Jan 7 2011

You want to improve your beer tasting skills? Go try something else.

“The misconception is you need to learn how to taste. It’s more a sense of recognition than a sense of taste.”Jerald O’Kennard of the Beverage Testing Institute in Chicago on tasting beer

I saw this tweeted some time ago, and it stuck in the back of my head. It did so because it cut though the mysterious fog around tasting beer with a clean blade.

Rewind: I had probably been homebrewing for 10 years, and obviously loving beer for much longer than that, before I figured out that I should get some expertise in tasting beer.  This was sensible move since I needed to be able to diagnose my beers to make tweaks in dialing in my process and recipes, but also to identify what characteristics I enjoyed in commercial brews that I wanted to replicate in my homebrews.

Back to now: I can’t tell you that in the passing years that I’ve developed an amazing palate, or that I’ve become some sort of super taster. My questionable taste buds are just the same, but I think I have a better library of memories to compare them to.

Anyone who really, really enjoys beer is also a foodie and likely into other spirits. There is a hedonistic streak that runs through the craft beer lover. We know that pleasure is intrinsically good, within reason, and that we should enjoy the best of what this world can offer us. Those tendencies, to try artisan food and potables, can create quite a catalog to compare to the flavors and aromas we get from beers.

You want to improve your beer tasting skills? Go out and try new things.

Smell and taste everything. Try the things you already know. Figure out why you can tell the difference between a peach and an apricot.

Also seek out what is beyond your experience. Step into that ethic market where you can’t read a single sign or package. The stranger, to you, the better. What do this unusual smells remind you of? Could you work them into the right style of beer?

It might sound like “wet dog in a phone booth”, or “ash”, or “buttered popcorn”, or “new car”, or “summer sweat” would be terrible in a beer. And if that was the single note that you got out of it, then it is likely a poorly made or handled beer. But insert that single note inside of three or four bars of a song, it can be quite interesting and add quite a bit of complexity. Or that flat note could be the thing you want to identify and surgically remove in your next brew session.

You want to improve your beer tasting skills? Go try something else.

What crazy flavors and aromas have you found in good beers?


Jan 4 2011

The Best Music of 2010 and, Of Course, Their Beer Pairings

Better late than never, it is time for my annual best CDs of year and their beer pairings list. Lots of hacks write end of year articles about what they deem are the best albums. The problem is a) their lists suck, and b) they don’t bother to tell you which beers should be paired with the discs. But I care about you more than that. Yes, you. I’m a giver.

And, just like my Top CDs of 2009 (and their beer pairings), these are the albums that simply freaking worked for me. They got the most spins, and were worth my time in 2010. Lighten up.

The beers were under the same loose and sloppy rules, too. They might be brand new beers or, through distribution, they might have just been new to me. They might not be the *best* I tried on 2010, but they were great and pair amazingly with the right tunes. It’s my list. I can make up whatever shit I want to.

In no order, my top 7 CDs and top 4 singles of 2010 and their beer pairings:

No Age – Everything in Between and The Bruery – Hottenroth Berliner Weisse

No Age’s Everything in Between got a lot of plays in my iWhatevers this year. This band rumbles through a bunch of genres without getting too loose and messy. Dean Spunt and Randy Randall deftly deliver punk and noise with a gooey center of ambience, despite the inherent oxymoron of doing so. “Fever Dreaming” feels frenetic, but somewhat mainstream, until the screeching guitars spread a thick layer of noise over your ears. Just what you didn’t know you needed. But you did.

The Bruery’s Hottenroth Berliner Weisse is a great beer, but it is also a session beer. Despite much talk from the beer world, I’m still impatiently waiting for session beers to come into fashion in the U.S., but store shelves are still crammed with gigantic, high-alcohol beers. The Bruery certainly makes its share of ABV beasts, but they knocked one out of the park with this 3.1% beer. Lemony, crisp and tartly sour, this beer is infinitely drinkable and refreshing. The Hottenroth blends those pieces together seamlessly like No Age spins together disparate musical elements without ear fatigue.

The National – High Violet and 21st Amendment Brewery – Back in Black

The National’s High Violet got the most obsessive plays of any disc this year. From the start of its lo-fi opening track, High Violet is dark and subdued, and it grows a bit more expansive and disconcerting with each listen. But maybe it isn’t apparent at first.

One of my favorite tracks on the disc is “Lemonworld”, and it illuminates pathetic first-world melancholy: “With cousins and colors and somewhere overseas / But it’ll take a better war to kill a college man like me”. The clear single is “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and it captures that listless spot between youth and adulthood with “I still owe money / To the money / To the money I owe / I never thought about love / When I thought about home”.

Black IPAs (India Black Ales, Cascadian Dark Ales, or whatever-the-hell they are being called this week) blossomed and became a big deal this year. Is it a new style? Is it really a hoppy porter? What should it be called? Why should I freaking care?

I can’t get my hands on many Black IPAs in Virginia, but the one I most enjoyed was the 21st Amendment’s Back in Back. (Although I did enjoy my own Black IPA homebrew, in all humility, and the Brew Ridge Trail Collaboration BIPA). It was smooth, crisp, roasty and in a freaking can. A win on many levels. You don’t need to put on your thinking cap on to figure out why this dark and mysterious style pairs well with High Violet. Put these together and mope about your house in the way that only the overeducated can.

LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening and Terrapin Brewing – Moo Hoo Chocolate Milk Stout

LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening opens with 9 minute track that is a clinic of everything you expect from them. “Dance Yrself Clean” trickles along for a few minutes with the social commentary (“Talking like a jerk / Except you are an actual jerk”) and cleverness you anticipate, then it erupts into full dance mode. James Murphy’s howl at the 5:23 mark is one of my favorite musical moments of the year.

I caught LCD Soundsystem live in 2010, and it was one of my favorite shows of the year. If I had all the money in the world, they could come to my sprawling estate and be the house band that never gets old or stale. And irony would only fuel them. But “Drunk girls know that love is an astronaut / It comes back, but it’s never the same”.

Terrapin’s Moo-Hoo Chocolate Milk Stout was a surprise late in the season for me. It sounds like it might be sickly sweet, but this brew is on a gyroscope. The balance between the mouthfeel, and deep, dark chocolate of the cocoa nibs, and the smoky bitterness and full sweetness is astonishing. What is even more amazing is that after having this glass of decadence, you want more. Sit back and put This Is Happening and Moo Hoo on repeat.

Sleigh Bells – Treats and Ballast Point – Sculpin IPA

Sleigh Bell’s Treats came out of nowhere, and I immediately liked them, and I immediately assumed that they had no staying power. Their initial assault of noise was like touching live wires and that couldn’t last, right? Wrong. Even now they still hit me like a sonic wave, and they backed it up when I saw them live late this summer. From the swagger of “Infinity Guitars” to school yard daydream of “Rill Rill”, the songs on this discs just sounded new. Isn’t that the most you can ask of an artist? My only question is how they are going to capture lightening in a bottle again with their next disc?

At least once a year, I feel like I’ve hit the end of the hoppy IPA road. That there is nothing left to be done and all the flavors have been had. Then Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA comes to town, and I’m wowed again. It slams your mouth with tons of hops delivered in handfuls of mango, pine and peaches. But there is a solid backbone of burnt sugar malt in there, as well. Just when you think there’s nothing new under the sun, here comes the Sleigh Bells and Sculpin.

The Roots – How I Got Over and Odell – Deconstruction

Having a steady late-night gig should have made The Roots fat, lazy and complacent. And who could blame them? But they served up a lean disc with equal parts gospel, trip-hop, R&B and indie folk. No matter the guests that appear on tracks, it is all organic and, almost unfashionably, optimistic. They can keep their day, or rather night, jobs if The Roots can deliver this sort of CD every few years on the side.

Odells’ Deconstruction brings together a lot of disparate pieces. I got the opportunity to try this golden ale at the GABF, and I got back in line for it more times than I want to admit. It is a blend of “44% ale, 33% ale aged in oak barrels, 20% ale aged in bourbon barrels, 3% ale aged in wine barrels.” Could be a shitshow, huh? It isn’t. Fruit, citrus, vanilla and some sour get together and bumps uglies in your mouth. And you thank them for it. How I Got Over and Deconstruction fit together like jigsaw, and you don’t need any of those silly straight pieces.

Janelle Monáe – Archandroid and New Glarus – Raspberry Tart

If you’ve seen a “best of list” that’s worth looking at, I’m sure Janelle Monáe’s Archandriod is on it. If R&B ever went away, this futuristic concept album brings it back. Wait, let that sink in: a concept R&B disc. Everything about the Archandriod is sweetly addictive without the tunnel vision that precedes an insulin coma. I could not get “Tightrope” out of my head for days on end while she effortlessly shouted along sounding like the Jackon 5. Janelle is legit (“I tip on alligators and little rattle snakers / But I’m another flavor / Something like a terminator”), and made even more interesting by being on the Bad Boy record label.

New Glarus is an amazing brewery in Wisconsin that does not distribute beyond its state border. So getting their beers in Virginia is a show, but so very worth it. The New Glarus Raspberry Tart is berries, berries and more freaking berries. There’s a slight sourness and prickly fizziness, but it all serves to get all that raspberry goodness into your mouth. This is like drinking a Luden’s cough drop. It is as absurd and joyous as it sounds. Spin Janelle and this New Glarus together and see how close to a stomachache you can get with these cures.


Sufjan Stevens – The Age Of Adz and Flying Dog – Raging Bitch

I thought Sufjan Steven’s Illinois was a masterpiece in no uncertain terms. As frail and honest and heartbreaking as a recording can be. I expected his next disc to be a disappointment, but it was horse of a different color. Ripping and ricocheting electronic beats surf on top of swelling orchestration. This feels like his Kid A, but without the themed or induced alienation. I think The Age of Adz (pron. Odds) will sink into to the collective critic consciousness sometime in the middle of 2011.

When hoppy Belgian beers became more mainstream a few years ago, I wasn’t on that bandwagon. In fact, I found them completely undrinkable. Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch was one of the first crossovers that made sense to me. This American IPA fermented with Belgian yeast and then crushed with a ton of Amarillo hops was remarkable everytime I tried it. The cask version, that I was lucky enough to try a few times, was transcendent.

Honorable Mentions:

The Budos Band – Budos Band III
and Dogfish Head – Bitches Brew

The Black Keys – Brothers and Flossmoor Station – Pullman Brown

Transference – Spoon and Tuppers – Pils

Superchunk – Majesty Shredding and Half Acre Beer Company – Daisy Cutter Pale Ale

Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest and Stone Brewing – 10.10.10 Vertical Epic

Top 4 Singles of 2010

Cee-Lo Green – Fuck You and Shorts – Key Lime Pie or Copper Canyon – Apple Streudel Tripel

Seriously. Cee-Lo pulled off a hit called “Fuck You”. This is desperate, or a joke after a few seconds if it isn’t done well. Cee-Lo delivers because he has soul. He’s not imitating, he’s perpetuating. It reminds us of what are artist can get away with when he was the skills. Maybe even the skillz.

Copper Canyon and Shorts can get away with beers that taste like Key Lime Pie or Apple Streudel because their brewers are insane artists. They might not be the beers you want to drink all night long, but there are mouthgasms to be had in trying.

Gorillaz – Stylo and Surly Brewing – Bender

I’m Damon Albarn apologist from his Blur years through to today. Stylo starts with a club beat that finds Albarn and Mos Def trading vocals in the comforting, but too familiar, way that “Clint Eastwood” or “Dirty Harry” did. Until Bobby Womack shows up. Womack’s voice slices through the formula with a machete. He’s a long way from the 70’s, but his vocals have aged like worn leather. How could the video be anything less than a high-speed chase scene? “Yes, this love is electric.”

Surly Bender comes in a freaking can. I could stop there, but this oatmeal brown ale serves up a small twist on browns. It is malty and creamy with some assertive late hopping. Like Womack’s voice, it is experienced and worn to smoothness. Yeah, you like getting it in the can, don’t you?

Beach House – Norway and Drie Fonteinen – Oude Geuze

When Beach House begins to play, the fog machines turn on. Norway swells and ebbs, but is never displaced by Legrand’s smokey voice. It’s looking back at high school through Nagel paintings with the sharp corners worn away by letting go of regret. It is the way memory differs from the here and now. A comforting despair.

After the thermostat catastrophe at Drie Fonteinen in 2009, many of us assumed they were done brewing. But they have continued, although with a much different model and partners, but the quality is the same. This sour, acidic, yeasty beer lives on. It is drier and milder than other commercial examples of the style, but that is in no way a slight.

Grinderman – Worm Tamer and Brooklyn Brewing – Reinschweinsgebot

Confession: I’ve never gotten into Nick Cave. Friends, whose music taste I respect, love him. The Bad Seeds, to be cute, haven’t haven’t taken purchase in my soil.

But Ginderman is nasty. They’re that hot chick, with dirty fingernails smoking under the bleachers. A prototypical suicide girl making due with racoon-eyes until the needles can canvas her.  “Well my baby calls me the Loch Ness Monster / Two great big humps and then I’m gone”.

I’m not even sure I like Grinderman. But I might love them sometimes.

The Brooklyn Reinschweinsgebot was the inspiration for my homebrewed bacon (dry-porked) beer.  After having this at the Rare Beer Tasting during the GABF, my mind was open to the awesomeness and absurdity of fat-washing. So smoky, woody and reminiscent of BBQ. So decadent and good. Meat is delicious murder.


Jan 3 2011

Barlow Brewing 2010 Homebrew Year in Review

2011 is here and, like my Barlow Brewing 2009 Homebrew Year in Review, it is time to look back at 2010 and see what the hell happened.

On the surface of things, 2010 was a very off year in homebrewing for me. I usually shoot for at least 60 gallons of beer per year, and I have no problems exceeding that number. Last year was a lot lower, 69 gallons versus 2009’s119 gallons, but life and work took priority over my homebrew hobby, as they should.

But it was big homebrewing year for me in two regards:

I got the honor of making a California Common Pro-Am beer for the GABF with Starr Hill. That was an amazing experience and well worth the hiatus I took afterwards. If I really wanted to cheat, I could add those 360 gallons to my total and figure that I made 429 gallons last year. But this post is about homebrewing.

The second achievement is that I had a beer and a cider make it to the Final Round of the National Homebrew Competition. The beer was my “Procrastinator” doppelbock that I co-brewed with my friend Greg B, and the cider was one that I had made over 2 years ago on a whim.

Anyway, an interesting review for me, and I’m sure it will inform my 2011 brewing.

Number of Batches Made – 14

Number of Gallons Made – 69

First Brew Day – 1/24/2010

Last Brew Day – 12/18/2010

Number of Beer Batches – 11 (10 ales and 1 lager)

Number of Cider/Perry Batches – 3

BJCP Homebrew Competitions Medals Earned – Nine (2 Gold, 3 Silver, 4 bronze, and a beer and a cider advanced to the final round of the National Homebrew Competition)

Batch with Highest Alcohol – 11.64% – Eis-Barleywine

Batch with Lowest Alcohol – 4.7% – Berliner Weisse “Waterloo”

Average Alcohol Across Batches – 6.7%

Favorite Brew – “Tobias Funke” Flanders Red (Very sour Belgian Dark Strong base that shot past an Oud Bruin into a Flanders Red)

Favorite Brew (Runner Up) – “Citra Ass Down” American Pale Ale (a simple APA showcasing Citra hops. Citra is amazing late addition hop)

Worst Brew – “Lakshmi” Chai Milk Stout (A good beer for a few months until diacetyl crept in and made it a butter bomb)

Favorite Name – “Tobias Funke” – Flander Red (Arrested Development reference)

Favorite Name (Runner Up) – “Duncan Keith’s Teeth” Eis-Barleywine (After Duncan Keith, who lost seven teeth in one game of the hockey playoffs.)

Approximate Amount of Grain used in 2010 – 151 pounds (average of 13.7 lbs/brew)

Approximate Amount of Hops used in 2010 – 37.25 ounces, or 2.32 pounds (average of 3.38 oz/brew)

Biggest Equipment Upgrade – Nothing major. I’m shooting pure oxygen into my cooled wort now.)

Biggest Trend – Only One Lager (I don’t know what happened here. My only lager was the smoked Baltic porter I did for the Iron Brewer competition. It was good. Perhaps this speaks to my patience…)

Biggest Trend (Runner Up) – Black Ales – (A Black IPA, a Black Saison, and a Northern Brown with Black Japonica rice)