Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Leap of Faith

February 29th comes rarely, and Iron Hill Restaurant and Brewery intends to celebrate it this time around with the release of a beer created specially for the occasion. But you don't have to wait anything like four years for a special event at one of Iron Hill's nine regional locations.

"We're kind of event crazy around here," said Brian Finn, head brewer at Iron Hill in Wilmington, and a 16-year veteran of the local restaurant industry. In addition to two regular events a month aimed at the restaurant's Mug Club members, Finn said, there is a steady stream of beer dinners, release parties, and special pairings like the February event that matched Iron Hill brews with chocolates custom designed by chocolatier Ryan Flynn of Cantwell’s Tavern in Odessa.

Keeping customers engaged through a lively social calendar is crucial for the Wilmington restaurant. "We're here at the waterfront," said Finn. "Let's face it: people aren't just going to drop in because they happened to be passing by. We have to be a destination."

The strategy seems to be working, judging from the success of the brewpub's recent gatherings. The aforementioned chocolate pairing sold out 50 seats, and last Friday's event dubbed "The Dark Side" (a celebration of stouts, porters, and various other light-defying pours from Iron Hill and six guest breweries) filled the venue's upper floor with beer fans jockeying for their chance to be photographed with Darth Vader.

However, bringing in a crowd is not strictly about commerce for Finn. The best part of his job, he says, is exposing people to new styles and changing their perception of beer. "I love it when people say 'I'm a beer geek because of you'," he told me with a laugh. He gets the same fulfillment from conducting the training sessions that are mandatory for Iron Hill's waitstaff. The training touches on the brewing process, how to taste beer, and the do's and don'ts of tableside manner.

For tonight's Leap Day release, Finn would like to expose you to a newly conconcted Belgian strong ale he calls Leap of Faith. The beer is fermented with a Chimay yeast, one of the two Belgian strains the brewery uses in its diverse line of dubbels, trippels, and quads. I tasted Leap of Faith recently in the upstairs dining room of the brewpub, which overlooks a scenic meander of the Christina river.

This beer is a mellow apricot color and is densely cloudy with unfiltered yeast goodness. It has aromas of pineapple, pear, and Juicy Fruit gum. The body is full and mouthfeel is absolutely sumptuous -- maybe my favorite part of the experience. Pineapple and pear impressions carry over into the flavor as well, along with some yeast character and a beautifully integrated alcohol warmth. Despite its 10% alcohol by volume, this ale has a mellowness and drinkability that are pretty remarkable. I was actually recalling the flavor of Leap of Faith for several days afterward and craving another sip.

Beyond tonight's release party, take note of a few other Iron Hill events on the horizon. On Wednesday, July 18, during Wilmington Beer Week, the waterfront brewpub is slated to host an event pairing its food with the beers of other Delaware breweries, then later in the year it will be releasing a beer brewed in collaboration with Georgetown's 16 Mile Brewing Company (probably a maple porter).

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Newcastle Founders' Ale (Caledonian Brewery)

"Newcastle," in the mind of most beer buffs, is but half of a phrase completed by "Brown." That classic ale has been brewed since 1927, despite the fact that the brand has changed ownership and the brewery location has moved multiple times over the years. The current parent company is the Heineken International conglomerate, and under its watch the Newcastle line has been expanded with a new seasonal ale every year since 2010. The spring release for 2012 is this Newcastle Founders' Ale.

It's hard not to be cynical about the folksy backstory on the label (see italics below) and assume this and the other seasonals are carefully calculated by the corporate marketing squad, but who knows. Let's let the beer speak for itself.

It pours a clear deep amber with one inch of fluffy head that is just slightly off white. Good lacing as the level drops. The aroma is of musty linen, earth, and faint lemon if you really work for it. Those subdued European hops at work.

The body is medium light and pretty crisp. The flavor is dry and malty, with low complexity. Finishes dry with almost no flavor traces except some bitterness.

This is a classic English-style bitter, alright. Not flashy, but admittedly pretty authentic tasting. Pick it up this spring if you're a fan of the style -- or just grab the "one and only" brown ale, which tastes the same as it ever did.

From the bottle's label:

We bring you Newcastle Founders' Ale, a unique Limited Edition brew with the drinkability you expect from Newcastle. Our Newcastle founders came together to produce beers with real star quality. This ale is a tribute to the heritage and authenticity of those top brewers of Victorian Newcastle. Founders' is a pale ale with a dry, hoppy flavour and aroma. It is sweet rather than bitter, with a short dry finish. What better way to toast the season of renewal!

Featured beer:
Newcastle Founders' Ale

Honorable mentions:
Newcastle Brown Ale

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Double Stout (Green Flash Brewing Company)

I'm excited to be sitting down with this bottle of Green Flash Double Stout, which I've been looking forward all week to drinking.

The stream is deep mahogany while pouring, but the beer is utterly black in the pint glass. As the pour settles, there is some cascading effect, even without the help of nitrogen. The mocha brown head resembles the foam on a root beer float, and leaves lacing galore as the glass drains. A highly attractive beer.

And I find it every bit as pleasing to the nose as to the eye. The aroma is a symphony of roasty, smoky, and sweet notes: herbal hops, sorghum syrup, cured sausage casing, cold fireplace. An olfactory taxonomist's dream.

So much positive build-up to the tasting! On first sip I get very sweet, rich chocolate malt tightly wedded to perfectly calibrated bitterness. The mouthfeel is heavy but not ponderous or sticky, and the signature smoothness of oatmeal is obviously present while the 8.8% ABV is scarcely detectable. The flavor is big and bold, but rounded and nuanced in very pleasing ways. After the chocolaty body, there are coffee and slightly bitter hops on the finish.

This is a big beer done right: does not hit with the jarring alcohol ping of some imperial stouts, and does not collapse the tongue with bitterness or astringency like many highly roasted brews. Double thumbs up to this double stout from Green Flash, whose Hop Head Red Ale was another of my favorite discoveries of the past year.

From the bottle's label:


Featured beer:
Double Stout

Honorable mentions:
Hop Head Red Ale

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Ruthless Rye IPA (Sierra Nevada Brewing Company)

I know, another review of a rye beer, right? But the fact is, rye is a really fascinating ingredient to brew with. It adds subtle complexity when included as a low percentage of the grain bill, and increasingly adds a distinctive dry, spicy quality as its percentage goes up. It is a robust grain of ancient date, but it seems to be getting due appreciation only in recent years as the drinking public has grown more receptive to truly flavorful beers.

I am delighted to see rye taken up by Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, the country's second largest craft brewery (behind Boston Beer Company), and one of the great pillars of the movement. They have been making extremely high quality beer since 1979, but Terence Sullivan of Sierra Nevada confirms, "This is our first major release of a rye focused beer."

On to the tasting. The beer is a clear, deep amber/copper color, and pouring brings up two inches of very stable, clumpy off-white foam. The aroma is of earth and sappy hops, with just a telltale whiff of rye.

The frothy mouthfeel settles into an intense, concentrated bitter spiciness in the middle of the tongue. Flavors of black pepper, guava, and grapefruit ride the sweetness of a base that tastes predominantly like caramel malt. Very refreshing. The finish leaves long rye footprint once the bitterness falls off.

Overall, a terrific brew that delivers everything you came for in a rye IPA, with trademark Sierra Nevada classiness. Very drinkable, and at 6.6% ABV offers reasonable session potential.

From the bottle's label:

Ruthless Rye IPA is brewed with this rustic grain for refined flavors -- combining the peppery spice of rye and the bright citrusy flavors of whole cone hops to create a complex ale for the tumultuous transition to Spring.

Featured beer:
Ruthless Rye IPA

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Black Lightning (DuClaw Brewing Company)

I thank the Beer Club for hipping me to yet another brewery I probably should have investigated before now. DuClaw Brewing Company started in Bel Air, Maryland in 1996 and now has four brewpubs in the eastern part of the state. Their distribution is still limited to Maryland (minus the Eastern Shore), parts of D.C. and Northern Virginia, but I find that at least one of their beers, Black Lightning, is definitely ready for prime time.

It has quite a lovely appearance in my glass: opaque black with tiny-bubbled, tan foam that leaves behind some lacing. The aroma carries minty and herbal hops with roasted grain undertones.

There is a lot going on in the taste. In the main body I get sweet, smoky molasses, prune and espresso -- a lot of stout-like characteristics, actually, but with more hop flavor in the balance. There is some detectable alcohol as well. The body is medium to heavy, and mouthfeel is quite substantial. The finish is roasty and mildly bitter.

I find this beer wonderfully complex. It doesn't seem like just another contestant in the black IPA trend, but more like a style that deserves its place in the spectrum with schwarzbier, porter, and stout. Thumbs up from me, and recommended to lovers of dark things.

By the way, Morgan Schell from the marketing department at DuClaw tells me that the brewery has expansion plans that could bring their product to Delaware, Pennsylvania, and beyond in the next year or so. When I hear more I'll post an update.

From the bottle's label:

This medium-bodied American Black Ale is a stormy balance of thunderous roasted malt flavor and the aroma, bitterness, and electrifying finish of American hops. Pop it off, and get ready to... ride the lightning!

Featured beer:
Black Lightning

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Noble Rot (Dogfish Head Craft Brewery)

You might notice these days that the flavor and character of beer is being discussed in the carefully nuanced terms once reserved for wine.

Dig a little deeper and you will find an enthusiastic community of collectors who seek out "ageable" beers and squirrel them away in the cellar as one would a bottle of Burgundy and Bordeaux. And it is now common for restaurants and brewpubs to offer beer pairing dinners, where a glass of stout or a goblet of Belgian ale will be placed alongside entrees and given legitimate gastronomic consideration.

At the same time that beer is finding a market with gourmet sensibilities, wine is reaching its broadest audience ever in the U.S. and is being consumed in record volume. Research by the Wine Market Council attributes these facts to the "wine boom" of the '70s and early '80s when baby boomers embraced wine, and to a similar adoption of the beverage in recent years by the generation known as the Millennials. Many are drinking wine on occasions and in settings that have been the traditional province of beer.

So, as the distinction between the beer and wine worlds blurs, Milton's Dogfish Head Craft Brewery has chosen an appropriate moment to release Noble Rot, which they describe as a "saison-esque" ale in which grapes contribute 49.5 percent of the fermentable sugar and the rest comes from traditional brewing grains. Noble Rot will be hitting shelves and taps over the next few weeks.

Although Dogfish previously experimented with grapes as a beer additive in their limited edition release Red & White, Noble Rot takes the grape-to-grain ratio to such an extreme that the resulting product can truly be called a beer/wine hybrid. "This is the absolute closest to equal meshing of the wine world and the beer world that's ever been done commercially," says Dogfish Head Founder and President Sam Calagione in the press release that accompanied our tasting sample.

While pinot noir juices were used in Red & White, the grapes in this latest concoction are specially cultivated viognier and pinot gris grown by Alexandria Nicole Cellars of Prosser, Washington. The viognier grapes have been infected with a benevolent fungus called botrytis (which French vintners called pourriture noble, or "noble rot"), which concentrates the sweetness of the grapes by reducing their water content. The pinot gris grapes have also undergone flavor intensification, in their case by a manual culling process.

To fairly evaluate this unique brew, I wanted to include the tasting impressions of an expert from the wine side of the house in addition to my own. I called around and eventually found someone even better suited to the task: Joe Hiester, who oversees the surprisingly extensive beer program at Wilmington's Domaine Hudson, a wine bar and restaurant with a wine list 425 bottles deep. Hiester, a 31-year-old Wilmington native, has been at the restaurant for about four years, prior to which he worked for Eclipse Bistro and Iron Hill Brewery.

Hiester and I arranged four wine glasses in front of us on the bar of the elegant yet cozy Domaine Hudson.

Into the first glass, as a reference for the saison style that Dogfish loosely targeted, we poured Hennepin Farmhouse Saison from Brewery Ommegang of Cooperstown, New York. This beer has a complex aroma that combines notes of lilac and honeysuckle with suggestions of yeast, pale malts, and banana bread. The taste is equally complex, first lemony and tart, then clove and cardamom notes over a fruity foundation, all lifted by effusive carbonation. Light grain and grass flavors are present in the dry finish.

Next, to get an idea of the grape flavors at play, we poured a glass of Domaine Saint-Amant Côtes du Rhône La Borry, made predominantly from viognier. In the bouquet of this wine I detected apple, overripe melon, and alcohol. In the mouth I noted low acidity, and flavors of weighty minerals and green apple.

To taste the particular effect of botrytis, we poured a glass of Domaine du Petit Paris Monbazillac, a dessert wine made in southwest France from handpicked botrytis grapes. The mouthfeel of this wine was dramatically heavier and oilier than the non-botrytis wine. It was sweet and densely flavorful, almost lush, with a slight citrus quality. In comparison with the Côtes du Rhône, I could not have asked for a clearer demonstration of the "noble rot" effect.

So now, fully grounded in every quality we might encounter, we turned to Dogfish Head's Noble Rot, which shined a bright straw color in the fourth wine glass. A reserved quantity of white foam is produced by the pour. The aroma is full and intriguing, and has unmistakable hints of Belgian character -- subdued spiciness, mustiness, and bread -- as well as unmistakable clues to the presence of sweet, tart grape.

There is a distinct contour to the beer's flavor: it starts with a blast of yeasty effects and fleeting, wine-like high notes, then drops into a solid white grape middle, and resolves in a long, meandering finish as the other threads drop off to a clean, light malt flavor. A hybrid, indeed, but as Hiester observed with approval, "At the end it tastes like I'm drinking a beer, and I love that."

It's fascinating to sort out on the palate all the ingredients and consider their role in this beer's maturing process. The grape component of Noble Rot does not share the slickness or sweetness on display in the Monbazillac. I imagine the Belgian ale yeast used to ferment this beer was ravenous for the sugars it found in the botrytized viognier must, and left behind only enough to hint at the grape's original flavor. The choice of pilsner malt and wheat as the grains was wise, as they are light enough not to conflict with the wine flavors, but have enough body to ride them out.

After a few cycles through the various libations we were comparing, Hiester noted, "I have all these things to drink in front of me: a nice French viognier, a saison beer that I've loved for a long time, and this Noble Rot. And I keep reaching for the Noble Rot."

As for its food pairing potential, we tried the beer with a few items from the Domaine Hudson menu. It proved a clean, refreshing accompaniment to the seared sea scallop with broccoli risotto, meshing with the savory flavors of the seared surface and providing contrast with the subtle, succulent inner meat. It worked even better against the chilled seafood salad, buoying the steamed Little Neck clams and Prince Edward Island mussels, while teasing out and boosting the fresh vegetable flavors of the finely diced red bell pepper, celery, Spanish green olives, and arugula.

Hiester, who helps his restaurant patrons pair beers with their meals, emphatically remarked: "I want food with this." Dogfish Head Craft Brewery can count that as a success.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Hop Notch (Uinta Brewing Company)

I had never heard of Uinta Brewing Company before I spotted Hop Notch in the beer case at Avenue Wine & Spirits a few weeks ago. I'll admit that my decision to grab the six-pack was based only partly on a craving for something new, and mostly on the package design, which has a cool "retro" appeal similar to the graphics used by Great Divide Brewing Company. Also, each bottle has a compass dial debossed around its shoulder, which is a nice touch.

I felt justified in the superficiality of my impulse buy when I got home and did a little research about Uinta. From the Salt Lake City brewery's website: "Since 2001 Uinta Brewing has been 100% wind-powered, becoming the first Utah company to reach this mark. In an effort to continue its commitment to using renewable resources, Uinta Brewing installed solar-electric paneling on the brewery's roof in 2011."

Of course I realize that this factor does not affect the taste of the beer, but I'm always pleased to support a business that understands that commerce and the stewardship of natural resources need not be mutually exclusive pursuits. Then again, I wouldn't buy crappy beer from a company just because I admire its environmentalism, so let's see how this stuff tastes.

The beer pours a chill-hazed pale apricot color, with white, fluffy foam. Nice lacing as it drains. The nose is pungent and citrusy, leaving no doubt that hops will be the flavor's main attraction.

The grain sweetness of the body is tightly ensnared by bitter hops. The taste is almost savory -- the description "serious" comes to mind, as it did when I drank the commendable Red's Rye P.A. from Founders. The carbonation gives a foamy expansiveness to the mouthfeel. There is a hint of a grassy, herbal note as the flavor wanes -- something I found myself chasing after with every sip. The finish is long and bitter with some light malt flavors surfacing at the far end.

There is a ton of flavor to Hop Notch, and evidence of careful craftsmanship. For me, a very nice tasting IPA like this is often the gateway drug to a brewery's other offerings, so stay tuned. Congratulations to Uinta for breaking into the Delaware market and for everything else they're doing right.

Featured beer:
Hop Notch

Honorable mention:
Red's Rye P.A.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Beer Club (week 21)

Great Beer Club lineup this week! Got an awesome variety of stuff to drink during my week off.

• Bell Ringer (RJ Rockers)
• Black Jack Porter (Left Hand Brewing Company)
• Dig Pale Ale (New Belgium Brewing Company)
• Double Stout (Green Flash Brewing Company)
• Ruthless Rye IPA (Sierra Nevada Brewing Company)
• Schlafly Coffee Stout (The Saint Louis Brewery)