Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe

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Taste Blind, and Now You’ll See

Every time a new brewery opens in Maine, brewers struggle a little bit more to stand out from the crowd, to be recognized and remembered, to have their beer mentioned in the first few breaths when a newcomer asks a local for recommendations. The events on tap for this year’s Portland Beer Week (for which this publication is the media sponsor) are designed to showcase breweries you may not have heard of, or had forgotten about, or those that simply aren’t at the top of the hype list.

My favorite event each year is usually the Freshman Orientation, a speed-dating-style sampling of beers by the local breweries that opened in the past 12 months. This year’s Orientation takes place Nov. 5 at Coffee By Design’s Diamond Street location, and features over a dozen new craft beer-makers. It’s a fun and efficient way to meet the new breweries on the block.

Another way for breweries to get noticed seems counterintuitive but is actually quite effective: don’t tell tasters what beer they’re drinking ahead of time. At blind tasting events, the maker of the beer is not revealed until after the drinker has evaluated the samples or voted for their favorite. Tasting notes are usually provided so participants have some idea what to expect, but this method is a great way to erase your preconceived notions and open your palate to pleasant surprises.

Here are two Beer Week events that employ the blind-tasting format, and a third that you can easily turn into a blind tasting with a few friends.

1. Salvage BBQ Pro-Am (Tues., Nov. 7, at 6 p.m.)

The beer community in Maine is incredibly supportive of those looking to learn how to brew, and an opportunity to partner with a professional brewer can be a memorable one. The annual Pro-Am competition, hosted by Salvage BBQ, gives amateur brewers the chance to flex their creative muscles by partnering with pros to brew pilot or full-sized batches in a production brewery space. The judging is by popular vote, but this year the tasting will be blind. Competing brews will be numbered and a description will be provided, but the brewers will remain anonymous until the votes are counted. I expect there’ll be a wide variety of styles at this year’s event, so creativity will likely be a bigger factor than the execution of a traditional type of beer.

2. Blind Belgian Tasting (Thurs., Nov. 10, at 5 p.m.)

The Blind Belgian Tasting at Slab is all about the perfection of a particular style. Participating breweries will enter beers that meet specific criteria — they must be made with a particular strain of Belgian yeast, be light in color, and have an ABV below 5 percent. The lineup this year is an exciting mix of “freshman” breweries (Foulmouthed Brewing and Mast Landing Brewing Company), up-and-comers (Foundation, Austin Street, SoMe) and more established competitors (Sebago, Rising Tide).

3. GLB Maine IPAs! (Thurs., Nov. 10, at 5 p.m.)

Only a local institution with as many draft lines and as much history as The Great Lost Bear could even attempt to host a happening where nearly every available Maine-brewed IPA is on tap. For this event, the servers aren’t intending to pour flights blind, but it would be simple for a pair of friends or a group to turn this opportunity into a blind tasting. One person orders the IPAs and the other (or others) tries to find their favorite — like a hopped-up version of the Pepsi Challenge. IPAs are perfect for this type of game because, though they’re all the same style, the flavor can vary quite a bit. Come prepared to have friendly disagreements and maybe even change your own mind.

You’ll be amazed by what’s revealed when you stop looking and start tasting.

Yeasty Does It

Every fall, I bake apple pies for family gatherings. As long as I follow my recipe card and use the same types of apples, the pies taste pretty much the same. So why is it so difficult for brewers to make consistent beer if they’re simply following a recipe?

The answer is that beer is alive.

Though it’s crucial to the brewing process, yeast can be an overlooked ingredient in beer, even among craft beer fans. Different strains of yeast have a profound effect on a beer’s characteristics. And, in fact, yeast is the only thing that can transform a slush of grain-based sugar water into the beverage we love to drink. But as a single-celled microscopic organism, it often gets less respect than it deserves.

Take, for example, a hefeweizen. The cloudy, aromatic beers brewed in this style get most of their flavorful esters from the use of a particular variety of yeast, one that produces banana, fruity and clove-like flavors as part of its natural environment. I used to think “hefe” meant “half,” because typical hefeweizens are made with a fairly even ratio of regular grains and wheat (weizen). Turns out I was wrong. “Hefe” refers to the yeast, so it’s more properly called a “yeast wheat” beer.

Brewing a hefeweizen — or any beer, for that matter — can be more akin to ranching than baking. Brewers have to wrangle and tame these living organisms. The brewing process seems simple: create a mix of fermentable sugars and water, put in a little yeast that likes to eat those sugars, and the little guys will magically produce beer. However, getting yeast to consume the sugars you’ve provided them, at the rate you’d like, while reproducing and creating CO2 and alcohol as waste products, is harder than it seems.

To create a flavorful beer, brewers have to pamper yeast by giving it exactly the right range of temperatures (sometimes only a few degrees apart) and adjusting acidity (pH) or other water chemistry. They may also have to provide extra food or oxygen to coax them into doing their thing. Batches of yeast can be different from one another even if they’re the same species — yeast can get lazy, can starve or eat too quickly, can die off too quickly or grow too fast, sometimes leaving behind undesired off-flavors.

Brewers need to actively control the lives of these organisms and then prevent them from dying before their time. In high-alcohol beers, the alcohol that the yeast produces as waste will ultimately kill them off. Yeast strains that can tolerate higher levels of alcohol in their environment have been specifically bred for the task, but most of the time brewers are just pushing the boundaries of what the yeast can tolerate each time they create a high ABV beer.

In most cases, brewers carefully select yeast that will impart certain characteristics: the estery notes of the hefewizen, the dry finish of a lager, or the peppery notes in saisons. But if you want even more of a challenge, try letting just the local yeast show up and see who applies for the fermentation job.

Allagash Brewing has a vessel known as a “Coolship” that’s essentially a shallow stainless-steel pan sitting in the center of a little shed. They pour wort that’s been boiled into the pan to cool, and then leave the windows of the shed slightly ajar, so the night air can come in. The natural yeast in the area (and yes, there’s yeast everywhere!) slowly settles onto the cooling liquid and begins munching away on the sugars. The result (which is sometimes aged in barrels long after this process) is a funky and complex mix of flavors derived from the unique terroir of the area where the beer is produced.

Other breweries have learned to use natural selection to their advantage. Barreled Souls, for example, uses a “Burton Union” brewing system that’s specifically designed to get the heartiest yeast possible to ferment each batch of beer. In that system, fermentation vessels (barrels) are connected with pipes in such an arrangement that the yeast travels up into a catchment tank, where it’s later separated from the beer and reused in subsequent batches. This captured yeast essentially self-selects for the most effective and hearty cells.

The next time you raise a pint, give some thought, and some thanks, to the little beasts that brought the flavors into your glass — and to the brewers who made them behave.

Smashing Pumpkins

Originally published in the September issue of The Bollard


You’ve done it, beer fans! You’ve survived “peak pumpkin spice.” Last year may be remembered as the apex of an obsession that manifested itself in everything from pumpkin spice lattes to gourd-flavored Oreos and M&Ms. More pumpkin beers crowded our shelves in 2015 than in any previous year. For some, this undoubtedly was a delight, but many wished the trend, which often involved artificial flavors and coloring agents, would simply go away.

Fads, by definition, inevitably decline, but I suspect the collective backlash against seasonal creep — being bombarded by spiced concoctions in early August or even July — also had something to do with it. The numbers are already in for 2016, and the pumpkin trend is on its way out. Retailers are slowing their orders, pumpkin beers are sitting on shelves a bit too long, and the quantities being produced are declining.

What will replace them? The cynics among us say it will be other artificial flavors (witness the rise of alcoholic sodas), but I hold a more optimistic view. I think the abandonment of pumpkin beer as an autumnal staple may be evidence that lagers can carve out a legitimate and lasting space in the American craft beer landscape.

Search-engine tools like Google Trends allow you to investigate the relative amounts of interest in different search terms. Type in a lager style like Märzen, Helles or Dunkel and you’ll see a huge swing upward in 2015 and 2016, while the line for searches about pumpkin beer drops off.

What encourages me is that these styles are more traditional and showcase the beer for what it is — grains, hops, yeast — rather than what can be added to it.

Let’s look more closely at Märzen for a moment. This malt-forward beer is typically brewed with either Munich or Vienna malt, and its caramel and toasty flavors are perfect for a fall afternoon.

In Germany, the term Oktoberfest only applies to the beers made and poured at the annual festivals in Munich, but in the U.S. we colloquially label beers “Oktoberfest” if they’re a fall seasonal of the Märzen or Vienna lager style. These medium-to-deep amber beers are especially popular in September (when Oktoberfests are held). The now classic Samuel Adams OktoberFest was the first seasonal beer I ever tried, and though I suspect its recipe has changed some since my first sip, it’s a beer that still defines the onset of autumn for me.

I’d argue that lagers have staying power well beyond the fall. Their clean flavor profiles allow the malt character of the beer to shine through. Some styles finish so cleanly that you need another swig just to be sure you’ve had any. The lack of a lingering aftertaste also makes lagers excellent choices to pair with food.

So why aren’t more breweries jumping on the lager train? The simple answers are space and time. Lagers take much longer to ferment than ales do, and that can create bottlenecks at the brewery. With ales, a weekly rhythm of brewing and kegging can be established. Lagers, however, need to sit, filling up fermentation tanks and making it impossible for brewers to start something else until the first lager has matured. With proper planning such obstacles can be overcome, but the point is that lagers are not a style brewers get into on a whim, or in an effort to follow a fad.

In Maine we’re lucky to have several breweries that regularly make classic lager styles, including Gneiss, Banded Horn, and, most recently, Dirigo Brewing Company, which opened in Biddeford last month. Von Trapp Brewing, in Vermont (owned by the Sound of Music von Trapps), is also distributing classic German lagers to the New England beer market.

Raise a lager this month to toast the demise of pumpkin beer! And don’t forget about the style just because seasons change.

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