October 25, 2014

Touring Sam Adams

While out in Boston with my wife, we decided to take a tour of the Sam Adams Brewery there. Sam Adams actually has three breweries. One in Cincinnati, Ohio, one in Breinigsville, Pennsylvania, and the one in Boston, Massachusetts. All their main products are brewed, bottled, and distributed from the other two breweries. The location in Boston that we toured is their research and development location, which does bottle some specialty brews, but only a very small number.

This was my first brewery tour, and I was honestly a little disappointed. The tour is completely free and takes you through the brewery, ending with three 7oz tastings of their beers. That’s right, 21oz of completely free beer! Unfortunately, it’s quite clear that the free beer is the highlight of the tour and that most people couldn’t care less about anything else along the way. The tour guide (who was really great) even mentioned several times that no one really wanted to learn anything, they just wanted free beer. Well, he was wrong. I would have gladly paid for every ounce of beer I was given (and even for the tour) for the chance to learn something new.

The tour begins with a quick trip through a glass fermentation tank from the “bad old days” when someone actually had to climb into it to clean it. The job was cold, damp, and miserable, and it seems that the father of Jim Koch, one of the founders of Samuel Adams, had this very job.

Once through the old tank you walk past all the new tanks currently in use and into a room with four wooden barrels at the far end. One of the barrels contained hops, and the other three contained different malts (a light, a dark, and a caramel). This is your chance to learn a little, but only if you know almost nothing about beer. The tour guide explains that there are four main ingredients in beer (water, grain, yeast, and hops), and passes around cups of each of the various items from the barrels. He explains how to rub the hops between your hands in order to break in down and experience the aroma from the oils, how the color of beer comes from the malt that is used, and how lager and ale yeasts are different.

Then you go back into the main portion of the brewery where the tanks are. The tour guide rushes through the explanation of how the process progresses from grain to beer. The interesting part here is that you find out that this brewery only has the capability to bottle or keg by hand, and that they had three oak-aged beers available in the gift shop that were indeed bottled by hand at that location.

The tour ends in the tasting room. The tour guide give you one last speech as he explains the five step tasting process that Sam Adams recommends, which is exactly what we use here and is a great reference for anyone learning to taste and review beer:

  1. Appearance: This is the look of the beer. They want their beers to be clear and sediment free. They recommend holding the beer to the light and wiggling your fingers behind the glass. If you can’t see them through your beer then something is wrong.
  2. Smell: How does the beer smell. Really get your nose in there and smell it. Their classic Boston Lager should have a hoppy aroma.
  3. Mouthfeel: How does the beer feel in your mouth. Again, their Boston Lager should be medium bodied. Light enough that you can enjoy a few, but heavier than water. There should be medium carbonation, and it should be somewhat refreshing.
  4. Taste: The obvious one, but they break it down to the ABCs. It should have an Abundance of flavor, a well Balanced flavor, and a Complex flavor.
  5. Overall: How good is it? This is obviously the most subjective of the steps, but You need to decide: Did you like it? Would you drink it again? How does it rate?

To my surprise, the tasting did turn out to be the best part. We started by tasting their Boston Lager, which I enjoy but it’s nothing to get too excited about. Then we had their Oktoberfest, which I don’t particularly care for, but my wife enjoyed more than the first (it’s less bitter). However, the exciting part was that we got to taste a beer that they were currently developing. They called it Santiam. We have no idea if it will ever see the light of day, and if it does it will be called something else, but I really hope it does. It was a truly great beer.

What is a Lager?

Contrary to popular belief, lager is not actually a beer style. Lager simply refers to a beer that is bottom fermented. Fermentation starts when yeast is added to the cooled wort (wort is the sweet liquid made from ground malt that has been soaked in water long enough to release it’s sugars), and while there are many different yeasts that are available, there are two principal varieties; top fermenting and bottom fermenting.

Top fermenting yeasts are usually active at warmer temperatures (59-68ºF) and form a foam on the top of the fermenting liquid. The bottom fermenting yeasts used to make lager collect at the bottom the tank and are active at cooler temperatures (around 50ºF). The beer then mellows and becomes smoother as it is stored (lagered: which literally means “put to bed” or “cellared”) at low temperatures for a month or more.

Lagers were invented by the Germans, and Germany is still known to have one of the widest and most popular arrays of lagers today. However, you will likely not find them referring to any of their beers as lagers. Instead the most common varieties are more likely to be referred to as “hell” or “helles” which is related to the English word “yellow”.

Some of the various lager styles include:

  • Bock: a strong or potent lager, they usually have an ABV hovering around 6.5% and are often seasonal
  • Dortmunder: This is a less popular variety, made by only a few breweries in Dortmund. It has nearly been replaced by the Pilsner. They are usually a golden color and are around 5-5.25% ABV
  • Dunkel: A dark lager, the original variety in Germany.
  • Schwarzbier: These “black beers” are meant to be the darkest lagers around.
  • Pilsner or Pils: The worlds most famous lager style, it literally refers to a product from the city of Plezň. This golden beer is possible only when direct heat replaces warm air in the malting process.

What is an IPA?

The short answer is that IPA stands for India Pale Ale. However, there’s a little more to both the story and the style. The problem was that the British Raj in India was in need of a steady supply of quality beer, but beer from England degraded badly during it’s sea voyage around the cape.

Enter the hop-heavy IPA. Hops aren’t just a way to add flavor to a beer. They were originally used because of their antiseptic qualities, which prolong a the life of the beer, making it easier to transport. An India Pale Ale was brewed to a higher density than a standard pale ale, and then heavily hopped to help them make the long journey.

While IPAs are still produced today in by British breweries, their popularity has spread. Breweries around the world brew them, and there is a noticeable concentration of microbreweries in the USA turning out some truly amazing examples of this style. Consider trying Lagunitas’ A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale
or Stone’s Ruination, both coming from California, USA.

I wonder if the British Raj enjoyed this style as much as I do?

Quality Beers

I have to admit that unlike most people I know, I was not a fan of beer. At least not what most people drink. I tried all the usuals: Coors, Budweiser, Corona, Miller, etc. I didn’t like a single one, so I just figured that I didn’t like beer. I was wrong. My friend James Pearson introduced me to Chimay, a Belgian Trappist Ale brewed by the monks at the Scourmont Abby. Honestly, the Chimay Blue is still my favorite beer.

What I learned was that, like wine, scotch, or food in general, you can’t just “not like” beer. There are just too many varieties out there that taste so different. You just have to find what beers you like. At first I just tried a few craft beers (again, usually recommended by James) and found that what I didn’t like was light beers. By light, I mean that I don’t like light colored or light flavored beers. I like something with a strong, deep, and full flavor and that usually comes from a darker colored ale.

Not too long ago I decided to clarify that by trying some more beers and keeping track of what I liked and why. I started when I was out in Oklahoma visiting my parents. I tried everyone’s favorites, which included Corona, Miller High Life, and something else (that I just can’t remember). None of them were any good at all. As a whole they had very little flavor and fell quite flat. I asked my brother-in-law to go get me some good beer, and listed a few that I liked, but he couldn’t find any of them. As it turns out, Oklahoma has some strangely strict rules about alcohol content in beer.

When I got back from Oklahoma I went to Bevmo and grabbed some assorted craft beers, and have quite enjoyed trying them all and figuring out what I like and what I don’t. So far I know that I’m not only fond of darker fuller beers, but I also very much like bitter beers (not a big surprise as I’m a huge coffee fan and prefer dark bitter coffees) and definitely enjoy the flowery depth that strong hops add to a beer.

Anyway, all that to say that I’m going to start reviewing some of the beers that I drink here. I’m not a pro, so don’t expect to see twelve paragraphs on each beer, but I’ve learned a little and find it interesting and hope you will too.