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Firestone XX

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Alright folks, you know the drill: Blah blah blah, blended, barrel-aged, Voltron-esque super beer. Blah blah blah, collaboration with local wineries. Blah blah blah, delicious. We've covered each edition of this beer since XV, so while there's lots to be said about the process here, I've pretty much already wonked out on everything worth wonking out over.

Each installment in this series of Anniversary blends varies considerably. Some veer towards the Barleywine components, like XV and XVII, others hew closer to the dark side, like XVIII and XIX. XVI went for more balance between those two poles (as a result, it might be my least favorite, actually). So what does the XX blend look like?

  • 40% Parabola (13% ABV) Russian Imperial Oatmeal Stout. Aged in New Oak and Bourbon Barrels.
  • 20% Stickee Monkee (12.3% ABV) English Barley Wine. Aged in Bourbon and Brandy barrels.
  • 17.5% Velvet Merkin (8.5% ABV) Traditional Oatmeal Stout. Aged in Bourbon barrels.
  • 12.5% Bravo (12.9% ABV) Imperial Brown Ale. Aged in Bourbon Barrels.
  • 10% Helldorado (13.5% ABV) Blonde Barley Wine. Aged in Bourbon Barrels.

So this is one of the more stout-like blends out there, with 70% hitting the dark side of the force. In any case, any blend consisting of 40% Parabola has to be pretty good, right? Let's take a closer look:

Firestone Walker XX Anniversary Ale

Firestone Walker XX Anniversary Ale - Pours a very dark brown color with half a finger of light tan head. Smells beautiful, rich caramel, vanilla, oak, boozy bourbon, hints of roast and chocolate. Taste hits those rich caramelized malt notes hard, hints of roast, plenty of bourbon, oak, and vanilla. Mouthfeel is full bodied but nimble, not a beast like most imperial stouts of this ABV, well carbonated, a little pleasant booze in the finish. It feels like the barleywineish components of this blend have lightened the body and hidden the booze a little more than normal for a beer this big, a neat little trick. Overall, yes, it's another winner for the Anniversary blends! A

Beer Nerd Details: 13% ABV bottled (22 ounce bomber). Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/20/16.

There's just no stopping Firestone Walker's barrel program. I look forward to this release every year, and it has never disappointed. Indeed, pretty much any of their barrel-aged, boxed beers are fabulous and I'm always on the lookout. Lately, more of their wild ales have been showing up in the Philly area, like Agrestic and Lil Opal, so here's to hoping for more of that in the future too.

Oskar Blues Barrel-Aged Ten Fidy

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One of Oskar Blues' claims to fame is their popularization of using cans to package their beer. So I guess their pioneering status makes it ok that they started packaging beer in bizarrely proportioned "Stovepipe" (aka "Royal Pint", 19.2 ounces) cans. Not quite the innovation that I've speculated about in the past, but I'll take it. Especially when the can contains a bourbon barrel-aged version of their 10.5% ABV imperial stout, Ten-Fidy. Even if the beer's name now makes no sense - maybe this should be called "Twelve-Niner" or something (get it? It's 12.9% ABV people, keep up). Aged "through four seasons", it only survived about a week in my fridge:

Oskar Blues Barrel-Aged Ten Fidy

Blues Barrel-Aged Ten Fidy - Pours dark as night with a pretty finger of brown head. Smells fabulous, rich caramel, oak, and vanilla, boozy bourbon, a little roast and dark chocolate. Taste follows the nose, sweet caramel, oak and vanilla up front, some roast kicking in towards the middle, maybe some chocolate, finishing with a balancing bitter hop bite and some boozy bourbon. Mouthfeel is rich and full bodied, tightly carbonated, just a little boozy heat. Overall, yes, this is really great. A high A-

Beer Nerd Details: 12.9% ABV canned (19.2 ounce stovepipe can). Drank out of a snifter on 12/9/16.

It's been a while since I got to try a new Oskar Blues beer, so it's nice to see they've still got the touch. There are some other variants of Ten-Fidy, but they seem to be brewery-only releases, so I'm not holding my breath. Then again, I'm pretty sure BBA Ten-Fidy wasn't distributed far and wide until this year, so maybe I should. I can hold my breath for a year or so, right?

The A+ Class of 2016

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I have this thing where I rarely rate something the highest (or lowest) rating. For once, I am not the worst. I simply have standards, people. Way back when, I wrote about Kaedrin's Grading System, I felt that reaching the highest grade would require a few things. Obviously, it has to be a great beer (that goes without saying even though I'm saying it). Next, it has to be something I have had more than once (a non-trivial challenge, as many top tier beers are one offs or exceedingly rare). Finally, there's that X-factor. Perhaps something personal or a particular experience that simply elevates this beer above its peers. There's a push and pull in the criteria, hopefully leading to some idiosyncratic choices. Maybe you think these are too pedestrian, or maybe you think they're unobtainable, but that's the fun part. Life would be boring if we all loved the exact same things.

Thus far, only 4 beers have earned the coveted A+. Only one doesn't quite meet the conditions (because it was reviewed before the criteria were established). Two are straight up Belgian styles that are both exceptional, but my tastes have evolved a bit since then. The most recent would almost certainly retain its A+ status, but it only kinda sorta lives on (it's part of a solera series, so current bottlings technically have some of that one left in it). Basically, I'm long overdue for some A+ picks. These are three of my favorite beers, which I've sought out and drank (a few times, even) over the last year.

I've reviewed all of these before so I won't bore you with tasting notes, but I will give some quick thoughts on each and why I think they deserve to be elevated to A+ status.

Russian River Supplication

Russian River Supplication - The prototypical dark American Wild Ale, all oak and cherries, sour fruit and vinegar, it's a beautiful beer that's surprisingly versatile. Works in any weather. Pairs amazingly well with BBQ and dark chocolate, and it's obviously delicious on its own too. There are more complex or intense beers out there, but few reach this level of balance and just as importantly, this is something that is regularly available. Original rating was only an A-. It graduated to an A one time at a share where we were eating BBQ (and it paired exceptionally well), and that's when I first realized this was an A+ candidate. Of course, that was 4 years ago. Maybe I am the worst? No, I'm just thorough. I've had this many times since my original ratings, and it's definitely graduated to the coveted A+

Firestone Walker Parabola

Firestone Walker Parabola - Platonic ideal of bourbon barrel stouts, tons of boozy bourbon, oak, rich caramel, and vanilla. It's a big, intense, complex beer, a bruiser, a character that initially held me back a bit when I first tried this. Funnily enough, Parabola was my backup order at a Philly Beer Week event where I got shut out of Velvet Merkin, which at the time was not being bottled and was exceedingly rare (and which, once I happened upon it, turned out to be mildly disappointing). Upon subsequent tastings, I realized my horrible mistake. Again, part of the appeal is that this is something that is regularly available. I would gladly also induct Pappy Black Magick into the A+ realm, but I'm not even sure if it'll ever be made again, let alone acquired and tasted again. I've built a history with Parabola, a great beer that has only gotten better with each additional tasting. This is not a common trajectory and truly a thing of beauty. A+

The Alchemist Heady Topper

The Alchemist Heady Topper - These beers are all relatively well known, but this may be the most hyped beer I've ever rated. Under such circumstances, it's tempting to play the contrarian, and yet, it lives up to the hype and remains the standard against which all Northeast IPAs are compared. Have I had better NEIPAs? Maybe! I can think of one or two Tired Hands beers I'd put up against Heady... but as with most TH beers, they were one offs. Even for repeated TH beers, it's worth noting their lack of consistency. Not so with The Alchemist. I manage to snag cans of this every year, sometimes multiple times, and yet they're always consistently great. This might be the first beer I truly traveled a great distance to obtain (along with other VT goodies), and I'm so glad that I did. Juicy, balanced, delicious. I think I'll drink one tomorrow. A+

So there, I've nearly doubled the number of A+ ratings on the site. I hope you're happy now. Hopefully I'll be able to do this a little more often than once every three years. In fact, I'd like to find a way to put a saison in here someday. Until then...

Tröegs has a series of experimental Scratch beers that are always interesting, sometimes confounding, and occasionally fantastic. Rare offerings have graduated into the standard lineup, like Flying Mouflan. Some have come and gone, and still others have made repeat appearances, but only in the limited Scratch series batches.

¿Impending Descent? was first made back in 2012 in honor of (or perhaps to spite) the (long since lapsed) Mayan apocalypse, and I absolutely loved that initial offering. Each subsequent year (on Black Friday), they've released another Scratch beer called Impending Descent, though each appears to have been a tweaked recipe. Last year's version, for instance, only clocked in at 9.3% ABV (while the original was 11.9%). Regardless, in accordance with my insatiable desire for local Bourbon Barrel Aged stouts, I've been pining after a BA version of this beer ever since that first taste. With the expansion of Tröegs' Splinter program, I've finally gotten my wish.

So we've got the standard Impending Descent base (which I'm assuming was the same batch as the 2015 Scratch release) with vanilla bean and cocoa added and then aged in Bourbon Barrels for a year. I didn't take notes, but I happened to have one of the regular 2015 Scratch beers on hand, so I tried that earlier in the week. It's held up well, with the major change being that the hops have gone piney and resinous, as they tend to do with age. This follows through on the barrel aged version, which is quite nice, but let's take a closer look, as this descent has been impending for quite some time:

Tröegs Bourbon Barrel Aged Impending Descent

Tröegs Bourbon Barrel Aged Impending Descent - Pours a very dark brown color, almost black, with a finger of light brown head. Smells quite nice, barrel aging apparent, plenty of bourbon, oak, and vanilla, some caramel, some roast, and some piney, resinous hops (which is definitely a result of aging - Impending Descent doesn't have that note when fresh). Taste hits some rich caramel notes, lots of roast and chocolate, with the barrel lending the typical boozy bourbon, oak, and vanilla character, and again you get those aged, piney, resinous bittering hops. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, well but appropriately carbonated, a good amount of booze. Overall yep, it's really good! Maybe tone down the hops a bit, but I like it a lot as is... Not going to be a BCBS killer, but would be curious to see how it develops. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 12% ABV bottled (375 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a snifter on 11/25/16.

Glad I made the trip out to Hershey to grab this stuff, though I'm pretty sure it will hit distribution. Worth seeking out, and the price is certainly right (especially compared to that other Black Friday release everyone goes bonkers over, even if I don't think this one quite defeats BCBS). Certainly looking forward to future iterations on this, and the continuing expansion of the Splinter series. Nothing on the immediate horizon, but I'm sure it won't be long before we're reviewing more Tröegs...

Victory Java Cask Rye

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After last year's Dark Wednesday introduction of Java Cask (a top tier bourbon barrel aged imperial coffee stout, at least when it's fresh - the coffee drops off a cliff after a few months or so, which is actually a welcome development for coffee ambivalents like myself, but I digress), they decided to let it ride with another batch this year... plus a variant! Alas, not the "non-coffee" variant I dream about, but rather a Rye barrel aged version.

At first glance, this seems like a pretty minor tweak. Rye whiskey can be very different than bourbon, but it's not that much of a leap, especially considering that it will have to stand up against strong adjuncts like coffee. It turns out that Victory used a different strand of One Village coffee for this one, and the use of Bulleit Rye casks does genuinely impart a distinct character. The resulting beer is almost 2% lower in ABV, but still fabulous. Just to signal my neckbeardedness, it's a brewpub exclusive, and limit of 4 bottles per person. Bill Covaleski was even signing bottles! Let's do this thing:

Victory Java Cask Rye

Victory Java Cask Rye - Pours a dense, very dark brown color, almost black, with almost no head. Smells of, yes, roasted coffee, but also chocolate, oak, and vanilla. Taste starts off sweet, caramel and dark malt, coffee comes out in the middle followed by a nice, spicy rye character that is actually distinct from regular Java Cask. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy (if perhaps a little less so than regular Java Cask), moderate carbonation, plenty of warming booze too. Overall, it's another winner... perhaps not quite at original Java Cask level, but close enough and a worthy variant. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 12.5% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a snifter on 11/23/16. Enjoy By: 17 Nov 2017.

Supposedly, Java Cask original recipe is making the distribution rounds, so if coffee stouts are your thing, make the effort. I hold out hope that Victory will do a non-coffified version someday. As it was, they had a fabulous firkin of Java Cask with vanilla and cacao that was, well, fabulous. I believe I said that already. Jeeze guys. Anywho, Victory has also been teasing something called Victory Red, a Flanders Red style beer that's been in the works for three years. Color me interested. Stay tuned.

A Trip to Hidden River Brewing Company

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Hidden River brewing opened its doors a little over a year ago. So many local breweries have opened recently that I'm having a hard time keeping up, but I'd been hearing some buzz about these beers of late. These guys aren't in the most convenient location (Douglassville, PA, not quite the middle of nowhere, but far enough from me), and I'm the worst so it took me a while to get in gear, but now that I've been there, I will most definitely be making return trips.

Hidden River Sign

It's still a tiny operation, located in the beautiful Historic Brinton Lodge. It's a deceptively large facility though, broken up into a small bar area, several dining rooms, and a pretty great outdoor bar. The lodge is supposedly haunted and the owners apparently run various events along those paranormal lines, which I'll most certainly have to take advantage of next Halloween. So it's a great space, and the decor works too.

Charcuterie Plate

The food menu is somewhat limited, but everything I had was great (charcuterie plate and a panini, great bread too). A solid and ever-rotating taplist helps things along (more on that below). All in all, it reminds me a lot of the original Tired Hands location, before the hype and expansions.

I've now been there twice, and while I didn't take formal tasting notes, I'll give you a broad overview of what I got:

Hidden River Green Mass

Green Mass - A 5.9% pale ale made in the Northeast IPA mold, super cloudy, juicy hops, and so on. Would love to try a higher ABV version of this, but this was quite a nice first impression.

Hidden River Fresh Press

Fresh Press - A 6% dry-hopped saison, very nice. Again with the super-cloudy beer (does look like orange juice) and juicy hop character, along with some nice saison yeast character. Definitely a highlight.

Hidden River Kings Watch

King's Watch - An 8% Baltic Porter that really impressed me. I've often noted that many local breweries aren't great at dark beer, but this is a really impressive take. Not quite HF Everett or Maine King Titus, but along those lines. Fantastic.

Hummingbird High - A 9.5% DIPA, this one doesn't quite live up to the expectation built up by my first three tries. It's certainly a fine beer, but not a top tier DIPA (and, perhaps tellingly, seemed like less of a Northeast IPA style).

Golden Oak Magic - I suppose if they were really aping Tired Hands, they would have named this "Golden Oak Magick", heh. A 4.8% saison brewed with Shiitake and Black Poplar mushrooms, cilantro, and a bunch of lime zest, this one appears extremely clear, and has a more traditional saison yeast character too it, with some savory earthiness (but not really funky and you can't exactly pick out the mushrooms...)

Melt Banana Face - A 7.6% IPA made with, you guessed it, bananas. And they do come through strong, though that means they sorta overwhelm the Northeast IPA base. All in all, a very interesting beer, would drink again, but sorta one-dimensional...

Hidden River Rum Barrel Aged Mapping the Past

Rum Barrel Aged Mapping the Past - An 11% English Barleywine aged on coconuts in Rum Barrels. My initial reaction was of sugary, rum soaked raisins, but once I figured out the coconut component (didn't see that in the description before ordering), I really started to get that too. Not sooper boozy or anything, and could probably use a little more malt backbone, but it's still a pretty fantastic offering that I enjoyed immensely...

So there you have it, everything was very good to great, one of the better hit to miss ratios I've seen at a new(ish) brewery in a while. I greatly look forward to sampling more of their wares in the future. I do not look forward to making the trek out there, but the results do seem worth it!

2SP Rummy Sticks & Bourbon S.I.P.

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I've generally enjoyed 2SP's offerings, but their limited bottlings have been a bit less consistent for me. This is partly due to style choices that just didn't quite align with my general preferences. Hardly a crime and it's been amply established that I'm the worst, so I've been lagging behind on their releases. Enter these two bottles, much more to my taste.

The first is an English Strong Ale aged in rum barrels for 12 months. This is the longest they've managed to barrel age a beer to date, and it sounds delicious. The second is a bourbon barrel aged imperial porter. Aged for 10 months in Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and apparently a single barrel 1792 bourbon barrel that originated from local Kaedrin favorite Teresa's Cafe (I've never gotten the 1792, but I've had some of their other single barrel picks and they've been good!) These both sound delicious, lets dig in:

2SP Rummy Sticks

2SP Rummy Sticks (Rum Barrel Aged English Strong Ale) - Pours a very dark amber brown color with a quarter finger of fizzy head that quickly resolves to a ring around the edge which manages to stick around a bit longer. Smells of... banana? Definitely rum, oak, dark fruits, molasses, but yes, banana too, interesting. Taste is a little less complex than the nose would have you believe, but it hits similar notes, just not as hard. Sweet, dark fruit, rum, oak, molasses, and sure, banana, why not, maybe some noble hops going on too, not really bitter, but the finish balances out some of the upfront sweetness. A little more rummy booze shows up as it warms too. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, finely carbed, perhaps a bit too thin for a Rum barrel-aged approach, but it comports itself well. Overall, a definite improvement over recent bottles, but still not quite a home run... B+

Beer Nerd Details: 8% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 11/19/16. Bottle No. 470. Batch Date: 8/8/15. Released: 11/4/16.

2SP Bourbon Barrel S.I.P.

2SP Bourbon Barrel Aged S.I.P. (Stigz' Imperial Porter) (Teresa's 1792 Bourbon Barrel) - Pours a dark brown, almost black color with half a finger of off white head. Smells of roasted malt and fudge, a little oak and bourbon. Taste is sweet, hints of roast, bourbon, and oak, a little vanilla. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, well carbonated, pretty easy going for a bourbon barrel aged porter. Overall, it's pretty good, but not top tier. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 8.5% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a tulip glass on 11/19/16. Bottle No. 075. Batch Date: 10/14/15. Released: 9/30/16.

So these are definitely more to my taste than the past couple releases, but still haven't quite breached that top tier. That being said, these are certainly good enough to continue hunting down...

I'm not always great about aligning my drinking up to the occasion, but Halloween is one holiday where I try to make the extra effort. I embark upon a six week horror movie marathon and generally attempt to drink some seasonally appropriate beers (or, at least, rationalize completely irrelevant choices). Halloween night always begets something special. Last year, I watched a duo of Wes Craven movies and paired with beers inspired by his work.

One of those beers was Crooked Stave's Nightmare on Brett, a series of sour baltic porters (all of which clock in at the vaguely antichristian ABV of 9.666%) aged in barrels. There are tons of variants, but the one I had last year was aged in Leopold Bros. whiskey barrels with cherries. This year, we take on their newest variant, which is basically the same thing, but aged with blueberries instead of cherries. Sounds glorious, so let's grab our fedora and knife-glove-thingy and haunt the dreams of some beer:

Crooked Stave Nightmare On Brett with Blueberries

Crooked Stave Nightmare On Brett with Blueberries (Leopold Bros. Whiskey Barrel-Aged) - Pours a very dark brown, almost black color with a finger of tan head. Smells great, hints of roast and chocolate, I don't know if I get blueberries specifically, but it's definitely got a nice chocolate covered berries sort of feel, maybe a note of whiskey and oak too. The blueberries actually do come out in the taste though, their distinct flavor inflecting the sourness, which is pretty substantial (I want to say moreso than the cherry version I had last year, but who knows?) Less in the way of roast or chocolate, as the balance has flown towards the blueberries, but this is still very clearly a sour stout and you kinda get that. Mouthfeel is well carbonated, crisp, medium bodied, with a sharp but pleasant acidity. Moderate richness from the barrels, and a bit of warming booze too. Overall, this is great, but I want to say that the one I had last year was better. I guess I need to do a taste test with both at some point. Woe is me. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 9.666% ABV bottled (375 ml). Drank out of a flute glass on 10/31/16. Batch: January 2016 (pretty sure it was only released in September though).

Crooked Stave does it right, as per usual. Will always be on the lookout for more of their wares. Many thanks to Kaedrin friend Danur for procuring this bottle and smuggling it back to PA for me.

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Hi, my name is Mark, and I like beer.

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