Sunday, December 11, 2011

Southern Tier's Harvest Ale

I see people rave about Southern Tier's releases, but I haven't had much luck with them thus far. I thought this year's "Mokah" was overpowered by chocolate, and not terribly appealing chocolate at that. (Others feel very different about it, so don't let me scare you off completely, if overpowering chocolate doesn't sound too bad to you.) But I think I have found a Southern Tier brew I can honestly rave about with their "Harvest Ale." It's an ESB (extra special bitter) brewed up with fresh English hops (four varieties) and a solid malt base. It has that earthy, oily fresh-hop character, but the hop profile is quite a bit different than most of the harvest ales we see in the northwest. It's delicious. So delicious that I have no idea why there were six-packs of this autumn release floating around the supermarkets in November...

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Flight of Fine Barleywines

This week's tasting at The Hoppy Brewer featured a flight of four barleywines. Two were from Salt Lake City's Uinta Brewing Company, a brewery which is making something of a push into the Pacific Northwest—and who are brewing some really fine beers. I first encountered Uinta when I picked up a bottle of their "Dubhe" imperial black IPA at The Beermongers. It was delicious, a really nice balance of dark malts and sharp hops. Then I chanced on a Uinta tasting at Belmont Station, and got a chance to try several more of their brews, including a couple from their "Crooked Line." Their IPA, "Hop Notch," showed up in the local supermarket a few weeks after that. And pretty quickly this brewery I hadn't heard of in September has become a brand for which I have fairly high expectations. 

Uinta's "Anniversary" barleywine certainly didn't disappoint in terms of taste, but it is a fairly uncharacteristic barleywine. It's characteristically big, at 10.4% ABV, but it's a hops-forward strong ale, with lots of citrus and hop bitterness mixed in with the more expected dark fruit and chocolate notes. The malt base is solid, but darker than you might expect from a barleywine, with very little of the caramel that is so frequently present. It's delicious, but it was just a bit of an odd-beer-out in the flight.

Uinta's "Crooked Line" entry, "Cockeyed Cooper," is a bourbon-barrel-aged, 11.1% barleywine of a much more traditional sort. The nose is sweet, with a bit of the barrel apparent. The hops bitterness is certainly present in this brew as well, but it's well balanced with the other elements: wood, bourbon, citrus, caramel and booze. Vanilla notes build as you drink. The malts are solid, but they have to be. There's quite a bit going on here, but it's both very drinkable and very recognizable as a barleywine. 

Alesmith's "Old Numbskull" (11% ABV, 107 IBU) was probably the most traditional barleywine I tried tonight. The nose is sweet, with the emphasis on caramel and booze. The taste hits you in waves: malt, then bitter hops, then alcohol burn. The booze is not masked here. The caramel is equally aggressive. And the combination of elements is delightful. It takes a while for the fruit notes to surface, but those subtleties do come as you drink. There are beers that make you smile, and this is one of them. 

Silver Moon's "Bourbon Barrel Barleywine" has been on tap for a few days, and I had tasted it before tonight's tasting. I still want to sit down with a full glass and really spend some time with it. It's a really intriguing brew. The nose is hard to pin down, although there's some of the 11.5% ABV in there, and also some of the Elijah Craig bourbon barrels in which it was aged for 7 months. But mostly there's a kind of lightness or freshness that I would be hard put to put a name on. The taste starts out with a huge amount of vanilla, and then the bourbon highlights. Hop bitterness lingers a bit on the tongue, and there is a moment when it's mostly chocolate, and then malty roast and bourbon. It's a big, complex group of flavors, and as you get used to it, it just gets more complex, as all the conventional barleywine flavor, caramel in particular, comes through. 

This week's flight was delicious, but didn't include the best barleywine I've had this so far season. That honor goes to Boulder Beer's "Killer Penguin." It's 10% ABV and pours a fairly deep red. It's another of those surprisingly hoppy barleywines, with a nose that's all floral and fruit, somewhere between citrus and stone fruit, and a taste that starts with those same hop characteristics forward. But it settles into the plummy sort of barleywine flavor, without those other notes ever quite receding.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Stone Brewing at The Hoppy Brewer

Last Thursday's tasting at The Hoppy Brewer was a Stone Brewing event, with a range of both regular and seasonal releases. I skipped the "Cali-Belgique" Belgian IPA, which I consider one of the best examples of the style I've tried, and the "Ruination" imperial IPA, which probably doesn't need much introduction. That left four beers, only one of which I had tasted before. 

The "Smoked Porter" (5.9% ABV) was a pleasant surprise. It's a good porter. Nice and dark, with plenty of body and a bit of cream that comes through the mild, but very tasty smoke.

The 2011 "Double Bastard" is an imperial version of "Arrogant Bastard," a 7.2% American strong ale, so it's no surprise that it weighs in at 10.5% ABV. It's bigger than the original, but also mellower in many ways, as you would expect from an imperial. The dominant flavors are caramel and booze, with enough hops to balance things.

I had tried the "Belgo Anise Imperial Russian Stout" before, expecting it to be a little "busy," but it's really a very well-balanced Russian imperial stout. The anise does come forward quite a bit as it warms, but it's very, very tasty. My taste last week just confirmed my first impressions.

The "11.11.11. Vertical," a 9.4% Belgian strong pale ale brewed with chiles and cinnamon, was the selection I was most interested in—and the one I was most uncertain that I would like. I needn't have worried. It's a great beer. The Belgian yeast and the chiles mix in ways that I wouldn't have anticipated. The cinnamon doesn't come through particularly, but it's hard to know what its absence would do to the mix.

All in all, it was a pretty impressive line-up. I had more than half convinced myself that Stone wasn't really a brewery I cared much about these days, but they certainly produce some good beers.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Stillwater Artisanal Import #4 — Rule of Thirds

The Stillwater "Import" series has provided a series of fascinating beer encounters, if not always (as I mentioned in a past post) good fodder for coherent beer reviews. "Of Love and Regret" was a lovely, peppery herbal saison-like brew, which went away far too soon. "Jaded," a dark Belgian ale with some saison characteristics, is an experiment I need to repeat sometime soon. And by all accounts "A Saison Darkly," which I missed, was also very nice.

"Rule of Thirds" is described as a "hoppy Belgian triple" on the bottle. It is 8% ABV. The Stillwater site adds these details:
A hoppy Belgian triple brewed with Dr. Canarus at Huisbrouwerij Sint Canarus in Deinze-Gottem, Belgium. Three fermentables (Pils & Munich malt and Light Candi Sugar), generously hopped with Styrian Goldings, Hallertau Mittelfruh, and Amarillo.
The nose is rather like cider, and the taste is perhaps what you would expect from a sweet triple, loaded up with earthy hops. It is indeed a hoppy tripel, but also a very different affair than we might expect from, say, a northwest brewer approaching the same sort of style. Stillwater seems to have a talent for turning everything in the direction of a saison, emphasizing the earthy character of the ingredients, mixing them so that there are elements that hover just on the edge of taste. Indeed, my only real objection to the 'Import" series is that 11.2 ounces doesn't seem to be enough to really let me wrap my tastebuds around the brew. Perhaps, from now on, I'll have to pick up two bottles to do an adequate taste. This is how they get you....

Saturday, November 26, 2011

2011 Bridgeport "Hop Harvest"

I've been drinking a lot of fresh hop beers this year, but not a large variety of them, but when I saw the supermarket selection of Bridgeport's "Hop Harvest" dwindling, I decided I had been grab a bottle before I waited too long. This is something like a "triple-hopped imperial fresh-hop IPA," though the ABV is only 6.56%, with the fresh-hop promise being "from field to brew in one hour." This year Bridgeport apparently increased the amount of hops (Centennial, from a farm in Silverton, OR), but this is Bridgeport we're talking about, so the result is still a fairly restrained, nicely balanced brew. It has the slightly oily fresh-hop character, a solid grapefruit-like flavor, a pleasant bitter bite, and a solid malt base. Cold, it came across just a touch light in body, perhaps, but it warmed into a really delightful drinking experience.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Allies Win the War!

Every once in a while, a really good beer just doesn't get reviewed. For instance, after sipping my way to the bottom of a bottle of Stillwater's "Jaded," I knew I was enjoying myself, but I still didn't know quite what to say about it. I had a similar experience with my first can of the Ninkasi/21st Amendment collaboration, "Allies Win the War!" It's an English strong ale, brewed with NW hops and California dates. It weighs in at 8.5% ABV, and the nose is very much that of a strong ale, malty (on the caramel side of things) and a little boozy. But here is some hop bite, though not a lot, an obvious date sweetness, and some elusive stuff that I never quite pinned down with the first can. This time, though, I came armed with a little bit of research, and once I had identified the hops as Falconer's Flight (which, for better or worse, I wouldn't have necessarily guessed as a Ninkasi hop choice) it became clear that what I was tasting, particularly as things warmed, was the peach-apricot flavor of the hops mixing with the malts and dates. It's a good beer, and one worth taking a little time with.

A Flight of Yetis

Last week's tasting at The Hoppy Brewer was a flight of four Russian imperial stouts from Great Divide, all variations of their "Yeti." We got a chance to sample the basic "Yeti Imperial Stout," "Belgian Style Yeti," "Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout," and "Espresso Oak Aged Yeti Imperial Stout" side by side. As it happens, I had tried both the Belgian and oak-aged versions with a week or so of the tasting, so I was able to compare my impressions in those contexts with my side-by-side comparisons. All four stouts weigh in at 9.%% ABV, and all but the Belgian boast IBU ratings of 75.

The basic "Yeti" is a lovely beer. It's big and creamy, with some bitter hop bite that just clarifies how well put together the malts are. It pours thick and black, with coffee predominant, but other highlights present, including some earthy stuff brought in by the hops. The roastiness lingers pleasantly. The alcohol is pretty thoroughly masked. As with a lot of Great Divide's brews, part of what you taste is competence and, well, taste—the sense that this is the beer they set out to brew, and that the plan was solid in the first place. They are in many ways a terrifying consistent operation, turning out a lot of really good beer, and some that is great because it's put together just so. Their "Rumble" oak-aged IPA is a nearly miraculous balancing of malt, hops and oak. And "Yeti" is really rather special in a similar way, with its engaging balance of roasty malt and bitter hops. Building on that kind of balance poses a new set of challenges, if the additions aren't going to end up as detractions.

As it happened, when I moved from "Yeti" to the "Belgian Yeti," it felt rather like there had been a subtraction. I had tasted the Belgian version a week or so before, and really enjoyed it, although it was obvious that there wasn't much of what I generally expect from the "Belgian" prefix in the mix: no bananas or bubblegum, and subtle notes of spice and fruit. If anything, there just didn't seem to be all that much difference from my recollections of the base brew. What a difference context makes. Side-by-side, the "Belgian Yeti" seemed surprisingly light-bodied, with the dominant highlights at first being toffee or even milk. A fist full of soda crackers to cleanse the palate again, and some time spent sipping, brought me back some of the way to the beer I (thought I) had tasted before, with the fruit and spice notes being perhaps more pronounced, by comparison with the black-coffee flavor of the first taster. It strikes me that this is one of those pretty good beers that nonetheless suffers from too close comparison.

Turning to the oak-aged version, I felt on safer ground. I had finished off a bottle the week before, and was impressed. Sure enough, the nose was as I remembered it—faintly oaked—and the oak was strong, but nicely balanced, on the tongue, with the basic brew. Now, the folks I was sitting with disagreed, comparing the experience to gnawing on a limb, but I'm a believer. This is my pick for the best of the batch. Malts, hops, barrel, vanilla highlights, and a more muted earthiness—all balanced "at the next level."

I was curious if the trick could be repeated with the addition of espresso. Adding coffee to beer that tastes like coffee isn't always the right move. Adding fresh bitter and roast into a beer that has been aged and mellowed is a game you can loose. And espresso stouts are perhaps too often vehicles for coffee flavors, rather than tasteful elaborations of good stout. But I shouldn't have worried. While I think there are elements of the basic oak-aged brew that are unfortunately muted in the espresso version, such as the vanilla highlights, the result was definitely very nice, and clearly a successful extension and elaboration of the series.

I guess I need to track down the "Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti" sometime, and see if it is as successful....

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sierra Nevada's "Northern Hemisphere Harvest"

About a month ago, I picked up a bottle of Sierra Nevada's "Estate Homegrown Wet Hop Ale," and confirmed a conviction that has been growing on me for about a year now: I think Sierra Nevada is damn good brewery. My FB post at the time ran:
Sierra Nevada's organic "Estate Homegrown Wet Hop Ale" is obviously a little special, with a wax-covered cap and a lovely label. It's a 6.7% ABV IPA, brewed with hops and barley grown on Sierra Nevada's Chico estate. It's a harvest ale, so imagine a profile much like the usual Sierra Nevada pale, but with everything fresher, bigger, and earthier. The bitter edge that they do so well is pronounced, and the rest of the brew is thick and smooth. This is really good stuff.
Pretty good stuff. Sometime around last fall's release of celebration, I started to pay some real attention again to good old Sierra Nevada, one of the first craft breweries I had any experience with, but, honestly, one that I very seldom sought out for a lot of years. I drink triple-priced bottles of their pale ale on Amtrak, and consider "Torpedo" among the really solid IPAs out there. Last year's "Celebration" struck me as every bit as good as a lot of the fresh-hop brews I was chasing around town to get a chance to try. And "Bigfoot" seemed particularly good. Then the Ovila Abbey saison collaboration was lovely—but collaborations don't really count, do they?

Sometimes, I think I can be a little slow. I skipped the "Southern Hemisphere" wet-hop brew on price-point, because it hadn't quite sunk in what a streak Sierra Nevada had going with me, but by the time I had stripped the wax off that bottle and worked my way through a couple of glasses of "Estate," I guess I had worked things out. So, anyway...

The "Northern Hemisphere Harvest" ale is essentially an IPA, built on a solid base of two-row pale and caramel malts, with Centennial and Cascade hops. It weighs in at a relatively pleasant 6.7% ABV and a modest 60-65 IBUs. Or so they tell me—but there's obviously a little genius in the brewing, because that fairly ordinary list of ingredients has produced a fairly striking beer. The nose is mild, floral, and a little...something...dark, perhaps. It pours copper, with a sticky head that collapses into lacy tracings. And the taste is plenty bitter on the front end, with fresh-hop oiliness and a bit of earthiness close behind, with the whole thing ballasted by a well-built malt base.

I guess I won't skip "Southern Hemisphere" next year.

Really good stuff, indeed.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Two fruit saisons

Sunday night, I tried a bottle of Epic's "Sour Apple Saison" (Release #6). I had attended an Epic tasting at The Hoppy Brewer a few weeks back, and was generally taken with the offerings, and this one sounded interesting. The numbered releases, which are well documented on the Epic site, are a nice touch, which it would be nice to see from more breweries. The fact sheet for this batch reveals that the malts are "Weyermann Pilsner, . . . Briess Flaked Oats and Muntons Wheat Malt," with the hops and spices including "Saaz, Tettnang, ground Ginger, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Cloves, Nutmeg, Anise Seed, Grains of Paradise, and Coriander." It weighs in at 7.8% ABV. Given all that's in it, it's a relatively straightforward beer. It's on the full side of light-bodied, with sour, spices and just a touch of saison funk all biting back just a little at you as you sip. The nose is apple and saison yeast. The bite is really not much more aggressive than a dry cider. This is definitely one to let warm a little, particularly in the cold weather, which makes a tasty alternative to a spiced warmer.

Tonight's selection is the New Belgium "Prickly Passion Saison," from the "Lips of Faith" series. It features, as you might expect, Prickly Pear and Passionfruit, with Target and Liberty hops, on a pale malt base. The yeast is "an earthy saison yeast," but don't expect the dry, grassy taste of a Dupont or Ovila Abbey saison. There is some of that, but there's also—and prominently in the nose—some of that bubblegum flavor you're likely to associate with Belgian ale yeast. The fruit flavor is really fairly restrained, always playing second fiddle to the spice notes. It's a big brew at 8.5%, but it seems a little smaller in flavor than I would expect from this series of brews.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Beer and culture... and "banana beer"

After numerous requests and much cajoling from various quarters, I've decided to take the plunge with a beer blog—or rather a "beer and culture" blog, featuring lots of beer reviews, but also various other things that fall into the the categories of "well-aged," "slightly bitter," palate-challenging" and/or "slightly funky." I ordinarily blog about radical history and anarchist theory at Two-Gun Mutualism and the Golden Rule, and readers of either blog concerned about contagion from the other side should consider the opinion of no less than the Rand McNally Guide to the Columbian Exposition (1893) that "beer, anarchy, and socialism" are "seemingly inseparable companions." Anyway...

Red Hook has released an "Extra Special Birthday" version of the "ESB" in their Blueline Series. It's a throwback brew, to celebrate their 30th anniversary, "that replicates the flavor profile of of Redhook Ale in the early 80's, lovingly referred to by Seattle locals as 'banana beer.'" It's a pretty, deep red beer, with a stiffish head that breaks down to thick tracings. The nose is dominated by Belgian yeast, with its light banana fragrance. There's plenty of malt in the base, and a bit of bitter hop present that probably doesn't quite qualify as "bite." But I suspect this will play better with those who remember the original fondly than with those looking for a special beer. As a strong bitter, it is no more remarkable than the regular ESB, and the addition of the Belgian yeast makes a beer that isn't particular full and balanced anyway seem to teeter just a bit more. It's nice to try the Bluelines once in awhile, just to see what Red Hook is up to, but I very seldom seem to go back for seconds.

Update: Having taken my time getting through the bottle, the last inch was approaching room temperature when I drank it—and at that temperature it really came across as a pretty solid strong bitter.