Tag Archives: beer review

Tasting Notes: Baltika Russian Imperial Stout

What makes a good beer? Is it one that follows the style guidelines to the letter?  Can a beer be bad if it hits every checkmark in the BJCP or Brewers Association style books?  Is being a good beer something more?  Something ineffable?  Can a slavish devotion to style a detriment?

The Baltika Russian Imperial Stout hits all the markers of what a Russian Imperial Stout should be.

Color:  Dark brown with a slight opacity/chill haze.  Check

Aroma:  Roasted with slight dark fruit and low floral hops. Check

Taste:  Malt bitterness, a taste of alcohol, and dark fruit. Check

Mouthfeel:  Chewy and medium to heavy mouthfeel. Check

Here is the problem.  While it hits all the check marks it is still not a good beer.  There is no subtlety or art to the beer. This is a brusk, harsh beer.  Russian Imperial Stouts should be roasty and forceful, but here it blows past roasty into charred.  Combined with the very noticeable alcohol flavor and warmth, it makes this beer borderline undrinkable.  I know a baker who loves using this beer in her cakes and cookies.  The over the top nature of the malt flavor combined with the distinct alcohol presence makes this a good beer for using in cooking and a bad beer for everyday drinking.

For the ABV, this beer is a ridiculous value.  You will find it for less than $4 almost everywhere and it clocks in at 10% ABV.  This may be the sole reason for its existence.

Tasting Notes: Oskar Blues Ten Fidy Imperial Stout

What is a classic?  Pyscho is a classic.  The Old Man and The Sea is a classic.  However, they are static.  They are forever unchanging.  Our interpretations of them may shift as our cultural and social lenses shift, but they are essentially what they are.

Hamlet is also a classic, but it is different.  Hamlet as it is performed on stage changes from night to night. It is also different when it is interpreted by different directors and actors.  That is more what classic beers are like.  They morph and shift from year to year and from brewer to brewer. That is what makes yearly seasonal offerings so interesting.  They are the same, yet they are always different.

Oskar Blues Ten Fidy Imperial Stout is one of those classic winter seasonals.  It pours dark brown almost black forming a nice light brown head. It has a nice clarity and carbonation, but it is opaque with the occasional ruby highlights.

On the initial nose, you get a lot of coffee and bitter chocolate.  As it warms you also get plums and other dark fruit.  There isn’t much if any hop aroma. You also get an alcohol aroma, if you can call it that.

The flavor is a good reflection of the aroma.  This isn’t a beer trying to trick you or play games with your expectations.  You get the dark chocolate and coffee flavors. The plums and other dark fruit come through on the back end as well as a nice flavor of alcohol.  It isn’t overwhelming but it is there to remind you this is a 10.5% beer. The bitterness you taste is a combination of the hops and bitterness from the dark malts that contribute the coffee flavors.

The mouthfeel is the one place this beer surprises. The smoothness provided by the oatmeal included in the malt bill makes it easy to drink and gives It an almost medium mouth weight.  The alcohol warms you as it goes down making this a great cold weather beer.  It finishes with that warmth and the dark chocolate/coffee taste lingering long enough to make you feel good and want another sip.

This is one of those dangerous dark winter beers. The high ABV is hidden by the expert deployment of dark malts and brewing skill.

Grimm Artisnal Ales Double Negative Imperial Stout

It could be easy to make fun of Grimm as the epitome of hipsterism.  It is a brewery headquartered in Brooklyn started by artists and musicians who strive to use locally sourced ingredients and the official name of the brewery is Grimm Artisan Ales (italics mine).

However, then you taste the beer and you understand they are serious beer makers.  While the brewery is best known for its double IPAs and sours, the Double Negative Imperial Stout is my favorite of their beers and highlights how serious Grimm is about making good beer.

Weighing in at 10 percent, Double Negative isn’t as inky black as you would expect.  It is a deep brown almost black color like that of a good French roast coffee with no cream.  I had a slight haze and good carbonation.  You get a nice tan almost light brown head on the pour that dissipated quickly in my glass (I’m assuming it was beer clean since I cleaned it.)

On the nose, my bottle had a slightly leathery aroma up front that turned into dark fruit and bitter chocolate as it warmed in the glass with little hop aroma.

I immediately got the taste of coffee up front followed by bitter chocolate as the beer worked through my palate.  I got very little hop bitterness.  All the bitterness comes from the dark malt giving the coffee taste but there is just enough dark chocolate sweetness to offset it.

My bottle had a surprisingly medium mouthfeel.  It didn’t cling to my tongue and palate and finished nice and clean.  The chocolate and alcohol linger a bit and there is a nice alcohol warmth in the beer.  The carbonation helps keep it crisp and provides for that clean finish.

This is an overall excellent beer and serves as a good base for its barrel-aged variants.

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.