Last night I helped polish 290 glasses, picked up 30 soft pretzels, and poured eight varieties of beer for 32 people. What was the occasion? A beer class with Larry Bell of Bell's Brewery.
Bell's started in 1985 as the Kalamazoo Brewing Company (in Kalamazoo, MI), with a very large soup pot in Larry Bell's kitchen. Twenty-three years later Bell's is producing 115,000 barrels of beer per year (NB: That's a LOT). Best known for the ever-popular Oberon, Bell's distributes to eleven states, including, obviously, Pennsylvania. Part of their success might be attributed to Siemans revolutionary Braumat precise temperature control system, a unique way for craft brewers to monitor the temperature of their fermentations. Here are my tasting notes from the class:
Winter Ale (5.0%) Unlike many winter ales, this beer was brewed without the addition of any spices. Reminiscent of a Belgian witbier minus the requisite coriander and orange peel, this ale had a hazy appearance, moderate carbonation, and a nice mouth feel. Notes of cat litter (gravel + urine) on the nose, but a very pleasant flavor overall.
Sparkling Ale (9.0%) Shockingly -- disturbingly -- refreshing for a nine percent ABV! More on the malty side with a nice citrus acidity and a little funk on the finish.
Batch 8000 (9.0%) Strong and complex, this recipe was brewed just once, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Bell's Brewery. A wheat ale spiced with orange peel, coriander, honey, and grains of paradise, the nose gives off tropical fruits and banana. The flavor is complex but a bit too sweet for my tastes. Still, how many "Imperial Witbiers" are out there? Props.
Lager of the Lakes (5.0%) An homage to the great Great Lakes. A pretty vanilla but well-executed lager, with a light, crisp finish. Lagers are notoriously difficult brew, so I can acknowledge the work it took to produce this.
Consecrator Doppelbock (8.0%) Probably my favorite of the line-up. Another lager, doppelbocks were traditionally made by fasting German monks (beer didn't count towards the fast). The Consecrator definitely didn't taste like it was 8% ABV, with a deep, complex palate highlighting nutty, slightly malty notes. And not only was this beer named for Beethoven's "Consecrator of the House" overture, but Larry Bell also used the phrase "Hegelian dialectic of art and science" to describe his masterpiece. You had me at 'Hegelian.'
Amber Ale (5.8%) What a disappointing follow-up to the doppelbock! The order of events seemed like bad planning to me. After the rich, deep flavors of the Consecrator, this amber ale tasted flat, thin, and pretty boring. That said, Larry pointed out at the end of the class that many of his more popular beers (e.g. the Two Hearted Ale, see below) are not "sustainable" beers: at the end of the brewing cycle, the yeasts are so inundated with hop molecules that they can't be recycled for future useage. That's why many brewers sell a few less-exciting beers at much lower prices -- they need the yeasts (and income) extracted from these less-adventurous ales to support other endeavors.
Two Hearted Ale (7.0%) I swear that ought to be hyphenated. A surprisingly well-balanced IPA that's dry-hopped for a little extra pine-y emphasis. I'm not a huge hophead, but even I could down a couple of these.
Kalamazoo Stout (6.0%) When I think of Bell's, I think of stouts. Their [Russian Imperial] Expedition Stout is nearly legendary, we're currently carrying the Double Cream Stout at Tria, and the Java Stout is my personal favorite. Still, the Kalamazoo Stout is one of the flagships of the Bell's brand, and tied the doppelbock for my favorite selection of this tasting. Roasty espresso and bittersweet chocolate flavors dominate the palate, and the brew provides a full, rich mouthfeel.
Near the end of the class we discussed the rising beer prices, which are largely due to international raw ingredient shortages. The prices of hops and barley have nearly tripled or even quadrupled over the last year, taking the hardest toll on craft brewers. Still, Bell said he would like more consumers to view beer as an "affordable luxury" -- many connoisseurs wouldn't dream of balking at an excellent $15-20 bottle of wine, so why the indignation at a comparable price for excellent beer?