Recently, I decided to take my well-earned free time and limited coin down to the Blacksmith Brewery in Stevensville for a little “What’s on Tap?” investigatory “research.”
Over the two hours or so that I spent in that wonderful, vintage brick tasting room I had the chance to observe a good cross-section of the North Bitterroot citizenry.
There was the athletic couple who had just cycled in from Lolo; the old-timers reminiscing on the government bunglings of wildfires past; there were felt cowboy hats, young sweethearts and even an employee of the valley’s other brewery. There was (no big surprise on a Sunday afternoon) one bartendress.
There was also a sign on the wall for farm fresh eggs … only $3! While that was tempting, I instead opted for a selection of new and seasonal brews just to get a sense of what the modern Stevensvillian was drinking these days.
Hopper Hefeweizen – 6.0 %
Unfiltered with a mellow gold glow, the Hopper (surprise, surprise) is anything but hoppy. Sporting a rich malty, yeasty aroma, the first sniff brings to mind subtle visions of apricot and citrus. The flavor is full and satisfying with a texture that you can feel on your tongue. Stemming from the annual arrival of the summer grasshoppers (“The hoppers are out”) this brew has been on tap since the beginning of June.
Cuthroat IPA Nitro – 6.2 %
Cuthroat is the Blacksmith’s bread and butter IPA and one of their most popular beers; throwing it on a nitro tap offers some interesting and welcome diversity. For an IPA, this brew is extremely pale with a light wheatish yellow hue. With a slow-rising, delicate yet satisfying nitro head, this brew has a surprisingly subtle aroma compared with the usual Cuthroat. The usually robust flavor is somewhat downplayed by the smooth nitro texture but the aftertaste (BURP!) is quite pleasing.
Simcoe Pale Ale – 6.2%
Noticeably dark for a pale, this beer (the brewery’s newest offering) has a copper/sunsetty appearance. The aroma is striking; floral with a strong vanilla presence and the first sip is almost exotic with that same floral character with an excellent hoppy sustain. Robust, the aftertaste almost pushes itself out through the nostrils. This is a proud Blacksmith brew with the same underlying tones that I find in the Brickhouse Blonde among other Blacksmith staples. Very intriguing.
Blacksmith IRA – 7.4 %
Hold on to your hops, friends, because this Imperial Red Ale is strong and persuasive. Dark red with a slight yeasty haze the aroma is deceptively mild though hoppy and fully indicative of the beer’s flavor. The flavor is quite wonderful with a strong malty opening and a quick hoppy zing that rolls from the tip of the tongue to the back and settles nicely, lingering in the back of the mouth and into the throat. This would be a great beer to start off a Friday evening session.
Also on Tap at The Blacksmith
- Brickhouse Blonde
- Montana Amber
- Pulaski Porter
All great beers and worth a trip down the Bitterroot, but in the words of the great Lavar Burton, “Don’t take my word for it …” go taste ‘em yourself! Cheers!
In the “golden age” of beer, as one of my friends has dubbed the current beer epoch we’re living in, you sometimes stumble on a little bit of classical art in a world of experimentation. As brewers throw every imaginable concoction into whiskey barrels or red or white wine barrels, we’re all learning together what seems to work now and what needs a little more time to whet our imaginations.
On a short bicycle trip in the Bitterroot Valley with my wife and daughter on Sunday, I had this moment of clarity while drinking a Barrel-Aged Belgian Brown Ale at Blacksmith Brewing Company. It wasn’t an epiphany of any sort, more of a fuzzy thought banging around my brain for a while that finally settled long enough to be thought.
In a time when brewers are redefining what beer even is, and where style guidelines are being tossed out the window as fast as the next batch has matured, it’s good to come back to the basics as a grounding zone to withstand the onslaught of tastes and styles currently available.
When I sipped that Belgian Brown Ale aged in whiskey barrels, it brought me back to what is right about beer. That it’s essentially grains, hops, water and yeast but much like our American government, there is a 4th Estate. The aging process could be broken up into several different categories, but if I could rewrite the rules, I would add it to the basic ingredients of beer. Water, grains, hops, yeast and aging.
Yes, some beers are served with minimal aging, just as some beers are served with minimal hop presence or low alcohol. Aging plays such a huge role in what beer tastes like today, especially as our palates continue to work into the unimaginable depths of the taste possibilities in beer.
This particular Barrel-Aged Belgian Brown Ale was a testament to the ability of a good brewer to create an impossibly well-balanced mix of brown ale, always a good choice for blending, souring or barrel aging, and a subtle whiskey flavor complete with a woodsy, sweet vanilla characteristic.
I’ve tasted so many whiskey barrel aged beers that it’s difficult to keep track, but a majority tasted too far in one direction. Not enough wood or whiskey or too much wood and alcohol heat. in some cases, I really enjoy the big, power-packing punch of an overly whiskeyed beer. Most of the time the flavors of beer and whiskey play together briefly, promising so much more than just friendship.
In this case, I believe I witnessed a marriage, of sorts. I’d hate to think of it as a one-night-stand, so I’ll use marriage or perhaps I should go with engagement. Regardless, this whiskeyed beer taught me a lot about what I’ve been trying to process regarding our obsession with breaking limits. To establish a classic, you often have to break every barrier surrounding it in order to establish it as a classic.
I think of Dom Pérignon Champagne and the barrier breaking monk whose name it bears. It’s a classic, but it wouldn’t be without a monk who busted the wine-making theology of the day to create a drink so noble as to become synonymous with celebration.
So, to all the brewers out there breaking boundaries and edging ever closer to whatever it is that will redefine the beverage we know as beer, keep up the good work. And remember, sometimes a little balance goes a long way toward punching out those final boundaries.
Kind of sounds a little strange, does it not? After all, though I’ve enjoyed a beer or two with mom over the years, it’s much easier to picture her with her favorite coffee mug in hand than a pint of beer. But, she’s from a different generation, and some of the moms in my current life tend to enjoy a brew a little more frequently than my mom used to.
But is there a beer I’d serve a mom, my mom, your mom, perhaps?
Sure, lot’s of them. But I think Mother’s Day is an elegant day. It’s a day for making mom feel special, and that does not mean drinking beer from the bottle while on the couch watching whatever sporting events happen to be going on this time of year.
Nay, mom is deserving of something refined, and that’s not a word you normally hear associated with Mother’s Day. And since she’ll be enjoying her beer in a glass along with whatever amazing meal you’ve cooked up for her or whatever she orders at Outback Steak House, you might want to be able to recommend or purchase something with that stately elegance that your mother likely exudes.
For me, there are a very few beers in the pantheon of American brewing with this sort of noble characteristic.
They are from the distinguished lineup of American beers known as pale ales.
Why a pale ale? They are a distinguished beer with a lot of versatility. A hefeweizen would be a little too informal for Mother’s Day, while an IPA might be too assertive. But your mother might be assertive too, so don’t feel bad about recommending a good IPA if you find your mother to be overly assertive.
Pale ales bring an almost elegant, white wine effect to a table. Mom could pair a good pale ale with a salad and chicken or soup and seafood, and it would be a great match. Like I said, it’s a versatile beer.
To find a true pale ale with the right kind of characteristics, try to stay with something clean, balanced and with a slightly lower alcohol content. I’m seeing a lot of pales that feel and taste like IPAs.
If you’re in Western Montana and you’re entertaining mom this Sunday, I might recommend these local choices.
Big Sky Brewing Company’s Scape Goat Pale Ale
Kettlehouse Brewing Company’s Eddy Out Pale Ale
Bayern Brewing’s Pilsner – Yes, not a pale ale, but a very elegant beer that your mother would love.
Blacksmith Brewing Company’s P.D. Pale Ale – Just be sure to make something up when mom asks you what P.D. stands for. Telling your mother it stands for Panty Dropper Pale Ale might make your mother more assertive, which will make you wish you ordered her an IPA with a less interesting name.
Blackfoot River Brewing Company’s Organic Pale Ale
Bitteroot Brewing’s Pale Ale
All these fine ales are available in the tap room and at fine stores in your area.
One favor. If we open any more breweries around her, could we possibly pick names that don’t start with the letter B? Thanks.
Happy Mother’s Day,
A controversial blog post by a beverage distribution company has stirred up the craft beer world with a question about how many breweries/beers is too many. In this blogger’s opinion, it’s a very good question. Here’s why: There is a big difference between distributed beer and breweries that brew only for on-premise consumption.
The list of American breweries operating currently comes in around 600 strong. That’s a lot of beer, but not too much. Unless you consider that every one of those brewery owners wants to become the next Sierra Nevada, New Belgium or Widmer, then it might be too many.
The craft beer distribution world is a messy place filled with an almost political sense of importance when it comes to product placement. Budweiser and Coors are known to pay off and even intimidate some distributors to give shelf-space favor to their products. When you consider that, the almost overwhelming number of craft breweries that have their beer distributed seems like a nightmare.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with the American dream of taking your brewery from a small, local producer of craft beers to a national favorite. But if given the choice of touring a world-class brewing facility like the one at Sierra Nevada, or sitting back and enjoying a pint with friends in a small-town brewery like Blacksmith Brewing Company in Stevensville, Montana, I’ll always take the latter.
I can’t question the commitment to quality of the large-scale craft breweries, but I happen to know the smaller producers brew with the enjoyment on their customers’ faces in mind every day. You can see it in the progression of their products and the personal communication available at that level. Of course it’s unreal to expect every community to have a small-scale brewer that just serves the community, but I have to honor the ones that are out there doing just that.
Some exist in the shadow of giants, Bend Brewing Company comes to mind, nestled as it is under the all-powerful eye of Deschutes Brewing Company. And others, like Helena’s Blackfoot River Brewing Company, distribute very lightly in a few cities around the state of Montana.
All I really want to do here is weigh in on subject with the reminder that not everyone wants to become the next big thing. Some are content to be the best thing in their area. And I like that.
Those gray and imposing Missoula winter days that don’t allow for much outdoor recreation are bone chilling and depressing. Far better to sit around and catch up on your movie list or maybe build a model, if that sort of thing still is done. Toward the later part of winter, the sun seems to regain some energy, and once-in-a-great-while, you’ll wake up to find the sun shining, lighting up the hills like the spilled contents of Fort Knox. Yesterday was such a day. In my haste, I ventured onto the front porch at 8:30 a.m. to find frigid temperatures despite the false messages beaming from the big orb in the sky. No matter, I was going to make the most of the day.
Scraping a lethargic family off the couch on a Sunday afternoon always is a chore, but incentives like root beer at Blacksmith Brewing Company pushed video games to the back of sugar-deprived minds. And away we went for a long, casual stroll through the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Area under washed blue skies and the growing shadows of snow-tinged Bitterroot Mountains. Aside from a small group of ducks and geese lingering in tepid sun rays, life seemed to be still embraced in the grip of a northern winter.
As the afternoon went on our thirst grew like the shadows, and we thought something to chase the chill away would be perfect after our walk.
Blacksmith Brewing Company in Stevensville has all the ambiance of nice coffee shop or a warm pub, so we filtered in to thaw out a bit and relax under a big screen playing the remains of an Olympic ice hockey match between Czech Republic and Russia.
The bar was full of recognizable faces, including Paul Roys, head brewer from Kettlehouse Brewing Company as well as Colleen Bitters, another brewer from Kettlehouse. Both of whom recommended a Belgian brown.
Belgian beers are wonderful for cold days, because they often have that alcohol heat that seems to warm you from head to toe. The sweetness of the malt is warming in some ways as well. This particular Belgian brown was a really nice dubbel-style beer with a lot of alcohol presence and really good yeast profile with candied fruits and some banana and clove.
Blacksmith Brewing Company is worth checking out for it’s regular lineup of beers, but the Belgian Brown is just such a great beer for this time of year.