Hops Trellised

The hops have already started putting out feelers (especially the Golding which has sent out 5 of them already), so we moved them over to a place with good southern exposure and started a twine trellis for them to climb up the mostly-abandoned backyard play fort.

For the Golding, we got to choose the best two bines and prune off the rest.  The Fuggle only had one decent bine going, so we’ll wait and see if it has another.  The Saaz has a couple of very small shoots, so it should be ready to be trained in a few weeks.

Apparently hops can grow 15 to 20 feet.  We’ve only got 8 feet of fort (really more like 7 feet because of the pots).  But if we’re blessed with the problem of overgrowing bines, I figure we can just let them grow over the top of the fort.

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My First Zwanze Day

We were down in Orlando this weekend to visit the new Harry Potter Diagon Alley part of the Universal Studios theme park with the kids.  I snuck off for a couple of hours to head up to Redlight Redlight for my first Zwanze Day (Cantillon’s annual release where about 50 bars around the world get a single keg of a special beer brewed for the occasion).

I dithered a bit about whether it was worth the hassle.  I first heard about Zwanze day a couple years ago, and Redlight Redlight has been the only site in Florida.  It’s on the other side of town from where we usually go for the theme parks, so I always balked the logistics of driving there and having to sober up before heading back, or the price of taking a taxi back and forth across Orlando.  But this year I decided it was worth the hassle, and I tried Uber for the first time for the trip there (which worked out much better than a taxi, and was a lot cheaper).  In fact, Uber went so well that it took me about 35 minutes to get from the middle of Universal Studios to Redlight Redlight, instead of the hour-plus I expected.

When I got there about 2½ hours before opening time, I was a little surprised that there was no line yet.  Cantillon is one of the most-loved-by-beer-geeks breweries in the world, and the annual Zwanze release is their most sought-after.  So I killed a little time walking around the neighborhood and started standing in line when a few other people showed up.  I’m lucky that I was at the front of the line, because the tickets for the Zwanze beer itself were sold out before I decided I would go, and I got a ticket only because there had been a cancellation.

The wait went quickly since I was chatting with a group of guys from Ocala, and we quickly grabbed a table when the event started and proceeded to share glasses of almost everything on the impressive taplist.  Some highlights:

  • Zwanze 2014 (Cuvée Florian): of course this was the main event, and lived up to my expectations.  This year’s beer was a cross between Iris and a kriek.  Iris is much hoppier than typical Belgian beers, but the hops were very gentle here, and the cherries were also toned down.  The result was a delightful sour beer, with just a beautiful ruby color, and a little earthy cherry flavor.
  • Redlight Redlight also had Cantillon’s Iris, Gueuze, and Mamouche on tap.  I’d had the Gueuze several times when we lived in the Netherlands, and it was fantastic as always.  Iris and Mamouche were both new to me: Iris I liked immediately and especially since it’s one part of the Zwanze blend, it was nice to compare them side-by-side.  Mamouche at first seemed too herbal and bitter to me, but it grew on me as I sipped at.
  • I was disappointed this summer that I didn’t get up to Hill Farmstead in Vermont.  So I was doubly glad to have their collaboration with Blaugies, La Vermontoise.  I had somehow gotten it into my head that this was a sour, so I was surprised when it turned out to be a saison, and a mild and smooth one at that.  But once I adjusted to that, I found this to be a very nice, sweet, floral beer.  So now I’m really irritated that I didn’t get up there to get a case of it…
  • Angry Chair’s 3 Little Birds was a very nice Berliner Weisse, with a very subtle tropical fruit character.  It especially benefited from a direct comparison to Cigar City’s Passion Guava Grove, which is a much bolder beer that seemed overbearing in contrast.
  • The only stout we tried was Mikkeller’s Beer Geek Brunch Weasel, which was fantastic, and the perfect contrast to the saisons and sours.
  • I finished out the afternoon with The Bruery’s Oude Tart.  This is a wonderful sour I’ve had several times before and always enjoyed.  It has more body and sweetness than the Cantillon sours, and felt like a perfectly-balanced way to end.

Not only did I have some wonderful beers, I also met some nice people and had a great time sharing and talking about the beers with them.  This really ties into a few posts (e.g., this one from Boak & Bailey) that I’ve seen in the last few days about the marketing strategy for Shock Top, which boils down to positioning it as a simpler, more approachable craft beer to people who think Shock Top is made by a small/independent brewery (instead of AB-InBev).  I guess I see the parallel with overcomplicated, mystique-shrouded wine snobbery, but beer is a lot cheaper, and I’ve consistently seen bartenders hand out a bunch of samples and do their best to find the best beer for anyone who walks in the door.

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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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