Category Archives: Beer Reviews

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…

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The Beermonger Review (Noir Style!): Heavy Seas Smoke on the Water

It was a beautiful night, even to these weathered eyes: The past couple of weeks had seen storms that tossed old oaks about like dice in an alley. Now I stood outside in an evening that wouldn’t have been out of place in the early days of Autumn. The rains and the wind were one thing, but when it wasn’t raining the DC area was being roasted steam-oven style all Summer. Stewing in our own juices, we all took to the roads like sweaty little dumplings ready to pop or simply wither and fall apart at any moment.

Yeah, it’d been a hot summer and tensions were high. So standing there in this blue/black night with its light breeze and sweet, dry air, all I could think was that it was wonderful. It made me full of wonder at what horror could possibly be coming next.

I didn’t have to wait long. I wasn’t planning on being ‘in the office’ that Sunday but I heard a ‘pop’ and suddenly I could see her through the glass: Dark, slightly sweet with a bubbly little head and smelling of cocoa and just a hint of smoke. The kind that always get me in trouble. I like trouble.

She said her name was Smoke on the Water and while I’m more a Highway Star man, I was charmed and intrigued as I am with any dame who rocks the Purple. She said she had a tale to tell. I told her ‘Don’t we all?’.

Her hat flew off almost the moment she entered the room, but her short brown hair seemed effervescent, almost alive. No surprise she was a brunette but it was still a relief; she may be trouble but at least it would be brunette trouble. Brunette trouble I could handle. Blonde trouble? Well, let’s save that story for another day. I’ll just say there are some lessons you can’t say I haven’t learned and leave it at that.

I hesitated to listen. It all seemed like a setup. I could tell what she had to say was heavy, and after roasting in my non-air conditioned sweatbox all over the Beltway this summer I wasn’t in much of a mood for heavy. Especially not on this one temperate night that for whatever reason made me think of childhood or what I could conjure of my childhood at least. I told her as much; that while I was sure I needed to hear what she had to say I wasn’t sure I could listen at that moment. Surely it could wait. I told her to give me time, let me work through some of these other casefiles building up into my own kitchen now.

What can I tell you? Brunette trouble waits for the schedule of no man; it makes the schedule of man. This man, to be specific. Like a child whose eye has locked on an amusement at a fair she led me to my seat to hear her talk.

Perched on my table she told me she sold cigars and cigarettes in one of the big beer halls in Baltimore. I finally took a second to soak in the rich, dark brown of her dress, just a shade or two from black. The color was classic for a smoked porter and made me drift off thinking of the old days. I caught some details here and there: Something about the girls who worked at the Heavy Seas, how a few worked all the time while a handful only popped up once per year, or only worked particular seasons. I’d heard rumors of stuff like this but for the moment I was trying to place her perfume. The smoke came from her job, of course, but it meshed so well into whatever it was she was wearing. It occurred to me that she wasn’t wearing any perfume at all; the slight sweetness, the hints of chocolate and malt were all her. I’m no kid, mind you, but I gotta tell you I was a bit smitten already. Trouble.

Smoke leaned in close and kissed me softly. She tasted like she smelled and if I was smitten before, I was in deep now. The lingering smoke and astringent tang of club sweat only served to frame a soft wave of cocoa and malt that didn’t feel heavy or thick; only rich and fully present. She whispered that she was only brought in to work a couple weeks and that she didn’t know what would happen to her after. She liked where she was and didn’t want to go away. I knew, better than her, how many girls like her come and go through places like the Heavy Seas burning bright like the Zippo of a small-time hood catching the edge of a streetlamps’ gaze and are lucky to last as long. They all seem interesting, but so few really are. Smoke was unique, for sure; A girl with her qualities usually only turns up out West and even they don’t always fit in out there. But here was a real gem of a porter, who wasn’t overwhelmed by the smokyness around her but enhanced by it. I knew what she was going to ask before she asked it and before I knew it, our moment had come and gone.

She wanted me to make them keep her around. She didn’t want to be another flash-in-the-pan to be forgotten. I finally realized how smart this girl was: She managed to find, in the small window where she could, the perfect moment to walk through my door. The perfect night to grab me and make me fall a little bit in love with her. So she was working me? You’re damn right she was. Did it work? You’re damn right it did.

I started babbling like a child trying to talk his parents’ disappointment away. I told her I’m only one man, that I couldn’t just make anyone keep her around. I told her to try and get work in the Autumn, early Winter or even in the Spring. I had to tell her that as smart as it was to catch me during the one perfect night we had this August it only served to show how out of place she actually was.

She seemed so empty then. My heart sank along with what was left of her. I leaned in close enough to catch her scent one more time and told her I’d see what I could do. I told her I thought she had a place around here and that no matter what happened next, she was beautiful and she was appreciated. Her expression didn’t change. I stood up and went back inside looking for a solution, something to make her happy again. I searched the way an infant searching for Easter eggs would; without any concept of what ‘Easter’ or ‘egg’ or ‘search’ are. I walked into a solution hiding in plain sight, like a door my subconscious knew was open but wasn’t.

She was only going to be around for a few weeks right? Well, I said, I’ve got a wide open calendar and you can always find a place to stay in the closet I call home. We’ve got some plans in the works now and I hope to revisit Smoke on the Water over the next couple months. If you see her, give the girl a chance. She’s just the kind of broad we could stand to see around here more.

Of course, she wasn’t happy. She had found her way into my home and my heart but hadn’t gotten what she wanted. It wasn’t difficult to see that she was a little steamed; what was difficult was trying not to find it too endearing. Somehow I managed.

It was time for me to move on until next time. She didn’t feel comfortable not knowing what would happen. She didn’t like the uncertainty of the future. ‘Don’t we all?’ I said and walked away. I’ll tell ya, trouble

Beermonger

The Beermonger Review: Saison du BUFF (Updated w/all 3 versions)

Yeah, I know…where the hell have I been?

Well, it’s been a little bit hectic in ‘Mongerland lately. I recently changed jobs somewhat unexpectedly in June, followed by (1 week later in fact) moving to a new place. So to say I’ve been busy is a way of putting it. Adjusting to the new job has been good and I’m enjoying it a lot but it does take some time, hence the extended absence. Apologies.

I’ve got a bit of a backlog of beers that I’ve had over the past couple of months and some things I’m excited to write about. I’ll be trying to get to these over the next few weeks. For now, I’m kicking back watching the Redskins first preseason game and trying out Dogfish Head’s version of the ‘Mother of all Collaboration’ special beer Saison du BUFF.

A bit of background: Saison du BUFF started with an alliance of three of the baddest beer-brewing mofos in America back in 2003, as Stone Brewing Co boss Greg Koch, Dogfish Head madman Sam Calagione and Victory badass Bill Covaleski formed the Brewers United for Freedom of Flavor (BUFF) alliance. The point was not just to increase promotion of honest, outstanding craft beer to us dirty, unwashed masses yearning to drink free of multimillion dollar bullshit and fizzy yellow beer, but to ensure fair treatment and respect for small craft brewers from distributors and proper placement for those beers in retailers, bars and restaurants everywhere.

Earlier this year, the boys met up at Stone’s North County San Diego brewery to create a special beer as a thanks to all of us unworthy Bastards. The concept is simple: One beer to be brewed at all three breweries, using the same recipe and ingredients. The end product is a Saison clocking in at 6% ABV, brewed with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

I tried a bottle of the Stone version a few weeks back (during my hiatus) and am currently drinking the Dogfish version. I’m going to crack my second bottle of the Stone (forgot it was in there!) to get a fresh impression and compare.

What’s that you say? How can there be a comparison? It’s the same beer, with the same recipe and ingredients! Well, you have a point. But it’s not quite that simple. Let’s get to it:

Saison du BUFF Comparo, Part 1, or: Identical Cousins, Two of a Kind!

Stone Saison du BUFF

We’re gonna call this v.1. Poured with a quick to rise, quick to fall foamy head. The aroma is sharp, with herbal notes and a hint of citrus character that you’d normally see in a Hefeweizen. First impression on the palate is bright herbs and some hoppy acidity. The combination of herbs used almost makes v.1 seem like a Pale Ale with some dry-hopped character. Drinkable but complex; Saison du BUFF takes you for a bit of a ride leading to a finish with lingering ‘hop’ flavor and a subtle building heat, almost like a good red table wine (Chianti, a proper Merlot, Cotes du Rhone). I could see some great seafood pasta dished playing well with this, or a nice shaved turkey on rye or kickass veggie sandwich. Wish I had more.

Dogfish Saison du BUFF

The first impression came from merely opening the bottle. The cap gave way with a decidedly loud POP. As I poured the last of the bottle, it seemed to develop a foaming head that just wanted to run right out of the top of the glass. I described it on Twitter as being ‘active’; it had playful, hyperactive bubbles and a nose that seemed hoppier, hotter and all-around less subtle than the Stone.

The palate is where I really started noticing some differences. To me, the Dogfish version (from here on referred to as v.2) presented itself as more of a traditional Saison with its round feel and slightly grainier, yeastier character. It’s very drinkable, like v.1, but I think more so because of how the herbs seem to be more integrated.

On my palate the difference seems to be almost like using fresh versus dried herbs. The dry stuff is sharp, intense and uncompromising in pureness of its character. Fresh herbs are muted, earthy and easier on the nose and tongue. Try eating a basil leaf sometime, then try eating a pinch of dried basil. You’ll see what I mean.

The point being (I hope) that v.1 is much more the ‘dried herb’ take on Saison du Buff, where v.2 has the lusher, more subtle ‘fresh herb’ notes. Which of course is odd, since they’re the same beer made with the same ingredients. The only difference is where they’re made. It’s fascinating to me that they show like this, but if I paint with some broad strokes it makes some sense: You’d expect a West Coast beer to have a sharper palate and some lingering heat. The herbs in v.1 give a simulation of a lingering lupulin ‘burn’, which is very cool. By the same token, it makes total sense to see something from the East Coast being earthier and rounder.

Where the collaboration comes through for me, then, is in the aromas. The v.2 nose is so intense and hot which you might expect from, say, an intensely hoppy beer from Stone. V.1 more subtle but still complex; something that screamed Dogfish Head to me.

If I had to pick one, I’d go for v.2. I think the Saison character and earthiness play beautifully here. But honestly they’re both amazing beers, more than worth your time and attention. Track them down if you can.

Before anyone points it out: Yes, I know I haven’t mentioned Victory. I’m waiting for their version to come out. When it does, I’ll sit down and we’ll see how v.3 compares to 1 and 2. I can’t wait to pick all three of these apart and see what I find.

Until next time!

Beermonger

Update! Victory Saison du BUFF:


So now that I’ve had the Victory version of the beer (let’s call it V.3), let’s wrap this up and call it a full set.

If I had to sum it up as succinctly as possible, I’d say V.3 is ‘just right’. It’s not as dramatic as the Stone or Dogfish beers but it strikes a great balance that makes it the most drinkable of the bunch. Remarkably the last bottle I had, having been in the fridge for a few days, presented itself as being very Pils-like while still very cold. All that herbal element at a very cold temperature makes for a very focused but subtle hop-like note. As it warmed up a bit the basil-ness of the beer came out like it did on the first two. V.3 is the one of the three I’d give to an uninitiated craft beer drinker if they were curious about the beer; it’s so balanced and easy going that I can see almost anyone enjoying it.

So did I have a favorite? I don’t think I do. I really did dig all three. Each had something that made it stand out, yet they all shared a unique recipe that combined the absurd with the comforting with the sublime. I say if you can get a hold of any Saison du BUFF, get on it.

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