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session_logo.jpgOn the first Friday of every month, there's a beer blog roundup called The Session. Someone picks a topic, and everyone blogs about it. This month, Carla Companion wants to talk about an unsung hero:

What is the one beer style usually makes up the first position in the sample flight, but yet is usually the one that we never get really excited about? The Pale Ale.

Your mission - if you choose to accept it - it so seek out and taste two different pale ales. Tell us what makes them special, what makes them forgettable, what makes them the same or what makes them different. Then, share it with us.

First of all, I love the idea. One of the cornerstones of this blog is that of the Double Feature. Pick two beers of similar style, compare and contrast, all whilst taking in a filmic double feature. It's a really helpful tactic for learning about beer, especially when used with beers that sometimes have very similar flavor profiles... like pale ales!

Pale ales have a weird rap here in the beer nerd community. You never hear people raving about pale ales the way they do for the latest hopped-up double IPA, face melting Imperial Stout, or Brett-dosed sour bombs. And yet, a lot of folks will tell you that they got into craft beer the moment they tasted something like the classic Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Indeed, a lot of breweries got their start with pales, even ones we think of as being extremist or weird. Stone's first beer was their most excellent Pale Ale (which seems to me like Arrogant Bastard's little brother, very flavorful). Hard as it may be to believe, Dogfish Head's Shelter Pale Ale was their first foray into "off-centered" beer. Pale Ales are a cornerstone of the craft beer world, a stepping stone for fledgling beer geeks, and a fantastic alternative to macro light lagers for regular folks.

Indeed, it's not like there's a shortage of big selling pale ales. Locally, we've got Yards' Philly Pale and Victory's Headwaters, both of which apparently do gangbusters (and oh yeah, they're excellent too). I'm no stranger to huge face-melting beers and I have to admit that sometimes the notion of checking out a "simple" pale ale seems like it might be boring, but there's plenty of interesting stuff going on in the pale ale world right now. I didn't go bonkers for Maine's Peeper like most folks, but it was an intriguing change of pace, a very interesting beer. Even if it wasn't particularly my thing, I love that they did something different with their beer, and that's the sort of stuff I like to try.

Speaking of which, I think it's about time to try out a few beers, as ordered. One is eminently interesting and experimental, the other is a bit more on the standard side, though it's got some interesting aspects too...

Victory Bavarian Mandarina Pale Ale

Victory Bavarian Mandarina Pale Ale - Victory recently released a series of beers utilizing experimental German hops, including this one, which has just received it's official name: Mandarina. Pours a golden orange with a finger of head and a ton of lacing. Smells of herbal, spicy hops, with a an orange citrus note and a little caramel malt too. Taste has a nice malt backbone, but it's not huge - it provides a nice background to highlight these new hops. Plenty of those citrusy, herbal hop flavors coming in the middle and more spicy bitterness emerging in the finish... Mouthfeel is surprising for a pale ale, a little heavier than expected, but quite nice nonetheless. This is actually the second time I've had this beer in the past couple weeks, and on the second tasting, I think I got a lot more of the orange character than the first time. Overall, a very solid, interesting change of pace. B

Beer Nerd Details: 6% ABV on tap (16 oz). Drank out of a nonic pint on 5/31/12.

Alesmith X

Alesmith X - Pours a bright straw yellow color with two fingers of fluffy white head and some lacing as I drink. Smells of more grassy, citrusy hops, along with a nice bready yeast and malt character. Taste is sweet, with that bready yeast and malt really coming through, though not in a strong or overpowering way. Light grassy hops and citrus come through a bit in the taste as well. The finish is relatively dry, with a very slight bitterness. The mouthfeel is hit with a huge carbonation at the start, very effervescent, but it smooths out by the finish, which is quite nice. Despite the bite from the carbonation, it's a light, crisp, and refreshing beer. In a lot of ways, this reminds me of a Belgian style pale ale (I bet if you were to substitute something like a saison yeast in the same recipe, you'd end up with a similar, if a bit spicier...), but it still feels like an American Pale Ale. Overall, I'm really enjoying this beer! B+

Beer Nerd Details: 5% ABV bottled (22 oz. bomber). Drank out of a tulip glass on 5/31/12.

Overall, the Alesmith was lighter in color and body than the Mandarina, and it had a more traditional, grassy citrus pine hop character, while the Mandarina hops brought a specific orange character, with lots of more herbal notes. Both are very good beers, and I'm really happy I got to try them. I also got to try one of the other Victory beers that was experimenting with new hops, this one called Polaris. It was an IPA, and thus not suitable for this post, but it was quite good, reminiscent of those New Zealand hops I've been digging lately. I love that Victory is playing with experimental hops, and the Pale Ale format really does provide a good platform for highlighting these new varieties. As summer goes on, I'm sure pale ales will be a staple of my beer diet...

Yards Saison

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The summer saison is upon us, so I decided to revisit a beer that disappointed me many moons ago. I've mentioned before about how Ommegang Hennepin was my Craft Beer revelation, but being a fledgling beer nerd at the time, I had no idea what I was really doing. All I knew about the beer was that it was a saison style beer, so when I went to the beer distributor looking for saisons and saw this local offering, I bought me a case of the stuff (grumble, grumble, the PA case law is evil, grumble) and was a little crestfallen when it turned out that the beer wasn't as good as Hennepin. It was a fine beer, much better than the macro swill I was used to at the time, and I had no problem finishing the case (I had roommates at the time who helped with that task), but it was still a little disappointing. As it turns out, the saison has the least coherent style definition in the history of beer, so my strategy of trying other saisons was doomed to failure anyway. But all this was a long time ago (almost a decade? Yikes...), so I figured it was time to revisit the stuff:

Yards Saison

Yards Saison - Pours a slightly hazy yellow gold color with a finger of whitish head. Smells a little like a Belgian Wit - this is clearly a spiced beer, though some of that may be the result of yeast. Lots of spice on the nose, clove, orange peel, maybe some peppery notes, and just a hint of light fruitiness. The taste is lightly sweet with some spice character evolving throughout the taste and aftertaste. The mouthfeel is relatively light, well carbonated, a little spicy harshness, and some dryness that strangely gives way to a less dry finish (not bad, but it is different). Overall, this is certainly a nice, flavorful, non-funky take on the saison, but it's not really best in class either. I certainly enjoyed it, but my earlier impression of the beer (which was not bad, to be sure) hasn't changed very much. Solid beer, but not really lighting the world on fire. While not quite a session beer, it is hitting the spot after a warm day though... B

Beer Nerd Details: 6.5% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a goblet on 5/18/12.

As summer approaches, I'm sure more saisons will be reviewed... indeed, there's one in the pipeline right now that will lend even more credence to the aforementioned notion that the saison style has the most incoherent definition in all of beer.

Sixpoint Resin

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Ah, the words we use to describe hops. Some of them don't sound very appetizing. Weirdly, this seems to be the case for my favorite hops. The big, American citrus and pine bombs that are so popular actually have some rather weird descriptions hurled at them. Cat urine? Um, what? Sounds rather gross. Apparently some hops really do give off that sort of aroma, but not having cats, I can't really say. In any case, I don't get that sort of description when it's being used as a positive (I mean, I love me the smell of something like Weyerbacher Double Simcoe - does that mean I like cat piss?) Dank? Yeah, that's not usually something I want to drink... and I'm not much of a weed guy either (dank being something that's apparently positive in that realm). Ditto for the word resin, which also has that pot connection, though at least its standard definition isn't super disgusting. It's got a more neutral connotation, so it's got that going for it...

Now don't get me wrong, I absolutely love beers that people describe as having dank, resiny, cat uriney hop flavors and aromas, I just don't tend to use those words to describe it, with the exception of resin. I actually love that piney, resiny flavor that comes from some hop varieties like Simcoe, Chinook, and Columbus/Tomahawk/Zeus. So when I saw this beer's name, it sounded promising! Sixpoint is a brewery I've not had much experience with, and those energy drink looking cans never really inspired much confidence, though I don't know why. They're distinctive and well designed, so let's give them a shot:

Sixpoint Resin

Sixpoint Resin - Pours a hazy orange brown color with a finger or two of head that leaves plenty of lacing as I drink. The smell is full of sweetness and fruity hops, with just a hint of pine (with a moniker like "Resin", I was expecting more of that piney aroma). Ah, I see, the pine comes out much more in the flavor, which starts very sweet, with a big, resiny pine flavor, followed by some more citrusy hop character. Bitterness doesn't really emerge until the finish, and it intensifies through the aftertaste. Mouthfeel is light and bright, plenty of carbonation, but quite drinkable for such a big beer. Overall, a very nice DIPA, something I could certainly go for again! B+

Beer Nerd Details: 9.1% ABV canned (12 oz.) Drank out of a tulip on 5/12/12.

A promising start for Sixpoint, and I'm sure I'll have some more of their stuff at some point, though who knows when?

Victory Otto In Oak

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Let's see here: Take a Belgian style Dubbel, add smoked malt (inspired by German Rauchbiers), and then age it in American Oak formerly used to age Bourbon. Also, and this is key, don't tell anyone that you're doing it. Seriously, if it weren't for the eternal vigilance of my local beermongers, I probably wouldn't have known this even existed (heck, even they had it tucked away in the back, rather than out on display).

To be sure, I've had the regular Otto before, and I have to admit that I found it underwhelming. Belgian style Dubbels are one of my favorite styles, but the smoked malt in Otto overwhelmed any of that great Belgian character, making it a sorta-one-dimensional smokey affair. Of course, that tasting was at a beer club, so conditions weren't entirely ideal, but my opinion doesn't seem to be all that unusual. Even the guy at Pinocchio's agreed with me on that count. I did buy a bottle of the stuff to lay down in my cellar for a while, hoping for the smoked flavors to mellow a bit and maybe harmonize with the Belgian characteristics.

Well, I've still got that bottle in my cellar, but when I found out that Otto in Oak existed, I knew I had to get my hands on some of the stuff. It's not exactly a secret that I love me some barrel aged beers, and I think this treatment could give Otto some much needed balance (not something normally associated with bourbon barrel aging, but still):

Victory Otto in Oak

Victory Otto In Oak - Pours a very dark chestnut brown color with beautiful amber highlights, clear when held up to light, with just a bit of light tan colored head. Lots of bourbon in the nose, but also a bit of smoke and maybe even a hint of that musty, spicy Belgian yeast. The rich malt backbone and bourbon hit first in the taste, followed by a light, mellow smokiness, then some of that Belgian dubbel character as the bourbon reasserts itself in the finish. I really like how the bourbon has mellowed out the smokiness here. Indeed, I can even pick out the dubbel-like flavors, something I had trouble with in the regular Otto. As it warms, the flavors evolve and coalesce even more, and some additional flavors come out to play. There's an almost nuttiness (definitely the wrong word for it, but along those lines) that I was getting towards the end of the bottle. Mouthfeel is well carbonated with a rich, full body. It's a much better balanced beer than the regular Otto, though it is quite an odd combination. Overall, a complex, unique beer with a mountain of flavor. A-

Beer Nerd Details: No ABV listed, but original Otto is 8.1% ABV, so I'm guessing this is a little higher than that. 750 ml caged and corked bottle. Drank out of a goblet on 5/19/12. Bottled on April 26, 2012. Batch #1.

From the release dates of Otto (October 15, 2011) and the bottling date on the Otto in Oak, I gather that this has been basking in the glow of Bourbon barrels for around 6 months. I don't know that it's quite as successful as Victory's Dark Intrigue (Bourbon barrel aged Storm King stout), but I do find that I really enjoyed this beer, and I'm really glad I thought to buy an extra one to keep around... And I'm actually heading over to the brewery tomorrow night to meet some friends, so maybe they'll have some of this stuff sitting around.

Flying Mouflan

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So just what is a Flying Mouflan? Apparently Siri has the answer:

Of course, when I ask Siri what it is, I get: "Would you like to search the web for 'Siri, what is Feynman fun'?" or "Would you like to search the web for 'Siri, what is flying mood flond'". At this point, Siri must've gotten pissed that I kept asking the same question, so she just went ahead and initiated the search for "What is flying the fun" (incidentally, apparently aviation circles are worried that flying for fun is on the decline - oh noes!) So basically, Siri has no idea what a Flying Mouflan is! I'm shocked, scandalized really, that the web would lie to me like this.

Fortunately, it's the beer that counts. In this case, the beer started out as part of Tröegs experimental Scratch Series, and it's the first of those beers to have been incorporated into their regular roster (though I think it's still a seasonal beer).

Troegs Flying Mouflan

Tröegs Flying Mouflan - Pours a dark reddish brown color with a finger of head. Smells very sweet, with plenty of citrus and pine hop character, along with some big caramel malt aromas. Taste is sweet, lots of caramel malt, plenty of that citrus and pine hop flavor, but not a ton of bitterness. That blending of flavors really works; it's almost like caramelized hops. A little bit of pleasant booze, but again, all of these flavors are very well balanced, which is impressive for a 100 IBU beer. Mouthfeel is medium to full bodied, smoothly carbonated, and just a bit of stickiness in the finish. Overall, I actually got a Nugget Nectar sorta vibe, but it's heavier and more powerful than that (in a good way!) A-

Beer Nerd Details: 9.3% ABV bottled (22 oz. bomber). Drank out of a tulip glass on 5/4/12.

By complete coincidence, Beerbecue is also reviewing Flying Mouflan today, and his take channels Lewis Carroll. Inspired. I don't have any more Tröegs lying around, but I'm always on the lookout for those scratch beers. Who knows, maybe I'll stumble on the next one that transitions to their regular lineup!

Sanctification

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One of the great things that Russian River does is make their bottle logs public. The batch number is clearly labeled on each bottle, and you can then look it up in the log and see all the details from the brew date to the strains of yeast used. Interestingly, a lot of their beers have evolved over time, using similar, but distinct formulas.

This particular beer is interesting and distinct from the rest of Russian River's offerings in that it is completely, 100% fermented with Brettanomyces. Brett is a wild yeast strain that is apparently the bane of winemakers' existence, but when used properly in beer, it can impart an earthy, funky character that many find pleasant. Most wild beers are primarily fermented with typical ale yeast strains, then dosed with Brett (and usually additional bacteria) later, but in this case, it was Brett all the way. Indeed, looking at the bottle logs, it appears that the particular strain they use is called "Dr. Dre Brettanomyces"... I have no idea what they're referring to there - perhaps it's a house strain they've stumbled upon? - but I'm pretty sure it's not available commercially!

Russian River Sanctification

Russian River Sanctification - Pours a cloudy golden yellow color with a finger of white head. Smell is very sweet, almost like... bubble gum? It's actually quite nice, whatever that aroma is... The taste is very sugary sweet, with a funky tart lemon character coming out in the middle and drying out in the finish. It's sour, but not overpoweringly so, certainly a lot less than Russian River's barrel aged sours. Mouthfeel is heavily carbonated but light, crisp and refreshing, and finishes dry. The tartness restrains drinkability a bit, but it's still quite an easy going beer. It would actually make a great introduction to the world of sours. Overall, very well balanced and approachable, but still complex and interesting. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 6.75% ABV bottled (375 ml mini-magnum). Drank out of a tulip on 4/28/12.

Russian River continues to impress, and I'm always on the lookout for something new from them. Here's to hoping that bottles of Beatification make their way over here someday soon...

Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout

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Call me Mark. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me at my local bar, I thought I would sail about a little and see the beer-soaked part of the world. So begins Moby Dick (uh, I may have paraphrased a bit). You see, us beer dorks have our own white whales. The rare, the fabled, the mythical beers we seem to constantly hear about on the internets, but which are mysteriously absent from all but the luckiest of bottle shops. I've actually had a pretty great run of whales this year, and my latest victory is the vaunted Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS for shorts, it currently resides at #10 on Beer Advocate's top beers list).

As with a few other whales, it's something I just assumed I'd never get my hands on... Not just because it's rare, but because I was actually a bit disappointed by Founders' standard Breakfast Stout. This isn't really surprising, as I'm not much of a coffee guy and that particular beer is dominated by roasted coffee flavors (Perhaps espresso? I'm pretty clueless about the flavor distinctions of the coffee world...) It's not that I hate coffee or anything, I just don't like when it overpowers a beer. But a Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Aged Breakfast Stout? Now you're speaking my language. I'm still expecting coffee, but also a heaping helping of bourbon, vanilla, and chocolate, a flavor combination I'm more in tune with.

Plus, as it turns out, the base beer of KBS isn't actually the regular Breakfast Stout. According to an email from Founders (big ups to Scott of Beerbecue for doing the legwork here, and sharing it): "KBS is its own entity. It is like Breakfast Stout's big brother. Kinda like an Imperial BS." So apparently they brew a special imperial stout specifically made to age well in the bourbon barrels they sourced. In the words of Melville: "Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity."

Founders KBS

Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout - Pours a very dark, very thick, oily brown color with a surprising finger of light brown head (I've heard this has very little, but I got plenty!) Smells strongly of roast coffee and malt, along with something a little sweeter that I can't quite place (perhaps that bourbon peeking through). At this point, I was a little worried that this would be another coffee bomb, but fortunately, that didn't happen, and as it warmed, the nose opened up a little, evincing more balance. The taste actually ends up being quite distinct from the nose, though that coffee and roast malt character is certainly there. I'm getting a lot of caramel and chocolate out of the taste, especially at the start and the middle, and a very light bourbon kick also comes out to play, tempering the coffee and roast character, which doesn't show up until the finish and aftertaste. At first this seemed a bit unbalanced, but as it warmed, the flavors coalesced into something deserving of all the hype this beer gets. The mouthfeel is superb. Perfectly carbonated, full bodied and a bit chewy, this nonetheless doesn't feel like an 11.2% ABV beer - the alcohol is well hidden, except for a bit of that alcohol warming effect when you drink too quickly (which you will, because this stuff is excellent). Overall, it's a wonderful, unique, and complex beer, quite deserving of the hype. And like everything Founders makes, it's masterfully crafted stuff. Is it my favorite beer evar? Not really, but I can see what the fuss is about here. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 11.2% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a snifter on 4/15/12. Bottled on 2/17/12. 70 IBUs.

The bottle also sez: Does not give relief from: rheumatism, neuralgia, sciatica, lame back, lumbago, contracted muscles, toothache, sprains, swellings, and all manner of distress. Is good for everything a stout ought to be good for.

I'm quite glad I managed to stumble on two bottles of the stuff during a routine stop at a local beer joint. Knowing that the beer was just making its way to our area, I asked the beer monger if he had any. Limit of two per customer, and you've got to buy a case of Founders too. I'm not entirely sure if that's legal, but hell, it's Founders beer. It's not like it's gonna go to waste!

Someday I hope to get my hands on Founders' even more rare Canadian Breakfast Stout. As I mentioned yesterday, there's a big secondary market for used Bourbon Barrels, and apparently some folks (let's call them Canadians) use these barrels to age Maple Syrup (actually, where can I get some of that goodness?). Founders then takes these bourbon/syrup barrels and ages their standard Breakfast Stout (brewed with extra coffee and chocolate) in them. Sounds like amazing stuff. Alas, I think I missed my chance for these suckersthis year, as they were amongst the most sought after beers in the country (seriously, the mania surrounding CBS looked even more insane than the craziness surrounding Pliny the Younger). Perhaps I'll get some next year, or the year after, once the hype has subsided minutely enough for me to find a bottle (yeah, I might be waiting longer than that...)

Finally, I almost forgot, I have the last bottle from the 4 pack of Breakfast Stout that I bought last year. It's been in my fridge for that whole time, but we're heading into the summer months now, so perhaps I'll wait til fall to crack that open. Perhaps the age will mellow that excessive coffee, and I'll love it...

Wonky barrel-aged blogging continues, and today's nerdery centers around the concept of bourbon barrel aging. It seems that every brewery has a barrel-aged program of sorts, and the most commonly used barrels appear to be bourbon barrels. Why is that?

If you've ever done any reading about the history of brewing*, you'll notice that many of the distinctive characteristics of beer are not solely the result of genius brewers. Indeed, it seems like the history of every style of beer comes attached with a million caveats about how brewers had to account for new government regulations, laws, and taxes. And bourbon barrels are no exception.

As it turns out, the legal definition of bourbon states that it must be aged "in charred new oak containers" (amongst other requirements). The operative word there is "new". This means that bourbon producers can only use their expensive barrels once before having to discard them. As such, a secondary market for used bourbon barrels is thriving due to their wide availability and flavor contributions.

While it has been well established that using new oak barrels is a best practice, I found it odd that such a thing would be codified in law, so I dug deeper and it turns out that this is all an artifact of prohibition and the great depression. As the U.S. was emerging from the long national nightmare of prohibition, the government did its best to ruin things through excessive regulation (stupid three-tiered system!). Enter Wilbur Mills**, a representative of the great state of Arkansas, who lent his support to the bill defining bourbon, but only if he could add a requirement for new oak barrels as a benefit for Arkansas' lumber industry. It was a win win. Arkansas lumber magnates were delighted at the increase in business (don't forget that this is all happening during the depression), and the Kentucky Bourbon barons also loved the law because it legally protected their preferred spirit.

In essence, they did the right thing for the wrong reasons, and us beer dorks are still reaping the benefits to this day. Speaking of which:

Schlafly Reserve Imperial Stout 2008

Schlafly Reserve Imperial Stout 2008 - Pours a very dark brown color with very nice amber highlights (not as dark as I was expecting) and no real head to speak of... Smell is filled with bourbon, caramel, chocolate, oak and vanilla, maybe a tiny bit of dark fruit too. Taste is very sweet, tons of that rich caramel flavor, dark malts, and a nice, boozy bourbon punch in the middle. There's very little stout-like roastiness here, though some of it does peek out in the finish. Very complex stuff, and it continues to evolve as it warms up, with the various flavor components jockying for position... without ever seeming to overwhelm the palate. Mouthfeel is nearly perfect. Well balanced carbonation, very smooth, full bodied, rich, and chewy. It's not something you gulp down or anything, but it's well balanced and goes down dangerously easy. Overall, this is a wonderful beer. I suspect there are some who would want more typical stoutlike flavors of roast and coffee, but those are not my sweet spots - this beer hits my palate very well. A

Beer Nerd Details: 10.5% ABV bottled (750 ml capped). Drank out of a snifter on 4/12/12. 2008 vintage.

Between this beer and their oak aged barleywine, I'd say Schlafly has made quite a nice impression. I'd love to try a newer vintage of their barleywine, and they seem to have quite a selection of good beer available. But tomorrow, we're going to look at yet another bourbon barrel aged white whale beer. Stay tuned. Same bat time, same bat place.

* Or, I suppose, alcohol in general, as you're about to find out when it comes to bourbon. And I suppose it's not limited to alcohol either - ever wonder why the US government defines a tomato as a vegetable (and not a fruit)?

** Incidentally, Mills is apparently more famous for a whiskey-soaked and scandalous liaison with a stripper named Fanne Foxe, aka "The Argentine Firecracker". Heh.

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

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