Tag Archives: craft beer

Tasting Notes: Bourbon County Barleywine 2017

Barleywines are interesting beer styles. They are high in alcohol and thick and mouth-coating. Yet, they are not dark (at least too dark). Those new to craft beer often suffer the misconception that all dark beers are heavy and full of alcohol. Conversely, they think all lighter color beers are hoppy. Those things are often true, but not enough to be anything resembling a rule. Barleywines are one of the beers that confound that thought process. These beers are sometimes difficult to make well.

Goose Island has had an interesting time since its purchase by Anheuser-Busch InBev. First, the brewery took the brunt of craft beer enthusiasts fury who labeled them as sell-outs since they were the first ABI purchase. Then their flagship beer line, Bourbon County Stout, shipped with bottles infected by bacteria. This is a brewery that has forced into a lot of damage control.

Bourbon County Barleywine 2017
Photo by Ryan Moses

Since its introduction, Bourbon County Barleywine has often been seen as the ugly stepchild of the Bourbon County lineup. Barleywines have often been underappreciated by many in craft beer and all the sturm and drang surrounding Goose Island and their corporate ownership has not helped.

This is a good version of an English barleywine. It hits all the notes of being a barleywine. The color is a dark amber/copper color almost brown. Then the aroma is a dominated by dark fruit and a combination of sherry and leather. There is also a good amount of caramel and a floral hop presence lurks underneath.

When you taste it, the alcohol is noticeable. This is helped along by the aging in bourbon barrels. Additionally, the barrels lend the bourbon qualities of caramel and touch of vanilla. That is where many people turn on this beer. Barleywines and old ales, when done right, have a lot of character on their own and to add bourbon barrel aging to them can push some drinkers past their comfort level. Besides the bourbon notes, you get all the rest of what a good barleywine provides: molasses, sherry, and a hint of leather. That can be a lot going on in any beer.

This is a sipper. It hides its 14.4% ABV well, but it is also a luscious mouth-coating, warming beer. It should be shared with friends and paired with food. Some food pairing suggestions are a traditional pot roast, a hefty pasta with a vodka sauce, or a date and ginger scone with a marmalade drizzle.

Tasting Notes: Stone W00T Stout 2017

2017 W00T Stout from Stone has many things going on from the aroma to the finish. A lot of

Stone W00T Stout 2017
Photo by Ryan Moses

thought and planning went into creating this beer. That is apparent from the first whiff as you pour it into the glass.

It is a dark, dark, dark, dark brown bordering on black, like the oil from your car if you don’t change it regularly. There is no haze and it has a thin brown head and good visible carbonation.

There is a lot to the aroma. You first experience a strong whiff of alcohol. Then all the different malt aromas envelop you: chocolate, coffee, and smoke. Next is all the nuttiness from the pecans and spiciness from the rye. The beer closes with aromas of plum and raisin with the vanilla from the barrel aging.

As with the aroma, there is a lot happening with the taste. You would imagine the taste would knock you out with alcohol based on the aroma. The alcohol is definitely present, but not overpowering. Then you move into the chocolate, caramel, and smoke from the malt. Next, the combination of the rye and alcohol mimics the taste of cinnamon on the back of your palate. The pecan nuttiness and vanilla from the barrel aging close out the beer.

The wonderful thing about W00T Stout is that it does not overwhelm. With all these things occurring, it still drinks with a comfortable easiness. This beer that is crafted to be enjoyed. Not as an experiment to break ABV records or see how many weird ingredients can be included and still be palatable.

Food recommendations start with late night pancakes served with real maple syrup. If you want a more traditional meal, go with a pot roast with roasted parsnips and carrots as the root vegetables.

Tasting Notes: Founders Backwoods Bastard 2017

The Founders Backwoods Bastard will become a year-round offering in April.

Founders Backwoods Bastard
Photo by Ryan Moses

This makes me happy. This means more opportunities to enjoy this beer without buying as much as I can when it arrives in November.

My question becomes, how will this change affect both its actual taste and its perceived taste among the craft beer blogosphere.

I trust Founders to make a move like this. Their beer’s high quality remains consistent with every bottle and keg. I expect that this decision is carefully planned and will occur with minimal disruption to the beer. The question begs, will the response to Backwoods Bastard in April, hold the same intensity as a core item as it did in November when it was special. The stories we tell ourselves about a beer carry more weight than the actual facts of the beer.

Yet, I digress. We are here to praise Backwoods Bastard not bury it.

Backwoods pours with a reddish brown/chestnut color and a thin off-white foamy head. It has a slight haze and nice carbonation.

Alcohol and a plum/pruny sweetness are upfront on the aroma. For an aged beer, it carries less leathery/oxidized hints then I expected.

The alcohol, while present and noticeable, does not overwhelm and is not as intense as the aroma indicates. There are two “woody” tastes. The first is a restrained old-world hop woodiness and the second is on the backend and comes from the barrel aging. The rest of the taste is a classic scotch ale with a malt-focused sweetness with enough hop bitterness to balance out the sweetness of the malt and barrel aging.

This is a great beer whose year-round presence I welcome. I hope the general beer drinking population joins me in that sentiment.

Food pairing recommendations: Rotini pasta with a vodka marinara sauce or a nice slice of apple pie topped with cheddar cheese.

Tasting Notes: Fortnight Vintage Ale 2016

In the modern craft beer, when you think of a winter beer you think of something like the St. Bernardus Christmas Ale or the Thirsty Dog 12 Dogs of Christmas.  It is a beer that is a lot.  A lot of alcohol, a lot of “winter” spices, a lot of sugar.  However, one of the original winter beer is the simple Old Ale.

The Old Ale is an aged, referred to as “stale” back in the day, beer with a higher ABV.  It is a beer that should warm you as you drink it on a long winter night either by a fire or cuddled next to the one you love.

Fortnight Vintage Ale 2016
Photo by Ryan Moses

The Fortnight Vintage Ale 2016 is a great example of an old ale.  Clocking in at a nice 9.2% ABV, this amber beer provides a good warming feeling as you enjoy it.

It pours a nice hazy dark amber color and shows a good amount of carbonation.  The head is off-white and holds itself well.

The Vintage has a nice aroma.  It is all dark fruit, molasses, and caramel.  There isn’t much hop presence on the aroma however, there is a little leather and oxidation, which is to be expected from an intentionally aged beer.

Once you taste it, you notice the alcohol.  It isn’t overwhelming, but it is present and noticeable.  There is a little bitterness coming from the hops.  Not a real hop flavor, but just the bitterness to add a little balance to the sweetness.  That sweetness is dark fruit, molasses, and caramel.  It isn’t cloying sweetness, but a well-balanced sweetness that makes you think of cookies. You also get a little leather and oxidation, but again in just the right amount to be expected.

There is still a good amount of carbonation in the beer.  It also nicely attenuated staying relatively light on the palate as well as a nice dry finish.  This is a big beer that is easy drinking and smooth.

For food pairings, you should go with something big like roasted beef or lamb.  If you wanted to go with a dessert, I would try something creamy, but sweet like cheesecake with a cherry glaze.

Tasting Notes: Rodenbach Alexander 2017

Flanders reds are considered sours.  When you look them up in the BJCP style book there they set under the European Sour category.  Tasting the Rodenbach Alexander 2017 makes me question the nomenclature used to describe these beers. This was beer tasted off draft and not from a bottle.

When well made, Flanders reds aren’t sour.  They are tart and maybe slightly puckering like a wine, but they aren’t sour.  At least not sour in the way people expect sours to be after the introduction of kettle sours to the American craft beer landscape.

The Alexander pours a nice reddish-brown color.  It has a little haziness to it and a thin off-white head.  The carbonation is not obvious on the pour.

The aroma wraps around you.  I get cherry, oak, and hints of vanilla, apricot, and apple.  There is enough vinegar in the aroma to remind you it is supposed to be a sour, but it doesn’t overwhelm the nose.

This isn’t a beer trying to hide anything, so the taste runs right along with the aroma.  There is the cherry, oak, vanilla, plum, and hints of apricot and apple.  The acid gives it a tartness, not a puckering sour taste along with a welcome dryness that works with the carbonation to make you want to explore the complexity in the next sip.  That is the beauty of a complex beer like this, each taste provides you something different.  This is a beer that benefits from “breathing” outside of the bottle.  It changes ever so slightly as it warms in the glass and in your mouth.

This is one of the beers you drink to remember how wonderful and interesting this thing we call craft beer is.

Suggested food pairings from my trusted tasting partner:  anchovies, spicy ramen, dashi broth, or Korean barbecue.

Craft Apprenticeships Are Awesome

From GL Stock Images

There is a push/pull between art and commerce every creative must navigate.  Craft brewing is no different.

Real example: You the brewer want to make an old ale and a rauchbier.  Your investors want you to make 3 new IPAs because they are getting ready to go into distribution and need stuff they know will sell regardless of quality.  How does the business navigate that?

You have to have a well thought out vision.  Not a business plan which you also desperately need, but the vision on which the whole enterprise is based.

Artists often spend years of trial and error and public failings to figure out the vision behind their art.  Brewers may not get that opportunity.  They probably homebrew and have friends and acquaintances tell them how great their beer is.  Then they decide to start a brewery with a vague notion of making Belgian style, German style, English style, or IPA heavy American style beer.

What they need is a clear idea of what they like, what they are good at, and how they want to express that to consumers.  These can’t be vague platitudes about “returning to the roots of beer” or “putting an American take on Belgian style beers.” It has a to be concrete ideas of what you are accomplishing and how you want to do it.  It isn’t your business plan, but it is the place from where your business plan flows.

Most craft brewers get into brewing the same reason that most professional artists get into art.  This thing that they do is what they love, and it is an expression of a part of who they are.  The difference is, as I see it, that artists spend their whole learning curve honing the core ideas of what they want to do.  From their medium to their subject matter, artists spend much of their early career finding their path.

One difference in how and why artists have such clear ideas about who they are and what their art says is the art world has always had apprenticeships both formal and informal.  In this country with Prohibition almost killing the brewing industry, brewing lost its infrastructure and informal craftsman apprenticeships.

Until the last handful of years, the path to becoming a brewer has been much less organized and centered on homebrewing. While homebrewing has fueled the passion of and set the template for craft beer love, it is not necessarily the best training as a professional brewer.  With the rise of craft brewers, that idea of apprenticeship is slowly coming back to the fore, but slowly.  These apprenticeships allow brewers to go through the crucible of rejection and self-examination to come out on the other side not only with a clear vision of who and what they are as brewers but a clear vision of the value of themselves and their craft in a monetary sense and in a creative sense.

As craft beer matures and the idea of being a craft brewer matures, I hope and expect this idea of apprenticeship to take hold to give potential brewers the time and space not only to learn their craft but learn their own way to operate within that craft.  I don’t just want there to be formal schools of brewing, which is awesome and necessary.  I want brewers to come from within. Apprenticeships and more learning may not solve the problem of whether to brew that rauchbier, but it will help the brewers understand the scope of the consequences of that decision.  It is through the combination of book learning and practical application can any craft grow and continue to innovate.

Searching for Better Beer or How To Define Craft Beer

This is a bunch of craft beer

How do I define craft beer?

This question vexes me. I continually try to move past the, “I know it when I see it,” definition most of us use. (ABInbev High End is not craft beer but Oskar Blues CANarchy is).  I create a definition in my mind and then I correct it with 10 different exceptions.

Let’s begin at the beginning and start with, “What do I think of when I think of craft beer?”

The first thing I think, when I think of craft beer, is the mindset.  The very simple yet important thing that separates craft brewing companies from big beer companies is the idea that beer is more than just a commodity to be sold.

During the period in the American beer industry between 1933 (the end of Prohibition) and 1979 (when homebrewing became legal), brewing beer was treated the same as manufacturing tires.  Beer was simply a product to made as cheaply as possible and sold with as big a margin as possible.  Quality, taste, and creativity were barely tertiary thoughts.

Craft beer begins with the idea that the beer is the important thing.  This whole enterprise started because a bunch of guys who spent time abroad for school and in military service came back to the US and wanted to drink better beer.  English pubs and cask ales and German bier halls and fresh lagers created a thirst in these people.  Charlie Papazian’s seminal, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, coined the phrase, “better beer” and the resulting mindset of making beer for beer’s sake instead of treating it as a simple commodity is the is the cornerstone of what craft beer is.  At least it should be.

The second thing I think craft beer has to have is creativity.  Alongside that should be a sense of fun and adventure sparked by the creativity of its brewers.  Sometimes that creativity can vex me when I’m just looking for a nice pale ale and I have options that range from hibiscus goses to BBA chocolate stouts.  However, it is that creativity and need to push boundaries to come up with something new and awesome that makes craft breweries different from big beer companies.

The Brewers Association has a definition of what a craft brewery is as part of its membership requirements.  I don’t necessarily follow that definition because it is a definition that fluctuates as needed.  That isn’t a shot at the BA, but it is a simple acknowledgment of how running an organization like the Brewers Association can be a fluid adventure.  The BAs charge is to speak for the small independent brewers in this country.  Sometimes that means you make exceptions to keep some brewers (Boston Beer and Yuengling) and sometimes that means you create rules that exclude others (ABInbev High End brands).

My definition doesn’t rely on numbers or ownership.  The first two parts of my definition focus on the liquid in the glass and how that is the focus and how I get a sense of creativity and adventure with every sip.  The final part of my definition touches on the business side.  A craft brewery is a brewery whose business practices are not malicious and predatory.  Craft breweries do not see the beer business as a zero-sum game.  For a craft brewery, this isn’t a simple dialectic of win or death as it is for big beer companies.

While all breweries, at least the ones with an actual business plan, want to be successful and want to make money, they also have a sense of collaboration with other craft brewers where they try to promote not only their beer but all beer.  They try to work together and promote craft beer and make sure consumers get better beer.

We know the big beer companies don’t look at it the same way.  We have the Department of Justice and various state attorneys general investigations and fines to prove it.

In sum, my definition of craft beer is, a beer crafted with the idea that the beer, the liquid in the glass, is the most important thing.  It is a beer that embodies a sense of creativity and adventure.  Finally, it is a beer from a brewery that cares more about the beer community as a whole and making sure drinkers get better beer then they do about crushing the competition and making a quick dollar.

Tasting Notes: Maine Beer MO Pale Ale

I love the creativity and risk-taking of craft beer brewers.  Without it, this thing we call craft beer would not be as important or as vital.  However, I think sometimes brewers (as with all creative types) get too caught up in recreating the wheel and pushing the creative envelope and they forget to just make a quality product. No bells and whistles, just something good, consistent and tasty.

I like NE-style IPAs and big sugary stouts and hibiscus, rosehip, honey goses.  I love to taste the crazy things brewers try to come up with to set themselves apart.  Yet, there are times when all I want is a good well-balanced beer.  A well made Irish Stout has become my go-to beer.  Something dry and easy drinking.  One of the original session beers.

Another well-balanced sometimes forgotten style that I’ve found myself coming back to again is the pale ale.  One of the best made today is the Maine Beer MO.

This is a beer that immediately looks beautiful in the glass.  It has a nice light golden color and a thin white head.  The head doesn’t last long but it does leave a good lacing on the side of the glass as you drink.

The aroma is equally as beguiling with citrusy hop aroma and a bready malt backbone.

It is the taste, however, that really highlights MO’s balance.  As it should.  You get the characteristic American Pale Ale hop flavor: bright and citrusy.  However, there is little to no hop bitterness.  Just enough to give it a nice dry finish that begs you to take another sip, but not something overwhelming.  You also get a bready malt sweetness with, to my palate, a hint of apple/apricot.  MO is soft and medium on the palate with good carbonation and finishes dry and clean.

A good pairing for this beer would be an “adult” grilled cheese sandwich with a nice sharp cheddar on sourdough or rye bread.  If you are looking for a more meat-focused pairing you could also go with a lean pork dish.  (Don’t worry the meat recommendation comes from a very close friend who eats meat.  Not me.) You can also drink it with a fig based dessert where the crisp hoppiness cuts through the natural sweetness of the fruit.

I am recommending Maine Brewery’s MO even though I know a lot of beer geeks who may read this, already love it.

Beer and Food Pairing Quick Shot: Rev. Nat’s Sacrilege Sour Cherry Cider and Chocolate Cake

Rev. Nat’s is a new cider to North Carolina coming all the way from Oregon.  One thing that makes it different from most other ciders is that Nat uses beer yeast instead of champagne yeast.  That lends a heftier mouthfeel and different esters and taste profile.  For the Sacrilege, Nat chose English ale yeast.  It is a specific one from a specific brewery, but I don’t think he is allowed to publicly say which, but he told me and a few other beer/cider people here in Charlotte when he came in for the product launch.  If you are beer geek at some point you’ve drunk this beer from Cheswick, England.

Anyway, Sacrilege is a cider using 100% Granny Smith apples and Montmorency and Morello sour cherries with a hint of red pepper to add a spicy dryness.

The cherry flavor, the sourness, and the touch of dry spiciness makes this a great drink to pair with a nice decadent chocolate cake.  I highly recommend it.

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.