Firestone Walker Velvet Merkin

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Beer has a reputation. It's the drink of the working class, and as such, many of the craft beers out there play up subversive or lewd aspects in their marketing. Indeed, this is part of the appeal of craft beers, an indicator of non-snobbery. Unfortunately, this often translates into horrible names or sexist labels, but Firestone Walker managed to walk a fine line with this one.

As the story goes, Firestone Walker had frequently released a tap-only oatmeal stout called Velvet Merkin back in the day. They changed up the recipe frequently and once they settled on something they really wanted, they had trouble getting the label approved (for the uninitiated, a "Merkin" is a pubic wig!) So in 2010 they pivoted and released the beer, a svelt 5.5% ABV Oatmeal Stout, as Velvet Merlin. However, they continued to try and get the Velvet Merkin name approved, this time applying it to an amped up, barrel aged version of Velvet Merlin. What we end up with is the current incarnation of Velvet Merkin, an 8.5% ABV oatmeal stout aged in a variety of barrels (the 2014 vintage used Elijah Craig and Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels as well as some Rittenhouse Rye barrels). So yes, a little crude, but Firestune's packaging is it's usual classy self, and the inclusion of a little grey triangle is actually quite brilliant - this is my kinda lewd and subversive.

This has long been on my list of beers to catch up with, ever since I missed out on it back in 2012 (and had to settle for, gasp, Parabola), so I was most excited to secure a bottle. In truth, this might be the lowest ABV bourbon barrel aged beer I've ever had. Does that work? Only one way to find out:

Firestone Walker Velvet Merkin

Firestone Walker Velvet Merkin - Pours a very dark brown color with a finger of light tan head that sticks around a bit. The nose definitely goes light on the barrel character, lots of roast and coffee aromas, maybe some chocolate and hints of caramel and vanilla. The taste hits a little harder on the barrel character, faint bourbon, a nice amount of vanilla, a little roast in the middle yielding to a bit of caramel, some milk chocolate, and coffee in the finish. Mouthfeel is well carbonated but smooth and almost creamy, not as heavy or rich as your typical bourbon barrel aged beer, a little drier too. This makes it less of a sipper, though it's not really something you want to chug either. The barrel character really is rather light. Overall, this is an expertly crafted, well balanced barrel aged beer. There are some who would prefer this sort of thing to Parabola, but alas, those people are not me. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 8.5% ABV bottled (22 ounce bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 11/25/14. Vintage 2014.

I can't say as though I'm disappointed by this beer, but it's definitely not quite the amazing I was hoping for and expecting. That being said, Firestone Walker's barrel program is still held in high esteem here at Kaedrin, and you'll be seeing a couple more barrel aged wonders form these folks in the near future. Stay tuned!

FiftyFifty Old Conundrum On Wood

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We're big fans of Truckee, CA's FiftyFifty Brewing, particularly the barrel aged variants of their Eclipse stouts. Each uses the same base stout recipe, but is then aged in a different expression of bourbon (or rye) barrel. There's a surprising difference in each variant and it's a fascinating (if wallet lightening) exercise to work through them.

Given the success they've had with Eclipse, it's only natural that they have started to expand their barrel program into other styles, like this American Barleywine called Old Conundrum. The base beer is one of their staples, and they've been releasing it aged on different whiskey expressions (Eclipse style) on tap for a while. I believe this is the first year they've bottled it, though it just says "on wood" and does not seem to indicate which barrels were used (presumably a blend). So, will this live up to the example set by Eclipse? Only one way to find out:

FiftyFifty Old Conundrum On Wood

FiftyFifty Old Conundrum On Wood - Pours a murky brown color with a hint of amber (or some color more fancily named, like garnet or something) and a finger of smooth tan head. Smells great, lots of bourbon, oak, and vanilla, some dark fruit, caramel, molasses, maybe some booze. Taste starts with some dark fruit, but moves quickly into bourbon territory, hitting the caramel and molasses notes, vanilla, and a little more boozy bourbon towards the finish. Mouthfell is rich, full bodied, and chewy, tight and low but appropriate carbonation, a pleasant hint of warming booze. Overall, rock solid BA barleywine. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 9.8% ABV bottled (22 ounce bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 11/22/14. 2014 vintage.

They also make a blonde barleywine aged in bourbon barrels called Annularity, though I have not secured one of those bottles (and to be sure, I've found that lighter colored beers and bourbon barrels are not always the most enticing prospect for me... not that I'd turn it down, to be sure!) Here's to hoping I get to snag more Eclipse variants this year!

Cisco Monomoy Kriek

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Monomoy Island is located near Cisco Brewing's home base of Nantucket, and while it once sported an active community, it has long been dormant. It no longer has any human residents, no electricity, and no paved roads. The only reminder that the island was once populated is the decommissioned old lighthouse. And this beer, named it it's honor. I don't know if these islanders were famous for their cherries, but I bet they liked cherries a whole lot. I mean, who doesn't?

We all know that I've got a little woody over Cisco's The Woods series of sour beers. They're seriously some fantastic stuff, well worth seeking out (despite their wallet lightening abilities), and this beer, a 2 year old Flanders red aged in wine barrels that got a nice, 10 month long dose of cherries, is no exception.

Cisco Monomoy Kriek

Cisco Monomoy Kriek - Pours a very pretty, clear amber color with a finger of white head that quickly resolves into a ring around the edge of the glass. Smells great, cherries, vinous fruit, a little oak and vanilla, that twang that indicates sourness. Taste starts with rich malt, oak and vanilla, followed by tart fruit, cherries, vinous fruit, vinegar, and finishing with a biting sourness. Mouthfeel is decently carbonated, medium bodied, some vinegary acidity, but very well balanced. Overall, this is a fantastic sour beer, continuing a nice streak from The Woods series of beers... A-

Beer Nerd Details: 6.7% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a flute glass on 11/21/14. 2013 Vintage.

Another winner from The Woods, making me wish that I could even try that Cranberry sour I recently saw on the shelves. I may need to check that out sometime, if I see it again.

The Shape Of Hops To Come

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Neshaminy Creek has been a welcome addition to the local Philly brewing scene, producing solid beers in all sorts of styles. Nothing genuinely groundbreaking, to be sure, but they've got a nice base IPA, a good tripel, and some decent German inspired beers like their Hefeweizen or Dunk's Ferry Dunkelweizen, not to mention my favorite of their beers, Punkel Dunkel (currently called Punkless Dunkel, due to a trademark dispute) a pumpkin weizenbock. Well, now I think I've got a new favorite. Jam packed with Apollo, Newport, Simcoe, Topaz, and Citra hops, The Shape of Hops to Come is a potent look at trendy new hops. I have a passing familiarity with Apollo and Topaz, Citra and Simcoe are some of my favorite hops, and I've honestly not even heard of Newport hops. That being said, it's nice to see a local brewery branching out and really hitting it out of the park with this rock solid DIPA. Really, the only thing that's holding this particular can back is that it's higher ABV (at 9.5$ ABV) is slightly too high... but it's still one of the best local DIPAs (outside of Tired Hands, of course):

Neshaminy Creek The Shape Of Hops To Come

Neshaminy Creek The Shape Of Hops To Come - Pours a deep, dark orange color with a finger of white head that leaves plenty of lacing as I drink. Great nose, with lots of sweet citrus and dank pine hops. Taste hits hard with that dank, resinous pine character up front, lightened by some citrus in the middle, and a little booze in the bitter finish. Mouthfeel is well carbonated, medium bodied, boozy (definitely some belly warming going on as I drink), and a little sticky. The only thing really holding this back for me is that it's a little too boozy, but it still works really well. Overall, this is an excellent DIPA and a welcome addition to our local scene. A high A-

Beer Nerd Details: 9.5% ABV canned (16 ounces). Drank out of a tulip on 11.21.14.

Supposedly, an earlier batch clicked in at only 8.5% ABV, which sounds almost perfect to me at this point. A slightly less boozy version of this beer would be local royalty. As it is now, it's still pretty damn popular. Pick up a can now while you can. Totally worth it.

Logsdon Straffe Drieling

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Back when I started homebrewing, I made a tripel for my second batch. A relative neophyte, the tripel was one of my favorite styles, and I was overexcited at the prospect of making a whole 5 gallons of the stuff. As it fermented away, I anxiously tried to come up with some sort of fancy name for my beer and promptly ran into a brick wall. I've noted before that I'm terrible at naming beer and am mildly comforted when a real brewer comes up with something straightforward to their beer. Ultimately, while I enjoyed that batch of tripel, it quickly dropped off in quality, with a huge fusel alcohol quality developing, so naming it was a moot point.

Here we have Logsdon's take on a Tripel, called Straffe Drieling, or Three Sisters. It's an oblique reference to the Three Sisters mountains of Central Oregon, but also a set of triplets presumably born to the Logsdon family or somesuch. Good for them, and that's certainly a worthy name for a tripel. As per usual, though, it's what's inside the bottle that really counts. Fortunately, this David Logsdon guy knows his stuff, especially when it comes to Belgian styles:

Logsdon Straffe Drieling

Logsdon Straffe Drieling - Pours a cloudy yellow color with a couple fingers of dense white head that has good retention and leaves a bit of lacing. Smells of Belgian yeast, sweet and spicy, cloves, even a little in the way of noble hops. The taste starts sweet, but then hits strong with the Belgian yeast spice character, and perhaps some actual spices themselves, clove, coriander and the like. Mouthfeel is highly carbonated, crisp, effervescent, and fairly dry, just like a tripel should be. Overall, an excellent example of the style, if not quite reaching the exalted heights of some of Logsdon's other masterpieces. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 8.8% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a Tired Hands wine glass on 11/8/14. Bottle No. 721. Best by 05/2016.

So not quite Seizoen Bretta levels awesome (incidentally, shared another bottle of that this past weekend and once again blew some minds - it's such a fantastic beer), but a really solid take on another Belgian style. I'm always down with trying more Logsdon. Fingers crossed for some Peche 'n Brett someday. Someday.

Sly Fox Barrel Aged Nihilist

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For a state with as many breweries as Pennsylvania, it's surprising how few barrel aged stouts are out there. We've been killing it lately with barrel aged sours, but stouts and barleywines and the like seem to be much less common. Not completely absent, of course, but when it comes to massive face melting awesomeness, we're coming up a little short. The only examples that are coming to mind are highly limited one-offs like Pappy Black Magick or Whiskey Barrel Aged (not technically a stout, but close enough). Victory had a good thing going with Dark Intrigue, but they also claim they will never make it again. There are other one offs on their way (and I have another one right over here that I'll get to soon enough), but very few regularly produced local bourbon barrel aged beers.

Which is to say that when Sly Fox announced a Barrel Aged version of their Nihilist stout, I was totally on board. I enjoyed the base beer well enough, so I had really high hopes for this version, aged in Bourbon barrels. Alas, it's not quite the savior I was hoping for:

Sly Fox Barrel Aged Nihilist

Sly Fox Barrel Aged Nihilist - Pours a very dark brown color with massive amounts of fluffy, tan head (I did not pour this like an asshole, it's just saisonlike in its head generating capabilities). The head sticks around for quite a while and leaves almost a full sheath of lacing as I drink. The smell is of muted roasted malts, a little bit of whisky, not a ton of oak (though it's there). Taste is very malt forward, that roast is still quite prominent up front, with a little richness from the oak and vanilla in the middle, and a strong hop bitterness coming on in the finish. Mouthfeel is overly carbonated, which makes it seem less rich and full bodied than it probably would be without quite so much carbonation. It also has a little too much dryness for a barrel aged stout. I'm very picky about my carbonation, and usually when it comes to BA stouts, that translates as undercarbonated. This is perhaps the first time I can think of the reverse being true, but it really does hinder the enjoyment of this beer. This is not to say it's bad, just that I would have preferred less carbonation in this, and I think it would do wonders for the beer overall. B

Beer Nerd Details: 9% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a snifter on 11/7/14.

I actually have another one of these that I guess I'm just going to lay down in the cellar and see what happens after a year or two. Mayhap that carbonation will calm itself down or something...

Tired WoodLaHands

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You might not know this, but half of the United States' mushrooms come from Pennsylvania, specifically around the area of Kennett Square and surrounding towns. It's more of a historical accident than anything else, starting with industrious Quakers who couldn't bear to waste the space under elevated beds in greenhouses (and also the prodigious horseshit-production of a major city like Philadelphia). It caught on, and now we've got this growing movement of foodies who grow mushrooms in their kitchens and small artisanal farms like Woodland Jewel Mushrooms who supply local eateries with exotic gourmet mushrooms.

Given Tired Hands predilection for collaborating with local farmers, it's no surprise that they've tapped Woodland Jewel to make an Oud Bruin conditioned on Donko Shiitake mushrooms (according to Wikipedia, these are particularly high grade mushrooms, though a citation is neeeded!). This originally appeared at a beer dinner a while back, but has thankfully been bottled up and snagged by the likes of me. I like that the label features a mushroom that looks like it's watching me. Downright cyclopean, if you ask me:

Tired Hands WoodLaHands

Tired Hands WoodLaHands - Pours a very pretty dark amber color (looks great when held up to light) with a finger of fizzy off white head that nevertheless manages to stick around a bit (though not long). Smells beautiful, tart fruit (cherries), Rodenbachy vinegar with an earthy kick and plenty of oak. The earthy notes really come to the fore up front in the taste, followed by oak and vanilla in the middle, rounding out with a vinous, acetic sour fruit character towards the finish. I'm not a wine guy, but tannins. That's a word, right? Mouthfeel is hefty enough to support the flavors, well carbonated, a little sharp acidity leading directly into a drying finish. Overall, another winner from Tired Hands. Perhaps not as perfectly integrated as some of their fruited sours, but we're talking about rarified air there and this is still great. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 7% ABV bottled (500 ml waxed cap). Drank out of a flute one 11/7/14. Bottle release: 11/2/14.

One of these days, I'll have to post another recap of draft-only Tired Hands stuff. On the other hand, I probably have, like, 50 beers on that list at this point, and most of them will never see the light of day again, so perhaps I can just leave it at that.

Midnight Sun Moscow

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Midnight Sun has some notoriety in beer nerd circles due to a few of their beers showing up on the pretty ridiculous White Whale list. So they had a pretty good run at one point, and while I'm pretty sure I'll never get to try Midnight Sun M (and at this point, 5 years later, that's probably a good thing), I was interested enough to check out some of their other offerings. Moscow was first brewed as part of their 2011 World Tour series, and it must have struck a nerve, since they're still brewing it. A hefty imperial stout brewed with rye. Funny story, the TTB (the government agency which approves labels on alcoholic beverages) gave them gruff about the name and required them to put "Product of the USA" on the label. Thank goodness for government regulation. So let's open this sucker up and see what's inside:

Midnight Sun Moscow

Midnight Sun Moscow - Pours black as a politician's heart with cap of slowly forming but quickly disappearing brown head (would be really pretty if it stuck around a while longer, perhaps I just needed to pour a little stronger). Smells lightly of roasted malt with a certain rich sweetness, maybe a little caramel, perhaps some of that herbal, spicy rye. Taste features much more in the way of roasted malt, more bitter dark chocolate than coffee, with that rye spice and dryness kicking in towards the finish. Mouthfeel is well carbonated and as a result, not as rich or decadent as the nose may imply (not entirely a bad thing, to be sure), and indeed, the finish is almost dry (at least, for a beer like this). Overall, what we have here is a rock solid imperial stout, roasty with enough additional complexity to make it worth the stretch. I feel like I'm saying this a lot lately, but on the upper end of a B+

Beer Nerd Details: 11% ABV bottled (22 ounce bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 11/1/14.

A very welcome start, and I hope to seek out some of Midnight Sun's more prized regular releases, like Arctic Devil and Bezerker (No idea how easy or hard it will be to land those, but I'm an optimist). I'm glad the weather is turning cooler, as the seasonal stouts are starting to come out and play.

ShawneeCraft Frambozenbier

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More semi-local PA bangers have been showing up in the Philly area, including these ShawneeCraft fellas. I've heard nebulous mutterings of them, but on a recent beer run, I spied a few bottles in the wild that sounded intriguing. One was a Bourbon Barrel Aged Porter (sold!), and then there's this thing, a Belgian Witbier fermented with raspberries and aged in oak barrels. It's actually a blend of the barrel aged portion and some fresh beer, though the percentages aren't specified. Regardless, this is my kinda ambitious from a relatively new brewery, so let's check it out:

ShawneeCraft Frambozenbier

ShawneeCraft Frambozenbier - Pours a murky but radiant light orange, maybe peachy color with a finger of fluffy white head. Smells quite strongly of tart raspberry and pungent funk, with some oak and vanilla doing its thing, actually a very pleasant nose. Taste has a sharp sourness to it, lots of intense, tart fruit, raspberries, cherries and the like, and plenty of oak. Mouthfeel is highly carbonated, crisp, effervescent, very little stickiness, but a fair amount of acidity. Overall, it's an intense little sour, packs a punch, but also complex and actually rather delicious. Another borderline case, but I'll stick with a high B+

Beer Nerd Details: 5.75% ABV bottled (375 ml capped). Drank out of a flute glass on 10/31/14. 2014 vintage.

A very promising start, and something I hope to revisit. As mentioned above, I also snagged a bottle of the Bourbon Barrel Porter, so keep an eye out for that review...

Pizza Boy Simcoe SamuRYE

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A few years ago, Al's of Hampden was your typical PA pizza joint. For the uninitiated, Pizza is everywhere around here. I live in the suburbs, and I have about 4-5 pizza places within about half a mile radius of my house (and probably double or triple that if you make it a mile). Because of this, some places have to differentiate themselves and Al's of Hampden had glommed onto the whole Craft Beer revolution, featuring a bunch of takeout bottles* and taps. But as craft beer continued to explode, Al found that he had some trouble keeping his taps flowing, and rather than whine about it, he installed a brewhouse and started making his own beer to make up for the shortfall. It appears to be a small operation, allowing them to experiment with all sorts of weird stuff, including some barrel aging and sours and whatnot. Music to my earballs. The brewing operation is known as Pizza Boy brewing, and it's been steadily building up a good reputation amongst local beer nerds. Alas, they're located in Enola, PA (a 1-2 hour drive from Kaedrin HQ), and I've been far too lazy for far too long. Fortunately for my laziness, Pizza Boy has started to bottle some of their brews and even distribute them. I hope this is a sign of things to come, but for now, I was happy to snag one of these Red Rye IPAs made with Simcoe hops.

Pizza Boy Simcoe SamuRYE

Pizza Boy Simcoe SamuRYE - Pours a very dark amber color, almost brown, with a finger of dense, off white head that has decent retention and leaves lots of lacing as I drink. Smells amazing, lots of Simcoe's characteristic citrus and pine merged very nicely with some sugary sweet malt aromas. Taste follows the nose, lots of citrus and pine hops, a little dank, some rye spiciness with a hefty malt backbone. Mouthfeel is very well carbonated, medium to full bodied, extremely well balanced. Overall, this is among the best rye IPAs I've had. On the upper end of B+

Beer Nerd Details: 6.8% ABV bottled (22 ounce bomber). Drank out of a tulip glass on 10/31/14.

So here's the plan. On some fine day, I'll need to take a road trip to visit some PA breweries, hitting Tröegs in Hershey first, then Al's/PizzaBoy, then Selin's Grove (a place I really need to check out at some point). Round trip, I'm figuring 6-7 hours though, so don't hold your breath. I don't think I'd even attempt this until next year, but it will happen someday. Oh yes. In the meantime, I'll just have to hope that some of Pizza Boy's more interesting experimental stuff makes their way down here...

* Again, for you non-PA residents, out fine commonwealth does not generally allow for beer distributors to sell by the bottle (only by the case). This is a fact that I've bemoaned many times before, but the good news is that there is a bit of a loophole in that restaurants are allowed to sell by the bottle, hence there are several places, like Al's, that have really stepped up their selection to serve the hungry market.

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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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