They say “you never forget your first time.” I am not exactly sure who “they” are, but I do agree with them…especially in regards to your first firkin experience. My first time was on March 3rd,2010 with Jim O’Connor, what a magical night. From the moment he tapped that cask I knew I was in for something special.
Before your mind wanders too far down the gutter let me explain a few things. Jim O’Connor is the Midwest Sales Representative for Bell’s Brewery and over the past few years he has managed to thrill the beer school crowd with special samples of tasty brews. And just to be clear, a firkin (or cask) is defined as a small wooden vessel usually for liquids. In our case the liquid in question is actually beer and while they are no longer made of wood, they do retain the shape of a small barrel.
Over the past several years firkins have become all the rage with craft beer fans. The beer is conditioned in the firkin instead of force carbonation and once it is tapped, the beer must be consumed in a day or two. Usually that is no problem because breweries and bars tweet out the location of the firkins and people are lined up to get that “old world” experience of conditioned cask ale.
Bell’s Brewery was founded by Larry Bell in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Bell’s was actually a homebrew store in 1983 before adding a brewery in 1985.
The growth has been incredible for Bell’s and in 2002 they opened an additional 50 barrel brewhouse in Comstock, Michigan just down the road from Kalamazoo. Michigan has become an incredible destination for beer enthusiasts and I would highly recommend a beer-cation to the state. Mimi and I found our way to Bell’s Eccentric Café and General Store back in October and had a wonderful experience meeting the local beer fanatics and the friendly staff at Bell’s.
The beer menu for Bell’s Brewery has become quite lengthy and diverse, but one particular label has every hophead panting with anticipation…Hopslam Ale. February marks the release of a limited number of Hopslam bottles and kegs, but talk of the famous ale begins in December with rumors about delivery dates and locations you can find the most desired nectar in the land. Students at beer school had the unique opportunity to try the 2012 edition before anyone else inSt. Louis. Not only did Jim(left) and PJ Fisher (right) bring Hopslam, they brought the holy grail…a firkin of Hopslam! Dreams do come true, but only at Cicero’s Beer School. First let’s talk about the year round offerings that we sampled, then the Hopslam talk can continue.
Oarsman Ale (ABV 4%)
She says- Jim described it as an “Old school German Wheat Ale”.
The label graphic is the image of a man rowing a boat in a yellow rain slicker which gave me the impression this was going to be something of a moody beer. It really surprised me. It was light golden in color, with a slightly tart and crisp finish. It was very dry with a clean mouth feel. My first thought was how it would be great for a hot summer day. Jim described it as a pallet cleanser. There were subtle notes of green apple, lemon and citrus. Very refreshing and highly sessionable. Oarsman Ale is available year round, but it went on my personal summer beer list.
He says- This beer is better than I remembered. Lots of citrus and lemon with a quick dry finish. The lactobacillus yeast adds a nice acidity to the beer and provides a nice zingy charge on the tongue. Glad we had a chance to sample this one and it reminds me to always go back and revisit beers because your palette is always changing. I would pair Oarsman with fish and keep it handy for sessions by the pool as well.
Bells Amber (ABV 5.8%)
She says- Medium amber in color, it was a well balanced easy drinking beer. I found it to have a crisp and slightly sweet finish. This year round beer is very sessionable and would compliment many different kinds of foods. It struck me as a solid, “steady Eddie” beer – nothing bold or fancy, just a good old reliable brew.
He says- Larry Bell opened his brewery with $200 and this beer represents one of the original recipes that helped propel the brewery forward. Amber to brown in color with 3 malts and 3 hops. It has a nice balance with a slight bitterness, but nothing crazy. Just enough layers to make it interesting. I can see why this beer has lasted for 25 years in theBell’s lineup.
Hopslam – Draft (ABV 10%)
She says- If you love bold hoppy beers, you probably look forward to Hopslam’s release each winter. Jim categorized it as an Imperial IPA. One look at the label tells you what you’re in for – big powerful knock you on your tail hops! It doesn’t disappoint. The bold grapefruit and pine scent was heaven! Six different hops go into this beer along with honey. I find Hopslam to have a slightly thicker and syrupy mouth feel and a lingering piney finish.
He says- First up is the draft variety of Hopslam which sports a mango and grapefruit nose with a dash of cattiness. It starts out zingy and sweet, but smoothes out with a syrupy consistency. The heat on the swallow lets you know there is alcohol in this beer, but the linger on the tongue is all hops and honey. Sweeter than you would expect from an imperial IPA, but that is why everyone loves this beer.
Hopslam – Cask
She says- We compared the draft and cask versions of Hopslam, which was quite a treat. I found the draft to have a more intense flavor, whereas the cask had a smooth and creamy mouth feel. I also thought the cask version was a slightly mellow version of the draft. Both were fabulous.
He says- Now the cask version…much creamier and lighter on the tongue. The hop linger doesn’t last as long and the nose is not as intense as the draft, but I prefer this version of Hopslam. It’s as if someone sanded away any hard edges from the beer and you are left with the a less harsh version that allows the true flavors to shine. The honey addition to Hopslam is the real key and even my friends that are scared of hops enjoy this beer.
The Last Sip
Do yourself a favor and come down to beer school on Wednesday nights. Along with these 4 samples, Jim and PJ also brought a limited release beer called Black Note Stout. I won’t spend time reviewing it because the only keg in the state was consumed that night, but I want to remind you that attending beer school allows you to experience something new every week and often these beers are only available at beer school. Plus you can take home cool gear just by listening and answering questions at the end of class like the example below. Check out the podcast and see what else you missed. Cheers!
About the Authors: Husband and wife Eric and Mimi have been attending beer school for about 2 years now and love every minute of it. Mimi was born and raised in St. Louis. Besides sitting down with a fabulous pint of beer, she enjoys gardening and spending time with her horse. Eric was born and raised in Texas. He enjoys sports, homebrewing and searching for the next great beer. A search he says he has been on for nearly a decade and one that will certainly never end. Mimi, on the other hand, has more recently discovered flavorful beer and is now proud to be called a hop-head. After having moved away for a few years, in 2007, this happy couple moved back to St. Louis and is enjoying all the St. Louis beer scene has to offer, especially Cicero’s Beer School. Cicero’s is lucky to have such an enthusiastic couple writing the beer school blog!