Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Gonzo Imperial Porter (Flying Dog Brewery)

Flying Dog, the brewery that does its best to channel the spirit of legendary journalist and pyrotechnician Hunter S. Thompson, expressly honors him with Gonzo Imperial Porter, which received a gold medal in the Imperial Stout category at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival.

Interesting. The label says "imperial porter," but it gets judged as an "imperial stout?" So, are the terms "porter" and "stout" synonymous? I didn't think so, but I know there is one place I might find an authoritative answer, and that is among the always fascinating pages of Martyn Cornell's historically rigorous Zythophile blog.

Sure enough, a keyword search returned this post, in which Mr. Cornell states quite plainly (and, as always, with a mountain of research to back him up) that there is basically no stylistic difference between beers labelled with these terms. A little additional scrounging reveals his scholarly dismantling of the almost universally taught notion that the original porter was another name for (or a reformulation of) a quaff called "three-threads," and, what's more, that "three-threads" was probably not made by combining three different styles of beer. This is a lot to think about.

But, to paraphrase Grandpa Fred: "You don't research it, son, you drink it!" So, let me get on with the tasting.

I poured this dark elixir into a snifter and a fine-bubbled cocoa brown head arose. The aroma is sweet and slightly smoky, pulling the nose down, down, down into suggestions of mouthwatering black licorice.

The flavor is mightily complex! It first hits with sweetness, then rolls over the sides of the tongue with a dense, roasty malt middle. Dark chocolate and espresso are present, as is a touch of vanilla, and even black cherries. The mouthfeel is smooth, and one feels the heft of all these dense, intense flavors. Later taste gives way to both floral (lilac?) and herbal hop notes. The fade out does reveal a substantial alcohol presence (9.2%), but it tries to disguise itself in the lingering malt sweetness of the aftertaste.

I was fortunate enough to have the barrel-aged version of Gonzo on tap at the grand opening of Two Stones Pub's north Wilmington location in September, and it was stunningly good. In addition to the fine qualities described above, it exhibited sticky raisin and prune flavors and a port-like quality elicited by its time in contact with the wood. Like love in a glass, it was.

My respect for Flying Dog just continues to grow. They've put together a bold line-up of styles, and the ones I've tried (Raging Bitch, Snake Dog, and Old Scratch) have ranged from good to excellent. Gonzo, I think, is the best of them all.

From the bottle's label:

"It never got weird enough for me." -- Hunter S. Thompson

Featured beer:
Gonzo Imperial Porter

Honorable mentions:
Raging Bitch Belgian-style IPA
Snake Dog India Pale Ale
Old Scratch Amber Lager

[My good camera is broken, so pardon the absence of pictures of this beer in the bottle and in the glass. I hope to have this problem remedied soon.]

Friday, October 19, 2012

Beer Club (October 19, 2012)

My Beer Club homies brought strong game this week, introducing two breweries previously unrepresented, and repeating no styles within the mix-pack. Good job, kids!

• ACME California IPA (North Coast Brewing Company)
• Barking Squirrel Lager (Hop City Brewing Company)
• Harvest (Long Trail Brewing Company)
• Hazelnut Brown Nectar (Rogue Brewery)
• Mocha Porter (Rogue Brewery)
• Resin (Sixpoint Brewery)

Jacques Au Lantern (Evolution Craft Brewing Company)

I was prepared to skewer ex-Delaware (now Salisbury, Md. based) Evolution Craft Brewing Company's Jacques Au Lantern in the context of a dour critique of pumpkin beers in general. Turns out, I can't quite do that. Details in a minute, but first the background.

Every fall, the beer market is flooded with pumpkin beers from scores of breweries. Now, I am as susceptible to the sensory charms of autumn as the next guy -- a bracing nip in the morning air, the first wisp of chimney smoke, the crunch of fallen leaves. And, like it or not, pumpkin beers have become a ubiquitous part of the season. But most of them I've tried, I have a hard time finishing a single bottle, let alone a six-pack. I find breweries tend to push the spice gimmick with a heavy hand, packing every bottle with more cinnamon, clove, and allspice (and often more sweetness) than the beer inside it can support.

I blogged last fall about Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale being a notable exception to this tendency. "The thing that Dogfish Head seems to have nailed better than the other pumpkin beer purveyors is simple: restraint," I wrote. "The flavor of the additives combines with the flavor of the beer, but never takes the foreground. The result is the sense of drinking a well-brewed ale with a seasonal angle, not drinking a fizzy vehicle for liquified pumpkin pie."

Jacques Au Lantern also succeeds as a pumpkin beer that will not offend a beer lover's palate, but for slightly different reasons.

Initially, my hopes remained modest, as I poured the orange-amber liquid into my glass and was met with a fairly perfunctory, pale, fizzy head that quickly dissipated to a thin film. The aroma did not sway me either, striking me at first as slightly cider-y, then yielding to a powdery, Pez-like note of clove.

The flavor was more impressive. In that all-important first sip, I was relieved to find a level of spiciness within the scope of reason. As I sipped more and began to think about the foundation of the brew, the cleverness of its formulation began to reveal itself. Its texture first made me guess this must be a wheat beer, but as I pondered the contribution of yeast, I realized it really exhibited the characteristic spiciness of a Belgian-style ale. (It was in the same moment that the deeper meaning of punny name "Jacques Au Lantern" hit me like a ton of bricks. A dubbel entendre?)

What Evolution has done here is to create an ale at the natural intersection between Belgian yeast flavors and pumpkin pie spice flavors, and it actually works. I commend them for taking this gastronomical approach to their fall seasonal, rather than just chucking the spice rack into a kettle of amber ale as so many breweries appear to do.

It's nice to find another pumpkin beer that I would consider drinking more than one of, but I still find myself much more excited about the arrival of pumpkin-free fall seasonals like Tröegs Brewing Company's rich, roasty Dead Reckoning Porter and New Belgium Brewing Company's brilliantly balanced Red Hoptober.

Featured beer:
Jacques Au Lantern

Honorable mentions:
Punkin Ale
Dead Reckoning Porter
Red Hoptober

Monday, October 8, 2012

Beer club (October 5, 2012)

• Hi.P.A. (Magic Hat Brewing Company)
• HopFish IPA (Flying Fish Brewing Company)
• Hoptical Illusion (Blue Point Brewing Company)
• Humboldt Brown Hemp Ale (Nectar Ales/Firestone Walker)
• Otter Creek Oktoberfest (Otter Creek Brewing)
• Responders Ale (16 Mile Brewing Company)
• Undercover Investigation Shut-down Ale (Lagunitas Brewing Company)