2010 Holiday Ale Fest Beer List!

The 2010 Holiday Ale Festival begins in just 32 days!  I just counted the list and 46 breweries will be pouring their finest holiday brews.  The ales at the HAF are very unique.  They're not the "regular" holiday / winter seasonals that you'll find at your grocery store.  Most are limited run, or special editions that are produced exclusively for the fest.

This year's festival runs from December 1 -5, so try to find some time to ride the MAX down to Pioneer Courthouse Square and enjoy some holiday cheer!  If you'd like to volunteer, you'll get a free t-shirt, mug, and 12 beer tokens.  If you're interested, you need to sign up quickly.  As of today, the only shifts available are on Sunday.  For more details, check out the HAF website.

The current brewer and beer list (subject to change) is listed below.  Which ales look the most interesting to you?   I can't wait to try Block 15's Figgy Pudding, Fifty Fifty Brewing's Concentrated Evil, and Oakshire Brewing's Very Ill Tempered Gnome (don't know much about the beer, but I love the name).   Which ales are you looking forward to tasting?

2010 Brewery List
  • 10 Barrel Brewing Co
    Pray For Snow Strong Ale
  • Alameda Brewing Co
    Papa Noels Moonlight Reseve Strong Ale (Olde Ale)
  • Alaskan Brewing Co
    Alaskan Barley Wine ~ Vintage 2008 Strong Ale (Barley Wine)
  • Bear Republic Brewing Co
    Ebeweesner Scrooge Sour Ale
  • Beer Valley Brewing
    Ho Ho Ho Slapper Strong Ale
  • Block 15 Restaurant & Brewery
    Figgy Pudding, Olde Stock Specialty Beer (Brandy Barrel Aged Strong Ale with Figs, Spices & Brettanomyces)
  • Boneyard Beer Company
    Femme Fatale Sour Ale ( sour red brown with raspberries and cranberries)
  • Breakside Brewery
    Breakside Belge d'Hiver Strong Ale (Belgian-style Barley wine/Super saison)
  • BridgePort Brewing Co
    Old Knucklehead Strong Ale (Barley Wine)
  • Buckbean Brewing Co
    Very Noddy Lager Dark Lager (Imperial Schwarzbier)
  • Buckman Village Brewery
    TA Specialty Beer
  • Cascade Brewing
    Sang Noir Sour Ale (Bourbon Fruit Sour Red)
  • Coalition Brewing
    Lost Glove Strong Ale
  • Collaborator
    Aegir's Cauldron Smoke-Flavored or Wood-Aged Beer (Barrel aged porter)
  • Columbia River Brewing Co.
    Paddlers Porter Porter ( Chocolate - Vanilla Bean Baltic Porter )
  • Deschutes Brewery
    TBA Belgian Strong Ale
  • Double Mountain Brewery & Taproom
    tbd Dark Lager
  • Eel River Brewing Co
    2009 climax noel Specialty Beer (strong belgian hybrid)
  • Fifty Fifty Brewing Co
    Concentrated Evil Belgian Strong Ale (Strong Dark Belgian brewed with raisins, exotic sugars)
  • Firestone Walker Brewing Co
    Special Barrel Blend Strong Ale
  • Fort George Brewery and Public House
    North the Fourth Strong Ale
  • Gilgamesh Brewing
    Cranberry Saison Belgian and French Ale
  • Hazel Dell Brewpub
    Steins Chrismas Ale Specialty Beer (Dark Chrismas Ale)
  • Holiday Ale
    JIM 2010 Strong Ale (Strong Ale Blend)
  • Holiday Ale
    Moore Holiday Ale Specialty Beer (Imperial Pilsner)
  • Hop Valley Brewing Co
    Festeroo Strong Ale (Old Ale)
  • Hopworks Urban Brewery
    TBD Strong Ale
  • Lagunitas Brewing Co
    Bourbon-Barrel Aged Russian Imperial Stout Stout (Russian Imperial Stout)
  • Laht Neppur Brewing Co
    To Be Determined Stout
  • Laurelwood Brewing Co
    Black Pepper Belgian Pale Ale Belgian Strong Ale
  • Lompoc Brewing Co
    Franc'ly Brewdolph Belgian Strong Ale (Belgian Red)
  • Lucky Labrador Brewing
    Pavlov's Russian Imperial Strout Stout
  • McMenamins
    Parson Brown English Brown Ale (American Brown / Winter Warmer Hybrid)
  • Migration Brewery
    Nor'Easter Belgian Strong Ale (Belgian Winter Speciality)
  • Natian Brewery
    Winter IPA India Pale Ale (IPA)
  • New Belgium Brewing Co
    Lips Of Faith mix of kegs Strong Ale (Various beers)
  • Ninkasi Brewing Co
    Unconventional Stout (Imperial Stout with Lavendar , Taragon, and Heather)
  • Oakshire Brewing
    Very Ill Tempered Gnome Strong Ale
  • Rock Bottom Brewery
    Blitzen Belgian Strong Ale (Belgian Style Tripple)
  • Seven Brides Brewing
    Weezin-ator Specialty Beer (Doppelbock)
  • Shmaltz Brewing Co.
    Jewbelation Blend Strong Ale
  • Southern Oregon Brewing Co
    Mrs. Claws Strong Ale
  • Stone Brewing Co
    Stone Smoked Porter W/ Vanilla Beans Porter (Spiced )
  • Three Creeks Brewing Co
    Rudolph's Imperial Red Strong Ale (Imperial Red)
  • Vertigo Brewing
    Special Chocolate Porter Porter (Chocolate Porter)
  • Widmer Brothers Brewing Company
    Black Dynamite Specialty Beer (Lemon, Chocolate, Peppercorn, Baltic Porter)

11/19:  Click for an updated beer list with detailed descriptions.

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13 New Places to Get Beered in Portland!

Yesterday's A&E section of the Oregonian had an excellent article, written by John Foyston, that profiled 13 new beer establishments in Portland.  It's a long, but great writeup that explains why each of these places is unique and worth visiting.  I highly recommend John's article--you can find it here.  Below is the list of all of the breweries, pubs, and bottle stores mentioned in John's story. 

I just wish someone would open up shop on the west side of Portland!  What's up with that?  Has the plague settled here?  We like beer too!  If anyone knows of any new places on the west side, please let me know!

  1. Plew's Brews  8409 N. Lombard St., 503-283-2243
  2. Cascade Brewing Barrel House  939 S.E. Belmont St., 503-265-8603
  3. Spints Alehouse  401 N.E. 28th Ave., 503-847-2534
  4. Hair of the Dog Brewery and Tasting Room  61 S.E. Yamhill St., 503-232-6585
  5. Coalition Brewing  2724 S.E. Ankeny St., 503-894-8080
  6. Breakside Brewing  820 N.E. Dekum St., 503-719-6475
  7. Apex  1216 S.E. Division St., 503-273-9227
  8. Prost!  4237 N. Mississippi Ave., 503-954-2674
  9. Migration Brewing  2828 N.E. Glisan St., 503-206-5221
  10. Lucky Labrador Taproom  1700 N. Killingsworth St., 503-505-9511
  11. Burnside Brewing  701 E. Burnside St.
  12. Grain & Gristle  1473 N.E. Prescott St., 503-298-5007
  13. The Beermongers  1125 S.E. Division St.; 503-234-6012

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Review: Fireside Chat, 21st Amendment Brewery

Fireside Chat
21st Amendment Brewery — San Francisco, CA

  • Style:  Winter Warmer
  • Bitterness:  45 IBUs
  • ABV:  7.9%
  • Malts:  Pale, Munich, Wheat, Crystal, Aromatic, Chocolate Malt, De-bittered Black
  • Hops:  Magnum, Goldings
  • Special Ingredients:  Spices, Cocoa Nibs
  • Sampled:  12 oz. can  (full disclosure — sample provided by 21st Amendment)

Description: “Like FDR's Depression-era radio addresses, which were like a kick in the butt and a hug at the same time, our Fireside Chat is a subtle twist on the traditional seasonal brew. We begin with a rich, dark, English-style ale and then we improvise with spices until we know we have a beer worth sharing with the nation.  Fireside Chat is our early winter seasonal brew available from October through December in six pack cans and on draft. Brewed like a classic, warming Strong Ale but with a subtle blend of hand-selected spices for just the right festive flair." — 21st Amendment Brewery

Random thoughts:  I first learned about Fireside Chat when I interviewed 21st Amendment's Co-Founder, Nico Freccia.  The beer's description intrigued me and I have been looking forward to sampling it, as well as some of the other winter seasonals that are now available.  On an unrelated note, I really like the design on the can.  Another benefit of cans is that they provide a larger canvas for artwork!
The tasting:  Color was a deep brownish orange.  The tan colored head was creamy, had very good retention, and left a nice lacing on the glass.  The first thing I noticed in aroma was the complex mix of spices.  Although I couldn't identify what they were, they provided a nice introduction to the beer.

After the first taste, I was struck by how well balanced this beer was.  The malts, hops, a mild sweetness, and the kick of the alcohol all hit my palate at once.  After the initial rush of flavor, I noticed the mixed spices.  It also had a sweetness similar to what I tasted in Back in Black.  While I thought the sweetness seemed a bit out of place in Back in Black, it worked well in Fireside Chat.  After it warmed up, the malts were more pronounced.  Carbonation level was good and it had a nice mouth feel.  

Rating:  4 star.  Really Good!  I want this again.   Fireside Chat had everything I want in a holiday beer—a more pronounced malt profile, "warming" from a higher alcohol content, and something unusual thrown in the mix.  21A has just set a high bar for the 2010 class of winter seasonals!

When I review beer, I drink it without eating any food.  I've never been a big fan of "parings" because I think people should eat whatever they want with whatever they like to drink.  I guess this results from my aversion to pretentious wine parings.  But Fireside Chat has me thinking about food pairings as I expect it would go very well with holiday meals. 

Have you had Fireside Chat or any of 21st Amendment's beers?  If so, please let me know what you think.

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Beer Run: Winter Seasonals, Round 1

You've probably noticed the winter seasonals appearing in full force on grocery store shelves.  Fall has arrived in Portland and brought with it plenty of rain and grey skies.  That sets the right mood to transition from the fall to winter seasonals.  I went to New Seasons and selected the first six winter seasonals that I could find:

So, in the near future, you will be hearing about these beers.  When I think of holiday seasonals, I like rich, heavier beers, with a bit of spice or something unusual thrown in the mix.  We'll see if these fit the bill.

I'll review them in the order requested.  So if you'd like to read about one of these first, please let me know. Also, if there are other winter seasonals that you think I should try, please let me know.  I'll try to work them into Round 2.

In case you're counting, only 59 shopping days until Christmas—better get moving!

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Pumpkin Ale Deathmath '10 — The Winner is....

No One!

Only 8 people responded to my survey, so let's just say it's highly unlikely that it represents the population.   :-)

Now it could be that only 8 people read my blog, or perhaps most are just not very interested in Pumpkin Ale (I hope the latter is true).  

When posed with the question "What's THE best Pumpkin Ale", half of the respondents selected "Neither.  Pumpkins belong in pies, not beer!"  I have to tip my hat to these astute readers!  I was not very impressed by either Buffalo Bill's America's Original Pumpkin Ale or Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale.

In all honestly, I was disappointed that neither provided much pumpkin flavor.  If I tasted both blind, I would have thought they were spiced ales, but never would have guessed they were PUMPKIN ales.

As I mentioned in my original post, we had a split decision in our house.  Latha preferred Buffalo Bill's offering, while I preferred Dogfish Head's.  The three readers who expressed a preference all favored Dogfish Head.

However, based on these results, I'm declaring Pumpkin Ale Deathmatch '10 a draw.  Maybe I'll sample a few more pumpkin beers next year.  In the meantime, I'll stick to my favorite Pumpkins.

Review: Punkin Ale, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

Punkin Ale

  • Style: Vegetable Ale
  • Bitterness:  28 IBU
  • ABV:  7.0%
  • OG:  Not provided
  • Malts:  Not provided
  • Hops:  Not provided
  • Sampled:  12 oz. bottle

Description: “A full-bodied brown ale with smooth hints of pumpkin and brown sugar. We brew our Punkin Ale with pumpkin meat, organic brown sugar and spices. This is the perfect beer to warm-up with, as the season cools."  — Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

Random thoughts:   Finally...my first east coast beer!  I've heard a lot of good things about Dogfish Head's IPAs. I decided to try Punkin Ale because I wanted to have a comparison with Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale.

The tasting:  Color is brownish gold with a white head that lingered for most of the drink.  The beer is slightly hazy and there's a fair amount of effervescence.  Aroma is very spicy, with nutmeg and cinnamon.  Taste consists mainly of spices, and I don't taste the pumpkin.  The 7.0% ABV is noticeable, but works well. Body is light, mouth feel is crisp with a fair amount of carbonation. 

Rating:  3 star.  Good.  I would drink this if someone gave it to me.  This beer is similar to Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale in many ways—aroma, body, and taste (lack of pumpkin).  Dogfish Head's description led me a bit astray, as I expected some sweetness and a heavier body.  I didn't get either.  Although I do prefer this slightly to Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin ale, I don't see myself buying it again given the price premium (double the price of Buffalo Bill).
Have you tried Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale or any other good pumpkin beer?  Any recommendations?

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Review: America's Original Pumpkin Ale, Buffalo Bill's Brewery

America's Original Pumpkin Ale
Buffalo Bills's Brewery — Hayward, CA

  • Style: Vegetable Ale
  • Bitterness:  12 IBU
  • ABV:  5.2%
  • OG:  Not provided
  • Malts:  Pale, Crystal
  • Hops:  Nugget
  • Sampled:  12 oz. bottle

Description: “From Buffalo Bill's, Pumpkin Ale is one of the most sought after seasonal beers.  It is believed that George Washington brewed beer using this bright orange squash.  In modern times, Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale is a true original microbrew that uses baked and roasted pumpkins.  Cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg are added to create what has been described as, pumpkin pie in a bottle."  — Buffalo Bill's Brewery

Random thoughts:   While I'm not a huge fan of fruit or vegetable flavored beers, it is fall.  So I figured now's the time to drink pumpkin beer.  After I tasted this, I decided to sample Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale as well.

The tasting:  Color is golden with an off-white head that dissipated quickly.  There's a lot of effervescence.  Aroma is spicy, mostly nutmeg.  I taste the nutmeg as well as some malts, but don't really taste any pumpkin.  Body is light.  It's extremely carbonated and the mouth feel is very fizzy—a bit too much for my taste.  

Rating:  2 star.   Drinkablebut not sure I really want to.  Before I sampled this beer, I expected something heavier in body.  It's supposed to taste like a pumpkin pie, right?  But my biggest issue was that I just couldn't taste the pumpkin.  When combined with the high carbonation, I'd pass if I had the chance to drink this again.

Have you tried Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale or any other good pumpkin beer?  I'm looking for something more medium to heavy bodied.  Any recommendations?

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Brewer Profile: 21st Amendment Brewery, Part 3

Part III:  Interview with the Chief Watermelon Officer

In Part I of our interview, Nico Freccia, Co-Founder of 21st Amendment Brewery, told me about 21A's philosophy and how they've pushed the envelope with their beer.  In Part II, we talked about making the leap from small brewpub to major distributor.  In the final part of our interview, Nico reflects on 10 years in the craft beer business.

It sounds like 21A has been growing very rapidly.  How much beer did you produce last year, and what do you expect for '10 and '11?

At our pub we routinely do 800-1,000 barrels per year, all sold over the bar. For distribution, we did 4,100 barrels in 2009 and will do close to 14,000 in 2010 (at close to 300% growth this year, I think this puts us in the top 5 fastest growing breweries by percentage in the country).  We expect to hit 20,000+ barrels for 2011.

Looking back 10 years, did you expect 21st Amendment to be where it is today?

No. Shortly after opening we were dealing with the dot com crash and then a severe recession. We were just worried about keeping the doors of the pub open. It took many years for things to stabilize and the neighborhood to grow up around us. When we decided to launch our beers in cans and distribute more widely, in 2006-2007, we had no idea what to expect. I suppose we expected it was just as likely that it would be a big flop as a success. We didn't realize we were hitting what has been touted as the beginning of a massive shift and significant growth spurt for the craft beer industry.

What have been your biggest challenges and joys in building a business from the ground up?

He wears it well.

Opening the brewpub was a dream. I had been working in restaurants for about 15 years and running them for other people. It was a huge challenge to raise the money and get the place open, but I was driven to run my own place and stop working for other people. For years, though, we lived on the precipice of disaster...every night going to bed worrying about whether we could keep the doors open the next day.

With the production business, there was a whole new set of challenges. We were basically restaurant people and small brewers moving into a whole new realm of sales and marketing. Shaun and I used to joke that we could open a women's hat shop for all we knew about running a production brewery business. But you figure it out and surround yourself with great people and I think growing as a production brewery has been really fun and fulfilling. Plus, we kept the two businesses (pub and brewery) separate so we're at least not always worrying about the whole thing coming crashing down all the time.

Looking out 10 years from now, what do you expect 21st Amendment will look like?

I just hope we'll still be making good, interesting beer and having fun with it.

The 21A team collecting Great American Brewfest bling for Hop Crisis!

I have no doubt about that!  I'd like to thank Nico for being so generous with his time.  I'm a new blogger and was thrilled when he agreed to meet me for an interview.  I really enjoyed our discussion and learned a lot about the craft beer business.  Can't wait to try your new beers.

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25 Beer Reviews: A Wordle Retrospective

In a little over two months, I have formally reviewed 25 beers.  You can see all of the reviews by clicking here.  I've tasted quite a few more, but never got around to writing the all of the reviews.

So to celebrate this mini-milestone I thought it would be fun to look at the all of the reviews I have written, and create a "word cloud" that shows which words I used most often.

I used a free web tool called Wordle (http://www.wordle.net/).  It's really easy and fun to use.  I just copied and pasted all of the text from my reviews into Wordle and it cranked out the chart below in just a few seconds.

The words in the biggest font are the ones I used most often--works like beer, ale, hops, aroma, style, etc.  Nothing too out of the ordinary for a guy who blogs about beer.  Fortunately for me, words like nasty and swill didn't float to the top. 

Looking forward to the next 25 reviews.  Cheers!

My Favorite Beer Blogs

I've only been beer blogging for a few months, but I've quickly learned one thing--Portland beer bloggers are a tight knit group of very cool people.  They are all seek to advance the cause of their passion (craft beer) and are very supportive of each other.  So I wanted to share the list of blogs that I like to read.

I'm adding a new blog list to my website.  It will list each of these blogs, as well as the title and date of their latest post.  You'll see it on the right side of the screen.  Take a look at their work.  I think you'll enjoy it.

Although Portland has a quite a few beer bloggers, I think you'll quickly see that we all have our own style and approach to covering our favorite subject.  Enjoy!

Brewer Profile: 21st Amendment Brewery, Part 2

Part II:  Interview with the Chief Watermelon Officer

In Part I of our interview, Nico Freccia, Co-Founder of 21st Amendment Brewery, told me about 21A's philosophy and how they've pushed the envelope with their beer.  Next, I wanted to explore how they made the leap from small brewpub to major distributor...

You distribute to roughly 15 states—mostly to the coasts with a few states in the middle.  How do you decide where to distribute, and where are you going next?

In San Francisco, we have a brewpub near the ball park.  All the beer sold at the pub is draft, and we can barely make enough to supply the pub.  When we started looking at distributing canned beer, we considered expanding our brewery, but it was cost prohibitive.  So we looked for a partner that we could work with to brew, can, and distribute our beer.  We couldn’t find anything in California that worked for us.  So we looked out of state and found the Cold Spring Brewery outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  It’s a family-owned, regional brewer with a large brew house and a high speed canning line.  They let us come in with our own recipes and ingredients and brew our beer using their equipment.

So we have a brewery in San Francisco that serves our pub and restaurant.   It’s our experimental lab where we brew our beer for the first time, test, and perfect them over the years.  Then we work with our partner brewer, Cold Spring, to brew on a large scale, package, and distribute.   All of the 21A beer you see in Portland (draft and cans) comes from Minnesota.   

Back to your original question, we distribute to the east because it’s cheaper for us to ship there than to the west.  We constantly get calls from distributors around the country asking for our beer.  There’s a huge demand for craft beer, especially in the southeast and we’d love to go there eventually.   We’re small, but growing rapidly and it’s important for us to carefully manage our growth and ensure our beer is the best it can be.   

Is it OK if I mention that you use a partner brewer?  How do you ensure quality when working with another brewer?

Absolutely!  Some craft beer geeks and purists may look down their nose at those who don’t brew in their own building.  But look at Samuel Adamsfor their first 20 years, they brewed in other people’s factories and made some of the best beer in the business.   

We don’t just fax our recipe to Cold Spring and tell them to brew it for us.  Shaun O’Sullivan goes out to Minnesota at least one week a month to oversee brewing and canning.  Shaun is actually out at Cold Spring today brewing Monk’s Blood.  He trained some of Cold Spring’s brewers to make our beer just as we would at our pub in San Francisco.   We’re very proud of this.

I think we’re at the beginning of a trend where more brewers will do some or all of their production in partnership with others.  For example, New Belgium brews for beer for Elysian (from Seattle).   There are a lot of benefits.  Both brewers can produce beers for each other's markets, while dramatically lowering costs and reducing their overall environmental footprint.   Brewery expansions are very expensive, so partnering makes a lot of sense.

So what beers can we expect to see next?

Hop Crisis! will be released this spring as part of our Insurrection Series, which is our limited edition line.  These are beers we release once in while—beer that’s fun and different.  Monk’s Blood was the first Insurrection release.   

We learned that Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer works best as a summer seasonal, so it will only be available from April – September.   Back in Black will take its place as a year-round beer, along with Brew Free! Or Die IPA.

We’re excited to release our first winter seasonal, Fireside Chat.  It’s a lightly spiced English-style Strong ale (7.9% ABV) with a hand selected blend of spices that adds a subtle aroma and flavor.  The spices are very light and accentuate the mild hop bitterness and the richness of the malts.   We’ve been brewing it at our pub for 10 years and it has been a customer favorite.  It also won a medal at the Great American Beer Festival five years ago in the Spiced Ale category.  Fireside Chat should arrive on the shelves of your better beer stores during the week of October 25. 

Monk’s Blood will be on shelves in mid-December for a limited time.  Next year, we expect to have five canned beers in regular rotation, along with two limited releases, plus our draft series.   

In Part III of the interview, Nico reflects on 21st Amendment's first decade in the beer business.  Stay tuned!

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1st Annual Beer Bloggers Conference

A conference for Beer Bloggers?!?  What exactly would they do (other than drink beer)?

While tasting beer is a fine reason to hold a conference, those questions came to mind when I read about the 1st Annual Beer Bloggers Conference, being held November 5-7 in Boulder, Colorado. 
However, after looking at the agenda, I was intrigued.  So I decided to take a day off of work, fly out to Boulder, and spend the weekend at the conference.  I think the organizers have planned an exciting event (agenda shown below), with excellent topics and interesting speakers.  A very impressive feat for the 1st year!

I'm especially excited about the "field work", which includes visits to Oskar Blues Brewery and Boulder Beer Co.  Oskar Blues is a pioneer of canned craft beer.  I have a can of their Old Chub Scotch Ale in my fridge.  I'll try to review it before the conference begins.  Boulder Beer is the maker of Hazed & Infused, which is one of two beers to get my 5 star rating. 

However, I do have a “homework” assignment.  Each blogger will bring a six-pack to share. We will then sample the various beers and write (or tweet) about them.  Now that's my kind of homework!

So I need your suggestions.  What beer should I bring?  I want to take an Oregon beer (available in bottles or cans) that isn't readily available around the country.  Do you have any ideas?  If so, please share using the comments section.

On a related note, I'm starting to explore Twitter and might experiment with some live blogging at the conference!  So if you want to hear my tweets, you can follow me at  http://twitter.com/NotSoProBeer   

Brewer Profile: 21st Amendment Brewery, Part 1

Part I:  Interview with the Chief Watermelon Officer

After one taste of Back in Black, 21st Amendment Brewery shattered my misguided notion that canned beer is bad beer.  Then, when I learned that Men’s Journal Magazine named Back in Black one of the BEST 25 BEERS on EARTH, it became my mission to learn more about the maker of this sublime brew.   To my surprise and delight, I landed an interview with Nico Freccia, the Co-Founder and CWO (Chief Watermelon Officer) of 21st Amendment Brewery.  We had a fun discussion that went something like this…

How did you earn the title of Chief Watermelon Officer?

We’ve been brewing a Watermelon Wheat beer at our pub for 10 years.   It’s an American style wheat beer that we ferment with 100% fresh watermelon.  It’s a crisp, refreshing, tart wheat beer with a kiss of fruit in the finish. 

When we first started distributing beer three years ago, we thought it would be the perfect beer to launch in a can.  So we renamed it Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer and released it along with Brew Free! Or Die IPA as part of our launch into broad distribution.

My business partner, Shaun O’Sullivan, and I like to have fun with whatever we do.  So instead of giving ourselves traditional stodgy titles like CEO or Brewmaster, we decided to call ourselves the Chief Watermelon Officer and Chief Hophead to help promote our beer. 

We also learned very quickly that wearing silly watermelon hats and costumes is a lot fun and gets attention. So we usually have a posse of five people walking around beer festivals wearing watermelon clothing while singing a watermelon song.

We’re now brewing a lot of different styles, so I may re-think my title.  But it was fun while it lasted.

21A crew at Oregon Brewers Fest.  Nico at left. Shaun at right.

What is your brewing philosophy?

The philosophy for our company and beer is about pushing the envelope and doing things differently.  We try to be trailblazers instead of followers. 

Take canned beer.  Two years ago, when we started distributing beer, cans were very new.  Only a dozen craft brewers were canning at the time.  When Shaun first approached me about canning beer, I thought it was the dumbest idea I had ever heard.  People’s perception was that canned beer equals crappy beer—cheap, light, industrial lager.  So we faced an uphill battle to educate consumers.  But once we researched the benefits, we realized canned beer was a no-brainer because it makes so much sense on so many levels. Today, there are about 100 craft brewers that can their beer.

How have you pushed the envelope with your beer?

Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer supports that notion.  It started out as a homebrew experiment before we opened the pub.  I always enjoyed fruit beer but found that I could only drink one due to the sweetness.   So I thought it would be fun to make a fruit beer that you could drink as a session beer.  Initially, I didn’t think watermelon would work due to the high water content.  But I found that the yeast worked very well with the watermelon sugar and we actually ended up with a beer that was drier than the wheat-only version.  So instead of being sweet, cloying, and sticky on your tongue, we had a light, refreshing beer.   

When we thought about what our next canned beer would be, we wanted to make a bold statement that would totally blow people’s minds. So we decided to brew a strong, dark Belgian style beer with a traditional Belgian abbey yeast—and put in a can! 

So Shaun and I travelled to Belgium and visited a number of breweries.  We found a local brewer and made a pilot batch of beer.  Aside from Belgian malts, we used a ton of Belgian candi sugar and cinnamon in the mash.  Then we added whole vanilla beans, dried black mission figs, and aged it in oak.  We came back to the States last year, brewed the beer and called it Monk’s Blood.  We released it in December '09 in limited quantities in a special 4-can pack and it sold out in 60 days.

Another example of pushing the envelope occurred three years ago when we had a massive world-wide hop shortage.  Hop prices went from $8 a pound to $25-$30, almost overnight.  Brewers couldn’t get hops unless they had contracts.  It became very difficult for small brewers to brew the styles of beer that they wanted to make.  We had the same problems.  But instead of whining about it, we responded by making the biggest, hoppiest, craziest, double IPA that we could think of and we called it Hop Crisis! which recently won a silver medal at the Great American Brew Fest. 

Back in Black is another example.  Black IPA (or Cascadian Dark Ale), is a style that is gaining traction but there really isn’t a definitive example of how the style should taste.  Very few brewers were making Black IPAs on a year-round basis.  We wanted to establish a benchmark of the style and make it year-round.   IPA lovers like Back in Black because it offers something new.  It doesn’t beat you over the head with hops.  It has hop aroma and bitterness but also adds something different in the malt character.

People who don’t like the scraping bitterness of IPAs enjoy Back in Black because the addition of roasted malts gives it a smoothness to character and flavor.

We're all about pushing the boundaries of style and turning people’s notions on their ears.  This is the beer business.  We’re not building rocket ships or making baby formula.  At the end of the day, if you can’t have fun, there's no point in doing it.

In Part II of the interview, Nico tells the story of how 21st Amendment made the jump from small brewpub to the big leagues of major distribution.  Stay tuned!

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