Sunday, April 29, 2012

Brewing Bigshot Interview Series: Brock Wagner, St. Arnold's Brewing



Once Upon A Time...I met Nicole, the Louisiana sales and marketing rep for St. Arnold's Brewing on a fine Friday evening when she bought me a pint of their Elyssa IPA on cask. We sat and talked about the brewery and its beers, and the events that St. Arnold's was hosting. We started talking about the passion and vision of the founder, Brock Wagner, and she mentioned that she thought he'd agree to be interviewed by me.

Sure enough, about a week or so later, I got an email from Nicole to set up the phone interview. Which... I  forgot about because I got so slammed at work. Both Nicole and Brock were very gracious about understanding that I am juggling a full time job alongside this SUPER GLAMOROUS blogging gig, and I was able to reschedule for the next morning.

The following morning, I called Brock at his office and, after profusely apologizing to the point of probable annoyance, I busted out my best mad interview skillz.

Brock Wagner
(all images courtesy of the St. Arnold website)
A little background (gleaned from my careful review of their website) on St. Arnold's: Brock Wagner (along with a partner, Kevin Bartol) founded the brewery in 1994, making it the oldest craft brewery in Texas. Wagner is a homebrewer and bases most of his recipes on the traditional German and British styles. Think brown ale, traditional IPA, Kölsch, Pils, Bock, Oktoberfest. There's a lot of room for creativity within style parameters, like subbing out a Bavarian hefeweizen yeast for their Fancy Lawnmower kölsch yeast to create Weedwacker. Or the Divine Reserve series, which basically is a once a year release of a big beer that they've been working on. A few have become regular beer selections, like the Double IPA Endeavor and the Imperial Pumpkin Stout Pumpkinator.

Wagner's primary beer philosophy is simple and two pronged: one, you need to create a great beer that's great BEFORE you tinker with it (cask conditioning, barrel aging) and two, beer has soul. We discussed the soul of the beer when talking about his brewing team- how they're a integral part of the development process (a role that Wagner had shouldered alone at the start of St. Arnold's production) and they all love beer, love drinking beer, love brewing beer, love being creative with beer, love challenging themselves and each other to make better beer. He's convinced that love gives the beer soul and can be tasted in the beer itself. (I started to respond to this metaphor in a somewhat metaphysical fashion, talking about that beer is a living thing, with the yeast, and as such, takes on the energy around it... and then realized I sounded like a crazy person. Point is, I personally agree with his philosophy.) "You can taste if it’s been brewed for marketing purposes as opposed to people putting their heart and soul into it," Wagner said.

As Wagner has a somewhat "Elder Statesman" status since his brewery has been around for almost twenty years, I asked him his opinions on beer trends and fashions. He demurred about making any predictions - "I get asked that a lot, and though I know the beer world will be different in five years, I have no idea how" - but did weigh in on the recent trend of brewery collaborations.  Short answer: "I hate them." Longer answer: Wagner explains that he just doesn't understand the point of them. He pointed to the collaboration that most would say started the trend, the Russian River/Avery Collaboration Not Litigation beer. "There was a purpose to it, a story behind it," he said. Now, however, "what are these brewers trying to do, exactly?" he continues, "it's lost on me."

Hilariously (and the irony was not lost on him or the rest of his brew crew), St. Arnold's is actually kind of doing a collaboration, in a sense. In support of Seattle's Fremont Brewing Company's initiative in raising money for Operation Homefront (a charity dedicated to providing assistance to service members and their families), St. Arnold's and four other breweries will be replicating Fremont's Homefront IPA using their own in-house yeast. Wagner says he hopes to raise $100,000 through St. Arnold's participation alone. So, it's kind of a collaboration, but he points out that there's a reason to unite in this fashion, to raise awareness and funds for this cause that obviously resonates with him.

Ole St. Arnold himself
I asked him, since St. Arnolds has been around for a while, what changes have you seen in the craft beer market during the lifetime of the brewery? The two biggest shifts, he answered, are in the improvement in the quality of the beer, as well as a demographic and palate change in the consumer. When he first started in 1994, he said, “there were only like 37 craft beer drinkers in the area, and I knew all of them.” so when he started brewing professionally, he brewed for those dudes, but also made sure to brew lighter beers like the Fancy Lawnmower to attract people away from the BMC (Bud, Miller, Coors) beers. It's a sign of a fundamental change in the craft brew market over the last twenty years, that even though the Fancy Lawnmower is still growing, Elyssa IPA has moved from 25% of Lawnmower’s sales to 75%. And now craft beer drinkers are of all ages, walks of life, and, of course, both genders.

When we started talking about the changing demographics of the craft beer drinker, I asked him his thoughts about women in the craft beer world, because I'm always interested to hear different perspectives of that. He says that in his experience, any disparity between men and women when it comes to consuming and appreciating (and brewing) craft beer is more perception rather than reality. He admits that when you go to the major brewer's conferences they tend to be "sausage fests," but that there are women drinking craft beer everywhere he goes, so it's just a case of changing the perception. St. Arnold's has several women on staff in a variety of roles, including a brewer, and also actively supports a national craft beer organization for women, Girls' Pint Out. The Texas chapter has held a couple of ladies-only events at the brewery that have sold out pretty much immediately.  They had just held one as a fundraiser the night before I spoke to Brock, actually. I appreciated his willingness to discuss gender in the beer world, as it's a topic I'm endlessly interested in and enjoy hearing about, but sometimes people get defensive just by my bringing it up. Wagner did not, and we had a great talk about it.

I brought up another favorite topic of mine, the session beer. He said that he loves being able to drink a beer that he can enjoy several of in one sitting but that the market, in his estimation, is not quite ready for session beers to become the norm. He doesn't think that the average craft beer drinker is ready to shell out the same amount of money ($8 for a six-pack) for something with less alcohol.  He and I agreed that we both, personally, would, but as a business owner that knows that his costs will remain constant regardless of ABVs, it's a wait and see attitude. (Guess that means that session beer education for the craft beer consumer must carry on!) Accordingly, he goes by the cutoff of 5% or under for what he (and the craft beer market) considers a session beer, as opposed to the 4.5% advocated by the Session Beer Project

I asked him a completely ridiculous question - what is your favorite St. Arnold's beer? And he responded with the fairly typical response - can't choose, like choosing a favorite child. Though he did make an excellent point, in that, he became a brewer so he could brew his favorite beers, heh. He mentioned that he did have specific favorite beers for different moods, though.  (he did not elaborate, however.) While we were talking, one of his brewers came in his office to have Brock taste a batch sample. I didn't hear what they said, but when he got back on the phone, he explained that he tastes every batch of every beer as they age, and it is actually as not as much fun as one might think, because in that case, he's working hard to find flaws. See?  Educational!


SO ANYWAY! Brock and his team are gonna be in New Orleans for American Craft Beer Week! I asked him if they were gonna be doing such cool stuff in Houston or any other Texas markets for ACBW, but other than a couple beer dinners before coming to New Orleans, this will be the big "St. Arnold on Tour" hurrah. I asked him why, and he told me it was a great excuse for them to come hang out in New Orleans for a few days and have lots of fun. "I love Louisiana and New Orleans," Brock said. "This is a great excuse for us to go enjoy the city and make a splash." Louisiana has shown lots of love to St. Arnold Brewing too. Although they've only been distributed here since late 2010, their market growth has been faster than they anticipated. Wagner says that the brewery tours have always had lots of Louisiana residents, especially when LSU was playing in town. 

I had a great time talking to Brock and I'm looking forward to his visiting New Orleans in a couple weeks, especially the Crawfish Boil with the NOLA Pie Guy on Sunday.  Crawfish, beer, and pie... perfection!

Whoa, this was long.  If you got here to the end, I owe you a beer! Just remind me when I see ya next.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

New brews coming to town!

This past week, the news broke that Green Flash from San Diego would be entering the New Orleans market, hopefully in late May-early June.  The details on the whens and wheres are still To Be Announced.

Also, I just found out that Parish Brewing Company, who have been nanobrewing up in the Lafayette Parish for a couple years out of the founder's garage, and have recently build a really truly actual brewery, will be rolling out throughout the New Orleans market between May 24-26. They will be getting some kegs to the Avenue Pub during American Beer Craft Week starting on Wednesday May 16, so we'll get a little sneak peek of what's been driving our neighbors wild these past couple of years! Congrats guys, I'm glad you'll be able to expand your production and am looking forward to having more local craft beer choices.

So, I'm excited about the continuation of the craft beer movement in New Orleans!  These are both very promising developments and all beer lovers here will reap the benefits.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Press!

Hey, I got quoted in the Times Picayune on my thoughts about beer in fine dining.  It all started whenTodd Price tweeted looking for suggestions of restaurants with good beer lists, and I think I sent him like 8 tweets worth of info. He contacted me and asked me a bunch of questions, and voila! Quoted as an expert.

AWESOME.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Exciting food news at the Avenue Pub this Sunday!

I'm cross-posting between my two blogs because EXCITING BBQ at my FAVORITE BEER BAR! (The Avenue Pub)

Read all about Rob and NOLA Smokehouse here.

I like big butts and I cannot lie...
Here's the FB invite for the pop up this weekend. Go drink some beer and eat some BBQ!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Keg Hunt and Session Beer Day!

We had the most fun Easter Saturday/Session Beer Day. NOLA Brewing sponsors a fundraiser for the Gulf Restoration Network every year that involves teams going on a scavenger hunt (costumes and unique team names are encouraged) throughout a particular neighborhood until arriving at the final destination, where the NOLA beer flows freely. Tom and I joined up with a fellow beer geek and homebrewer, Dan, and a friend of his from out of town, Erin. Since we are pretty deficient in the costuming creativity department, we just wore our regular clothes and called ourselves the Damn Yankees.

Tom and I bicycled over to the Howlin' Wolf, which was the starting point. We had a couple of beers. Sadly, I chose to drink a non-session beer, the NOLA Blonde, which came in at 4.9%. I KNOW.  Anyway, here's a picture of us at the start:

Photo credit: Jeremy "Beer Buddha" Labadie
There were tons of fun costumes: Devilled Keggs, The NOLA Mix Sixpack, bunny rabbits galore, Sexy Jesus, carrots, and Peeps!  The Peeps (which included our friend Shay) won for best costume. Our friends on the NOLA Mix Sixpack team, including the Beer Buddha, John, and Vanessa from the Barley Oak, won the prize for coming in last, which is pretty hilarious.

We started at the Howlin' Wolf, went to Gallier Hall, then to the Confederate Museum, then to the crazy lighthouse building, then to the Ugly Dog Saloon, where we got a clue that just stumped us. So we decided to sit and have a beer (NOLA Browns, session ales!) to puzzle it out. Finally I broke down and asked my friend Lindsey (who I'd assisted by cell phone during last year's Hunt, as I couldn't go do it myself that year and I knew the neighborhood- Mid City- pretty well) if she had any idea.  She told us the clue led to the Piazza d'Italia, and sure enough, at the top of the fountain like a Roman goddess, stood Melanie Knepp, NOLA's Head Brewer!

However, she handed us a clue that was even more difficult- it involved a melted bunny in a box.  After wading in the fountain and looking confused, Mel took pity on us and mentioned that we'd have seen it on Wednesdays.  That made me think of Wednesday at the Square- so off the Lafayette Square we went! The next clue we were able to figure out that it went to Capedeville, and the clue from there had us heading to the Spanish Plaza near the Riverwalk area. We were slightly unsure of that one, so we actually ended up drifting behind a couple teams that seemed pretty sure of themselves.

Once there, we got our team photo taken and given our final clue to our end destination- thankfully it was close by, and it was a place called The 12 Bar on Fulton Street. We got there and had a celebratory beer before deciding we really, really needed something to eat. So we ducked out to Gordon Biersch and shared a bunch of apps and drank some water. Tom also discovered another session beer while there, their Schwartzbier. At 4.3%, this dark but refreshing lager was quite tasty. Almost as tasty as all the food that we ravenously devoured after a long (but fun) afternoon of wandering the Warehouse District drinking beer on a beautiful spring day.

We went back to The 12 Bar for some socializing and another beer (and to win a raffle prize of a six pack can coozy!) and then Tom and I decided it was time to pack it in.

A wonderful, wonderful day.  Thanks to all the staff and volunteers of NOLA Brewing and the Gulf Coast Restoration Network, all the places that let us run around in their businesses, all the teams, including all my friends who participated, and my teammates as well! It was such gorgeous weather, hanging with fun people, wandering through yet another event - Jammin' on Julia - that we could enjoy... it was one of those days when you realize you live in New Orleans and it just makes you smile. Like this!



I hope you all also had a wonderful day, with (or without) awesome session beer. I am hoping to spotlight session beers as they cross my path from here on out, just not on a daily/regular basis.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Session Beer Spotlight #9: Coniston Brewing Bluebell Bitter

YOU GUYS.

I love cask and bottled conditioned bitters SO MUCH. And this one is so very tasty. Tom found it at Martin's Wine Cellar on Magazine Street earlier this week and I have been gleefully anticipating drinking it ever since.

The whole concept of the "ordinary" bitter is what session beer is all about. It's traditionally a low ABV (this particular beer is 4.2%, but the bitters over in England tend to be around 3%.), meant to be enjoyed through the day and/or night while socializing at the pub. It's delicious and easy drinking. Bluebell has a fresh grassy quality in the maltiness, and the Challenger hops definitely add a gentle bite  Super smooth. In my semi-professional opinion, YUM.

The fact that the bitter is bottle conditioned really does make it taste and feel like a cask ale. I just love it and would drink it all the time if it weren't for the fact that it was around $5 for a 25 oz bottle.  I salute Shelton Brothers for bringing this wonderful beer to us, but would love for there to be more local session brews to enjoy. Thank goodness for NOLA Brown!

So, it's Session Day Eve- do you have any session beer related plans tomorrow? (I recommend going to your local bar and asking about the ABVs of every beer they have on tap! It will totally make you the most popular person there.) Tom and I will be participating in the NOLA Brewing Easter Keg Hunt where we will hopefully be enjoying much NOLA Brown. I still have one more session beer in the fridge to try - Wasatch Polygamy Porter - but I don't know if I will get to it tomorrow or Sunday.

Drink happy, drink safe!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Session Beer Spotlight #8: Blanche De Bruxelles


Today, tasting a Belgian beer with low ABV! (4.5%) It's a witbier, (specifically a farmer's beer called "Witteke") which is not usually my favorite style, but I gotta say, this example is actually pretty tasty. Awesome on a warm day. A pale straw yellow, unfiltered beer brewed with orange peel and coriander, the spice and citrus notes are present in the nose and taste, along with the flavors from the yeast which is typical of the style.

This is one of those beers that you can totally drink tons of on hot summer days all day long and it would taste refreshing and not get you too hammered. The spice/lemon/yeast taste is definitely there, but it's not overbearing or cloying. It drinks crisp and clean and is thirst quenching.

I'm pretty pleased about it! Definitely a nice surprise and I'm sure we'll be drinking it this summer.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Session Beer Spotlight #7: High & Mighty Divine Brown



OK, I know I've already blogged about High & Mighty this week, but hell, they do so many awesome session beers, I figured I'd give a go at another one of their special bottles. I also had wanted to do as many different styles of session ales as possible, and although this may seem to be the same style- Brown Ale - as NOLA Brown, you'll soon discover that the two share only the word "brown" in their name, session beer ABVs, and outstanding deliciousness. Trying both beers definitely shows the range that is possible in executing a brown ale style- a style often overlooked as not being sexy enough for today's craft beer drinkers. Divine Brown will change that mindset, without going big in the ABV department.

Purchased at Stein's Deli, the beer is 4.5% and pours a lighter shade of brown than I'd expected. Creamy half-inch head that retained throughout the enjoyment of the glass. The bottle alludes to the beer being brewed with oats and coffee, kind of bringing to mind the much lauded (and high ABV) Beer Geek Breakfast/Brunch beer by Mikkeller. Divine Brown has a roasty complexity with a surprisingly light body. The roasty, almost tropical fruit notes come from, I believe, both the malt itself as well as the coffee. I think the two combine complement each other. There's a juicy thirst-quenching mouthfeel and a joyous lingering  on the palate. It's exciting to drink, flavor profile-wise, as well as quaffable body-wise (and ABV-wise).

Note: The brewers have a weird prostitution allusion on their bottle label that I was puzzled by until I went to google images of "Divine Brown." Oh, Hugh Grant, you horny British scamp.  Not very topical though? I guess prostitution arrests are classic references for the ages.

As with the Fumata Bianca, I'm seriously impressed at how far the brewers at High & Mighty are going to bring delicious, complex, unique, playful session beers to the market. They keep raising the session beer style stakes, I'll keep profiling them!

Tune in tomorrow for a return to TRADITION!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Session Beer Spotlight #6: O'Hara's Irish Stout



Back when we lived in Massachusetts, we'd go to a Belgian- and hophead- heavy bar in Brookline called the Publick House. This place was actually a hike from where we lived in Salem, so when we went, one of us would partake of the high gravity beers and one of us (whoever was driving the 30-40 minutes back home <cough> Tom </cough>) would enjoy the only session beer available, O'Hara's Irish Stout.  It's 4.3% and actually, probably our favorite Irish stout out there, regardless of ABV.  (I like it better than Guinness, better than Murphy's. Hmm, gotta try some Beamish again someday soon.)

Brewed by Carlow Brewing Company, and purchased at Stein's this evening, the O'Hara stout is as dark as a ginger's soul and twice as tasty. Poured beautifully into a Sam Adams fancy glass with a good inch of latte colored head, Excellent roasty malt flavors, smooth creamy mouthfeel, finishes dry and crisp with a touch of hop bitterness at the end there. As I said, excellent on its own merits as a great example of a dry Irish stout style.  Shoulda got a six pack.  Ah, well, can find it back at Stein's. Also Rouses, I think?

I will also take this opportunity to share that this session beer spotlighting is turning into quite a challenge. Sadly, Covington/Heiner Brau and Bayou Teche don't seem to have their beers' ABVs listed anywhere... which... I don't know why that is. It shouldn't be a challenge to find out the ABV of beer, it should be prominently displayed and openly shared so that beer drinkers can make responsible drinking choices and understand exactly what they are putting in their body (if they choose to educate themselves thusly)

I have also discovered the Heartbreak ABV Range which is between 4.5 and 5.0- SO CLOSE, but does not count. It's also amazing how many beers (He'Brew Genesis Session and Four Sail Session Lager and Black Lager) are not even in that range, but are in fact over 5%!  Come on, now. I'm telling you, as I get into the final days of this challenge the pickins available here are getting pretty slim.

Just finished the final sip of the O'Hara's- damn. Good stuff. For serious.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Session Beer Spotlight #5: High & Mighty Fumata Bianca



There are a few words that will pretty much compel Tom and I to grab a beer to try: for me, that word is "rye" and for Tom, those words are "Franconian lager" and "smoked".  And at 4.5%, this High & Mighty homage to a Franconian lager with smoked white rye is a session beer draw for us both.

For as smokey the taste is, I can't discern any smoke on the nose. It pours a pale straw yellow and has a light bodied mouthfeel. The fact that it is so full of smoke flavor and is so light is remarkable. Almost like smoke dissipating on the tongue. It's like nothing I've ever tasted before, which is exciting.

I love that a brewer can do such creative things without having to go big on the ABV. This is such a crazy, playful, light bodied, flavorful beer that I've never had the likes of which before and that just makes me so happy to try. Is this something that I would drink several of while hanging out at the bar? Probably not, because I don't have the love of the smoked beer that others (including my husband) have. But if I did, it would be a great beer to enjoy. I actually appreciate the light body of the beer's effect on the smoke levels.

This is the kind of thing I'm talking about with exciting session craft beer! MORE PLEASE.

Tonight, I also tried High & Mighty's Pas de Diieux at the Avenue Pub. It's a nice little saison. Again, it pours very light and is super easy drinking. Although it's not the most complex saison I've ever had, it kind of makes me think of why saisons were originally brewed- to quench the thirst of the farm hand working hard all day without needing to take a nap from too many higher-ABV brews.

High & Mighty, I salute you!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Session Beer Spotlight #4: North Coast Scrimshaw Pilsner


I was actually planning to write about Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse today, because I'd heard it was a session beer, only to find out that it is 5% and therefore exceeds the cutoff of 4.5% ABV as set forth by the Session Beer Project (which I find entirely reasonable as a cutoff, I'm just disappointed the Berliner Weisse doesn't qualify, because that is a tasty beer with a very interesting history.)

However, I also tasted another beer today that actually does qualify as a session beer, so I am still on schedule with my Session-Beer-A-Day-Writeup project. That beer is North Coast's Scrimshaw Pilsner, and at 4.4% ABV, it qualifies with a tenth of a point to spare! It's a traditionally brewed Pilsner that uses German hops (Hallertauer and Tettnang) and Munich malt.

Today began a stretch of humid days in the 80s that is supposed to last all week long here in New Orleans. Very fitting that Tom and I enjoyed a beer so well suited for the weather! It has a crisp and pleasant bitterness that points to hops in the background. Light bodied, dry finish, and a grainy malt aroma and flavor. Balanced and subtle. Very refreshing and a welcome post-lunch beverage on a warm spring afternoon.

This is probably what one would expect to taste in a session beer, I imagine. Doesn't mean it's not really good though. Also note, North Coast's Blue Star Great American Wheat Beer also qualifies as sessionable at 4.5% ABV on the nose. I'm not a huge fan of the straight ahead American wheat beer style like Blue Star, so I'll let the wheatheads among us take that one on.

Tomorrow I hope to tackle one or two of High & Mighty's quirky beers.