A Kindler, Gentler Beer Fest

We went to the 3rd annual Hogtown Craft Beer Fest yesterday.  And, particularly with the Hunahpu Day fiasco fresh in our memory, we found it to be a very pleasant, well-run festival.

First of all, the venue is fantastic.  Instead of a parking lot (which is a terrible place for an event) or a patio (like the sour festival at Cajun Cafe on the Bayou in Tampa), this festival is in the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens.  So there was a bit of a scrum around the pouring stations, but we just had to get outside of that to enjoy lush scenery with plenty of shady benches.

The beer selection was pretty good.  There were a few larger breweries phoning it in (like Cigar City who, as far as I can tell, only brought a few of their year-round cans).  But for the most part, it was lots of small breweries from around Florida pouring 3-5 beers each.  There were plenty of heavy stouts and double IPAs.  But there were also a fair few saisons, kölsches, and other lighter beers too.

And, most importantly, the lines were short.  The longest lines we saw were for the food (a small plate from each “pod” was included in the admission price, so that contributed to this).  But all the beer lines were short and moving pretty quickly.

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Hunahpu Day 2014: A Fullsome Apology & Some Unsolicited Advice

When I got home, I had an apology from Cigar City waiting for me in my email:

So, today did not go as expected. We realize that there were a lot of issues with duplicate tickets, way too long waits in lines, and all of that. We can promise 100% that we are going to make it right, whether it be refund, or whether we brew a batch of beer that we will bottle and make completely free to all attendees that had issues today. We’re completely sorry for all issues that happened today. It really sucked. We completely understand how much it sucked and hate how much it sucked. We don’t want it to suck ever again. We will do what we can to make it right.

I don’t expect anyone, lest of all craft brewers, to be perfect.  It is a lot more important to me that they recognize when they’ve made mistakes and do better next time.  So this apology goes a long way to making things right for me.  And for the record, things went well-enough for me today:

  • I showed up shortly before 11am (as encouraged by Cigar City on twitter, etc.) and I had to wait more than 45 minutes to get in.  This is longer than I would have liked, but tolerable.
  • I bought my three bottles that I was allotted based on entry to the festival, plus another case.  But I spent several hours standing in line to accomplish this (and there were a ton of people around me in the scrum who still had their wristbands, meaning they hadn’t gotten their 3 bottle allotment yet).
  • I was very happy with the changes in procedure this year.  There were many more pouring stations, the small pours made it a lot easier to try more beers, and not having to pay each time made things flow much more quickly.

That said, the lines were still crazy, and there were just too many people for the space.  The last time I looked at the line to get in to Hunahpu Day was around 1:30pm (because I was basically in line for bottles the rest of the time I was there), and the line was still around the corner, down the block and out of sight.  I’m willing to bet many of those people didn’t even get in until it was too late to get bottles they were promised.

As 4pm rolled around, the crowd of people in front of the packaging hall started to get worried that there weren’t going to be enough cases to go around (or any cases at all, as one person said as they passed back through the line with their 3 bottles).  Everybody was still being nice, but some people were clearly spooked.  It all turned out fine for me, and I hope Cigar City can make everybody happy.  But it could easily have been much worse.

So, for the advice: please move this event.  I’m sure it’s great to have a huge festival at the brewery for many reasons, but there just isn’t enough space to do it responsibly.  There’s a giant football stadium right down the road with a gigantic parking lot — maybe they could help you out?  I’m sure there are a ton of other larger venues in town that could handle 3,500 people much more gracefully.  Because there was plenty of beer.  There were plenty of pouring stations.  There was plenty of goodwill and good cheer.  But there was simply not enough room.

Update: Just to clarify: by “plenty of beer” above, I mean there were plenty of beers on tap and pretty reasonable lines for those.  I don’t know how many bottles of Hunahpu there were, but I suspect there were enough for everybody who bought a ticket to get their allotted 3 bottles, and for there to be some cases left over for people to at least have a chance to buy more.  I don’t think it was a shortage of beer that caused the problems today — it was the lack of space and lack of active management of the bottle line.

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El Catador Club

The initial run of Cigar City’s reserve society, El Catador Club, has come to an end.  It lasted about 7 months, with one bottle each of 5 barrel-aged beers included in the $120 membership price, plus opportunities to buy additional bottles of those and a few other beers, first dibs on buying tickets for Hunahpu Day, and a t-shirt.  There were also some other goodies I didn’t make much use of, such as member-only growler fills at the taproom, discounts on purchases at the taproom, etc.

We wound up buying a total of 12 bottles of 7 different beers:

  • Forgotten Island – a 15% monster quad, with a ton of rummy sweetness melding well with the standard quad profile of raisins and plums.
  • 110K+OT Batch #6 – a good mix of raspberry tartness and roasty dry coffee
  • Illuminating the Path – like an IPA that’s been aged until it became a sour porter — just a hint of sourness.  Very divisive in the reviews I’ve seen.  I really liked this, but there are a lot of people who hate it too.
  • Don Gavino’s Big Guava – nice and fruity, not overwhelmingly sour, but a good tartness to it.
  • Good Gourd Almighty – I don’t like regular Good Gourd much, and I’m not a big fan of pumpkin beers in general (I find they usually taste more like a spice rack than pumpkin).  But this was really nice — a lot of the overly sweet, vanilla flavor is softened and it wound up being a pretty nice fall beer.
  • Amplitude – very tasty, very boozy and sweet.  The sales were put on hold at first when Lactobacillus was found by their QA process.  But the bottles were saved by pasteurization.
  • Double Barrel Hunahpu – black and boozy, little bit of chile heat and rich chocolate.  Even more intense than Hunahpu, though the sweetness is moderated a little too.

Overall, we are very happy with the first round of El Catador Club, and will probably sign up for the next round.  The biggest benefit was being able to buy beer online and pick it up when it was convenient for us.  This is a huge improvement over the usual system of having only a few days notice and having to stand in line.  And in many cases, having the special beer run out before we got any (this happened more than once in the last couple of years).

The price wound up being about $20 per bottle, which seems very reasonable for high-gravity, small batch, barrel-aged beers.  And they have already announced that the second round will have its own website to automate buying and picking up beers — this will be a big improvement over the current system of buying on a third-party website and signing off on the beers being picked up in a huge binder in the tasting room.

The one addition we’d like to see in the second round is inclusion of some of Cigar City’s harder-to-find seasonal beers.  They may be easier to find in Tampa, but Cucumber, Big Sound, and especially Marshall Zhukov are very hard to find in Gainesville.  We called every bottle shop in town within a few hours of hearing about Marshall Zhukov being released, and nobody had any left.  Even with some of their more common beers, like their new Hopped on the High Seas IPA series, we weren’t able to find any of the first few batches in Gainesville (one shop told me their distributor laughed at them when they asked if they would be getting any).  So we would love the chance to buy a few bottles of those online and pick them up at the tasting room.

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Speaking of Sours…

We brewed a batch of saison in September and split it into five 1-gallon batches two months ago.  One batch was plain, one batch had Brett. Bruxellensis, one batch had Lactobacillus, one batch had both, and the fifth batch had White Labs’ sour mix.

I’m trying to be patient, and I’ve read that it often takes six months or more for the Brett. and Lacto. to work their magic.  But it has been two months, so we took some samples today to see how they’re going.  The first three batches were a little disappointing: they weren’t sour at all and had a definite sweet note, despite having attenuated pretty well (SG 1.014, 6.5%).  The fourth batch (Brett & Lacto) was lacking the sweet note and was just a tiny bit of tangy.  The fifth batch (White Labs’ mix) was decidedly sour.

So that’s promising.  We’ll park the growlers back in the pantry and check back in another few months, and try to be patient…

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There’s Sours, and Then There’s Sours

We’re both big fans of sours.  When we were in the Netherlands and Belgium, we tried basically every gueuze, kriek and framboise we could get our hands on.  The best, like Cantillon’s Rosé de Gambrinus are truly divine.  Even the mediocre kriek you find in gas stations (this is Belgium we’re talking about) are not too bad.  And there are a lot of American breweries making good sours too, like Cascade, Cisco, and occasionally Cigar City.  But one kind of sour we’ve never liked as much is Berliner Weisse.

I first had Berliner Weisse at the Cajun Cafe on the Bayou Sour Fest.  There was a whole section of Berliners and I tried a handful, and they ranged (in my opinion) from just-barely-drinkable down to the worst beers I’d ever tasted.  Several did not get even a second sip.  They were going head-to-head with fantastic beers from Hanssens, Cascade and Drie Fonteinen, so I put it down, at least in part, to the comparison.  But it was not a good first impression for a style that I was hearing more about all the time.  They’re trendy and I see them around when we go out, so I’ve tried them every so often, but I’ve never had one that I liked very much.


So I was a little anxious when I learned that we were going to receive a Grassland’s Big Bend Berliner Weisse.  We’ve really liked the past beers from GrassLands we’ve reviewed, so I had cause for optimism.

Big Bend Berliner WeisseThe beer looked innocuous enough — it came in a plain unlabeled brown longneck bottle that would be familiar to any homebrewer.  It was well-carbonated with a solid, but not excessive, glossy white head.  It poured typically golden and cloudy, much like a Hefeweizen.  There was almost no aroma, even in a snifter.  The first drink was as noticeable for the mouthfeel as the flavor: rich and luxurious, rather than the typical light body I expect from pale, wheaty beers.  But the taste was very nice — sour but not dramatically so, very smooth and almost creamy.  There was some sweetness like tropical fruit.  And, most importantly, it had none of the off-putting funkiness I’ve tasted in most Berliners I’ve had.  The tasting notes mention that they plan to infuse this beer with juice from local wine grapes, and that sounds like it could be a very nice complement.

Although it’s not a very high bar, I’d say this is the best Berliner I’ve had.  And another solid beer from GrassLands Brewing.

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A Few Bottles from Sussex

Wind went back to England on business, and picked up a few bottles (all from Sussex) to bring back:

We’d heard of Harveys — their brewery is in Lewes, which we visited many times when we lived in Brighton.  In fact, the last time we visited England (in 2008), we walked right past their brewery.  There was quite a bit of controversy back then when Greene King bought a local pub that is half a mile from the brewery and stopped serving Harveys beers.  But neither of us had ever had any of Harveys beers before.  Neither of us was very impressed by the Golden Sussex Ale, though.  It reminded us both of a very clean lager, with just a touch of honey sweetness.  It did have more hop bitterness in the finish, at least — though not much hop flavor or aroma to go with it.

I liked the Goodwood Sussex Ale better.  It was still a pretty light, clean beer with a touch of honey.  But it seemed much richer, with a little bit of twang.  I hadn’t heard of them before, but Goodwood Farm seems like an all-around organic farm producing meat, dairy, and (more importantly here) their own barley.  It looks like the beer is actually brewed by Hepworth in Horsham.

Which brings us to the last beer — Hepworth’s Curious IPA.  Like the Goodwood beers, this looks like a collaboration (this time with Chapel Down winery from Kent).  I liked this much better than the bitters, with a much more pronounced hop character, tending towards dry herbal reediness.  This reminded me of Het Ij’s Zatte tripel.

These three beers, taken together, remind me that the English beer scene is really focused on different issues than us Americans.  There is much more emphasis on cask-conditioned beer, brewed in traditional styles and served in the traditional way.  Which is to say, mostly lower-gravity beers, without strong hop character, with a lot less carbonation than I’m used to.  Even the most hop-forward beer, the Curious IPA, has very restrained hoppiness compared to the typical American IPA.

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Sour Experiment

Fresh off bottling our latest batch of cyser, we brewed another batch of saison on Labor Day.  This is happily burbling away in the pantry right now — burbling a little too happily, in fact.  It gunked up the airlock, so I replaced it with a blowout tube feeding into a gallon growler.  But then that blew out and got yeast gunk all over the floor and our shopping bags

Anyway, we’re using the same grain bill we’ve used for saison in the past (Pilsner base, Munich/Vienna for a little color, and some candi sugar), an ounce of leftover low-alpha hops from our IPA, and our go-to Belgian yeast (WLP 530, supposedly from Westmalle just like Achel and Westvleteren use).

The boil was pretty much the same, except for omitting flavor and aroma hops entirely.  I did try one change on wort chilling (having ready several forum posts saying you could just rack to a plastic fermenting bucket and wait a day for it to drop to yeast pitching temp): I skipped the usual wort chiller and tried just racking through an ice bath:

Alas, it only cooled the wort by 5° or so, so hardly worth it.  Maybe if I had a coil…

The plan is to split the batch into five 1-gallon growlers and try a few different souring agents.  We’ve tried a few of these before — the first time we brewed saison, did three different Bretts (Bruxellensis, Lambicus and Claussenii), plus White Labs’ sour mix (which includes Brett, Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus).  We definitely got different kinds of funkiness, but nothing like sour.  Turns out, we just need to wait longer.  Years longer.  So the plan is to try more aggressive souring agents (like Lactobacillus culture) and add some honeycombed oak planks to help the bugs grow.  Then we’ll just park the gallon growlers somewhere out of the way and wait for something sour to happen.  We’ve bottled almost all of our batches this year, and we’re tired of it.  So I think we’re going to be happy to leave those growlers souring for a year or two, and get back to making full batches and kegging them.

Speaking of waiting a while, our next batch will be our 18th, and our 18th anniversary is coming up next April, so we were thinking about brewing something we could leave fermenting until then.  We know lots of beers that benefit from years of aging, but we’re still thinking about what would like 6 months.  We thought about brewing a stout, but couldn’t agree on a recipe (she likes dry stout, I like sweet).  Maybe a Tripel?

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Bottling Cyser

The cyser has finished fermenting and cleared up, so we bottled it today.  We wound up with nine 12 oz. bottles from each batch.  We saved a small glass from each batch and tasted them after bottling.  We’ve found with past batches that cider/mead/etc. change quite a bit after bottling, and can take 6 months or more to work through some of the sweaty/cheesy off flavors.  But still it’s nice to get a preview of what the different batches will taste like:

The first batch was made with Tupelo honey, and it was bone dry (my refractometer reading may have been off, but I think it was somewhat south of water).  The honey character shone through, though it was a little reedy.  It seemed the like the most prototypical “mead” flavor we’ve produced.

The second batch was made with dark, molasses-like Everglades honey.  The dark, almost smoky flavor was definitely there, as was some sharp green apple flavor.

The third batch was made with wildflower honey from our Uncle John.  This seemed lighter than the others (despite having more residual sugar), and had a velvety complexity that gives me hope it will mature well.

The last batch was made with a lighter honey we got from Uncle John last year (clover?).  Since we had a larger jar of it, we used more and the resulting cyser has the highest ABV of anything we’ve brewed (12.8%).  It had a higher final gravity, with a rich mouthfeel to go with that.  It also had the strongest floral honey flavor, and was definitely the sweetest.

We were at the homebrew shop to get some priming sugar and some extra bottles (cleaning the labels off of bottles is my least favorite part of brewing — we keg some full batches, but small batches and especially mead/cyser need too long to mature, so bottles it is).  So we also picked up the grain and other supplies for making a sour saison.  We’ve tried various Brett yeasts before, and quite liked the funkiness.  But we never got anything like sourness.  After doing some reading, it looks like we just need to wait longer for the bacteria to do their thing, and add some wood to the fermentor to give them a good platform to live on.  So that’s our plan for the next batch: a single primary fermentation with 5 batches in 1-gallon growlers that we can just leave for a year or however long it takes.

It was also nice to see our local homebrew shop move into a new, larger location.  They even have a nice self-serve grain room now where you can pick and measure out your own grain.  They’ll still do it for you if you want, but I really enjoyed getting to paw through the gain myself.

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Double-Blind Lager Test

So if you’re looking at my Twitter or Untappd feed and wondering if I’ve been replaced by aliens, or lost a bet, or something, I assure you there’s a more reasonable explanation.  No, instead we decided we should do a taste test of all the crap lager we could find at convenience stores.  For example, if I’m stuck at a party/restaurant/bar/whatever and they’ve only got Bud Light and Corona, which should I pick?  Probably neither, but if I really want a beer to go with those tacos, would it make any discernible difference which one I chose?  Inquiring minds want to know.

I know that brand perceptions and other biases play a big factor, so I knew that a regular tasting wouldn’t cut it.  So we decided to do a double-blind taste test so neither of us would know which beer was which when we were tasting them.

The Lineup

I started with a list of the top 20 best-selling beers (sorry, it’s a slideshow, but that’s the list I used).  Then I went to a couple of local convenience stores to see which ones I could actually find in single cans (I cheated a little and bought a 4-pack of PBR because of the hipster factor).  And for good measure, I included Cigar City’s Hotter Than Helles as a “control” beer that I have actually drunk on purpose, and found decent.  So I wound up with all of the top 6 beers, plus a smattering of other top 20 beers — I’ve added their sales ranking and brewery ownership:

  • Bud Light (#1, AB-InBev)
  • Coors Light (#2, MillerCoors)
  • Budweiser (#3, AB-InBev)
  • Miller Lite (#4, MillerCoors)
  • Natural Light (#5, AB-InBev)
  • Corona Extra (#6, AB-InBev/Constellation)
  • Heineken (#10, Heineken)
  • Miller High Life (#11, MillerCoors)
  • Natural Ice (#14, AB-InBev)
  • Pabst Blue Ribbon (#17, Pabst)
  • Cigar City Hotter Than Helles (unranked, Cigar City)

Price is not a big factor for me when I choose my beer.  But I found it interesting to see the price differentiation.  The beer cost about $28 total.  At the high end, a 6-pack of Hotter Than Helles cost $11 ($1.83/can), the singles cost $13.50 ($1.50/can most of them were $1.19/can, and a few were $2/can because they were 24 oz.), and a 4-pack of PBR cost $3.60 (90¢/can).  And the Hotter Than Helles cans were 12 oz., as opposed to the 16-24 oz. cans at the convenience stores.  The PBR would probably be closer to the other singles if it wasn’t in a multi-pack.

Methodology

I had two main goals for the tasting process: taste a lot of beers to get a broad sample, and avoid knowing which ones were which.  I also wanted Wind and I to be tasting the same beers at the same time, so we could discuss them as we went.  So we came up with this process:

  1. We rounded up all the taster and juice glasses in the house.  We had 11 beers, so we had to dig into the high cabinets to get 22 small glasses.
  2. Wind left the room while I gave each beer a number (the slips of paper in the photo above), poured two glasses, and wrote down the beer-to-number mapping.
  3. I left the room and Wind replaced the numbers with randomized letters, wrote down the number-to-letter mapping, and rearranged the beers in order by their letter.
  4. We tasted the beers and rated/ranked them.
  5. We then consulted our mappings to figure out which beer was which.

Findings

The first thing we noticed was the color, or rather lack thereof.  Looking at the table full of tasting glasses, the color differences were minimal, and mostly attributable to the glasses or lighting.  So we’re definitely talking about pale yellow fizzy stuff.

The second thing we noticed was that there were actually differences between the beers.  Some had a very pronounced lager twang, but others didn’t.  Some of them had a little aroma, but others had absolutely none.  Some had honey-like sweetness or even a touch of maltiness, while others had basically no taste at all.  Some were very highly-carbonated or astringent like wheat, while others were smooth and clean.

By the time we were half-way through, it was obvious we were not going to agree on ranking the beers.  In particular, I rather liked the beer that wound up being PBR and found Bud Light to be middling, but Wind hated both of them.

That said, we were in complete agreement that Heineken was clearly the worst (which is pretty amusing since back in the days when we didn’t particularly like beer, Heineken was the main beer we did drink).  We also agreed on most of the bottom tier, too: Natural Light, Miller Lite, and Coors Light.

We also mostly agreed on the top of our rankings: 4 of our top 5 were the same, though in different orders: Corona, Budweiser, Hotter Than Helles, and, surprisingly, Natural Ice.  It was somewhat reassuring that we both included Hotter Than Helles in our favorites, though it’s worth noting that neither of us could pick it out of the lineup, and neither of us ranked it higher than third place.  This definitely confirmed my suspicion that a blind tasting was needed here.

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Cigar City Brewpub

We finally made it down to the Cigar City Brewpub recently.  It opened in April, and we’ve been down to Tampa a few times since then, but it didn’t work out until last weekend.

I was a little worried, since I read some pretty mixed reviews online, including complaints about lackluster food and spotty service.  As it turned out, we all enjoyed it and had no complaints.  The food menu had a lot of variety and some nice Cuban influences (we had black bean cakes and a picadillo meat loaf sandwich with yuca fries).  Everything was very tasty.

The beer menu had a handful of standards from the main brewery, but was mostly the beers brewed at the brewpub, including some special variants and one cask option (that sold out just before we got there, natch).  Wind had a light, crisp beer/cider mix (kind of like a shandy/radler), and I had a rich, spicy golden ale and (my favorite) some Beer Myth Bock, which was a lot like a sweet stout.

The atmosphere was nice and relaxed.  The decor was very typical pub — mostly dark wood and fabric, but there was enough natural light coming in to keep it from being cavelike.  They did have a couple of TVs playing sports, but luckily without sound.

We were also happy to see they had a cooler of bottles by the front door, well stocked with Cucumber Saison and Good Gourd.  I’d called all over town earlier in the week looking for Marshall Zhukov Stout and Good Gourd — and the few places that got any sold out in less than an hour, even with 1-bottle-per-customer limits.

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