Epic Fail?

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About a week ago, I woke up and noticed a text message on my phone. It was from a friend and fellow Beer Geek, and it simply said:

“090909 is not good.”

“What is it?” I shot back.

“Oak aged belgian styled porter with tangerine and vanilla. Yuck.”

This was not encouraging. I’m a huge Stone fan and have always enjoyed the Vertical Epic series of beers. For those unfamiliar, starting in 2002 Stone has released one special beer per year made outside of their normal recipes. The first release was 02.02.02, the next 03.03.03. and so on. The series will come to an end with the 12.12.12. beer, with the idea being to hold all of them and have a big party with your friends and open them all for an epic vertical tasting.

Epic is one of the most eagerly anticipated beers of the year. In fact, back when I worked retail, I used to get these calls frequently:

2008:

Me: “This is Nick. How can I help you?”

Caller: “Hey, is Vertical Epic in yet?”

Me: “No, sir. It’s March.”

Caller: “Yeah? So?”

Me: “08.08.08. Should be available around then.”

Caller: “Not sooner? I heard sooner…”

Me: “I could see it being maybe a week or so early, but I don’t think they’ll release a beer scheduled for early August in the spring…”

Caller: “Well, here’s my number (gives number). Call me if it shows early. My buddy in (NY/CA/PA/MD/FL) said he’s gonna get some soon, though…”

Me: “Sure.”

end scene

Every year. Anyhoo, since almost no one has any of the 2002, almost no one buys these with the intent of aging them for years. Myself included. I do have a couple 2008’s on hand, and maybe even an ’06 or ’07 (have to check the collection), but I’m never going to have the full collection and if I did I don’t have the proper storage for such an undertaking.

Getting back on track: The Epic beers are always one of my favorite specials of the year, so getting the message I got was a bit worrying. I swung by Rick’s only to find them sold out. Of the seven cases they got. In under 24 hours. That’s how it used to go, so I’ve got no one to blame but myself there. Talking to Jon (Rick’s convivial Beermudgeon), he told me he hadn’t tried it yet either. He very cordially offered to sell me the bottle he hadn’t taken home yet, but I couldn’t do that. Luckily I had a tasting the next night at a shop where they actually had some in stock so I picked up a couple bottles and brought them home to see what was really going on…

Stone Vertical Epic Ale 09.09.09

Poured into Duvel tulip glass

Served cold but not too cold (2-3 hours in open cooler)

Enjoyed outside and alone

Belgian Porter made with dark candi sugar, chocolate malt, tangerine peel, vanilla bean, Belgian yeast and aged on French Oak

The beer had been hanging out in a cheese cooler for a couple hours, so it was cold but not too cold. The first fill of my Duvel glass poured very dark brown, with a surprisingly active head. I think the temperature had some influence, but my first note on this years Epic is that the head is dark and presents in ‘stiff peaks’, for those of us who enjoy the beating of eggs now and then. This got my attention immediately, especially as the head yielded in fairly short order, leaving a thick lace that resembled fractal art.

The back label of Epic ’09 explains that the inspiration was choclates with Orange in them. They wanted to find a way to recreate that in a beverage, hence the Tangerine peel, chocolate malt and vanilla. My first impression from the nose was heavy with the Belgian yeast and chocolate malts. Citrusy notes were subtle and rode the back of the vanilla, which kinda caught me off guard. From what I’d heard, I guess I was expecting Quik mixed with Grand Marnier. This was not that at all.

First sip was very smooth; rich but not too heavy. There wasn’t a great deal happening on the palate. The action seemed to be all happening on the finish, which was some kind of ride: Rich chocolate and vanilla popped up immediately, giving way to the tangerine and a mocha-like flavor. The finish developed quickly, but lingered for some time. This is something I don’t see that often in beers, even special brews like these, so I allowed myself a few minutes of leisurely sipping and exploring the elements of this wonderful, odd idea.

The second fill of the Duvel glass saw this beer really come out of its shell. The citrus notes from the Tangerine finally asserted themselves struck a healthy balance with the sugar, vanilla and oak. I gave up on notes and simply drank the rest of the bottle happily. My thoughts turned to my buddy’s text from the previous morning. This friend of mine is, as I’ve noted, a Beer Geek like you and me. He’s younger than me and still finding his wine palate, but knows how to identify what it is he enjoys and why. I wasn’t wondering why he didn’t like it, though–I was wondering why I did.

I could easily see where someone wouldn’t enjoy this beer. With all of the odd ingredients and the inspiration behind it, this is definitely not a beer for everyone. It’s like a clever deconstruction of a dish at a restaurant, or concept art: It’s clever, self-reverential and serves no practical use. As an impression of an orange-flavored chocolate, it’s outstanding. It gives you enough to identify the source but at heart it’s still a beer. I found myself almost surprised to say this is a great beer, but it is. It does come with a proper warning (the back label goes into great detail about the series and this specific beer), so what’s the problem?Then it hit me. Forgive me for a slight detour….

I’ve spent some time over the past couple months putting the bulk of my CD collection onto iTunes. Doing this I rediscovered a ton of albums that I haven’t really spent much time with over the years. One of these is from a group called Jazz is Dead. Basically, it’s a group of Jazz badasses who get together and jam on Grateful Dead tunes. I’m not much of a Dead fan myself, but I have a huge man-crush on drummer Jeff Sipe, and he’s on this record, so I picked it up.

You could imagine, me not being a Dead fan and all, that I don’t listen to this album all that much–and you’d be right. But there are a couple of cuts that I’ve grown attached to over time. And every now and then, it’s exactly what I want to hear.

Getting back to the point, I caught an earworm while sitting outside enjoying my Vertical Epic. It was the Jazz is Dead take on Weather Report Suite Part 2: Let it Grow. It’s my favorite track on the record; there’s a turnaround into a chours that is just beautifully structured and I can listen to it over and over. I realized that I was outside enjoying beer inspired by Orange chocolates and had a Dead song in my head being played by some of the finest Jazz players out there. These were two brilliant answers to questions no one in their right mind was asking. Folks at the top of their game making High Art of what is usually considered ‘high’ art.

There’s a certain perspective of mirth that you need in this life occasionally. Sometimes we have to enjoy something without taking it too seriously. Sometimes we need to hear that chord change in the chours over and over. Maybe not all the time, but every once in a while. With it’s odd ingredients and style, this is not a beer for everyday. But the Oak, vanilla and chocolate malt find balance with the citrus and alcohol to create something truly new, different, clever and fun.

Like I said, every once in a while…

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