Thursday, December 18, 2014

Birthday Beer: Shiner's surprising chocolate stout

Image credit: McGarrah Jessee and
The Gambrinus Company.
I guess Forrest Gump was right when he said "Life is like a box of chocolates," since one look at Shiner's latest offering will have you thinking, "you never know what you're gonna get."

The quote is appropriate because earlier this week I received what was, in effect, a box of chocolates from the Spoetzl Brewery and their brand manager McGarrah Jessee. It was a gift of sorts, to help celebrate the brewery's 106th birthday. Of course, one might have expected to look inside and find a traditional German lager, but much to my surprise the contents revealed Shiner's new chocolate stout. Needless to say, based on past history, it wasn't what I thought I was gonna get.

Birthday Beer, a.k.a. Shiner 106, is a limited-edition creation brewed in small batches with chocolate malt and real cocoa. It's the first stout produced by Shiner, coming a little less than three years after the brewery crafted its first ale in Wild Hare Pale Ale, and a further departure from their traditional line of lagers. As for the number designation, in addition to referring to the number of years Spoetzl has been in business, it's a continuation of a series of annual releases that began with Shiner 96.

Samples of Birthday Beer arrived in a gift box, appropriately wrapped in paper with a birthday party motif. An accompanying card, depicted in the image above, described the beer as having "a distinctly chocolate aroma and taste." You'll find no argument here, as a rich cocoa powder character is evident immediately upon opening. This persists throughout the drinking experience, as does an underlying sweetness which is balanced by a hint of chocolate bitterness in the finish. The beer has reasonable body, along with some chalkiness and a fair bit of carbonation, and while I wouldn't call it "stout" in terms of strength or feel, there's a good amount of flavor for a brew that fits right in with Shiner's easy-drinking style.

The card goes on to suggest that Birthday Beer will return again next year, presumably keeping the same name but with the contents being yet another surprise that's "something completely different." If you're a fan of the "little brewery," I suppose that gives you something to look forward to. For now, though, this year's edition will be available in twelve-ounce bottles and cans. Seek it out wherever Shiner products are sold.

Birthday Beer - Shiner 106
Style: Chocolate Stout
ABV: 5.0%
IBU: 18
Malts: 6-Row, Chocolate
Hops: Nugget
Other: Cocoa

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

903 Brewers plans February conversion to cans

Image credit: 903 Brewers

After first packaging its products for retail in 22-ounce bottles, 903 Brewers in Sherman has announced plans to fully convert to cans during the early part of the coming new year. The brewery will contract with Armadillo Mobile Canning for use of their "full-service mobile packaging solution," and in the process it will become the second North Texas brewer to employ the fully removable Crown Holding, Inc. 360 End™ lid.

Jeremy Roberts, who co-founded the brewery with wife Natalie, says the couple always had a preference for cans, but they didn't have the money and fermentation space to make it happen. Mobile canning operations generally require a minimum batch size and 903 wasn't able to meet the requirements with their original setup. Now, as Roberts points out, "the addition of new tanks now makes it possible."

The brewery will first package The Chosen One, 903 Blonde, Sasquatch and Roo's Red Ale beginning in February, with Crackin' Up Pecan Porter, Land of Milk and Honey Stout and possibly others following in March. Roberts expects quick turnaround once they get started, as production should only take about two days.

Also in the works, though it won't be sold in cans, is an as-yet-unnamed beer based on Sasquatch, the brewery's year-round chocolate milk stout. The new version will be even bigger, likely ending up with an ABV of around 14%. Roberts says the plan is to take a batch of Sasquatch and brew it with cocoa nibs soaked in vodka distilled by newly-opened neighbor Ironroot Republic. Roberts hopes to have it ready by February as well, but a final release date will depend on TABC label approval.

2014: A banner year for books on beer

Image credit: Brewers Publications, Schiffer Publishing, Palgrave Macmillan,
Cider Mill Press, Storey Publishing

Call it a holiday shopping list if you like, though it might also be described as a list of the books that have been stacking up on my editorial calendar. It's just the natural order of things, though, for as the craft beer community grows, so do the number of books that get released covering all aspects of the industry. That said, this certainly isn't a comprehensive list of all the books that came out this year, but it's a fair representation of releases I've spent a good amount of time reading and going over during the past twelve months.

As for others worth checking out, homebrewers would surely enjoy recent editions of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing (fourth edition) and The Homebrewers Companion (second edition) by Charlie Papazian, while history buffs might like to pick up a copy of, oh I don't know, North Texas Beer: A Full-Bodied History of Brewing in Dallas, Fort Worth and Beyond.

Either way, there's a little something here for everyone, whether you be a craft beer enthusiast, homebrewer, or someone looking to explore some of today's more unique and popular styles.


American Sour Beers: Innovative Techniques for Mixed Fermentations
by Michael Tonsmeire

Having set the goal to write a book that provides "actionable advice...with all the details in one place," author Michael Tonsmeire has done just that in compiling the current best practices in the still-evolving category of American Sour Beers. He begins with bits of history and terminology, along with some brief coverage on classic commercial examples, but the bulk of the book is devoted to getting you to the point of brewing your first sour beer. To get there, he takes you through the basics of wort production, spontaneous fermentation and aging, stopping along the way to draw upon the experience of industry veterans, many of whom have been brewing sour beers for over a decade. Detailed discussion and diagrams outlining the methods used by breweries like New Belgium, The Bruery, Jolly Pumpkin, Russian River and The Lost Abbey (just to name a few) give readers insights into the pros and cons of processes actually being used in a commercial environment. Homebrewing methods are covered as well, and Tonsmeire provides a set of recipes he's brewed himself, along with variations and suggested alterations should you decide take up the challenge yourself.

Review copy courtesy of Brewers Publications.

Canned!: Artwork of the American Beer Can
by Russ Phillips

Although it would certainly show up in a search targeting "books on beer," Canned! isn't at all about the frothy beverage that ends up on the inside of a can. For author Russ Phillips, it's what's on the outside that matters. As he puts it, consumers can "easily go online and find out...about the beer and...the brewery that produced it." So, rather than a traditional tasting guide built around craft beers packaged in cans, his goal was to put together a celebration of the illustrators and designers responsible for creating each beer's external identity. Canned! takes what Phillips has learned and lays out cans by region, with captions providing insights into the artists and their work. The result is a fun and fascinating pictorial that, despite its topical content, has historical value in that current designs mix with those from breweries already closed.

Available in hardcover.

Malt: A Practical Guide from Field to Brewhouse
by John Mallett

Released just in time for Christmas, Malt follows Yeast, Water and Hops in being not only one of the four fundamental ingredients in beer, but also the final installment in the Brewing Elements Series from Brewers Publications. Author John Mallett delves into the "soul of beer" by first introducing readers to Harry Harlan, whom he identifies as the "Indiana Jones of Barley", prior to taking them on a journey "from Field to Brewhouse," just as the title suggests. Take a tour of the malthouse, and then explore the machinery inside the factory that is the barley kernel as you gain an understanding of what it takes to deliver fermentable components to the brew kettle. As with other books in the series, recalling a little organic chemistry wouldn't hurt, but as Dave Thomas of Beer Sleuth LLC explains in the foreword, "the book flows" through discussions ranging from steeping and kilning to concerns with malt handling, quality and the ultimate milling of the final product.

Available in paperback.
Review copy courtesy of Brewers Publications.

The Craft Beer Revolution: How a Band of Microbrewers is Transforming America's Favorite Drink
by Steve Hindy

Depending on the depth of your craft beer library, you may find much that is familiar in Steve Hindy's Craft Beer Revolution. From my own archives, I noted direct references from numerous biographies and industry related tomes I've read through over the years. What makes this book different from similar accounts of the era, though, is that you're getting the story from someone on the inside. As co-founder of the Brooklyn Brewery and a longtime industry figure, he draws from his own personal experiences to complement interviews and unpublished accounts from other well-known names in craft beer to deliver a history that is both easy-to-read and unique in its perspective.

Review copy courtesy of Palgrave Macmillan Publishing Company.

The Handbook of Porters & Stouts: The Ultimate, Complete and Definitive Guide
by Josh Christie & Chad Polenz

While I'd hesitate to call anything definitive in the ever-changing world of craft beer, The Handbook of Porters & Stouts is nothing if not a comprehensive field guide to exploring the darker side of barley and hops-based libations. In addition to short explorations into the origins of porters and stouts, the authors provide tasting notes on virtually every known varietal of each. Who among you has tried Blind Bat's Long Island Potato Stout (brewed with locally-grown "organic taters") or, for the more adventurous types, Right Brain's Mangalitsa Pig Porter (brewed with pig heads and a bag of bones)? Other beers included among the over 300 covered include well-known names like Dark Lord and The Abyss, along with some that might not be familiar like Old Leghumper, Naughty Sauce and Nippletop. There's even a Temptress, though it's a chocolate porter from Australia and not the one from North Texas. Locals will, however, surely recognize one particular offshoot in The Original Pretzel Stout, from Fort Worth's own Martin House Brewing Company.

Available in hardcover.
Review copy courtesy of Cider Mill Press.

Vintage Beer: A Taster's Guide to Brews That Improve Over Time
by Patrick Dawson

If you've ever wondered why darker, higher-alcoholic beers age better, or why a vintage keg might taste better than a carefully aged bottle, author Patrick Dawson has the answer to those questions and more in Vintage Beer: A Taster's Guide to Brews That Improve Over Time. "Vintage Beer Rules" are provided for those simply looking for a set of basic cellaring guidelines, but Dawson also goes into the science behind these rules to provide interested readers the tools to make such decisions on their own. This is important since you are the best judge of what you want out of the beer you drink. The goal, of course, is to help you to become a more educated beer taster, something he says is "at the heart of every good beer cellar." Later chapters apply lessons learned in segments comparing fresh and aged samples of over a half-dozen world classics, while the book closes with tips on how to design and manage your own cellar.

Review copy courtesy of Storey Publishing.

Monday, December 15, 2014

DFW a first for North Texas brewers

Image credit: Rahr & Sons, Lakewood Brewing Co.

In historical terms, the beer called DFW represents something of a milestone for the North Texas craft beer industry. As to the reason why, the answer lies right in the center of the label. "A Collaboration of Two Breweries," it represents the first such partnership between production breweries, not only in the region, but also in the state.

This joint effort between Rahr & Sons, the area's longest tenured production craft brewery, and the Lakewood Brewing Company, was released to coincide with North Texas Beer Week. "A natural fit," as Rahr & Sons founder Fritz Rahr called it, the coupling was borne during a time when Lakewood founder Wim Bens worked as an apprentice at Rahr prior to opening Lakewood in the summer of 2012. It's something that will continue as well, with the two breweries getting together each year to produce a new and different beer.

Billed as a Belgian-inspired dubbel, Bens supplied recipe elements of Belgian yeast and candi sugar to go along with a blend of malts chosen by Rahr. The resulting beer certainly looks the part of the intended style, being dark amber with, to borrow a phrase from the BCJP, a distinctive "reddish depth of color."

In terms of aroma, there's no mistaking the beer's malt-driven base. A grainy sweetness emanates upfront, backed by a layer of toasted malt and a hint of cocoa. Contributions from the yeast are present, though not overly intense, with esters being more raisin-like than anything else and phenols coming about in the form of a bit of background spice.

It's a similar story in the taste, with a malty sweetness maintaining throughout. The beer finishes smooth, with little or no bitterness and a medium-full body seemingly lightened somewhat by the carbonation level. The latter being just bright enough to enhance drinkability while not intruding upon the flavor.

As for how it all comes together, North Texas' first collaborative brew is mild in terms of both strength, coming in on the low end of the ABV scale for a typical dubbel*, and the overall richness of flavor. That said, there's a nice complexity to the beer, and it's about as easy-drinking a dubbel as you'll find. While it might not pack enough punch to satisfy a big-time beer geek, there's more than enough going on in this beer to make it a satisfying taste experience for anyone looking for a more tempered take on the style.

* 6.4% ABV compared to a range of 6-7.6%.