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Beer Review: Blackberry Farm Brewery Tripel

What does a beer make you think of?  Not in the malt, yeast, hops, water sense but in the “I remember when” sense.  What do you think of when you smell freshly cut grass?  For me, playing soccer in the summer. Where do you go when you hear Pearl Jam’s “Black”? Hanging out in Morrison Dorm at UNC my freshman year.

When I was a kid, I was not that into candy.  Other kids would always have Now or Laters or Jolly Ranchers and I would eat one or two, but I didn’t crave them.  I was into cake and cookies.  Especially cookies. If I brought my lunch I would always get my mother to pack Oreos or Lady Fingers or chocolate chip cookies.  I was partial to the Keebler Soft Batch cookies. I also liked sugar wafer cookies.  Not the Nilla Wafers.  Those were saved for banana pudding.  I mean the little 2-3 inch long and ½ wide wafer cookies that looked a little like ice cream cones that had a little frosting between them like a sandwich.  I loved those things and I could devour them.

The Blackberry Farm Brewery Abbey Tripel reminds me of those cheap wafer cookies with a lemon frosting.  This is a beer you should seek out to drink.

First, it pours a nice golden color.  It has the classic Belgian head that forms foamy and white and as you drink gives you good Belgian lace down the side of the glass.  It also pours crystal clear giving you a good view of the characteristic Belgian effervescence.

The first thing I noticed on the aroma was the citrus and pepper.  You also get the malty almost grainy aroma at the front followed by a hint of clove.

Then you taste the beer and it is wonderful.  It is crisp and citrusy with a hint of alcohol and pepper.  The maltiness and high carbonation accents its crisp and dry nature.  It is light and effervescent with a clean dry finish.

Great beers like all great art should transport you.  That is what we all look for when we chase the next whale.  We want the experience of drinking this special beer to take us back to a wonderful memory or to a new place we have never experienced before.  The funny thing it doesn’t have to be a whale that does that.

The memories that surround a beer aren’t just about the beer.  They include who, what, when, and where.  That is why when I sit down to critique a beer I do it in the same place the same way every time.  However, when a beer creates a real memory and a wonderful experience for me it is always wrapped up in where I’m drinking and whom I’m drinking with at the time.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a great beer, but it tastes infinitely better sitting outside at the Sierra Nevada Taj Mahal in Fletcher, NC watching the sunset on a Spring day than it does in my living room.  That is one of the things that makes critiquing or reviewing beer hard.  You try to objectively describe and interrogate something that is so subjectively enjoyed.

That challenge has been why I enjoy trying to critique and review beer so much.

Bell’s Brewery Best Brown Ale Review

In modern American craft brewing, brown ales are often an afterthought. If you look at the core beers for most breweries, you will see the obligatory IPA, a saison, a stout/porter, a wit/wheat ale/hefeweizen, and probably a lager/pilsner/Kolsch.  That leaves the brown ale out in the cold.  Why is that?

While the brown ale is seemingly simple it is a rather difficult beer to brew well and it is a beer misunderstood by many drinkers. It along with ambers is the in between beer.  It isn’t as dark and heavy as a stout or even a porter and it isn’t as hoppy as an IPA. It is made for the lovers of malt.  So how do you define it?

For me, a good brown is the perfect session beer.  Not hoppy, with a low abv, and still a lot of taste.

One way to highlight a brown ale is to make it a seasonal.  This may seem strange for such a simple style, but it means a brewery is giving the beer the time and attention it deserves.

20161026_113350Bell’s Best Brown Ale is a chestnut colored brown ale released seasonally at the beginning of every fall. Like a good Marzen or Oktoberfeistbier, there is nothing remarkable about this beer.  It is just that Bells has taken the time to craft a good and solid brown ale.  First, as I said, it is chestnut in color and has a thin off-white head that has good retention.

Next, it has a chocolaty malt aroma and a faint hops aroma just underneath it.  The first thing you notice is that it has a light malty feel on your palate.  The taste is where it all comes together for this beer.  You get a slightly chocolate and maybe hazelnut (?) taste to with just enough of a hop bitterness reminder to highlight the malt and make you want to have another sip.

As much as people want hops and hoppy taste to their beers, without malt balancing out the hops you get a mouthful of grass clippings.  That is why black IPAs and browns are maybe my two favorite styles when well-made and balanced.  BIPAs must have enough malt to highlight the hops and browns must have enough hops to balance out the malt.

Best Brown achieves this balance and provides fans of malty beers another great fall seasonal option.

Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest 2016 Review

Each year as Summer turns to Fall during the last two weeks of September through the first weekend of October on the Theresienwiese in Munich since 1810, Oktoberfest has taken place.  It wasn’t until 1872 that Spaten brewery named a beer Oktoberfeistbier for the even.  This first Oktoberfeistbier was probably a high abv bock brewed in 1872 by Spaten brewery and stayed popular at the event until World War I.  Since then the strength of the beer has lessened and the color has lightened to its current version.  This version has been codified in German law since 1990.  There are also only six Munich breweries legally allowed to brew a beer called Oktoberfeistbier:  Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbrauhaus, Lowenbrau, Paulener, and Spaten. (Thanks to The Oxford Companion To Beer for all that.)

German Oktoberfeistbiers are lighter in color and mouthfeel then their American cousins.  That is what makes this year’s Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest brewed in collaboration with Mahrs Brau in Bamberg.

When you pour it into the glass it is immediately apparent that this is not the same as other American versions of oktoberfeistbier.  It is a much lighter deep golden color instead of the usual amber color that American versions tend toward.  The lagering also makes this beer crystal clear with a nice carbonation that creates a thin but persistent head.  The aroma is nice and biscuity sweet balanced with a good amount of German hops.

The mouthfeel is light, again in comparison to an American version, and it has a slight slickness on the tongue.  Like all beers in the marzen, Vienna lager, oktoberfeistbier family this is a wonderfully malty and sweet beer on the front of end of its taste with a good spicy hop bitterness on the back end to keep it balanced. However, it still manages to have a light mouthfeel and taste.  Combined with its relatively low abv, the 2016 Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest makes a good easy drinker.

That is what makes this beer interesting. It combines two things that are often on opposite sides of beer taste and flavor: maltiness and lightness.  Most malty beers are at least a medium mouthfeel.  Most beer with a lighter mouthfeel tend more towards crispness.  It is a hard balance to pull off successfully.

German oktoberfeistbiers are also interesting as a look at style development.  As most styles evolve over time they evolve up (mass produced American pilsners being a notable exception) meaning they get darker, get higher in ABV, get hoppier.  In this case, the Oktoberfeistbier style has evolved down over time.  The first version was a higher abv, darker bock.  The version that was codified into German law in 1990 is lighter and lower in abv then it has been at any point in its history and is certainly lighter than its American cousins.

Compare that with the IPA in England where English brewers have slowly adopted a more American style approach to IPAs, i.e. hoppiness.  While there as still many brewers making traditional English style IPAs both in England and the US, the trend for the style is usually darker and almost always danker.  Leave it to the Germans to not only hue towards tradition, but to then codify that tradition in its laws.

What Kind of Week It Has Been, 3/20/16

Before I get into what I wanted to write about today, I wanted to say something.  I’ve been gone for a while from this space.  I am an obsessive workaholic with trust issues.  That means I sometimes throw myself into my work to the point of physical or mental collapse and ineffectiveness.  That is what happened last week.  Through my own stubbornness and issues, I managed to simultaneously work too much and fuck up almost everything I touched while doing so.  It was a nice trick.  Anyway, last week has passed and now onto whatever the future holds.

The one thing managed to do successfully this past week was read.  I’m reading a couple of books right now, but the one I that has the most to do with my beer writing is Better Living Through Criticism by AO Scott.  Scott is the chief film critic for The New York Times.  He is a good read as well as a good reviewer.  What he attempts with this book is explain what a critic’s role in art is and how you can use that to make your enjoyment of art better.

I have long considered good craft beer and good craft brewing to akin to art.  At its best, it is an expression of the skill and creativity of brewers as they find ways to express themselves within the boundaries of what brewing is.  If it isn’t then we should all just drink Budweiser.  The best thing and most damning thing about Budweiser is that you can drink a Bud from any of its breweries around the world and it will taste the exact same as one from another brewery.

This is way of viewing brewing that many if not most, even in the craft beer community, do not have.  Beer is a product. A commodity to be manufactured, sold, and consumed.  When your job is to sell beer, it can be hard to remember how creative a brewer can be and should be.

Recently, I tasted a beer from a brewer who I respect more than most others because of the creativity and risks that brewer always takes with his beer.  I hated this beer.  It was an attempt that was unsuccessful as a commercially viable beer.  As a person tasked with selling beer to bar patrons, I was annoyed that this expensive beer was bad and unsellable.

As a writer who aspires to be a beer critic, I am fascinated by this beer.  Tasting it, I saw exactly what the brewer was trying to do and I could also see why it was not successful.  I struggled with how to define what was wrong with the beer in a different context then, “this is bad.”  What was bad about it; why did it turn out wrong; what was the brewer attempting; was he successful with that attempt; if he was successful, why didn’t the beer work.

I’ve always gravitated to reviews of beer and other acts of art that were more than just is this good or bad.  I want more than some star rating or whatever.  I want more than this sucks. That is all that most consumers and bar owners care about, however if we are to grow as a beer drinking community there has to be more than that.  We have to ask the next logical question after a beer is declared to suck:  why does it suck?

In his book AO Scott lays out three questions at the base of what a critic does.  I am paraphrasing here to gear the questions more towards beer, but here they are:

  1. Did you taste and feel that?
  2. Did you like it?
  3. Be honest.

To me, the most important part of that is, Be honest.  As a critic, you must be honest about what you taste, what you feel, and how it affects you.

To do that a critic must develop the skills to identify what he is tasting and the vocabulary to describe it.  They must also have the skill to do that in an effective and clear manner.  Again, above all else the critic must be ruthlessly honest with himself first and foremost.  That means understanding your predilections but not letting them define you or your criticism.

As humans, I think one of our jobs is to accept our mistakes and the bad things that happen to us and use them to grow and keep ourselves in the life we want to live.  For me, weeks like last week, remind me of the things I hold important to the life I want to lead.  I am reminded to remember every decision I make has to be with purpose, and that I must live consciously and stop coasting.  Trying to understand beer and place in a context of our shared humanity is how I choose not to coast.

Taste Test: Triple C The Force with Smoked Gouda

One of my stated goals this year is to do more work on beer and food pairings.  So, here is what will hopefully be the first of this year’s tasting reviews paired with some kind of food.

Cheese is probably my favorite pairing with beer.  There are so many different cheeses and so many different beers that the pairings are endless.  My favorite cheeses almost all fall into the semi-hard category. It is not uncommon for me to buy a gouda, smoked gouda, manchego, or an aged cheddar along with a good bottle of beer and make that my lunch/afternoon snack.

This review started with an inexpensive smoked gouda I found at my local grocery store. It was one of those spur of the moment purchases.  Anyway, after I bought the cheese I scrounged in my fridge to find a beer that worked with a creamy strongly smoked cheese.  A BBA tripel seemed like the perfect fit.

The Triple C The Force BBA Tripel is part of the growing barrel aged program at Triple C Brewing in Charlotte.  The barrel aging program is one Triple C plans to make even bigger his year.

20160222_152303The Force pours with a nice amber color and moderate head.  The aroma is a classic tripel aroma, funky Belgian yeast esters, mixed with the caramelly bourbon aromas from the barrel aging.  On the face of it, that sounds like it would be almost sickly sweet to smell.  However, the aromas work well together and add to one another not overwhelming the drinker.

You get a noticeable, but not overwhelming alcohol taste along with the Belgian candi and funkiness and bourbon sweetness.  The caramel tastes from the candi and barrels reminds one of caramel candies you buy in the grocery stores that stick to your teeth when you try to chew them.

This is where the cheese comes through for you with the smoked cutting through the sweetness.  In turn, the sweetness combines with the creaminess of the gouda much like a glass of milk works with a chocolate cake.  This was a pretty successful pairing because the beer and the cheese worked well together on a couple of different levels.  If you have a free afternoon and like beer and cheese, this is a more the worthwhile way to spend it.

Taste Test: Newgrass Brewing Hop Dab BIPA

Black IPAs are a difficult beer to pull off for brewers.  Some people think of them as really hoppy brown ales.  They are darker and much hoppier than any brown ale.  However, they are also a little more complicated than just changing the malt bill on an IPA recipe.  A good black IPA uses the bitterness of the roasted dark malts to help take a bit of the edge off the hoppiness of an American style IPA.

What is really impressive is when a new brewery can make a good beer when executing a difficult beer style, and black IPAs are a difficult beer style.

20160117_234207-2 Newgrass Brewing in Shelby, NC is a very young brewery just opening in August.  Yet, they already have found a consistency in the beer they make even as they create innovative new recipes.  Their Hop Dab Black IPA is no different.

Hop Dab pours a nice clear deep dark almost black.  It has a nice fluffy off white head that sticks around a while.  However, that isn’t the first thing you really notice.  Any good BIPA pours a nice color like that.  What will catch you is the aroma.  This is where Hop Dab sets itself apart.  The dry hopping for this beer gives it a big piney and resinous nose that is a good break from all the floral and citrus west coast beers on the market. This east coast hopping is why they call it a Vermont style BIPA at the taproom.  You also get a strong hint of the dark roast malt.

The taste mirrors the aroma.  The only difference is that while it has a very hop forward taste it is well balanced with the bitterness (think coffee and dark chocolate) from dark roast malt taking a bit of the bite from the hops while keeping the characteristic hoppiness.  That is the reason BIPAs are slowly moving into the mainstream of beer geekery.  You get the American style hoppiness while mitigating some of the hop bitterness that puts a lot of people off IPAs.

Hop Dab is a well-balanced beer from a young brewery that is starting to impress many in the NC beer world.

How does when and where you taste a beer effect the taste of the beer?  How do your preconceived notions of the brewery itself affect how you taste a beer?  To keep my feelings about this beer in check after the tasting that led to this review at the Newgrass taproom, I tasted it again in a different place and with another beer geek to see his reaction.  His mirrored mine, but that first question is still an interesting one.  You state of mind does affect your perception of what you taste.  As reviewers and judges, we must always be vigilant to make sure those preconceptions don’t mess with our objective reviews.

Tasting Review: Boulevard Brewing Love Child No. 6

Germany and England provide the beer world with sturdy backbones.  Their traditions of lagers and ales are where the modern age of craft beer began.  Their beers make sense. Their beers have recipes and lineages drinkers and historians can follow. Then there is the third leg of beer tripod, Belgium.

Belgium has been described as the Disneyland of beer.  Belgian beer makers eschewed the simple water, malt, hops, and yeast recipes and started adding things like fruit, wild yeast, and aging beer in leaky wood barrels and foeders.  Without Belgium, we wouldn’t have a whole category of beer that has taken off in the last few years: sours. For all you gose and Berliner weisse fans, cool your jets.  I love those beer styles to, but the Germans have nothing on the Belgians when it comes to sours.

Boulevard Brewing’s Love Child sour series is one of my favorites every year.  Each year Love Child comes out and it is always slightly different.  This year’s release, Love Child No. 6 may be my favorite so far.

Love Child No. 620160208_135920 pours with a light haze with a medium amber color leaving a foamy off-white head.  The aroma lets you know it is a Belgian with the first sniff.  It has a welcoming funky barnyard and dark fruit aroma.

The funkiness continues with the taste.  There is more barnyard and pruny/plum taste.  The relative heaviness of the funky/pruny taste is offset by a dry and pretty carbonated finish that lingers on the tongue.

All in all, this year’s Love Child is a quality beer for lovers of sours and the curious who want to see what the sour world has to offer.

Taste Test: 2015 Up All Night and 2015 Up All Night Bourbon Barrel Aged

One of the trends that has taken hold in craft beer over the last few years is barrel ageing beers. They have become so ubiquitous that the Beer Judge Certification Program, the primary style definer of American craft beer, has two new categories for the 2015 edition of the style guide.

I find barrel aged beer interesting because they are usually a version of another beer the brewer already makes.  How the ageing changes the beer via the time spent in the barrels and the properties the barrels themselves provides the beer are both fascinating.  Depending on the type of barrel used, i.e. bourbon, gin, rum, scotch, tequila, or wine, what the barrels provide the beer is different each time. Bourbon barrels provides additional sweetness and caramel and wine barrels provide tart or buttery notes depending on the wine.

Despite the common misconception, the ageing does not provide more alcohol to the beer.  There are two reasons why this misconception persists.  The first, many times the beer aged in the barrels is a high ABV beer in order to stand up to the ageing.  The second is the beer usually takes on some of the taste characteristics of the liquid that was originally in the barrels.  The taste of bourbon often makes people think of alcohol.  I make a bourbon pound cake that people swear gets them a little drunk even though the alcohol cooks off as the cake bakes.

20160113_101339Weighing in at 10% the Triple C Up All Night and Up All Night Bourbon Barrel Aged start off big and flavorful.  Let’s begin with the Up All Night.

Up All Night is a breakfast porter, which means it is brewed with coffee.  Using a strong taste like that as your base for a bourbon barrel aged beer is important.  The bourbon tastes can overwhelm the beer taking away its unique qualities.  A

After pouring a nice dark brown with a good fluffy head, you get the clear aroma of coffee when you take a sniff.  There are also hints of vanilla and honey once it warms a bit.

When you taste it, its big coffee flavor matches the aroma with notes of honey on the back end.  As a fan of both coffee flavors and honey, I enjoy this beer immensely.  For a beer with as big an ABV and use of honey, it is still a porter which makes it comparatively light on the tongue and dangerously easy to drink.  High ABV beers often have what is termed a boozy taste, meaning the taste of the alcohol is present and honey often gives a beer a cloying heavy taste.  Neither is present in these beers.

The bourbon barrel aged version differs slightly.  As it should.  It is a little inkier and thicker in appearance.  That may be the psychological effect of knowing it is a bourbon barrel aged beer.  The aroma also changes in that the coffee is shunted to the background by bourbon and hints of caramel.  It isn’t as light on the tongue and has a more velvety feel on the tongue.  Interestingly, to my palate, the roasted nature of the coffee is more pronounced and give it a little more bite. Again, that is why coffee is a good match for barrel ageing, it is a strong flavor that stands up to the bourbon, in this case.

The bourbon barrel Up All Night does what a barrel aged beer should do:  It adds different flavors and highlights ones already present in the original version.  Both Up All Night and Up All Night Bourbon Barrel Aged are well worth your time if you can still find them.

Here is another cool thing, this time, next year, I will do a vertical tasting of 2015 and 2016 bourbon barrel aged versions.  I’m already looking forward to it.

Beer Review: Wicked Weed Tyranny with Wicked Weed Brett Tyranny

Endless possibilities.  That is why I love life and love beer.  Beer is basically just four ingredients and changing anyone of them can change the taste of the beer.

One of the things that have happened in the last 12 months or so in beer is making a second version of your beer using Brettanomyces and aging the beer to bring out different flavors and characteristics.  Although, it is popularly thought of as only being used in sour beers, brett does not provide sourness necessarily.  Brett does often produce a taste similar to that of balsamic vinegar.  However, as more brewers use it, they are learning to control it better and use all the flavor profiles that it can provide.

One of the breweries really using brett in all of its flavors and attributes is Wicked Weed in Asheville.  Wicked Weed while famous for its sours is a good brewery that makes many different types of beer.  One of which is a good red India pale ale called Tyranny.  It has a nice balanced taste.  Wicked Weed then put out a version with fermented with brett yeast.  First, I’ll look at Tyranny.

20151109_171241Tyranny is a red India pale ale.  It pours a nice light garnet/ruby color in the glass leaving a thin but persistent off-white head.  The first thing you nose catches is the dank, piney, resinous aroma of the hops.  Then you notice the caramel and bready aroma of the malt.  There is also a slight fruity aroma from the hops that works with the sweet caramel to make the aroma more appetizing.

The best way to describe the taste of Tyranny is the oft overused beer review word: balanced.  The piney, resinous hop taste doesn’t overwhelm and interacts really well with the nice caramel, bready taste from the malt.  Tyranny is a good clean tasting, easy drinking IPA.

Now, the Brett Tyranny is similar in many ways to the regular Tyranny.  It has a similar color but is slightly lighter because of the use of cherries during fermentation.  The medium mouthfeel is also very close to the regular Tyranny.

Where they differ is in the aroma and the taste.  The aroma has the horse blanket, barnyard smell that Brett has become famous for in its use in beer.  The Brett also changes the taste in an interesting way.  This combination of Brett with caramel malts and dank, piney hops creates a taste of earthiness. It almost comes out as an old-world noble hop taste.

I can’t say I prefer the Brett version of Tyranny over the regular Tyranny, but I can say that if I had tasted the Brett version first I would still list as a really good easy drinking IPA.

Taste Test, Double Barley Double Dubbel

One of the best ways to study is beer, is to go by country. Breaking up beer into categories to makes it easier to study. One of the ways I like to see beer broken up is by country. Studying one of the three traditional European brewing traditions, British, German, and Belgian breaks beer down to digestible bites.

I have rotated my explorations between these three traditions over the years.  Yet, the most interesting and most vexing is the Belgian style. The reason for that is the Belgian styles are usually not governed by guidelines.  They are general attributes of a beer family.  Then there is the Dubbel.

The Dubbel is one of the few beer styles that has a definitive origin story. It was created in the mid-19th century at the Trappist Westmalle Brewery as a brown ale. Then tweaked just after World War I to become the somewhat sweet, dark, high ABV beer we know today.

As I said, the Dubbel is one of the few Belgian styles that have an actual style definition.  Dubbels are dark copper with a malty sweet, slightly dry, strong beer with dark fruit esters. Most descriptions of Belgian styles are like this one for witbier in the 2015 BJCP guidelines: “Overall Impression: A refreshing, elegant, tasty, moderate strength wheat-based ale.”  That tells you nothing.

20150916_110940American brewers are famous for fluctuating between devotion to the traditional style and pushing the edges to find something new.  The Double Barley Double Dubbel is a beer that seeks to celebrate the original Belgian Dubbel.

The Double pours a dark coppery color with a thin quickly dissipating head.  It has the aroma of sweet white bread with little hop presence.  You get a lot of dark cherry and dark fruit esters that kind dominate the malt aroma.

For a beer that checks in at 8.8% ABV, the alcohol taste is rather mild.  There is a slight herbal, earthy hop taste.  There is a nice sweetness from the malty white bread sweetness.  It also gets the sweetness from the candi sugar providing a dark cherry, pruny taste.  It has a slight carbonation and has a dry medium length finish.

This is a well-made representation of the Belgian Dubbel style. I prefer my Dubbels to have a little more sweetness at the front to balance out the dry finish. If you’ve never had a Dubbel before this is a good beer to make your first because it is such a good version of the style.