Illuminator V

For the fifth year in a row, Eric Sorensen of Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewing in West Des Moines and I tapped our Lenten collaboration beer, Illuminator Doppelbock.

Brewed on Jan. 7, this year’s version (we’ve played around with the recipe each year) of our award-winning beer was little changed from the basic grain bill used last year (Munich, Vienna, melanoidin, Carafa III and a touch of acidulated malt), though we lowered the ABV to right about seven percent (how do you like the way I utilized parenthesis three times in one sentence?).

Blazingly packed with bread and dark fruit, last year’s 8.5 percent offering almost felt too big, and if I were a little golden-haired (21-year-old) girl checking stuff out in a cottage, I think this year’s offering is awfully close to “just right” for what I look for in a doppelbock.

Again this year, we’ve managed to procure whiskey barrels for aging, so be on the lookout for the Barrel Reserve Illuminator V in a few months.

Wanna learn more about this beer or the history of the doppelbock style of beer? Check out my book, Diary of a Part-Time Monk.

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Illuminator V is on the way

According to the calendar, it’s time to put a lager in the tank—a very special lager. If my award-winning  Illuminator Doppelbock is to be ready for its Fat Tuesday release on Feb. 17, Rock Bottom’s Eric Sorensen and I were meant to get crackin’.

And crack grain we did last Wednesday (followed by steeping it in hot water, boiling the sweet result, and pushing it over to the old fermenter for the yeast to do its noble work). Once again, we tweaked the recipe ever so slightly. This year’s iteration was scaled back to 7.3 percent alcohol by volume (from something light 8.5), and we pulled back our Carafa addition to lighten up the color just a titch (as my old reading teacher Mrs. Jones [who likes beer (especially IPAs) it turns out] would have said back in junior high).

In addition to having the opportunity to try the beer that I once fasted on for 46 days during Lent of 2011, the release party will feature Rock Bottom’s annual crawfish boil as well as my “doppelwort” ice cream for dessert.

Want to join us? The party kicks off at 6 p.m. on Feb. 17 at Rock Bottom, located at 4508 University Avenue in West Des Moines. This shindig is popular, and so it would be wise to call for a reservation at (515) 267-8900.

BONUS INFO:

This year’s batch included Munich 30, Munich 10, Vienna, Melanoidin and Carafa III malts, was hopped with charges of Columbus and Hersbrucker, and started at 20 degrees Plato.

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Awestruck by Moonstruck

It is, indeed, ridiculous that it’s taken me several years to drag myself to Bellevue, Nebraska’s Moonstruck Meadery. It’s only a little more than an hour’s drive away and with a gluten-free wife living the beer-free life, I’m simply embarrassed by my lack of honey-driven travel for my thirsty honey.

In addition to an assortment of appetizers and pizzas, Moonstruck serves up a stable of delicious meads, including Show (“regular”), Plum, Cherry, Peach, Blueberry, Blackberry, Capsumel (pepper), Hoppy, Strawberry and Cyser (apple). We tasted them all and could see why they’ve taken so many awards and had one called the best tasting mead in the world (Capsumel). Let’s talk about that one, then:

Yummy. Laced with a blend of Serrano, Jalapeño and Anaheim chilis, this one has a fresh pepper nose without being too hot on the palate. Really well done, I’d say, but I wouldn’t sit around drinking it by the carload. The hoppy mead was hit with a combination of Hallertau and Cascade hops, and was enjoyable for a crossover beer guy like myself. I’ve got a hoppy mead of my own on tap at the house (El Dorado and Sorachi Ace in mine) and it was fun to notice the difference in the two meads.

I picked up a little oxidation in the strawberry mead, the only offering that I wouldn’t rate as wonderful. I was struck by how wonderful all the rest were, and I’d highly recommend a trip here to taste the meads at the source or to pick up a bottle at the store–I can even get them in my tiny little Iowa hamlet!

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Arizona Beer Forays

Laced with thirst-quenching meanderings as a side note rather than the catalyst for my venture, I recently took a short family foray into Arizona.

Beer in the backseat, I paid visits to Flagstaff’s Lumberyard Brewing Company as well as Tucson’s Barrio Brewing Company, Dragoon Brewing Company and Thunder Canyon Brewing Company. In addition, I hit up Plaza Liquors & Fine Wines for a few local selections to keep me busy around the house and to share with my rascally old brother-in-law upon my return. If you’re interested in what I think, here’s what I thought:

Lumberyard

This was an afternoon stop for a snack and a few samples. Having been on the road for something like 18 hours and scheduled for the passenger’s seat for the duration of our trek, I was pleased for this Northern Arizona oasis. I sampled the Diamond Down Lager, Knotty Pine Pale Ale, Lumberyard Red, Lumberyard IPA, Porter and the Belgian Pale. All were good, but I especially liked the pale ale, IPA and porter. The pale, IPA and red have all won GABF and World Beer Cup accolades (deservedly as hell, I’d wager), and set in such a sweet spot as Flagstaff, why the hell hasn’t Lumberyard garnered a bigger beerosphere buzz? We just shared appetizers and I focused on the fried mac & cheese balls, which were decent. Bustling, clean and with friendly service, this is a nice place that deserves some recognition.

Dragoon

I had high hopes, but came away with mixed emotions here. I tasted the Dragoon IPA, Stronghold Session Ale, Fumacabra (mesquite smoked bock), Biere Del Bac (Belgian-style Quad), Ohaygrrl! (gose) and the Barrel-Aged Scout Porter. I was disappointed to learn that they were out of the regular Scout Porter (which is mesquite-smoked), but the barrel-aged version was a worthy consolation prize—I loved it. I also thought the session ale (4.8%) was good, and recognize the quality craftsmanship in the IPA. However, I didn’t like the IPA, and here’s my gripe: there’s this elaborate chalkboard with tons of great information about the 11 beers on tap, but under the description for the IPA they offered a general “gotta have my hops!” I wished they’d listed the hops used in the beer, because I hate Summit hops and would have passed on bothering to size up the brewery’s talent so I could save my ounces for something I’d more truly enjoy. (Sorry, I just don’t get you Summit people.)

The Fumacabra was interesting though a little overly smoky for my taste. The beers that gave me the most trouble were the quad and the gose. They both tossed a big sulfur nose (especially the gose). This was very distracting, again, especially for the gose. Both beers would have been incredible were it not for this sulfur wall—the taste was wonderful (especially the gose), but the aroma was off-putting.

With the chalkboard, big windows into the brewhouse and little else, the taproom can be described as Spartan Industrial. Like me, however, there was a ready crowd in the parking lot at opening time, so there are clearly some good things happening here. One more thing: a warning for the under-21s, gluten-frees and designated drivers–your only choice is water here.

Barrio

Like Dragoon, I’d heard good things about Barrio, and their online menu made me prioritize a mealtime visit here. I tasted a few beers (Barrio Rojo [Scottish ale], Copperhead Pale Ale and Barrio IPA) before ordering what I knew I’d order: the Mocha Java Stout (on nitro). Though I’d planned on something south of the border foodwise, I wound up with my kneejerk choice of a Reuben.

Everything was fine, and I could really only complain that it was obvious that our server didn’t know the beers or the menu very well and had no clue when it came to our unfortunately necessary gluten-free quiz. Further, I don’t know why breweries or taprooms bother serving nitro pours if they refuse to poor them correctly. That was the case here, I am sorry to say. I know I sound bitchy about a place that brewed some pretty good beers, but I couldn’t help but notice the missionary position, circa 1997 lineup (which was repeated in every grocery store beer aisle I visited in Arizona): blonde, amber, pale ale, IPA, raspberry ale and hefeweizen (plus the Mocha Java Stout, the red-named Scottish and a white IPA).

Thunder Canyon

Of all my brewery visits, this is the only one I’d hit previously (probably back in 1998, when it was but a pup). Though they offered many of the usual 1998 suspects, they had multiple IPA offerings and more on the way, plus at least a pair of stouts. Because I was eating with a large swath of family, I didn’t really take notes or do much beyond ordering a stout. I tasted a lager of some kind, a lager of doppelbock kind, one Summitless IPA (which was quite good) and the stout. My pulled pork sandwich was fairly dry, but the beer was good (and so was the company, which was really the point of that trip).

Other Beers

As I said, I picked up a few beers from down that way, and off the top of my head, here’s what I’ve tried (so far) and what I thought: Borderlands Noche Dulce Vanilla Porter (good), Marble Pilsner (decent—needed more hops) and IPA (really good), The Phoenix Ale Brewery’s Camelback IPA (good), Mother Road’s Kolsch (really good). For sentimental reasons, I had two Pacificos at a party, one in the bottle (good) and the other in a glass (I struggled through it), as well as two Negra Modelos (my go-to Mexican choice, I am not ashamed to say) and a homebrewed stout from Cousin Bill.

It was a great trip with a few beery bright spots and I’d encourage you to look into some of the same beers I mentioned so perhaps we can compare notes down the road…

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Infused with good beer

It was a crisp evening in late October, and I was thirsty for a brewery I’ve never visited. Enter Infusion Brewing Company in the Benson neighborhood of Omaha.

It only makes sense that I enjoyed my experience. Infusion owner Bill Baburek has staked out a notable beer reputation in Omaha. After carving success at the Crescent Moon Ale House and Beertopia, Baburek turned his attention to another dream: owning a brewery.

When the Olson’s Market building came on the market, Baburek turned to Benson’s growing beer scene for the site of Infusion Brewing Company, which opened in 2012. While there is definitely a sense of history to the building’s restoration—highlighted by a series of large-format vintage brewery tin tackers—I found the use of lighter woods to impart a clean, modern feel to the taproom area.

More wrapped up in conversation with my drinking partners than tasting a flight and taking notes, I managed to wash four Infusion beers across my tongue for inspection: Butcher Block Brown, Vanilla Bean Blonde, Joel Porter, and the pint I purchased, Infusionfest.

The first two came from sips of my companions’ beers. The brown was good, and the Vanilla Bean was quite vanilla-y. Overly so, and a bit sweet, for my palate. The Joel Porter was quite good. Everyone I shared it with loved the roasty nuances of coffee, vanilla, and what I perceived as brewers licorice. It had nice body, and had I stayed longer I may have ordered one. At the time, I knew nothing of the beer’s makeup, other than it was a porter called Joel. I later looked online and found that it had been dosed with Hawaiian Macadamia Nut Coffee at flameout, which made all sorts of sense. Nice beer. I enjoyed it. The bulk of my time was spent with Infusion’s rendition of an Oktoberfest-style beer, Infusionfest. I was pleased. Packed with malt character, it was clean and utterly drinkable for a nice sit-down with friends.

Though my ability to visit Omaha seems limited, I learned on this trip that in the last few years, some of the new players—including Infusion—in the city’s beer scene have certainly helped to raise Nebraska’s game, and I look forward to a return visit.

BONUS: Benson Brewery is less than a block away.

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Benson Brewery pleases the guy in the cool shirt

Benson brewer Andy Elliott in the Hop Box on a Thursday Night.

I’ll admit it. I was wearing a really cool shirt.

When I walked in the door of Benson Brewery in Omaha last week, I was greeted by the brewer himself, one Andy Elliott. I’m sure he’s extra nice to everyone wearing a western shirt with hops embroidered on the shoulders, collar and sleeves, but, no matter, I was really pleased to walk in to such hospitality.

This was all a little funny and the absolute best of timing, because I’d just met some new friends, and we were checking out the Benson neighborhood together. Tongue planted firmly in my cheek, I’d described myself as “a beer drinker of some repute” earlier in the day. I don’t think they realized at first that my shirt was much cooler than me. No matter. Let them think it.

Though I tried my comrades’ Kolsches and brown ales, which were good, I migrated immediately to a pint of Brewer’s Duet, a solid coffee cream stout. Goodness, me, I was not disappointed! Roasty, full-bodied and absolutely scrumptious, I’d love to see this beer widely available in refrigerators all across my house. It was a winner for this stout lover. I was so happy that I completely forgot to check out the Stunt Dubbel.

While I didn’t taste the Hop Box Pale Ale, I did sit in the Hop Box itself, one of the coolest little multi-level, between-brick-buildings beer gardens with hops climbing skyward and lit after dusk by white Christmas lights. Not that the taproom itself wasn’t inviting as hell, but it was the perfect setting for beers and friends on a gorgeous late Oktober evening.

But before I got there, Brother Elliot ushered me off to the coolest part. What could be better that this beer garden? I thought as we passed through a gate just beyond the hop box. A locked alley door revealed something that promises to be fairly magical to beer nerds like me and a true source of excitement and pride for the brewmaster: a row of amphoras, 35-45 gallon clay pots, produced by potter Dan Toberer of Hot Shops Art Center in Omaha.

Inspired by Brasserie Cantillon, Benson Brewery is aging a number of beers in a bold experiment that just might get amazing. I’ll do my best to pay attention and give these a taste when the time comes, because, a sucker for a little beer history, I am bloody intrigued.

I did not eat on this visit, but my friends raved about the frites. I will return, and when I do the choices will be tough: they’ve got wild boar sausage, pork belly sandwich, a bacon jam blue cheese burger, and smoked pulled pork on the menu.

Decisions. Decisions. I’ll be back.

BONUS: Infusion Brewing Company is less than a block away. This neighborhood is definitely worth a visit.

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Farnam House, farmhouse, far-out beer house

At long last, I recently paid a visit to Farnam House Brewing Company in Omaha.

Located at 3558 Farnam Street, FHBC brewer Phil Doerr has an affinity for riffing in a rustic realm. Doerr holds up his pants with a saison belt—there were three pouring on my visit last week, and this is the dominion that helped Farnam House catch my attention when I first encountered them at the Omaha Beer Festival this past summer. In addition to the Grisette, Hop Harvest Saison and Pumpkin Saison, I found a Biere de Garde, O-fest, Belgian IPA, Gratzer, American Stout (both CO2- and Nitro-dispensed) and a Keller German Lager pouring from the taps.

I slowly and accidentally tried everything on the menu apart from the Belgian IPA, and found my favorites to be the Grisette, Biere de Garde, Keller German Lager (in an absurd tie for first place [though I ordered a pint of the Biere de Garde for what bonus points that action’s worth] and the Oktoberfest in second.

Wait, it wasn’t a tie for first. I think I liked the lager the best, then the a toss-up between the Grisette and the BdG. Wait, no. Wait. I don’t know. Those three beers were good at what those beers were being, and it really just depends on the weather, your food and your mood. On this Wednesday night, I was in the mood for a well-constructed Biere de Garde. But any other day, I could drink the hell out of those other two, let me assure you, Dear Reader.

In keeping with something of a farmhouse theme plopped in the downtown of a large city, there were windmill logos, wood everywhere and rustic light fixtures that make for a pleasant drinking environment.

Though I didn’t partake of the menu, the food looked good with but a cursory glance.

Our bartender was a peach. FHBC should make a spontaneously fermented peach saison and name it after him, because they’ve hired a nice guy who is both invested and knowledgeable. Spontaneously, Mr. Peach invited us to the basement to check out the brewing system, which was, let’s say, 12.5 barrels—give or take 2.5 barrels. There’s both stainless steel and wood down there, and thanks to checking out this nugget, I very much look forward to more frequent trips to Omaha.

BONUS: Crescent Moon Ale House and Beer Corner USA are less than a block away. Visit this neighborhood and make a night of it.

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Nebraska Brewing Company’s La Vista Production Facility

With all apologies to my buddy Paul Kavulak, I don’t make it to Omaha very often. This, despite the fact that Omaha and my more frequently visited Des Moines are equidistant from my front door.

My buddy Paul Kavulak will, in fact, get over this minor affront because he’s a nice guy, because he’s got bigger things to worry about than my visitation schedule and because I took this really cool photo of him tapping a cask (at right).

A hard working fellow that would probably not have amounted to much were it not for his lovely wife Kim (her job title is The Chick that Makes S#*t Happen), my buddy Paul Kavulak has his hands full with the growing and award-winning Nebraska Brewing Company. Founded in 2007 with the Papillion, Nebraska brewpub, my buddy Paul Kavulak’s notable Nebraska libation station (helmed by the talented Tyson Arp [below], who would be nothing without his cool dad, who is liable to show up at a party in his lederhosen) was hemmed in by the limitations of a 15-barrel brewing system when both brewpub patrons and out-of-state drinkers were awful darned thirsty for more and more of my buddy Paul Kavulak’s tasty beers.

In a spendy attempt to satiate the thirst of basically the whole wide world, my buddy Paul Kavulak coughed up for a 30-barrel production facility, barrel room, canning line, and a 24-tap tasting room. If that’s not enough, eight months in (the canning line launched on Feb. 14 of this year), my buddy Paul Kavulak just upgraded and bought four 120-barrel fermenters to help keep up with demand. Because thirst.

Finally, my beer drinking sidekick Kyle and I (joined by his beer drinking pastor-intern Peter, whom I convinced to wear ill-fitting plaid drinking pants) dragged our slow moving bodies out to my buddy Paul Kavulak’s new facility in La Vista. As usual, Tyson’s beers were delicious, Tyson’s wife Angela was nice as hell, Kim was sporting this really great smile and my buddy Paul Kavulak was happy to see us. It was like a family reunion with out all the macaroni salad.

Tyson gave us a tour and let us touch his DO meter, and since the day we accidentally showed up was on the occasion of NBC’s inaugural Dock-Toberfest (think Oktoberfest on a loading dock that spills into the whole brewery where you can eat brats, drink beer and chat with new and old friends), it was a pretty stellar and flavor-filled day.

As they say in small town newspapers, a good time was had by all, and, while the new facility was great and the beers tasty, I must, in fact, lodge two complaints against my buddy Paul Kavulak (whether or not they’re his fault): I didn’t get around to putting on a sumo suit and wrestling Kyle, and Tyson’s awesome parents weren’t anywhere to be found.

Maybe next time.

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I wish we had more English IPAs

Sometimes, dreams come true.

IPAs are really popular these days, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Personally, I often tip-toe around them because years of tasting beers has taught me about my own personal likes and dislikes. I don’t like certain hop varieties. At all. I don’t like Simcoe, Summit or Nelson Sauvin. I just don’t. I do like Centennial, Amarillo, Pacific Jade, Sorachi Ace, Tettnager and East Kent Goldings. And many more. I like more hops than I dislike, but when one of those bad guys takes a dip in the beer in my hand, I experience a wash of disappointment.

And often dream aloud: “Goddamnsonofabitch, we need more English IPAs in this world!”

And so it was that a dream came true this week. Victory Brewing Company sent me a bottle of their second Moving Parts iteration. Guess what! It’s English! Here’s what Victory says about the series:

“We like to mix it up. New flavors, new ideas, new ingredients; we welcome them all. In celebration of our penchant for prolific experimentation, we present Moving Parts: The Ever-Evolving IPA. Each release in this series (every four months) celebrates a tweaked ingredient or two, creating an endless array of possible flavor profiles. For us, Moving Parts are a good thing!”

This time, Victory has gone with Styrian Goldings, East Kent Goldings and Bramling Cross, and the result, for me, was a true pleasure. The beer was a beautiful copper color, with herbal hop presence over marmalade notes. Talk about Oktoberfests or Pumpkin Beers this time of year if you like, but this beer tasted like it was made for autumn. The color matches the turning leaves in the countryside. The herbal hops meld with the harvest dust in the air. And this thing is drinkable. It would perfectly accompany not only late summer grilling efforts, but also a turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie.

Long story short, this beer was good. Keep dreamin’!

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Reviewed: The Foodie’s Beer Book

The Foodie’s Beer Book

By Brooke and Luther Fedora

Skyhorse Publishing

I didn’t like this book.

Some of it had to do with personal preferences like I don’t care for the seasonally-divided and menu-geared layout of the book. Sometimes I just want to peruse a pile of entrees or beef dishes, for example, and this layout makes that impossible. Fine. I can deal with that. Once can overcome this by shooting to the index for an inspirational beef recipe. Oh, wait—not in this cookbook. There is no recipe index in The Foodie’s Beer Book. Bummer.

But there’s more. I just really feel like this is a 1990s-era poseur of a beer-leaning cookbook. I felt like the writers’  depth of beer knowledge in the history, ingredient rundown and beer characteristics sections was limited. I felt that even stronger when wheat beer, bitter, pale ale and IPAs were the only listings discussing what an “ale” is. And even further when porter and stout were included behind the “lager” heading (not that one wouldn’t be quick to lager a Baltic Porter, I fully understand).

But I nitpick.

Let’s talk about beer and recipes in a beer-geared cookbook. This book called for “dark beer” in a stout cake recipe. This recipe would have been really easy to suggest a specific beer for, but no. Not just beer style recommendation (like “stout” over “dark beer,” but a specific beer, say, Left Hand Milk Stout, for example. Want more examples? The following beers were suggested in multiple recipes as well: “dark ale,” “strong ale beer” and “amber beer.” To the authors’ defense, I should say that they once suggested Guinness, once suggested Harp lager, once suggested “Nut Brown Ale,” and once suggested Founder’s Double Trouble. And lest I forget, if you want to make peanut butter crème brulee, you’ll need to add ½ cup “beer.”

There are a few general beer recommendations at the beginning of each section/menu, not to mention brief descriptions of said commercial examples. In one case, I scratched my head to learn that Paulaner Oktoberfest is a “weisn” style and that hard cider is a beer when I had previously thought cider was cider.

Looking to a recipe for another layer of frustration, Easy Hollandaise Sauce calls for “1 tsp beer (pick the beer that complements your dish)”. One, that solitary teaspoon will likely go unnoticed and two, if I’m looking to a beer cookbook for guidance, I want to know exactly what beer to use and exactly why that makes sense. Seriously. Feed me answers, not questions.

Before I forget, I should mention one more thing: the photos are dark and uninspiring.

As I read through this book, I kept glancing around for a hidden camera and some tittering beer nerd filming reactions for some new reality show. Alas, this didn’t happen, and this book is for real. Maybe the authors of this book can cook, but it appeared a lazy effort for beer poseurs to capitalize on the success of craft beer, and I wouldn’t recommend purchasing it.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

Recipe disclaimer: I didn’t feel inspired to test a single recipe in this book.

Integrity disclaimer: I’m not writing this post while sitting in my underwear in my mom’s basement.

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