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.