on tap

The Bozeman IPA Challenge

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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

What’s a Few Billionth Among Friends?

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One thousand millionth.

Or 10−9 if you prefer.

You probably know it best as 0.000000001.

It’s obvious I’m talking about a nano. And it appears that in addition to the length your fingernail grows in one second (that’s actually a nanometer), it’s also a size of a brewery.

But just like everything else nano — nanometers, nanotechnology, nano nano — you must look extra carefully to find it.

Thai Me Up in a restaurant in downtown Jackson, WY. It also is the front to a nanobrewery called Melvin Brewing Co. that makes outstanding craft beer.

Two flights from Melvin featuring IPAs in the front, and Stouts/Porters in the back.
Two flights from Melvin featuring IPAs in the front, and Stouts/Porters in the back.

So what classifies it as a nanobrewery? I don’t know exactly, but it must do with the amount beer brewed (probably barrels) in a certain period of time (probably a year). According to the U.S. government’s Department of the Treasury, a nanobrewery is a “very small brewery operation” that produces beer for sale. Oh really?

That means you likely won’t find Melvin Brewing’s beers in any other place than this Thai restaurant in Wyoming. But it’s definitely worth searching for.

When we stopped by, Melvin had 18 different beers on tap. Being a nanobrewery, though, it doesn’t take much for one of the flavors to disappear. But with so many options available, even if they kick a keg or two, there’s still an excellent chance that something will be on tap that you will enjoy.

For my IPA slurping road buddy, three of those hopped-up delicacies were there for the taking, as was a couple of pale ales. With my penchant for porters and stouts, I found plenty of each on the list to satisfy my malt tooth.

How good are the IPAs? Well, the 2×4 is a Gold Medal Winner at a really impressive craft beer competition. I can’t remember now which one. But trust me, it was impressive. This double IPA is everything a DIPA should be. Which means a nice balance of malt to counteract the extensive amount of hops. Unfortunately for my hop head, that’s too much malt for her bitter-beer preferring palate. The Einstein Pale Ale was, well, a pale ale. That is to say it wasn’t hoppy enough for her.

That left the two “real” IPAs in the middle of her tasting row. As it turned out, one was excellent, while the other was “unfinishable” (her word). So if you have the opportunity to choose between the GCM or the Hubert, go with the latter. While the GCM had all the standard IPA requirements, it contained an additional flavor that she described as a combination of grapefruit and Listerine. The Hubert, on the other had, was the perfect IPA in every way. Smooth at the start, bitter at the finish, and checking in at just 6% ABV and 35 IBUs. This is the award-winner of the future.

On my side were the Bis Spaterator Dopplebock, the Charlie Murphy (Nitro) Porter, the EZE Imperial Porter, and a Coffee Ruckus Imperial Stout. I saved the Imperials for last and started with the Dopplebock, which our waitron said was her favorite beer of all Melvin’s efforts. I heartily agree with her assessment. The Bis Spaterator is packed with malty goodness with hints of caramel throughout the taste. A winner.

The Charlie Murphy did nothing for me. For a porter, it was rather thin. And it didn’t have much in the way of any sweet flavor that I expect in such a brew. On to the Imperials.

I rather enjoy drinking a quality porter like the EZE while looking at the mountains.
I rather enjoy drinking a quality porter like the EZE while looking at the mountains.

The EZE — a beer named after me — was the exact opposite of the Charlie Murphy. Full of semi-sweet chocolate and hazelnut flavors that don’t overpower as to detract from the beer, it packs a punch at 11.2% ABV. Same with the Coffee Ruckus. It checks in at 13%. But the difference is the Ruckus is all about amplifying the flavor. After dinner, the Ruckus might be a good choice for the non-coffee drinker who wants an alcoholic coffee. It also contains the chocolate flavor that its brother the EZE has, but again, the Ruckus makes it loud and proud. Not tonight.

So I ordered a glass of the EZE, and my IPA navigator settled in for a pint of the Hubert. Excellence abounded.

Next time you’re in and around Yellowstone National Park, take a side trip to Jackson Hole and search for the nanobrewery behind Thai Me Up known as Melvin Brewing Co. You will be rewarded for your effort.

And in the future it might be easier to find Melvin. I hear he might be getting a field promotion to microbrewery.

— Eric Van Steenburg

A Brewery on Every Corner

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In Beervana, there’s a brewery on every corner of every street in every town. I think Fort Collins is trying to make Beervana a reality.

As we made our way north from Denver on Sunday afternoon, we still weren’t sure whether to visit New Belgium Brewery or Odell Brewing Co. But once we got closer to Fort Collins, the choice was obvious — first one, then the other.

Since we’d tried, and enjoyed, numerous New Belgium beers in the past, our plan was to visit Odell Brewing first and see what was available to taste. If we found some beers we really liked and knew we couldn’t get elsewhere, we would stay. Otherwise, we’d head over to NBB to taste what they had on tap.

No one told us that we’d have to pass two more breweries just to get to Odell. And that we’d pass those two again on our way to New Belgium.

The Classic Tray at Odell Brewing was mostly pale ales.
The Classic Tray at Odell Brewing was mostly pale ales.

The first brewery we saw as we neared our destination was Fort Collins Brewery. We couldn’t stop, though, because we had a preliminary visual on the Odell taproom, and we were on a mission. The taproom at Odell’s was hoppin’ with lots of people getting flights. They had three options from which to choose that seemed rather randomly compiled. For example, a flight with the only malty beverage on tap also featured two IPAs. So I went with a single pour of the Cutthroat Porter (they had a pilot nitro version of the porter, but I stayed traditional), while my IPA slurping traveling companion chose the Classic Tray, which included the Loose Leaf American Pale Ale, Easy Street Wheat, Levity Amber Ale, 5 Barrel Pale Ale, and the 90 Shilling Ale.

The Cutthroat hints of chocolate and cocoa, sits up nicely in the glass, and is smooth going down. In hindsight (which mine is 20/15) I should have tried the nitro version also. Meanwhile, the IPAer preferred the 5 Barrel Pale Ale among the choices she was given. No surprise there, since Odell puts one batch of hops in the fermenter, and add four more batches of hops in the boil.

Even though the patio at Odell Brewing was spectacular — tables with umbrellas, trellises covered with vines and flower pots, stone walls for seating, and lots of dogs — none of the beers really knocked our socks off, so we headed toward New Belgium. To do so, we had to drive back past Fort Collins Brewery and turn the corner … where we immediately saw Snowbank Brewing. No time to stop, though, because not only did we have New Belgium in our sights, but we still had to make it to make it all the way to Wyoming by sundown.

Tasting the IPAs on tap at New Belgium.
Tasting the IPAs on tap at New Belgium.

New Belgium Brewery was on the third corner in this block as Fort Collins attempts Beervana. The taproom and patio area were much smaller than Odell’s, but it seemed all about the beer here.

Because it’s summer, there’s usually not many options for brews in my sweet spot — porters and stouts. New Belgium had just one, the Cocoa Mole, which I was first introduced to several months ago by D.J. at Cap Ale. Thanks, D.J. This tasty beverage is a porter with spice, as in spicy, not holiday. When you drink it, you get a spicy kick at the end of the taste. As interesting as it is delicious.

For the hop chugger, three different IPAs were on tap, so she sampled them all. Collusion Cacao IPA, the Hop Tart, and the Liquid Center Surprise. The Hop Tart was too sour for either of our tastes, but was surprisingly better when it followed a sip of the Cocoa Mole. The other two IPAs were delicious, she reports. That is all.

Getting a tour of New Belgium is next to impossible (check out their tour schedule calendar if you don’t believe me). So we took the self-guided tour, which included the bicycle gear crank for a pen holder, and bicycle rims for bathroom mirrors. Great branding.

And now, off to Laramie for our first venture ever into Wyoming.

— Eric Van Steenburg