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.
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:
- Elysian Brewing Co.’s Bitfrost Winter Ale is really just a Pale Ale
- Hopworks Urban Brewery makes the Abominable Winter Ale that checks in at 70 IBUs
- Widmer Brothers Brewing makes a seasonal amber ale called the Brrr Hoppy Red
- New Belgium offers a second hoppy Winter beer, with its Snow Day Winter Ale a “backbone of hoppy bitterness”
- Big Sky Brewing Co. offers up the Powder Hound Winter Ale with its “generous dose of hops”
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.
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.
— Eric Van Steenburg
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.
It’s simple as 1, 2 3 … 4. OK, 5. Maybe 6.
- 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.
- 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.
- Pick an afternoon when almost everyone can attend. A Saturday not during the college football season is usually a safe bet.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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
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.
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.
A total of 12 different beers were sampled. And the winners are …
Gold Medal — Cacao 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 Medal — Can’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:
“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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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:
- Gold — Hopzone IPA (Bozeman Brewing Co.) — Straightforward. Right amount of hops. Delicious
- Silver — Horse Thief IPA (Outlaw Brewing) — Slightly hopped. Balanced. Lite. Yummy.
- Bronze — Lee 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.
- Silver — Antilogy 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
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.
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.”
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
The new checklist for a summer beer festival:
- Wool socks
- Long johns
That should prepare you to comfortably enjoy any beer fest in July.
OK, perhaps I won’t wear all that cold weather gear to the next beer tasting extravaganza in the middle of summer. But it would have come in handy at the last one.
The temperature in Big Sky, Montana, was in the upper 60s when I arrived on site last weekend with my IPA chugging companion. Not bad. It felt like a early spring day.
But three hours later, as we drove away, Mini told us the temperature was 49. I would have guessed even lower.
Blame it on the front that blew through that afternoon. Or blame the high altitude of Big Sky, which is perched at about 7,500 feet. Or blame the thunderstorms that dropped buckets of rain on the place. A quick thanks to P.T. Barnum for inventing the giant tent. Or was it Bailey?.
Well, whomever came up with the idea to hold the Big Sky Brewfest in a couple of large event tents was brilliant. It might not have kept the attendees, volunteers, and brewery reps warm, but it did keep them dry, for the most part.
And for the most part, the beer was pretty good. We focused our attention on the tent with the Montana beers rather than the tent featuring beers from around the United States because we’d tried almost all the national craft beer brands before. And besides, the Montana beer tent was warmer.
One look around, though, and you could tell this was a summer beer festival … not a single porter or stout to be found. Oh wait, there was one. Thanks to the folks at Bridger Brewing Co. for bringing the Ghost Town Coffee Stout or I would have been on an island surrounded by hostile IPA waters. It is one of the best stouts I’ve tasted so far from the Big Sky state.
Despite the lack of my favorites, there were still plenty of malty beverages available. In fact, Scotch Ales easily outnumbered the IPAs. I think Montanans like their Scotch ales. At least in the “summer.” So we split the tasting chores into two camps — IPAs for her and Scotch ales for me. Here are our choices for best of the fest:
India Pale Ales
- Gold — Double Haul IPA from KettleHouse Brewing Co. A nitro IPA that will knock your wool socks off. Smooth and easy drinking, this became my IPA slurping companion’s go-to beer all afternoon. Enough hop bite at 65 IBUs to meet the needs of almost any IPAer, it also checks in at a modest 6.5% ABV. Why not have more than one? In addition to winning Gold from Beer-and-Burgers.com, this beer also captured gold medal at the 2008 North American Brewers Association, which is almost as prestigious.
- Silver — The Juice Double IPA from Madison River Brewing Co. This golden beer has a malty taste at the start that is quickly overtaken by a strong hop bite in the middle and end. No wonder. The brewers use three types of hops and four types of malts to create this delicious concoction that checks in at 9.0% ABV and a whopping 101 IBUs.
- Bronze — Soul Shine IPA from The Front Brewing Co. My IPA chugging friend could only say it was outstanding. Then again, everything we’ve tried from TFBC has been so far. And Joel and Josh from TFBC were great to chat with. Must visit the brewery in Great Falls, MT, sometime.
- Honorable Mention — A tie between Lone Peak Brewery‘s Imperial IPA and their Idiosyncratic IPA. According to the official IPA taster, both were “delicious.”
Scotch Ales/Scottish Ales
- Gold — Mountain Man Scotch Ale by TFBC. This is a delicious blend of caramel, chocolate, smoke (which usually I don’t like), coffee and toffee. A beautiful mahogany color with malty goodness throughout.
- Silver — Big Sky Brewing Co.’s Heavy Horse Scottish Ale. The brewery known nationally for Moose Drool brown ale delivered in a big way with this limited release version of a wee heavy Scotch ale. It is a deep red color with lots ofcreaminess. At 6.7% ABV, you can afford to have a couple.
- Bronze — Among the four beers that Katabatic Brewing Co. had on hand was their Scotch Ale, which tasted exactly the way a Scotch ale should, light and malty. (The others being poured were a Hefeweizen, an American Pale Ale, and Summer Ale, obviously in the wrong place.) By the way, Katabatic is the name for the heavy winds experienced regularly in Livingston, MT. So the front that blew through the beer fest that made me think the tent would come crashing down any minute was nothing to them. In fact, they said “this is a breeze.” To which I replied “Literally.”
- Honorable Mention — Lewis & Clark Back Country Scottish Ale. The beer won a silver medal at Great America Beer Festival in 2014, so it didn’t need another medal from Beer-and-Burgers to validate its goodness. I found it to be crisp without much maltiness. Good for a hot summer day.
Which this was not, by the way. As the thunder and lighting raged above the mountains in the distance, the rain fell in buckets — seriously, the organizers placed buckets around the tents to catch some of the run-off in hope that the place wouldn’t turn into a muddy mess. And, of course, the temperature dropped.
We’d brought jackets. Unfortunately, neither was down lined because, well, who thought one would need a ski jacket in the summer? So when it became too cold for us transplanted Texans, we bailed to the nearby tavern for a plate of nachos to soak up the day’s tastings.
By the time we got to the car and hour later, the temperature was below 50. I knew those seat warmers in the Mini would come in handy in Montana. I just didn’t think it would be in July.
— Eric Van Steenburg
You know how when you read a fortune cookie it’s always funnier when you add “in bed” at the end. So if your fortune read “You are an inspiring individual” you would say “You are an inspiring individual … in bed.” Or if it said “You are good at multi-tasking” you would say “You are good at multi-tasking … in bed.” And you get some good ones like “Everyone knows you are outstanding, in bed” or “You will get a raise based on your performance, in bed.” And so on.
Well, I’ve decided that since I’m new to the state of Montana, I’m going to add “in Montana” to the end of almost everything that I say. Sort of like how in The Office they always say “That’s what she said” a lot of the time.
So today I’m going to my first beer festival … in Montana. It’s going to be at Big Sky Resort, and it will be the first time my IPA-swilling friend and I visit that area, in Montana.
Brewfest 2015 is expected to feature 16 breweries from Montana, and another half-dozen or so from around the country. But really, when you’re hanging out in the mountains of Big Sky and tasting beer, does it really matter how many breweries are present … in Montana?
I’m particularly looking forward to trying craft beer from breweries I’ve never tasted before (in Montana). These include Lone Peak Brewery from Big Sky, MT, UberBrew Brewring Co. in Billings, MT, Draught Works Brewery from Missoula, MT, Great Northern Brewing Co. out of Whitfish near Glacier National Park (in Montana), Flat Head Brewering Co. from some place named Big Fork (in Montana?), Katabatic Brewery in Livingston which I know is just 30 minutes east of me (in Montana), Bowser Brewing Co. from Great Falls, MT, and Upslope Brewing Co. out of Colorado … in Montana.
This is the 10th year that Big Sky has hosted a beer festival, and according to the resort, there will be a band playing soul-funk music, bbq brats, and a burger bar.
So I’m looking forward to my first beer festival, in Montana. Who knows, maybe I will get a raise based on my performance.
— Eric Van Steenburg
Trip completed. Check. Plants survived. Check. Didn’t kill each other. Check. Tried the local beer immediately upon arrival. You betcha.
The trek across the country from Appalachians to Rockies is over. For those of you scoring at home, the numbers look like this:
- Miles traveled – 2,676
- Days traveled – 10
- Days arrived in advance of our furniture – 4 (and counting)
- Hotels slept in – 5
- Tents slept in – 1
- New beers tasted – 21
- New burgers tried – 5
- Breweries visited – 7
- States entered and/or exited – 9
- States crossed without stopping – 1
- Different state license plates seen and recorded – 48
- Most number of states visited in one day – 4
- Times crossed the continental divide – 5
- Former grad school colleagues visited – 2
- Former grad school colleagues not visited who commented on my posts – 2
- Former grad school colleagues not visited who did not comment on my posts – 17.4285 (rounded up)
- Times visited the gym – 0
- Weight gained – 8.17
So, yes, the pants are a little tighter than when we began this little odyssey. But that didn’t stop us from waddling down the street to the neighborhood restaurant the first night in town.
There the waitron took our drink orders – the Hopzone IPA from Bozeman Brewing Co. for my hop-headed little friend and the Cold Smoke Scotch Ale by Kettle House Brewing Co. out of Missoula for me. She then
proceeded to inform us that the evening’s special was a basket of 20 spicy buffalo wings (aside: calling chicken wings buffalo wings is dumb because everyone knows buffalos can’t fly) and a pitcher of beer.
“But that won’t work for you,” she said, “since you two are drinking from different pages.”
Ah, yes, drinking from different pages. Ranks right up there on the list of mixed metaphors I’ve actually heard individuals utter in my presence, along with such classics as:
- “I’ve got something right up your ballpark”
- “We’re just scratching the iceberg”
- “This isn’t rocket surgery”
and the all-time winner:
- “The ink is in the pudding.”
The best thing is, our waitron was exactly correct. We’ve been drinking from different pages for 15 years now, and expect to until one of us drops dead. As I’ve said numerous times, we’re like left hand / right hand. Each one works well independently, but both work better together.
Why should we expect our beer drinking, and burger eating, to be any different? I like malty and sweet, she likes hoppy and bitter. I like ground beef medium rare, she likes chicken sandwiches marinated in teriyaki.
Yet somehow it works, and is probably how we survived 10 days in constant company with one another trapped in a Mini Cooper and surrounded by plants.
I did get a break from IPA-lapping traveling companion the two times I went to baseball games. Or, a more accurate way to say it, she got a break from me.
But we all made it to Bozeman, Montana in one piece – people, plants, and Mini included. Not sure I’ll be able to say the same for the furniture, which is, according to the moving company, still in Virginia.
Upon arrival, we did try a few new beers. She has sampled two IPAs, the Deschutes Pinedrops and the Horse Thief from Sheriff Harry Plummer’s Outlaw Brewing. I, on the other hand, have enjoyed the Madison River Oatmeal Stout and Outlaw’s Pugilist Chocolate Porter.
At the same time, we’re taking in the dry air and cool nights, along with the 360-degree view of mountains. And even though we know we’re in for a long, cold winter, there’s something comforting knowing that a town of just under 40,000 residents has four local breweries, and perhaps up to three more on the way.
Perfect fodder for plenty of posts by the entire staff at Beer-and-Burgers.com. You can definitely count on more to come. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them all, no matter which page you are drinking from.
— Eric Van Steenburg