Friday, April 25, 2014

Three Bohemian Pilsners (Chuckanut, Hoyne, Ninkasi)

   At the Victoria Beer Week last month, I bought a bottle of Bohemian pilsner at Hoyne Brewing and brought it home, knowing that Chuckanut here in Bellingham was about to bring out the same style. It originated in the town of Plzen, in what is now the Czech Republic, in the 1840s.  Back then, the region was known as Bohemia, a part of the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire.
    Brewed lager-style, bottom-fermented and stored cool for longer than ales, pilsners have become the best selling style on the planet, thanks to industrial brands like Bud and Coors.  Those have precious little flavor,  The real thing, whether brewed in the Czech or the German tradition, is, au contraire, bursting with flavor. Chuckanut has been turning out German pilsner since day one, brewing it consistently and with renown.  That track record won them a deal with the Tom Douglas restaurants in Seattle, to brew a Bohemian pilsner exclusively for those restaurants.  The only other place you can get Chuckanut Bohemian is at the brewery.
According to Joe Wiebe, who writes on the B.C. brewing scene, Hoyne Brewing has been turning out their Bohemian pilsner for several years now, also to much acclaim.
   To run my first comparisons, I took my chilled bottle of Hoyne Bohemian down to Chuckanut when both the German and Bohemian pilsners were on tap, and ordered a glass of each.  It may not be fair to compare one brewery's version in draft form to another's bottled, but until such time as we can have a true international beer festival right at the border, this is the best we can do.
L: Chuckanut German Pilsner, 5.0% abv
C: Hoyne Bohemian Pilsner, 5.5 % abv
R: Chuckanut Bohemian Pilsner, 5.8% abv

Don't compare heads: I jumped right into side by side sips of the two Bohemians, with water and toast for palate clearing, before I addressed the German. Chuckanut's is clearly a little darker. As to aromas--the Czech Saaz hops is renowned for its citrusy aroma and both Bohemians had that, Hoyne perhaps a bit more.  On the tongue, the maltiness was about the same with each,  Chuckanut lists the IBUs, 39 for the Bohemian and 38 for the German.  Hoyne does not put that number out; I'm guessing high 30s again.  This means nice balance, the bitterness of the Czech hops comes through without overwhelming (Hoyne lists them, beside the Saaz, they use Hallertau and Hersbruch and a German hop; Chucknaut's tasting notes simply say they have imported all the malts and hops from the Czech Republic).
   Here's a curious factoid: the plato numbers on the two Chuckanut pilsners were 12.5 for the German and 14 for the Bohemian. Canadian brewers cite their original gravity more than plate; Hoyne lists the OG on its Bohemian at 1.050, which translates to 12.5 plato.  Measured at the beginning of brewing, these numbers are supposed to predict eventual alcohol content.  As one can see, Hoyne's recipe came out a half percent higher than Chuckanut's German, with the same plato.
   My bottom line:  mouthfeel on the two Bohemians was a draw but the finish, the aftertaste on the Chuckanut was earthier, lingered longer.  The biggest difference in recipes I could see was the malts, Hoyne using Canadian barley and Chuckanut importing Czech barley.
   There's more.  Ninkasi, down in Eugene, does a nice Bohemian called Pravda, which is available in 12 oz. bottles in Bellingham.  I went back to Chuckanut, purchased a 500-ml bottle of the Bohemian pilsner and set it up next to my bottle of Pravda.
Again, Chuckanut achieves a darker color than Ninkasi.  Here's how the numbers compare.
Pravda: 5.0% abv, 38 IBUs, OG 1048(=12.2 plato)
Chuckanut: 5.8% abv, 39 IBUs, 14 plato
Aroma was more pronounced with Pravda.  With aroma, more is not necessarily better, and I enjoyed the subtle aromas in the Chuckanut better.
Initial taste:  Pravda malt-prominent.  Chuckanut: I got a tang, a sense of malts and hops in balance.
Mouthfeel: both really lively, a complex package of earthy flavors.  Aftertaste: I felt the Pravda lingered a bit longer, left a keener sense of the malts. Ninkasi appeared to be using similar ingredients, pilsner malt imported from Czech Republic along with Saaz and Hallertau hops.
   All three Bohemians were fine products; I'm happy that I can get Chuckanut's without leaving town.  Clearly, I'm no cicerone but this was fun.
(Tasted April 2014)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Port Angeles--sorting out the Peaks, and Barhop

   Been wondering why the state beer commission's Washington Beer Guide (2014) lists three breweries in Port Angeles, out on the Olympic Peninsula, two of them named Peaks and Twin Peaks,  I traveled out there April 22 and got it figured out.  They're the same people really, Ed and Wanda Smith, who've been running Peaks Pub downtown with a small brewery since 2005.  They opened up Twin Peaks Brewing and Malting Co. in a new location, out by the airport, for a couple of years.  The third week in April they wrappped up a sale of the downtown site to Jan Robison, who is rebranding the spot at the Lazy Moon-a Craft Tavern.
The Smiths have taken the 2.5 barrel brewing system out of this site and moved it to the Twin Peaks space and set it up next to the new 8-barrel system there.
  The Lazy Moon, now a regular tavern, has ten taps for local beers.  Five are running Twin Peaks brews and three of the other five were carrying other locally brewed suds: Two from Dungeness Brewing in nearby Sequim and one from The Hops Crew, also in Sequim. (Dungeness is listed as Fathom & League Hopyard in the WBC guide).

   The Smiths made renowned chili at this location and I ordered some to see if the torch has been passed.  This was a bowl of smokey pork chili, nice and chunky and pretty good.  The pint behind it is the Dungeness folks' Agnew Amber, the ale they call their flagship.  Agnew, I hasten to add, is a little village near Sequim, and the name has nothing to do with Richard Nixon's first vice president.  This amber is made with three hops, the three C's (Chinook, Cascade, Centennial) but none to excess, it comes out at 6.4% abv and just slightly to the bitter side of balanced.
   The Hop Crew is a nano-scale operation that orders in, yes, hops, in sufficient quantities to crank out a high octane IPA.  Something in the 100 IBUs, I was told. I passed on that, this trip.

  I drove a couple miles out of town to where you can see the Elwha River flowing free again, around the dam that was intentionally breached in 2012. The dam was built a hundred years ago, with no provision for salmon to  migrate past it, against the law even then.  Glad I did, because that sets up a couple of the beer names at Twin Peaks, on the way back into town.

This is where the Smith family, Ed and Wanda, son Evan, and brewer Jeff Abbott, are brewing now. Not malting yet, they put that in the name to allow for that option in the future.
The names. Wandafuca is a golden ale, a play on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, that part of the Pacific you see looking north.  Elwha Silt is brewed as a pale ale but is not particularly hoppy; there is a dry-hopped version that does perk up in IBUs.  Bogachiel Brown, Mt. Pleasant Porter also represent local landmarks and those beer styles.  Evan's Last Dam Beer is a recipe concocted when the dam was breached.  I should note that a number of the more popular styles, such as the Trainwrecked IPA, were not available due to the move.

   This is part of the new system in the back of the building.  A fair amount of plumbing and welding remained to be done to integrate the two systems under one roof.  They do some bottling on-site, and self-distribute to various locations around the peninsula.  "Hand-crafted, hand-bottled, hand-distributed," Ed Smith says with a laugh.
   The taproom does not cook food but has nuts and munchies to sell.

   The other relatively new brewery in P.A. is Barhop Brewing, right down on the waterfront, across a street from the terminal for the ferry to Victoria.  The strait is one busy shipping channel, as all the shipping bound to or from Vancouver, B.C., Seattle, and Tacoma must pass this way.

Barhop's brewer-owner, Tom Curry, started commercial brewing behind the Harbinger Winery out toward the Elwha, and moved his 2.5 barrel system into this building (originally a rail-side fruit warehouse) three years ago last December.  Co-owner and taproom manager Natalie White says the entire output of the brewery is needed just to keep the taps flowing here, so they have no off-site accounts and do no bottling at present.  A band is scheduled most every evening in the ample space.

Mainstay beers here include Hugh Hefeweizen, PA Pale, and of course the IPA, here called Fn A' IPA at 6.2% abv and a sizzling 116 IBUs.  I tried a seasonal, Bourbon Porter, brewed to 6.2% also but with a rich malty flavor and light bourbon notes from the barrel it aged in.

   A griller behind the bar can cook up brats and other hot snacks.

(Visited 4/22/14)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Victoria, part II--the downtown brewpubs

  In part I I set out on Joe Wiebe's Victoria beer mile-plus from Spinnakers and went off counter-clockwise as far as Vancouver Island Brewing.  Heading down Government Street from that point, one passes Phillips Brewing, which was not open, and then to the old downtown, the touristy part.
   Swans Brewpub is part of a boutique hotel also called Swans.  The brewery part cannot be seen from the pub, which has a cozy European feel, with both tables and stand up areas and dark wood trim.
I took Joe's published advice and ordered a pint of Appleton's Brown Ale.  I found it a good exemplar of the style, malty, great aroma, creamy mouthfeel.   I wanted to peek at one of the rooms, for future reference, but the hotel was full that evening.
The brewery opened in 1989 as part of the making of the hotel (formerly a feed warehouse).

   A couple blocks from Swans, on the waterfront, the Canoe Brewpub, Marina, and Restaurant is located in a refurbished brick building that originally housed the coal-fired generators that electrified the city in the 1890s.  The marina part means you can look out on the harbor through the masts of moored sailboats while enjoying a pint on the patio.

Canoe, like Spinnakers, does food on two levels, upscale dining down below and the pub, with the big screens on all sides for the hockey games, on the second floor.  The menus disclose that Canoe is a member of the Truffles Group, a corporate entity but one with taste.  The pub affords a glimpse of the brewing system, and the high ceilings with canoes hanging down are dramatic.

The website says the four signature beers in Canoe are a red, a brown, a pale and an ESB.  The beer list in March said that the fourth signature ale was an IPA rather than the ESB.  This IPA is bittered with Australian hops, not something you see very often, but the brewer is from Down Under so not surprising.
  There were three or four seasonals on the menu and I went with a Simcoe Imperial Pilsner.  Not sure how imperial it was, at 6.5% abv and 45 IBUs, but it had a nice lemony finish and a good aroma.

   This wrapped up the beer mile.  I ate at Canoe and walked over later to a beer week event downtown, a combination panel discussion by six brewers, art show of beer labels, and cask tapping.  Discussion was lively, the cask samples were very good, and the label art, enlarged for public display, showed some creative imaginations at work.
Victoria is great fun for tourists of many persuasions, beer tourists for sure.
(Visited 3/06/14)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Victoria Beer Week: Spinnakers and a bunch more

   Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, is only about 25 miles from Bellingham as the crow--or should it be the gull?--flies, but we can't get their beers unless we go there. nor can they get ours.  This spring a range of breweries, among the very first in the craft beer renaissance, celebrate 30th anniversaries, and two of them are in Victoria, which was good enough to throw a craft beer week the first week of March.
    Spinnakers is special because of all the fine breweries in that class of '84 (Pyramid, Widmer Bros., Bridgeport on our side of the line, Granville Island and Vancouver Island Brewing on theirs) it is probably the least changed.  What would you change when you have a million dollar view of Victoria's Inner Harbor, and a beautifully furnished building with a posh restaurant downstairs and a casual pub above.
In Joe Wiebe's Craft Beer Revolution, a guide to B.C. breweries with the best format I've yet seen for books of this type, he describes a walking tour around Victoria's harbor, a mile-plus route that enables the beer tourist to see more than a half-dozen places cranking out the suds. Joe's route ended at Spinnakers, for this post I'll start out there.  With a pint of Jameson Scottish Ale.  Nothing to do with Irish whiskey, Jameson was the maiden name of the wife of founder-owner Paul Hadfield.
   A few blocks walk on a sunny afternoon takes one to Moon Under Water,also a working brewery with a food-serving pub.  Here, I stopped for lunch, appetizers and a pint of Creepy Uncle Dunkel.
At the Moon, my server referred my questions to the brewer and owner, Clay Potter, an enthusiastic young guy who was happy to give me a tour of the works in the back of the pub.  The heart of the system is an 8-barrel brew kettle with mash and lauter tuns, built in Germany for a new brewery going up in South Korea.  The Germans came, got the system up and running and went home after six months.  The Koreans could never turn out good German beer after that and the system ended up on the used goods market.
Multiple batches end up in one of six 20 barrel fermenters (Canadian brewers talk hectoliters, but Clay translated the capacity for me) and one flat-bottomed
open-top fermenter he is using for those Belgian recipes that slurp up yeast from
the atmosphere.  His four core beers are the dunkel I had, a pilsner, a weizen (Clay interned at Bitburger, the big German brewer) and the inevitable IPA.  One seasonal, a hefeweizen in March, rounded out the Moon's own taps.  The other five taps included one rare bird, a "Biere de Vie", described as a smoked salted sour ale, from Cologne and made by the Freigeist Bierkultur brewers there.  Clay's brother is studying the craft in Germany now, hence the unusual import.  I had a taste and it was truly distinctive.

A couple of blocks up from the Moon brings on to two production breweries, almost side by side.  Hoyne Brewing and Driftwood Brewing are so close, in this industrial district, that they share a parking lot.  And over the parking lot runs a pipe that was used in perhaps the most collaborative brewing project ever undertaken.  As Joe Wiebe reported in the latest NW Brewing News, each house brewed a batch of baltic porter with the same ingredients except for the yeast.  Driftwood used an ale yeast and Hoyne a lager yeast. Using the pipe, Hoyne sent its batch across the parking lot to be combined with the ale yeast version in a big tank at Driftwood and kegged off as Rock Bay Mash Up Baltic Porter.
These production breweries fill growlers, and do a fairly brisk business that way, in very limited hours.  Two or three hours on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons was the case at Hoyne.  No tastes allowed.  You could buy bottles at some of them, and I took a bottle of Hoyne's Bohemian pilsner home to compare with the new Bohemian pilsner Chuckanut just brought out.  Tasting notes to be published soon.

   Several more blocks of walking in this industrial part of town takes one to Vancouver Island Brewing, another one of the class of '84 celebrating thirty years of making beer.  This, too, is a production brewery with limited growler filling hours, but it is large.  I failed to record the capacity but it has to be in the hectoliter equivalent of a 50-barrel plant. The look is modern, built in the mid-90s as it outgrew the original plant.
VIB offers tours on Friday and Saturday afternoons which evidently end by the growler station where tastes may be poured.

The balance of my day was spent at two downtown brewpubs and a public event held as part of the first beer week in Victoria.  That will be covered in my next post.  These notes are getting old!

(Visited 03/06/14)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Beyond pub fare: the brewery-restaurant symbiosis (case studies at Chuckanut, Steamplant, Bellevue & Menace)

The State of Washington has--well, had as of last January, more by now--some 219 places licensed to brew beer, according to the Beer Commission's current state beer guide, and slightly over half of them make and serve food on the premises.  Many of those, let's say 130 places, serve basic pub fare, the classic pizza, nachos, wings, burgers sort of menu.  Some try to push the restaurant envelope a bit further and offer a dining experience of some quality.  I propose to look at the synergies between brewing beer and serving up good food in four brewing/restaurant combinations.  Two have been around a few years--Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen in Bellingham and the Steamplant Grill/Coeur d'Alene Brewing in Spokane.  The other two were just born last year--Bellevue Brewing Co. in Bellevue and Menace Brewing in Ferndale with The Local in Bellingham.
Chuckanut opened its doors in 2008, "in the depths of the great recession," recalls co-owner Mari Kemper. "We needed the restaurant trade to keep the brewery afloat in the early days, and vice versa."  She explains that their location was far enough from the downtown that the restaurant needed a curiosity factor like their own beer to bring in customers.  And Will Kemper's lagers and German ales began to catch on in other locations, but it took a few medals from the Great American Beer Festival and other competitions to really get traction.   The restaurant is divided into a pub area, with full view of the brewery across the driveway, and a dining section in the back.
Steamplant in downtown Spokane was just what its name suggests for over 70 years, a big brick building boiling water for steam to pipe into other buildings in the city. Closed in 1986 and vacant for over a decade, it reeopened in 1999 with a small brewery and a restaurant on two levels: a pub downstairs with sports-on tv screens and a casual atmosphere, and a white-tablecloth dining room upstairs called Stacks.  As the Coeur d'Alene in the brewery name suggests, a fair amount of the beer was formerly produced over the state line in nearby Idaho, but as of late all the brewing is done here in a ten-barrel system.
Bellevue Brewing starting selling beer at the end of 2012 and brought the restaurant on line in 2013, in the same newish one-story building a few blocks from the glass towers of downtown Bellevue.  John Robertson, founder and co-owner, is glad they were able to get the restaurant going early: "any brewer who isn't also serving food is leaving thousands--hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table.  Food is the hardest part of a combined business like this, but also the most rewarding."  Robertson mentions the higher alcohol content of most craft beers as another reason for good food in the brewpub: eating slows the bloodstream's absorption of alcohol.
Menace Brewing is a very small two-barrel operation in a business park in Ferndale, about five miles south of the Canadian border.  They opened a restaurant called The Local in downtown Bellingham shortly after kegging the first batch of beer. The name is apt for the location, on Railroad Avenue, five blocks of businesses all locally owned save for one Starbucks.  The restaurant license is for on-premise consumption only; no growler fills.  With ten miles separating the brewery from the restaurant, "we have to keep everyone discussing the different functions, goals, projects of the business," says Tom Raden, Operations Mananger for Menace.
Each of these firms has a lot more people working the restaurant side than are in the back making the beer.  In Chuckanut the ratio is 22/3, in the Menace/Local operation it's 15/1, and at Bellevue the ratio is 28/2.  This is way beyond Mel and Rhoda slinging the hash; it means a big payroll, managing shifts and hours, ordering from a wide variety of vendors, keeping a consistent level of food and service.  For someone who just wants to brew beer, adding food has to be a choice made after taking a deep breath--and then finding a partner who thrives on solving restaurant-type problems.  More than half our brewers took that deep breath and made that choice and  we are glad they did.
  Menus: all four restaurants emphasize local sources and items in season.  Steamplant and the Local create separate dinner menus where the fare transcends the pub concept.  Steamplant's Chipotle Pork Chop, Roasted Salmon, and Black and Bleu Sirloin and the Local's  Carbonade and grilled lemongrass shrimp are good examples.  At Chuckanut and Bellevue, the same menu works all day, covering lunch and dinner.  Chuckanut used to do separate dinner menus, but found it redundant, says Mari Kemper.  "some people would order dnner-type items for lunch, and pizza sells better at night."  The selection is predominantly pub, but several choices--the Brewmaster's Meatloaf, Seafood Scallop Pasta, Catch of the Week--certainly suggest an evening meal.   On Bellevue's menu, the hot sandwiches are clearly the lead.  I can vouch for the Zeppelin, a bratwurst braised in their Scotch Ale.  Everything is fresh and gourmet quality--Bellevue boasts that their kitchen has no microwave and no deep fat fryer--but the choices are not yet in the evening meal range.
Suggested pairings:  Menus at Chuckanut, Steamplant, and Bellevue generally avoid suggesting a particular beer with any given entree, although when a house beer has been used in a recipe, that will be stated.  "We let the servers suggest pairings if the customer asks," says Bellevue's Robertson.  "All our servers have to pass the Certified Beer Server test (the first rung in the cicerone program) and they can make better suggestions after talking with the diner a bit."  At the Local, suggested pairings on the dinner menu are cast in broad and general terms: the lemongrass shrimp "pairs with amber and red ales," the lamb sausage goes with "malty winter ales,"  Chris Guard, front house manager at the Local, says some customers, those who  choose the food first, like to see the suggestions. "We don't sell food here or just beer here, we sell an experience."
  Beer names:  talk about pairings brings up the topic of naming the beers.  At Chuckanut, Bellevue, and the Local, cute names are seldom used, but each house makes exceptions.  Chuckanut has a Yellow Card golden ale to boost the local soccer club, Bellevue has a 425 pale ale (the east side area code), and Menace has a SMASH (single malt and single hop) ale.  But generally, the style is the name.  Chuckanut Pilsner.  Bellevue Oatmeal Stout, Menace Red.  Steamplant does do some cute names (e.g., Double Stack Stout, Big Brick Brown); with their unusual building, who could fault them?  Robertson, at Bellevue, says naming by style rather than naming for some extrinsic thing "helps the consumer focus on the taste instead of trying to memorize some title."
Support for off-site beer sales:  This was the heart of my inquiry: how can an affiliated restaurant stimulate sales of the beer in other outlets, draft accounts in taverns or bottle sales in groceries?  There are other business models, where the small brewery makes enough beer for the restaurant and not much more. The chain craft breweries, like McMenamins, Rock Bottom, the RAM, all operate on this model, where growth means opening more locations rather than outside sales.  Two of the four I surveyed here have a brisk trade in outside sales and the other two aspire to.
Chuckanut has well over a hundred draft accounts, the majority down in King and Pierce Counties, and Bellevue already counts eighty retailers where they have either kegs in the tap rotation or bottles for off-sale.   Steamplant and Menace have, to date, been brewing just for the restaurant, but more of necessity than by choice.  Steampant's manager, Tim Denniston,  says their beer has been "primarily for on-site consumption as we are a smaller, 10-barrel brewery.  However, lately, we are feeling better about our production ability....looking to establish and maintain about  12  off-site accounts."  They hope to grow by selling more beer in those other locations, and  to fill the restaurant spaces before and after the peak hours.  We've all had the experience of eating at a popular spot at six p.m. because it's impossible to get a table at eight.
If a 10-barrel system is small in Spokane, a 2-barrel system is tiny in Whatcom County.  Menace's Chris Guard says they had taps at a couple of accounts a while back, but "it takes all the beer the brewery can make to keep three of our Menace beers on tap here at the Local."  When production can be ramped up, they will hope to see some off-site accounts going again.  "Having a restaurant to introduce our beers to tavern owners is a good low-cost way for them to check us out," Guard continued, "although there's a merchandising aspect to getting those accounts as well.  Tap handles, for instance, we don't have our own tap handles yet."
Special dinners:  Chuckanut does four or five of these  in Bellingham per year and about as many down in the metro area.  "Usually we pick the beers first and then let the chef, Joel, get creative in pairing dishes with them," Mari Kemper says.  Menace just did its first dinner at the local, "quite backwards," says Chris Guard. The chef maid the menu first and then we had to figure out what beers paired best with it."