Category Archives: Beer Reviews

The Asshole in the Room: Revisiting BCBS, and Being a Better Beer Enthusiast

 

The disconnect

Something has been bothering me for a very long time.

Wait, let’s try that again–many things have been bothering me for a very long time, and I have no reason to believe that is going to change anytime soon. What I mean to say is that something has bothered me for a long time that I recently decided to to something about. It has a little to do with the “micro vs. macro” debate, a little to do with the concept of “beer snobbery,” and a lot to do with making sure I’m not just being an asshole.

You see, I have a lot of friends who are very into beer, and follow many great beer industry folks on various social media platforms. I know and respect their palates; I know they’re not prone to hype, and have a breadth of experience that allows them to convey their impressions clearly. In short, these are people who know what the fuck they’re talking about.

What’s been bugging me is that I keep finding myself not ‘getting’ what many of them see in a specific beer. I’ll tell you what beer that is, but I want to warn some of you ‘fussier’ types that I may or may not be committing some kind of ‘craft beer’ blasphemy here, so you’ve been warned.

I just don’t like Goose Island Bourbon County Stout all that much.

There, I said it. Publicly. I don’t hate it mind you; I just don’t get it. I don’t get what the big f’ing deal is. I don’t get the raves, the scores, the madness every year when it’s released. But every year, I hear from friends and see beer industry folks whose opinions I respect talk about how great BCBS is. So where’s the disconnect?

I don’t know who the phrase might be credited to, but one of my favorite sayings is “if you look around the room and don’t know who the asshole is–it’s you.” When it comes to BCBS, was I simply the asshole in the room? I decided to try an experiment to find out.

The importance of calling yourself out, and acknowledging your personal biases 

I have a hard time talking about Goose Island. No matter what opinion I express I sound like a ‘craft’ zealot/douchebag–but the simple truth is this:

1. I only ever got to try 312 and Matilda before the buyout, and liked but didn’t fall in love with either. This is a valid enough opinion, but now it sounds like I’m the ultimate Beer Hipster, in that “I didn’t like that brewery before you ever did/didn’t.”

Me, basically. Photo via Jaime Posadas at Deviant Art

2. The Goose Island lineup hasn’t won me over as I’ve gotten to try more of it. As AB/InBev (ABI) rolled out Goose Island in Virginia, I tasted through the lineup a couple times to see if I wanted to work with their beers. Frankly, I didn’t find anything overly compelling, and what I would have bought I would have only been buying to give myself access to BCBS later, as BCBS is the only GI beer I get asked about at work with any regularity.

3. When I talk about GI beers I do like, they’re always the ‘wrong’ ones. I think Honker’s Bitter is a perfectly good go-to beer–in fact, I kinda dig it. I really enjoyed the GI Harvest Ale, and if I hadn’t been carrying the (fairly similar to me) Southern Tier Harvest at the time I first tried it, I might’ve brought it in. Visiting the Better Beer Authority crew for a blind tasting, I found The Ogden tasty, if a bit hot on the finish. But it seems like anytime I say this, the person I’m talking to looks at me like I’m malfunctioning. I can’t win when it comes to Goose Island.

So here’s the deal: in light of ABI’s recent purchases of 10 Barrel and Elysian, there’s been a renewed discussion of “craft vs. crafty,” and whether it should matter to us at all who owns how much of the breweries we love, as long as the product is produced at a high quality and is, for lack of a better term, good. Since the Goose Island buyout, I’ve worried that my opinion of their beers has been clouded by my feelings about their ownership. I worry about being that guy, doing a disservice to the breweries I enjoy and want to see succeed.

When I came across a bottle of 2014 BCBS during a visit to Norm’s a few weeks back, I decided to put together a blind tasting to settle in my head once and for all whether I just wasn’t a fan of the beer, or if I was being that asshole who ABI is getting one over on with that dumbass Super Bowl ad of theirs.

Gather ye Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stouts, while ye may

4 & 3 & 2 & 1, c'mon everybody let's--/passes out drunk

4 & 3 & 2 & 1, c’mon everybody let’s–/passes out drunk

I wanted a lineup of similarly ‘big’ Bourbon barrel-aged Stouts, which I thought would be tough to put together. But after buying my bottle of 2014 BCBS, things just kinda fell into place: my friend Mike Sollom from Sly Fox had previously given me a bottle of their Barrel-Aged Nihilist Imperial Stout (which they had hoped to have gotten Virginia label approval for in time for its release last year, but unfortunately could not); and I had recently bought a bottle of Schlafly’s 2013 Bourbon Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout as I hadn’t tried it in some time. I also wanted to include the Schlafly because of it’s fairly regular availability. To that end, I originally planned on including a bottle of the excellent Blue Mountain Dark Hollow, as it’s available year-round and also a personal favorite–but fate stepped in when Mike Kraus generously gifted me a bottle of Concealed Darkness; a 10.6% ABV version of Dark Hollow using twice the oats and Chocolate malt, and aged in Bourbon barrels for a full 12 months. I was dying to try this beer, and figured this would be as good an occasion as any.

(Note: If you’re into that sort of thing, look for a separate post with full tasting notes later this week. Today, we’re waxing philosophical.)

The tasting itself: surprises and self-doubt

With my Stouts in place, I asked my wife to help by setting an order for the beers (referring to them as “#1, #2, etc…) and pouring them for me one at a time, a little bit at a time, over the course of about an hour so each would have a chance to warm up and display different characteristics. After running through the lineup a couple times and revisiting some for the sake of clarifying notes/for the hell of it, my wife asked me to guess which beers were which before the big reveal.

“#1 is the Sly Fox.” I knew that immediately, and was right. I’ll get into this more in the post with my notes, but I don’t know if that bottle of BA Nihilist was right. I got zero Bourbon note off of it, and there were aromas and flavors I’d have expected from an older beer from the cellar. I’d suspect oxidation, but the carbonation was lively to the point of distraction. I’ve had (and greatly enjoyed) the standard Nihilist, so this was a surprise. That said, it was my wife’s favorite of the bunch but she’s not much of a Bourbon drinker, so that’s understandable.

“#4 is Blue Mountain?” Right again. There was a sense of balance in Concealed Darkness, contributed by the right amount of roasty flavor and astringency from the malts, that was unmistakeable. Not only was it my favorite beer of the evening, it’s already on my short list for favorite beers of 2015.

So it was down to two–2014 BCBS and 2013 Schlafly BBA Imperial Stout. I thought I had them pegged: there were similarities, but the rich feel and lack of distinction in the flavors of #3 screamed “BCBS” to me, while #2 was much more boozy than I remember Schlafly being, but it had admittedly been some time since I’d tried it.

At the last minute I forgot the advice of my junior high/high school German teacher Mr. Henry, who always told us “Your first guess is your best guess; your second guess is your worst guess; your third guess is better than your second, but worse than your first.” I knew the answer, doubted myself anyway, and went with my second guess.

“Is #2 BCBS and #3 the Schlafly?” Nope. Of course not; I had it the first time. The Bourbony goodness was the 2013 Schlafly Imperial Stout, while #3 was the 2014 BCBS. Throwing out the Sly Fox for any possible issues that might have been going on in the bottle, the BCBS came up last with me.

So what? 

While my palate may be contrarian when it comes to BCBS, at least I’m not an asshole. At least in this regard. There are so many other ways I’m an asshole, but let me feel good eliminating this one, ok?

At least I know now that my impressions of BCBS aren’t just “because ABI” as I’d wondered/feared. To me, it genuinely lacks for something. The two times I’d tried BCBS previously were a pair of 2012 bottles I got when it first came to Virginia. I drank one soon after release and another near the end of 2013. Both times I found the beer ‘milkshakey’–a term I use analogous to ‘jammy’ in wine: feeling rich to the point of caricature, lacking the necessary acidity and tannin (or in the case of beer, alcoholic heat, hop bitterness, malt acidity, or all three) to give it balance. Drinking that second, slightly older BCBS, I found myself dropping a shot of High West Son of Bourye in the glass to give it some bite. The Blue Mountain had that balance, which is something I personally look for, but maybe you don’t care about balance. That’s fair enough; we all like different things, and have tastes that veer in different directions. I’m just trying to convey where I’m coming from.

The best comparison I found was between the BCBS and the Schlafly. The Schlafly threw me by being the booziest of the bunch–seriously, this thing smelled eerily similar to that glass I’d dropped the High West into once upon a time, and on the palate there were moments where it seemed like the beer was playing second fiddle to the booze. But what Schlafly Imperial Stout lacked in subtlety, it made up for with its distinctive flavors that interplayed as the beer warmed. For me, with the Bourbon set to ‘stun’ rather than ‘obliterate’ this would’ve been the beer of the night. As it is, it’s still impressive as all hell, and I highly recommend it.

The BCBS came across boozy on the nose like Schlafly. However, where you could pick out the Bourbon, malt, and chocolatey tones in the Schlafly, the BCBS was just…there. At first I wrote “more coalesced (integrated?)” but that’s not what I was experiencing. What it was was a “mish-mash,” the note I took a few minutes later. Make no mistake, BCBS is a tasty beer, but for me (again, my personal perspective) the problem is that with its massive, lush feel and “there-and-then-gone” finish, it’s a Guy Fieri-style trip to FlavorTown, rather than a full and developed experience.

First image that pops up when you GIS “Guy Fieri.” It’s goddamn perfect.

This actually jives with the one BCBS variant I’ve tried, which was also the one version that’s legit knocked me on my ass–the 2012 BCBS Cherry Rye that I got to sample during a bottle share with friends early in 2014. Rye malt, Rye Whiskey barrel, tart Michigan cherries…everything in Cherry Rye works to give it the backbone I feel BCBS so desperately needs. I’m going to try to hunt down some Coffee BCBS, as I imagine it too would have more of the acidity/bite I’m looking for.

TIL

What did I learn, if anything?

Between multi-million dollar ads and the slew of brewery buyouts to come, it’s going to become more important to separate “I don’t like that brewery’s beers” from “I don’t like who owns that brewery.” Even if you’re the kind of dumbassed idealist who feels that every purchase is a small political statement, especially when it comes to things you’re passionate about…

…/looks in mirror…

…it’s important to create the distinction and keep it in mind, because no one loves a zealot, and it’s nigh impossible to make an ownership-based argument without sounding like a snob. In the end, decisions about what you like and what’s “good” to you are about your palate, not ‘the business’. I can like Goose Island’s beers or anyone else’s, but choose not to buy them because their corporate ownership wants to put my favorite breweries (and yours, by the way) out of business. I can not be a fan of Goose Island or anyone else and still acknowledge the ability and quality found in their beers, despite the conventional wisdom that says ‘macro’ ownership immediately and necessarily means cutting corners in the brewing process, or shoddy quality. I‘ve written about this at length in the recent past, actually.

There’s a lot of talk about ABI’s “war” on “craft beer,” as if AB or InBev ever wasn’t–but that’s a conversation for another day. The response to Budweiser’s Super Bowl ad has contained a lot of exactly what the beer industry doesn’t need–judgement of the buying decisions, palates, and motivations of others. Think whatever you want about a company’s business practices, but when it comes to the beer itself:

-Trust your palate, and yours alone.

-Having made any judgements about beers you do/don’t like, never stop challenging yourself. No one is infallible, and our palates change dramatically over the course of our lives.

-Learn to ‘not like’ things without ‘hating’ them. Please.

-Don’t be the asshole in the room.

Tasting notes in a couple days. Until next time.

 

 

California Love (Part 1)

Yeah, that’s how we’re starting this week.

I just got back from a vacation visiting my best friend in Los Angeles. Our trip just happened (I swear this is true) to coincide with Stone’s 18th Anniversary Party–my friend’s brother lives near Stone’s location in the Northern part of San Diego County, and we were thinking about going to see the brewery and its vaunted World Bistro and Gardens anyway, so we decided to just go for it.

Rather than simply open the Bistro and have a celebration of all things Stone and only Stone, the Anniversary Party is basically an all-day beer festival split into two sessions; one earlier in the afternoon and one later. Some sixty breweries were featured, with well over 100 beers available for sampling. Tickets weren’t exactly cheap ($45—and yes, I paid for them), but the price ensured a crowd of die-hard craft beer enthusiasts. The crowd was as big as you’d expect considering Stone’s popularity, but not so big that I had any difficulty getting around the San Marcos campus of California State University, where the Party was held. Also, I should compliment everyone involved in setting up and running the Anniversary Party; I can’t remember ever attending such a well-organized beer fest, completely lacking in the B.S. that usually makes me avoid beer fests.

Make no mistake, though: it was a big crowd, and some breweries attracted a lot of attention.

IMG_2061

This was the line to sample what The Bruery brought (their tent is the one straight ahead in the picture)

And the line for Russian River sampling was twice as long, but the pourers worked efficiently and lines progressed smoothly. Overall, very well done.

After the Anniversary Party on Saturday, we were treated to spots in a tour of the Stone brewery on Sunday, along with reservations at the Bistro (those I’ll thank Stone for). The brewery tour itself is…well, it’s a brewery tour—they’re all fairly similar:

“These are tanks!”

“These are tanks!”

 

"MOAR TANKS"

“MOAR TANKS”

“These are other tanks! And pipes!”

“These are other tanks! And pipes!”

This actually was pretty cool to see: these are the small tanks that make up Stone’s ‘pilot’ brewery, where they experiment with recipes to see what works and what doesn’t (I almost made a “rough drafts” joke here).

This actually was pretty cool to see: these are the small tanks that make up Stone’s ‘pilot’ brewery, where they experiment with recipes to see what works and what doesn’t (I almost made a “rough drafts” joke here).

I always enjoy brewery tours though, and at Stone I appreciated not only our knowledgeable and engaging tour guide, but the carefully selected samples poured for those on the tour immediately afterwards in the Stone Company Store. Not to mention the well-stocked refrigerator (note the presence of 12th Anniversary Bitter Chocolate Oatmeal Stout, 14th Anniversary Emperial IPA, the new 18th Anniversary Golden Brown IPA, Enjoy By 9.20.14., sixers of Coffee Milk Stout, and not pictured are the bottles of Bastard In The Rye that I couldn’t stop myself from snagging one of):

"Buy ALL THE THINGS, Nick. DO IT."

“Buy ALL THE THINGS, Nick. DO IT.”

There were a couple noteworthy items during the tour: The first, on the heels of my last ArlNow.com column (about the issues California breweries are having with the state’s ongoing drought) was that Escondido—the North County area in San Diego where Stone is located—was under a boil alert the weekend we were there. Testing that Friday the 15th showed the presence of coliform bacteria, so the first thing we saw when parking at Stone on Sunday was a very large truck outside pumping clean water in. By Monday the 18th, the alert had been lifted for all but around 60 of the reported 6,300 water customers in Escondido. While this issue in Escondido wasn’t drought-related, it was interesting to see how an operation their size had to scramble to handle a temporary water emergency.

The other thing that came up on our tour was the news, released the day before the Anniversary Party, that Stone has narrowed the potential locations for its East Coast brewery to three finalist cities: Richmond, Norfolk, and…Columbus, Ohio? Ok, then—I’m still rooting for Virginia to get the nod (and rumors are flying about large spaces in both Virginia cities that could potentially work for Stone), and it sounds like we won’t have to wait much longer to find out for sure.

 

The Bistro

The Bistro

The Bistro is everything you’ve heard about it: a bit pricey but the food is delicious, with carefully chosen ingredients prepared very well. The draft and bottle beer lists are exceptional, featuring more than a few Bistro exclusives by Stone, along with cool unexpected Belgian selections and brews from Evil Twin and Mikkeller. My advice if you’re visiting? Grab a snack and a couple pints and enjoy a walk around the lovely outdoor area; I can imagine that as a really nice way to spend an afternoon.

Getting back to the Stone 18th Anniversary Party, here are some highlights from the beers I tasted there:

Stone Brewing Company stuff: Of course, there were a lot of Stone beers at the Party. I started the day with their 18th Anniversary Ale, which is just arriving in Virginia this week. A ‘Golden Brown IPA’, the malts make a nice counterpoint to the all El Dorado-hopped IPA. I’m partial to El Dorado right now; it always brings a nice, minty feel of freshness and a restrained amount of the citrusy/piney hop character that can be overdone in too many beers. Something I didn’t expect to see was Enjoy By 9.20.14., but it’s always appreciated. This batch won’t be hitting Virginia or DC, but if you need your fix it is available in Maryland. One I’d never heard of was Tiger Cub, a Saison in this case aged in white wine barrels with sour cherries. As you’d expect, opinions varied but I thought it was lovely. The new Coffee Milk Stout was great; not too strong, not overtly sweet, and if the six-packs ever get out here I’ll be stocking up on it for sure. My wife didn’t like the recently released W00tstout 2.0 as much as last year’s, but I found it to be just as punchy, rich, and enjoyable as before.

4 Hands Prussia Passion Fruit: I’d heard next to nothing about St. Louis’ 4 Hands Brewing before going to San Diego, but now I’m obsessed and it’s solely because of this Berlinerweisse with passion fruit added to it. It’s 3.5% ABV, tart as all get out, and the passion fruit just worked so well in the style. I must have it.

Russian River Compunction: Sure, most folks were waiting in the absurd Russian River line for Pliny The Elder, but many of us were intrigued by Compunction, a Sour Ale of theirs that I personally wasn’t familiar with at all. Turns out to be a Sour Blonde with pluots (a plum/apricot hybrid). I was looking for more fruit character, but Compunction does not disappoint—it’s a Russian River Sour, after all.

Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin: Sculpin is about as perfectly-made as West Coast IPAs get; this variant with grapefruit added is just a little more perfect. If we don’t get bottles (or cans? Please?) of this in Virginia it’ll be a travesty. Ok, that’s a bit strong, but I really would like to have some to sell. In the meantime, I’ve heard of bottles popping up in DC, so keep an eye out.

The Lost Abbey Fuzzy Angel’s Share: I’ve only had Angel’s Share once or twice, so I don’t have a lot to compare it to, but this was wonderful. This version of Angel’s Share was made especially for the 18th Anniversary Party, adding black tea and stone fruit to the 12.5% ABV Brandy-barrel Strong Ale. Heady (especially as it was my last beer of the party), but so complex and just packed with flavor.

Modern Times Black House: Tasty Oatmeal Stout, under 6% ABV, in a can? Yes, please. Clean, smooth on the palate, delightful beer.

Beechwood Alpha Master Pale Ale: “Simcoe, Centennial, and Columbus hops in the kettle. It’s then generously dry hopped for two weeks with Simcoe and Centennial…” yeah yeah yeah, I know, another over-hopped West Coast beer–but wait. This is a 5.6% ABV Pale Ale, clocking in at 80 IBU but not enamel-shredding by nature. The kind of beer I wish more West Coast breweries aimed to make (more on that in a couple weeks).

Port Brewing ChronicAle: This wasn’t at the Anniversary Party (at least I didn’t see it there), but I picked this up the night we landed in L.A. during a BevMo run. ChronicAle, in its canned form, is a 4.9% ABV hoppy Amber Ale that can function as a hoppy Session Beer. The malt works really well here, shouldering the burden of the hops to carry the beer, and adding to the ‘Sessionable’ feel. The best part? ChronicAle comes in six-packs of tallboys, and cost $9.99 at BevMo. This was the first moment I thought to myself “Nick, have we landed in The Promised Land? Yes, Other Nick, we sure have.”

More travelogue next week, along with an awesome visit to The Bruery. See you then!

Tasting Notes: Foggy Ridge Ciders

Foggy Ridge

I’ll admit up front that I’m not much of a cider guy. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, I do–it’s just been something I’ve had a hard time really getting into the way others do, and especially in my role as a retail buyer. For years I’ve had cider fans asking me to carry more, only to have bottles sit on my shelves when I actually made the effort to bring some in. So forgive me, but my attitude until recently had been “fuck the cider people” when it came to my stocking decisions.

johnny-cash-middle-finger

Yeah, pretty much that.

Not to mention that every cider I bring in is one less beer I can feature, and when shelf space is at a premium like it is in my department at Arrowine, that’s no small matter.

Another part of my cider animosity is the rollercoaster of levels of quality in the ones I’d try. I can’t count the number of times some rep would say to me “this is our dry style cider“, as if simply saying the word “dry” would tickle the wine guy part of my lizard brain and make me buy in immediately. The worst part is that said “dry” ciders would either be blatantly sweet, meaning the cidery either had no palate to speak of or was just plain lying to me, or the cider would be ‘dirty’–packed with Brettanomyces flavors and effects which yes, can include dryness but at the cost of the fruit’s flavor. Not what I’m looking for. I’m not sold on what UC Davis has to say just yet; as my boss likes to say, wine is essentially grape juice–when you point out to me the part of the grape that is supposed to smell or taste like leather, or ‘barnyard’, or mushroomy I might start forgiving Brett. Until then, I’d like my cider to taste like apples if you please. I’ll keep the Brett in the beers it should be in, where I enjoy it.

Horseblanket

Ran a GIS for ‘horseblanket’; not one grape or glass or wine came up. Side note: how badass does this horse look?

All of this is by way of saying that I’m wary of trying ciders, and a bit exasperated with the prospect of finding and stocking new ones. It was with this jaded, downright shitty attitude that I met with my distributor rep for Foggy Ridge Ciders to try their wares.

Foggy Ridge is located in Dugspur, Virginia, southwest of Lynchburg. It would actually make for a good detour on a trip to Asheville, now that I think about it. Cider maker Diane Flynt has built her lineup around the preservation of heirloom varietals, specifically those with the tannin and acid content to make truly dry, structured Hard Cider. I got to try out five of Foggy Ridge’s offerings, representing the bulk of its line. Here’s what I thought:

First Fruit: Once again, I was told that this would be the driest cider of the group, but for once I was told correctly. The early-harvest fruit used in this cider makes for a truly dry, crisp cider with proper fruit character and–wonder of wonders–actual structure! My heart grew three sizes. Aromas are slightly nutty, but the apple comes correct. Also, it’s CLEAN. Love it.

Serious Cider: Serious is made from a mix of traditional English and American varieties. This is where the pleasant surprises really start: after First Fruit, I was expect a head-first dive into syrupy, cloying cider territory, and that is not what I got. The nose on Serious is more mild than First Fruit, but the blend of apples used gives it a green/yellow apple flavor that is all tartness and acidity in all the right ways.

Sweet Stayman: Made mostly from Virginia Stayman apples which apparently ripen later in the season. From the name alone I was expecting dessert, but Sweet Stayman is more ’round’ than it is ‘sweet’. The apple aromas are bolder and more concentrated here, but don’t suggest cloying sweetness. Stayman is  a tick sweeter on the palate, but it isn’t sugary at the expense of the fruit, or done in a way to pander to the ‘American’ palate. The roundness of the Stayman apple makes for a smoother-feeling cider, but one that still carries some sense of structure. Smart stuff.

Handmade: The only Foggy Ridge to come in 375mL mini-champagne style bottles (more on this in a bit). Handmade is mostly made from Newton Pippin apples and has aromas that made me think of Vidal white wine. The palate was mild compared to the others, but had an interesting pear-like fruit note (which they even mention on their website, funny enough) and was very nice.

Pippin Gold: A blend of a 100% Pippin cider and apple Brandy–think Pommeau without the extended oak aging. Sweet but appropriate for the style; my issue with Pippin Gold was that I missed the oxidation that comes with the long-term oak aging in Pommeau. Thinking about it now, Pippin Gold would be a nice substitute for a Loupiac, or other inexpensive Sauternes-like dessert wines.

So yeah, I really liked the Foggy Ridge ciders. A lot, in fact. But I won’t be carrying any of them.

Why? Well, the First Fruit, Serious, and Sweet Stayman come in 750mL bottles that would retail in the ~$18 range. The smaller bottle Handmade comes in, used ostensibly to make pricing more attractive to retail and restaurants, would still hit shelves around $12. Pippin Gold (in what I remember being a 500mL) would shake out damn near $25. I just can’t do it. I have world-class beers in those prices that have Yelpers and BA’s pissed at me as it is–I simply can’t put these ciders out there at these prices and expect folks to buy in because they’re from Virginia, or simply because they’re great (which, make no mistake, they are). I just can’t.

A smaller format would still be pricey, but I think doable for the main thrust of Foggy Ridge’s line. Hopefully someday this comes to pass; I really enjoyed the ciders and would love to feature them. Foggy Ridge is doing just about everything I want cider makers to be doing right now. If you get the chance to try their stuff out, do so; you won’t be disappointed. If you have time to make the trip, go visit–I’m sure it’s beautiful out there.

Oh well.

TBR: Reader Request–Jester King Farmhouse Black Metal

So,

Friend and noted Beer Trader About Town Matt came into some Jester King stuff lately and brought me a bottle of Farmhouse Black Metal to try. Matt had tried one out and seemed to dig it, but something about the beer seemed to throw him off. In so many words he told me there was a spicy element that jumped out at him and he was curious as to what I would make of it. Well, I just polished my bottle off and here’s my take:

Yes, I’ll be randomly inserting Black Metal vids into this post. Don’t like it? Don’t click ‘play’. Easy enough.

My bottle of Black Metal had been in the fridge for a few days, so I decided to keep an eye (and nose, and palate) on it as it warmed up. Almost immediately after pouring it I picked up something in the nose and was struggling to place it; it seemed almost briny, like Oyster Stout briny. Or mussels? Could this be the note that Matt was talking about? More concerning in that moment was figuring out what it was I was smelling in the glass. I handed it to Mrs. Monger, whose nose and palate are far beyond mine (even if she won’t admit it) and in no less than three seconds she said “It’s olives”.

Dammit. She was right–the unmistakeable scent of Kalamata olives. I would’ve figured it out at some point, but damn if her sensory recall isn’t just that damn good. As the beer warmed up in the first few minutes, the olive note was pretty forceful in Black Metal. I was loving it, but I love the combination of briny and fruity flavors and aromas in olives. Maybe this wasn’t a beer for those looking for a rich, beastly Imperial Stout.

That said, the finish on that cold Black Metal felt and tasted like nice hot chocolate. and the mid-palate was exceptionally easy-going. As it warmed more I started noticing some more spice coming out. Cinnamon? It was faint, but the more the chocolate notes came to the fore the more spice I was noticing too. Ok, then, this wasn’t going to be an easy beer to pin down. Better take it up a notch:

That’s better. Anyhoo, I let it come to temperature and that’s when things just got cool. Like the gigantic dork that I am, I pulled up my Untappd app on my phone to check my beer in like a good nerd. Whomever created the listing for Farmhouse Black Metal in Untappd listed it as a Dry Irish Stout, which isn’t how it’s categorized on Jester King’s site, but it made a lot of things click for me. Now that it was nice and warmed up, the olive note had faded and the malts had asserted themselves, it jumped out at me that the last beer I’d had that it reminded me of was Schalfly’s Irish Stout.

The big difference though, was that at that exact moment it hit me–the spice; what it was that Matt was talking about in the first place. Enough to remind me of the slew of peppery beers that took over my shelves during the past year: Fade To Black, Cocoa Mole, El Mole Ocho, Terrapin/Schmaltz Reunion, etc.

What sets Farmhouse Black Metal apart is the Farmhouse yeast. Having recently tried Boulevard’s Dark Truth Stout, it was fresh in my mind how much any Belgian-style yeast strain can make even the boldest and most intense combination of flavors approachable, and I feel like that’s the case here. Not only does the Farmhouse yeast contribute its own spicy character to the beer, but it helps to round out what could otherwise be seen as just another cartoonishly “BIG FLAVOR” beer.

So Matt, here’s my verdict: Great beer if you dig the spicy stuff. Those not prepared for it or who just aren’t into peppery beers could easily be turned off by its unexpected heat, but I thought it was quite the treat. Thanks for bringing it by.

Until next time, folks.

Cheers!

Ok, one more for the hell of it:

Serenity Now: Stillwater Debutante, The Beermonger Review

This may not completely come through to those of you who have met me, but I try to live pretty ‘Zen’.

Many things bother me and if I’m not careful I’m far too easily bothered. From my teens I’ve set as a goal for myself to reduce the number of things that I allow to get to me, which coincided with the Comparative Religions class I took in high school when I was first introduced to many of the principles of the great Asian religions. In my typical American fashion, I found aspects of many religions and philosophies that tweaked something in me and found myself focusing more and more on patience, acceptance, and letting go (I particularly recommend The Analects of Confucius and Budoshoshinshu). This has served me well over the years, personally and professionally. Today I feel like I’m in a good place, like I’ve found and don’t stray too far from my center.

I told you all of this to set up this story: Last night I’m at home and realizing I had the next day off, figured I’d open an extra bottle of beer for the hell of it. My wife and I had some good stuff we’d been sessioning over the past week or so (Abita Mardi Gras Bock, Bell’s Oarsman Ale) but I wanted something a little…more. I found myself staring into the fridge trying to decide between Stone’s 11.11.11. Vertical Epic and the Stillwater Ales Debutante which arrived late last week. As much as I dig the Vertical, I went for the Debutante.

Why? Well, it spoke perfectly to my mood. I felt balanced that night–serene–and the Vertical just seemed too brash for my mood. As soon as I got that first sip, I knew I’d made the right choice. I first tried Stillwater’s beers a couple years ago when my wife stuffed my stocking with a bottle of his American Farmhouse Ale. I was immediately struck by the combination of balance, innovation, and singularity of flavors in Brian Strumke’s work. The Debutante is no different in this: from a humble Saison yeast there comes something so rich, delicate, and unique that it is unrecognizable as a Farmhouse Ale yet could not be anything else.

Debutante first twists the Farmhouse tradition by including spelt and rye malts, which add a rustic, bready tone that plays incredibly well off of the spicy, fruity Belgian yeast. Going a step further, Debutante features heather, hyssop, and honeysuckle. These add beautiful aromatics and on the palate take this beer to another level. With all of this and a smooth mouthfeel with fine carbonation, Debutante has officially joined my list of “happy place” beers.

When I was a boy one of my favorite things about spring and summer was honeysuckle in bloom. You can just grab a flower and get right at the nectar, and it just screamed warmth and joy to me. I’ve of course romanticized it in the years since, but thinking back on all the bullshit that was going on in my life when I was a small child, the things I found happiness in particularly stand out, and honeysuckle is one of them. The tiny, subtle hint of the honeysuckle that comes through in Debutante is enough to make me think of those little moments of solace, and at the risk of being completely blinded by sentiment it really puts the beer over the top for me.

I’m not sure what else to say about Debutante. If you enjoy Farmhouse Ales, this merits an immediate buy. In many ways the Stillwater lineup is a harbinger of a coming wave of craft beers, which aren’t so much dedicated to style as they are explorations of ideas; flights of fancy. I’ve got a whole post coming up dedicated to this and I don’t want to throw a bunch of stuff out there just to repeat it later so I’ll just say if you can find Debutante get a couple and enjoy. If you can’t, look for any of the Stillwater Ales line as they are all excellent and a glimpse of where beer is going.

Stay centered, folks.

Thursday Tasting Notes; 12.1.11

Every now and then, I get to try a bunch of stuff out at once. I don’t take notes nearly as often as I used to (or should, for that matter) so it felt like a good enough excuse to post some thoughts as I tried things out tonight. Let’s get going, eh?

Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale (BrownShugga’ Replacement)

We all by now have heard the story of how the gang in Petaluma just plain ran out of capacity to brew the ever-popular BrownShugga’ seasonal this year. In its stead we get this IPA that I swear to Flying Spaghetti Monster is a repackaged version of their Kill Ugly Radio release from a few years ago. Not a compliant, mind you; I loved that beer and I love this one too. Aromas are sharp and spicy–black pepper spicy rather than coriander spicy. The palate is a quick rush of tropical fruits with a firm hop backbone establishing itself and carrying through the finish. I got a feeling we’re going to sell through a ton of this (in fact, we went through about 1/2 the 5 cases we got just today).

Le Bilboquet Mackroken Flower Scotch Ale

Now this is some serious cool. The nose alone, with with its sweet toffee malts and hint of honey, is worth the price of admission. The palate is a real treat, though; amid the sweetness of the honey and malt there’s a restrained roastyness that too many breweries tend to dismiss these days. It’s a beautiful thing when done right, and it’s done way right here. Imagine a richer, more robust Scotch de Silly and you’re starting to get the level of craftsmanship and enjoyment Mackroken Flower brings to bear.

Le Bilboquet La Corriveau Oat Stout

These guys in Quebec know what they’re doing: the La Corriveau is a complex, subtle Stout. With some of the nutty notes that I usually associate with aged Barleywines, Corriveau starts off on the palate a bit confusing. A few revisits reveals a mix of grains, chocolate (with a hint of dark chocolate ‘tang’ contributing to the feel–nice touch), and super-subtle hoppiness building to a rich finish. Between the two, I much prefer the Mackroken personally but I think La Corriveau may end up proving the more popular of the two.

Sierra Nevada Ovila Quad

Before I get to the beer itself: good lord I’ve never fought so hard with a cork in my life. No lie; not in a still wine, sparkling, dessert–nothing was like trying to pry the cork from this monster. Something to keep an eye out for if you pick one of these up.

But should you pick one of these up? I…don’t know. There are many different way too look at this beer, and almost all of them lead to different conclusions about it. As a Belgian Quad, Ovila’s a bit tame and thin; the aroma has a fair amount of the medicinal sweetness expected in the style but on the palate it feels lacking, and that medicinal quality goes almost vegetal on the back palate. The finish dissipates all too quickly. As a beer it’s enjoyable enough, but doesn’t stand out among the vast array of great Belgian options out there. Even as a Sierra Nevada beer, it doesn’t offer anything to the drinker that Life & Limb hasn’t already done (and done much better at that).

It’s not bad. It’s just not outstanding, and to make a mark for itself the Ovila beers need to kick the living hell out of expectations. My advice? Wait for the Brandy barrel aged version coming in 2012. That should be interesting.

Avery Rumpkin

*cracks knuckles*

Ok, let’s do this. How do I start to explain this thing? Let’s try…

Hmm. Good, but not quite it. How about…

Yeah; going with that. It’s got funk, dirt, sweet spice. Boozy as all hell. Will get you completely twisted if you aren’t careful. Rumpkin is freakin’ Go-Go made into a beer.

On the first sniff of Rumpkin, I wondered if something was wrong with it. Where was the spice, the gourd, the Rum? All I got off it was dirt-dog earthiness and nose-twitching heat. So I gave it a couple minutes.

(If you don’t think this isn’t turning into an excuse to post random Go-Go classics, just walk away now ’cause it is on over here.)

So, with a few minutes to air out and warm up a bit Rumpkin lets a bit more of the spice and pumpkin loose. The first taste is where Rumpkin gets you loose; it’s sweet without cloying and the rum barrel makes all kinds of sense in all the right/wrong ways. Beware: Rumpkin doesn’t feel 15.9% ABV and that only encourages you to roll with it. The lack of sweetness and overwhelming alcohol feel lets you enjoy Rumpkin for the great Pumpkin Ale it is. If you can snag some of this, do it.

I’m genuinely stunned at how much I dig this beer. I was expecting an over-the-top booze/sugar bomb with some pumpkin and spice thrown in to justify its existence–and I would’ve been down with that, if not totally enamored. But this is a legit creation with nuance and soul.

And it’ll make you want to get up and shake your ass. Can I just say, in summation: Goddamn I love the Northeast Groovers. ‘Til next time.

Cheers!

-Beermonger

The Beermonger Review: Founder’s Devil Dancer

The Beermonger Review: Founder’s Devil Dancer Triple IPA

Also; the Great Hop Debate, and the pitfalls of Fashion

I don’t often write reviews on Beer Advocate anymore. It’s a fantastic resource and community for novice and old-hand beer drinkers alike, but between writing the Arrowine newsletter every week and getting around to the blog now and then, I just don’t feel the need like I did 6-7 years ago.

I say this because back in July I got my first taste of Founder’s Devil Dancer Triple IPA. There seems to have been a great amount of discussion amongst Beer Geeks this summer over hoppy beers; how hoppy was too hoppy? Was there a point to extreme IBU beers? Stuff like that. When Devil Dancer arrived I snagged one for myself to see what the fuss was about. Later I found myself on BA and decided I’d post a review; after typing for a couple minutes though, I stopped and saved part of what I’d written for future use. Here’s what I kept from that abandoned review:

“…this is an exceptional, uniquely flavored beer. The thing is on some level I feel brews like Devil Dancer may be part of the problem rather than a legitimate effort at producing a truly wonderful super-hoppy beer. The aromas are pungent and tropical, promising a world of BIG. The palate is where Devil Dancer both amazed and slightly annoyed me: in some ways it’s an ultimate expression of the hop in modern American beer. The explicitness of the resiny, earthy hop character is a marvel, while the super rich pineapple and melon notes provide a contrast (note I didn’t say balance)…”

I imagine that sentence ended (if it ever did) with something like: “…that astounds but doesn’t save Devil Dancer from being a one-note-wonder.” I think I was going to write a review using terms like “pissing contest” and “style over substance”, possibly while invoking comparisons to a Kardashian or two (flamboyant, pretty but empty and meaningless in all ways that matter). But I didn’t. I wasn’t sure at the time why, but I’d soon find out.

I’ve been watching the most recent series of the BBC’s Top Gear. At the start of the second episode, James May reviewed the new Aston Martin Virage and took the opportunity to air a grievance he had with car builders today (relevant bit begins at :52). For those who can’t or don’t have time to access the video, here’s a brief synopsis of what May had to say (from a blog post no longer to be found on the Top Gear site):

“I may be alone in this, but I reckon that a lot of performance cars I drive lack proper feel. I blame the Nürburgring. Being able to claim that your daily driver holds a production car lap record somewhere in Germany is a good boast down the pub for the feeble minded, and the map of the place that Aston Martin embroidered on the center console of the N400 might make its owners feel superior, but it’s all nonsense.”

James essentially saw a culture of track-ready hypercars made to lap the ‘Ring trickling down, making even road-going ‘everyday’ sports cars into harsh-riding, unlivable (to him) absurdities. I realized I thought the same of Devil Dancer when I’d tried it–that I was fed up with the ‘flop it on the table’ contest that IPAs and DIPAs and now TIPAs  had wrought among the everyday Pale Ales and hoppy beers that so many are either just not used to or don’t prefer.

I also thought May should blow it out his ass: the Nurburgring is a temple to all of the things that make driving fast cars dangerously great, and to damn the ‘Ring is to damn us all to a Camry-riddled hell where no one exceeds 55 (intentionally, anyway).

I then realized was wrong as well.

Not long after trying that first Devil Dancer we featured it on the tasting table at Arrowine. The second time around I thought it was a triumph; I wanted to grab a handful and drink them over the next couple of years (it has the potential to go longer, but the hop character may be too well-missed by then) but didn’t–I have customers to sell them too, after all. Or should I say had–our stock sold out well before the tasting ended that evening. That the madmen at Founder’s could craft a brew this hoppy–that they could use the heroic amount of malt necessary to give it any kind of balance and not lose the earthy, rich, juicy mind-meld that makes you One With The Hop is beyond me. Devil Dancer is a beast; a legitimate and welcome addition to the Hop Pantheon.

You may ask: “So what changed, Nick? Was the second bottle just better? Are you a flip-flopping idiot with no clue of what you’re doing?” And I’d say: No, no, and don’t be a dick.

Seriously, don't be one.

Over the years, I’ve become more enamored of styles of beer that aren’t by nature very hoppy. As a consequence I don’t seek out the latest Hop Bomb when it comes out the way I might have 10 years ago. But, like most currently walking the Craft Beer Path, I began a HopHead and will at heart always be one.

Conversations about styles and trends are worth having, of course. But as I’ve discovered over the years (mostly working with wine, actually), there are some days where your palate may just be ‘off’. There may be days where something just strikes you the wrong way. Remaining objective in the face of something you dislike is probably the most important skill you can have in my line of work. While I am the beer buyer at the shop I work at, I don’t see it as my job to be a Tastemaker; folks ask my advice and I provide it. To be a Tastemaker is to enter the realm of Fashion, and if there’s anything I’ve learned about Fashion from years of forced Project Runway viewing it’s that when you follow the path of Fashion, one day you’re in and the next you’re out. Anyone who’s ever met me knows I’m not one for Fashion; why would I succumb to it in the world of beer?

Also learned: Heidi Klum is almost always pregnant. I never said I learned much.

Look at that partial review of mine again–doesn’t it sound awful? Jaded? Devoid of joy or context? If I never thought twice about it, I’d have been doing my customers a great disservice by striking a giant red X through a category of beer that has produced some of the best known and loved brews of the past 20-30 years. Beyond that, I was plain wrong. Skepticism can be a great thing; cynicism kills.

That is to say, Devil Dancer is fantastic and Founder’s keeps churning out some of the best made and well-thought ‘Extreme’ beers in the world. So the next time you try a beer or wine and it doesn’t send you over the moon, think twice before writing that scathing review, or tweet, or Facebook post. Be sure of where your palate’s at, and examine why you didn’t like it. Most of all, never be unwilling to try something again. You never know until you know–you know?

Until next time…