Monday, July 15, 2013

A Ramstein one-off, plus Oktoberfest

Another foray into one-off beers by weizen beer specialist High Point Brewing, which also for the first time bottled a non-wheat beer under its Ramstein brand.

Additionally of note for High Point: The brewery has gotten the earliest jump ever on producing its signature Oktoberfest seasonal.

Released last Friday, High Point offered up a new one-off brew, a bourbon-barrel aged version of its 6.5% ABV maibock, taking the beer beyond its German traditions and big malty profile by giving it a pleasing tang with the addition of some lactobacillus and oak characteristics from the whiskey barrel.

The brew made for a well-received follow-up to a Belgian-style chocolate cherry sour ale that High Point brewed at the end of last year.

For quite a while now, craft brewers up and down the state have been whiskey-barreling some of their beers for maturation and flavor effect. But the Buffalo Trace distillery oak High Point got its hands on was an inaugural effort at bourbon-barrel aging a Ramstein beer. 

The maibock, like the chocolate cherry sour, were tasting room treats, extras for tour patrons who show up at the Butler brewery for the Ramstein lager and wheat beers.

The jazzed-up maibock went fast, gone by early Saturday afternoon, reflecting the potential of craft brewers' tasting rooms to engage the public with small-batch beers that also give breweries and their tour patrons an additional beer theme to take up. It's all part of what lawmakers in Trenton enabled last year when they updated the rules for Garden State craft breweries.

"We had four kegs that we allocated for the brewery. We were open for four hours, and we sold out of them," says High Point owner Greg Zaccardi. "(It's) the excitement we have now with this new law. Let's be honest, we can make a few more dollars, but we also have to make it interesting. People are going to come here and buy the beer only if it's really worth coming."

The flavor profile of the barrel-aged maibock featured caramel-like signatures against a bright citrus quality, plus bourbon and vanilla from the wood.

"It had that tartness, that yogurty tang," he says. "But the nice thing about it is, you get that thirst-quenching sensation, then it stops to a clean finish of bourbon and vanilla."

Giving the maibock the barrel tweaking, taking it outside its traditional construct, put an emphasis on the sensory elements of beer.

"This was a way for us to get to people, get them to come in and think about what's going on – and they're educated," Greg says. "It draws attention to all the elements of beer. People start talking about aroma, they start talking about texture, they start talking about balance, complexity, depth of flavor."

The beer was a one-off, and though it's gone, there's more where that came from, so to speak.

"I'm not saying we're going to make a beer like it every week. But I would like to believe that every other month or so we're coming out with some sort of unique way of making beer taste different that what you're expecting," Greg says.

Meanwhile, High Point already has its top-rated Ramstein Oktoberfest in kegs. July has historically been the month High Point began brewing the märzen for its annual release on the second Saturday in September. (For years, the brewery has made a tour-day event of the märzen, ceremoniously tapping an Austrian oak keg to salute Oktoberfest.)

Over the past year few years, High Point has begun brewing the 6% ABV märzen earlier and earlier, reflecting increased demand for the seasonal, which, as a lager, requires the requisite longer conditioning time. This year, brewing began right after Memorial Day so High Point could both boost production by about 20 percent from last year and better work to distributors' needs.

"In May, we got a list of pre-orders for Oktoberfest from our distributors. They said, 'We'll pick it up in July if you have it,' " Greg says. "So why would we not brew it, if we had bona fide purchase orders for it? That's really what drove us to adjust our production schedule."

Meanwhile, the märzen's junior sibling, Ramstein Amber Lager (5.5% ABV, also called Northern Hills Amber Lager), was recently bottled for the first time ever, a moment that also marked the first instance of High Point bottling a beer other than its signature Blonde, Classic dunkel and doppelbock wheats. (Ramstein Oktoberfest, maibock, imperial pilsner, and golden lager are draft-only brews; the same goes for a 6% ABV pale ale that works its way in and out of High Point's lineup.)

"The beer is a hoppy, slightly lower-gravity sessionable version of our Oktoberfest. We have a lot of interest and (accolades) for our Oktoberfest, and we thought about making it year-round. People always ask us to make it year-round. It's just not designed for that," Greg says. "We wanted to make something that was in a similar vein but could be consumed year-round, and that's what this beer is."

Some of the amber lager, which is a favorite among Ramstein's Facebook followers, is destined for the festival Mondial de la Bière Europe in France Sept. 12-15. It's at least the second time Ramstein beers will be at the event.

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