A little more than year ago, Christopher Elbow collaborated with Boulevard brewmaster Steven Pauwels on Chocolate Ale, a limited-edition Boulevard beer that sold out almost immediately after its February release.
“It was a great idea that we completely underestimated,” Pauwels says.
Early next month Boulevard will again release Chocolate Ale. This time, the brewery more than doubled production in an effort to quench Kansas City’s insatiable thirst for the beer, which is brewed with cocoa nibs from Valrhona, a famed French chocolate manufacturer.
On a sunny December afternoon, Elbow — who seems to like beer as much as chocolate — invited Pauwels over for an informal beer tasting.
Ink: So Steven, do you do many beer tastings?
Steven Pauwels: I don’t drink enough beer. Yeah, I have a problem. I should be drinking a lot more beer but I don’t.
Christopher Elbow: There are too many. You almost can’t keep up. We have (Boulevard) Tank 7 on tap if you need any.
Pauwels (joking): I had that for lunch.
Ink: Do you have a favorite Boulevard beer?
Pauwels: No. I usually say the one in front of me.
Elbow pops the top off a bottle of 2009 Hop God beer from Nebraska Brewing Co. in Papillion, Neb.
Elbow: It’s a Belgian-style IPA, but it’s aged in Chardonnay barrels. It’s available locally. I got it at Gomer’s.
After pouring the beer into glasses, Elbow inhales its aroma.
Elbow: Smells like a sour.
Pauwels: It does smell like a sour.
Elbow: Beers can sour in a bad way.
Pauwels: Yeah, they often can. We have projects going on with sour beer. Some you taste them and you go, “Oh, it’s just awful.” Then six months later you taste it again and it’s like. “Wow. That’s fantastic.” But it can go the other way, too.
Ink: Is Boulevard going to release a sour beer?
Pauwels: We made one that’s ready for release but we just don’t have enough of it. We might have to drink it ourselves. We gave the series a name: Love Child. They’re children of love. You have to be very patient and give them love.
Elbow: You watch them grow.
Pauwels: Sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way.
Elbow: You should have Love Childs and then Problem Childs.
Ink: What do you think of this first beer?
Elbow: I get the Chardonnay flavor. The buttery oak. It’s very interesting.
Pauwels: The hop character is there, but it’s not very pronounced. It’s more in the aftertaste. The bitterness lingers. You get dryness from the oak, which I like.
Elbow: This is triple-hopped. I get the flavors of the hops, the citrus, but the aroma doesn’t pop to me.
Pauwels: That’s the problem when you age beers in oak. As soon as you put it in oak, it kind of fades.
Elbow: I could see me sitting down and drinking this. They’re from Nebraska. How can you not like that? That’s where I went to college.
Pauwels: I think these guys (Nebraska Brewing Co.) are going pretty strong. Their beer is available in a lot of different states. They have a pretty good reputation. The barrel smell comes out more as it warms up.
Elbow: I always like things that are aged in barrels. I have a tequila that’s aged in sauterne (dessert wine) barrels, so you get this residual sweetness.
Ink: Boulevard’s Bourbon Barrel Quad is aged in bourbon barrels, right?
Pauwels: Yep. The beer ages for between 6 months and 2 years.
Elbow: These beers are more labor intensive to make.
Pauwels: Absolutely. We just don’t have the room. We need to find a space where we could store a lot of barrels.
Ink: Christopher, didn’t you say you like Bourbon Barrel Quad with barbecue?
Elbow: Me and my friend from New York, we went around and got barbecue from six different barbecue places and came back home. This is the beer we had that night. It was fantastic.
Elbow opens a second bottle, Goose Island Christmas Ale from 2009, a caramel-colored beer spiced with cinnamon.
Pauwels: Well the spice is still out there. It’s a little buttery, too.
Elbow: The hops subside.
Pauwels: Oh yeah, they’re totally gone.
Elbow: I’m not sure if I’ve found a spiced beer I care for too much.
Pauwels: Yeah, it’s difficult to do. I like spices in sour beer. They make it more refreshing.
Elbow: I’m really hankering for that funky, spicy beer by 3 Fonteinen (a brewery in Belgium).
Pauwels: That’s some good stuff.
Ink: Are sour beers becoming more popular in the U.S.?
Pauwels: They’re coming in style. They’ve been around before brewers knew what yeast was, how to cultivate yeast and keep everything clean. It’s a way to preserve beer, basically. You can preserve beer by using sour, you can preserve with more hops to make it more bitter. Some other beers were preserved by dark malt that was really bitter. It stopped bugs (bacteria) from growing, too.
Ink: What are your favorite sour beers?
Pauwels: How much time do you have?
Elbow: It’s hard to get ‘em here.
Pauwels: I like the ones from 3 Fonteinen. I was in Belgium with the guys from Deschutes (a brewery in Oregon) last April. They wanted a tour through Belgium. I was the bus driver and the guide. It was the last day. We drove around and I was like, ‘Well, we have to stop there.’ Armand (De Belder, the brewery’s owner) comes out. I’ve known him for quite a while, but hadn’t seen him in five years. I park the bus and I walk up. I was like, ‘He’s probably not going to remember me.’ And he looks at me and he’s like, ‘Steven? What are you doing here?’
Elbow: “And why are you driving a big bus?”
Pauwels: He’s such a great guy. He’s a true artist.
Ink: Can you get his beer around here?
Elbow: I’ve seen it at Lukas (Liquor Superstore).
Ink: Steven, you said you don’t drink much beer at home. And Christopher said he doesn’t keep much chocolate in the house. Why is that?
Pauwels: I think when it comes to drinking beer, you’re so busy every day with it that it’s hard to make a click and just drink. What I drink at home is pilsner. Because you don’t have to think about it too much. It’s just refreshing.
Elbow (joking): Yeah, we just eat Hershey’s around here. I think with chocolate and sweet things it’s different. There’s only so much you can handle of that stuff. At the end of the day, I’m craving a beer. That’s going to wash out all that sugar and sweetness.
Pauwels: It’s not like I never drink beer, don’t get me wrong. I do my share.
Ink: You’re visiting Belgium soon — are you trying some beers there?
Pauwels: That’s the plan. I don’t have any brewery visits planned, but there’s plenty of good beer around.
Elbow: You don’t have to walk far to get good beer in Belgium.
Pauwels: I have three brothers and they’re always like, “Go look in the fridge see what we have.” I usually clean it out. Like “This is bad. This is old. You shouldn’t drink this anymore.” Actually I’m not a big fan of aged beers. I think when beer is brewed and it’s on the market, it’s ready to drink. We have a lot of people that ask about aging. You can. But Bourbon Barrel Quad, when it comes out on the market it’s got all the flavors we want it to have. Then as you age it, some of the flavors disappear. I think it’s kind of sad. The only exception is Saison-Brett, which I like aged.
Elbow opens the last bottle: Perfect Storm by Pelican Pub and Brewery in Pacific City, Oregon.
Elbow: Smells like bourbon. So rich. I can’t drink a lot of these.
Pauwels: This is a barley wine?
Elbow: Barrel-aged barley wine-style ale. So yeah, this should be pretty strong, huh?
Both men take a sip of the dark, rich beer.
Pauwels: Whoa. You can say that again. Nice bourbon.
Elbow: Caramel. Chocolate.
Pauwels: That’s pretty hot.
Elbow: I’m in trouble already. What do you think the alcohol content of that is?
Pauwels: I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s over 13 (percent alcohol).
Elbow: I could sit down after dinner with a glass of this.
Pauwels: And a cigar, preferably. It’s got a little mustiness in the back. That’s probably from how old it is.
Elbow: I think I end up aging beer because I enjoy shopping for beer. If I’m in a store with a bunch of beers, I can spend an hour looking at them. All of a sudden I’ve got a basketful. And contrary to what you might think, we don’t drink a whole lot.
Ink: Well, you do have a beer fridge, a wine fridge and a whole shelf full of tequila.
Pauwels: Now that’s what I’d like to do. Age beer in a tequila barrel. I’ve been trying to find some but everybody tells me that tequila makers use bourbon barrels. And that they use them until they fall apart.
Ink: Is Bourbon Barrel Quad the only beer you age in a barrel?
Pauwels: Rye on Rye is aged in rye whiskey barrels from Templeton (a distillery in Iowa). And then Imperial Stout is part aged in a whiskey barrel.
Ink: Beer lovers seem to go nuts for imperial stouts.
Pauwels: It’s because they’re so intense in flavor. It’s like, for winemakers, drinking a burgundy or cabernet sauvignon. It’s more complex. As you get involved and know more as a winemaker, you go to pinots and burgundies. I think the same thing with beer: You like these imperial stouts, but after awhile you enjoy the sour beers because they’re more drinkable, more approachable, but with different flavors than you can get from a regular beer because they’re sour. There’s bacteria in there and wild yeast. I tend to drink more pinot now than I used to. I think it’s more delicate. Same thing with sour beer — it’s more delicate.
Elbow: Pinots and burgundy — that’s what I typically drink with food. If I’m drinking a wine on its own, I like something big, bold. It also depends on the circumstances, the season. Like if it’s really hot outside, I’ll have the beer we don’t speak of.
Pauwels looks confused
Elbow: We were doing photographs earlier and (Ink’s photo director Jennifer Hack) needed a lighter beer. I had a Pacifico. But when it’s hot outside and you’re sweating, I gotta say, it does the trick.
Pauwels: Absolutely. There’s a place for every beer. I should’ve brought you some more experimental beers. We made a beer recently that’s based on a mint julep. The idea is, how do you make a beer that has the flavors of a mint julep? A mint julep is really sweet. So we took a trippel and aged it in a Dickens bourbon barrel and also aged it on mint.
Elbow: The mint comes through?
Ink: That sounds good. I’ll be interested to try Love Child, too. It’s just going to be called Love Child, right?
Pauwels: It’s going to be Love Child and then a number. Love Child No. 1, 2, 3
Elbow: You’ve got to sneak Problem Child in there. If one comes out really funky and crazy: Problem Child.
Pauwels: We’ll make a sour chocolate beer and call it Problem Child.
Elbow: I don’t know about that. This is great because right now, this is the busiest hour at the shop. I feel a little bad about it. But not very.
Ink: What’s been your favorite beer today?
Elbow points to the bottle of Hop God.
Elbow: I’m in love with this one. I do really like this one (Perfect Storm), I just couldn’t drink a lot of it.
Pauwels (pointing to Hop God): This is by far my favorite, too.
Elbow: Go, Nebraska!
Pauwels: I just like it that these guys from Nebraska have been winning medals at GABF (The Great American Beer Festival). It’s so great that this tiny brewery in the middle of Nebraska gets these medals.
Elbow: I don’t know if Boulevard gets the same thing too, but I get, especially when I’m in San Francisco, people who are like, “Kansas City? Obviously nothing good can come from Kansas City.” It just infuriates me to no end. They think it’s cowtown. Good things can come from anywhere, especially in this day and age.
Ink: Boulevard started distributing in Massachusetts for the first time last year. What’s been the response there?
Pauwels: It’s been fantastic. We’re lucky because Beer Advocate is based in Boston. There was a lot of talk about us not being able to get our beer there, and then once we put our beer out there it was like “Whoa. Finally.”
Elbow: You always see that. For a month, everybody’s talking about Stone (Brewing Co.) or Green Flash (Brewing Co.). There’s this big hubbub that kind of subsides.
Pauwels: These breweries make fantastic beers. But they start distributing, and the beer sits on the shelf. By the time you get it, it’s three months old. It’s always an advantage to be a hometown brewer. Our beer is the freshest one.
Elbow: That’s why I keep Tank 7 on tap.
Pauwels (pointing to Hop God): I think it’s in line with this beer. It’s drinkable but flavorful.
Elbow: It’s got that farmhouse element I really enjoy about Belgian-style beer. I wouldn’t say it’s a light-bodied beer. It’s full-flavored, but easy drinking. I can drink a fair amount of them. I always have one hooked up to C02, so it’s like at a restaurant. It’ll stay fresh for awhile.
Pauwels: Kegs would not be good for me …
Elbow: It’s not. When I was in college, I had a kegerator. I had it for a little while after college in my house. Finally, it was like “I’m grown up. I’ve got to get rid of this thing.” When we moved from our old house to here, I found this box of kegerator parts in the basement. I went and bought a $50 scratch-and-dent refrigerator. I was like, “This thing’s coming back to life.” The first month was a challenge because it was such a novelty.
Ink: You mean in terms of limiting yourself?
Elbow: I’m like, “This is great because then I can drink half a beer. I won’t have to commit to a full bottle.” But it turns into six little glasses. That didn’t work out very well.
Pauwels: I like the idea.
Elbow (pointing to the 750-milliliter mL bottle of Hop God): The good thing about these is I rarely open one unless someone else is here.
Pauwels: They’re big bottles. If I open a big bottle like that, I have to drink it myself. But I like challenges.
Elbow: We’re going to build onto the kitchen and attach it to the garage. Maybe we could put taps through the wall so I don’t have to go into the garage to get a beer.
Pauwels: We have people who can help you out.
Elbow: I’m sure you do.