Author Archives: Greg Bruce

Homebrew Review: Northern Brewer – BACON! Smoked Red Ale

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Bacon doughnuts, bacon gum, bacon mints, and now… bacon beer? One of the hottest crazes to sweep the nation lately has been bacon-flavored products, and not even beer seems to be able to escape its allure. In 2011, Oregon-based Rogue Ales teamed up with Voodoo Doughnut to release its Bacon Maple Ale, but now homebrewers can join in on the swine-inspired fun. (Which I did, for your reading pleasure.)

Northern Brewer’s BACON! Smoked Red Ale homebrew kit is available in both extract and all-grain varieties, featuring cherrywood smoked malt to cement the smoky, meaty character. However, what sets the Northern Brewer kit apart from crowd is the inclusion of liquid bacon extract. At first glance, this vial is intimidating; it appears thick, smells of a combination of brine and bacon, and doesn’t shy away from potency. Keep in mind, though, that this 30ml of extract is enough for 5 gallons of beer.

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Out of the box, the extract version of the kit contains specialty grains (chocolate malt, honey malt, Caramunich, and the aforementioned cherrywood smoked malt), dry malt extract (amber and wheat), dark malt syrup, an ounce of Willamette hops, 30ml of bacon extract, and your choice of dry or liquid yeast.

While steeping the specialty grains and during the boil, a strong smoke and barbecue aroma fills the air as the cherrywood malt works its magic. When I added the bacon extract after the boil, I could sense how meaty this beer was going to turn out.

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Disclaimer: Each homebrewer has different equipment, technique, and experience. Your results may vary.

Despite the aggressive pork notes that emerge while brewing the beer, BACON! cleans up nicely within the glass after a few weeks of conditioning in bottles. While Northern Brewer’s stock photo shows a radiant ruby color, my version was a little bit darker, bordering on mahogany. In the nose, the bacon still stands in the spotlight but isn’t overpowering. In fact, there’s a pleasant balance between the meatiness and a honey, caramel sweetness. This balance continues into the body, where a mild amount of chocolate contributes to the complexity.

Overall, my version of this beer had a bold but not overwhelming bacon characteristic; I went back and forth on questioning if I would’ve liked to see a more brash beer — without compromising the drinkability of how it is now. All told, I enjoyed what I ended up with and will probably explore this kit again in the future.

B / $50 (extract version) / northernbrewer.com

Review: The Pretentious Beer Glass Company

You are pouring your beers into glasses, right?

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The Pretentious Beer Glass Company is the solo effort of Matthew Cummings to bring custom, homemade glassware into your home. Each glass is carefully handcrafted on a lathe and the personal individuality manifests itself within the finished products in the form of slight variations in angles, thickness, and dimensions. Matthew is quick to note that because each piece of glass is unique, final sizes can vary, but part of the appeal stems from receiving a one-of-a-kind glass.

Currently, the Pretentious Beer Glass Company manufactures six types of glasses, pictured above. From left to right: Hoppy Beer Glass, “traditional” Ale Glass, Subtle Beer Glass, Malty Beer Glass, Aromatic Beer Glass, and in the following picture, the Dual Beer Glass. While the names of the glasses clue drinkers in to what beer style works best, both the site and packaging contain recommended styles for each vessel.

PBGC Dual Glass

A quick breakdown of the glasses…

Hoppy Beer Glass: Similar to a snifter or tulip. This is great for IPAs and other beers within the pale ale family, as well as bigger Belgian beers and sours. Etched finger cutouts contribute both visual appeal and added grip.

Ale Glass: The jack of all trades within the set, the Ale Glass is fashioned after a pint glass, with a twist. The added moustache adds a touch of class to your favorite beer and can handle your typical American-style ales, German bocks, or whatever comes in between.

Subtle Beer Glass: Reminiscent of a stange. Perfect for those lighter, more delicate brews such as pilsners, kolsches, witbiers, and assorted lagers. It features facets and indents to distort the density within the glass in order to trick how light shines through the liquid.

Malty Beer Glass: This glass is not only pretty, but also functional! Perfect for unfiltered and bottle-conditioned beers, the Malty Beer Glasses utilizes concentric levels to separate yeast sediment from the beer.

Aromatic Beer Glass: This glass has a wide bowl and draws comparisons to a stemless wine glass or snifter. The shape helps concentrate the nose while the protruding bottom further aids nucleation to improve head longevity and intensity. Beers with a focus on esters and imperial strength work well with this glass, especially double IPAs, stouts, barleywines, tripels, and quads.

Dual Beer Glass: Do you love Black & Tans but hate tinkering with spoons to perfectly layer the beers? The Dual Beer Glass solves that problem and opens the door for more creativity: This glass is divided down the middle so that two separate beers can be poured into their own compartments, then combine while taking a sip. Outside of the traditional stout and IPA (black and tan) classic, I’ve had success with weizenbock + tripel, stout + tripel, and lambic + stout mixtures.

The Pretentious Beer Glass Company is currently a small-scale operation, but it does offer custom orders and may start expanding into wholesaling in the future. Glasses are sold individually, in sets of four within a style, or a full set of glasses which contain all of the styles except the Dual Glass.

$35 – $170 per set of four / etsy.com/shop/PretentiousBeerGlass

Review: GrOpener Bottle Opener

GrOpenerRecently we received a sample of a unique new bottle opener, dubbed the GrOpener. Despite the somewhat lewd sounding name, the GrOpener is actually a portmanteau of the words ‘grab’ and ‘opener’, both of which frame a rather straightforward description of how the product works.

Touted as a bottle opener that is swift and easy to wield, the GrOpener is proud to exclaim that is only requires one hand to operate, leaving the other free to channel surf, munch on snacks, or hold another beer. On a more serious note, it is also a useful tool for those who only have the use of a single hand due to disability, amputation, arthritis, or otherwise.

In its video promotions, GrOpener creator Mark Manger effortlessly pops bottle caps off in a single, fluid motion without fail. During my own trials, I found the GrOpener to be a little more temperamental; at times, the caps flew off, while others required a little more force and maneuvering. Also, the impact of the metal opener hitting the bottle while opening would sometimes cause more highly carbonated beers to start foaming over.

As a bottle opener alone, the GrOpener is a fine product, but I found some of the other features to be the most useful and distinguishable. For starters, while prying the caps off, it does not bend or otherwise deform the caps, which is beneficial to those who collect them or seek to recycle them for homebrewing purposes. The GrOpener also contains a small magnet near the business end to not only help it latch on to the cap, but also attracts it after removal for easy recovery. The magnet also secures the GrOpener to the refrigerator doors for convenient storage. For those pesky can tabs that never seem to lift easily, the backside of the GrOpener also doubles as a lever.

While I am clearly not as deft as Mr. Manger in opening bottles in dramatic flair, the GrOpener still performs up to expectations. Bottle openers typically serve a single, relatively simple, purpose, but the utilitarian forethought exemplified in the GrOpener is nice to see. It is light, magnetic, opens caps without distorting them, can be used single-handedly, and the index finger hole doubles as a secure attachment point to carabiners for travel.

A- / $16 / gropener.com

Review: Brooklyn Brewery’s Silver Anniversary Lager & Summer Ale

This year, Brooklyn Brewery is celebrating its 25th Anniversary and to commemorate the event, it is brewing up a special treat. Silver Anniversary Lager is a twist on its normal Brooklyn Lager where the brewery instead seeks to create a doppelbock-strength version of the beer, which, when combined with the added yeast for bottle-conditioning, creates a beer that should be ripe for drinking now or even improve with age.

Brooklyn Silver Anniversary

To aggrandize the release even further, Brooklyn Brewery worked with four local artists to collaborate on labels that will be shipped on the bottles throughout the year. Some of these works were adapted for the release, while others were specifically created for the Silver Anniversary. Keep an eye on your local shop’s shelves and try to collect them all!

Delving into the beer itself, it takes on a surprising clarity in the glass that is accentuated by the dark mahogany color. An active, bone-white head settles on top of the liquid, and due in part to the yeast added to the bottle, slowly bubbles up and grows as it sits.

The nose is crisp and refreshing, and while Brooklyn Brewery states that Silver Anniversary Lager is brewed to doppelbock specifications, it doesn’t take on an intense sweetness like the style is wont to exhibit. The aroma consists mainly of pale malt, hints of caramel, subtle notes of cocoa, and a surprisingly fruity kick of citrus and grapefruit. Mild amounts of black pepper serve as a spicy balance to the sweeter and bitter aspects of the beer.

Throughout the taste, I consistently found myself impressed by just how balanced Brooklyn Brewery was able to craft this lager. There is a flexible give-and-take that spans from delightfully sweet caramel, toffee, and chocolate to an almost bracing bitterness from Cascade hops that delve into the bitter, juicy rinds of orange and grapefruit. The Cascade and Willamette hops also couple to deliver a spicy and floral note. The finish returns almost entirely to the malt, as the caramel and pale malts resurface and linger long into the aftertaste. 8.6% abv. A- / around $14 per 25.4oz bottle

Brewed in an English Pale Ale fashion, Brooklyn Brewery Summer Ale welcomes the summer into season with crisp malts and fresh hops. When the humid weather rolls around, heavy beers usually aren’t the most refreshing option, but why sacrifice flavor to fulfill the need to quench your thirst?

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Brooklyn’s Summer Ale strikes a nice divide between the smooth malt and juicy hops from the nose to the body. The malts keep much of the bitterness at bay, instead luring the beer towards a creamier, bready tone. However, the hops eventually gain more ground and impart an earthy, fruity, and slightly spicy influence, especially in the form of orange peel and lemon zest.
In the face of heat, Summer Ale stands up to the challenge of differentiating itself with its strong English characteristics. At times, the malt does tend to become a little heavy, but the hops and high carbonation go a long way in soothing the mouthfeel. 5.0% abv. B / $9 per 6-pack

brooklynbrewery.com

Mainstream Brewery Spotlight: Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser Line Reviewed

Discriminating drinkers aren’t immune from the mainstream, and ultra-micro-craft brews aren’t always available when you’re looking for a six pack at your local convenience store. What then about the biggest beer of them all? Today we look at the complete lineup of Budweiser beers, which now includes six different bottlings. Thoughts follow.

As the oldest beer within Anheuser-Busch’s portfolio, Budweiser defines the very meaning of a “brand.” Not only has the Budweiser name produced off-shoots of varying flavors and target demographics, but the beer’s popularity extends beyond what is contained within the bottle. With the iconic Clydesdale mascots and extensive marketing program, even consumers who don’t necessarily like beer are drawn into the fold.

BudweiserJust like its commercials, Budweiser lager is a classic. Anheuser-Busch brews Budweiser and its various siblings with rice, and the impact is readily apparent. The aroma and taste take on a neutral characteristic because of it, but it leans towards sweet as a result of the rest of the malt bill. In contrast to some of the lighter Bud offerings, this original Budweiser exhibits a noticeable graininess in the form of buttery cereal grains that add flavor. While not the focus by any stretch, hop influences creep in the nose and flavor by contributing a light fruitiness and earthy spice. C- / $6.99 per six-pack

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Review: Stone Enjoy By 4.20.13 IPA

FStone Enjoy Byor those beer drinkers who can’t get enough hops, there’s nothing worse than opening an India Pale Ale and finding out that the bottle you just bought is several months old. Unlike some beer styles that can improve and mature with age, IPAs and other hop-forward beers are notorious for dropping off quickly because the hop qualities are one of the first aspects of a beer to fade. Unfortunately, not every brewery utilizes bottle dating to inform consumers about how old the beer they are buying actually is, which is a blight that most people have been burned by.

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Review: Band of Brewers Third Shift Amber Lager (2013 Bottle)

third shift amber lagerMillerCoors is getting the creative juices flowing with a new brand straight out of the company think tank. The Band of Brewers, a collaborative group of brewers spanning across the MillerCoors network, have joined together to release to release Third Shift, an amber lager within the Märzen style. While February marks the first month that this beer is available for distribution and release to the masses, it has enjoyed success in the past by winning a gold medal at the Great American Beer Fest in 2010. It also has seen limited, tap-only allocations in the past year, of which Chris had the pleasure of testing last August.

Third Shift is dedicated not only to the brewers who worked throughout the nights to create this beer, but to all those who put in the effort and long hours in their pursuits and careers. And to these workers go the spoils, as their reward comes in the form of slightly buttery and toasted malt, a light honey-like sweetness, and earthy, spicy hops. An obviously German influence permeates throughout this beer, both in malt and hop selection, and everything is tied together with a crispness that leaves a smooth aftertaste in the finish.

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The Evolution of Canned Beer: Samuel Adams Joins the Can Parade

sam adams concept canEarlier today, Samuel Adams announced that it would start distributing beer in cans. As of now, only the flagship Boston Lager and Summer Ale are slated to hit the market in time for beach excursions, but it would not be a surprise to see Samuel Adams’ other popular offerings roll off the canning line, especially after the Boston Beer Co. already sunk millions into strategic planning, designing, and implementing the new format. In terms of design, Samuel Adams bucks the trend of normal 12 oz. cans in favor of a brand new vessel that features a wider mouth and an hourglass shape below the lip to help facilitate smooth liquid flow and ease of drinking, changes that were received favorably during consumer testing. (See concept at right.)

There has been no indication that Samuel Adams will discontinue the normal bottling line for the brands set to be canned, but initial reaction to the news has been mixed at best and surprisingly harsh from some fronts. After announcing the plans on Facebook, followers of the brewery chimed in with opinions ranging from hesitant to enthusiastic to sadly ignorant at times.

Two specific ideas strongly resonated in regard to the canning process and the image of canned beers. Many people posted concerns that the beer inside the can would simply taste different than that which is bottled, but advances in canning technology have led to a food-grade lining within the can that does not create any flavor differences. Basically, the fear that canned beer would taste metallic is simply unfounded, since the beer never touches aluminum either during the canning process or after it is packaged.

However, the second assumption about canned beer is easily the most egregious; the notion that only inferior or “cheap” beers are canned. This is a truly bizarre statement in today’s marketplace. Look at who’s canning now. Big-name heavy hitters Sierra Nevada and Brooklyn Brewery recently started selling their signature beers in cans (as well as continuing bottle production), Oskar Blues exclusively distributes cans, Surly from Minneapolis and Sixpoint from Brooklyn specialize in 16 oz. pounders,  and even smaller, but still respected, breweries like Anderson Valley have experimented in canning.

But perhaps the most damning evidence against the shaming of cans shines from a brewery that isn’t a household name, but is widely heralded amongst the craft faithful. The Alchemist, a small, family-run brewery located in Waterbury, Vermont, rose to fame from the success of its double IPA, Heady Topper. Once a beer that was only seen on tap at the brewery, it eventually received a very limited bottle release before transitioning to year-round-available beer that is only distributed in – you guessed it – 16 oz. cans. The kicker? Heady Topper is currently the #1 beer (and best double IPA) in the world according to Beer Advocate, beating out beers such as Russian River’s Pliny the Younger (and Elder), Westvleteren’s 12, and Founders’ CBS and KBS.

As long as Samuel Adams keeps its bottling line, the addition of cans can only be lauded. Not only are cans easier to recycle and transport, they are also accepted on the beach and on camping grounds, unlike glass bottles. If you are enjoying a beer at home, it shouldn’t matter if the vessel is a can or a bottle, since the final resting place for a beer is a glass. (You are drinking your beer from a glass, right?) With the implementation of linings that don’t affect the taste of the beer, cans should receive a warm welcome in your refrigerator or cooler this summer.

Review: Pilsner Urquell (And Its New Cold-Shipped Delivery)

Pilsner Urquell is firing a new salvo in the battle for fresh beer. Light-struck, or “skunked” beer is a rampant problem for breweries, especially those overseas that need to ship product over a longer distance than domestic brewers. Pilsner Urquell is packaged in a distinctive green bottle, but, while attractive, it doesn’t do much to prevent ultraviolet and fluorescent light from penetrating it and reacting with the hops to cause those off-flavors and aromas. It’s not uncommon to hear consumers say that Pilsner Urquell and other beers in similar bottles, like Heineken and Grolsch, taste better in their native lands than what is offered on shelves in America, and light exposure is a big reason why.

But Pilsner Urquell has recognized this problem and is taking proactive steps to deliver a fresher beer to its fans. The brewery will be keeping the same green bottle, but redesigned its entire packaging to shield it from light and will use refrigerated trucks to cold-ship across the country. While expensive, the goal is to provide fresher beer that will attract a brand new segment of customers.

However, faithful drinkers of Pilsner Urquell can rest easy. Besides the new shipping and packaging, what is inside the bottle has not changed. It still pours the familiar shade of light straw, clear and clean, topped by a tall, billowing ivory head. The cap has decent retention, but the lacing is somewhat meager.

Grassy, floral, and somewhat spicy hops are apparent in the nose, as well as a strong malt grain smell. The hops are fresh and crisp and really do provide a sharp contrast to bottles shipped under the old method. The aroma is also ripe with pilsner malt that ties everything together.

The overall flavor, while not overly complex, is traditional. Not much has changed within the brand from its original recipe in 1842, but there isn’t much to fix when it’s not broken. It starts with a bready flavor reminiscent of biscuits that gives it a rich texture to build off of, while the hops follow to seal the deal. The biggest notes come from these fresher hops, especially an earthy grassiness, subtle lemon, and even a somewhat bracing spiciness.

Time-tested flavors and ingredients combine to make this an easy-drinking pilsner that is a joy to drink. Pilsner Urquell is going the extra mile to make sure their beer is delivered in a cool, dark environment, so if you are new to the brand or looking for redemption from an off-bottle, seek out the new, cold-shipped packaging.

B+ / pilsner-urquell.com / $9 per six-pack

Review: New Belgium Lips of Faith Spotlight – Cocoa Mole and La Folie

One would assume that I had learned my lesson regarding chile beers after tasting Twisted Pine’s Ghost Face Killah. One would be wrong.

While Twisted Pine touted GFK as the hottest beer in the world, New Belgium instead takes a more subtle route. Although still spiced up with ancho, guajillo, and chipotle peppers, Cocoa Mole is balanced with caramel and chocolate malts to help relieve and complement the impending burn.

In terms of appearance, Cocoa Mole actually doesn’t look too out of the ordinary. Its color borders a dark, ruby red and brown, but it’s still translucent. I was expecting a big, thick, stout-like look, but even the sandy head is light and fizzy.

The initial whiff brings a very strong cinnamon note mixed with a little brown sugar, but soon afterward there’s a lot of earthy, gritty pepper. The spicy heat mixes with the vegetal aroma to hit home the message that this is chock full of chiles. As such, the malts are a little subdued here and I only got a pinch of cocoa.

Bold, flavorful ancho and chipotle peppers pace the taste, but the heat doesn’t kick in until a few seconds later, giving the full range of flavors time to settle in. This is where the cinnamon and brown sugar return; their sweet and spiciness serving as a cooling foil to the burning sensation that is now building. This isn’t mouth-ruining hot, but it does have a pretty big kick to it. As in the nose, the cocoa isn’t as big as I was hoping, but I did have my expectations for the chocolate set high. The finish is long with heat and flecks of caramel and bready malts interspersed within.

Overall I like this beer quite a bit as it isn’t afraid to bring the heat, but doesn’t rely on it entirely. There’s a nice composition of flavors here, and my only meaningful gripe against it is that there isn’t as much chocolate as anticipated. I enjoyed the cinnamon, but I felt some more malt could go a long way in making the mouthfeel more full and thick.

B+ / $8.99 per 22oz bottle / newbelgium.com

Standing in stark contrast to the spice-laden Cocoa Mole, La Folie is a wood-aged, sour beer. Brewed in the Flanders style, these types of beers are typically somewhat fruity, acidic, and come with varying degrees of tartness.

In terms of this spectrum, La Folie easily approaches the extreme end. The first sip brings a huge huge amount of lactic sourness that overwhelms the palate. I have had the 2010 release of this beer and don’t remember that vintage being quite so mouth-puckering. After the tartness fades, a ripe fruit note follows to give a pinch of sweetness as condolences for how sour it was at first. Green apples and tart cherries form the bulk of the flavors, with a kiss of grape and oak that almost gives this a wine-like quality. There is some vinegar acidity, but it doesn’t detract from the overall flavor (as some red Flanders are wont to do).

Even when poured into the thick New Belgium goblet, La Folie still has an enchantingly dark mahogany tint to it and is just barely transparent. Both the head formation and lacing are solid and make it easy to fully enjoy the aromas spilling out of it; the soured fruit, wooden barrels, and pinch of vanilla enticed me the most.

A- / $8.99 per 22oz bottle / newbelgium.com