Thursday, May 19, 2011

National Geographic Live: Mini Micros, a World Tour of Small Breweries

After having recently toured the International Beer Fest in Cleveland, I prepared myself for another world tour ... a tasting of beers produced by mini-micro breweries from around the world.  This tour is the latest of a yearly beer tasting hosted by the National Geographic Live.  For many years, this event was hosted by Michael Jackson.  The writer, not the singer.  In beer circles, Michael Jackson was truly respected and celebrated for his efforts to spread the knowledge about beer and beer styles.  After his passing, the yearly tastings continued, hosted by Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery.  Both my beautiful wife, Clare, and I have attended the past three National Geographic Live beer tastings, all of which were hosted by Garrett.

With an incredible knowledge about both craft beer and food pairing, Garrett Oliver has opened our eyes to the craft beer movement.  He has introduced us to accomplishments of craft brewers in countries that we would never have thought would have a role in the movement.  During our first tasting, Garrett introduced us to the Italian craft brewers, such as Birrificio del Ducato, Birra Baladin, and Birrificio Grado Plato.  The next year, he introduced us to a wide range of barrel-aged beers, providing an informative discussion about the process of aging beers and the effects that different types of wood can have on the aroma and tast of a beer.  The third year, Garrett introduced us to Scandanavian craft brewers, such as Nogne O and Mikkeller.  Every time we attend the National Geographic Live beer tasting, and listen to Garrett's thoughts about the beers, we always leave knowing more about beer, along with how to better pair those beers with food.

This year, the focus is on "mini-micro" breweries.  "Mini-micro" is generally defined as those breweries who produce less than one thousand barrels a year. To give you some perspective, I did some research and found rough estimates showing the beer production of some weel established brewers, as well as some of my favorite brewers.  For example, the Boston Beer Company, which produces Sam Adams, produced more than 2,000,000 barrels of beer in 2010.   Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and New Belguim Brewing Company produced more than 500,000 barrels of beer that year.  Magic Hat Brewing produced more than 150,000 barrels.  Dogfish Head Ales produced more than 100,000 barrels during that year, as did Garrett's Brooklyn Brewery.  Rogue Ales produced more than 75,000 barrels during 2010.  Brewers such as Victory Brewing, Schlafly Beer and Flying Dog Ales produced more than 30,000 barrels that year. All of these numbers provide some interesting perspective.  So, when we talk about breweries that produce less than 1,000 barrels of beer in a year, we are talking about some very small producers.

If one were to ask, do you know of any "mini-micros" or really small breweries, the answer would most likely be "no," unless you read my last post when I reviewed the Lord Whimsey's Mild Pale Ale, which is brewed by Baying Hound Aleworks, a "nano-brewer" based in Rockville, MD.  I have to say that, off the top of my head, I could not name any other mini-micros or nano-breweries.  For that reason, I was very excited to be able to learn about some new breweries and taste their beers.  After all, given the size of their operations and output, the distribution of these beers is limited, at best.  Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

Garrett brought 9 beers with him to the tasting this year.  Only one of which I had previously tried.  Here are some of my notes with respect to each beer. 

1.  Ca L'Arenys (Barcelona, Spain): Guineu Riner.  The first beer that we sampled is an interesting one produced by a woman brewmaster in Catalonia, Spain.  The beer is very much like a session beer, light in color with a nice foam and a low ABV.  A very low ABV, of only 2.6%.  Normally, one would  wonder about a beer with such a low alcohol content, until you think about the fact that, before we had water treatment, beer was used as a substitute for water.  People obviously could not be drinking beers of 5% or 10% while working.  So, brewers made beers with lower alcohol contents.  The aroma of this beer is very hoppy. and that hop aroma carries through to the taste of the beer.  The beer itself is very light and very clean. 
2. Professor Fritz Briem (Munich, Germany): Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse.  The second beer we tasted is made in the Berliner Weisse style, which can be best described as a sour ale.  Historically, this style was very popular in, as you can guess, Berlin.  The name 1809 is a reference to when Napoleon  Bonaparte first tasted the style of beer while in Berlin.  Napoleon described the Berliner Weisse as a Champagne of beers.  Theis sour ale lives up to its style.  The beer pours with a thin layer of foam, but with aromatic elements and tastes of sour apples.  The beer is fairly tart, as well assomewhat astringent and acidic.  The beer has an ABV of 5%.

3.  Brasserie de Cazeau (Templeuve, Belgium): Cazeau Elderflower Saison.  The third beer we tasted was a saispon produced by a farmhouse brewery in Belgium.  The beer was from the brewery's 2010 batch.  The brewer produces the beer using elderflowers from the farm, which are currently in bloom in Belgium. The flowers go straight into the beer.  After an initial fermentation, the beer goes through a refermentation in the bottle.  The beer pours a golden color, with an aroma of hops.  Somewhat surprisingly, the taste of the beer is somewhat bitter.  Of course, beers were produced with hops to achieve bitterness o help keep the beer from going bad.

4.  Brasserie de Blaugies (Blaugies, Belgium): Blaugies Saison D'Epeautre.  The next beer we tried was a more traditional saison.  Rather than using elderflowers, Brasserie de Blaugies uses spelt, a species of wheat.  This brewery, which is owned and operated by two schoolteachers in Belgium produced a very good saison. The beer has a lot of carbonation and pours a golden color.  The flavors of this beer suggest banana and clove, along with some yeast, which is from the Dupont brewery in Belgium.  This beer has an ABV of 6%.

5. Bierbrowerij Emelisse (Kamperland, Netherlands): Emilisse Winterbrew (2009).  The Emilesse is a winterbier, with an ABV of 8.5% from a brewpub in the Netherlands.  We only had one  12 ounce bottle to share amongst ten people, so I did not get a very big sample.  Still, I was able to see an amber colored beer, and get the aromas of bourbon and caramel from the beer.  From the little sample, I was able to taste the caramel, as well as a little toffee, Belgian candy, and yeast.  Garrett suggested that there was also some  flavors of dates, but I could not get that from my sample.

6. Glazen Toren (Erpe-Mere, Belgium): Cuvee Angelique.  Our sixth beer is from a brewer that I have heard of, but never tried before.  The brewer is Glazen Toren, which is located in Belgium.  We sampled the Cuvee Anglique, which is a stronger version of a dubbel, also known as a Speciale Belge.  The beer has an ABV of 8% with a lot of carbonation.  The taste of the beer is sweet up front, with the flavors of bread, most likely from the biscuit malts.  Other flavors include caramel, as well as some fruit flavors, most likely from the yeasts.

7. Renaissance Brewing Company (Marlborough, New Zealand): Renaissance MPA.  The MPA or Marlborough Pale Ale is an Imperial IPA produced by the Renaissance Brewing Company.  The brewer uses Rakau hops, which  are indigenous to New Zealand, and which provide some unique flavors, at least for me when it comes to an Imperial IPA.  The  Rakau hops contribute flavors of mango and papaya to the beer, which are a good complement to the traditional hop flavors of citrus and pine, both of which are also present in this beer.  The beer is relatively dry, with some minerality, and has an ABV is 8.5%.

8. Kern River Brewing (Kernville, California): Just Outstanding IPA. The next beer that we sampled is an India Pale Ale, and the only American beer presented in this beer tasting.  The beer comes from a brewpub located in Kernville, California.  The brewer used Simcoe hops and Amarillo hops.  I also learned that Simcoe hops, according to Garrett, contributes orange flavors to the beer.  In addition to the citrus flavors, the beer has a strong bitter flavor that is reminiscent of pine and, even a little, sap. In contrast to these strong, bitter flavors, the body of the beer is actually light in body and dry. The beer has an ABV of 7.0%.
9. BFM Brasserie Montagnes de Franches (Saignelegier, Switzerland): Cuvee Alex La Rouge.  The final beer we tasted is the only  beer that I had previously tried.  If I recall, I had this beer at Birch and Barley and I remember this because of the name.  The beer is in the style of a Jurassian Imperial Stout.  The brewer produced the bear with hops, barley malts, roasted barley, sugar, yeast, Sarawak peppers, Russian tea and bourbon vanilla.  The pepper really comes through in the beer, providing a slight burn on the tongue as you drink it.  The vanilla flavors, as well as some tea flavors, are also present in the beer.  The beer is a little sour and dry.  The beer has an ABV of 10.276%. 

This was a great beer tasting.  (By the way, I did not drink one bottle of each beer, there was usually one to three bottles [depending upon the size of the bottle] for a table of ten people, which made for about tastings of about two ounces for each beer).   If I had to choose which one I liked the most, I would say that it is a tie between the Blaugies Saison d'Epeautre and the Cuvee Alex Le Rouge, with the latter having the edge.  The Saison d' Epeautre had some really interesting banana and clove flavors, which were more reminiscent of a hefeweizen (probably due to the use of spelt), while the Sarawak pepper in the Cuvee Alex Le Rouge was really good.  The spice was just enough to provide complexity to the imperial stout.

Perhaps the best part of the evening was the host.  As usual, Garrett did a great job explaining each of the beers, providing tidbits about the brewing processes and some notes about the brewers themselves.  Garrett also provided some interesting anecdotes about his experiences traveling the world in connection with craft beers, along with stories about craft brewers and distributors. 

Finally, these beers were provided by Shelton Brothers, B. United International and 12 Percent Imports.  I note this because, in order to find these beers, given their limited production, it may be necessary to play "detective" and follow the importer/distributor to see where the beers are sold.  In the end, it is a worthwhile endeavor for most, if not all these beers. 


For more about the volume of beer production discussed in this post, check out Beer News.

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