Best of Craft Beer Awards 2018

This past weekend I returned to the Best of Craft Beer Awards judging in Bend, OR.  This year my wife joined me and served as a steward, helping run the competition.  This event continues to grow, surpassing 2,000 entries this year, and they announced that it is now the third largest competition in the country only trailing GABF and the World Beer Cup.  In 2016, the World Beer Cup had over 6,500 entries, and GABF in 2017 had nearly 8,000 entries.  BoCB has some catching up to do, but still impressive to be third largest.

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Last year it was extremely cold, with 3+ feet of snow on the ground.  Thankfully this year it wasn’t nearly as cold and there wasn’t as much snow.  Although, we did wake up Saturday morning to a surprise of snow on the ground from overnight.  It was only an inch or so, and over the course of the day it melted, but still a bit shocking to see this out of the hotel window.

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This year I judged an interesting range of styles.  Before lunch on Saturday I judged American Style IPA, British Bitters and then Double/Imperial American IPA.  After lunch I judged Northeast Style IPA (new category this year), Brett Beers and then Wood and Barrel Aged Strong Beers.  Needless to say, I was pretty beered out by the end of the day.  Sunday was a much calmer day.  I judged medal rounds for Fruited Berliner Weisse, Belgian Table Beers and Wood and Barrel Aged Dark Beers.  I don’t know if I paid that much attention last year to which flights were preliminary, semifinal or medal rounds, but this year I got to judge at least one semifinal and 4 medal rounds.  When they announce the results I’ll get to see which beers I awarded those medals to!

And of course this year ended again with the granddaddy of all bottle grabs.  All of the leftovers have to be destroyed (they can’t be resold since they are industry samples) and well, nothing says they can’t get “destroyed” in someones belly.  Stewards get a head start to grabbing bottles, so my wife already grabbed some nice stuff before I got out there.  With two of us picking, and more trunk space, we ended up with a tad more bottles than I brought home last year.

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Represented on the table are beers from 14 U.S. States (Mass., Washington, North Carolina, Hawai’i, California, Oregon, Virginia, Nevada, Utah, Texas, Indiana, New York Michigan and Colorado).  Also, two bottles from Bogotá Beer Company which I originally mistook as being from Mexico, but is actually from Colombia.  Very excited to try my first South American beer.

We already have specific plans to share some of this (because no way can we take care of all of it..) including some gluten free beers we grabbed specifically for friends.  Needless to say, we’re going to have some very happy friends in the next couple of weeks! Now, off to go find some room in the cellar…..

Cheers!

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Into the Woods – Part 5

Happy New Year! The holiday season brings out the special beers from cellars and collections and this year is no different.  Cheers to 2018 with these special brews.

2017 Hopworks Kentucky Christmas: The whiskey barrel aged version of their Abominable Winter Ale.  Aromas of dark fruit, light oak, light whiskey.  Flavors of dark fruit, heavy oak character, lingering tannins and a surprising hop bitterness.  I’d prefer more whiskey character, but still good.  (4.5 stars)

2017 Pyramid Bourbon Barrel Snowcap: This year’s barrel aged version of Snowcap.  Aromas of dark fruit, sherry, faint whiskey.  Flavors of dark chocolate, apple, Christmas spices.  Interesting this year, but maybe not quite as good as last year.

2016 Worthy Dark Muse: Barrel aged Imperial Stout.  Aromas of dark fruit, whiskey, faint chocolate.  Flavors of dark fruit, whiskey, brown sugar and coffee.  This was really delicious. My wife picked this up at a white elephant bottle exchange and it was quite a lucky draw.  (4.75 stars).

2017 Anchorage Brewing Time Waits for No One (Batch 2): Port barrel aged Imperial Stout.  This was was pretty interesting, but a little heavy on the port character for my tastes.  Gave it an odd flavor.  Super rich and thick, jet black like India ink.  If you like port this might be for you.  (3.75 stars)

2016 The Breury Mocha Wednesday: Tasted this at a party, so didn’t take full notes, but my first experience with The Breury and this stuff was amazing. Very balanced, coffee not too strong.  The price on their bottles always gives me sticker shock, but obviously some amazing craftmanship going into this.  (5 stars)

De Garde Saison Mélange 3: Blended farmhouse ale aged in Gin and Vermouth barrels.  A departure from the usual stouts and barleywines, but this was incredible.  Very well balanced, lightly tart, good gin character.  I don’t like gin at all, but I tend to like gin barrel aged beers.  Bizarre.  This was one of our blind picks off the beer wall at Brews for New Avenues and it was an absolute winner.  (5 stars)

Cheers! More to come this year for sure.

2017 Beer in Review

There’s still a few weeks left in 2017 but all of the major beer events are over for the year.  Competition season has wrapped up, festivals are long since over, our homebrew club holiday party was this past weekend putting a bow on the club year as well. This past year was pretty interesting when I looked back on it even though some things didn’t go as planned.

Brewing: I didn’t brew as much this year as I have in the past couple of years.  I am brewing today what will be my 8th and final batch of the year, a repeat of my Rum “Barrel” Aged tropical stout.  For comparison, I brewed 12 batches in 2016 and 11 in 2015.  However, what I lacked in quantity I made up for in quality.  As I outlined in my Competition Review post, I managed to win 8 awards with three different beers.  2 Bronze and 3 Silver for my Belgian Dark Strong, 2 Bronze for my Belgian Wit and a Silver for my CDA.  I have some lofty goals for 2018 so hopefully this momentum continues.

Judging: I also didn’t judge as much this year as I have in years past, which was unfortunate but things just didn’t line up as well.  I started the year with a really unique opportunity to judge commercial beers at the Best of Craft Beer Awards in Bend.  My wife and I will be returning to BCBA in 2018, myself as a judge and her as a steward.  Besides schedule, another reason I didn’t judge as much is I got more involved in the administrative side of competitions, serving as Cellarmaster at SheBrew and Judge Director for both Heart of Cascadia and Fall Classic. This year I took the 10 week BJCP styles class offered by the OBC and took the tasting exam in June.  I wasn’t happy with my score, but I did increase from a 68 to a 76 and increased my rank from Recognized to Certified.  I re-took the tasting exam again in November and have not received my score yet, but based on talking to the proctors afterwards I feel really good about how I did.  I’m nervous about taking the written exam, but I am hoping to eventually make National rank.

Travel: The highlight of this year had to be the trip to Denver.  15 breweries in 4 days and that just barely scratched the surface of the beer scene there.  New Belgium was awesome, I can’t recommend strongly enough doing the tour there.  Our friends who we were visiting there have now moved back to Oregon, which is great, but now that means we need another excuse to go back.  Someday, I’d like to attend GABF.  We also visited new breweries in Astoria (Reach Break), Salem (Xicha) and a couple places in Seattle (Reuben’s Brews and 9 Yards).

Job:  June marked 1 year at my job at Portland Brewing, so now I’m at about a year and a half.  Things are still going well.  I’m hoping I might have an opportunity next year to do some Siebel training courses. If I do I’ll be sure to write about it here. I’m still learning a lot and the networking opportunities have been pretty crazy.  I’ve been doing some testing for smaller breweries in our lab and it feels really good to help out other members of the community.  There is really a lot more cooperation for us than competition.  At least in Portland.

Looking Ahead: 2018 looks to be pretty interesting, starting the year out with a trip to Mexico and returning to Best of Craft Beer, then over the summer we’re going to be travelling to Houston to work as volunteers at a large event there and then visit family in Austin, so another “not beer” related trip, but we’ll squeeze a few places in, especially in Austin.  The National Homebrewers Conference is coming to Portland next year, sadly the same weekend that we’ll be in Houston so we’ll miss it, but we’ll get to help with some of the set up and I plan on judging the preliminary round of the competition which will be in Portland this year as well.  Also, next year it’s my wife’s turn on the Board of the OBC, serving as Secretary, so our club involvement will ratchet up yet again after taking it kinda easy this year.

So, cheers to 2017 and here’s to 2018!

Xicha Brewing – Salem, OR

Over the holiday weekend, I had the opportunity to visit one of the newest breweries to open in the state, Xicha Brewing in Salem.  We were visiting friends in town and one of them was friends with the head brewer, so of course we had to check it out.  Apparently, the crew running the place are all West Salem natives and have a huge backing of community support.  They weren’t that busy when we got there on the early afternoon of Black Friday, but apparently most nights they’ve been slammed and it was hopping by the time we left.

They’ve been open less than a month so the beer selection is somewhat limited, but still very solid.  They had five beers on when we were there.  An IPA, a pale ale, an Amarillo dry-hopped pale ale, a porter and a variant of the porter with Hatch chilies.  I believe we tried all of them aside from the standard pale ale.

The beer is solid and I expect it to continue to impress, but the reason you want to go here is the FOOD.  Cooking for them is the owners of Pura Vida Cocina in McMinnville, and it’s really unique Latin and South American food.  It’s similar to Mexican but with some unique twists.  I got Sopes, which was a crispy masa cup with their guava BBQ chicken, black beans, cheese and pickled cabbage.  It was really good and very different than anything I’ve ever had.  My wife got the daily special which was Venezuelan style shrimp arepas, which are a stuffed masa dish similar to a empenada but usually served open faced rather than fully closed (at least the two times I’ve seen them).

They are tucked away in an industrial park, but it’s well worth searching out.  I’m already looking forward to going back.  I literally cannot recommend it enough.

Backstage Pass to Whiskey

This is predominately a beer blog, but I also enjoy other spirits, and had a unique experience last night that I felt was worth writing about.  The McMenamins Back Stage Pass to Whiskey was a private, ticketed event with whiskeys from all around the world.  This was an amazing chance to broaden my horizons and taste a lot of different things.  We were given a glass and tokens to enjoy small tastings (1/2 oz?) of a long list of things, many rare and new to Oregon, and some that they only had a single bottle of. The beer tie-in is that my love for whiskey and love for barrel aged beers go hand in hand.  More and more we start to see wine, tequila and gin barrel aged beers, but the majority of barrel aged beers are bourbon/whiskey barrels.  I didn’t take extensive tasting notes, but a couple of things did pop out at me.

Scotch:

I’m not normally a fan of Scotch because I don’t like the smoky flavor.  I think I’m really sensitive to those phenols, and just don’t enjoy it.   A couple of the bottles they poured last night I could smell them from across the room.  Completely unintentionally, I began and ended my night with a Scotch.  The first sample I had was the Balvenie 14yr Caribbean Cask.  Finished for the last few months in rum barrels this whiskey was smooth and slightly sweet.  It was also not smoky at all, something I had gleaned from the online tasting notes.  The last sample of the night was the Oban Little Bay. This was was also supposedly not very smoky, and it wasn’t, but it was there.  Particularly in the finish.  It wasn’t to the point of being unpleasant, but it was noticeable.

Japanese:

McMenamins has always had a great selection of Japanese whiskys at their properties.  I only tried one last night since the Yamazaki 12yr, Yamazaki 18yr and Suntory Toki I’ve all had in the past.  I highly recommend the 18 year if you can find it.  The one I tried last night was the Nikka Coffey Grain.  I think the first time I saw this I misread it as “Coffee”, and interestingly enough, this whisky is very dark with a very slight roast note to it.  Quite tasty.

Irish:

I’m a big fan of Irish whiskey.  Bushmills is a go-to favorite of mine.  The first one I tried was the Knappogue Castle 12 Year, and it was pretty good, but I think it was a little sweet.  Tasting notes on the website list honey and marshmallow, which normally I would like but it was a bit off putting.  The other Irish I tried was Jameson Reserve Selection Black Barrel.  This one blew me away.  Very smooth, really nice easy sipper.  No one flavor dominated, very balanced. I was interested in the West Cork Limited Rum Cask, but it disappeared from the table so I think I missed my chance.  I did overhear someone say they weren’t impressed with it, but different strokes ya know?

Rye:

I’ve discovered somewhat recently that I really like Rye whiskey.  Sometimes more than their non-rye counterpart.  Buillett Bourbon is a classic, great neat or in a mixed drink, but in my opinion Buillett Rye is even better.  The first thing that caught my eye was the Whistlepig Straight Rye 15 year.  This is a brand I see online very often as trade bait and people in search of, so I had to try it.  It was pretty good, and I could get it here in Oregon, but at $85.00 a bottle, it’s not likely to find a place in my liquor cabinet anytime soon.  Next, I tried McMenamin’s newly released Billy Rye Whiskey, a rye version of their Billy Wheat Whiskey.  It was quite delicious and very heavy on oak and vanilla notes.  Super smooth, easy drinker.  Knob Creek Rye got a turn and it was solid and enjoyable.  Nothing jumped out of me but simply a “Yeah.. I like that” kind vibe.  Most Knob Creek I’ve had in the past has been good. Last was the High West Double Rye.  This was quite good, and very spicy.  It had a cinnamon-like quality to it’s spice.  Another beer tie-in, it took me a bit to realize that High West is the barrels used to make Lagunitas High Westified Imperial Coffee Stout.

Canadian:

I only tried one of the Canadian offerings, and I’m sad to say it wasn’t very good.  The Lot 40 seems to have a lot of praise online, but to me it came off very saccharin-sweet.  Artificial tasting and not a good kind of sweetness.  A friend of mine there, who happens to be an Edgefield distiller, told me Canada allows adding sweeteners to whiskey.  (Wikipedia says caramel color and flavour allowed, similar to Scotch).  Seems like a shame, it may have been pretty good otherwise.

Bourbon:

Not surprisingly, this table had the heavyweights.  I tried three from this table, starting with the Woodford Reserve Cosmic Selection, a special McMenamins exclusive blending.  It was super smooth and rich, very very nice.  More and more I’m seeing these type of special exclusive blends, or single barrel runs, where a certain bar will pick a barrel and then get every single bottle that comes from that barrel, exclusive to them.  Next was the I. W. Harper 15 yr.  I remember it being pretty solid, but not anything that blew me away.  Last was the one that stole the show.  The Bookers 25th Anniversary.  Adorned in gold wax and a red ribbon, I knew this bottle was rare when I saw it, but I didn’t actually know how rare until this morning when I looked it up.  I posted the following picture on Instagram,

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with the caption “Bookers 25yr.  I don’t want to know how much that bottle costs.”  When I looked this morning I realized I had transposed 25th Anniversary and 25 years old.  Obviously 25 year old Bourbon would be something special, but this was a one time release from 2014.  It appears to have been around $110 at release, but now the few bottles that remain are listed from $750-999 on a wine sales website.  Holy cow.  It was good, but I don’t think anything could be a Grand good.  Bookers is another brand I see often in online trades.  It seems to be popular for people how can’t normally get it.

So there we have it, a whirlwind world tour of the world of whisk(e)y!

Into the Woods – Bourbon County Edition

This post has been almost a year in the making.  On Black Friday, 2016, I went to a Goose Island Bourbon County Release.  The year before, I had been to a release, but got there late in the afternoon and all the bottles were gone.  I got to try several vintages on draft, which was great, but I decided that the following year I would head out early to get bottles.  6AM early in fact.  I secured my place in line and with less hassle than I expected (shout-out to John’s Marketplace) I received my allotment of bottles.  Two bottles of the base stout, one bottle of the Coffee variant and one bottle of the Barleywine.  In theory, I could have gone to a different release later in the day and picked up the same set again, but decided that four was enough.  The two bottles of Base Stout fit nicely into my small but growing collection of double bottles for my aging experiments.

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There wasn’t much reason to hang on to the Coffee stout or the Barleywine for long since those weren’t part of the aging experiment, but then we didn’t get to the Base Stout until late February.  Obviously, I’m not going to remember what these beers tasted like a year later, even with detailed tasting notes, but I still think it’s interesting to look back at them.

Coffee Stout – 11-26-16: Super strong coffee aroma, like coffee grounds.  Flavor less coffee heavy, vanilla and bourbon with some coffee bitterness.  Thin mouthfeel.

I remember not loving the coffee variant.  Supposedly it changes every year, so I assume some years are better than others. We popped this one on Black Friday, so maybe it needed some aging to mellow the coffee? (4.25 stars)

Barleywine – 12-31-16: Dark fruit and bourbon aroma.  Dark fruit flavor, alcohol burn.  Thick mouthfeel.  Flavor lingers long on the palate.  Slight smokiness.

Looking back at these tasting notes doesn’t really do it justice.  The Barleywine stole the show.  Tasted side by side on release day I felt the barleywine was even better than the stout.  At the very least, the barleywine was ready to drink that day.  (4.75 stars)

Base Stout – 2-26-17: Sweet malt, vanilla, coconut aroma. Cola, vanilla, coconut flavor.  Light roast.  Medium mouthfeel.  Prickly carbonation.

Base Stout – 11-6-17: Strong raisin/dry fruit aroma.  Light vanilla, oak.  Roast burnt flavor, dark fruit, whiskey burning (aftertaste).  Thick mouthfeel, low carbonation.

Not too surprising results with the aged sample of the stout.  The oxidation character has emerged in the form of dark fruit, while the fresh barrel character (vanilla and coconut) has faded.  The bourbon has almost disappeared as well, expect for in that after taste/throat burn.  I can’t guarantee, since as I mentioned above, I don’t exactly remember the beer itself, but based on the tasting notes and the sensory characteristics associated I would wager a guess that I liked the fresh bottle better.  That’s not to say the aged bottle is “bad” per se… just different. (4.5 stars fresh).

So there we have it.  The slow tasting of the 2016 lineup of Bourbon County Brand Stout (and Barleywine).  2017 Black Friday is a couple weeks away and I’ll be curious to see what the line up is like this year.  Hopefully, the barleywine is just as good and the coffee variant is better.  The base stout I expect to be the “same”.  Supposedly, there is a blueberry and almond variant this year that’s supposed to be marzipan inspired, but I’m not sure if that one will make it to Oregon.  The Proprietors Variant is a Chicago only release. They also have a Reserve Stout, which is aged in 25 year old Bourbon Barrels, but that one is $75 (if I recall correctly) for a 22 ounce bottle, so the only way I’m getting to taste that one is if someone gives me a bottle, or pops it in my presence.

Industry Grumblings

There’s been a couple of interesting stories come out in the last week or so that I wanted to just touch on briefly.  Something is afoot at the Circle K.

First, we have the announcement that ABInBev will no longer be buying craft breweries! Hooray right? Well to quote Lee Corso… “Not so fast my friend!”.  This just seems to be a knee-jerk reaction (remember that lovely Super Bowl commercial?) to the backlash, which was pretty heavy for 10 Barrel and Elysian and then went nuclear with Wicked Weed.  Welp, we tried the whole takeover thing and that didn’t work, so I guess it’s back to business as usual.  Vine Pair touches on it briefly in their article, and I pretty much agree with my friend over at A Pint for Dionysus with his succinct commentary that this is pretty much just going back to the old days of InBev strong-arming distributors.  That’s just what big companies do.  Reminds me of when I discovered the dirty truth about how Wal Mart operates.  You make a local soda brand (not Coke or Pepsi), but you don’t package it in 24 packs…. Wal-Mart calls up and Goddammit you’re making 24 packs! They don’t give you a choice.

Second, we have the announcement that Harpoon Brewing has purchased Clown Shoes. Jeff Alworth touches on this in his blog post (READ HERE) and focuses on how different Harpoon and Clown Shoes are and how they won’t compete with each other, really.  Two things surprise me in all this.  First, I didn’t realize that Harpoon was doing well enough to buy someone.  I’ve heard of Harpoon and had a handful of their beers but they aren’t huge.  They don’t make it out here to the West Coast, that I know of, and they don’t have the same range as a “national craft” like Sierra Nevada or Sam Adams.  The second thing is, I didn’t realize Clown Shoes was not an actual brewery.  Apparently, they contract brew other places, so latching on to a bigger place (that has available tank space) makes perfect sense.  The most interesting angle of this is craft buying craft.  It has a similar ring to it as New Belgium snapping up Magnolia Brewing in San Francisco, although that aquisition was more about saving an icon that was going out of business.  The Harpoon/Clown Shoes merger is more about matching strength and strength.  I’m imagining this is going to be a strategy to combat the multinationals. Form large Craft conglomerates? We’ll see.  The most common comment on the Beervana Blog was “this is going to keep happening more often”.

Next, we have an article from the Chicago Tribune portending Doom and Gloom for American Light Lager.  The really quick synopsis is that Coors Light sales are down 3.4% and Bud Light sales are down 5.7%.  The article claims attrition from craft beer (which is growing) as well as the same “wine and spirits” song and dance that the High End made, but I’m not so sure.  The market as a whole is down, and has been for several years, and who’s going to hurt the most? The #1 and #2 beers in sales respectively.  This seems to be following the market trend as a whole.  While I’d love to celebrate craft beer “slaying the Giant” I’m going to pump the brakes on that.  Seems to be more correlation than causation.

Lastly, we have the Goose Island fiasco.  On October 19, roughly a month before release date (Black Friday, Nov 24th).  Goose Island announced in a blog post (HERE) that the Reserve Barleywine, aged in 35 year old Bourbon barrels, was not being released because it “didn’t taste like what we wanted it to”.  Obviously, everyone quickly jumped on the bash wagon and started yelling about “another infection”.  Perhaps rightfully so.  I don’t know what brewer speak for “doesn’t taste good” really means.  Everybody wants to lay blame on ABInBev, but I think that might be a little naive.  Is this ABInBev’s fault… yes… but only tangentially.  Follow me here.  When AB bought Goose, they bought a barrel program, with the idea to grow that barrel program.  My only experience with Goose is post buyout, so I don’t know how it used to be.  Apparently Bourbon County used to rot on the shelf until someone suddenly made it popular. AB wanted to latch on to that popularity, not surprisingly.  One thing I’ve learned from tours at places like de Garde and New Belgium is barrels are fickle creatures.  They are, quite literally, their own beast.  You’re working with yeast and bacteria and sometimes shit just goes sideways, it happens.  So, AB allowed Goose to expand from (fictional numbers for demonstration) 100 barrels to 1000 barrels, those odds of getting a bad barrel increase 10 fold as well.  This same thing likely could have happened even if Goose was still independent, it might just not have happened as quickly, so perhaps we can say AB accelerated the problem, but not so much “caused” it.  I didn’t experience the 2015 infected BCBS, but one thing I’ll give them credit for this year is they caught it (whatever it is) before release day.  That’s not as bad as rolling out a product and then immediately scrambling to buy it all back.  Also, 2015 was in the base stout (as I understand), whereas this is a one off, really experimental type thing.  To me, that’s not as bad.  This beer was already a dice roll to begin with.  I’m willing to give Goose a pass, but I will be paying attention to how things go in the future.  Hopefully they get it under control.  2016 was my first year going to the Black Friday release for Bourbon County, and I am planning to do it again this year.  We’ll see how long that continues, but for now I’m drinking the Kool-Aid.