Category Archives: Tasting Notes

A Religious Experience at Monkless

I had a religious experience (in the bathroom) at Monkless Belgian Ales this weekend. And I’m having another while typing and listening to Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert from 1975. But that’s not what I heard in the bathroom.

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Let there be beer!

Monkless Belgian Ales is just four years into production, and only two-and-a-half years on a 10-barrel brewing system. The shiny, clean brewery has a tank capacity of 100 barrels, and it’ll push 1,000 barrels of production this year. While that’s not very large for a production brewery, it is remarkable that 100% of the beer is fermented with expressive Belgian-type yeast. This model is an extreme rarity in the U.S., and deserves attention because the brewery has been quite successful selling its canned, bottled, and draught beer in Oregon.

When Monkless first came to Eugene, while I was working at The Bier Stein, the Imperial Peppercorn Wit and Capitulation, a dry-hopped Tripel, seemed a bold first move to push into a new market. But once the pint cans of Shepplekoffegan Wit, Peppercorn, and Capitulation hit the shelves and started selling, it seemed that Monkless had discovered a sect of beer drinkers who appreciated the balance of its characterful beers. It helped that Shep’ became an easy, affordable domestic alternative to Blue Moon.

In 2017, 500ml. bottles of Friar’s Festivus, a Belgian Strong Dark ale spiced with mace and cardamom, spent a brief layover on the shelves before being scooped up. That compelled the brewery to shift its schedule and brew more while customers continued to seek it out. As far as I remember, it outsold the perennial favorite St. Bernardus Christmas Ale; at the very least it generated more fervor. This year, it won a Gold medal at the Oregon Beer Awards.

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Monkless turns water (& malt & hops) into beer!

I was treated to a flight of all eight of Monkless’ current beers at the brewery’s tasting room on a hot Saturday afternoon. Somebody had kindly set up water misters in the garage doorway. A Mexican food truck was serving tasty street food. Folks trickled in; most ordered flights. Some came back for a full glass, others got their Bend Ale Trail passports stamped and continued on.

The flight was arranged on two barrel staves, in order from lightest to heaviest, starting with Shepplekoffegan and ending with Meet Your Maker, an un-spiced Belgian Dark Strong. With the exception of the Maker and Dubbel or Nothing, all of the beers lay in the pale-to-golden realm, but the shared traits more or less ended there. The brewery keeps four yeasts for its various beers, and even blends a couple of them for one of the beers (can’t remember which).

If you’re curious about the difference between a Tripel and a Belgian Golden Strong, Monkless has you covered; the Restitution and Trinity are quite different, with the former, a Belgian Golden Strong, showcasing fruity, apple-pear-peach esters with a bit of spice, honey, alcohol, and a full body without being too sweet. The Trinity, an Abbey-style tripel is spicier and a bit drier, with some pale stone fruit and pepper/cinnamon notes, all from yeast. Capitulation, which is Trinity dry-hopped with Hallertau Blanc and Citra, pairs the vinous German hop and now-classic IPA hop to lend bright fruitiness and some extra bitterness to the Tripel, which is a lovely addition that’ll surely get a hop-head’s attention.

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A little beer church on a hot day

Being a fan of sessionable beers, the Shep’ did me right, and paired perfectly with my pork tacos and spicy salsa verde. I’ve found that witbiers made as one-offs lack the fluffy wheat body, and are often too dry feeling; Shep’ is a well-practiced wheat beer with a good dose of the traditional orange peel and coriander.

 

Samaritan’s Saison was a recipe from one of the assistant brewers, and had the distinct ganja aroma that I remember from my first bottle of Dupont Saison; that was very pleasing to recall. It’s dry, a little scratchy, but not as carbonated (on draught) as a bottle-conditioned saison so the pils-like malt sticks around for the next sip.

The bartender, cellarman (and also homebrewer and cheesemonger) Nick gave us an educated tour of the brewery, which is well set up and seems ready to receive more tanks if necessary. The brewery currently hires a mobile canner, but the cork & cage bottles (packaged with priming sugar and yeast for natural carbonation) are done by hand.

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Thou shalt wash thy hands after peeing.

After the tour, finishing the flight and chatting about cheese, I felt the familiar urge. Entering the bathroom is a step back in time, to a Renaissance-era cathedral – especially if you close your eyes. A single speaker in the corner was playing Miserere, the Gregorian hymn based on Psalm 51, at a high enough volume that all other sound disappeared. I guess I found where the monks went.

One of the hardest things about brewing Belgian-style beer is attaining a balance between yeast, malt, and hops. All beer obviously requires yeast management, but the flavors in American-style ales and lagers are mostly expected to be “neutral.” Utilizing yeast’s potential for flavor contribution is a tough game, and means really getting to know how it acts under various conditions. Monkless gets it right.

A Column on Columns

The Wheel Apizza Pub just released a new lager. Columns is a black lager – not a schwarzbier, tmave, or anything else official – brewed with Bohemian floor malted dark malt and other toasty dark malts, and local Sterling hops; the yeast of choice remains  concealed. It is lager’s answer to easy-drinkin’ porter, and was, boldly, released on the summer solstice. It is also the third lager The Wheel’s put out in the 2 months its been open, a trend I hope continues.

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I’m a self-professed Vanoraholic; the premiere lager, Vanora Amber Lager, at the new brewery got my wheels turning, especially after getting back from Europe and realizing that it’s actually the closest thing to Světlý Ležák in town. I’ve had more of that beer than any other lately (should I say, “and that’s saying a lot!”? Or would that be embarrassing?). I was prepared, despite confident assurances and my own time-tested faith in Toby’s ability to pull off most fermentations, for the first beers “out of the gate” to beg for a tweak. I can’t speak for the hoppy ales, nor is that what this column is about.

Each of the lagers has its own structure and place; rounded and mossy-soft (Vanora), staccato and sunny (Quest Pils), earthy and shaded (Columns).

The pizza at The Wheel is satisfying and just filling enough thanks to a sourdough crust; today’s lunch special was a Detroit-style pie served in big tile-sized slices, with a dollop of bright red sauce on top of the cheese/meat/mushroom toppings, and went as well with Columns as tomato’d pizza can go with beer. Both were devoured in short order.

If you’re local and haven’t been here, go. If you’re not local and you haven’t been here… go.

Why Am I Making This Face?

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It looks like I’ve just been stung. The exaggerated crinkling on the bridge of my nose and the tensed levator and zygomaticus muscles above my lip and astride my schnoz indicate an intense reaction, in this case to an aroma. My eyes are closed, which boosts olfactory perception. You may wonder: what’s in the whiskey glass?

The answer: Spigot Licker. Flat Tail Brewing in Corvallis, headed up by jack-of-all-everything Dave Marliave, produced this beer (yes, it’s still a beer and I’ll tell you why later) for the coming of age of Corvallis Brewing Supply – its 21st birthday. Spigot Licker is 18% alcohol by volume. It is a single malt beer, yet it is deep brown in color due to the fact that the wort was boiled for six DAYS. It was fermented in neutral oak, and dosed with four yeast strains in order to achieve enough attenuation to be drinkable.

Marliave is one of the few brewers I’d trust to do a damn fool thing like that and get it right. He isn’t all willy-nilly about it. He lone-wolfs it in the brewery, and takes long trips on his motorcycle; plenty of time to spend in one’s head, poring over the minutiae of making beer.

In a world where best-of beer lists are topped by IPAs and pastry stouts to the near exclusion of subtle flavors and simple recipes with a focus on process, Spigot Licker’s complexity is derived from a simple recipe with intensive processes. A record-setting six day boil reduced the volume of wort by over 60%, thickening and caramelizing the originally pale, bready Golden Promise malt liquor into a syrup that no brewer’s hydrometer could read. Kettle caramelization (or in this case, pre-fermentation distillation?) produces deeper flavors than using caramel malts, and is a hallmark of the Wee Heavy profile (but a strong Scotch ale this isn’t). A wisp of burnt sugar adds complexity and satisfying roundness, the difference between cooking meat on a stovetop or on a grill; you taste the fire.

I can imagine the kettle cleaning process after this: using a pastry knife to scrape the honey-like wort off the walls and drizzle it onto a waffle. You did do that, right Dave?

Actually, my expression is exaggerated; it should have shown a thousand-mile stare, and then I could have added an animated whirlpool emanating from my pupils and a plume of leather-colored smoke sneaking over the rim of the glass. There is nothing sharp about Spigot Licker. Think Helen Mirren dressed in ruddy satin, sipping a glass of Madeira while a cigar smolders at the other end of the bar.

Like so many obtusely flavored beers that get their cocktailitude from an abundance of standard cocktail ingredients, Spigot Licker is self-contained and elevating, the way a proper Manhattan is more than the sum of its parts. It conjures memories; it tells a story or weaves a dream. Yep, it’s romantic.

On a more tangible note, I think it’s available at Flat Tail primarily. It’s served in 6oz pours for $10; that is basically three beers for the price of two. It is just barely carbonated; it doesn’t need the bubble, as its richness is balanced by tannins. But it IS a beer; it is 100% barley malt and fermented with yeast to its final alcohol content, rather than freeze-distilled like some extremely strong beers on the market. Though I doubt it will be as popular as, say, Pulp Action IPA (which came in 2nd at a blind IPA tasting in Portland), Spigot Licker is worth spending 30 minutes with your nose in the glass, imagining your life as a slice of mahogany baked into tiramisu.

Why Kölsch Works

If you’ve known me around beer, you probably know about my relationship with Kölsch. I’ve got a reputation, actually, for my obsession, analysis, and excitement, be it fit or fantasy, over this beer style. I may or may not have tasted Reissdorf, the most common example available in Oregon, before I brewed my first batch around 2011; mine came out well enough that I continued. Then Dave at Flat Tail began producing one, and Trevor while at Claim 52. At that point, Kölsch started to be a thing, and I started getting annoyed.

Yesterday, I saw a photo that included a can of something called “Ballast Point Tart Peach Kölsch,” and retched. This is a criminal example of what I call, “not a fucking Kölsch!” Many others are not so blatant in their total disregard for taste (and flavor and appearance), and produce beer that visually resembles Kölsch and contains the same simple ingredients as Kölsch, but that misses the flavor, aroma, and texture that defines the style; these should be called American Blond Ales. You see how goddamn obsessed I am?

Well folks, I finally visited the Mothership. Cologne*, Germany is the birthplace and stronghold of Kölsch; it is kept in its own Rapunzel’s tower by the Kölsch Konvention, which dictates that no beer brewed outside the city walls can be called Kölsch. (That obviously doesn’t apply in the U.S..)

My hajj took place on my honeymoon (as will have the next few posts); Liz graciously consented to this first leg of the trip, on a fast train from Berlin to the Rhineland, and we met up with Michael and Brendan, old friends from the Stein now living in Freiburg to the south, and their friend Joey. We disembarked at the Hauptbahnhof (main station), checked into our hotel, and went immediately to Gaffel am Dom, the Gaffel brewery right next to the Kölner Dom cathedral, which, Brendan pointed out, looks photoshopped.

The place was packed, but we got a table quickly. The waiter came by hurriedly, and we ordered Kölsch all around. I tried to keep my cool. When the dude carrying the beer (called a Kobe), brought around the tray (Kranze), deposited five beer mats and five small rod-shaped glasses (Stanges), struck five hash marks on a beer mat, and walked away, I about had an aneurysm. It finally happened!

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On our second or third round at Gaffel, but not even a pint in!

The first sip, after the sacred ritual of Prost!, was… I can’t say the earth shook, but it jiggled a bit.

Part of my personal Kölsch mythology includes a German asking a beer nerd why he was sticking his nose in the glass. You really can’t stick your nose far into a Stange, it’s just not wide enough. And by the time you’ve taken three legitimate sips, it’s gone and about to be replaced by another. And so it goes.

Kölsch is an odd commodity. The indigenous ritual of drinking it is perpetuated by its appellation and by the breweries, which take full advantage of the lack of tied house laws to create anti-competitive relationships with bars and restaurants. Only one brand of Kölsch is served at any particular place, as far as I saw. Signs above the door and branded umbrellas outside indicate which Kölsch you’ll be drinking there. Other beers, like Paulaner, may be served as well. Some of the Kölsch breweries also produce different styles like Weizen or Bock, but I didn’t try them.

That’s how Kölsch works in Cologne, and is likely the reason there is so little craft beer there. I’m certainly not complaining; I didn’t go to Germany to drink American style beers, and only one Kölsch, Sion, is a subsidiary of a large brewing conglomerate (and easily the worst Kölsch I tried). So the scene is still “indie.” It has, in a way, protected its interests by setting up an economic wall around the city. Old school.

The Gaffel Kölsch was very clean and crisp, like a Helles or German Pils. Next we went to Früh (where we earned a moderate 18 hash marks on our coaster) and sat in the lower level of the ancient building. The beer was lighter and softer, with a very light fruitiness. Following that, we trundled over to Päffgen and were seated in a cozy, semi-indoor courtyard with a retractable roof.

This was fantastic beer. It felt dryer than the others due to a distinct mineral texture (Cologne water is pretty hard and tastes bad), and had a dash of noble hop character. I think it would be the best for pairing with food because of this extra, though still slight, nuance.

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Though one drinker succumbed to tea (due to a slight cold), much Päffgen was enjoyed.

The service of Kölsch in .2L glasses (~6.75 oz) means that a lot more glassware must be cleaned, filled, transported, and removed from tables. The bars often had one, maybe two guys hustling their asses off washing and filling hundreds of these delicate glasses. Though it doesn’t seem the most efficient, the beer never gets warm. The shape of the glass is a pleasure to drink from, and emphasizes the paleness and brilliant clarity of the beer (a suggestion of quality).

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Still jet-lagged but thrilled to be with friends drinking fresh Früh!

Since we’d had a few…dozen… Stanges of Kölsch by now, we set to walk a bit and wound up having one unfortunate glass at a Sion pub. It was full of bros, which should have been a tip-off. It had a green apple yeast flavor and was generally unpleasant to drink; by comparison, the others seemed all the better!

The next day I learned about walking on the street with beer, and how having to pee really bad can lead to drinking more beer because the bar you chose to sneak into was empty and you got questioned by the server. After our friends departed, Liz and I tried Reissdorf (super clean, tastes the same as in the U.S. but fresher) and Mühlen, which was excellent with the best presentation of yeast character– white wine and pear, beautiful counterpoint to the hops and malt. So delicate.

Kölsch is a drinking beer, not a thinking beer. If you (and by you I mean you, not me) have to fuss over it, it may not be a Kölsch.

*The city is called Cologne by everybody in Germany, not Köln (pronounced koeln). This is a sort of colloquialism not uncommon in Europe, which translates city names from their original/native language to a more phonetic pronunciation. Bad example: Baile Ath Cliath is Dublin. Good example: München is Munich. There you have it.

 

 

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One of these things is not like the other. Counterpoint of the Kölner Dom and modern buildings.

Here Comes the Judge!

Part One
Put on your powdered wigs! You’re about to participate in a niche ritual, engaging your senses and translating them to the written word. Your wrist will be sore, your tongue deflated, your faith shaken. You are about to judge beer.

You don your clothes earlier than usual for a Saturday, eat a mild breakfast and consider not brushing your teeth. The recommended status of a “clean palate” conflicts with all morning rituals; do you choose coffee or toothpaste? Already, your brain is preparing for minutiae. Did you burn your tongue on pizza last night? What part? Can you still taste? Whew! Crisis averted. But please, revel in everything you do before you leave the house; it is the last bit of canny sanity you will encounter today.

“Just show up,” they said plaintively. “Free lunch, free beer.” This is community service. Your peers spent hours poring over the guidelines sipping on a glass of beer with pen in hand, trying to remain objective while deciding exactly how their malty offspring would be sacrificed. With only two gallons left in the keg, 36 ounces seems like a lot. But enter they must, whether gunning for ribbons or hoping for legible, coherent feedback. The dutiful entry process has stymied many, but not these stalwarts without whose gung-ho, go-gettem attitudes there would be no competition, no reason to get out of bed and join your fellow judges for a day of impeachment, veto, repeal, debate, gerrymandering, election, re-election, and insider trading.

The process takes place in a space in which you might not otherwise expect to drink. It is not a bar, a friend’s house, or a public park. You are removed from society and plunked down at a table, chatting with two other people in the same position, waiting to see what happens under your nose. Hastily, you fill out the basics on the scoresheets. Your name! You are now accountable for your words. Your BJCP judge ID number! Do you have one? Good! If not, expect to be the first to compromise. Your e-mail address! Dear god, are these people going to contact you? Will you receive beer judge-related spam? (“Spiral-bound 2015 BJCP Guidelines, with EZ-Grip Mechanical Pencil Embossed with Your Name, $17.95 + S&H”)

Engaging in this sort of sensory role play with other people is intimately platonic. All feelings are directed toward a beer; it is the collateral damage in a codependent relationship. It better behave, or else. The beer is treated as a child at cheap daycare, told when it is good but not receiving commensurate praise to scorn. A flawed beer hides its positive traits; a good judge teases them out for constructive criticism rather than putting it in time-out. A good beer is difficult to nitpick not because it is a good beer, but because it is a relief.

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This is what Best-of-Show looks like. From the 2018 KLCC Homebrew Competition.

Part Two: Nobody Ever Gets a 50
The best-of-show lineup at Saturday’s KLCC Homebrew Competition judging contained 24 different styles, including a mead and two ciders. How on earth–why on earth–should they be whittled away like contestants on The Weakest Link down to the best three? They should all have merit enough to stand on their own; every one is a winner! BOS judge panels are experienced and trusted. My first time, I recused myself from having any actual input until, during the same session, I timidly gave some input that was accepted by the majority. Later, I was put in my place: “Do you like soap?” Long story.

In my experience, the high score of 50 is like the amp that goes to 11. Why not just make 40 louder? Maybe it’s a localized phenomenon, but nobody ever gets a 50. Nobody ever totally wins the game. Really, that’s not fair to the brewer who may not understand that a 35 is a pretty good score, even though it’s an academic C-. Judges should reconsider this tactic. I should reconsider this tactic. A beer without fermentation flaws should be considered quite good, and not be lumped closer to beers that exhibit careless practice.

Homebrew is no longer its own bubble, as it was before 5,000 craft breweries opened in eight years (roughly). The transfer of knowledge from the home garage to the commercial garage–and to taps in our neighborhoods–has shown that good beer and bad beer can come from anywhere. At the Oregon Beer Awards judging (which has a radically different format from a BJCP competition), I tasted roughly 80 different beers in a range of styles. And though flaws were less pronounced, they were just as prevalent as in the KLCC comp. They were also different; fusel alcohol and strong esters were rarely an issue. Pro brewers typically have control over fermentation temperature and yeast health, whereas homebrewers are more likely to produce apple and banana bombs due to the lack thereof. The tiny scale of a batch of homebrew makes it comparatively harder to ferment well. Even doing cell counts and dosing by weight is less foolproof by the gram compared to the kilo (but props to the nerds that do this!).

If a judge is able to assert confidently that a homebrewed beer could be found on tap at a good beer bar (a metric I will add to my lexicon), it deserves a very high score. Suggestions to tweak the water profile or this-and-that malt or hop adjustment should be considered trivial compared to good fermentation, carbonation, and pH balance for the style. Very few beers will achieve this; reward those that do.

Part Three: Judging Judges
Don’t be the new guy who waltzes (because there’s 3-to-4 odds you’ll look like an idiot) into the judging chamber (judges suit up, beers are redressed) and thinks he knows everything (yup, you’re a guy). And don’t be the judge who doesn’t listen to the new guy. Remember, you are Lady Justice; Ego plays no part in this comedy.

A person, who shall remain nameless, made themselves a pariah at the judge table on Thursday (apologies for any grammatical confusion with genderless pronouns). They chatted loudly, texted, and showed extreme bias. They irritated their fellow judges. I heard about it a day later, and still wonder what my reaction would have been had they been at my table. This is an outlier situation. I’ve judged with brand new judges before (and I was one as well, starry-eyed in awe of the whole thing), and worked hard to help acclimate people to thinking and tasting as objectively as possible, while simultaneously accepting that everybody’s palate is valid. All this within a time crunch; it’s not easy. And yet there are experienced judges who refuse to give good feedback; two word reviews are a slap in the face to the antsy homebrewer awaiting results. No, you can’t print “shit sandwich.”

You, beer judge, are a hero. You step out of your comfort zone not knowing what is going to be in your mouth. You risk headache, palate fatigue, losing an argument, and being a guinea pig for some schmo’s carrot-ginger-raisin experiment in exchange for a sandwich, all from a sense of duty you can’t fully explain. You are a first world middle class homebrew hero. Act like one.