Month: January 2016

The Bozeman Winter Beer Challenge

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It’s the most wonderful time … of the beer.
When stouts are a-flowing,
And porters keep going,
‘Cause malty is here.
It’s the most wonderful time … of the beer.

There’s much to celebrate during the winter months. First, there are the holidays. Second, the holiday parties. Third, there are outdoor activities like skiing, snowmobile riding, and freezing your ass off, that can only take place during the winter.

But the most wonderful part of the winter months is the increased availability of dark, malty, winter-style beers.

Give me the goods -- dark and malty, roasty or sweet -- and I'm in.
Give me the goods — dark and malty, roasty or sweet, coffee or spiced — that are available during winter .

Every year, Santa spreads his beer magic, leading not just to an uptick in the number of stouts and porters, but the proliferation of Christmas Ales, Winter Warmers, and a never-ending variety of holiday-spiced brews. Happy days!

To celebrate this wonderful time of the beer, a half-dozen or so of us took on the quest of visiting every brewery in the Bozeman area to evaluate who makes the best beers at this magical moment in time. Patterned after the Bozeman IPA Challenge fashioned last summer, presents the results of the first Bozeman Winter Beer Challenge.

The procedure is simple. We hit each brewery — there are seven within a 10-minute drive from, well, anywhere in town — and enjoyed a four-ounce sample of every dark, malty, or seasonal beer on tap. Each participant was furnished a scorecard that allowed him or her to rate the beers on a 1-5 scale, as well as write a few comments. Oh, and everyone was also given a pen that worked. Hey, at, we spare no expense.

The seven breweries visited, in the following order, were: 1) Outlaw Brewing, 2) Madison River Brewing Co., 3) Map Brewing Co., 4) 406 Brewing Co., 5) Bozeman Brewing Co., 6) White Dog Brewing, and 7) Bridger Brewing. The official winter beer tasters knew the name of the brewery, but not what specific beers they were being served, preserving the blind-tasting illusion.

The Cacao Vanilla Imperial Stout, as seen here from approximately 10,000 feet, at 406 Brewing was the hands-down winter winner.
The Cacao Vanilla Imperial Stout, as seen here from roughly 10,000 feet, at 406 Brewing was the hands-down winter winner.

A total of 12 different beers were sampled. And the winners are …

Gold MedalCacao Vanilla Imperial Stout (406 Brewing). The complexity of the combination of malty thickness, cacao bitterness, and vanilla sweetness made this practically a run-away winner with an average score from the judges of 4.3 on the 5-point scale.This limited release beer packs a wallop at 11.1% ABV, and both the alcohol and aromatic strength of the beer were noticeable as more than one judge wondered if it were aged in bourbon barrels. (The answer is “no.”)

Here are some comments from the expert panel of judges on the Cacao Vanilla Imperial Stout:

          “Nice sweet/bitter combination.”

          “Coffee or dark chocolate at the start, sweet finish.”

          “Really strong, complex, well-balanced.”

          “Warms the cockles and brought on the saliva.”


Silver MedalCan’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe (Bridger Brewing) — This dark brew with hints of amber at the edges had a bite that hit the judges late, both in terms of the individual taste and in terms of the entire day. Sometimes that makes scores slightly inflated, but our judges were professionals … not professional beer drinkers, mind you, but professionals none-the-less. Another beer on tap for a limited time, this concoction from Bridger Brewing does include a chili pepper spice at the finish. That, plus the smooth drinkability of the beer, impressed the judges enough to give it an average score of 3.94. Comments from the panel of experts on the CGEoYLB (it’s too long to type again) brew:

The scorecards got a workout, as evidence by the number of pen marks and beer stains.
The judges’ scorecards got a workout, as evidence by the number of pen marks and beer stains.

          “Mellow, yet complex.”

          “Slightly sweet with a bit of spice bite.”

          “Sweet malts, real pepper.”

          “I don’t know … tastes great.”


Bronze Medal tie between Dry Irish Stout (White Dog Brewing) and Ghost Town Coffee Stout (Bridger Brewing) — Both beers were in the traditional stout mold, but stood out slightly from the others available that day. The only difference between the two was the stout from White Dog was drier while Bridger’s stout had slightly more sweetness with the added coffee flavor. But the judges rated the two equally, with an average score of 3.88 out of 5. And the good news is that both of these beers are staples at each of the breweries, which means you should be able to enjoy them year-round.

Comments from the experts on the Dry Irish Stout:

          “Slightly dry, somewhat smooth. Quality stout.”

          “Roasty, good taste.”

          “Balanced, dry, not sweet but still pleasant.”

          “First time here … and I am drunk.”

Comments from the experts on the Coffee Stout:

          “Floral but not sweet. Wow.”

          “Espresso baby. Very strong.”

          “More than just coffee notes.”

          “I like it! Coffee! Definitely!”


Honorable Mentions — While these beers didn’t finish in the top three, their average scores ranged from 3.3 to 3.7 and were a notch above the rest. The honorable mention beers this year included: Black Ghost Oatmeal Stout (nitro) from Madison River; Big Relief Stout from Map Brewing; and the Russian Bill Imperial Nitro Stout from Outlaw Brewing.

Add these six beers to the reasons I prefer cooler weather to the warm stuff. I’ll place them between reason #17 (that I don’t sweat like a pig every time I walk outside) and what is now reason #23 (that I don’t get sunburned ever time I walk outside).

Now if we could just convince the beer-making world to feature these hyper-malt beverages other times of the year. I know, let’s serenade them in song. Ready?


It’s the most wonderful time … of the beeeeeer.
There are porters for toasting,
And stouts for their roasting,
The dark ales are here.
It’s the most wonderful time … of the beeeeeer.

It’s the most wonderful time … of the beeeeeer.

it’s the most wonderful time … of the beer.

— Eric Van Steenburg

Winter Hook and Klondike Bars

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Originally titled “Eric’s Excellent Rose Bowl Adventure,” the following is a true story and about an event that took place 10 years ago today.

My special pre-game meal of Winter Hook beer and Klondike Bars makes it worthy of being included in the annals. So enjoy my take on the events surrounding a trip to the national championship football game between the University of Texas and Southern Cal.

klondike bar

DISCLAIMER: What you are about to read is true, and probably full of typos. It is the story of my recent trip to Pasadena. Enjoy.

Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2006 — Without a ticket to the game (but a wad of cash in my pocket of an amount that I’ll never tell my wife) I boarded my 9 a.m. flight out of DFW to Orange County. The plane was filled with people wearing orange and white, except for two obviously lost people wearing crimson (or scarlet?) and gold. We were an hour late taking off. The passengers were strangely quiet.

Arrived in California at 11 a.m. local. We sat on the taxi way for another 30 minutes before we went to our gate. The flight attendant welcomed everyone to Orange County, then signed off by saying “Goooooo Trojans!” A few groans from the passengers, but again, strangely quiet as we sat waiting to get to the gate. Finally, I’d had enough. I told the two guys sitting in front of me that if I started the “Texas Fight!” cheer, that they needed to help me out. They said they had my back. So, from the second-to-last row of the plane, I screamed out “Texas Fight! Left side of the plane, say Texas! Right side, say Fight!” And then the passengers cheered “Texas … Fight!” for a good five minutes until the pilot started talking and everyone got quite again.

In the airport, more orange and white everywhere — in the shops and restaurants, at baggage claim and car rental, even in the restrooms. The place was buzzing.

Got my car and found my hotel, across the highway from Disneyland. Got a phone call from my 2003 Katy Trail intern turned 2005 Playboy centerfold asking if I had a ticket yet. (Quick aside: She had planned to go to the game because she was in L.A. for Hef’s new year’s eve party … no lie … but was feeling sick and went back to Dallas early and was trying to get her friend to give the extra ticket to me.) She said she’d spoken to her friend, who was going to lunch and asked her to call him after. She said she’d call me as soon as she got back in touch with him.

After I ate lunch and picked up some beer and ice cream for my personal tailgate party, I drove from Anaheim to Pasadena. Traffic was no problem, probably because I rolled into the Rose Bowl grounds about 2:30 p.m. Every homemade sign I saw was about people looking for tickets. No one was selling. It didn’t look good.

Drove past the UT band just as they started playing on their march toward the stadium. Parked about a mile from the stadium along with the thousands of others who dared to show up only two hours before kickoff. There were Texas tailgaters everywhere. Not many USC folks. Those that I did see were wearing jerseys with the number 5 on them. I kept asking them who that was and if he was any good. (In retrospect, I think the question remains unanswered.)

winter hookEnjoyed my personal tailgate (Red Hook Winter Ale and Klondike bars) while wandering around introducing myself to other UT fans. I specifically targeted groups with odd numbers, hoping one of their gang was unable to make it and they had an extra ticket. I’d start my story by saying that I thought I was going to get a ticket through my intern turned centerfold, but I was covering my bases and was looking for an extra ticket. One group of three fans didn’t have tickets either, and was hoping to get some near gametime at the stadium. Another group of seven didn’t have a spare, but wanted to know if I was in the porn industry. Another group of five offered me food, then said they’d just sold their spare ticket that their grumpy son didn’t deserve to have. Ugh! The truck of a dozen UT fans that rolled in weren’t even going to the game. They’d brought a big screen TV and a grill, and were just going to stay in the parking area to party and watch the game. Hmmm.

At 4 p.m. I called my intern/centerfold, who said she hadn’t heard from her friend, but would call him right then and call me back when she heard from him. At about 4:30 I started getting nervous and headed toward the stadium. Ran into another UT fan trying to get a ticket who thought there would be some closer in. We were both wrong. Walked around the stadium along with the hundreds of other people looking for a ticket.

At 5 p.m., as the jets flew overhead, I called the intern/centerfold, who said she still hadn’t heard back from her friend. Damn! I walked around the stadium. There were no tickets anywhere. I tried will call, just in case, because that’s where she said he would have left the ticket for me. No luck.

By now the game has started. I found the media entrance gate and saw a hat on the ground that said ESPN Radio. I put it on and tried to bluff my way into the game. The security guard didn’t buy it because I wasn’t wearing the green wristband. He asked me who my boss was. I said Lee Corso. I didn’t get in.

Walked around the first quarter wondering what to do. I was about to cry. Julie called and asked if I was in the stadium, and when I told her no, she said not to give up … and not to call her back unless I was inside the Rose Bowl. Tough lady.

3rd quarterHeard a few yells and cheers. Ended up back at the media entrance where I found a railing I could sit on and see the jumbo tron inside the stadium. Watched the second quarter there while I plotted my strategy for getting in. It was a two-pronged approach: 1) make friends with the security guard (not wearing my ESPN Radio hat this time in hope that he wouldn’t recognize me as the schmuck who tried to get in using Lee Corso’s name); and 2) make friends with any of the media people who were walking in and out to see if they could give me a spare green wristband.

The security guard liked me. But he liked his job better. He wished he was watching the game and not the media gate. It didn’t look good. After being snubbed by one reporter, I made friends with a TV production guy. He loved my story … but couldn’t help me out with the ever-coveted wristband. Security guy suggested going back to will call, because he thought they sold unclaimed tickets at the end of half time. I went over there. It was closed.

Continued walking around the stadium as the third quarter started. Saw a USC fan walking out of a gate counting a ton of money. I told him it was too early to collect his winnings. He laughed and said he was a Stanford grad and was only there with a USC friend of his. I told him my story. He reminded me that they didn’t even let people with tickets back in once they’d left. He was cold and wanted more beer, so was heading toward the bus that his buddy had rented. He invited me to join him for beer and watch the game on the bus’ satellite TV. I accepted.

We found the bus (it took a while because he was drunk and I was lost) and went inside only to find the bus driver sitting there watching the 1950s TV show “The Cisco Kid” on both of the bus’ televisions. We asked him to tune in the game. He said he couldn’t pick it up. My new Stanford-not-USC friend said we could talk our way into watching the game in any of the hundreds of busses/limos that were in the area, and we headed out, beers in hand. We tried two busses and half a dozen limos. Made lots of friends. Didn’t get in anywhere. I found a TV in one of the empty limos that was facing the window. Saw USC score. Saw Texas punt. Went back to the bus to ask the bus driver again to tune in the game. He confessed that he hadn’t tried because he was a Cisco Kid collector, and this was a rare chance to watch one of his new DVDs. Oh, Poncho!

Walked past some other tailgaters in UT and USC sweatshirts on my way to the woods to … um … get rid of some beer. Saw that the fourth quarter was starting. Found my new friend and told him I had to try to get into the game. He handed me his ticket and wished me luck. I gave him my ESPN Radio hat and headed off toward the stadium.

Tried five entrances. Every security guard reminded me there were no in-and-outs at the Rose Bowl. (FYI, a recorded message saying “Welcome to the Rose Bowl … For your comfort … blah blah blah … There are no in-and-outs at the Rose Bowl” had been running in the background since I got on site. I knew there were no in-and-outs at the Rose Bowl.) However, the sixth security guard took pity. He let me in.

4th quarterI walked up the tunnel and into the stadium right as USC kicked off to Texas after having just scored to go up 38-26. But I was on the USC side of the field. I quickly found the Texas side and headed that way. Continued walking down the concourse that splits the upper seating area (to my left) from the lower seating area and the field. Saw some chairs right behind the railing at the back of the lower seating area reserved for people accompanying wheelchair users. You know how they have two seats, then a big blank area for wheelchairs, then two more seats. Well, one seat was open. I asked the guy sitting in the other if I could sit. He said he didn’t care, he was supposed to be selling Cokes but had stopped to watch the game. He’d taken off his work apron and was now just a fan. Me too!

The seat was at about the 15 yard line. Sat down and noticed the clock – 6:52 – and the difference in points – 12. Then, for the first time all night, I got nervous about the game.

Saw Texas drive and score to pull within five. The UT crowd was going crazy. It was growing into a crescendo. Later saw USC line up to punt, then choke on 4th and 2, even with the ref’s overly-kind spot of the ball. I told the USC fans in front of me “See what happens when you play somebody!”

Texas QB Vince Young scores the winning TD on fourth down to beat USC.
Texas QB Vince Young scores the winning TD on fourth down to beat USC.

Some UT fan came up next to me and knelt on the wheelchair space to my left. He said he’d sneaked into the game at halftime. As Texas was driving, he pointed out that he was kneeling on number 10. Saw UT drive and score again. Pandemonium. Hugged the guy next to me. People from the upper level were jumping down onto the concourse area were I was standing. It was anarchy. UT fans were jumping up and down all over the place. The concourse was packed (the fire marshal would have been very upset). Then they scored the two pointer. The place was going nuts. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life!

Texas kicks off … USC does nothing … I called a former UT schoolmate. Couldn’t hear a thing, so I screamed into the phone “NATIONAL F*&#ING CHAMPIONS!” and hung up. Tried to call other people. Network was busy. People were wandering around in a daze. No one knew what to do. The USC band was playing. They wouldn’t stop. The USC fans in front of me shook my hand and said that Texas deserved it and was a great team. They were very classy. The USC band continued to play. I started singing “You’re number 2  … not number one … you lost the game … you’re number 2.” They finally stopped. The Texas band played the Eyes of Texas. I’ve never heard UT fans sing it so loud.

No one left. I finally wandered around to where I came in, looking for an extra ticket as a souvenir. Some USC fan found one, I told her I was looking for one also. As I continued to wander, she came running up behind me and gave me one. I’ll repeat, the USC fans at the game were classy.

I found my way back to the car … seemed like it took an hour. Drove back to my hotel … which I think took two hours.

Listened to all the USC fans whine on the sports talk shows the next day. It was sad. Someone even said “USC didn’t lose that game.” Others said “We’ll, we’re still the better team.” Uh … yes you did, and no you’re not!

no 1I guess that’s it. I stayed in L.A. until Friday. Spent Thursday at Venice Beach with hundreds of other burnt-orange-wearing UT fans. They were everywhere. It was amazing. Went to dinner that night with a friend from Dallas who lives in Santa Monica now.

Got back to Dallas Friday afternoon. Didn’t fully recover until Sunday. Watched the replay of the game on Monday with my wife. We were able to find me in the crowd at the end of the game. So I’ve got a ticket stub and a digital video as souvenirs.

Oh, and a national championship!

Hook ’em Horns!

— Eric Van Steenburg