Sunday, July 31, 2011

Black Hawk Stout (Mendocino Brewing Company)

According to the Mendocino Brewing Company website, the brewery came into being in August of 1983, and bottles of their product started hitting the market in December of that year. Amazingly, it has taken me this long to get my hands on one. But let's forget the past and see whether there is any future for us together.

The bottle at hand is Black Hawk Stout, and its label is illustrated, as are the labels of all Mendocino's "Legend" and "Select" series, with a bold head shot of the eponymous bird. It raises in my pint tumbler two or more inches of structurally sound head. Held to light, the beer is pitch black with ruby fringes. The nose is of buttery malt and subtle minerals.

At first taste it is clear that this ale is more kindred to the dry Irish stout style than to the sweeter Russian imperial stout style that seems to predominate in the American craft brew scene. It is mild and smoky, and not particularly sweet. It is well balanced, with the predominant note being the smokiness of grains that are roasted but stop short of being scorched. Subdued carbonation and glassy mouthfeel make it seem creamy -- though not to the downright slippery extent of that delicious Lancaster Milk Stout I had a while back. Again, dry along the lines of Guinness, but perhaps a bit richer.

Black Hawk Stout is somewhat restrained, but has a very nice overall character. I do like wrestling with the darkness of intense, hard-charging imperial stouts, but I find this lighter stout highly drinkable. Would drink again, and would recommend to fanciers of dark beer.

Featured beer:
Black Hawk Stout

Honorable mention:
Lancaster Milk Stout

Sam Adams samples at Union City Grille

As my usual luck would have it, we were out of town during Wilmington's inaugural Beer Week, but we got a chance to taste some leftover samples last night at Union City Grille.

We tried two offerings from The Boston Beer Company (a.k.a. Samuel Adams): Sample A, an oaked ale, and Sample B, a maple pecan porter. Our waiter explained to us that neither of these beers is commercially available; they are only test batches of recipes that are candidates to go into regular production. This is part of the Samuel Adams® Beer Lover's Choice® campaign.

Sample A was reddish amber with a modest half inch of head and a fairly subdued aroma vaguely suggesting toffee. It was quite sweet and brassy in flavor, almost like a Scottish ale -- not nearly as mellow as any oaked ale I have ever tasted. If anything, the contribution of the wood is in the aftertaste. Good, but not really remarkable.

Sample B, though, was outstanding! It was dense black in color, and sported two inches of fluffy foam. The nose clearly carried sweet maple, a good bit of smokiness, and the suggestion of dark, bitter undertones. Sam Adams has brewed up a delicious porter base. The structure of the flavor shows a judicious hand: this is no novelty beer, rather a highly drinkable porter with creamy mouthfeel and teases of pecan and maple dimensions, mostly towards the end.

My lovely dinner companion and I both hope that Sample B gets the nod and starts appearing on retail shelves sometime soon. Looks like other folks may be feeling the same way, if Facebook "likes" are any indication:

It was fun to feel like we were getting in on a sneak preview. Hopefully we can attend some live events at Wilmington Beer Week next year and contribute direct feedback to the selection process.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Beer Club (week 8)

Black Hawk Stout (Mendocino Brewing Company)
Carolina Blonde (Carolina Beer Company*)
Latitude 48 IPA (Boston Beer Company)
Palm (Brouwerij Palm NV)
Red Rocket Ale (Bear Republic Brewery)
Tripel Horse (River Horse Brewing Company)

* Interesting background on this one -- more to come in beer review.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Brooklyn Summer Ale (Brooklyn Brewery)

On several occasions I have enjoyed Brooklyn Brewery's pricey but delicious Black Chocolate Stout. On one very memorable occasion I had a couple of their Brown Ales over coal-fired pizza at Arturos Restaurant in the West Village. This will be my first time sampling their Summer Ale. I know these cats do good work, and I am at the beach for a week in full summer mode, so expectations are high.

This beer's character seemed to cry out for a pilsner glass, but all I had was a heavy mug. Not that I would let that stop me. So I poured it into my mug, and the beer was a bright yellow gold, with two inches of tight foam that settled down to a half inch. The nose is of lemon and yeast, initially detectable at about ten inches. Lacing throughout the quaff was negligible.

The taste is so much like a lager you'll do a double take. Only the slightly more substantial body -- which, don't get me wrong, is still quite light -- sets it apart.

Brewed from a single barley malt variety, there is a pilsner-like simplicity and directness to the flavor contour, which cuts straight to a light, bright malt taste, supported closely with lemony hops. (The recipe uses Perle, Cascade, Fuggles, and Amarillo, according to the webpage.) The ale features a light body and appropriately crisp carbonation. Just a trace of pungent quality. A delightful subtle floral aftertaste lingers on the palate.

On the whole, the beer tastes and functions exactly as advertised: a perfect light ale for carefree consumption during the months of intense heat. Another success from Brooklyn Brewery.

From the bottle's label:

Brooklyn Summer Ale is a summer refresher with difference. The difference comes from the malt -- 100% British two-row barley, prized for superior taste. Our Summer Ale is gold in color, with a soft, bready flavor, snappy clean bitterness and bright hop aroma, and will taste best before the freshness date indicated.

Featured beer:
Brooklyn Summer Ale

Honorable mentions:
Black Chocolate Stout
Brooklyn Brown Ale

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Copper Ale (Otter Creek Brewing)

I have before me the "flagship brew" of Otter Creek Brewing out of Middlebury, Vermont. This comes to me, as so many delicious beers have, via a mixed six from the Brewsroom Beer Club.

In my glass, the ale is a brownish amber -- or you might say tarnished copper -- with a slight haze. My usual aggressive pour raises two inches of large-bubbled foam that hangs around almost indefinitely. There is a nice clean nose of malt and flint. Very little is signaled in the way of hops.

From the first sip, I must remark from a completely personal perspective, I am pleased by the characteristically "German" flavor that reminds me of so many imported beers I drank in my twenties, long before the craft brew movement brought us the choice of thousands of distinctive, flavorful domestics.

But back to the more empirical approach we try to maintain around here, the first sip reveals a sweet, mild malt body shored up by beautifully balanced hops bitterness. The main flavor is generally high and sweet but not syrupy, and resolves into mineral and nutmeg. Soft carbonation and a medium mouthfeel sustain the general impression of refreshing, thirst-quenching mildness.

Copper Ale is available year-round, but it almost seems like it would be a summer seasonal. It is a highly sessionable ale with 5% ABV and nothing to bog the drinker down or accumulate into offensiveness. Not the flashiest brew you'll come across, but tasty and well-made.

From the bottle's label:

First brewed in 1991, our original ale has proudly become our flagship brew. Inspired by the albiers of northern Germany, Copper Ale™ is an amber ale brewed with six malts, three hops, and our special brewer's yeast. Its well-balanced, robust malt flavor is complemented by a pronounced hop finish.

Featured beer:
Copper Ale

Beers of the 21st Amendment Brewery

My Beer Club brothers are determined to beat out of me every remaining trace of the anti-can prejudice I hold. Two canned beers made it into the lineup this week: Brew Free or Die IPA and Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer, both from San Francisco's 21st Amendment Brewery.

My rational side (which I like to consider dominant) understands that aluminum cans block the spoiling effects of UV light better than glass, and they also allow the beer to cool down faster in my fridge. But that side struggles against a lifelong association between cans and cheap beers like PBR, Red White & Blue (also a Pabst product, I find), Milwaukee's Best, and a rogue's gallery of other unsavory swill.

Now is the time to separate container from contents and get comfortable with aluminum cans. The craft beer movement has clearly embraced this compact, durable packaging, with high profile independents like Sierra Nevada, New Belgium (Fat Tire), and Spoetzl (Shiner Bock) on board, and dozens of others following suit in the past year -- some, like 21st Amendment, foregoing bottles altogether and distributing exclusively in cans.

In addition to carrying the aforementioned benefits, cans are cheaper for the breweries to buy and to transport, which means they can concentrate more of their investment into the beer itself. That should be a win-win for producers and consumers.

Brew Free or Die IPA
The can's panoramic label art depicts Abe Lincoln bursting forth from the stifling confines of Mount Rushmore, while Washington and Jefferson appear shocked and Roosevelt grins with hearty approval.

Pours pale gold and clear, producing two inches of persistent, large-bubbled foam. The aroma is quite subdued. What's there is hoppy, in the pine part of the spectrum. There is something ever so slightly funky -- maybe a touch of the dreaded dimethyl sulphoxide?

The taste is mainly of resinous hops, with a slight biscuit malt undertone. There is a light to medium weight to the body, and a slightly oily mouthfeel with medium carbonation. Again -- and I'm tasting very carefully because I'm trying to be strenuously objective about this canned beer -- I pick up a very faint note of something off. It is slightly onion-y, which would support the theory of DMS contamination.

Overall, even setting aside the off note I detected, I don't find much to distinguish this beer from the crowded pack of West Coast IPAs.

Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer
The label art depicts the Statue of Liberty setting down her torch and hanging her diadem from one of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, upon which she sits, dangling her feet into the presumably cool and refreshing waters of the San Francisco Bay.

In appearance, the beer is a pale straw color, and hazy with yeast. On top sits a half inch of bright white foam that roils like a bathroom cleaning product.

The smell is very sour. That's a note that would not be out of place in, say, a sour ale or a Belgian tripel, but remember we're supposed to be dealing with a wheat beer here. My first impression was of vinegar, but with diligence I corrected this to raw tofu.

I was not sure what to expect of the watermelon part. Mercifully, it is not an intense watermelon Now and Later® flavor, but something a little more subtle. After the light watermelon intro there is a somewhat clumsy hand-off to the wheat beer platform. I found it difficult to judge the wheat beer aspect on normal terms because of the fruit flavor gimmick. The carbonation is mild, and there is some telltale yeasty aftertaste. I think there's an OK beer under here, but I can't be completely sure.

Still, I'm not convinced this brewing experiment was worth the try. If I were going for something light and summery, I might have chosen to float the watermelon essences over a pilsner instead of a weissbier. As it turns out, the sour note, wherever it is coming from, detracts considerably from any refreshing effect this beer might achieve. In its favor I will say that this one did not exhibit any DMS aftertaste.

Featured beers:
Brew Free or Die IPA
Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer

Dishonorable mentions
Pabst Blue Ribbon
Red White & Blue
Milwaukee's Best

Brew Free or Die can views: (click to enlarge)

Hell or High Watermelon can views:

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Lucky U IPA (Breckenridge Brewery)

The night President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, I was drinking a 471 IPA from Breckenridge Brewery. (It was a Beer Club contribution from Jeffrey Gentry, I believe.) I got distracted by the television coverage and didn't take detailed notes to write up a review. Watching the spontaneous street celebrations build and sharing the bittersweet catharsis of the long-awaited news, this should by all rights have been one of the tastiest beers of my life. In reality, though, I remember thinking that, for a supposed double IPA, it was a bit muted and lacking in structure.

But I can be remarkably forgiving when it comes to beer, so rest assured that I will give a fair shake to Lucky U IPA, which one of my brethren chipped in to the Beer Club six pack this week.

The beer pours a peachy orange color, slightly hazy. I got three quarters of an inch of foam, with lacing. The aroma doesn't project much -- I had to bring my nose quite near to smell it, but then I pick up something like the crust of fresh baked bread.

From there, my experience is similar to the one I had with the previous Breckenridge brew. The flavor never gets as deep as I expect it to, and ends fairly abruptly. The main characteristic is a nice sweet malt body with the suggestion of apricot. Pleasant enough. Any contribution from the hops is a very understated one. But is this really the profile Breckenridge was going for here -- short and shallow, rounded and circumscribed?

There is certainly nothing unpleasant about the beer, but it lacks intensity. There must be a use for it in the grand scheme of beers -- just as there lurks a proper occasion for use of every odd varietal in the grand pantheon of wine -- but I don't foresee this one entering the standard repertoire. I'll give their Oatmeal Stout a try before I write off Breckenridge Brewery as simply "not my bag." Here's hoping!

Featured beer:
Lucky U IPA

Honorable mentions:
471 IPA
Oatmeal Stout

Beer Club (week 7)

This week's round of contributed brews:

India Brown Ale (Dogfish Head Craft Brewery)
Brooklyn Summer Ale (Brooklyn Brewery)
Copper Ale (Otter Creek Brewing)
HopDevil Ale (Victory Brewing Company)
Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer (21st Amendment Brewery)
Brew Free or Die IPA (21st Amendment Brewery)
Stone IPA (Stone Brewing Company)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Raging Bitch (Flying Dog Brewery)

The distorted, slightly unhinged artwork on all of the Flying Dog Brewery's packaging is instantly recognizable as the work of Ralph Steadman, and thus instantly brings to mind an association with the legendary journalist/degenerate Hunter S. Thompson. None of it is a coincidence, it turns out. Flying Dog founder George Stranahan was a neighbor and friend of Thompson in Aspen, Colorado where the brewery started (before it moved to Frederick, Maryland in 2007), and thereby became friends with frequent HST co-conspirator Steadman.

This indirect connection between the brewery and journalism is appropriate for the current blog entry, as Flying Dog's Raging Bitch was a TNJ Beer Club contribution from the legendary journalist/very nice guy Phil Freedman.

Flying Dog touts Raging Bitch as a Belgian India Pale Ale, a sobriquet that is nonsensical in historical terms. This is an emergent style that combines characteristics of two styles that are very popular among the craft brew crowd -- basically, it adds the now ubiquitous hops edge to the complex, dry-finishing Belgian ale platform. Let's see what kind of drinking experience this yields. I anticipate something similar to Flying Fish Brewing Company's Exit 4 American Trippel.

Maybe I didn't pour this as aggressively as I could have, but the head was not as billowy as expected. I thought it would blow up with piles and piles of fluffy foam, but it actually only produced about three quarters of an inch. The color of the beer is a hazy apricot. The nose a near perfect balance of Belgian yeast and citrus hops chaser, so that part did hit the mark dead on.

My first impression is that the taste is more like double IPA than Belgian, though there's always that yeasty aroma hanging around as a reminder. The body is nice and big and chewy, with a big alcohol kick. As I drink I keep thinking double IPA, mainly on the basis of the hefty mouthfeel and dense sweetness. It's really toward the finish where some phenolic elements show up to add their signature spiciness.

As the beer warms, it opens up and its Belgian characteristics come to the fore. The character change with temperature is quite dramatic. Though it is unquestionably a bold brew, by the end of the glass this bitch seemed much mellower and less raging -- a fascinating balance of grape and grapefruit flavors. An enjoyable and stimulating ale, recommended for the adventurous palate.

From the bottle's label:

Two inflamatory words... one wild drink. Nectar imprisoned in a bottle. Let it out. It is cruel to keep a wild animal locked up. Uncap it. Release it....stand back!! Wallow in its golden glow in a glass beneath a white foaming head. Remember, enjoying a RAGING BITCH, unleashed, untamed, unbridled -- and in heat -- is pure GONZO!! It has taken 20 years to get from there to here. Enjoy!!
-- Ralph Steadman

Featured beer:
Raging Bitch

Honorable mention:
Exit 4

Friday, July 1, 2011

Railbender Ale (Erie Brewing Company)

Ah, Scotland! Home of... whisky, right? And bless her for that, but this blog is about beer. It's sort of interesting to me that, given the many legendary beers of England and Ireland, Scottish beer is quite obscure in the United States. Outside of maybe McEwan's, most Americans would be hard pressed to name an actual Scottish export ale.

Scottish-style ales are a bit easier to come by. The database at lists 328 beers of this description, the majority of which are brewed in the United States. That said, it is far from a highly popular style. For comparison, the BA database lists 2232 American IPAs.

I happen to like the Scottish ales I've tried -- for some of the same reasons I'm so fond of porters. They are characterized by a sweet maltiness with very little overt contribution from hops, but there is usually a slightly musty quality that carries ancient, almost sepulchral evocations for me. Eager to inflict such odd preferences upon others, my contribution to the Beer Club this week was Railbender Ale, a Scottish ale from Erie Brewing Company of Erie, PA.

When poured into my pint glass, the beer's appears brownish amber and hazy. Half an inch of head is produced and doesn't hang around for long. Minimal lacing is left behind as the level of beer goes down.

In the nose there are aromas of butterscotch, yeast, and pumpkin spices.

Taste: sweet malt with caramel or butterscotch -- or, gosh, could it even be fenugreek seeds? I detect a mildly metallic component, but nothing that reaches offensiveness. (Scottish ales are brewed with a long boil, and this can bring out a lot of strange flavors like smoke and metal. It's part of their charm.) I have had two Railbender Ales this week, and both times I have been stuck by how rapidly the main flavor drops off. It is not entirely a dry effect, as there is still some sweet, sticky bitterness that lingers, but there is definitely a sharp contour to the flavor. I sense, as expected, minimal support from the hops in the form of this slight bitterness in the aftertaste.

This is a pretty tasty brew. Definitely a credible representation of the style. I'm not sure I'm going to go around raving about it to strangers, but it was enjoyable enough that I will be receptive to checking out the rest of the Erie Brewing Company product line -- especially their Drake's Crude Oatmeal Stout.

Featured beer:
Railbender Ale

Honorable mentions:
McEwan's Scotch Ale
Drake's Crude