Category Archives: Beer Reviews

The Beermonger Review: Sierra Nevada 30th Anniversary Vol. 1

So here in the DC area we got a bit of a surprise last week: A handful of cases of Sierra Nevada‘s first of what will be four 30th Anniversary beers arrived unexpectedly. I was fortunate enough to have someone pull a bottle aside for me and after a weekend spent working and at my cousin’s wedding (more on that later) I got around to popping the cork last night.

This first 30th Anniversary was brewed along with Anchor Brewing‘s Fritz Maytag. He and Sierra’s Ken Grossman decided to brew a ‘Pioneers Stout’, built to age by two of America’s brewing legends. The label claims the beer is “worthy of your finest snifter”, which is true, but I’d already broken out my trusty Sam Adams glass so I decided to go ahead with it.

The first thing I noticed was the gorgeous packaging. The cork-and-cage bottle is elegant and the back label looks better than about 90% of other beers front labels. Well played, Sierra Nevada. The second thing I noticed is that the 30th has a very active carbonation to it. I poured what I thought was a moderate amount of beer and watched as a milk chocolate colored head quickly rose to the top and over the glass. I gave it a couple minutes to settle and dove in.

Aromas were really exactly what one might expect from 30th‘s appearance; heady notes of mocha and roasty malt greet the nose. Impressions on the first sip are that of a very rich Stout, with the textbook chewy dark grain and sweet cocoa flavors. There was something different, though. The feel. I’ve written before about I believe Sierra’s yeast strain contributes to it’s trademark easy drinkability across all styles. I don’t know if that’s what is being used here, but 30th drinks nothing like the ‘stone in your gut’ Stout it smells and tastes like. It was almost refreshing. I was delighted and frightened at the same time—sure, I loved being able to put down the whole 750mL bottle without feeling weighed down, but the beer is 9.2% ABV. I’m a veteran beer drinker to be sure, but this is not a weak beer. I sometimes want to be protected from myself but that’s just the more liberal part of me that I try not to listen to since it tries to get in the way of beer enjoyment. All in all if this is only the first beer in the series, it’s a hell of a start and I can’t wait to see the others. In the meantime I might go scrounging around for another bottle.

Final verdict: Breaks little new ground but is a beautifully made beer that expresses all of the Stoutiness you can handle without being overbearing on the palate or stomach. If you can only grab one, drink it withing the next 6 months-1 year. If you can grab more than that, pop one now and enjoy.

Hate Global, Buy Local

I didn’t think I’d ever do this. I’m an eternal beer optimist. To me every flavor, every oddity has its place, has a context. I don’t sit at my computer and trash beers or brewers or breweries because at the end of the day we’re all just people trying to live our lives on this planet and there’s no point in berating someone else’s work. But I just opened a bottle of beer that pissed me off—even after I was told that it would piss me off—even after I tried to give it every chance I could.


That beer is the 2010 “Old Dominion Brewing Co” Millennium Ale.


Full disclosure: I never was a huge fan of Dominion. I always thought that their best beers were their contract beers, Tupper’s Hop Pocket in particular. When I was buying beer for Rick’s Wine & Gourmet, I’d stock plenty of Hop Pocket and when it was released Millennium as well. Millennium was never my favorite Barleywine, but I always found it enjoyable and a fine example of the style. It was nice as a Beer Geek in the DMV to be able to say that we had a local brewery that had come to be somewhat well known for craft beer styles.


When Anheuser-Busch (I’m sorry—I mean Coastal Brewing, a ‘joint venture’ between A/B and Fordham Brewing) purchased Old Dominion in 2007, myself and every customer who came by the shop could only shake our heads. Promises flew left and right about how the quality of the beer would remain unchanged; how A/B was dedicated to keeping Dominion a craft brewery and only wanted to expand the distribution possibilities. Our little local brewery was grown up and ready to hit the big time. Sure.


In August 2007 Hop Pocket was discontinued. The local legend hoppy Ale wouldn’t reappear for two and a half years. I stopped ordering OD beers (I was only really selling Hop Pocket anyway) making an exception for Millennium when it came out every year. The Old Dominion Brewfest died a quick, ignominious death (can’t promote craft beer if it’s not your craft beer I guess) and in August 2008, the brewpub itself was shut down. Brewing was moved to Fordham’s “Coastal Brewing Company” (quotes because I don’t even know what to call the place—Google “Coastal brewing company” and you’ll get Fordham’s website) in DOVER, DELAWARE.


Yes Virginia, there’s an Old Dominion Brewing Company—and it’s in freakin’ Delaware.


#1: Delaware is Dogfish country. Don’t front.


#2: This is where the insidiousness of marketing rears its ugly head. So many people try a Magic Hat or a Sierra Nevada seasonal, think they’re experts on beer, see a name like “Old Dominion” and jump on board thinking they’re supporting a local business and brewery. Old Dominion is a name being positioned by a multinational conglomerate to represent the Home of Presidents without giving one Virginian a job. If you go to a Nats game (and if you do I don’t even know what to tell you) and get a Dominion Ale on draft you’re being bamboozled. You may as well buy a goddamn Stella Artois to try to buy local—they own A/B now anyway.


So why get all worked up about it now, Nick? I’ll tell you why…this is tougher than I thought…


…Their beer sucks. There. I said it. The beer sucks. The Ale, the Lager, the friggin’ Root Beer were always middling at best, even before the outsourcing courtesy of A/B. To be fair I always enjoyed Oak Barrel Stout even though it had no right to be as good as I thought it was. Like I said, Tupper’s was always great and the New River Pale Ale was pretty good too (not my favorite, but always popular). The saving grace of Old Dominion Brewery for me was Millennium and it’s Oak Barrel Aged version.


But do me a couple favors: Go take a look at the huge towering stack of this years Millennium (gotta catch that consumer eye, gotta take as much space as possible) at your local supermarket/Total Wine/etc. Now, don’t buy the beer. That’s the first favor. What I want you to do next is take a look at the packaging. Read carefully, now: “Dominion Millennium Ale. Ale Brewed With Honey. Brewed & Bottled by Old Dominion Brewing Co, Dover DE”. The words “barley wine” are tucked away on the back label, which seems to be the only thing unchanged about this abortion.


There are hints of the beer Millennium used to be in this bottle. But what it really is now is about as Barleywine as Shock Top is a Belgian White. It’s an “Ale Brewed with Honey” all right; the front palate and finish are overwhelmingly honeyed. The feel is that of a foamy soda, with only the faintest hint of hop reminding you that yes, this is supposed to be a beer you’re drinking. Not that you’d get that from the flavor of banana chips that seems to be the thrust of the Millennium experience now. I gotta tell you, this is the part that pissed me off the most. I love banana chips, and this beer made me be angry at the flavor of them.


By the end of the bottle this fizzy mess just didn’t taste like much of anything anymore. It’s just as well, because Old Dominion Brewing doesn’t mean much of anything anymore. If you really want to support your local breweries, do it right. From Blue Mountain Brewery to Devil’s Backbone to Blue & Gray to Legend’s to Williamsburg Alewerks to Cap City and so many many more just getting started there are endless ways to support local real honest great craft beer. Ask your beer guy at the shop you frequent. Ask the bartender at the good beer bar you go to. Email writers you enjoy who live around the area. They’ll tell you what’s up.


We all want to do well by our neighbors. We all want our local businesses to succeed, because success breeds success and we can all take pride in something great that comes from our community.  If you strive to buy organic, dine sustainable or if you buy food from the local farmers’ markets in the area, the least you can do is take the time to try what your true local breweries are putting out. The A/B’s of the world can find some other podunk state to hoodwink with fake “local” beer, but not here. Not in Virginia.

Don’t buy it.


There is no Old Dominion Brewing Company.


No more Old Dominion Brewing Company.


Beermonger

Beermonger Review: Brewdog Hardcore IPA, Storm

Let’s face it—we all love the Scottish. Their attitude, their accent, their sheer non-Britishness. Can’t get enough of it.

Molto Bene!

That was pretty much just for my wife, by the way. She’s a big fan.

Anyhoo, as much as I love my Brit and Irish beers, I’ll admit to having become a bit bored with them. Not Guinness of course; no, I’ll never grow tired of pints. But I’ve done the Fuller’s and Tanner Jack’s and Boddington’s and Harp’s and Bass’s and Smithwick’s. They’re good beers, but there’s so much more happening here in the States and all over the world. I just don’t have the schedule to fit them in. Enter Scotland’s Brewdog Brewery: An upstart operation opened in 2007 by two then 24-year-olds. What Brewdog has going for it is its Punk DIY ethic—bored with an anemic beer scene letting the world pass it by? Make your own goddamn ‘extreme’ beer!

The philosophy has served them well. In less than three years Brewdog has managed to garner so much attention to itself that Beer Geeks all over the U.S. are clamoring for their stuff, and getting it. From the always entertaining screeds written across their labels to their recent brewing of the world strongest beer (the 32% ABV Tactical Nuclear Penguin) Brewdog has demanded a seat at the Big Beer Table, and gotten it. The first tale I read of them is still my favorite: When stuffy old UK officials tried to ban their Toyko* Oak-Aged Stout (at the time Britain’s strongest beer at 18% ABV), the boys responded with a beer called Nanny State. Nanny State is an ‘Imperial Mild’, with an ABV of 1.1% (!) and a “theoretical IBU” of 225 (!!). The kicker? The alcohol was low enough that Nanny State couldn’t be considered beer and could avoid the beer tax. Genius.

Distribution first started here in the DMV around fall of last year, with demand growing with each new gullet defiled by Brewdog’s mad science. I finally got around to snagging a couple bottles last week to see for myself what the fuss is all about. I unsheathed my trusty Sam Adams glass and went to work…


First up was Hardcore IPA. Hopped and dry-hopped with authority, Hardcore clocks in at 9% ABV and 150 IBU. The nose was focused, not nearly as piney as you might expect from a beer with this kind of insane hop level. It was still nice though, cutting like a martini with just the right streak of olive brine or an espresso first thing in the morning. It woke up the palate and got it ready to go; in its purposefulness it’s one of the more brilliant aromas I’ve encountered on a beer in some time.

The first sip is bracing, sharp and intense without killing the taste buds. It definitely leans more toward the earthy style of IPA in the vein of Stone Ruination, Moylan Hopsickle or Oskar Blues Gordon. There isn’t much of a sense of maltiness there, but there isn’t an big frutiness to the hop either. The same way a great cheddar can be robust and earthy but sharp as hell down the middle, Hardcore IPA finds not necessarily a balance, but each element has a purpose with everything coming together in the end. It’s kind of like The Raconteurs: You’re not getting all the Jack White you’d get at a Stripes show, but you’re getting a lot of him with a solid full band backing him.


Next up was Storm. Storm is an IPA aged in islay whiskey casks. Those of you who know me know I love Scotch.

Scotch, Scotch, Scotch....

So, anyway—Scotch. Love it. Brewdog takes a fruitier IPA and ages it in these Scotch casks for about 3-4 months and out it comes. I guess the boys can explain it better:

Now, you want to talk about a nose…man, this is unique stuff. The peat and whiskey notes are intense, dominant even. I’ll go along with the video and say I picked up a whiff of sea air as well. It smells like that last glass of Scotch before calling it a night. You know the one: the one you shouldn’t have poured for yourself in the first place. The one that takes forever to finish, and by the time you get near the end most of the ice cube has melted. The aroma isn’t near as strong as when you first poured it, but somehow it’s more complex now.

The palate is fascinating. Hops are present but serve to tone the Scotch notes down a bit, which helps make it a bit more approachable. My wife didn’t shy away from it and usually she can’t even smell whiskey without making a face. This really is the truest melding I’ve seen yet from a beer aged in cask. It’s like one long slug of ‘I’m done for the day, who wants to play cards?’. If Don Draper drank beer, this would be for him. Firm palate, great Scotch notes, long complex finish. Good stuff.

Hardcore IPA—Highly Recommended

Storm IPA—Recommended for the adventurous type; Highly Recommended for whiskey fans.

I hope you keep an eye out for Brewdog beers; they’re more than worth a try. Until next time, remember: Scotch is a drink; Scottish are a people.

Beermonger

The Beermonger Review: Van Twee, Life & Limb

‘Collaboration’ is the word. It’s a word that honestly bothers the hell out of me, mostly from overuse. Ever since the 90’s, people have been popping up on each others records and calling it collaboration when really it’s just a joint promotional play between two media entities. If Mary J. sings the hook on your record, that’s not a collaboration. She’s just singing the hook on your record. Sting and Dire Straits didn’t ‘collaborate’ on Money for Nothing. He just sang a background part as a favor for a friend.  Let me drive this home before I go on a real rant….

NOT a collaboration: Close, but no. You just had dudes lay down new tracks in the background for a song that was already a hit. Congrats, you made Diet Cherry Vanilla Coke:

Technically collaboration: All bands are collaborations, but these guys (Josh Homme, Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones) are well known outside of this project (by the way get this album now!!!):

THE collaboration, also one of the best rock songs ever written:

So, collaboration demands a certain level of recognition and prestige of the parties involved. It’s a rare thing in these days where everyone is an expert in every field (just ask me or any of the thousands of beer and wine bloggers out there). There aren’t many opportunities for true collaboration in an era where most industries and arts are devoid of masters. Except, it seems, for the wonderful world of craft beer. It’s become de rigueur for brewery folks to come together, hang out, talk shop and then release a special beer they thought up together.

Not that this is anything I’m complaining about. Some of the most interesting beers of the past few years have come from this phenomenon. The Brooklyn and Schneider breweries practically rewrote the book on Hefeweizen with their dual efforts. Bel Proximus was the culmination of years of study for the Brett Pack and a signpost of American craft brewing’s coming of age through it’s understanding of Belgian brewing techniques. It’s this Belgian/American link that we’ll be exploring first today.

I hadn’t heard of Dirk Naudts until about a year and a half ago, when the beers of his De Proef (Dirk’s nickname, ‘The Prof) brewery arrived in Northern Virginia. It turns out that Dirk is something of a legend over in Belgium; one of the most renowned brewmasters in the whole country. I’m still trying to find out how many recipes from how many breweries are Dirk’s. If you’re enough into beer to be reading this blog, you’ve probably had something Dirk came up with, even if you don’t know it. Well, Dirk eventually came to open De Proef as his own brewery, a small super-precise computer-monitored place that turns out the magic potions that this sorcerer comes up with. My first experience with De Proef was with their excellent Reinaert Flemish Wild Ale, which is just about the most intensely Bretty thing I’ve ever seen. It had great balance and flavor, though, and I knew I’d found a new brewery to be a fan of.

Not all of Dirk’s beers are his alone, however. Not long after first carrying his beers, we received the first in a series of collaborations he was doing. This first one was made with Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey/Port Brewing. It was a beer with a Brett level approaching the Reinaert but hopped like an American DIPA. The result was tropical, rich, smooth goodness that found a surprisingly large following. When I finally made it out to Cali earlier this year and visited San Francisco’s world-class Toranado, the first draft I had was the Port/De Proef Ale.

Now we have the release of Van Twee (‘from two’), made with John Mallett of Michigan’s legendary Bell’s brewery. I had heard whispers about this one for about a year, but had no idea it was coming in. I happened to notice it on the shelf where I bought it (no I’m not telling—I want to try to get another bottle or two) and immediately grabbed it. The back label describes it ‘broadly’ as a mix of the Porter and Dubbel styles, using Belgian candi sugar and the dark, sour cherries that Michigan is known for as well as some of that cherry juice. The sugar used for bottle conditioning came from Michigan sugar beets and it was finished with a Brett addition and the Nelson Sauvin hop from New Zealand (!). Even the ingredients are in the spirit of collaboration.

Van Twee pours a dark brown hue; in certain light you can detect a hint of red but I really had to look to find it. It looks like a Belgian Stout more than a Dubbel, but the viscosity is consistent with Porter and Dubbel. The nose was doubly tart with the cherry and Brett. Anyone familiar with Bell’s Cherry Stout knows what I’m talking about when I say that I knew there was a malty beer under the cherry aroma, but it’s almost too much work to get past the intensity of the fruit. I feel like it worked a little better in the context of the Belgian beer; perhaps there’s a familiarity we have with sour Lambic beers that makes it a little easier to handle such a sharp cherry smell. Either way, I couldn’t glean much of the beer’s character from the nose, so I dove in.

The palate is full-bodied and very smooth. It’s a great balance of rich malty flavors and the tartness of the cherries. The sugars and Brett are used more for texture, for evenness of flavor, with neither having a heavy influence on the flavor. What they do, though, is add elements that seem to come from nowhere: The sugar on the front palate makes you think immediately of a Belgian Dubbel or Stout, and the Brett combines with the cherry on the finish in a way that made me think for an instant of Rodenbach’s Grand Cru. I love Rodenbach Grand Cru. All in all, an interesting one-0f-a-kind brew that you should seek out. Highly recommended.

The collaboration everyone was talking about in ’09, though, was Life & Limb, the long-awaited beer from Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head. Beer Geeks everywhere got all tingly when this was announced, and the speed with which the bottles flew off shelves here in NoVA spoke volumes about how big the craft beer scene has become here. I managed to snag one for myself (only one, unfortunately) for a review.

Life & Limb is a strong dark Ale (10% ABV) made with Chico estate-grown barley and maple syrup from Dogfish boss-guy Sam Calagione’s family’s farm in Massachusetts. The brew is bottle-conditioned and naturally carbonated with Alaskan birch syrup (!). I cracked my bottle and dove in…

The first thing I noticed was the color. Life & Limb pours a deep nutty brown, with a fine but firm head. It looks more like a potion or elixir than a beer, like I should take one of its 24 oz bottles with me into a Legend of Zelda-like dungeon. I got a lot of the maple and birch syrup on the nose, with a hint of that classic unmistakable Sierra Nevada yeast strain (more on this in a second). I lingered on the nose for a bit, because I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I was intrigued for sure, but I didn’t quite get it yet.

After the first sip, I got it. Not nearly as heavy as it looked, not very hoppy at all (even though it clocks in around 50 IBU). Sweet maple syrup and birch notes are kept in check by the richness of the grains. The feel, thanks to the birch syrup, is almost soda-like. I’m a HUGE root beer/birch beer fan, and this was a revelation for me. In a master stroke, the house yeast strains of BOTH breweries was used, avoiding a common knock I’ve heard many people throw at Sierra Nevada beers: That their yeast strain is so neutral and easily accessible as to be a bit dull. I agree that the SN yeast is distinctive and very approachable. Personally, I think that’s where its brilliance lies: In the early days of SN, wouldn’t you want to develop a strain that appealed to as many people as possible? It’s the common thread that lets you know no matter what the style, you’re drinking a Sierra Nevada beer. However, for Life & Limb, the SN strain alone would’ve simply been overwhelmed and even if it wasn’t, it would’ve been a shame not to take advantage of the mad science going on in Delaware. The combination makes this unique Ale drinkable to the Beer Geek and novice alike, and adds an edge to the palate that keeps the whole experience from being cloying and too rich. Variety of notes and flavors as well as its uniquely ‘big tent’ feel for such a robust beer lead to food pairings that are almost endless. This beer could be an ambassador for craft beer if it stays in production.

In the end, I found Life & Limb to be maybe the best collaboration I’ve come across yet. It’s a true melding of styles and philosophies yet is more than elements of the different breweries. This is an independent beer with a life of its own. Something new and alive and undeniable. In fact Life & Limb has its own website, as well it should. I don’t know what the situation is as far as bottles are concerned, but I’ve been seeing bars and restaurants in DC having events and putting Life & Limb on tap, so good luck with that.

And good luck to everyone reading for a happy, healthy, beery 2010! Thanks for taking the time to stop by.


Next time: If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!

Beermonger



The Beermonger Review: Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus

One of the joys of my first wine store job, aside from learning about wines and delevoping my palate, was being given control of our small (but mighty) beer ‘department’. It was a small little corner of the store, but I had a nice walk-in cooler stocked by the previous beer guy (a big beer geek) with all kinds of stuff  that I’ve never seen since. Stuff like 750mL Dogfish Head 60 and 90 Minute, Hair of the Dog beers that I haven’t seen in VA for years and a thourough collection of Belgian beers, including most of the Cantillon lineup.


I took to the Cantillon stuff almost immediately. I have an issue with many Lambic beers that comes up with many sparkling wines as well: I love the feel and the flavors but the first sip often starts a white hot fire in my esophagus. Over the years I’ve managed to build up a list of Champagnes and sparklers that don’t do this to me, but the Lambic ‘safe list’ is still dreadfully short. Not that it stops me from drinking them. What made Cantillon stand out to me was how smooth the beers were. For all the sour that they had, they didn’t set off the reaction that I expected. Little did I know at the time, the Cantillon that was in that cooler was going to be the last I’d see for a good 3 years…


Fast-forward to my taking the Beer Guy job at Rick’s. As I discovered the joys of my new access to rare and low-production beers, I kept asking about Cantillon. Where was it? Why could’nt we get any? Well, I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere so I gave up save for the occasional request that went nowhere. Then, one magical week, Cantillon Kriek happened to be in stock. Seemingly out of nowhere. The only person happier than me was my Stone rep at the time, who’s a crazy Cantillon freak (hey Scott!). For the rest of my stay at Rick’s I happily stocked the Kriek, keeping an eye out for the day when I’d be able to get more of the line back in. Sadly, that day never came.


Better late than never, though. Recently I popped into the old shop and what did I see? The wonder that is Cantillon’s Rose de Gambrinus. I swiped one and during a quiet evening at home, cracked it open. The aromas were what you’d expect from a Framboise except more elegant, complex, subtle. This didn’t have the intense sharpness on the nose that a lot of Lambic styles carry.


According to Cantillon’s website, artist Raymond Coumans (who painted the beer’s label) noted that “It has the colour of onion skin” while in the copper buckets used to empty the barrels. In the glass it’s not as deep a hue as that, falling somewhere between the skin of a shallot and that of a raspberry.  It was also Coumans’ idea to call the beer a Rose, to convey the sense of elegance that set’s this beer apart from other Framboise Lambics in the world.


The palate is slightly tart upfront, growing rounder in the mid-palate. The fruit and sugars come through at this point, but this is no sweet Lambic. The finish is long with the fruity and sour aspects of the beer fading in unison. It is the structure of the beer, if nothing else, that earns this the tag of Rose. It is very wine-like. Structure; balance; smoothness on the palate; an elegant, ponderous statement of a finish—it really does out-wine many wines out there. Really; try getting all of that from a glass of Yellowtail. I’ll save you the time (and the unpleasantness): you won’t.


On top of all that, I could’ve sat outside all night drinking bottle after bottle never once stopping to lament the reflux that it was causing—because it wasn’t. I literally could not ask for anything more than this beer was giving me. I know there are some out there for whom Lambic is not their thing. They’ve tried it and they just cannot find their way into it. No worries; we all have preferences and won’t be huge fans of everything. But if you’re one of those people who sees anything with fruit and thinks ‘Zima’, or that Belgian beers are ‘weird’ or that everything in this world made with fruit also comes with a ton of high-fructose corn syrup in it—take a chance. There is literally a whole world of beer out there, and to miss out on something as sublime as Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus due to timidity is a sin.


Next: Bell’s goes to Belgium, takes produce with them to DeProef. The results? Not as outlandish as you might think…

Beermonger


The Beermonger Review: Bell’s Rye Stout

So, I won’t be going into a long tanget today. This was a review I promised on the Twitter and so it shall be delivered.

ryestout

I can’t explain it but sometimes I don’t like being surprised; when I don’t know something’s coming I feel as if I’ve failed in some way. It’s like if Bruce Wayne is walking down the street and he sees the Riddler running around—he’d be like ‘How’d that guy get out? And why did no one tell me?‘. It doesn’t happen all the time, in fact I found a couple of beers yesterday that I had no idea were coming and had no problem at all (reviews coming soon). But when I walked into one of my local beer haunts a couple (or 3 or 4) weeks back and saw this somber looking face on a Bell’s six-pack, I was secrectly furious. How darethey sneak one by me?


From what I’ve been able to find out about it (not that the Bell’s website is any help—god forbid…) Rye Stout hasn’t been released in something like 3 or 4 years. I’m a big fan of all things with the words ‘Bell’s’ and ‘Stout’ in them, so this was a no-brainer. First impressions are of the sad face and complete lack of description on the label. Evocative, if not helpful. I actually kinda like it.


The beer pours a toffee brown color, with a very fizzy appearance to the carbonation. It looks a lot like a glass of coke or root beer; whatever you prefer. As long as it’s root beer.


My glass had a faint aroma of slightly sweet malts. I’ll admit to not expecting to be blown away. Rye Stout is very smooth and light on the palate. At 6.7% ABV (according to Beer Advocate, anyway) it’s no Imperial for sure. That being said, Bell’s Rye Stout is the most drinkable Stout I’ve had in a long time. The dominant flavor is of a malted milkshake, robust and filling while staying smooth and light. The Rye nature really comes through on the finish, giving a grainy bitterness that balances all that rich malt and keeps the whole experience from being too ‘soft’, if that makes sense.


I’ll admit to not thinking much of Rye Stout before the first sip or two, but I came to be blown away by how not ‘Hammer of the Gods’ it is. This beer harkens back to a time of Stouts that didn’t sit like a stone after half a pint or knock you on your ass if you had the temerity to drink a whole bottle. It’s a Stout made with an interesting ingredient that keeps a sense of tradition. Those who seek the Big Beer once-per-year Event experience may find dissapointment here, but I will recommend this beer wholeheartedly. With two caveats:

1. Bell’s needs to put this out year-round. I would totally put this in regular rotation in my fridge if I could.

2. Put the word out a bit. Maybe mention the beer on your site.


And next time, somebody tell me it’s coming. Yeah, I guess that’s three but that one really only matters to me, right?


Next time: Why Cantillon rocks my socks and if you don’t agree you’re wrong.

Beermonger

Harvest Time

So, it’s Fall already. Hell, it’s not far off from winter. I just wanted to give a quick rundown of some of my favorite seasonal beers from this Autumn:

Sierra Nevada Fall Harvest & Chico Estate Harvest: My first taste of the Estate Harvest, which I had only heard about until this year. The Fall Harvest was pleasant as always, finding a great balance between the intensity of the wet hop and that classic Sierra Nevada smoothness. The Estate was more robust with fruit notes and earthiness, but still managed to restrain itself from being ‘one-note’.


Bell’s Oktoberfest: This has been my favorite Octoberfest beer for the past 3 years now, and no one is stepping up this year to change my mind. Awesome fall beer; maybe not entirely traditional, but it works for me. A bit more malty and structured than you may expect from the style, which makes it perfect for a session. Now, if we’re at an Octoberfest celebration and I’m about to put down brats by the pair and beers by the stein, give me something lighter…


Founder’s Harvest Ale: A strong showing. We just started seeing the Founder’s beers in VA earlier this year, but they are making their presence felt quickly. From the very cool Red’s Rye IPA to Breakfast Stout to this wonderful wet-hop ale, I haven’t been let down yet. Sharp, resiny hop flavors are supported by an appropriate amount of bitterness. Like stumbling into a pine tree in a morning-after stupor: Alerting yet comforting.


Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin Ale: We have a special place for the pumpkin beers here in our home, this one in particular. It’s my wife and I’s favorite and we look forward to seeing those 4-packs every fall like little kids at Christmas. What that says about us I’m not willing to think about right now, but I’ll tell you that no beer combines the spirit of strong American craft brewing with the rich flavors and spices of pumpkin ales in better harmony than the Weyerbacher.


Dogfish Head Punkin’ Ale: My #1-A pumpkin beer. Always a treat, especially when my wife talks about how ‘meh’ it was last year before asking me to bring home 4-packs of it (happens every year, BTW). To clear the air, the recipe is pretty much consistent year-to-year now, so no year should be better than another. Back in 2004 or so, I don’t know for sure. I think it wasn’t until about 2006 or ’07 that the Punkin’ was carved in stone, so to speak. Either way, grab one if you see one—they seemed to have finally brewed enough to make everyone happy but it still won’t last all that long.


Southern Tier Pumking: The Monster. The Prince of Pumpkin flavor, the Sultan of Spices, the Chairman of the Gourd. People, I try a lot off stuff and I’m not bragging when I say something has to really work to make an impression on me. Like I used to say to vendors and brewers alike, “I only have so much room on my shelves—you have to earn your spot”. So for me to immediately recall every nuance of aroma and flavor in a beer on command tells you something about the experience. My not being able to handle a bottle of it myself (even if it’s a bomber) says something too. Their Creme Brulee I can put down alone; give me a snifter or a tulip glass and I’m in. Pumking is too much goodness for one human being. I split the bomber I got with the Mrs., and the smaller portion allowed both of us to enjoy the dead-on pumpkin pie impression Southern Tier pulls off here. It’s not a drinker, it’s an experience. One worth having.


Boulder Brewing Cold Hop: Not necessarily a Fall seasonal, but this is when it gets released so I’m including it. My favorite Boulder beer by far, Cold Hop is a clever blend of American IPA hoppiness with a traditional English-style Pale Ale (recipe courtesy Charlie Papazian). The result is literally the best of both worlds. It’s like Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale and St. Peter’s English Ale made sweet love and had a baby. A delicious, wonderfully drinkable baby.


Ok, that’s the quick rundown of beers off the top of my head. Honestly this was going to be a longform review of the Sierra Nevadas, but this was also supposed to be written about 3 weeks ago, so there.

Next time (and this will be soon, as I am tasting and taking notes tonight): A surprise from Bell’s? Stay tuned, hop fans—same Beermonger time (whenever), same Beermonger channel.

Don’t forget to follow your friendly neighborhood Beermonger on Twitter for my thoughts on what I’m drinking, news as it breaks and pretty random observations usually relating to the NFL, comic books and TV.


Beermonger

The Beermonger Review: Dogfish Head Squall IPA

Yes, I’m a comic book geek.

So it’s been going on 10 years since my first taste of the wonderful brews of Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery. So as not to incriminate myself I won’t say how old I was at the time; I’ll just say that my beer geekery was something that started early. As with most hobbies (and addictions, for whatever that might say about us), the pursuit of new and interesting beers led to meeting others with the same proclivities. Somewhere along the way, I discovered Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute IPA. As a young hophead 60 Minute was something of a revelation: So different from the big West Coast beers I’d had, with a truly different take on what it was to make a ‘hoppy’ beer. As I learned more about DFH and tried their stuff, I became hooked. Here was a brewery within my region of the country that could legitimately claim to be among the best in the world.

As I started my first wine store job, it was left to me as the lone beer-knowledgeable staff member to take care of our small but potent beer selection. A guy who had worked there before I arrived was a Beer Geek who had stocked our walk-in cooler with all manner of obscure microbrews. There were back vintages of Anchor Xmas, Cantillon, Hair of the Dog, Brasserie des Rocs and, of course, Dogfish Head. The thing was, these weren’t the Dogfish beers I knew. These were in big 750mL bottles, corked and caged. I had a backstock of 90 and 120 Minute IPA, multiple cases worth.

I took a 90 home to try it. I was on pins and needles; if 60 Minute was so good, what could 90 be like? Well, it was a revelation. Almost immediately it became my favorite beer (alongside Arrogant Bastard). Then I made a crucial error: Chatting up a wine collector who dabbled in beer, I mentioned the 750’s in the cooler. His eyes lit up and I knew I was doomed. He bought every bottle we had right there on the spot and I never saw either again. Undaunted, I took to making the 12 ounce 4-pack 90 Minute my everyday beer. Something was different, however. Asking around, I learned about bottle conditioning and the how’s and why’s of Dogfish’s altering of what I considered the nectar of the gods. I kept up with the 90; it remained atop my list and even now there are moments where all I want is the rich, fresh hoppy palate that I only get from 90. But I couldn’t ignore it—it was different. It had changed. ‘Such is life’ I reasoned.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago: I’d had many conversations with the guys at Dogfish and in almost every one I’d sneak in a request—please bring back the old bottle-conditioned 90 Minute. It became something of a running joke. I was always told it wasn’t happening, and in all fairness they had very good reasons for not doing it. Then one day, in a trade with a buddy of mine, I came into possession of a special bottle of 90 Minute. DFH apparently made a run of the old-style,  bottle-conditioned 90 Minute IPA. Limited to 50 cases (not confirmed), it was made as a ‘Thank you’ gift for some of their favored retailers and distributors. I’ll take this moment to only be slightly bitter that I apparently wasn’t one of those favored retailers…ok, then. I split the bottle over the holidays with my best friend who was in town from L.A. It was fantastic, fresh and with an earthiness that doesn’t always come through in the regular 90. It was a great bottle of beer to be sure, and satisfying as all get-out, but it wasn’t the revelation it had been years ago. That evening was more of a celebration; one of those nights where you have the right drink with the right friend and you don’t just toast your drink but your life and those who make it worthwhile.

Right before my wedding earlier this year I started hearing rumors of a new DFH IPA. Nobody I talked to seemed to know anything about it other than that it was new and apparently was very good. Most said that it was the best IPA they’d ever made. Needless to say I was intrigued. In August, my wife and I went to Rehoboth for a weekend of sun and beers. Hanging at the Dogfish Brewpub, I found the Squall IPA in stock. They were letting folks buy only two bottles at a time since supply was so low so I swiped a pair and planned to come back the next night for two more.  I struck up a conversation with the bartender taking care of us (there’s that ‘making friends through a hobby’ thing again…) and he said he’d let me buy as many as I wanted as long as I didn’t want to buy a case or some such quantity. I asked for six, but there were only two left. Oh well. We went home and after delivering the bottle promised to a friend, I had three bottles of the mysterious, rare Squall IPA to enjoy.

For those who may not have heard the news yet, let me break it down for you a bit: Squall IPA is essentially the original 90 Minute IPA, bottle-conditioning and all, but with the twist of using six different hops. I could use a confirmation on this, but from my understanding 90 Minute is made exclusively with Cascade hops (which explains why when they run 90 through the Randall at Rehoboth, they always pack the Randall with Cascade). I took some time after getting home to crack one open, wanting to catch myself at the right moment. Finally, I could wait no longer…

Poured into my trusty Sam Adams glass at a relatively cold temperature. The aroma was more complex, more aggressive than 90 yet at the same time more floral, almost to the point of being slightly perfumed. The palate was rich, with a stark fruity quality to the hops. My wife, having taken a sip, noticed that as well. She thought it was easier to drink than 90 which surprised me as she is not a hophead.  But it made sense to me–I’ve always found bottle-conditioned beers to have a subtle, underlying ‘smoothness’ to them that I can’t quite explain. The mid-palate and finish saw something come through that brought me back; the earthiness–the woody, dirty notes of pine and resin that buffered and balanced the intense fruit notes that come with such overwhelming use of hops. This wasn’t my old 90 Minute, that’s for sure. This was better. This was more than what I remembered blowing my mind all those years ago. So why wasn’t I freaking out? Shouldn’t I be blown away?

I’m (obviously) having a hard time explaining this. I don’t want to go off on too much of a tangent or make a mountain of a molehill, but having had some time to think about the beer (I killed the last bottle about a week and a half ago) I think I know where my head’s at with Squall, and 90 for that matter.

I’m about to turn 30, and while I’m not exactly ready to go on Medicare (though I’d take it) you can’t help but reflect. With time comes perspective, knowledge, what some might call wisdom. I’ve been wary of nostalgia lately, worried that I might give things too much importance or relevance in my life. It’s easy to do; studies show that as we get further removed from events we remember them differently. The first time you rode a bike, kissed a girl; the times you hurt yourself or others hurt you—likely weren’t that good nor were they that bad. It’s all in how you remember them. 90 Minute was such a revelation in my early 20’s because I’d never had anything to equal it. Squall didn’t blow my mind apart because I have so much to compare it to now. I went in looking for something that you don’t find when you’re looking for it.

Nostalgia can be a comfort, but it can also be a rose-colored lens. I’ve been trying to find the balance. I think I may have been trying too hard. My cynicism is honed and finely tuned. In the past few years I’ve been finding that part of me that used to wonder, that used to embrace every experience as new. The thing is, Squall is an amazing beer. It is refined, built to last and in every way better than the original Dogfish 90 Minute IPA. I was too busy living in the past to really enjoy it the way I should have. I’ve been doing that with a lot of things in life, for that matter. I know that doesn’t mean much to those of you reading this for a beer review, and I apologize for that. But you have to always keep in mind that any tasting experience contains so many variables, our state of mind being one of the biggest, that perspective is essential. We all seem to want what we used to have, but now is always so much better because we made it here to enjoy it.

I never thought I’d end up in the field I’m in. I never thought I’d be turning 30 with a beautiful wife and with most of my sanity intact. Hell, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to 30. I’ve made many friends in the beer and wine business, a field filled with people always looking to make the great better, and always up for a conversation. I guess what I’m saying is: Know the things that you remember, fondly or not, but know them. My first kiss was wonderful, my parents divorcing was the best thing they could have ever done for me, my father is a worthless dick who I’m better off without, I never should have been in college when I was and 90 Minute IPA is my favorite beer in the world. I consider Squall part of the 90 Minute ‘canon’ so to speak, therefore it’s atop the list. I can’t wait to get my hands on more to enjoy it the way I should have the first time.

That’s the joy of getting older; you learn faster and know that there’s always another chance to get it right. Except for those cases of 90 and 120. I totally should have bought those. I will always regret that.

Take some time and think about what you’d like to do over. Go out and do it.

Next time: Sierra Nevada Harvest & Chico Estate.

Beermonger

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…

Local Kicks Column, Weekend Preview….and The Beermonger Mini-Review: Stone Vertical Epic 8.8.08

Hey Hey,

Local Kicks Column here. Kind of past-due now that I’ve had a chance to try this year’s Vertical, but oh well.

Friday Tasting at Rick’s Wine & Gourmet:

-Victory Festbier

-Paulaner Oktoberfest

-Ayinger Oktoberfest

-Just for the hell of it, I’m tasting out Allagash Four. I’m very curious to try it, and it’s my beer department so that’s what we’re going to do.

Saturday Beer Tasting at Rick’s Wine & Gourmet:

-Allagash Fluxus. Tried this tonight. Very cool beer. Ginger is very much the big flavor here, and it drinks so much bigger than the average Belgian White. This is the beer for your friends who give you shit for drinking White Rascal or Southampton Double White. You show ’em.

-Lagunitas We’re Only In It For The Money. Surprise! The boys in Petaluma weren’t going to send this one out (didn’t want to deal with the state’s label approval bullshit—understandable) but apparently changed their foggy little blessed minds. I’ve heard it’s a Belgian-style Tripel.

-Stone Vertical Epic 8.8.08 (More info below)

-Rogue Brewers Ale 2008. Bigass ceramic bottle. Bigass amber hoppy beer. What else do you need to know?

-Weyerbacher XIII. Trying this out tomorrow. Sounds like an absolute monster. A 13.6% ABV Belgian-style (notice a pattern here?) Stout. I’ll be bringing some serious beer food to handle this beast.

So, Vertical Epic…Always a highlight of the Beer Year for me (it’s like Advent, except not). The ’08 version is a Belgian IPA, and boy is it. It really is San Diego by way of Ghent. I’ll give a shout out to thebeersnob who mentioned mango and banana notes in it. Those are there—the yeasts are very specific in flavor and are huge even for the style. The story here is the hoppiness, which is a ballsy lupulin smack that I don’t think the Belgians have quite nailed yet. Even the biggest of the Belgian IPA’s are finesse; nothing too crazy, hoppy but never leaving your mouth slightly numb. This isn’t a Belgian IPA, per se: It’s an IPA-Tripel.

I think the fruity flavors are great in the beer, though it will be interesting to see how it develops over time. I think in about 8-12 months this is going to be a shockingly refreshing Belgian Strong Pale Ale. Almost like some of the De Dolle stuff, but more exaggerated.

Overall, 8.8.08 is kick-ass. Impressive in all kinds of new ways, as the guys at Stone (who don’t spend a lot of focus on Belgian-style ales, thought that seems to be changing) keep upping their game. Good on ya, gargoyle. See you Saturday if you can make it out.

Beermonger