Element Beer Altoberfest

My dorkiness comes on many levels, it isn’t just limited to beer. I have mentioned before that I am a chemist in the “real world”, and I have many science-nerd tendencies. If I started my own brewery there would definitely be a tie-in to chemistry, and most likely some molecular structures or element symbols incorporated into the logo and artwork. Since I have no plans to be a brewer, I instead patronize like-minded craft breweries. Element Brewing Company has a great name, makes interesting beers that deftly fuse seemingly contrasting beer styles, and even has chemical structures right on their label. A perfect combination for a beer and science nerd like myself. Element’s fall seasonal is called Altoberfest, a fusion of a rich and malty marzen with a hoppier German altbier. The beer is fermented with Element’s house ale yeast. While these styles aren’t as far apart as some of the other fusions Element makes (like pilsner with stout in Interval), this is an interesting combination that seems perfect for a crisp fall day.

Element AltoberfestElement Altoberfest pours a deep amber red, slightly cloudy with a large but quickly dissipating khaki-colored head. The smell is a mixture of old world hops intermingled with some rich maltiness. The hops lead the flavor, earthy with some pine and grass. There is significant malt flavor too with notes of caramel and whole grain bread. The beer is medium bodied and pretty easy to drink so I was shocked to find that it is 8.35% ABV. The finish has a pleasant little hop bite on the tongue. This beer kind of reminds me of a British ESB, lots of old world hops mixed with significant maltiness. There is a little German malt character that sets it apart, but that is the closest “traditional” style that came to my mind. It is an interesting combination, not as crazy as the pilsner/stout hybrid, but worth a try this fall. Hoppy Boston score: 4.0/5.

Previous Element Reviews:

Element Interval

Cape Cod Kurt’s Farmhouse Saison

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to try local beers (shocking, I know). If I go out to dinner or for drinks I’ll usually seek out beers that are from the area and not available in Boston. Usually this beer tourism is limited to trips out of state, but there are some Massachusetts beers that haven’t made it into the city yet. I was recently down on Cape Cod for a wedding, and I was finally able to try some beer from Cape Cod Brewing Company. I had hoped to make a visit to the brewery itself but couldn’t due to some time constraints. Fortunately I was able to swing by a local liquor store and grab a bottle of their latest release, Kurt’s Farmhouse Saison. Cape Cod brewed this beer as part of a celebration honoring Kurt Vonnegut, the world famous author who spent time on Cape Cod. They chose a Belgian style saison because Vonnegut was captured in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, and this experience inspired his best known book: Slaughterhouse Five. Cape Cod Kurt’s Farmhouse Saison is available for a limited time on draft and in 22 oz. bottles.

Cape Cod Kurt's FarmhouseCape Cod Kurt’s Farmhouse Saison pours a clear cornflake-yellow with a mild white head. The Belgian yeast dominates the flavor, fruity esters with a little spice. The yeast also leads off the flavor, notes of white pepper, coriander, apricot, pear and white grape. This is complemented by substantial light malts, cereal grains from the barley and a big hit of spicy wheat. The wheat flavors make this beer teeter on the style boundary between saison and witbier, but it tends to be a blurry line. There is also some crisp hoppiness in this beer, earth, lemon and grass. The beer is light bodied and easy to drink, and not too heavy and 5.5% ABV. Overall this is a very solid saison. I’ll have to pick up some more Cape Cod beers the next time I’m in that area, and hopefully they’ll expand distribution up to Boston soon! Hoppy Boston score: 4.0/5.

Pretty Beer and Dirty Lines

Apparently late last night Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project’s Dann Paquette went on a bit of a rant on twitter using the @PrettyBeer account. The topic: the illegal practice of brewers and distributors paying bars to stock their beer on draft. Draft lines are a limited commodity in any bar and restaurant. For a brewer it is important to have your beer available in as many locations as possible, not just for the keg sales but also for visibility. New draft lines can lead to new customers trying your selections. For big beer companies that routinely buy Super Bowl commercials and billboards paying for draft lines in a bar is a relatively small expense. For a small craft brewer having to pay to get your beer on draft cuts into already minimal profit margins.

The idea that pay-to-play systems have been in place in Boston has been mentioned before. When Yuengling moved into Boston I didn’t understand why so many craft brewers were uneasy, it didn’t seem like a direct competitor. Then a number of breweries implied that Yuengling was notorious for buying taps, and they already knew bars who displaced local craft taps to carry Yuengling. Dann took this to another level, calling out the industry in general, but also specific bars. He also made some vague comments about some local craft brewers getting extra attention because of their willingness to buy taps. He asked people to call out bars that practice selling their lines using #dirtylines.

If you want details of the whole feud you can find all of Dann’s posts on a thread on Beer Advocate (HERE). This was followed by a response from Wilcox Hospitality Group, who Dann called out specifically can also be found on Beer Advocate (HERE). Kevin Slane on BDC Wire did a good job covering the whole thing, read his post HERE. Finally, Chris Furnari at Brewbound did an extremely well researched piece on this (he has addressed this issue before), read it HERE.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Pay-to-play arrangements are clearly a problem in Boston. A number of other brewers have mentioned that, despite the fact that it’s illegal, it is common practice around town. Aside from the legality, I want my bars and restaurants to stock the best beers available, not just beers from brewers with the deepest pockets.

2. While Dann has a point, I’m not sure that a late night twitter rant was the best way to address it. I think it needed to be said, and I’m even OK with calling out specific bars. It might have been a better idea to write a blog post, have a few people look it over, and then publish it on their website. I could have also done without the vague shots at other breweries, it just creates needless speculation.

3. That being said, the response by Wilcox Group was completely childish and poorly thought out. It was a published open letter, so I assume others read it before it went to the media. They clearly need a new PR person (and a better editor, misspelling brewery names is unacceptable). All they needed to say was that the accusations were untrue, but they don’t deny taking money for taps anywhere in the letter (they denied it later). Instead they made a series of personal attacks on Dann and misquoted the prices on Pretty Things beer, implying that it was cost alone that keeps them from doing business.

4. Wilcox also implies that Pretty Things doesn’t make good beer, which is undeniably false. Pretty Things is one of the best breweries in the area, and having a series of “beer bars” that refuse to stock their product is suspicious at best.

In the end, the pay-for-play system needs to be addressed, and it was important for a brewer to take a stand. I hope other brewers follow suit and put pressure on the authorities to crack down on this practice. It could have been addressed in a better way, ideally in a different forum. The response by Wilcox was completely unacceptable. Personally, I am going to seek out bars that have a great beer selection, especially those who come out against dirty lines. I will also proudly continue to support Pretty Things, one of my favorite local breweries. Feel free to chime in if I missed anything, if you agree or disagree. Thanks!

Otter Creek/Lawson’s Finest Liquids Double Dose

When I started writing this blog I found that social media was a great way to connect with brewers and breweries, as well as other beer writers and enthusiasts. Twitter in particular has been a great medium to share my work and to find other blogs to read. It has also been a great way to find out news about new beers, special events and trends in the industry. Twitter was the first place I heard the term “unicorn beer”, designated for highly rated but hard-to-find special releases. I don’t end up drinking very many unicorn beers, mostly due to my unwillingness to drive for hours or stand in line for the sole purpose of buying a particular beer. This brings me to another advantage of social media, I’ve been clued in from Twitter followers when rare beers come to town, and where I can find them. This happened recently with Double Dose, the once-a-year double IPA brewed by Otter Creek and Lawson’s Finest Liquids of Vermont. While Otter Creek beers are widely available (and very good in their own right), you can only get beers from Lawson’s in VT, so it is a rare treat to find this collaboration beer at a local store. Double Dose is currently available in 4 packs of 12 oz bottles and on draft, I recommend grabbing some if you find it, it won’t be around for long!

Otter Creek Double DoseOtter Creek/Lawson’s Finest Liquids Double Dose pours a deep orange, slightly hazy with a mild white head. The smell is a huge burst of hops, tons of tropical and citrus fruit. This beer might have the best nose of any IPA I’ve ever tasted. The hops rule the flavor too, significant grapefruit, lemon and resin followed by a little mango and passion fruit. The hop flavor is accompanied by the tongue-numbing bitterness you expect from a double IPA. While Double Dose is a very hop-forward beer, there is enough malt in the backbone to add a little balance. This is also a pretty big beer at 8.5% ABV, and you get just a hint of warming alcohol as you drink. For a big beer it is very drinkable, and finishes with a  pleasant bitter bite on the tongue. This beer is awesome, as soon as I finished my first bottle I wished I bought more than a 4-pack, but I will make sure I track more down before it’s gone. Hoppy Boston score: 5.0/5.

Previous Otter Creek Reviews:

Otter Creek Fresh Slice, Otter Creek Citra Mantra, Otter Creek Kind Ryed

Mystic Vinland 3

I’m not surprised that many scientists gravitate towards craft beer and homebrewing. In the “real world” I am a chemist, and there are many similarities between my job and my hobby. In both brewing and chemistry a defined set of ingredients are mixed with careful control of temperature to obtain a desired product. While beer can be described as an art as well as a science, precise additions of quality ingredients are important for consistently delicious beer. Many brewers are constantly tinkering with their ingredient profiles, and share the resulting creations as a series of beer releases. Most of these beer series change the malt or hop profiles, allowing the brewer to highlight a particular ingredient or combination of ingredients. Mystic Brewery in Chelsea, MA probably has the most unique series of beers I’ve tasted, their Vinland series.

Each year the brewers at Mystic (who are trained microbiologists), cultivate a naturally occurring yeast strain from a variety of local fruit and use it to brew their beer. The goal is to isolate a strain from a different fruit in a different New England state each year. The first beer in the series used plums from Massachusetts, while Vinland 2 harvested yeast from Maine blueberries. Recently released Vinland 3 uses a yeast strain cultivated from raspberries grown in Vermont, and uses the yeast to brew a Belgian style dubbel. While the fruit itself isn’t used in the brewing or fermentation process, you can often get flavors reminiscent of the fruit that are actually contributed by the yeast. Vinland 3 is available for a limited time in 375 and 750 mL bottles.

Mystic Vinland ThreeMystic Vinland 3 pours a deep cloudy reddish-brown with a large tan head. The smell is dominated by the local yeast, tons of fruit with a little spice. In contrast, the taste actually starts with the malt, notes of caramel, fresh baked bread and a little plum. The yeast also adds significant character, touches of apple, pear, pepper and must. There is also some raspberry flavor, very subtle but it gets more noticeable as the beer warms. Even with all the mentions of fruit flavors this is very much a traditional dubbel, not a fruit flavored beer. There is a very small hit of old world hops. They don’t add much to the flavor, but the mild bitterness adds some balance. The finish leaves a mix of sweet malt and spicy yeast on the tongue. Vinland 3 is medium bodied and drinkable at 6.0% ABV. As soon as I finished my bottle I wished I bought more (and I’m sure I will very soon). I might have preferred Vinland 2 overall, but it is pretty much a coin toss, both beers are great. This is highly recommended. Hoppy Boston score: 4.75/5.

Previous Mystic reviews:

Mystic Brewery visit and Day of Doom, Mystic Hazy Jane, Mystic Mary of the Gael, Mystic Vinland Two, Mystic Table Beer

Notch The Mule

Craft beer drinkers can be a particular bunch when it comes to beer style, and also when it comes to beer ingredients. Certain ingredients have gained a reputation as not worthy of craft beer. Some of this is the fault of “big beer”, who has used lower quality filler ingredients as a way to save money and or to up alcohol content without adding much flavor. One ingredient that ended up on this list was corn. For years the Brewers Association wouldn’t recognize a beer as craft if corn was used as an ingredient. Craft beer visionary Chris Lohring of Notch Brewing wants to change this misconception. He argues that corn was an important ingredient in pre-prohibition beers in the U.S., and can be an important part of the mash in a quality craft lager (See his full argument and more info HERE).  As he usually does, Chris put his money where his mouth is, and brewed a corn lager, called The Mule. The current version of The Mule is brewed with malted and flaked corn from local provider Valley Malt, along with Santiam hops. The Mule is mostly sold on draft, but you can find 22 oz. bottles at some local beer stores (I found some at Craft Beer Cellar in Newton).

Notch The MuleNotch The Mule pours a clear straw gold with a solid white head and significant carbonation. The smell is very hoppy, some fruit and resin – not IPA level hoppy scents, but you get a nice hit in the nose. The taste also starts with the hops, floral with hints of lemon, guava and pine. the malt profile is very clean, a mild grainy and nutty flavor that really lets the hops shine without overwhelming the palate. Like every Notch beer I’ve tried The Mule is incredibly easy to drink, and at 4.2% ABV a 22 oz. bottle goes down with ease. Grab some to enjoy on the last few warm days of 2014, or really any time. Hoppy Boston score: 4.5/5.

Previous Notch Reviews:

Notch Hootenanny, Notch Left of the Dial, Notch Saison

Jack’s Abby Copper Legend

I went into Fall hoping to focus my blog posts on reviews of malt-forward lagers. I felt that the combination of full bodied malt flavor with the clean drinkability imparted by the lager yeast was a perfect complement for the crisp seasonal weather (especially for those who prefer their Fall beers gourd and pie-spice free). I started to research beers to try and reached out to the Hoppy Boston community for suggestions. All this work led me to the realization that very few local craft brewers make lagers. I understand why. Lagers take more time to ferment and condition and need lower temperatures, so there is a longer turnaround between when you brew and when you can sell the beer. You also need a lot of space to store multiple batches as they condition. Many breweries aren’t set up for lager production, and it’s a big investment to start producing lager beers. All of these factors help reinforce how impressive Jack’s Abby’s mission to brew only lager is. Since most local breweries eschew lagers all together, Jack’s Abby has a huge market-share for these styles. It isn’t surprising that one of Jack’s Abby’s Fall seasonal releases is a traditional German style Octoberfest lager, called Copper Legend. Copper Legend was named for the plumber who helped set up the Jack’s Abby Brewery. They apparently had some very specific ideas on piping and drainage and he was able to make their dreams a reality, earning legendary status and a beer in his honor. Copper Legend is sold on draft and in 12 oz. bottles during the Fall season.

Jack's Abby Copper LegendJack’s Abby Copper Legend pours a clear copper-orange with a minimal off-white head. The smell is very mild with some roasted malt and a little sweetness. The flavor is what you expect from a marzen, lots of malty goodness with notes of toffee, whole grain toast and a little sweetness without being cloying. There is minimal hop flavor and just enough bitterness to keep the beer from swinging too sweet. Copper Legend is medium bodied and very easy to drink. At 5.7% ABV it is pretty typical for the style. The finish has the clean profile you expect from a well made lager, it doesn’t display any of the estery aftertastes you get from some ale yeasts. It is no surprise that Jack’s Abby makes one of the better Octoberfest beers that I have tried as they are truly the masters of lager beer. Hoppy Boston score: 4.5/5

Previous Jack’s Abby reviews:

Jack’s Abby Session Rye IPL, Jack’s Abby Mass RisingJack’s Abby/Evil Twin Jack’s Evil BrewJack’s Abby Wet Hop LagerJack’s Abby Pro-Am Pilsner