Two New England breweries recently won gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival. Chelsea’s Mystic Brewery took home the gold medal in the Indigenous Beer category for Vinland Two, a beer brewed with a native New England saccharomyces yeast strain cultured from Norridgewock, Maine, blueberries.
“The Vinland microbe hunting project has taken years of patience and vision for all of us,” said Mystic founder Bryan Greenhagen. “To see it earn a gold in its first year as a submission to the GABF contest is a great honor to receive from the brewing community.”
Framingham’s Jack’s Abby took home the gold in the Other Strong Beer category for its Mass Rising. Some 5,000 beers were entered for judging. Samuel Adams took home a gold for Double Bock in the German-style Doppelbock or Eisbock category. The Cincinnati-brewed beer was entered into the contest as being from Ohio.
From sauerkraut to blood sausage to near room-temperature cask ales, traditional food and beverages are making a comeback. So it is that sour and smoked beers, with origins in old German styles, are popular again. In craft beer circles, the summer of 2013 could easily be called the “Summer of the Berliner Weiss.” That low gravity, refreshingly tart style went from obscure to everywhere this year and was brewed by everyone from Night Shift Brewing in Everett to White Birch Brewing in Hooksett, N.H. White Birch brewer Bill Herlicka recently told me his Berliner Weisse was so popular, people were driving into Massachusetts from New York to buy it by the case.
That a sour beer brewed with the intentional spoiler Lactobacillus can gain that kind of popularity is a testament to changing palates and an increased willingness for consumers to step outside their comfort zones. Smoked beers have also crossed into the mainstream. Framingham’s Jack’s Abby introduced Smoke & Dagger, a brew based on a traditional Rauchbier, in 2011. One of the company’s flagships, Smoke & Dagger appears on tap at bars and restaurants around the region. The beer won the bronze medal in the Smoke Beer category at the Great American Beer Festival last year.
In an effort to further my beer education, I picked up a beer recently that played on the traditions of both smoked and sour beer. Freigeist Abraxxxas, brewed in Germany by Gasthaus-Brauerei Braustelle, has origins in a specific style of Berliner Weisse called a Lichtenhainer. Details are murky. The style is not listed in my trusty “Oxford Companion to Beer.” RateBeer.com lumps it in with the Grodziskie and Gose styles. At its base, a Lichtenhainer can best be described as a sour, smoked ale.
This particular beer is named after Abraxas, a deity from gnostic texts. There are two versions of the brew: Abraxas, which weighs in at 3.2 percent ABV, and Abraxxxas, which checks in at 6 percent. I reviewed the latter. From the ghastly label, I learn that Fregeist is the experimental offshoot of the Cologne brewery Braustelle, which “strives to break the chains of industrial brewing by reviving and updating Germany’s unique, historical beer styles.”
There was both excitement and trepidation in trying this one. First surprise: The brew pours a faint golden color into a tulip glass. It looks like a Berliner Weisse, but I expected a darker color from roasted malt. No roasted malt in here. Faint smoke and apple skin waft up from the nose.
I was worried the combination of smoke and sour would be too much, but my fears were quickly quelled. The first sip is refreshing, muted, and smooth. A burst of sour hits the roof of my mouth at the end, but it’s not too much. My one complaint is that with the lingering smoke, as faint as it is, the beer gets very dry after a while. Other than that, it’s got all the refreshing qualities I want from a Berliner. The smoke serves to make the beer interesting, not heavy.
Through complete fault of my own, this column has become hop-focused. Freigeist Abraxxxas is an example of the complexities you can bring to a beer through malts and yeast treatments alone.
‘Beer Hunter’ screening
On Nov. 7, “Beer Hunter: The Movie” will be screened at the Regent Theatre in Arlington. The documentary about beer writer Michael Jackson features rare clips of Jackson plus interviews with many leading brewers about Jackson’s influence in the development of craft beer. Tom Acitelli, author of “The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution,” will give a talk. The theater will be serving beer exclusively from Massachusetts brewers.Gary Dzen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.