantly European focus), the top twelve German Pilseners listed aren't from Germany. The United States, Denmark, Holland, Italy, and even New Zealand have beers that are listed first, with the Pyraser Hopfenplücker Pils taking 13th.


Granted, Pilseners aren't the only beers that have suffered this fate: there are other styles that were invented in different cultures that have since been taken over by foreigners (English Oatmeal Stouts and Finnish Sah'Tea immediately come to mind). But generally speaking, the beer that is a nation's definitive style remains best done in the land of it's birth.

So what happened?

One possibility is simply that there aren't enough Germans using Beer Advocate or RateBeer. Rating beer is obviously high subjective, and perhaps there are some amazing beers out there that the frequent users of these major websites just haven't tried.

But that said, it is a fact that the German palate has changed; the younger generation has less interest in beer and more interest in Gatorade or sparkling water. As a result, many German macrobreweries have been brewing fruity juice-like beers with very little alcohol (for example Radler – which mixes Pilsener with Lemonade – or Beck's Lime). And when the average German does drink a beer, they tend towards a very light flavored beer quite reminiscent of American Budweiser.

This shift in drinking pattern has had a major effect on the industry. As of January 2011, German brewing had dropped to less than 100 million hecoliters. (To put that in perspective, that's less than half of what the US produces.) While Germany used to have the most breweries of any country in the world, they now have 25% fewer breweries than the US. Berlin, which at one point in the 19th century boasted 700 breweries, now sports fewer than a dozen. Consequently, many of Germany's top brewers are leaving for other more beer-friendly lands.

This isn't to say, of course, that there is no good beer in Germany. Far from it; I still cannot find a better Hefeweizen, for example, anywhere else in the world. But the Pilsener, in many ways the native drink of Germany, has really suffered and fallen to the wayside.

This summer, I will be spending about two months in Germany. Amongst many other (more productive) goals, I am on a mission to try finding the best Pilsener in Germany. While the US may have stollen this style, I cannot help but believe that there are little breweries dotting the German landscape that still brew a mean Pils. Maybe they aren't on these Beer Advocate and RateBeer lists because they're so small no one outside of the country really knows about them. Whatever the case, I'm going to try to track them down.

Of course, I'm biased. I'm American, and I enjoy a couple of really great American/German Pilseners. Perhaps my favorite? Victory's Prima Pils: bright, clean, clear, refreshing, with a bit of grapefruit, it's the hoppiest Pils I've had. A close second (though entirely different) would be Sam Adams' Noble Pils. Very floral with flavors of lavender, lilac, and faint flavors of hibiscus and slight cloves. Not at all bitter, it instead leaves a lingering sweetness on the tongue.

But though they are incredible beers, both Victory's and Sam's Pils offerings really stray from the flavor profile of an authentic Pils; I'm simply not going to find a beer like either of those anywhere in Germany.

So to kick off my German Pilsener Quest, I cracked open Joe's from Avery in Colorado. This is a lovely beer with a nose like spring rain, full of citrus, a slight hop bite, and with an excellent dry, caramel malt finish. There's nothing unusual about the beer; it's just really good.

So with this as my American example, I shall set out on July 1st to see if Germany can still brew the world's best Pilsener. To be continued...



Sunday, June 3, 2012

American Craft Beer Festival 2012

Over 120 American brewers pouring over 550 different craft beers. Three 3.5 hour sessions over two days, bringing in almost 15,000 beer-loving fans. This is a huge weekend!

This was the second festival I attended, attending Friday night with a couple of friends, and then volunteering the final session and cleaning up Saturday night. Both nights were fantastic opportunities to meet new people, be introduced to some new brewers and different beers, and taste a few old favorites. I tasted a lot of beer, but it was still pretty impossible to taste all 550 beers. Most everything was pretty good, but there was a small handfull of beers that made a pretty big impression. My favorites:

Lawson's Finest Liquids

Warren, VT

I was first introduced to Lawson's at last year's American Craft Beer Festival, and if wasn't already then, brewer Sean Lawson has really become something of a beer legend. He ships his beer no where: the only place to get it is at the brewery and one or two stores down the street. He won't discuss his recipes with anyone. Doesn't give tours. The secrecy and rareness of the beer really adds so much mystique to his work, that there are lines stretching across the entire venue just to taste it.

But can the beer live up to they hype? Absolutely. Sean poured five beers this year: BIG HAPI, a 7.5% black IPA; Knockout Blonde, a 6.1% American blonde; Permagrin Rye Pale Ale clocking in at 6%; Maple Tripel, an 11% monster tripel brewed with maple syrup; and the beer that's made him famous, Double Sunshine IPA, an 8% Imperial IPA.

special thanks to for the image

And while I found the Maple Tripel far too sweet to finish (it tasted as if I simply drank a shot of Grade B maple syrup!), Double Sunshine is well worth the hype. With an amazing nose that sends shivers through your olfactory, it's got fruity floral flavor that remains tremendously drinkable despite the high ABV. Easily among the best IPAs in the world, I would love the opportunity to drink an entire bottle. Now I just have to get to Warren...

Twisted Pine Brewing Co.

Boulder, CO

Damn. This is the spiciest liquid I have ever drank. I've had a few chili beers (there were maybe a half-dozen available at ACBF this year), but Ghost Face Killah (5%) makes every other beer look tame.

Perhaps best is just to quote their website:

"GFK is brewed with 6 zany peppers. Anaheim, Fresno, Jalapeno, Serrano, Habanero and Bhut Jolokia – Otherwise known as the Ghost Pepper.  200 times the heat of jalapenos, Bhut Jolokia are the hottest peppers in the world, a pepper so hot it can be weaponized.  So hot that our brewers had to wear masks and gloves to cut them up. Aroma of smoked chillis fills the nose on first whiff, but don’t let it linger to long. Immediately on first taste GFK has a nice golden wheat flavor, but this is only for a fleeting moment before the temperature rises. Just hold on, the warmth of this beer will set in for a long spicy burn. There is only one finish on this beer – HEAT!"
They go on to encourage pairing the beer with ice cream or milk because "that is all that is going to help you with this brew." And they ain't kidding; my mouth was on fire for about twenty minutes before my sense of taste started to return. This is one occasion where the 2 oz. pour was just enough; I think I'd die with anything more!

special thanks to for the image

Enlightenment Ales

Lowell, MA

Enlightenment makes one the country's few Bière de Champagne. It's a beer I've been reading about for some time, and was finally launched at this festival. The process and exact recipe, which brewer Ben Howe has been been perfecting for  the past three years, is highly labor intensive. It basically involves creating a beer with both Belgian and Champagne yeast strains. At bottling, the beer is racked at a -45° angle, and rotated 45° every day. This allows the Champagne yeast to settle at the neck of the bottle.

special thanks to for the image

After several days (I cannot remember the exact number), Ben flash-freezes the tip of the bottle, opens the bottle, removes the frozen Champagne yeast, corks, and cages the bottle. The result? Crisp, fruity, effervescent goodness that is a perfect marriage of Champagne and beer. This is a beer worth sharing over that special occasion!

special thanks to for the image

Franklin's Restaurant, Brewery & General Store

Hyattsville, MD

In my estimation, Franklin's might have been ACBF's best kept secret. A tremendously unassuming label and rubber chickens all over the booth really led me to write off this brewery before I even had them. Positioned next to Duck-Rabbit (another amazing brewery), I was simply there and there was no line, so I thought I'd give it a try. I was blown away.

special thanks to for the image

Brewer Mike Roy – a tremendously nice man who is more than happy to talk beer all night – brought ten of his beers to the festival. I won't list them all here, but a few highlights were Mic Czech (a 5.4% Pilsener that was authentic yet new, clean and fruity with hints of citrus), Petite Fleur (a 5% Belgian Pale that is easily my favorite American representation of the style – sorry BPA, you've been dethroned), and Belgeastie Boys (an 8% Imperial IPA that was every bit as good in the mouth as Double Sunshine, though it lacked the same powerful aromas). Also worth mentioning was Blasphemous: an 8.1% American Wild Ale that drank like a 6% beer, and showed as the strongest sour of the evening.

Mike was relating that his vision for the restaurant was a Cracker Barrel style restaurant with better food and beer. "You have a family, and you want to be able to go somewhere your kids will enjoy. But you don't want to sacrifice good food and you still want a great beer," Mike explained. What a concept! 

I haven't had the food, I've never been to the store, but I can promise you that the next time I'm in DC, this is a must-visit.

brewer Mike Roy
special thanks to for the image

All in all, this was an amazing festival. I could go on for many pages with the various beers I enjoyed, but these were the true highlights that really stuck out.

I've got at least two other festivals I'm visiting this summer, so it will be fun to compare. I'll be sure to note my impressions here.

As an aside: I did speak to Dann Paquette, the brewer of Pretty Things. I told him how moved I was by his Belgian Session Ale, Magnifico, which I tasted at last year's Belgian Beer Festival. I then gave him a bottle of Churchyard's The Magnificent Mr. Monk, explaining that this was modelled after Magnifico. I asked for his feedback, and if he offers any, I'll be sure to post.