Archive for August, 2011

BORDER BEERS: HARVEST MOON BREWERY, BELT, MONTANA

NOTE: This is the first of what will be an occasional series of articles about western United States microbreweries that are close to the Canadian border. They are businesses that micro-loving Canadians might want to visit when they take brief visits south of the line.

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Belt, Montana, a village of 700 people, is not on most Canadian tourists’ list of places to visit. But for beer lovers, it should be. Located just north of Highway 87, a 20 minute drive east out of Great Falls , it’s the home of Harvest Moon Brewing Company, one of the state’s more rapidly growing breweries . In a state that is ranked third in the U. S. in number of breweries per capita ( 27 breweries, one for every 36,645 people inMontana), it is steadily becoming more recognized for the variety and quality of its beer.

In the mid 1990s, Stan Guedesse, a long-time home brewer and owner of a home-brew supply shop in nearby Great Falls, and his friend John Ballantyne decided to start a micrbrewery in the only area of the state that didn’t have one. Instead of Great Falls, they chose to locate in Belt. “I lived there; it would be cheaper to build our brewery there instead of Great Falls, and the water was excellent for the kinds of beer we wanted to create,” Guedesse remembers.

They started with a pale ale. “But the market around here wasn’t ready for that style just yet.” Then they developed what Stan calls “a very generic amber style. It did OK.” Their next beer was a porter. “It did very well for this market. I think that the name we gave it, Pig’s Ass Porter, caught people’s attention. So they tried it and liked it. It’s still very popular.” Beltian White, a Belgian style wheat beer followed. “It started as a seasonal. It was a good transition beer for this market and we decided to make it one of our regular offerings.” It is now Harvest Moon’s most popular beer, accounting for 60 per cent of sales.

The brewery steadily expanded, moving from cramped quarters at the back of a small tavern to their present building. (Go under the railway overpass and turn right). A bottling line was added in 2006, and a canning line not long after. In the summer of 2011, the brewery was in the final stages of expansion. A new 30 barrel system would increase production to between 6500 and 7000 barrels a year.  The company produces four year-around beers (discussed below) and a seasonal (a double IPA).

Beltian White (the name is combines both the brewery location and the European style) uses coriander, curacao orange peel and saaz hops. Slightly hazy, it has malty chewiness along with citrus overtones and a crip finish. When Pig’s Ass Porter (named after an old expression his father used) was under development, the distibutor didn’t want to market something that would interfere with his Guiness Stout accounts. “So we created a full-bodied beerthat wasn’t ashoppy as a robust porter.” Somewhat sweet and smoothe, it has chocolate and coffee notes.

Although it is an Irish red ale in style, Charlie Russell takes its name from a well-known artist of western scenes who was very popular in the area. Bronze in colour, it has both sweet and tart notes. The hops “take a back seat to the malts,” but they do cut the sweetness. Great Falls Select, the newest regular, named after a favourite area beer of the mid 20th century, is “our pale ale. It’s not west coast and doesn’t have all that hoppiness.” The malt notes dominate, although there is a crisp finish. In some ways, it reminded me of a Belgian saison. “That’s not intentional,” Guedesse noted. “But it may be the yeast.” Northern Montanans were now ready for a pale ale — their own kind.

All four of the regular beers are available in bottles; Great Falls Select and Beltian White are also in cans. You’ll find Harvest Moon products in grocery stores in the Great Falls area, in many other Montana cities, and at the brewery. If you plan a visit to Belt, where you can sample and buy products in the tap room and tour the facility, give a call ahead at 406-277-3188.

 

 

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FRIDAYS WITH BARLEY: BRINGING BACK THE BELL’S OF KALAMAZOO

Four decades ago.when we lived in Michigan, we would always return from our west coast summer vacation with a case of Coors. At the time, the Golden, Colorado product wasn’t available east of the Mississippi. So, when we invited neighbours over and shared a few cans from our case, everyone thought we were serving some rare and wonderful nectar. Until the cans ran dry, we were the heroes of the nieghbourhood.

Now that we live in the west and spend our summers in northern Michigan. Coors is available everywhere and doesn’t seem to taste half so wonderful as it used to. It isn’t necessary to bring any of it home, and I doubt if any of my beer drinking neighbours would want me to.

The beers from Bell’s Brewery of Kalamazoo, Michigan, became my drink of choice this summer. And, when the vacation was over and it was time to head home, we packed an assorted case of their various beers to take home and share with our beer loving friends. None of them had heard of Bell’s Brewery. The products are only available in 17 mid-Western and Atlantic coast states and in Arizona.

Larry Bell, who had been a homebrewer and then owner of a home-brew supply store, founded the brewery — one of the earliest microbreweries in Michigan — in 1985. He began using a 15 gallon soup kettle to brew his product, but continued to expand until the now state-of-the-art brewery produces well over 100,000 barrels annually (that’s around six million six-packs a year). Bell’s is the eighth largest microbrewery in the United States.

We tasted five different beers, ranging from the light coloured and light bodied “Lager of the Lakes” and finishing with the hearty “Bell’s Best Brown.” Here are some of my neighbours’ responses.

Lager of the Lakes, a 5 per cent ABV pale American lager, is listed as the tenth best in its category by Beer Advocate. Light gold and effervescent, it is light bodied, crisp, and clean. One taster, noting that it had just the right amount of bitterness, remarked, “it just what it’s supposed to be .. an awesome summer beer.”

Oberon, a 5.8 per cent ABV American wheat beer, is probably the top summer seller of all of Michigan’s microbrews. Named after a character in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” it is a rich golden colour and pours with a cloudy, yeasty haze. Not so sweet as some wheats, is has spicy and orange notes.  Another taster remarked, “I’m a wheat beer person; I’d give it top marks.”

Although Bell’s Pale Ale (5.2 per cent ABV) is listed as an American Pale Ale, this one tasted more like an English version of the style. “There’s more maltiness to the style than I’m used to — but that’s good.” Medium bodied and golden in colour, it is more balanced, with less hop bitterness than the American styles.

Big Two Hearted Ale, named after a northern Michigan river featured prominently in a Hemingway short story, is a fairly hefty 7 per cent ABV medium bodied American IPA brewed with generous amounts of Centennial hops. But it’s in no way a hop bomb. Malts provide a balance to the hops. Medium bodied, it has a clean, but light hop finish. “I like the fact that it seems gentle in your mouth,” remarked one taster.

We ended our tasting with Bell’s Best Brown, an English style beer, that pours a rich brown with a frothy head. It has roasty, chocolatey notes, but not the sweetness one associates with the classic example of the style, Newcastle Brown. That’s probably because the hops give an understated bitterness that prevents the malt flavours from becoming cloying. One taster remarked that it was a little rich for him during this warm summer day, but said that if I went back to Michigan in the late fall, I should bring some back for him to try.

The tasting finished, all agreed that Bell’s beers were excellent. “When are you going back to Michigan?” I was asked. I wondered at first if, as in my Coors tasting days, I was only popular as long as I was serving hard-to-find beer. I prefer to think that it was because they hoped that I’d soon be bringing back the Bell’s.

If you’re travelling in the Midwest, you might want to check www.bellsbeer.com, to see where the product is available. If you’re travelling along Michigan 28, on your way to or from Ontario, Econofoods of Marquette and Hillside Party Store of Munising stock lots of Bell’s and other very good Michigan beers.