Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review: Harvester Brewing Co.

When I first heard about Harvester Brewing Co., I was very excited.  Probably more excited than I've been about any beer ever, except maybe Dogfish Head Tweason'ale.  Unlike most gluten-free breweries, Harvester brews their beers with a unique base of chestnuts, oats, cane sugar, and sorghum.  They're also located in Portland, OR, arguably the heart of the Pacific North West—a region of the U.S. famous among craft-beer connoisseurs for being the source of American hop innovations, and home to such craft beer heavies as Deschutes, Widmer Bros., Pyramid, Rogue, and Eel River.  Considering the caliber of their contemporaries, and the fact that I've been hearing rave reviews about chestnut-based gluten-free beers from my homebrewing peers, I had very high hopes for Harvester.

These hopes were only compounded by their unattainability: until recently, they were only available around the Portland metropolitan area.  However, they recently cut a deal with Let's Pour that gave them online distribution to several U.S. states, and California is one of 'em—so finally, after months of tracking their progress on Facebook and Beer Advocate, I was able to order 12 bottles of Harvester beer: 4 pales, 4 reds, 2 darks, and 2 raspberries (the IPA hadn't yet launched at the time of my order).  Not a moment too soon, either, as I was earnestly contemplating taking a weekend drive up to Portland just to see what the hype was all about!

Left to Right: Harvester Dark, Raspberry, Red, and Pale Ales

Well, thank goodness I didn't make the trip, because this beer would not have been worth it.  I'm very, very, VERY sad to say that these were the worst gluten-free beer I've EVER had, notwithstanding a few of my own failed homebrew experiments (yeah, my two gruits and my first root-beer porter were worse, definitely...but not by a lot!).  All four of these pints went down the drain unfinished, and it was unanimously agreed among the four of us present (myself, my girlfriend, and two of her friends) that these beers just weren't drinkable.

All of their beers had a few problems in common: they were starchy and dry, with an unusual "roasted cashew" taste that in the darker ales was more like "singed hair" or "tobacco ash".  Hop character was weak across the board, with only the Raspberry presenting some good hop aroma and balance between sweet and bitter flavors.  All of them left a weird film in the mouth.  None could be described as "refreshing", "drinkable", or "quenching"—which, say what you will about other GF beers, most of them are at least good on a hot day!  Also, and I know this isn't really taste-related, but Harvester could really use a better graphic design team.  Their labels just look unprofessional.  Really, guys—I've seen homebrewers with classier labels.  It's okay to be minimal and monochrome—see Omission, for instance—but you gotta do it elegantly.  A grayscale clip-art picture of a tractor with sloppy and uneven lettering doesn't exactly make your product look appealing—especially when the price tag is $9 per bottle!

Here's the blow-by-blow breakdown of each beer:

Harvester Dark Ale:

Appearance: somewhat reminiscent of Newcastle—more of a brown ale than a stout or porter.  Thin head that fades quickly, and though you can't see it here, it had an odd yellow/green tinge to it.

Aroma: buttery chocolate, toffee/coffee, smooth roastiness—very nice.

Taste: very unpleasant, a sad surprise after the nice aroma.  Smoky burnt plastic taste.  Strong flavor of burnt toast, or like licking a dirty grill.  No hop character.  Slight espresso-ground flavor beneath the familiar acrid sorghum twang.  Thin body.  Elicited involuntary facial expressions of disgust among most of us on first tasting.

Rating: 1 out of 5.  Probably the worst beer I've ever had.  What a bummer!  It held such promise!

Harvester Raspberry Experiment-Ale:

Appearance: ever so slightly lighter than the dark ale, with more carbonation and a whiter head

Aroma: noble-hop floral spice, nuttiness, slight toastiness, very slight fruit

Taste: like a PB&J.  Fruitiness and nuttiness up front, backed by a toasty breadiness.  Not chocolaty like the red, but still somewhat toasty.  Again with the unpleasant earthy/tobacco finish.  The fruit does add a combination of sweet and sourness that helps to mask the sorghum twang, and the hops actually come through with a nice floral character.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  The most drinkable of the bunch, but still could not make it through a pint.  Comparable to New Planet's 3R Raspberry Ale, but the latter is more quaffable.  This one is more of a substantial sippin' beer.

Harvester Red:

Appearance: nearly identical with the Raspberry, only the head (which is more tan) sets it apart.

Aroma: nutty, toasty, chocolaty.  Some caramel.  Like a Hershey's chocolate bar with almonds.

Taste: Toasty with bitter chocolate up front, but with a fairly thin body.  Strong sorghum acridness/"twang".  Mild, clean bitterness, weak hop character.  Very dry and starchy, lacking sweetness and maltiness.  Ends with an earthy/ashy slight tobacco character.

Rating: 2 out of 5.  Better warm than cold, but overall not what you'd expect in a red ale.  Might grow on me given time, but as it stands, it's hard to want to finish a glass of it.

Harvester Pale:

Appearance: like a light lager, crystal-clear, yellow, white fizzy head with poor retention.

Aroma: spicy/herbal, like a pilsner...a little soapy, slight hint of citrus

Taste: a soapy bitterness up front, with a very dry and nutty body, slight hint of tobacco.  Very slight fruitiness and mintiness that becomes apparent as it warms—it's definitely better warm.  Slick, starchy, full mouth-feel.  No maltiness or sweetness.  Generic bland/neutral bitterness, very slight spiciness.  Overall quite bland.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  I don't think I'd call this a pale ale, certainly not in the tradition of the great North-Western breweries.  It's much closer to a very dry blonde ale.  It's almost drinkable once it warms up, but the starchy dryness and lack of malt sweetness to balance the hop bitterness makes this an unbalanced beer.

In Closing:

All in all, I blew $100 on beer that's mostly going down the drain (unless anyone in the Bay Area wants to take the last four bottles—two pale and two red—off my hands).  But, I saved a trip to Oregon (which would have been probably more like $500 or $600 at the bare minimum), so I don't consider it a huge loss.

In any case, I'm sorry to the folks at Harvester for giving them such a bad review.  I really, really, REALLY wanted this beer to be mind-blowingly good, I even DREAMT about tasting this beer before I was able to get my hands on it!  If you guys are reading this, I really want you to do better.  You clearly care about your product, and it's possible that your QA just isn't up to snuff yet and I just got a bad batch.  I don't know; I'll order again next year and give another review.  What I do know is, the beer I had isn't living up to the hype, and it isn't as good as your competitors.  New Planet's got you licked on the pale ale and raspberry ale fronts, and Green's has you beat by a long shot on the dark and red/amber categories.  Step it up!  Everyone hates to see an underdog fail.

In the meantime, to my readers: save your money, don't order a 12-pack of this stuff without tasting it first.  If you live in the Portland area, stop by their brewery for a tasting, and keep checking back; they're a young brewery and seem to have a lot of innovative ideas—and some real craft-brewing spirit—so I fully expect them to step it up in due time.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Why is Gluten-Free Beer So Boring?

At this point, I've sampled every gluten-free (and gluten-reduced) beer available on the West Coast: Harvester, Green's, New Planet, Bard's, New Grist, Redbridge, St. Peter's Sorgham, Dogfish Head Tweason'ale, Omission, and Estrella Damm Daura (more in-depth reviews of each coming).  While some are definitely better than others, I am sad to say that in general, gluten-free beer sucks.  The majority of beers are light lagers or blonde/pale ales, i.e. middle-of-the-road basic session beers presumably meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator of beer drinkers.  Even the gluten-reduced offerings (which are definitely NOT gluten-free, at least according to my intestines) are weak and flavorless.  Green's and Harvester are the only breweries even attempting to make darker and higher-ABV beers, but their results are mixed and (I'm sad to say) not terribly impressive.  The best that I can say of any gluten-free beer is that it's drinkable and refreshing, and I can't even say that about all of them.  So what gives?

To be honest, I'm not sure why the state of things is so grim.  If I wasn't a gluten-free brewer myself, I'd be tempted to just assume gluten-free beer is impossible to brew well, but even as a total amateur brewing experimental recipes of my own devising, I am already doing better than nearly every commercial brewery.  So it's not an inherent limitation of the ingredients; rather, it seems to be a limitation in the minds of the brewers.

The biggest shortcoming of every gluten-free beer I've ever tasted (save for the Deschutes NWPA, which is not available commercially) is the lack of good hop flavor.  I've heard the line from a few different brewers that sorghum doesn't stand up to heavy hopping the way barley does, but that's a bald-faced lie.  Citrusy hops, like the American staples of Cascade, Centennial, CTZ, and Chinook (to say nothing of the newer Amarillo and Citra), play very nicely with the tartness of sorghum, and actually help to blend and mask it.  My first IPA (recipe to follow), which used a hefty blend of Cascade, Centennial, and Columbus, as well as actual grapefruit zest, was a roaring success among all who tasted it.  I've since brewed high-ABV double IPAs with high-alpha hop varieties like Chinook, Simcoe, and Super-Alpha, with IBUs up to 80, and I can now say without hesitation that in gluten-free beers—which just CAN'T be carried by malt flavor—more hop flavor is better.

I'm also completely bewildered at the dearth of dark beers.  Dark beers, and stouts in particular, get much of their flavor from roasted grains, and while pale malt flavor is very unique to barley, almost ANY grain when roasted will impart nearly-identical flavors.  Roasted GF oats, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, and chestnuts all add flavors nearly identical with roasted barley.  And there's this stuff called candi syrup, available in three different shades of roast (and which is easy to make at home with just sugar, water, and DAP yeast nutrient) that is excellent at imparting the requisite notes of toffee, caramel, chocolate, dark fruit, and coffee that one expects in dark beers—and it even contributes a bit of lingering sweetness from unfermentable sugars that helps to balance the roastiness.  Add a touch of molasses and some maltodextrin for extra body, and BAM—a convincing dark beer is a slam dunk!  In all honesty, I've found dark beers to be actually EASIER to brew convincingly to style because of the availability of these ingredients.

Lastly, I just don't understand why more breweries aren't taking some more risks with the addition of fruits, herbs, and spices.  So many breweries seem to be trying to give gluten-free drinkers a comforting clone of a mass-market beer, but why settle for an unconvincing imitation?  These beers tend to land in a sort of "uncanny valley", where they taste enough like a familiar beer to be of obvious comparison, but different enough to be disappointing.  Just accept it, guys: gluten-free beer is going to taste different.  Different can be good!  The craft beer spectrum is almost incomprehensibly broad, and non-GF brewers seem to be in a constant arms race of innovation—from excavating ancient tombs for historical recipes, to pushing the limits of hoppiness and alcohol content with big "imperial" ales, to hybridizing traditional styles to make things like white IPAs, black pilsners, and imperial red ales.  Get with it, gluten-free brewers!  Exotic flavors are your friends!  If you can come up with some really incredible beer that's unlike anything anyone's ever tasted, you might even rope in some adventurous non-GF drinkers.  I try to make at least one out of every four of my beers something that I've never heard of before—chamomile-lime IPA?  Carrot-juniper pale ale?  Beet-buckwheat russian imperial stout?  Genmaicha pilsner?  Rose blonde?  Life's too short to drink (or brew) the same old beer!

Seriously, the gluten-free brewing industry doesn't need any more "session" beers.  Step up the game, because SOMEONE who understands what beer drinkers want is gonna pop up soon and steal your market share.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

No-Nonsense Oatmeal Stout

Today I'd like to share my most successful recipe to date: my "No-Nonsense Oatmeal Stout".  It's my second attempt at brewing a gluten-free dark beer (my first one really missed the mark, but that's a tale for another day), and I am extremely satisfied with it.  As you can see, it definitely nails the appearance:

As the name suggests, the recipe is a simple one.  I always brew in 3-gallon batches, because I consider this to be experimentation/product development and it just takes me too long to drink 5 gallons of anything, so here's the 3-gallon recipe (with links to where you can buy the ingredients online):

Malt Bill:

Hop Schedule:

Yeast: Safale S-04 English Ale Dry Yeast

Measured OG: 1.060
Measured FG: 1.012
ABV: 6.4%
IBUs: 36.4 (used "Average" calculation formula)

The most involved part of the recipe is toasting the oats.  I toasted them wet, which I've found gives a breadier and mellower flavor to toasted grains.  Simply pour the oats in a bowl, pour in enough warm water to cover, then let stand until the water is absorbed.  Spread on a cookie sheet, and toast in an oven heated to 350°F until they turn to a chocolate color.  This took me about an hour, but YMMV.  Make sure to stir frequently!  And watch the edges, they darken faster than the rest.

The finished beer reminds me a bit of a Deschutes Obsidian Stout.  It's dark and chocolaty with some notes of dark fruit and roast coffee, a nice thick body and a pleasant hop bitterness.  The sorghum adds a bit of a metallic taste that reminds me a bit of Guinness.  It's very drinkable, lighter than most oatmeal stouts and just a touch more acidic.  It could use just a little bit of refining, but it's quite close to something I'd consider marketable.

Check in a few months from now for a report on its big brother, my Omega Red Russian Imperial Stout, brewed with rice syrup, toasted buckwheat and beets(!), with Willamette and Columbus hops.  It's in secondary fermentation at time of this writing, and tastings of hydrometer samples have so far been extremely promising.

Edit: the Omega Red came out FANTASTIC.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A "Few" Words About Your Humble Narrator

I haven't always been gluten-free.  Like many people, my gluten intolerance developed in early adulthood for apparently-mysterious reasons.  I've always had a bit of a sensitive stomach, but I spent my formative years happily eating like a normal person, indulging in plenty of bread, pizza, pasta, fried chicken, and starting around high school age, beer.  In the fall of 2007, when I was 24 years old, I began to suffer from symptoms that resembled IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).  The onset was gradual, but by early 2008 I could tell that there was something seriously wrong.  I was chugging Pepto-Bismol by the bottle (to no avail), and trying all manner of alternative digestive remedies: homeopathics, Chinese herbal formulas, ginger, mint, chamomile, yogurt, kombucha, name it!  Yet no matter what I tried, nothing seemed to work.  I even tried eliminating dairy and soy, but still no relief.

Many years prior, when I was still in high school, my father began suffering from ulcerative colitis.  His condition was very severe and did not respond well to medication.  He finally found relief from diet therapy—he became a strict adherent to the "blood type diet", specifically the O blood type, which restricted grain and starch intake and specifically prohibited gluten.  Now, my blood is type A, and the blood type diet for A's does not specifically prohibit gluten, but I thought I'd give it a try anyway, since I knew it had to be something I was eating and my other elimination diets hadn't given me any relief.  I did two weeks off gluten and felt profound relief, and when I attempted to reintroduce it, my symptoms came back just about instantly, and even worse than before.  I considered this to be clear evidence, and after several relapses in subsequent years due to unknowingly ingesting gluten (which I later confirmed after the return of symptoms), I can say with solid confidence that I have a gluten intolerance.

This discovery was simultaneously a profound relief and a serious bummer.  It was a relief because my digestion was finally back to normal, but a bummer because most of my favorite foods (and drinks!) were made with gluten-containing ingredients.  I adapted pretty well to eating rice-based pasta and breads—they got the job done, even if they weren't great—but the dearth of gluten-free beer was a major downer.  In the three and a half years between reaching legal drinking age and discovering my gluten intolerance, I had become a serious beer geek, even venturing into homebrewing to attempt to create styles even more off-the-wall than what I could get at the store.  I prided myself in my encyclopedic knowledge of beer styles and brewing techniques, historical brewing trivia, and traditional ethnic fermented beverages from around the world.  Most of my friends shared in my beer-geekdom, and we reveled in helping each other discover unique new brews.  And suddenly, it was all off-limits.

I spent the first few years of my gluten-free life trying to acquire tastes for wine, cider, hard liquor, and mead, but I truly missed the variety and depth of beer.  I tried to make do with the meager commercial offerings—in 2008 here in the San Francisco Bay Area, there was a grand total of four or maybe five options, of which at least three were light BMC-style beers—but it wasn't much fun.  Gluten-free beers are expensive, and generally inferior in quality to similarly-priced regular beers, as many of you reading this probably know.  Truly, the situation looked grim.

Until one day in late 2011, when my girlfriend Lizzie decided she wanted to try her hand at homebrewing some mead.  She managed to talk me into taking her to Oak Barrel Winecraft, the LHBS that serves the East Bay Area, and we bought a new homebrewing starter kit (my old setup from my gluten-consuming days had been lost years ago in one of my several moves) and promptly brewed up 3 gallons of mead.  This managed to kick-start my interest in homebrewing, and I decided that rather than whine about the sad state of commercial gluten-free beer, I was going to try to make something different and better.  Thus began a zealous quest to find the secret to brewing gluten-free beer that could rival the best barley-based beers I used to savor.

I'm happy to report that, after a few false starts and confused meanderings, I've succeeded at brewing gluten-free beer in impossible-to-find styles, such as imperial IPAs, stouts, and a host of unique herb-, fruit-, and spice-based specialty beers.  I'm slowly honing in on some unique recipes, and if all goes according to plan I may even open a microbrewery in the next few years.  In the meantime, I'll be blogging up a storm about both my own exploits in the homebrewery as well as product reviews of the current crop of commercial gluten-free offerings.  It's never been a better time to be a gluten-free beer drinker, and mark my words: it's only going to get better!

Review: Green's Quest Triple Blonde Ale

Green's is a British gluten-free brewing company with a Belgium-based brewery, and they've been in business for quite some time.  They have three beers available in the U.S. and Canada: Quest, the Blonde Triple that is the subject of this review; Endeavor, a dark Belgian dubbel that is the closest thing to a gluten-free stout on the market; and Discovery, an amber ale.  Note: their European offerings are completely different from their North American offerings, being based on de-glutenized barley (which the U.S. TTB does not recognize as gluten-free) 

From their site:

Green's Beers have been brewed in Lochristi, Belgium at the highly-respected DeProef Brewery since 2004. Inspired by strong European beers and developed to a closely guarded secret recipe, these specialty beers are brewed with a full body, crisp taste and a refreshing flavor, losing none of the taste but all of the allergens. Green's Beers are suitable for both Vegetarian and Vegan diets. They have a full five-year shelf life due to bottle-conditioning with an authentic Belgian yeast.

Green's Beers DO NOT contain any of the following allergens or products thereof: Gluten, Crustaceans, Eggs, Fish, Peanuts, Soybeans, Milk, Lactose, Nuts, Celery, Mustard, Sesame seeds, Sulfur dioxide nor Sulfites.

I first tried a Green's even before I developed a gluten intolerance, just because I was curious about beer brewed with alternative grains.  Once I went gluten-free, I developed an even deeper appreciation for them, as they offer styles completely unrepresented by any American gluten-free brewery.

My official take on the Quest Triple Blonde ale:

Vital Statistics: 8.5% ABV, 32 IBU's

Appearance: pours a deep hazy gold, with a fizzy white head that settles quickly to nicely persistent lacing.  Completely appropriate for the style.  See for yourself:

Aroma: tart and sour, notes of green apple, sweet bubblegum, and a subtle metallic tingle.

Flavor and Body: instantly reminiscent of classic Belgian-style Triples like La Fin Du Monde.  A tart sour bite initially with strong bubblegum and green apple that mellows quickly to a grainy sweetness.  There is a slight garlicky funk that's very subtle, and a slight spice, possibly from the hops (the ingredient list does not mention any spices or herbs).  Noticeable alcoholic warmth, as expected from the 8.5% ABV, but not too hot or overbearing. The taste fades quickly, leaving a ghost of a metallic twang.  Nicely full-bodied with a smooth velvety effervescence; absolutely style-appropriate.

General Thoughts: unlike most gluten-free beers, this one could definitely pass as a regular Belgian blonde triple.  It's definitely in league with La Fin Du Monde, which used to be one of my favorite beers.  I'd say it's a great beer for a cool autumn day, but it's a bit too warming and tart for a hot summer day.  More warming than refreshing.  All in all, a very successful gluten-free beer.