Cider Tasting

It may be fall in other places, but we’ve got a few more months of 80°+ weather ahead of us in Florida.  So we recently did a double-blind tasting of several bottles of cider we picked up at the grocery store.  They’re probably not as good as some of the cider we can get in New York (like Eve’s and Bellwether), but then that’s not really the reason I wanted to do a double-blind tasting.  I really had two main reasons:

  1. There’s so much snobbery around beer and cider, and so much of the market is driven more by image and brand than by taste — so I feel like it’s a good reality check to make sure I’m not just buying into that.

  2. I often find myself in a restaurant with only mass-marketed beers and ciders to choose from — so it’s really helpful to know which ones I like better, and if any of them are worth drinking.

The methodology was the same as our lager tasting: one of us poured the ciders into glasses and assigned them numbers, and the other mixed them up and assigned them numbers.  So neither of us knew which ciders were which while we were tasting them, and we revealed them afterwards.

Unlike our lager tasting, there were no big surprises.  We didn’t agree on the exact ordering, or exactly where the drinkable/undrinkable line was.  But we were in broad agreement and our rankings lined up pretty well with what we thought coming in to the tasting:

  • Both of us thought Redd’s Apple Ale and Woodchuck Summer were pretty bad.  Wind ranked Redd’s dead last and thought it was the only truly undrinkable one in the bunch (finding Woodchuck Summer strangely un-summer-y but barely passable).  I thought they were both terrible and thought Redd’s was slightly less terrible than Woodchuck Summer.

  • Neither of us liked Stella Cidre or Woodchuck Granny Smith very much.  But they were definitely better than Redd’s and Summer.  I found Stella Cidre to be strangely mineral tasting, and we both agreed there was not much flavor at all.  The Granny Smith was at least crisp and dry, but still just not much there.

  • Strongbow Gold and Angry Orchard Crisp were the clear winners.  Strongbow is much juicier and Angry Orchard is much drier, but we both found them very drinkable.

With that in mind, I’m tempted to do another round, using Strongbow and Angry Orchard as controls for whatever craft cider we can find around town.  Though it would be hard to do a blind test of our favorite cider (Julian’s Cherry Bomb) since its strong red color would obviously give it away.

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Hops in Florida?

I had always assumed that it was too hot and/or swampy to grow hops in Florida, since they’re typically grown in cooler climes.  But it turns out that quite a few people have tried it (at least at the backyard-hobbyist level) and posted about it online.  So it seems at least vaguely plausible that we can grow them successfully in our backyard, so we figured it was worth giving it shot.

We asked our local garden center about it and they hadn’t heard of anybody growing hops in Gainesville.  But we found a nice online retailer and got a few varieties of hops that we like and use frequently (Fuggle, Goldings, and Saaz).  A few days later, we had a small box with three hop crowns packed in what looks like barley hulls.  We got them potted in nice large pots this morning, and tucked them under an oak tree in our backyard to give them good shade and shelter from the heavier rains, to give them a gentle introduction to the Florida climate.  Once they’re established and putting out bines, we plan to trellis them up (and if necessary, over) our backyard play fort that’s not getting much use lately.  With any luck, our early winter will be roughly like the harvest season in more typical hop-growing places, and we’ll have fresh hops to brew with before Christmas.

The growing conditions are supposed to have a big impact on the aroma and flavor, so we’ll have to wait and see how they turn out.  But we figured going with hops we like was a good starting point.  There are a dizzying number of hop varieties, and a lot of new ones coming out all the time.  So if these three don’t work out, we might try again with a few different varieties before we give up hope.

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First Magnitude Brewing

We just got back to Florida and were excited to hear about Gainesville’s second brewery opening this weekend: First Magnitude Brewing.  They are located in a typical industrial park location at 1220 SE Veitch Street, on a side street off South Main Street, just south of SE 10th Avenue and the Hawthorne bike trail.  They’re just a mile down Main St. from the Citizens Co-Op, so we did some shopping and headed over right as they opened.

Inside the brewery building is a large open space with a few picnic tables, and a shiny stainless steel brew system against the back wall.  We came in out of the scorching heat with our two kids in tow.  We met co-found Christine Denny who welcomed us to their opening day and assured us their tasting room was family-friendly.  The tasting room is on the right as you enter the brewery, and has several large picnic tables (comfortably seating 8 each), and plenty of room to stand around.  Which is good, because by the time we’d grabbed a table and a couple of pints, the tables were all full and the line ran the length of the tasting room and threatened to go out the door.

One thing I noticed as I walked up to their bar, with 20 taps along the back wall, was how readable their tap handles were.  So many tap handles have just a small badge, or dark/low-contrast text that’s barely readable.  But these tap handles had bold, high-contrast lettering going the length of the tap handles that I could easily read.  I’m looking forward to seeing one of those tap handles around town soon.  Update: good photo of the tap handles.

We would have loved to sample all their beers (and the wonderful guest taps too!) but they were understandably not doing flights on their first day.  So we picked three that looked good to us:

  • Karst Belgian Pale: a delightful and delicate Belgian pale with great yeast character and a smooth sweetness. This was Wind’s favorite.
  • Drift English Mild: a great example of a less common style — roasty without being bitter, malty without being heavy or oversweet.  In many ways it reminds me of a Scottish ale that hasn’t been Americanized, an easy-drinking flavorful ale.
  • River Rise Belgian Strong Dark: rich and malty, with a strong plum/raisin aspect.  Earthy and a little spicy.

The tasting room is already very nice and comfortable, attractively decorated and has a lot more room than Swamp Head’s current tasting room (though I’m looking forward to their new brewery and tasting room they’re building right now).  First Magnitude is also planning a beer garden which will be a welcome addition once the weather cools off later this Fall.

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Vermont Brewers Festival

We headed up to Burlington last weekend to visit family and go to the Vermont Brewers Festival.

From the beginning, the festival showed signs of careful planning.  Online ticketing went smoothly, even though the tickets sold out in a few hours.  There were three 4-hour sessions planned over the course of the weekend.  Each attendee received a number of tickets, so the beers were limited.  And the food/merchandise area opened 30 minutes earlier than the beer booths.  So we arrived early, had a quick lunch, and pored over the taplist while waiting for the main event.

When the beer started flowing, long lines quickly formed at three booths: two breweries you may have heard of, and one we hadn’t heard of (the only booth that we saw run out of beer).  The benefit of the multiple sessions and those long lines was that the other lines were pretty short, ranging from at most ten minutes to no wait at all.  So we were able to leisurely make our way through nearly 30 beers (15 tickets each).  Some of our favorites:

  • Lost Nation Petit Ardennes – a spicy, fruity saison — perfect on a warm day.
  • Alchemist Crusher – a sweet, resiny big brother to Heady Topper.
  • Brasserie Dunham Saison du Pinnacle – a tart saison with nice Brett funkiness.
  • Foley Brothers Fair Maiden – a big woody IPA with pungent grapefruit hopppiness.
  • Mystic Chardonnay Saison – a fine wine-barrel fermented saison, with notes of honey.

And of course, it wouldn’t be a festival without some strange beers you’d never try otherwise:

  • Burlington Beer’s Folklife – a gruit which tasted exactly like a nice loaf of rosemary bread.  Not unpleasant, exactly, but pretty far from what I normally expect from beer (even with a pretty liberal definition).
  • Kingdom Brewery’s Jack Piipa – a pumpkin IIPA, very rummy and hot.  One of the strongest beers I saw at the festival too.

Overall, one of the best festivals I’ve been to — short lines, good portable bathrooms (not portapotties), good food, a great variety of beers and plenty to go around.  The setting in the park right on Lake Champlain was fantastic.  The only shortcomings I can think of is that there wasn’t much shade, and water was only available over at one side of the site.  Unlike Florida, you don’t have to have coolers full of water at every booth to prevent heatstroke.  But it definitely would improve the experience.

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Hopshire Farm & Brewery

We’ve decamped to upstate New York for the rest of the summer, and determined to visit a few of the farm breweries that are popping up all over the area.  So we headed over to Hopshire Farm & Brewery, planning to taste their beers and have a picnic dinner.  We were excited to see hop bines growing in the front of the brewery, but disappointed to see the picnic tables mentioned on their website were just off the parking lot, and in full sun.

Coming in the front door, we entered a cozy square taproom.  On the left was the brewery, and on the right was a small side room with a table and some toys for kids.  Luckily, we were there early and were the only ones there, so we were able to eat in the side room.

At the back was a bar with seven beers on tap, divided into mellow, middling, and mighty:

Mellow

  • Beehave: a light and refreshing ale, made with local honey.  It has a nice sweetness (without the heavier body of maltier beers), and reminds us of a honey cream ale from back home we quite like.
  • Brambles: a straw-colored wheat beer, with just a hint of earthy raspberry.  Has more wheat twang than I care for, but Wind quite liked it.

Middling

  • Daddy ‘O: an English pale ale, but with more fruity yeast character than typical, and a nice Fuggles finish.
  • Shire Ale: not as dark as the typical near-black Scottish ale you often see, but with more malt complexity.  In particular, this beer has more dark malt roastiness than typical.  This was another beer that Wind liked more than I did. 
  • Hamlet of Varna: a 5% session IPA.  This seems like a popular style this summer and we’ve just had a few of these (like Southern Tier’s Farmer’s Tan).  I do appreciate the trend away from big IPAs, though they do suffer in rapid-fire tastings because, at the end of the day, they are weaker beers.  So I liked Hamlet of Varna quite a bit, but NearVarna even more.

Mighty

  • NearVarna: a wonderful American IPA in the malty East-coast style.  Especially immediately after the milder Hamlet of Varna, this is a fantastic hop showcase.
  • Sympathy: a rich, full-bodied Belgian golden ale with characteristic estery profile.   My favorite of the bunch, and the strongest.

After we’d eaten and enjoyed a couple of half-pints, we got a couple of growlers filled.  By this time, the taproom had filled up, but the wait wasn’t long.  Alas, even though they seemed to be sealed properly, both growlers were undercarbonated.  We had the first the same night, and the second the next night.  The beer still tasted fine, but obviously not as good as in the taproom.

 

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Why sweaters are bad

“Don’t knit sweaters for significant others,” they say.

“They’re cursed,” they say.

I ignored this sage advice because I was pretty sure that, unlike the fabled Boyfriend sweater (in which the boyfriend is no more by the time the sweater is finished), Redbeard would still be around once I finished The Husband Sweater. However, I was not prepared for this sweater to suck all of the air out of the knitting room. It’s been quite awhile since the last knitting post. I have been “working” on this sweater this entire time. No other projects. Because, if I’m knitting, my guilt tells me that I should be knitting on the Husband Sweater. Spinning? Oh, no-  Must. Knit. Husband. Sweater. Felt projects? Husband. Sweater.

It’s a cardigan, and I’m sure I will love it *once it is done*. Right now? Not so much. The back, both sides and four inches of one sleeve are done. My goal is to finish it this summer no matter what, just so I can work on all the other projects I want to do.

And I will blog the heck out of it once I vanquish this terrible beast finish this fantastic sweater…

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LeeRoy the Red Imperial Amber Ale

Our luck with the GrassHoppers Club keeps on rolling, and a bottle of LeeRoy the Red Imperial Amber Ale showed up on our doorstep recently.  I’d been looking forward to this for a while, since I met Gabe in person at Hunahpu’s Day, and was promised a bottle as soon as it was done dry-hopping.

It was worth the wait.

Unlike the other beers we’ve had from GrassLands, which have tended towards the lighter side, this beer was a high-gravity (9%), hop-forward powerhouse.  It is rich and malty, and manages to avoid being boozy or overly sweet.  The hoppiness is very spicy and resiny, with the tasting notes listing Columbus, Cascade, Mt. Hood and Citra hops.

At 75+ IBUs and 9% ABV, I’d call this an IPA instead of a hoppy amber.  Though it doesn’t have the characteristic dank and funky hoppiness that I usually expect from Florida IPAs like Jai Alai or Big Nose.  The hops are more what I expect from an American IPA, but with more maltiness.  So maybe “Imperial Amber” isn’t too far off the mark.

Of the GrassLands beers I’ve tried so far, LeeRoy is my favorite so far.  It’s a little too potent for everyday drinking, but I look forward to being able to have a few of these in the fridge when I’m in the mood for something stronger.

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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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