craft breweries

Now for the Airing of Grievances

Posted on Updated on

Festivus may have come and gone, but I’ve got a lot of problems with you people, and now you’re gonna hear about it!

Well,  not all of you. Just those who have bastardized my once craft beer sanctuary that I lovingly refer to as Winter Beer Season. So as we sit here exactly halfway through winter, it’s time to reflect on what is taking place.

See, when the weather gets colder, my craft beer heart starts to go pitter-patter. That’s because not only are we leaving the scorching heat of summer behind, but I know the sweet taste of malty adult beverages is in the near future.

Beers served during the cooler months – think Marzens, Oktoberfests, Pumpkin Ales, Dunkels, Winter and Christmas Ales – all have a slightly sweeter character than the warm weather beers because of extra malt. And what’s even better is that these beers are often lower in alcohol, allowing you to enjoy an extra one here and there.

anchor-christmas-2016
We can count on Anchor to provide a new Winter Ale every year.

What makes these particular styles feel more malty, as opposed to their hoppy cousins like the Pale Ale and the ubiquitous IPA?

Mostly because the grains are roasted longer, leading to their darker coloring. But this also makes it harder for the yeast to turn the malt (e.g. roasted barley) into alcohol. So the unfermented material stays in the beer, giving it a thick, rich feel in your mouth as you imbibe. And because the yeast can’t process as much, you end up with lower alcohol content.

About 15-20 years ago, things changed. I believe it started with Sierra Nevada and its 65-IBU offering Celebration Ale. According to the brewery, it is an American-style IPA and “one of the few hop-forward holiday beers.” Well, it used to be.

New Belgium followed suit with its 2 Below Ale that has, they say, a deliberate “hoppy palate.” Soon other breweries were soon copying these big brothers of microbreweries.

For some reason – actually, I think I know the reason – brewers of craft beer have started infusing their Winter and Christmas beers with more and more hops. Rather than the thicker mouthfeel of malty sweetness, the Winter Beer Season is inundated with an unwelcomed hoppy takeover.

Now it seems there are more uber-hopped beers at Wintertime than malty concoctions. They’re everywhere. Here are just a few examples:

 

Then, I saw the one that made my once pitter-pattering heart lock up faster than my wife’s transmission when she fails to change the oil after nine years. This “style” of the beer is enough to ring the bell of death for the hope that Winter will ever be malty again. I give you … the Winter IPA.

winter-ipa
Excuse me while I hurl.

Barf!

Is that even possible?

Yes, because that’s what Highlander did when it produced the Frozen Hill Winter IPA with, according to its website, has “loads of piney North West hops.” The brewers go on to proclaim that the “hoppy nature of this beer will make it a holiday favorite.” Well, at least they didn’t call it a “traditional” favorite, because there’s nothing traditional about an IPA in the Winter.

Where are the Winter Warmers, the Christmas Ales, the Jubelales, and the Hanukkah Porters? Oh sure, you can still find a few here and there. But the majority of beers this Winter season are hopped up more than a pro wrestler on steroids.

Given that the IPA craze has taken over, it’s doubtful that Winter will ever be the malty world of joy that I once loved. If it does, it might take a Festivus miracle.

Winter Beer Season.

R.I.P.

— Eric Van Steenburg

The Best IPA in Town

Posted on Updated on

So you’re wondering who has the best IPA in your metropolis. But how in the world can you figure this out?

You can’t drink all of them at once. You’ll pass out before you finish and never know who won.

You can’t drink one a day until you’ve gone through them all. That would take too much time. And over time, people change. Hair styles change. Interest rates fluctuate.

There is an answer: The Annual (insert name of your town here) IPA Challenge.

The expert panel of judges prepare to taste the IPA at Bunkhouse Brewery.
The expert panel of judges prepares to sample the IPA at Bunkhouse Brewery.

It’s simple as 1, 2 3 … 4. OK, 5. Maybe 6.

  1. Assemble a group of friends, family, distant relatives, dentists, co-workers, sanitation engineers, Methodists, or just people you’ve passed once or twice on the street. The one thing they must have in common? They’re love of India Pale Ales.
  2. Find someone who doesn’t like that hoppy swill guaranteed to make you pucker more than a teenage girl taking a selfie. This individual will be in charge of procuring the samples, keeping things on time, knowing the order of the tasting, and generally chauffeuring everyone else around. The bossier the better.
  3. Pick an afternoon when almost everyone can attend. A Saturday not during the college football season is usually a safe bet.
  4. Make a list of all the breweries in an area of your choosing. If you live in a big city, maybe there are enough breweries in the chosen area that you can walk to and/or take public transportation. If you live in a smaller area, maybe it’s all breweries within a certain distance from the city center. Your choice. Then pick a route (clockwise and counter-clockwise work just fine) that lets you hit all the breweries in your chosen area.
  5. Visit each brewery, procuring samples of all of their IPAs for everyone (except the boss) and let the judges rate them from 1-5. Try to keep the identity of each IPA secret, if you can. NOTE: It’s OK if judges know the names of their fellow judges.

When you’ve hit every brewery, tally the points awarded for each different IPA, divide by the number of judges, and voila, the best IPAs will be the ones with the highest score.

Sample scorecard #1 -- this judge clearly is in control.
Sample scorecard #1 — the evidence indicates this judge clearly is in control.

That’s exactly what we did for the second consecutive year in Bozeman, Montana. And for the second year in a row, the winner is …

Well, not yet. First the details.

A distinguished group of IPA judges was assembled a few Saturdays ago to hit all the breweries in a 10-mile radius of downtown Bozeman. The breweries in the challenge, in order of visitation, included Bridger Brewing, Bunkhouse Brewery, White Dog Brewing Co., Bozeman Brewing Co., 406 Brewing, Map Brewing Co., Madison River Brewing, Bar 3 Bar-B-Q & Brewing, and Outlaw Brewing.

That’s nine breweries. In one afternoon. Can I get a “Hallelujah!”

The hope was to taste two IPAs at each brewery. But not every brewery had two IPAs. Two had three. And two had one. So the total number of IPAs tasted per person still ended up being 18.

Top three IPAs in town, as voted by the panel of experts, are the following:

Bronze Medal (tie) — Hop Juice Double IPA from Madison River and Horse Thief IPA by Outlaw Brewing. Each earned a 3.5 on the 5-point scale from the judges, who noted the following for the Horse Thief:

“Good IPA. Not a robust taste, but still tasty.”

“Nice IPA balance of hops and everything else. Bitter … in a good way.”

“Definitely an IPA. Hoppy. Tastes good.”

And had this to say about the Hop Juice DIPA:

“Well-balanced malt and hop flavors. Good IPA.”

“Very good. Flavorful. Balanced. Delicious.”

“Tastebuds are numb because this is &*%$ing awesome.”

Madison River’s double IPA hits you with 9% ABV and an IBU rating of 101, while the Outlaw’s IPA is a more standard offering at 5.6% ABV and 63 IBUs.

Scorecard sample #2 -- this judge clearly had issues.
Sample scorecard #2 — the evidence indicates this judge clearly had issues.

Silver Medal — Midas Crush West Coast IPA from Map Brewing is 6.9% ABV but 100% IPA goodness. The beer edged out the two third-place finishers by earning a 3.55 from the expert panel, who noted:

“Flinty. Quite nice. Interesting – hoppy and citrus.”

“Nice. Light. Good citrus.”

“Light, well balanced. I may be drunk but it tastes great.”

And finally, the winner … for the second year in row.

Gold Medal — Hopzone IPA from Bozeman Brewing checks in a 7% ABV and 80+ IBUs (starting, according to the website). It earned a 3.7 and the following comments:

“Excellent IPA. Great balance of malt and hops.”

“Best real IPA. Floral tones. Lightly dry hopped.”

“Lovely. A classic IPA. Bitter, yet sweet. Nice mix of flavor intensities.”

“Yummy!”

There were a number of other IPAs that fared well during the challenge. And to those, we give an Honorable Mention nod. Checking in with a 3.1 average score were the Vigilante IPA from Bridger Brewing, the Double IPA from White Dog, and the Hop Punch IPA by 406 Brewing.

So there you have it. Another successful Annual Bozeman IPA Challenge.

Now I challenge you to create your own IPA challenge in your town.

— Eric Van Steenburg

 

 

 

The Bozeman Winter Beer Challenge

Posted on Updated on

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, Beer-and-Burgers.com 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 Beer-and-Burgers.com, 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

Playing with Portissimo

Posted on Updated on

Portissimo (adv.) = to approach the event with a heightened sense of porterness.

Porterness (n.) = the condition or state of portering.

Portering (v.) = the active imbibing of porters.

Perhaps the greatest aspect of the long, cold winter months is the increased availability of one of the two best styles of beers … the porter. Therefore, it is incumbent upon those who have a discerning porter palate to provide porter pointers to the porterless populace in the hope that they will populate their porter profile per these peerless proposals.

Before I jump straight into the porter recommendations, though, I must admit that I am a big fan of professional hockey. Well, “big” may be a bit of an understatement. When I lived in Dallas I has season tickets to the Stars for 15 years. And now that I’ve lived away from Big D for the last three years, I don’t hesitate dropping the 100 bucks on the NHL Center Ice package so I can watch my Stars.

Tonight's game features three Imperial porters on ice. Well, the hockey game is on ice, the beers are not.
Tonight’s game features three Imperial porters on ice. Well, the hockey game is on ice, the beers are not.

So as I review the top three Imperial Porters available in the Northern Rockies, I’m also watching my Stars beat the crap out of the St. Louis Blues (Sorry Kate). So here’s a beer-by-beer, period-by-period review to help you make the best choices you can when considering an Imperial Porter.

First period — The puck drops with a Peak XV Imperial porter from Black Diamond Brewing Co. out of Concord, Calif. Brewed with vanilla beans and cocoa nibs, Peak XV is named after the earth’s highest mountain, so named in 1856 when it was first measured before being renamed Mount Everest in 1865. Note that the beer named in its honor is a “dark towering brew.” The brewery claims the beer features “massive amounts of chocolate” with “undertones of vanilla” and an epic finish.

I found it to be rather mild in both vanilla and chocolate. Then again, this is a beer, not a mouse. The ABV of 8% is proof of that. The balance between chocolate and hops is excellent as the beer is silky going down. In other words, not too sweet in either the vanilla or chocolate, but enough to provide a flavorful mouthfeel every taste.

Game update — Playing their second game against each other in less than 24 hours, the Stars appear to be a fresher team than the Blues and score near the end of the period to take a 1-0 lead into the dressing room. Oh, and the Peak XV imperial porter is long gone.

Second period = I drop the gloves with the Anubis imperial coffee porter from Laughing Dog Brewing Co. located in Ponderay, ID. While it claims to be a porter with Evans artisan coffee added, the coffee flavor is rather weak. Instead there’s a slight bite of hoppy bitterness and possibly some barrel aging — maybe a hint of rum. And while the label on the Anubis makes no such claim, the hint of something barrelesque is unmistakable. Most likely the black malt gives it that portrayal.

Now, I’m no coffee drinker. The only thing I know about coffee is it makes me have to pee. I don’t even know how to measure the grounds or the water for an in-home coffee maker. And the thought of ordering at a Starbucks sends me into rigor mortis.

But the lack of coffee flavor in the Anubis makes for a rather pedestrian imperial porter. But at 8% ABV, it is imperial, nonetheless. If you like a slight hint of bitterness in your malty beverages, and possibly a hint of mystery barrel aging, then this is for you.

Game update — The second period starts with two fights as both teams try to demonstrate they have more testosterone than their opponents. As the period moves on, the Stars dominate in shots and chances, with only the St. Louis netminder keeping the Blues from being behind 4-0. And the Laughing Dog is only half consumed, with the dregs of the bottle likely to go down the drain. I’m not a fan … of this Imperial porter.

Third period = I face  off with the Boulder Shake porter from Boulder Beer Co. in Boulder, Colo. (can I say “Boulder” more times in one sentence?). I’ve had this one previously and know I like it. It’s high in choco-goodness, probably much more than most “pure” beer drinkers would like. “It’s too tricked up” they would complain. And you know, they’re right. (Kick save, and a beauty!)

But the last time I had a Boulder Shake it was on nitro at a generic pizza joint in Denver, and … yum. Talk about going down smooth. Of course, any nitro beer is going to be smooth. But one imbued with copious chocolate is going to be even moreso. And I don’t even like chocolate. In fact, last night, I gave away my chocolate cake because, well, it was chocolate cake with chocolate icing and chocolate filling. In other words, choco-disgusting.

But … the Boulder Shake is chocolate at a different level. However, tonight’s taste has a bit of a fishy nose. Perhaps that’s the uber-choco flavor. But regardless, the nose does not make one want to consume. In fact, it almost reminds me of the pinot noir I was drinking the other night. The first glass smelled and tasted like skunk, so I sent it back. The second one smelled and tasted  like fish. But since I was having halibut for dinner, I went with it. But I’m not eating fish during the hockey game, so what gives?

Fortunately for the Boulder Beer Co., the chocolatey goodness of the brew makes up for the initial whiff. And at just 5.9% alcohol, this is a Imperial beer that the porter consumer can enjoy more than once in a single sitting.

Game update — Stars start the third period on the power play and smash home a second goal within the first minute to take a 2-0 lead. Go Stars! The Blues get two power plays late in the period (thanks to a game with only one referee, instead of the normal two, who completely missed a spearing into the sternum of the Stars captain … cheating Blues). The Stars get another late-period empty-net goal to ice the game and win 3-0.

Meanwhile, the Boulder Shake is going down rather easily, despite the fishy nose. Once you get past the smell, it’s pure chocolately goodness, and remember, I don’t really care for chocolate.

But the Boulder Shake also has hints of wheat and cacao nibs to add a bit of bittersweet flavor. This Imperial porter with “natural flavors added” is indeed a sipable brew.

The Peak XV Imperial porter from XXXX Brewing Co. is the night's big winner.
The Peak XV Imperial porter from Black Diamond Brewing Co. is the night’s big winner.

However, the winner on this night, and in future games I hope, is the Dallas Stars. Oh, and on the porter front, the best of the Imperial porters is easily the Peak XV from Black Diamond.

So if you’re in the mood for a great porter to put above all the rest, my recommendation is Peak XV. However, the others are also worth trying. But if you’re going to put in the effort, why not reach for the mountain top. And Peak XV is just that.

So enjoy the trip to the summit via the Peak XV Imperial porter. And as you drink it, put yourself in the shoes of Sir Edmond Hillary as you pretend to be the first to climb to the top of Mount Everest.

And along the way, cheer along the Dallas Stars, who continue to stake their claim as best team in  the entire NHL. Go Stars!

— Eric Van Steenburg

 

 

Brewing Big Sky that isn’t Big Sky Brewing

Posted on Updated on

Big Sky Resort in Montana is a well-known vacation destination — both summer and winter.

Big Sky Brewing Co. is a well-known brewer of craft beer — both malty and hoppy.

But Big Sky Brewing is not in Big Sky. Who knew? Not me … until last weekend.

However, should you ever find yourself in Big Sky, the resort, and are in despirate need of craft beer (i.e. me last Sunday), you have a couple of options that should satisfy just about any quality beer-loving palate.

Lone Peak Brewery was the first craft brewery in Big Sky when it opened in 2007, and remained the lone brewery until just this year. Over that time the brewery has grown from just a few barrels to a full-fledged brew pub, featuring 14 different beers on tap and a menu so tempting you’ll order something even if you’re not hungry.

You gotta love it when your sampler is delivered in a ski. And you gotta love it even more when each beer is deliciously tasty.
You gotta love it when your sampler is delivered in a ski. And you gotta love it even more when each beer is deliciously tasty.

But first … how’s the beer, you ask.

I enjoyed a sampler, delivered in a snow ski, of five malty beverages that included the Class V Amber, the Steep N’ Deep Winter Ale, a brown ale called the Dark Shine of the Moon, the ubiquitious Hipy Highway Oatmeal Stout, and Willie’s Bourbon Barrel Stout.

My favorite? the Steep N’ Deep Winter Ale, even if they left off the first apostrophie in front of the N. This brew is listed as a “winter warmer scotch ale” and tastes just like that, with a ton of crystal malts to give it a slightly sweet taste, and enough hops to make sure it doesn’t become a desert. This extremely dark beer checks in at 8.1% ABV, so proceed with caution.

Likewise, the Bourbon Barrel Stout should be treated with kid gloves. On second thought, keep the kids far away from this one. Thought it’s listed at just 6.5% ABV, the bourbon aroma hits your nose like a Mike Tyson overhand punch. If you’re the type who likes barrel aged beers, this one’s a winner because of its strong bourbon flavor and relatively low ABV.

The Oatmeal Stout is also a favorite, and is available year-round at my local Ale House, which makes it a go-to beer for me in the depths of summer when most craft breweries kill their darker varities to cater the growing demand for IPAs. This is Lone Peak Brewery’s darkest beer, so don’t use it to try to read a book. It won’t work. But if you like your stouts with lots of oats and English malts, this winner will meet all your needs. And at 5.5% to 6.5% ABV, depending on whether you read the menu or the website, you could easily enjoy a couple three of these before you hit the slopes or the bike trails, depending on the season.

Of course, my IPA slurping friend had plenty to choose from at Lone Peak Brewery as well. The five in her sampler snow ski included a classic Pilsner, the XPA Xtra Pale Ale, the Lone Peak IPA, an Imperial IPA on nitro, and the Winter Ale. Of the five, her favorite was, surprisingly, the XPA, which, according to the brewery, is a highly hopped pale ale. That would explain her fondness for the beer, despite its listing of just 45 IBUs. And at only 5.5% ABV, I see plenty of XPA in her future. Who knows, she might even become my XPA slurping friend.

As a side note, if you like the Imperial IPA, I recommend Lone Peak’s. Another place where my IPA chugging friend and I diverge on the hoppy road is on the overly hopped, overly malted IPA known as the Imperial. As I once wrote, I find Imperial IPAs to be the Paris Hilton of beers. You know how Paris is so skanky she comes full circle back around to almost being hot. Well, the Imperial IPAs are so hoppy they come back around to something I can drink. However, the extra malt needed to balance all those hops send my IPA friend into face contortions that clearly indicate disapproval. Bottom line, when it comes to Lone Peak Brewey’s Imperial IPA, Joe Bob says “check it out.”

From Lone Peak we headed a mile down the road to Big Sky, the resort’s, newest brewery, Beehive Basin.

Beehive Basin has the views of the mountains surrounding Big Sky, including the famous Lone Peak standing at about 12,000 feet.
Beehive Basin has the views of the mountains surrounding Big Sky, including the famous Lone Peak towering over the area at 12,000 feet.

Opening just this summer, Beehive Basin Brewery had a noticeably different feel than the brew pub we’d just left. First, there was no food. Good thing we’d chowed on an order of what we call “chips all three” — tortilla chips with salas, guacamole, and queso — before leaving Lone Peak. But Beehive Basin was shiney and new. The furniture hardly looked sat in. And the bar hardly spilled on. Well, we can fix that.

Unfortuntely for me, the two beers I’d wanted to sample were tapped out. That’s the challenge of a brand new brewery with just a seven barrel system. However, that’s also an indication that the beer must be pretty good. The two that will have to wait for next time, then, are The Big Baltic Porter and the 50 cal. Coffee Porter.

That left the tasting to my IPA drinking companion, though I did my part by sampling and sumarily disapproving of each one. The Green Bridge IPA was easily her favorite, with the Li’Beer’ty American Pale Ale not hitting the right hoppy notes for her dandylion palate. The Dunkelweisen was exactly what it sounds like — a combination dunkel and wheat beer. I can always drink a good dunkel, but not one with this much wheat. Neither could the IPAer sitting next to me.

Still, the Green Bridge was a winner. And hopefuly, I’ll be able to weigh in on the two porters soon. When I do, I’ll definitely let you know.

So the next time you plan a ski vacation, or want to escape your summer heat, head to Big Sky, Montana knowing two things: 1) Big Sky Brewing isn’t there; and 2) there are two extremely capable craft breweries at the resort that give everyone another reason to hit this place any season.

— Eric Van Steenburg

The Bozeman IPA Challenge

Posted on Updated on

Word has it that my new home state — Montana — has great craft beer. So we decided to put one city’s beer to the test.

A year ago, my IPA drinking friend joined a hundred or so fellow IPA chuckers at the Virginia IPA Challenge, in which two dozen different IPAs were sampled in a blind tasting at our favorite pub in Harrisonburg, Capital Ale House. But we won’t there this coming weekend for the annual event because, well, we’ve moved west and now live 2,108 miles away.

Even worse, there’s no Capital Ale House in Montana. Well, at least not in Bozeman. There’s an Ale Works, but not an Ale House. And it’s not just the name that is different. Bottom line, we’re on our own this year.

My IPA slurping friend, left, and her drinking buddy Phil plow through another two IPAs, this time at 406 Brewing Co.
My IPA slurping friend, left, and her drinking buddy Phil plow through another two IPAs at 406 Brewing Co.

The challenge? To create our own IPA challenge.

To accomplish this important task, I brought in an outside expert — my IPA slurping friend’s Father In Law, a.k.a. FIL (or Phil, as he’s known down at the lumber yard).

The FIL has been known to throw back an IPA or two. He’s all about the IBUs. And that makes him an expert IPA chucker.

The set-up was pretty simple. There are six breweries in the Bozeman area. and each has at least two IPAs on tap. So while my IPA tasters would know the name of the brewing company as they sampled their beers, they would not know which beer was which. In fact, I made them choose a table away from the taps and had them face away from the bar just so that they did not know which beers were brought to them by the Bozeman IPA Challenge assistant, and the day’s chauffeur, my IPA chugging friend’s Mother In Law (a.k.a. the MIL).

A clockwise trip around town nets the six breweries in the following order: Outlaw Brewing; Madison River Brewing Co.; 406 Brewing Co.; Bozeman Brewing Co.; White Dog Brewery; and Bridger Brewing. Two samples at each brewery means 12 different beers to taste.

The scoresheets after a full day of tasting IPAs were definitely more worn out than the IPA drinkers ... by far.
The scoresheets after a full day of tasting IPAs were definitely more worn out than the IPA drinkers … by far.

Each participant was given a scoresheet with 12 blank lines for them to write their comments about each beer, and a five-start rating system in which they could fill in as many stars, and as many parts of a star, as they wanted. My only other rule to the participants and the gathering crowd of onlookers was to keep in mind that this was an exhibition, not a competition, therefore … no wagering.

After a full afternoon of tasting, which included bonus tastes compliments of the bartenders at Bozeman Brewing Co. and Bridger Brewing — they must have known our tasters were getting a bit tipsy and therefore thought there was a chance to influence the vote — the results were in:

My IPA slurping friend said:

  • GoldHopzone IPA (Bozeman Brewing Co.) — Straightforward. Right amount of hops. Delicious
  • Silver — Horse Thief IPA (Outlaw Brewing) — Slightly hopped. Balanced. Lite. Yummy.
  • BronzeLee Metcalf Pale Ale (Bridger Brewing) — Very good. Smooth. Unassuming.
  • Honorable Mention — Hopper Pale Ale (Madison River Brewing Co.) and The Juice DIPA (Madison River Brewing Co.) — For the former, the taster noted that it “has a bite” and was “lemony delicious” and for the latter she said “balanced” and “yummy.”

Then the FIL weighed in:

  • Gold — Hopzone IPA (Bozeman Brewing Co.) — Nice hops, not too heavy. Well balanced. Almost perfect. Wow.
  • SilverAntilogy Black IPA (Bridger Brewing) — Good hops.
  • Bronze — Hangin’ Judge Imperial IPA (Outlaw Brewing) — Balanced. Could have several, easily.
  • Honorable Mention — Lee Metcalf Pale Ale (Bridger Brewing) and the American Pale Ale (White Dog Brewery) — For the former, Phil said it was “a smooth, nice IPA” and “somewhat lite, but very drinkable” and about the latter commented “nice, but a little lite … low hops … drinkable.”

After a full day of tasting, in which I had one or two stouts on the sly (I lost track), the first ever Bozeman IPA Challenge was over.

Congratulations to the folks at Bozeman Brewing Co. for taking gold from both tasters. And thanks to all the tremendously nice bartenders and servers who put up with the antics of the two IPA chuggers.

Now that we’ve conquered all the IPAs in Bozeman, it’s on to the rest of Montana. Watch out Missoula, we’ve got you in our sights.

— Eric Van Steenburg

The Greatest Burger That Never Was

Posted on Updated on

You only turn 50 once.

I think it was the great philosopher Fred (Mr.) Rogers who first uttered those famous words.

So when my IPA drinking friend asked me what I wanted for my 50th birthday, I said “A great beer and a great burger in a great place.”

The last part was the easiest. We were sitting at a pub in Chicago, perhaps our favorite city in the entire United States. We’ve both been to Chicago numerous times. Why not? We’ve both lived in Illinois — she in Carbondale, and me in Champaign-Urbana — and would visit Chicagoland whenever possible. In fact, I’ve always told people that, because I lived just 100 miles south of Chicago, I could easily get there in an hour.

So there we sat, at a pub, in Chicago, about half a block from where Michigan Avenue crosses the Chicago River. A great city? Check.

Great beer was pretty easy also. Of course, Howells & Hood has 100+ beers on tap, so it’s hard to go wrong. I’d already enjoyed a Eugene Porter from Revolution Brewing, while my drinking buddy had downed an Anti-Hero IPA from the same Chicago-based brewery. Both were delicious.

The Eugene Porter, named after famous railroad union leader Eugene Debs, is a dark, dark beer with a ton of malt flavor and hints of chocolate. An excellent porter. Checking in at 70 IBUs, the Anti-Hero IPA has a nice hope bite that is complimented by lots of citrus aromas and flavors. It’s one my IPA slurping friend had in the past, which means it’s a go-to IPA whenever she has the chance.

And now I was on to my second malty beverage, and one that I’d never tried before — a White Stout.

The White Stout from James Page Brewery tasted like a combination of Pilsner and chocolate.
The White Stout from James Page Brewery tasted like a combination of Pilsner and chocolate.

What is a white stout, you ask. Well, it tastes like a Pilsner up front and nutty chocolate at the end. Who knew? The one I had was called Casper White Stout from James Page Brewery in Wisconsin, and is a two-time gold medal winner. So before you cast aspersions toward the white stout by claiming that merely adding coffee to a pale ale is BS, know that this beer has been approved by the judges at two pretty good competitions.

Good beer? Check.

The final piece of the birthday trifecta was a great burger. And where to find that, we didn’t know. So my IPA chugging companion polled the staff by asking two bartenders, a waiter, and a busboy.

Both bartenders (one male and one female in an effort to avoid any data collection bias) responded the same: Au Cheval. The waiter was asked. His answer? Au Cheval. Well, you can predict what the busboy said. That’s right … Wataburger. No, not really. He said Au Cheval, too.

The problem, the female bartender said, is that the wait to get a table can be a couple hours long. Two reasons: 1) the space is pretty small, and 2) the burgers are the best in Chicago. The good news is that diagonally across the corner from Au Cheval is Haymarket Pub & Brewery.

We checked out the menu online and found the restaurant had two bugers — a hamburger, and a cheeseburger. Wow, they’ve really gone all out in the creativity department.

It was 5:30 p.m., so we grabbed a cab and headed to Au Cheval. Twenty minutes later we were inside the front door putting our name on the waiting list. And the wait? Well, it wasn’t the two hours the bartender had predicted. It was three and a half. Yikes. This burger had better be damn good.

We added our name anyway, and after walking around the area taking an inventory of all the cool restaurants, bars and brownstones, we ended up at Haymarket, where we found plenty of ways to occupy our time waiting for the summons from the burger gods over yonder.

I started my now three-hour wait with the Defender American Stout, a big, bold beer (7.5% ABV) with a powerful malt kick that perfectly balanced a brewing process that included hops and then dry hops, and earned it numerous gold medals. My IPA sipping friend tried the Toonces #six IPA, the sixth version of Haymarket’s single-hop IPA that the IPAer said was “light and crispy.”

The Toonces IPA and the Defender American Stout, both from Haymarket Pub & Brewery in Chicago.
The Toonces IPA and the Defender American Stout, both from Haymarket Pub & Brewery in Chicago.

After taking our time with those two, and having a delightful conversation with the bar staff, I moved on to the Woot Stout, an impressive Imperial Stout that tasted of roasted caramel and a hint of pecans, one of my favorite beer ingredients.

More delightful conversation with the bar staff ensued. And by the time I’d finished off the stout, my IPA drinking buddy had found a table for us outside in the warm summer evening. But before I could make my way outside, the bartender poured the Cuppa Joe Hill Coffee Porter and gave it to me as a birthday gift. Aww.

This porter is made with lots of chocolate malt and 10 pounds of fresh coffee. You could definitely taste both. But even though each was in-your-face flavor, neither overpowered the other. The perfect present.

Two hours had passed, and we were starting to get hungry when my IPA chugging pal remembered there was a Tex-Mex restaurant on the next block. Perfect. We’ll go there for some chips and salsa, maybe even guacamole or queso, and have that as an appetizer before we, hopefully, eat at Au Cheval.

Two baskets of chips, a plate of guacamole, three servings of salsa, and a giant bowl of queso filled with chorizo later, there was no room for anything else. So much for Au Cheval. So, being full, and having our craving for grease-ladended Mexican food fulfilled for another year, we wandered toward the El to catch a train back downtown.

As we stood on the platform and the train approached, I received a text … from Au Cheval.

“Your name has moved into the top five on our waiting list. Please have your FULL party at the hostess stand in the next 10 minutes if you still want to eat at Au Cheval.”

I wrote back:

“No thanks. The wait was too long so decided to eat elsewhere. Too bad, because we’re really good tippers.”

Guess I won’t be getting a table at Au Cheval anytime soon.

So if you’re ever in Chicago and want a great burger, apparently Au Cheval is the place to go. And if you do go, please do me a favor … tell me how it was.

— Eric Van Steenburg