Black Maple Hill

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It's time to play Acronym soup. Black Maple Hill, or BMH, is what's known as a NAS NDP Bourbon. I gather that these are not normally good acronyms to have attached to your Bourbon, and yet this sucker seems to be highly sought after. Let's break it down, shall we?

NAS means Non-Age Statement, meaning that the bottle does not indicate how long the bourbon was aged in barrels before being bottled. I don't want to start a holy war here, but while most higher end bourbons tend to be 6 years or older, there's a popular notion that the older a whiskey is, the better it will be. This is probably not the case (I've heard that 6-10 years is the sweet spot, but then, tastes vary, and some folks lover their old bourbon), though obviously older bourbon is more scarce and thus probably more desirable. Those in the know seem to put BMH in the 8 year or so range, but then, how would we really know? It's labeled as "Straight" bourbon, which means it's at least 2 years old, though that's not really much help. Purists don't like NAS stuff, especially when something used to have an age statement and then dropped it. There's no real corollary to beer here, as most beers aren't made to age, though I guess we could talk about packaging dates on bottles, which to beer purists can be very important for styles like an IPA (except in this case, freshest is best).

NDP means Non-Distiller Producer, which basically means that Black Maple Hill is not actually a distillery. There's a company in San Carlos, CA that pays Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) to make a blend, then slaps a (rather beautiful) label on the bottle and sells it as his own. KBD doesn't actually make the whiskey either, they just purchase stocks from actual distillers, blend it, and bottle it. The knock against NDP bourbons is that you generally have no idea where the bourbon actually came from, and in the now-booming bourbon market, supply is becoming constrained. Rumor has it that Heaven Hill supplies KBD and thus BMH, but who's to say how long that will last or if it's even true in the first place? Again, purists tend to look down on this behavior (unless the NDP does claim specific provenance, like when Jefferson's does bottlings of Stitzel-Weller juice). I liken this to the stigma attached to contract brewing in the beer world. There are, of course, exceptions (especially since craft beer has really taken off), and there's the fine line between Gypsy Brewer and Contract Brewer, but NDP seems a little more shady to me.

So when you combine NAS and NDP, you see something that's not very appealing to purists. Not that it stops people from buying the stuff. Supply is apparently constrained all over the country, and people are asking if it's the next Pappy (regularly referred to as the "best" and thus impossible to find). Me, I strolled into a PA state store and picked one up right off the shelf. I'd heard of it, and knew it was popular, but didn't really know any of the above. I suppose I was lucky too, as it's not something I've seen since then.

So why the hype? Near as I can tell, Black Maple Hill is one of the older NDPs that are still putting out bottles today, and their early stuff was supposed to be legendary. Before the current boom in whisky, distillers had a glut of unsold bourbon and so NDPs had no problem sourcing good stock. Indeed, early BMH was bottled by Julian Van Winkle III himself (for the uninitiated, Van Winkle could probably bottle his tapwater and sell it for $100 a pop), but that connection is long since gone. Perhaps the glowing aura of Van Winkle really does cast a long shadow, or maybe scarcity is what's driving demand. Oh, and people seem to really like it to. There's also that. Like I always say, it's what's in the bottle that counts. That being said, I was unimpressed. This is the opinion of an admitted newbie with little experience in the area, so take that with a huge grain of salt, but I have to admit that I preferred several other bourbons to this (and those were all much cheaper than this too).

Black Maple Hill Bourbon

Black Maple Hill - Apologies in advance for what I'm sure are terrible tasting notes. I don't quite have the vocabulary down and fall back on my beer tasting instincts here. Golden orange color, pretty typical Bourbon appearance. No head at all! Smells pretty corny, not much in the way of spice, just sweet corn, some caramel, maybe a hint of dark fruit, but I have to really reach for that. Taste also seems very corn forward, sweet, not much spice at all, caramel corn, maple syrup, booze. As it opens up, I can get maybe a bit more spice out of this, but still not much. Mouthfeel is relatively light, a little boozy heat, but about what you'd expect from something like this. Goes down pretty easy. Overall, I'm finding this to be rather straightforward and definitely not worth the premium price. It's certainly drinkable (as evidenced by the mostly depleted bottle) but I wouldn't recommend it unless you already know you like it. I drank this neat with no water added, but I have to admit that a good portion of the bottle was drank after I had a big imperial stout (or something like that) and I just poured a quick dram of BMH into the unwashed glass. I will say, I rather like the confluence there and think I should experiment further with blending tiny amounts of beer with whiskey to see if I can make something more interesting. But I digress. I'll give this a B-

Bourbon Nerd Details: 95 Proof, 47.5% ABV bottled (750 ml black wax, orange label). Drank out of a snifter on 3/7/14. Bottle is almost gone at this point, but the above notes are representative of earlier tastings.

Beer Barrel Potential - I have to admit that I have no real basis for answering this question, but it's an interesting one and I like engaging in wild speculation. Again, take this with a huge grain of salt. So would the barrels used for BMH be good for a secondary use with beer? The only thing I'd worry about is that the corn forward note wouldn't stand up to a big imperial stout (9% ABV stouts might work better, but still). Barleywines might work well though, and maybe something like an Old Ale or Scotch Ale would work too. To my knowledge, no beer has used BMH barrels, but given the unclear provenance of the juice, who knows? Heaven Hill is certainly a big supplier of barrels to brewers (including heavy hitters like Goose Island, Firestone Walker, and the like).

So there you have it, my first bourbon review. Next up on the bourbon train is Four Roses, see you Thursday.

We Interrupt this Program...

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In the 1930s, folks became very worried when their favorite radio programs were interrupted by special news bulletins. News back then tended to include things like Depressions and Nazis, so that was a pretty reasonable reaction. These days, the phrase "We interrupt this program..." is a pretty harmless declaration used half ironically to state things like how I'm not going to drink that much beer for the next six weeks or so.

See how I slipped that in there?

Fear not, this is but a temporary situation, undertaken on a whim. Blogging will continue, very possibly at the same 3-4 post per week rate (but let's not count on that, mmmk?), though it will not all be about beer (more on this later). Blasphemy, I know, but I've actually been looking forward to this for a while. And lord knows this isn't a particularly strict regimen I'm going to engage in here. Fat Weekend is coming up in a few days, and all bets are off there (but then, Fat Weekend was never particularly good material for blogging anyway, seeing as though I'm too busy yucking it up with the famed quorum of portly gentleman I don't get to see as often as I used to). And the following Wednesday is beer club, which is still on. But the bulk of my beer drinking, which tends to occur on weekends, will be on temporary hiatus.

There are several reasons for this, all of which are self-imposed and not the result of any particular problem. First, I probably drink too much. I know for a fact that I drink a lot less than other folks, but that doesn't mean I don't drink too much either. The other day, I was heartened to answer "0" for the first three questions in this essay, but there are plenty of times when my answers would be much worse and the phrase "I don't have a problem" still seems problematic to me considering how much beer I've drank (at a pretty steady pace) for the past 5 or so years. And if you read this blog, you can see that I don't exactly shy away from the high alcohol brews. So I'd like to prove to myself that I'm not a slave to my favorite beverage by not drinking it for a few weeks, if I can manage that.

Second, the health component. While I absolutely savored every damn dromp of that Bruery Mash last week, it occurs to me that a bottle of 12.5% ABV barleywine represents at least 700-800 calories, which would be a non-trivial portion of my diet on a normal day. A few years ago, I came close to hitting 200 lbs and realized that I wasn't 23 anymore, so I started eating better and exercising more. I'm actually much healthier now than I was back then (and am down into a more svelt 170-180 lb range), but I again find myself thinking "I don't have a problem" and that attitude worries me sometimes. So let's try this little experiment and verify that, shall we?

While I'm on the subject of health, I'd like to air out a pet peeve I have about beer boosterism. I follow a lot of beer blogs and keep pretty close tabs on twitter, so I see my fair share of "Beer is healthy for you" articles, and it kinda drives me up a wall. Yes, some studies have shown that, for instance, alcohol can help boost HDL Cholesterol (aka "Good" cholesterol) but the thing that most of us conveniently downplay is that those studies are about "moderate" consumption. Guess what? I don't think Bourbon County Brand Stout counts as "moderate", nor does taking down a couple Hopslams. What's more is that while alcohol can have a good effect, it's rarely the best way to get that effect. If you want to raise your HDL, exercise, eat better, and lose some weight. I bet your doctor won't actually recommend to increase your booze intake. There are other benefits of moderate consumption and plenty of things specific to beer, but it's probably best to be wary of something that your body treats like poison. Obviously I love me some alcohol (as evidenced by the fact that I'm not actually giving up on alcohol!), but I think it's important to be clear headed about this stuff. No use in fooling ourselves.

I've been particularly bad about my health of late. The Holidays are always rough, but then we kept getting snowed in, I got sick, and my elliptical machine broke. Most of these were basically excuses to stop exercising and drink more beer, which in retrospect was probably a bad idea. I don't feel any real ill effects or anything, but I have put on a few pounds and those jeans are getting a little more snug than I'd like, so I'd like to do a little course correction now before it becomes an actual problem.

Third, sacrifice is a good thing. I grew up Catholic. Nothing particularly strict, but my family went to Church on Sundays and most of my schooling was through Catholic institutions. In case you didn't know, Lent started last Wednesday. I always hated Lent growing up, but as an adult, I've found it an invaluable way to break bad habits and/or try new things. 40 days is an excellent length of time to give something up. It's short enough that it's achievable, but long enough that your routine can be changed for the better. I suspect that even if I became a firebreathing atheist, I'd still find value in Lent (or do it some other way, like how some people had a dry January). Of course, as I mentioned earlier, I'm not giving up beer, strictly speaking. I know it's a cheat to give things up a week at a time, but to me, this is actually more about the health aspect. As I mentioned above, a little course correction is needed. And like I said, sacrifice is a good thing, and a little delayed gratification can be very rewarding. This is probably an unpopular sentiment in our age of on-demand everything, but screaming "Don't care how I want it now!" won't get you anywhere in life.

Fourth and lastly, I want to explore other worlds. As a culture, we're leaning away from mass media. Oh sure, we've still got superstars and blockbusters, but the really interesting stuff is happening in the fringes and in the niches. Not a day goes by that I don't run across some absurdly specific, single-purpose website like Brides Throwing Cats or Stephen King's Boners. In its own way, this is a good thing, but then, there's no reason to isolate our beverages into siloed worlds that don't touch each other. For instance, I spend a lot of time obsessing over bourbon barrel aged beers, so why wouldn't I dip my feet into that bourbon world for a bit and see what its like? I think it would do a world of good, and give me some valuable perspective on the booze world. And, of course, nothing needs to limit this to alcoholic beverages. I plan to spend at least one week checking out some decent tea (despite Padraic's relative hiatus from blogging, I'm sure he'll be a helpful guide).

Starting tomorrow, blogging will shift from solely beer-focused posts to include other beverages. This week, we'll be talking about bourbon. Next week, I'm thinking Port wine, though Fat Weekend may inspire me into a different direction. I plan to spend a week on wine, and another week on Scotch. There will definitely be at least one post on rye whiskey. And the aforementioned tea will get some love too. I figure I should be able to get a comprehensive understanding of these expansive worlds of booze in a single weekend, right? Well, no. All of these are beverages I already know and like (not starting from scratch here), but I would like to know more about them. To a certain extent, I've already progressed far down that path and will certainly continue far beyond these six weeks, but I've never really laid down the gauntlet. The primary reason I blog is to learn, and so here we are.

I am an unabashed lover of beer and that hasn't changed, so I will naturally still be writing from a beery perspective, even if I'm writing about bourbon or wine or whatever. Hopefully these posts will still be interesting and maybe even enlightening. There's a reason this is a beer blog, but that doesn't mean we can't mix things up a little. I doubt many whiskey/wine geeks are reading this particular post, but if so, I should say that my tasting notes for your preferred beverage will be dramatically, frustratingly bad. I already know that my vocabulary for this stuff is horrendous, which is one of the reasons I'm doing this (again, I blog to learn). Plus, it's not like I'm ruling out any pure beer writing either. I've had a few ideas for posts bouncing around in my head for a while, and it's about time I sat down and knocked them out.

Last weekend, I had naught but two drams of bourbon, and a couple small glasses of port as a nightcap. So perhaps not super healthy, but I haven't had a beer for a little less than a week (and it's not like I didn't follow up that Bruery Mash with a dram of bourbon, so I'm doing pretty well here so far). I've been getting back on track with my exercise regimen too. I feel good. This will be an interesting 6 weeks and hopefully you can join me on this beverage journey. Stay tuned, for tomorrow, we take a trip to Black Maple Hill.

The Bruery Mash

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I've made no secret of the fact that I don't drink coffee and thus am not a huge fan of it in beer. Indeed, longtime readers (all three of you) are probably rolling their eyes right now, as I probably mention my apathy towards coffee too often. While I do feel like I've come around a bit on coffee beers and have had several that I really enjoyed, I usually still find myself wondering what it would be like without the coffee. Fortunately, that option is actually available most of the time, and in this case, the Bruery came up with an interesting experiment.

I imagine the process of infusing coffee flavors into beer to be a complicated one with many variables that are difficult to control. What coffee are you using, how does it match with the base beer, when in the process are you adding the coffee, are you using the beans, the grinds, or actual brewed coffee (or some combination thereof)? Each one of those questions has a lot riding on it, so when the Bruery went to make a coffee-infused barleywine, they did some pilot batches and played around with a bunch of factors, but ultimately decided to release two beers: one unsoiled without any coffee at all (called Mash), and one with a very, very powerful coffee component (called Mash & Grind), the idea being that Reserve Society members will get bottles of each beer, open them at the same time, and blend them together to find their ideal level of coffee.

I'm pretty sure that my ideal blend wouldn't be a blend at all, just Mash - the bourbon barrel aged 12.5% ABV English style barlewine, all by its lonesome. So I was pretty happy to see this in a LIF haul a while back (and that I got this one and not the "Grind" version) and have been hankering for a taste every since. The Hulk would totally smash this, but I'll just mash with it:

The Bruery Mash

The Bruery Mash - Pours a murky brown color (dirty penny) with half a finger of white head that sticks around a bit at the start. Smell is nearly the platonic ideal of a bourbon barrel barleywine. Rich caramel and toffee, fruity malt, figs, coconut, a little booze, and a well balanced bourbon, oak, and vanilla kicker. And amazingly, the taste lives up to the nose (though maybe Platonic ideal was a bit overkill, eh?). Lots of rich malt character, molasses, caramel, and fruit coming through strong, coconut, raisins, and figs in the middle with the bourbon, oak, and vanilla pitching in towards the finish. Mouthfeel is well carbonated, but smooth, very rich, a little boozy bite towards the finish. Extremely well balanced. Overall, this is superb and absolutely delicious. A

Beer Nerd Details: 12.5% ABV bottled (750 ml capped). Drank out of a snifter on 2/28/14. Bottled 05/24/13.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I'm really glad there was no coffee in this. I'm sure that if there was, I still would have enjoyed it, but it would been a "It's good... for a coffee beer" kinda situation. In any case, it wasn't, and I loved it, so there is that. Anyone want to be my Bruery Reserve Society proxy? It's a long shot, but I'm sure I could make it worth your while.

Nebraska Sexy Betty

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In my grading system for this here blog, a B is actually a pretty good score. It's not going to melt your face (that's, uh, a good thing for me) but it's unambiguously good beer that is worth seeking out. So the fact that every Nebraska Brewing Company beer I've ever had has been a B in my book isn't a hideous disaster, but it's starting to get a little tiresome (Indeed, I see that my previous foray into their beer contains a similar lament). Granted, this is only my fourth beer from them, but on the other hand, buying four of Nebraska's reserve series beers means that I had to seek council from a local loan shark (because I already have three mortgages and the bank has long since cut me off). I don't normally factor price into my reviews because it's all about the taste. But in general, when shelling out $20+ for a bottle of beer, I can at least talk myself into thinking it was a worthwhile affair. For whatever reason, Nebraska, while never truly disappointing, has also never really delivered in that respect.

In the grand scheme of things, this doesn't really matter because I'm just some dork on the internets, and like a dope, I keep coming back for more. Like Jay suggests, I should really just admit that I've been beaten here and leave it be. In this case, I talked myself into the purchase because it's a barrel aged imperial stout, truly one of my favorite things in the world, and while I'm a BA nut, I really haven't had many Brandy barrel aged beers. And this one boasts 50 year old American Brandy barrels, which sounds pretty cool to me. Alas, it was not quite as Sexy as it sounded, though again, it's not really bad either.

Nebraska Sexy Betty

Nebraska Sexy Betty - Pours a dark brown, almost black color with a finger of light brown head that fades relatively quickly. Par for the course so far. Smells of rich dark malts, roast, a little caramel, maybe a hint of that Brandy barrel, but it's very faint. Taste is similar. It's got a big roasty note, maybe some chocolate, grainy stuff, and if I really look for it, a hint of that Brandy coming out a bit towards the finish, but again, not much in the way of oak. If I didn't know this was barrel aged, I might not pick it out blind. Mayhaps a 50 year old barrel has already given all its going to give? Mouthfeel is full bodied, well carbonated, heavy but still a bit nimble (perhaps that Brandy lightening the mood a bit), though definitely still a sipper of a beer. Overall, it's a solid imperial stout, but I would have really liked to see more barrel character. B

Beer Nerd Details: 10% ABV bottled (750 ml capped). Drank out of a snifter on 3/1/14. Bottled 09/23/13.

Apparently the initial incarnation of Sexy Betty used 50 year old Cognac barrels (so French, not American brandy), was sufficiently more rare, and more highly regarded too. Whatever the case, I don't know how much more Nebraska you're going to see on this blog. Maybe in another year or two, I'll forget again and decide to take a flier on Black Betty (the base beer for this one), but I wouldn't hold my breath because I have to figure out how to dodge this loan shark for a while.

Crooked Stave L'Brett d'Or

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We've already established that Chad Yakobson is a mad scientist who makes all of his beer using various strains of Brettanomyces. He's a fan of wild yeast, and apparently also a fan of Luis Buñuel's surrealist films from the 1930s:

The idea spur for the name of this beer came from a 1930′s Surrealist film L'Age d'Or by Luis Buñuel and written by himself and Salvador Dali. In the opening scenes footage of scorpions are shown from a short science film. During this are captions in French talking about 5 prismatic articulations which finally culminate in a stinger.. For this reason we chose to use 5 prismatic strains of Brettanomyces for our surreal golden sour and name the beer L'Brett d'Or "The Golden Brett".

The movie is on YouTube, if you dare. Lord knows I've not seen enough Buñuel, and there's no time like the present.

So primary fermentation with 5 strains of Brett (picked to emphasize "citrusy type characteristics"), then a dose of Lactobacillus (a bacteria that produces sour flavors in beer) and a lengthy nap in old Napa Chardonnay barrels. Sign me up:

Crooked Stave LBrett dOr

Crooked Stave L'Brett d'Or - Pours a yellow color with half a finger of fluffy white head that nonetheless sticks around a while. Smell is pure funk, earthy, fruity Brett, and a light but well matched oak note. Taste follows suit, lots of funky Brett, some earthiness and oak up front, followed by a strong tart fruit sourness. The oak is a really nice presence throughout the taste and helps keep that sourness in check. Mouthfeel is a bit light on the carbonation, but it still works very well. It's bright and refreshing, with a pleasant acidity. Overall, this is yet another fantastic effort from Crooked Stave. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 6% ABV bottled (375 ml waxed cap). Drank out of a tulip glass on 2/28/14. Vintage 2013/Batch 2.

It's pretty amazing that a brewery can sustain itself by brewing only wild beers, and I'm definitely going to be on the lookout for more from them. In fact, I have another of their beers just sitting on the shelf, ready for drinking. We'll get to it soon enough.

Before he became a famed Gypsy brewer, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø was a high school teacher. Two of his students showed an abiding interest in homebrewing, so Mikkel schemed to use the school's kitchen during off hours (10 pm until 6 am) to teach them to brew. When they slept, I do not know. Eventually Mikkel would go on to found Mikkeller to great acclaim. A few years later, his two students threw their hat into the ring and started To Øl (Danish for "Two Beers"). Like their teacher (and his Evil Twin), they would pursue the Gypsy approach to brewing, scrounging excess brewing capacity where they could, and started putting out their own well received beers. To date, I have had none, so it's finally time to rectify the situation:

To Øl White Wine Barrel Aged Snowball Saison

To Øl White Wine Barrel Aged Snowball Saison - Pours a mostly clear golden orange color with a couple fingers of white, fluffy head that sticks around a while and leaves lots of lacing. Aroma isn't especially strong, but I'm getting Belgian yeast, fruity esters and spicy phenols, and that white wine barrel is coming through too. Does not smell sour or particularly funky. Taste bears that out, it's very much like a regular ol saison, sweet with some peppery yeast notes. The white wine is there, as is the vanilla aspect of the barrel (though I really don't get a lot of oak itself), but this not at all sour or funky. Mouthfeel is actually very nice, highly carbonated, effervescent. That white wine cuts into that a bit though, and makes the finish a bit on the sticky side. Overall, this is a nice beer, if not exactly what I was expecting. Reminiscent of White Monkey, actually. B

Beer Nerd Details: 8% ABV bottled (375 ml). Drank out of a tulip glass on 2/22/14.

So not blowing the doors off the building or anything, but I'm still curious to try more from this pair of gypsies.

HaandBryggeriet Odin's Tipple

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Odin, the chief god of Norse mythology, is associated with war and death, but also wisdom and poetry (amongst other things). I'll have what he's having. But then, we should be careful. Odin once drank from the Well of Wisdom, but to do so, he had to sacrifice one of his eyes. So, have you got what it takes to tipple with Odin? I'd like to think that I do, but I'm a little disappointed with my choice of drinking vessel, as I did not have any giant fucking ram's horns laying around (like Odin has on the label). I'll just have to make due with this snifter glass and this Mjolnir thing.

I've heard some conflicting things about this Norwegian beer from HaandBryggeriet. Some folks have noted that the recipe can change from year to year. It's labeled a Dark Norse Ale, but the Shelton Brothers website sez they use "wild yeast", which is something I didn't really get out of the beer (though perhaps that flavor I attributed to chalkiness is really more of a funky, musty thing?) To my mind, this is definitely in the mold of an Imperial Stout, wild yeast or no. Whosoever tipples this beer, if they be worthy, shall possess the power of Odin!

HaandBryggeriet Odins Tipple

HaandBryggeriet Odin's Tipple - Pours darker than a politician's soul (sorry, watching House of Cards tonight), black with a finger of brown head that quicky resolves into a ring around the edge. Smells of rich dark malts, chocolate, caramel, a hint of roast, maybe even some coffee. Taste is very rich, much larger roast here than the nose would imply, coffee too, maybe a hint of chalkiness, but plenty of rich caramel and chocolate too, and for a beer this big and rich, it's got a good ofsetting bitterness, especially in the finish. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, well carbonated, a little pleasant booze. A bit burly, so the 500 ml packaging is a good fit and hey, it's a cold winter over here at Kaedrin HQ, so burliness is welcome. Overall, this is a really fantastic non BA imperial stout. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 11% ABV bottled (500 ml capped). Drank out of a snifter on 2/21/14. Batch 487.

I've got to haand it to these wacky Norwegians, they're pretty good at these dark beers. I should really take some time to explore more of their catalog.

Back Into The Emptiness

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Celebrity farmer. Rockstar farmer. Now those are words you don't normally see put together, but they're both used to describe Tom Culton, who cultivates a small patch of land in Lancaster County, PA (let's say it's about 70 miles west of Philadelphia), generating obscure, heirloom produce to supply trendy restaurants in Philly and New York. And let's not forget about Ardmore, PA, as Culton is a good friend of the whole Tired Hands crew, and we often see beers made with fresh fruits or cider from Culton's farm (most recently, we had Culton Hop and Culton Sour, both made with 51% Culton-supplied apple cider, though there have been a bunch of others that I simply haven't mentioned in my crazy long recaps).

This particular beer is part of a series of saisons aged in wine barrels with fresh, local fruit. The first was called Out Of The Emptiness, and it was aged on local plums (not to get all Portlandia on you, but I'm not sure if these plums were actually from Culton Organics). I missed out on bottles, but was fortunate enough to get a glass at the release because people are nice. It was awesome enough that I was ready to stand in line for the next one (not that I wouldn't anyway, because I has a problem, but still). Back Into The Emptiness is the followup, and it's aged on French Policeman grapes. I tried to do some research on these suckers, and found out the backstory:

After a few trips to France, he began growing heirloom crops. Then he cold-called restaurants. His first major "get" was the venerable Le Bec-Fin, which bought small table grapes from 75-year-old vines that Culton says a French policeman gave to his grandfather.

Add in some local wine barrels, Tired Hands' house microflora and "ambient microflora from Lancaster, PA", and we've got this beauty:

Tired Hands Back Into The Emptiness

Tired Hands Back Into The Emptiness - Pours a golden orange color with a finger of fizzy, short lived head, though once it settles down it actually left a bit of lacing. Nose has a beautiful oak character, some musty funk, and a very pleasing fruity sour note too. Taste is delicious, starting off sweet, with a tart, vinous fruitiness emerging quickly and escalating into sourness towards the finish. I don't know that I would have picked out grapes, but this does have a fruited sour feel. The oak comes out in the middle and tempers the sourness through the finish. Mouthfeel is crisp and light, good carbonation (higher than your typical Tired Hands bottled beer), and a moderate but pleasant and well balanced sour acidity. The finish dries things out a bit, but not all the way. Overall, damn if this isn't their best bottled beer yet (at least, that I've had). A

Beer Nerd Details: 7% ABV bottled (500 ml waxed cap). Drank out of a flute glass on 2/21/14.

Not quite Romulon-level, but spectacular nonetheless. Already looking forward to getting a taste of The Emptiness is Eternal, which is due to be conditioned on persimmons (watch out, Pediobear!) from Culton's farm, of course.

Firestone Walker XVII - Anniversary Ale

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Every year, Firestone Walker invites their neighboring Winemakers to the brewery to tie one on and blend a series of barrel aged component beers for their Anniversary Ale. The Winemakers (no strangers to blending) are divided up into teams and compete to make the best blend. It's apparently quite cutthroat, though fortunately, no murders this year. I'm trying to be concise here, because this is a subject I've already described in wonky, exhaustive detail before. Suffice to say, for barrel aged fanatics like myself, this is one of the most interesting releases each year, and they can vary dramatically too.

The XV blend heavily favored barleywines, and most of the component beers were aged in bourbon and/or brandy barrels (and oh yeah, it was spectacular). The XVI blend was more equitable, a much darker brew though barleywines still had a slight edge overall. The other big change in XVI was the inclusion of Tequila barrels into the blend. This year, things swing back towards the barleywine a bit, though not as much as XV. Here's the component beers:

  • 30% Bravo (13.6% ABV) Imperial Brown Ale. Aged in Bourbon and Brandy Barrels.
  • 25% Stickee Monkee (15.3% ABV) English Barley Wine. Aged in Bourbon and Brandy barrels.
  • 15% Velvet Merkin (8.7% ABV) Traditional Oatmeal Stout. Aged in Bourbon barrels.
  • 15% Parabola (12.8% ABV) Russian Imperial Oatmeal Stout. Aged in Bourbon Barrels.
  • 8% Double Double Barrel Ale (12% ABV) Double Strength English Pale Ale. Aged 100% in Firestone Union Barrels.
  • 4% Helldorado (11.5% ABV) Blonde Barley Wine. Aged in Bourbon and Brandy Barrels.
  • 3% Wookey Jack (8.3% ABV)- Black Rye India Pale Ale. 100% Fresh, Dank & Hoppy 100% Stainless Steel

So we've got around 67% barleywines, 30% stout, and 3% Black Rye IPA (which sorta splits the difference between the two). Also notable is that this year's blend "only" utilizes 7 component beers (while the previous two used 8), and that PNC with Tequila barrels is nowhere to be seen. So this comes in somewhere between XV and XVI in terms of the components, and I will say that it does taste more like a barleywine than anything else, though I don't quite think it reached the heights of XV:

Firestone Walker XVII - Anniversary Ale

Firestone Walker XVII - Anniversary Ale - Pours a brown amber color, garnet tones, a finger of light tan head that sticks around a bit. Smells of various spirits, boozy but not hot, some caramel-like notes and bready malt too. Taste starts off sweet, quickly moving into a rich caramel note, maybe a hint of fruity malt character, then comes various spirits and the one-two punch of oak and vanilla. The spirits here seem much less Bourbon focused than in years past, and looking at the component beers, perhaps that Brandy is asserting itself more than in previous years, though not in a dominant way. Call it the power of suggestion if you like, but this taste is very complex and evolves as it warms up, with the various flavors emerging or mellowing as I drink. The taste profile is more akin to a barleywine than anything else, closer to XV (which was clearly barleywine) than XVI (which was much more muddled, though still very nice). Mouthfeel is full bodied and rich, but velvety smooth. Some pleasant booziness, a bit of heat, but given the cold weather of late, this is a welcome feature, not a bug. Overall, yep, it's fantastic. Better than XVI, but not quite at XV levels. But when you're playing at this level, these distinctions are really splitting hairs. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 13.3% ABV bottled (22 oz. boxed bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 2/14/14.

Of course, all of Firestone Walker's barrel aged beers are spectacular and worth seeking out. It's seeming like I've missed out on last year's release of Velvet Merkin (local beermonger sez that government shutdown last year delayed and maybe even limited distro in this area, which could be total BS, but I still hope to track down a bottle somehow, someway). Rumor has it that Stickee Monkee will be coming to bottles and seeing distribution for the first time this year as well, and then there's their first wild ale, The Feral One. So what I'm saying is that I'm going to be hunting for lots of Firestone beer in 2014 (because don't forget about world class bottles like Sucaba and Parabola)

February Beer Club

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Tonight was beer club, a gathering of beer minded individuals from my work who get together about once a month at a local BYOB for good company and libations. As per usual, a good turnout, with a good representation from the core team, but also some very welcome new faces. About half of us are, at this point, avid homebrewers, so discussion veered into a rather nerdy realm from time to time, but that's all good, and there was also a nice contingent of non-beer drinking peeps who were bemused by our nerdery, but steered the discussion other ways as well. Good times had by all.

February Beer Club

For the sake of posterity, initial thoughts on each beer are captured below. As you might guess, conditions here are not ideal, nor did I always drink a full portion, so take this with a gigantic grain of salt if you dare. Or not. I am pretty awesome, so I'm sure these inchoate notes are all you'll really need. In order of drinking (not necessarily in order pictured):

  • Heavy Seas Gold Ale - A pretty basic Blonde Ale, comparable to most macro slop, but a step above such extremes. B-
  • Kaedrôme Saison - This is drinking well, though it still has not carbonated as well as I'd have liked. I don't know if this is because the yeast is just so old and overstressed or if it's because it's been so cold lately and my cellar is just so cold that it's taking the beer a while to condition. Whatever the case, the flavors are at the right place, and there is enough carbonation to make it drinkable, it's just that I wish there were more. B
  • New Belgium Lips Of Faith - Coconut Curry Hefeweizen - Holy curry, Batman! At first, the curry seemed to overpower everything else, but as I drank and as it warmed (we had some of this later in the evening as well), the coconut and hefeweizen notes came out a bit more. Its a very interesting, weird beer, but I don't think it's quite the right combination of flavors for beer. C+
  • Stone Matt's Burning Rosids - I think you all know how much I love me some saisons, even weird, incoherent takes on the style, but this one seemed to be filled with a sorta burnt rubber band aid flavor that overpowered everything else. Perhaps not totally undrinkable, but I'm really, really happy I only tried a smallish sample of the stuff. D
  • Green Jack Rippa - I've seen this around and been curious about an "English Triple" beer, and it was an interesting beer, though it came off as being incredibly boozy, which is a bit odd for an 8.5% beer. To be sure, that's not a whimpy ABV, but it's also not something I'd expect to be quite so powerfully boozy. It had a nice malt backbone too, but not enough to stand up to the booze. C+
  • Ken's Homebrewed ESB - A light take on the style, though perhaps it just seemed that way because we had this after the boozy bomb previously mentioned. Still, very easy drinking stuff, malt forward but quaffable. B
  • Wells Sticky Toffee Pudding Ale - Now, this beer club group occasionally visits an authentic (at least, to us Yanks, it seems so) British pub called The Whip Tavern. They have this rather spectacular dessert called Sticky Toffee Pudding, so hopes were somewhat high for this beer. To be sure, I was tempering my expectations by the fact that a lot of English ales, even stuff like this that is flavored with adjuncts, come off with hints of diacetyl, but in this case, my fears were unfounded. It's nowhere near as good as the actual dessert, but it had a really nice toffee/caramel character that worked really well for the beer. B
  • Chimay Tripel (White) - A beer I've obviously had many times before, and it's just as good as ever, though I seem to have veered away from a lot of the Belgian styles that initially hooked me on good beer. Still, this is a nice one. I'd probably downgrade to a B+, but it's still very nice.
  • Starr Hill Psycho Kilter - A nice take on the Scotch Ale style, certainly not a top tier effort, but a nice, malt forward, relatively low carbed beer that doesn't quite bely its relatively high 9.3% strength. B
  • Kaedrin Bomb and Grapnel (Bourbon Oaked Version) - This is the version of my RIS homebrew that was aged on bourbon soaked oak cubes. In this version, the charred oak really comes through strong. Not a ton of bourbon, though it is there. The charred oak is pretty strong at this point, which makes me think that perhaps I should have soaked the oak cubes in bourbon for longer than the 1-2 weeks I employed. Still, this turned out well, though the blended version seems to be the best version. B+
  • Lost Abbey The Angel's Share (Bourbon Barrel Aged) - A beer I've had and reviewed before. It is still pretty fantastic stuff. A-
  • Deschutes Jubelale - Another beer I've had a few times this year, and it's a nice winter warmer style beer, malt forward with lots of spice, quite enjoyable (and surprisingly did not suffer from a no doubt beleaguered palate at this point in the night). B
And that just about covers it. Already looking forward to the March beer club, where I'll be able to share some Fat Weekend IPA...

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

You might also want to check out my generalist blog, where I blather on about lots of things, but mostly movies, books, and technology.

Email me at mciocco at gmail dot com.

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