Boulevard Brewing’s Smokestack Series

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been fortunate to sample a few of Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Smokestack series, since my girlfriend Linda and I visited my sister Leigh and her husband Keith in Kansas City last month. I have to really thank Keith for that, as every evening, even if we’d had plenty of Boulevard’s regular beers, he would pull out a bottle or two of one of the Smokestack Series bottles from stored in his fridge and pour everyone a glass. And before getting on the plane and flying home, he directed us to stop at some liquor store called Gomer’s, which from the outside, appeared to be a good place to get a 40 oncers of malt liquor to consume on a nearby street corner. But Gomer’s had a great selection inside, so I picked up a few Smokestack Series bottles to take home to San Jose. I would characterize the worst beer in the bunch as pretty good, so they’re worth hunting down. Here’s a quick run-down.

Two Jokers Double Wit
Quite frankly, I think their are way too many “Double Somethings” out there, and the Witbier style doesn’t seem to be one to lend itself to “doubling”. Then again, Boulevard’s ZON Witbier won a gold medal in this years Great American Beer Festival, so if I bite the bullet and try a Double Wit, this would be the one to try. And it is. There’s a hefty amount of cracker like malt, and lots of spiciness, with noticeable coriander and cardamon. Some peppery flavors as well, and of course, some bitter orange peel.

A Whole Bunch of Different Saisons
Really, I just couldn’t keep all the different Saisons in the series straight. At the Boulevard Brewery tour, they were pouring Tank7 Saison, a dry hopped Saison with a strong lemongrass aroma and plenty of herbal flavors, grassy hop bitterness, and a little lemon in there. Later on, Keith poured us something simply labelled Saison which was more yeasty, peppery, a little grassy and had this tingly carbonation to it. Finally, I took home a bottle of dry hopped Saison – Brett which seemed to have a lot of complex yeast flavors I couldn’t quite define, some resin-like character and a musty aroma to go with all that. I’m not a big Saison fan, but they all worked really well. If you have the chance to have a Boulevard beer with the word “Saison” in the title, I say go for it.

Double Wide Double IPA
Lots of grapefruitiness going on here to go with the stiff malt backbone. I liked the bitterness level of this one, as it was very noticeable, but not really aggressive. A little astringent, but got noticeably creamy as it warmed up.

Seeyoulater Dopplebock
It’s aged in cedar barrels, and the cedar is the dominant flavor, but it blends well with the caramel and banana-like fruit esters. It’s got a complex flavor to it, but still seems crisp and uncluttered.

So glad Leigh and Keith could show us the way around Kansas City.

The Session #33: Framed by 33

This month’s Session, by Andrew Couch, of I’ll Have a Beer is on framing beers, with the topic loosely summed up as “write about how the context the beer is presented affects the drinking experience”.

Psychologists have long known that our choices are biased by the way each choice is framed. To illustrate this, suppose you are the head of a disease control agency, and are presented with two options to combat a disease which is expected to kill six hundred people unless something is done to stop it. A team of doctors have determined the outcomes of two possible options.

Option A: 200 people will be saved.

Option B: There is a one-third probability that 600 people will be saved, and a two-thirds probability that no one will be saved.

What do you do?

In a psychological experiment where subjects were presented with these options, 72% choose Option A. In the same experiment, subjects were also presented with the same options, simply worded differently.

Option C: 400 people will die.

Option D: There is a one-third probability that nobody will die, and a two-thirds probability that 600 people will die.

When presented with the same options framed differently, the same participants who picked Option A 72% of the time, instead choose Option D 78% of the time. Of course, we would rather save people than let them die, and so the options framed positively are favored over those framed negatively, known as positive frame bias. (1)

Psychologists have found numerous other framing effects, which I won’t go into here. But clearly, the beer we chose and our experience drinking it is framed by things like the beer label, word of mouth, the advertising, the reputation of the brewer, and numerous other sensory inputs that are quite difficult to separate from the actual liquid in the glass. Beer judges have known this for years as most beer competitions are judged blind, where beer is presented to judges in unmarked glasses, and judges are not allowed to influence each other.

I find myself struggling with framing effects explaining craft beer to family and friends who are not craft beer drinkers. Often, they actually would like to drink something from their local brewer, but their perception of craft beer is that it is “too strong”, overly bitter, hops run amok, and simply not enjoyable to them to drink. Beer names like “Arrogant Bastard”, “Damnation” or “Hop Stoopid” tend to reinforce this notion. I’ve responded telling them that many craft brewers release lighter styles they might find more enjoyable. More than once, I been told, “Well, I really enjoy Blue Moon, from some small brewery in Colorado”. They are usually pretty disappointed to learn that Blue Moon is actually made by Coors, a massive industrial brewery. Coors sells Blue Moon by framing it as a product of some quaint Colorado brewery, and the fact that once people get past the deception, they often lose interest in the beer seems to validate this strategy.

One brewery it took a while to warm up to was Flying Dog Brewery. So many times in a bottle shop, gazing at a wide array of beers in from of me, I simply moved past the frenzied, graffiti-style art Flying Dog uses on their label, and picked up something from a different brewery. In this Session, we’ve been asked to try beers we wouldn’t normally drink, so I decided to try a couple Flying Dog brews, just to see what the beer is like.

As is often the case, stretching my beer horizons was rewarded, as I found the beer to be excellent. The Flying Dog Kerberos Triple had a light toasty yeast flavors with a little apricot, and a clean, clear character to it. Flying Dog’s Double Dog Imperial Pale hooked with a great creamy mouth feel, toffee-like malty flavors coupled with a little tangerine and an orange peel bitterness. I can’t help wondering why was the beer label art, designed to attract me to the beer, was actually pushing me away.

I think the answer to this question originates in the way beer was initially framed to me. I spent my childhood during the 70’s in the small Midwestern college town of Bowling Green, OH, located about 15 miles south of Toledo. My dad exclusively drank “33”, Rolling Rock, and would carefully allow me a sip of his Saturday afternoon beer. My father later told me he did this to prevent me from abusing alcohol, to demystify beer at an early age. These were also early lessons to respect beer, that it wasn’t a beverage to be carelessly guzzled, but to be savored and enjoyed at special times. I also remember Dad proudly informing me Rolling Rock was brewed “in the glass-lined tanks of Old Latrobe” in Western Pennsylvania. Latrobe is about 300 miles from Bowling Green, but in those days, drinking exclusively Rolling Rock was supporting your local brewer, and from this I learned the place the beer was brewed was just as important as the beer itself. These experiences, burned into the neurons of my young brain, still guide me today.

I find it sad and ironic that InBev bought Rolling Rock, shut down the Latrobe brewery, and moved production to Newark, NJ in a cost cutting move, priming the pump of their plans for world wide beer domination. Yet, InBev still has the audacity to market Rolling Rock with the grammatically deficient slogan “Born Small Town”, trying to sell the beer by framing it as from a tradition bound, small town brewery. I guess the corporate folks at InBev figured out a more accurate grammatically deficient slogan like “Born small town, multi-national corporation bought brewery, laid off workers, bean-counters rule day” would not be a good way to frame Rolling Rock if they wanted to sell lots of it.

But going back to my earliest framing of beer, I believe my earliest experiences of beer explains my initial aversion to Flying Dog beers, framed in chaotic, modern artwork. I’ve come to realize my favorite breweries like Anderson Valley, El Toro, and Deschutes are favorites of mine in part because these breweries evoke their unique local geography into their marketing, and are relatively close to where I live. This new understanding about how my beer preferences are shaped will allow me to make more informed decisions on the beer I choose to drink. There’s nothing wrong with psychological warm fuzziness guiding what we drink. But of course, craft beer drinking is a lot about exploration and expanding beyond your comfort zone. And if you’re going to expand beyond your comfort zone, it’s helpful to know where the discomfort is coming from.

(1) Positive framing example from The Mind of the Market, Micheal Shermer, Henry Holt and Company, copyright 2008, pages 84-85.

Looking for it in the wrong place

At night on a sales trip, I fly into Dulles Airport from Boston and check into my hotel in Fairfax, VA. It’s almost ten o’clock, and everything else around the hotel is closed, except for the Hooter’s across the street. It’s been over twenty years since I set foot into a Hooter’s, but it in a flash of twisted logic, I figure they might have some local beer on tap or in bottles. Not ready to crash in my room, I mosey across the street to see what’s on tap.

Of course, you’re probably thinking I’m really going for something else besides the beer. But I’ve found good craft beer selections in unlikely places like dingy airport bars, squeaky-clean suburban convenience stores, and dilapidated liquor stores that one would otherwise assume specialize in 40 oncers of malt liquor to be consumed immediately outside from a paper bag. So maybe craft beer has arrived at Hooter’s. Then again, Hooter’s is not exactly one of the more progressive organization in the world, so if you’re snickering at me for claiming I’m going to Hooter’s for the beer, well you have a point.

The best they could muster was Sam Adam’s Boston Lager. They were sold out of Sam Adam’s Octoberfest. The closest thing they had to a local brewery was Yuengling on tap, even though my waitress couldn’t pronounce it right. Sorry, while “Jung-ling” sounds like an psychologically fascinating beer, it’s pronounced “ying-ling”. Yuengling is a toasty lager I enjoy, and they don’t distribute into California, so it wasn’t a complete waste on the beer hunting front. Oh, you really don’t think I was there for something else, do you?

Firm female cleavage is something I’ve totally been in favor of for since I was twelve. My eyes work pretty well, and I’ve got plenty of male hormones, so like any red-blooded heterosexual male with the evolutionary drive to implant his DNA into a healthy, fit female, I enjoy looking at women’s breasts. Linda, my girlfriend of nearly four years, understands that, and as long as I don’t look at other women’s breasts for too long, she’s OK with that. Or at least that’s what she tells me.

But believe it or not, all the slender 20-25 year old Hooter girls, quietly gliding around the place, looking eager for the night to just end so they could leave and change into something less ridiculous, just didn’t interest me in the slightest. Maybe being twice the age of the eye candy had something to with this. I’ve recently suspected that I’ve officially become an old fart, and perhaps this is God’s way of confirming that for me. Then again with Linda in my life, who is demonstably good for me and my kids, when you’re lucky enough to be in that situation, things like Hooter’s girls become a pointless distraction.

The Beer Works in Lowell, MA

While in the Boston area on business, I had the opportunity to check out The Beer Works at their Lowell, MA location. I was travelling that day with Scott, my company’s manufacturer’s representative in the area. Scott was kind enough to take my picture in front of the old brick building of the Beer Works before we entered after a day of selling.

With plenty of interesting beers on the menu we, started off with sampler flight consisting of four beers of our choice from the fourteen house beers listed. We found those beers pretty good enough, so we decided to sample four more with dinner. After that, I really wanted to sample a few more, or have a least a pint or two of my favorites. But Scott, who was doing the days driving, was clearly pacing himself to drive home, so I figured he would appreciate if I restrained myself, too. Of course, dealing with drunk factory sales people is part of any manufacturer’s representative’s job description. But my sixth sense tells me my company’s management would be less than enthusiastic about one of their sales people getting shit-faced on a sales trip and posting the story on the Internet, so it’s probably a good idea I stopped when I did.

Anyway, I was fortunate that Scott knew a lot about beer. And while two sales guys together are rarely at a loss for words, it was a lot of fun chatting away about the beers we drank that night, as well as some of the other beers we’ve had in the past. If I would characterize The Beer Works beers, they tend to go for the maltier session styles, and create something very drinkable, yet flavorful, with a few interesting wrinkles. Here’s a run down on what we tried that night.

A really solid Octoberfest beer. Very fresh tasting, with a little caramel tasting malt, and well balanced herbal hop bitterness at the end.

There’s a very noticeable level of pumpkin and pumpkin spices like cinnamon and clove in this light ale. It’s pretty noticeable, but pretty well blended. They almost over do it, in my opinion, but in the end, this works pretty well.

Red October
I’m going to resist saying something “clever” like, “I’m sure glad I hunted for this Red October” or some other lame movie tie-in. But hey, this was another solid beer, being rather malty and rich with a little roasty, toasty malt. What resulted was very smooth and drinkable.

Dye House IPA
Have you ever gone out on a first date was someone and found her restrained, nuanced, with a character hard to identify, and were intrigued enough to go on a second date, only to finally realize that this “subtle sophistication” was her really not being all that interesting or alluring? Well, this beer did that to me, as I had a second sampler of this, thinking I missed something on the first go around. I hadn’t. It’s light, a little resiny and that’s about it. It’s a lot like the local Harpoon IPA. Except for Harpoon IPA is really enhanced by a floral component in the hops, which the Dye House IPA seems to totally lack. I’ve been out on the East Coast for only two days, and already I need a West Coast brewer to hit me in the face with a bunch of hops.

Milk Stout
Another smooth Beer Works offering, and yes, milky tasting, too. Nice little dark roasted malt bitterness at the end. It’s another subdued beer, very easy drinking, and that’s a good thing.

Kentucky Common
This was Scott and my favorite beer of the night. It’s a Common aged in Bourbon barrels. Another smooth tasting beer, with a very noticeable woody taste, and a dry finish. You might think this would be a highly complex tasting alcohol bomb, but it checks in at around 6% abv, and has clean, uncluttered taste. We both found this very unique and memorable. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, beers like this that make visiting places like The Beer Works worth the effort.

Dusty and Crusty at the Rogue Ale House

A few days ago, Ross Baechle, who’s involved in “Marketing / Athlete Services” e-mailed me to spread the word about Dusty & Crusty, a Cheese and Barley Wine Pairing being held at Rogue Ale house November 16. I’m afraid he didn’t respond to my question about how “Athlete Services” fits into Rogue’s plans, so this may forever remain a mystery. But you can never go wrong with beer and cheese, and the event looks pretty yummy.

Hosted by Sheana Davis of the Epicurean Connection, 7 years of Rogue Old Crustacean Barleywine will be paired with artisan cheeses from Delice de la Vallee, Rogue Creamery, Widmer Cellars, Carr Valley Cheese Company, Bohemian Creamery and Mato St. George.

Tickets are available at Rogue Ales Public House: 673 Union Street – (415) 362-7880

Elation and Sorrow at Gomer’s Liquors

Surprise, surprise, surprise! Who would have thought a liquor with a sign with such, um, character would have such a good beer selection. Gomer’s in Kansas City’s Westport neighborhood. There were the Midwestern standards like O’Dell’s, Bell’s, Schlafly, and Boulevard Brewing. Plus many beers from the West Coast and Colorado like Stone Brewing, Lagunitas, and Avery. And a strong import selection as well. I found most everything I was looking for at Gomer’s, with the notable exception of Miss Poobie behind the cash register.

So with my trip out in Kansas City coming to an end, I picked up a three bottles of Boulevard Brewing’s Smokestack series which was about all that could fit into our suitcase. Linda and I had a great time with my sister Leigh and her husband Keith, and really enjoyed Kansas City. And stopping at Gomer’s before taking the plane home, seeing all that great beer behind the glass refrigerator doors I couldn’t take with me was not just saddening, it was tragic.

We’re not in California Anymore: Free State Brewing

A recent article on Free State Brewing mentioned that owner Chuck Magerl studied Bay Area brewpubs before opening Free State Brewing. If you ask me, Bay Area brewers ought to put down their out of control hop monsters and pay attention to what Chuck’s doing. The beers seem to have a lot of respect for the grain, which should be too surprising from a brewery out in Kansas. Something else Free State Brewing is known for is sourcing from local merchants wherever possible. And that’s good for my brother-in-law Keith, who works for a Kansas City Mexican food supplier, and sells Mexican ingredients to Free State Brewing.

Free State Brewing is at the northern end of the Midwestern college town of Lawrence, Kansas in an old, narrow two-story building. When it opened in 1989, it was the first legal brewery to open in Kansas in 100 years. It’s a brewery that wears it’s local Civil War-era history heavy on its sleeve, with beers such as Emancipation Pale Ale, or the John Brown Ale, named after the militant abolitionist.

The fight between pro-slavery and anti-slavery activists as to whether Kansas would become a slave state or a free state was one of the early confrontations that triggered the Civil War. Popular vote would decide whether or not Kansas would become a free state. Large groups of both pro- and anti-slavery activists poured into Kansas to decide the outcome, which at times escalated into violent confrontations, and many of these battles were centered in and around Lawrence. Finally, on January 29, 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state, less than three months before the Battle of Fort Sumpter which began the Civil War.

(Tragic Prelude by Joh Steuart Curry, depicting the militant
John Brown, and inspired by the armed conflict over slavery in Kansas)

Keith and my sister Leigh visit often, and so with my girlfriend Linda and I in town to visit, we dropped by Free State Brewing on a cold, overcast fall Sunday. Let me just ask that if you ever go there, please order some tortilla chips, tortilla, or their custard-like tort with Mexican Ibarra chocolate to help my brother-in-law out. So what did we think about their beers?

John Brown Ale
Brown ales are not the most exciting style in the world, but this one crackles with rich, roasted malt and nutty flavors like a Civil War-era rifle. Has a little grainy mouth feel to it, but that was a plus to me. We’re in Kansas, it should be grainy. A really excellent brown ale.

Ad Astra Ale
From the Free State Brewing website, Ad Astra comes from the Kansas State Motto – Ad Astra per Aspera, Latin words meaning “To the Stars through Difficulties”. Free State blends Pale, Caramel, and Munich malts, balanced with Northern brewer and Fuggles hops. We found the resulting brew very crisp and fresh tasting, with some sweet fruity flavors.

Stormwatch IPA
Free State uses Amarillo hops and some dark roasted malts. I found it rather grassy, herbal, and astringent, and maybe it’s just me, but it tasted a lot like nearby Boulevard Brewing’s Single Wide

Blue Sky Rye
It’s excellent, unique session beers like this one that make finding places like Free State seeking out. Two types of rye are combined with English Pale Ale malt and dark crystal malt, with Styrian Golding and Crystal hops to balance it out. The subtle rye flavors really add dimension to this brew, and it has a wonderful honey like sweetness to go with all those great fresh malty flavors.