Beer, Beer, & Better Beer | HopCat

Beer, Beer, & Better Beer

What's so good about Belgian beer?
By Adam Roberts, HopCat Regional Beverage Program Manager | July 17, 2018
Belgians, Sours

Belgian National Day is July 21

Belgium is one of our favorite beer-producing nations, and we love our Belgian beers here at HopCat. So much, in fact, that we’re throwing a daylong party on Saturday, July 21st, at every HopCat locations, which happens to coincide with their national holiday. There’s more to celebrate than just Belgium’s strong finish in the World Cup. Here’s a little background on why we’re flying the Belgian flag this week.

Why do we celebrate Belgian National Day?

Belgian National Day can be considered their independence day. We celebrate at HopCat because, without having declared independence, Belgium may have been ruled by another country and lost much of their heritage and culture, including their beer culture!

Belgium produces some of the most interesting, complex, and unique beers styles in the world, using many traditional techniques, processes, and ingredients that have been stiflingly modernized in much of the rest of the world. Belgium holds a special place in every beer lover’s heart because they have been able to maintain much of their traditional beer heritage, a heritage that produces beers unlike anywhere else in the world. We celebrate that!

What distinguishes Belgian beers?

Belgian beers have a great deal of diversity. It’s just not as easy as saying THIS makes it a Belgian beer, besides the fact that it’s brewed in Belgium. However, very generally speaking, Belgian beer styles are known for the contributions from Belgian yeast strains that produce particularly peppery, spicy, herbal notes. Lighter to darker, and almost everything in between will have some of this spicy character. Tripels, Dubbels, Belgian Strong Ales, Belgian Blondes, you name it, all with a particularly Belgian taste thanks to contributions from the yeast.

Another yeast that Belgium is known for is Wild yeast, which comes from, you guessed it, the wild. Most of the funky sour styles that are produced in Belgium are a result of a process called spontaneous fermentation. When making the wort, instead of pitching yeast into it, brewers keep in a large bathtub-like container called a coolship and open the windows, letting the wild yeast floating around in the air to take hold. Because of special microflora in certain areas, interesting, unique, and delicious results can be obtained.

Belgium is also well known for its hop varieties. Belgium grows some specific varieties that are aromatic and herbal, but not overly bitter. The hop varieties balance and blend into the other flavors rather than being a focal point like the hops native to some other countries.

Processes are a huge part of what makes a Belgian beer so tasty as well. Boils last two to five hours or even longer. That’s unheard of in most countries, where boils tend to last an hour and a half at most. Some styles like Lambics age their hops for up to three years before using them -- again unheard of in most countries.

What’s the deal with the monks?

Don’t forget about the monks! Many of Belgium’s styles originated from Trappist breweries where the beer is still made today, entirely brewed by the monastic community. They brew beer for their sustenance, with all profits going back to their abbeys or donated to provide social services.

What are some entry-level Belgian beers for novices?

Stuff everyone will like:

  • Lindemans Framboise – Sweet, sour, and fruity raspberry flavors; brilliantly reddish purple. A marvelous beer that is great in cocktails. It’s lower in alcohol, but add a shot of chocolate vodka, and tell me you don’t love it.
  • Saison Dupont – Very approachable  for entry-level drinkers, but die-hards love it too. A well respected, highly rated, traditional saison in all its peppery, super-carbonated glory. Rate Beer gives it a 98/100

How about for the more experienced Belgian fan?

These are darker, luscious and full, perfect for the moderate Belgian enthusiast:

  • St. Bernardus ABT 12 – Brown sugar, raisin, bitter chocolate. Rated 100/100
  • Chimay Premiere – Sparkling , toffee, dry finish. Excellent. Rated 98/100.

And some picks for the sour/funky lover:

  • Monk’s Café – Only brewed once a year. Tart, but not overly sour. Cherry notes. Dry finish. Red wine drinkers often find this pleasant, and sour lovers…love it.
  • Rodenbach Classic – A lighter, less tart, very approachable entry level sour. Made from a blend of 75% young to 25% aged sour, the young beer expresses more fruit and cherry flavors, whereas the aged beer provides a subtle tart balance. They’re aged in gigantic wood barrels known as Foeders, and their vinous oak character attracts wine drinkers.
  • St. Louis Gueze – One of the only Gueuzes available on draft in America. Dry, fruity apple and peach flavors. Tart and funky. Earthy, wood and hay notes are present in this delicious entry-level funky beer.
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Ignore the haters: The American lager is your friend
By Adam Roberts, HopCat Regional Beverage Program Manager | May 10, 2018

Odd Side Ales - Beer Me American Lager

Evil macro beers! Flavorless fizz water! We've all heard these phrases, or worse, coming from even the most experienced craft beer connoisseurs when talking about American lagers. But do they really deserve the bad rap? And how did it all start? Read on, my humble beer geek.

Also known as an adjunct lager, American lagers are a variation on traditional German pilsners or Czech pale lagers, but use a high percentage of corn or rice, along with barley, to produce a beer that is know for its neutral flavor. These adjuncts provide highly fermentable sugars that are used to increase alcohol content, adding subtle sweetness, while retaining a light-bodied mouthfeel, brilliant clarity, and pale color that is difficult to achieve using barley malt alone, and at a much cheaper price.

The result is a rather bland beer that finishes crisp and dry with an almost unnoticeable hop character or bitterness. High carbonation provides a tingle on the tongue sometimes perceived as metallic in taste, yet head retention is fast to fade. Further stifling what positive flavors and aromas this style might possess, American lagers are often served very cold, with some establishments even emphasizing this by serving in ice-frosted mugs.

Despite the stigma that has elitist craft beer snobs snubbing the style, American lagers are experiencing a resurgence in the world of craft. Among the misinformation, it's easy to forget that these beers can be refreshing and easy drinking when that's what the day calls for. Many craft breweries are rising to the challenge by producing their own versions to compete with the dominating macro breweries.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not exactly true that the evil corporate macro breweries were responsible for the demise of more flavorful styles preceding the modern craft beer movement. By the 1800s, German immigrants had already brought their beer recipes to America and found the ingredients had different qualities than their native counterparts, producing some unwanted flavors and a hazier appearance. They found balance by using the neutral quality of adjuncts to dilute the proteins causing the problem.

The public at the time liked the mellow flavors, although these were much more flavorful than today's examples, and demand was born. During prohibition in the 1920s & 30s, many existing breweries went bankrupt, and the American public further forgot what a flavorful beer could be. Upon repeal, the breweries that were left started brewing with the cheapest ingredients, and only what they knew would sell quickly. During World War 2 in the 1940's, brewers saw a restriction on grains, further limiting the availability of more flavorful ingredients. Soon there were few breweries, and fewer beer styles.

As you can see, American lagers are not the horrible creation they are made out to be, but as a conscious craft beer consumer, when I do drink one, I choose to give my money to local producers rather than the big guys looking to bring us back to the old days of one-style rules all.

Adam Roberts is a Certified Cicerone.


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Mead: Not Just for Vikings
Kyle Montgomery, HopCat Madison Beer Program Manager | April 10, 2018

When it comes to mead, there are a lot of commonly held beliefs that are, well, downright false. If the mention of mead immediately renders thoughts of horned helmet-wearing, axe-wielding, bearded barbarians, it’s time to reevaluate your perception of mead (not to mention your idea of historically accurate Viking attire). You’re not wrong to make that association. After all, mead was an important element of Norse mythology, even serving as the source of poetic inspiration.

Mead is much older than that, however. Pottery vessels dating back to 7,000 BC have been found to contain the remnants of honey and organic compounds associated with fermentation. In fact, mead had enjoyed widespread popularity throughout Europe, Asia & most of Africa before the Vikings even existed. 

While mead is certainly a historically significant and ancient beverage, it is also an exceptionally modern product. With over 300 commercial meaderies operating in US, and more in the planning stages, mead is carving its well-deserved niche in the American craft beverage industry.

Understanding Mead

But what exactly is mead? At its simplest, mead is a fermented beverage made from water and honey. When it comes to peoples’ understanding of mead, this is roughly the point at which common knowledge ends and common misconceptions begin.

When I describe mead to someone, I’m careful avoid using the term, “honey wine.” This is for two reasons. For one, it doesn’t pay mead the respect it deserves as its own class of beverage. Beer is beer. Wine is wine. And mead is mead. After all, we don’t refer to cider as apple wine. 

Additionally, “honey wine” tends to bias peoples’ expectations of the beverage. They may anticipate something wine-like, which is not always the case. There are many beer-like and cider-like meads that exist, as well as wholly unique meads that can’t be likened to any other type of fermented beverage.

Perhaps the most common preconceived notion about mead is that it must be sweet. Honey is sweet. Mead is made with honey. Ipso facto, mead must be sweet, right? … Not exactly.

As it turns out, mead can be exceptionally dry. Honey plays the same role in mead as grapes in wine, barley in beer, or rice in sake: sources of fermentable sugar, and thus, potential alcohol.

Mead: Perhaps the Most Versatile Beverage on Earth

What’s really unique about mead is its remarkable versatility. It can resemble wine, or beer, or cider depending on the types of ingredients and methods of production employed. It can be dry or sweet, session-strength or considerably alcoholic, and highly effervescent or still. A 15% ABV, still mead produced from a blend of honey and Merlot grape must is more likely to resemble a wine, while a 7% ABV mead made from a combination of honey, malted barley, and hops or other bitter herbs will share more of beer’s defining characteristics. Alternatively, a beautifully simple, unadulterated “show” mead can highlight the subtle and alluring characteristics of the honey itself.

If you’ve tried one mead that you didn’t enjoy, don’t let that dissuade you from keeping an open mind. As with wine or beer, there is tremendous variation in styles, as well as quality (and trust me, there are some bad meads out there).

Mead Recommendations

If you’re an avid wine drinker, you may enjoy the rich, complex offerings of Schramm’s Mead in Ferndale, MI. If quality is important to you (and why wouldn’t it be?), it is abundant here. Ken Schramm quite literally wrote the book on mead, and accordingly, he and his team know a thing or two about making it.

More of a beer enthusiast? You’ll unlikely be disappointed by the session-strength, sparkling meads offered by nearby Cellarmen’s and B. Nektar. If you live outside of Michigan, you’re more likely to find B. Nektar’s products at your local retailer (or on tap at HopCat), but if you ever find yourself visiting the Detroit area, I highly recommend stopping by the Cellarmen’s taproom in Hazel Park. In addition to their Moscow Mule-inspired mead, they offer an excellent selection of other meads, beers and ciders in a unique space that formerly served as a lumberyard.

Should you find yourself craving a little bit of both, Crafted Artisan Meadery in Mogadore, Ohio and The Colony Meadery in Allentown, Pennsylvania produce some of the best full-strength and session-strength meads in the country. I regularly feature Crafted’s meads on tap at HopCat, and while The Colony’s meads are not yet available in in the state of Wisconsin, they are available for purchase online.

If you live in the Madison area like myself, and you haven’t tried the meads of Madison’s own Bos Meadery, you’re doing yourself a serious disservice. Bos offers a wide array of world-class meads, both culinary-inspired and traditional, ranging in strength from 6-14% ABV. Most often, you can find them on tap HopCat, or at their newly opened Mead Hall, located less than a mile from the state capitol. This new venue hosts some of my favorite events in the area, including live music and comedy shows, as well as their undeniably unique and infinitely entertaining Mead & Metal Festival.

Making Mead at Home

Don’t have access to the quality or variety of mead you desire in your area? Luckily, mead is exceptionally easy to make at home, and there are plenty of helpful resources available online to help you make mead according to your own taste. Just remember, the quality of the honey dictates the quality of your mead, so you’ll want to avoid using grocery store-bought honey. Making mead at home is also a fun excuse to peruse your local farmers market for fresh, high-quality honey this summer.

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