Single Estate Assam

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Beer nerds can use acronyms with the best of them, though it's often just used to abbreviate our conversations and confuse new money (but really, we're just lazy and BCBCS is much easier to type than Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout). But other beverages have their own complicated nomenclature, and tea has a pretty goofy one.

Last weekend, I drank two Single Estate Assam teas. This is a category I droned on about in some detail last year, so I'll just note that it's sort of like the Single Malt Scotch of the tea world (i.e. components of blends that are released on their own), and boy do they have a fun little system (for certain values of "fun") to designate quality and grading. When you browse around for black tea, you'll often see a little jumble of letters affixed at the end, such as "Halmari Estate GFOP" or, if you're feeling more adventurous, "Oaklands Estate SFTGFOP1".

Since this is a beer blog, I'm sure you're all very excited for me to deconstruct all this tea stuff. Calm down, people! I got you covered (but seriously, beer blogging to resume in earnest later this week). The first thing to note is the "OP" designation, which stands for Orange Pekoe, which has nothing to do with fruit or whatever it is that Pekoe means in Chinese. It doesn't even really represent a flavor or quality, but rather just the size of the leaves. When the leaves are processed, they result in varying sizes. They're then sorted by size, and OP is the largest of the sizes. BOP (Broken Orange Pekoe) are smaller, and grades smaller than that are referred to as Fannings or Dust (those are mostly what you find in tea bags you get from the store).

GF stands for Golden Flowery and represents leaves harvested early in the season (usually with a golden color) and T stands for Tippy, meaning that the tea includes an abundance of tips (as opposed to buds). SF stands for Super Fine, which means exactly what you think it means. The tea nerd joke is that FTGFOP actually stands for "Far Too Good For Ordinary People" and extrapolating from that, the regular GFOP designation would mean "Good For Ordinary People"? Ah snobbery, hello my old friend/foe!

So, armed with this super duper useful knowledge of acronyms and tea nomenclature, let's drink some tea:

Single Estate Assam, Halmari Estate GFOP

Single Estate Assam - Halmari Estate GFOP - Pretty standard looking black tea here, the leaves have some light colored tips included, and the liquor is a solid brown color. The aroma is more delicate than I'm used to from black teas, malty, nutty, perhaps even a little vegetal. Taste has a nice light malt character to it, nutty, with a bit of pungency towards the finish. Mouthfeel is full bodied and slightly pungent. Strong enough that it will take milk, but not overpowering at all. The description mentions winelike character, though I got approximately none of that, maybe a little fruit in the finish but I have to really look for it. Overall, it's a solid cup of tea

Tea Nerd Details: 1 tsp for 8 ounce cup, infused at 212° for 4-5 minutes.

Single Estate Assam - Oaklands Estate SFTGFOP1 - Very similar looking, both from the inclusion of light colored tips and from the deep brown color of the resulting liquor. Aroma is also similar, with that sort of delicate vegetal character that yields to more robust, malty aromas. The taste is definitely more robust as well, a very malty flavor with a pungent wallop. Mouthfeel is full bodied and pungent. Overall, what we have here is a more powerful cup of tea, perhaps not quite as complex as the Halmari, but nice in its own right...

Tea Nerd Details: 1.5 tsp for 8 ounce cup, infused at 212° for 4-5 minutes.

Beer Nerd Details: We need to come up with a super complicated beer grading system. It would totally shut up the people who go on and on defining what "Craft" means, or at least make it all a moot point. Quality, rarity, ingredients, freshness, etc... could be used. On second thought, this would bring about the apocalypse as beer nerd fury would approach singularity levels and collapse in on itself. In other musings, perhaps the Halmari would be a good candidate (along with the Gunpowder Green from last week) for steeping along with a few hop pellets. I could probably swing that at some point, and I'd be curious how a more robust black tea would compare to the more subtle green tea in that respect (I'm guessing the green tea would be more appropriate, but who knows?) This has to be a thing already, right? I want to experiment with this a bit before I search around to see what other deviants are doing, but perhaps I could post something about this in the near future...

And we're pretty much at the finish line now. Beer blogging will resume posthaste!

Green Tea Double Feature

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Wimpy non-alcoholic beverage tastings continue with a pair of green teas that were paired with two of the more interesting horror movies I've seen lately. It Follows is a fantastic 80s throwback horror film, very tense and well executed, but doesn't really stick the ending. Spring isn't really horror and actually approaches romance, though there are monsters and stuff. Neither is perfect, but both are unusual and adventurous takes on normally stale stories. Worth checking out if horror is your thing.

Similarly, I really enjoyed both of these green teas, even if neither really knocked my socks off. The first one is a Gunpowder tea, meaning that the leaves have been rolled up into small pellet. Some say this looks like gunpowder, but as someone who reloaded bullets for years, I don't really see the resemblance. Regardless, I had no idea what it was when I ordered it, so it was interesting to see the little nuggets of tea. As for the other descriptors, Temple of Heaven refers to the most common style of gunpowder tea that is sometimes called Pinhead or Pingshui. What makes this Special Grade is anyone's guess though. Perhaps actual gunpowder is included.

Special Grade Temple of Heaven Gunpowder Green Tea - Leaves were very different than the green I had last year, almost nugget-like in appearance. The liquor itself is a very light, pale yellowish color (more brown than green, though not really brown). Smell has a mild vegetative aroma, a little grassy. Taste is also a little on the mild side, that light grassy character comes through well enough. Mouthfeel is light and clean, with a little pungent but pleasant kick on the sides of my tongue. Overall, it feels like a very nice, everyday cup of green tea. Not going to overpower you with anything, but tasty nonetheless.

Tea Nerd Details: 1 tsp for an 8 ounce cup, infused at 180° for 4 minutes.

Next up, I went for a flavored green tea. I've had some cheap, prepackaged Chai Green Teas before, and I really like that combination. The spices are quite strong, but the green has just enough oomph to not get lost in the shuffle, which makes for a lighter cup than black chai...

Green Chai Tea

Chai Green Tea - Leaves are more traditional and have a bunch of spices intersperced throughout, appearance of the liquor is more green this time. As you'd expect, the chai spice is all over the nose, less cinnamon than I'm generally accustomed to, but cinnamon, clove, cardamom, etc... are all there, layered on top of the more delicate green tea aromas. The taste has more green tea than the nose, a little vegetal, a little grassy, and then the spice layers on top of that in a very nice way. It seems well balanced! Overall, I really like this, almost better than black chai teas...

Tea Nerd Details: 1 tsp for an 8 ounce cup, infused at 180° for 3 minutes.

Beer Nerd Musings: There are lots of beers that are explicitely called out as Chai-spiced, but there are probably plenty of Winter Warmers or Pumpkin beers that use a similar spice regimen as well. Some beers are even made with chai tea, though I don't think any use green chai tea, which is mildly interesting. In any case, one of the things I've noticed with flavored teas is that the leaves are often interspersed with actual spices, flowers, or peels, and I'm actually wondering what it'd be like to throw a hop pellet or two into the infuser when I make a cup of, for example, the Gunpowder green (not the chai one, as the spices would probably clash with the hops). The vegetal nature of green tea might match very well with the hops, and since we're only infusing for 3-4 minutes, we don't have to worry about bitterness or anything like that. We'd just, hopefully, get a pleasant hop aroma that would add complexity to the green tea without overpowering it or even feeling particularly weird. I... need to try this. I will make it happen this weekend.

In the final homestretch now, my triumphant return to beer will be this weekend. It will actually be a transition weekend, and you can expect a bourbon and beer double feature, with the beer having been aged in the bourbon barrels - most exciting! Otherwise, I've got some Single Estate black teas that I'd like to try this weekend, not to mention the hop tea experiment...

Ardbeg Corryvreckan

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One of the goofy things about Scotch is that most of it is aged in old Bourbon barrels. This is partly a result of the large secondary barrel market that emerged from the legal definition of bourbon, but it also means that the whisky can sit in the barrels for much longer without getting over-oaked. Other barrels previously used for the likes of wine, sherry, rum, and other exotic fortified wines are also frequently used in Scotch production. As a result, there aren't many Scotches that are aged in new oak casks.

Enter Ardbeg, known for their intensely peat smoked whisky expressions and tricksy celtic naming conventions, they're a Kaedrin favorite. Their 10 year made me realize that I should just stop worrying and embrace the peat, while the Uigeadail remains a fascinating spin on the Ardbeg style that really grew on me as I worked my way through a bottle.

Corryvreckan, named after some famous whirlpool or such, was originally an Ardbeg Committee exclusive. The Ardbeg Committee seems to be roughly the Scotch equivalent of something like The Bruery's Reserve Society or, perhaps more relevant to me, Tired Hands' Believer's Club. Membership provides certain benefits, including exclusive bottlings, and so on. The Committee release of Corryvreckan was originally aged in first fill French oak, with some sort of wine cask finish (Bordeaux?) rumored. I should note at this point that exact details on the casks seem a bit sketchy, and I've seen various different descriptions around the internets, but I do know that it's always been an NAS whisky. Anywho, the Committee bottling was so successful that Ardbeg decided to bring it back as a regular offering, though the casks on this version seem to be a blend of new American oak and old Bourbon casks (again, conflicting reports of a Burgundy wine component as well). This is what I have here, so let's take a look:

Ardbeg Corryvreckan

Ardbeg Corryvreckan - Pours a deep golden yellow color with some pretty mean legs. Smells of peat and light smoke that's been mellowed out by some vanilla, maybe even some toffee or caramel peek through, with some peppery spice added in for fun. When I first opened the bottle, I was a little disappointed as it seemed like the nose would sorta clam up over time, getting less and less interesting as it went on. For whatever reason, it seems to be holding up well right now, and it's actually a pretty fantastic nose. That new oak comes through well, I think. Taste features lots of peat, more tar and smoke than the nose implied, almost meaty, some of that peppery spice, followed in the long finish by booze and peat smoke. It's certainly Ardbeg through and through, but the peaty smoke feels a bit less prominent here than it does in the other expressions I've had. Like the nose, when I first opened the bottle it seemed to fall off with time, but it seems pretty great right now (perhaps it's just my beer baby palate, not used to the cask strength ABV). My guess: This is a NAS whisky, but I'm thinking it's very young... Mouthfeel is big and burly, viscous, coats your mouth pretty well, long finish, very hot (as usual, take into account my beer baby palate). A little water smooths it out some, but it also reduces the impact of the nose (which is still quite nice). Overall, it makes for another great spin on the classic Ardbeg character, and the 10 year, Uigeadail, and Corryvreckan are a great core trio in their lineup. Uigeadail seems to be the favorite, but I have to say that I might still be more in the bag for the 10 year. Go figure. Still, the new oak component of this is really nice, and it's well worth trying

Whisky Nerd Details: 57.1% ABV bottled (750 ml, about 2/3 left). Drank out of a Glencairn glass on 3/28/14. Bottle Code: L14 048 11:13 6ML (basically, it's an early 2014 bottle - see full breakdown of bottle codes here)

Beer Nerd Musings: In last year's review of Uigeadail, I mentioned one of the biggest surprises I've had with beer in Yeastie Boys' most excellent peat-malt-based Rex Attitude, a beer I've not seen around much since I initially procured that bottle (let alone the doubled version XeRRex, which I'd love to try someday). There are plenty of beers aged in old Ardbeg casks, but Islay casks and beer tend to have a contentious relationship. Even big, burly stouts will sometimes wilt when faced with the awesome power of peat smoked whisky. That being said, I might take a flier on an Ardbeg barrel aged beer at some point, just to see what's up. Perhaps low expectations will yield a more favorable result.

So there you have it. I was more of a bourbon man this year than last year and I think this will end up being the only Scotch I get to during this temporary detour from beer (which, excitingly, is fit to end this weekend). Up next, more tea, and next week, we'll finish off the non-beer stuff with another bourbon and perhaps even more tea. Not sure what's next for me on the Scotch front. Ardbeg does some specialty bottlings and one-offs, but I feel like I should probably venture out to some other Islay distilleries. I recently tried some Lagavulin 16, which was fantastic, and some Laphroig 10, which was cromulent, but not particularly special. I'll have to see what I can get my greedy paws on the next time I head down to State Line Liquors (who seem to have the best selection around here)...

TerraNoble Carmenere Gran Reserva

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Coming down the homestretch of my temporary detour from beer, we've got another wine recommendation from PA Vine Co and current PA Chairman's Selection. In last year's limited wine sampling, I went with two relatively straightforward wines: A Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir. This year, I hit up a pretty standard varietal with a Merlot, but also gravitated towards some weirder, funkier, more obscure grapes that I'd never heard of, like the Sagrantino and now, a Carmenere.

Carmenere has its origins in Bordeaux, France as one of the six original grapes used in blending, but has mostly fallen out of use. It is now primarily grown in Chile, which is where this particular bottle comes from. The grape is a member of the Cabernet family and is frequently compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, though it seems to be a little more funky and intense than I usually think of Cabernet Sauvignon being... (though perhaps that Chilean terroir is the culprit there?)

TerraNoble Carmenere Gran Reserva

TerraNoble Carmenere Gran Reserva 2011 - Pours a deep purple color with amber highlights, lots of legs. Smells roasty, almost charred, like coffee (or tar), it's got some fruitiness lurking in the background, but it's really that almost smoky tar that dominates the nose. The taste starts with all sorts of fruit, cherries, blueberries, raspberries, and so on, with more earthy notes hitting later in the taste, tobacco, leather, coffee, spice, also some oak playing around, and finishing back with the fruit. Very intense, lots going on, with a complex, long finish. Mouthfeel is on the lower end of full bodied, rich and smooth, dry (but not extreme), a little acidic. It's not quite the Sagrantino-level monster of funk that absolutely must be paired with rich food, but it's got a similar funkiness going on. I can drink this by itself, though it obviously pairs very well with rich foods. Overall, I like this a lot, intense complex and funky, though it doesn't feel as integrated as the Sagrantino. Also, while I love how odd and intense this wine is, my legendary ambivalence to all things coffee isn't really doing this any favors (a matter of taste, not the fault of the wine itself) I suspect age would treat this well though, and I might grab a bottle to see what happens. I'll give it a B, but it's a fascinating B and well worth a shot for the adventurous (as with the Sagrantino, beer lovers who go in for novelty and funky flavors will probably get a kick out of this)...

Wine Nerd Details: 13.5% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a wine glass on 3/20/15. Vintage: 2011.

Food Pairing: Went pretty straightforward with this one, with a pan seared New York strip, Port-Wine Mushroom Sauce, and some of that leftover risotto (aka hot wet rice) from last week. It was glorious, even if I wasn't a huge fan of that sauce that I made...

Beer Nerd Musings: This is the closest thing to a stout I've tried in wine, and I honestly didn't think I'd ever be saying something like that. Red wine barrels tend to be used for sour beers, but they're usually familiar varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. These weird, funky wines might work well with non-sours. This one in particular, with its roasty coffee tobacco notes that come out almost smoky or tarry, might work really well on its own with a big imperial stout. Would a coffee stout overpower the character of these barrels? I'm guessing it would - it would be more interesting to see if you could get the sorta coffee notes out of the roasted malt's interplay with these barrels. Maybe even a barleywine or Scotch ale could work with this. I'm sure darker sours and things like a Flanders Red would work in these barrels as well. Alas, I cannot find a single example of a Carmenere barrel aged beer.

So there you have it. If you're into novelty and love yourself some coffee stouts, this is worth a try. At $12.99, it's a pretty good deal too (if you happen to be in PA). Next week we've got some Scotch and Tea, and then our road converges back into beer!

The Enigma of Dry Hopping

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My Crom-approved, Conan yeast DIPA (tentatively titled The Enigma of Steel) has been happily fermenting away for about two weeks now, and it's been dry hopped for the past week or so. In previous batches, I only dry hopped with 1 or 2 ounces, but this time, I went with two additions of 2 ounces, because why not? Can't have enough aroma, I say. So here's what I used:

1 oz. Citra (first addition, about 8 days)
1 oz. Galaxy (first addition, about 8 days)
1 oz. Citra (second addition, about 3 days)
1 oz. Amarillo (second addition, about 3 days)

That Galaxy smelled absolutely fantastic, and makes me want to do a down under IPA of some sort (incorporating stuff like Motueka and Riwaka, maybe Nelson Sauvin). Anywho, kegging will commence in the next couple days, and I'm really looking forward to this sucker. The fermenter itself smells rather awesome. Cannot wait.

Update 3/26/15: And it's in the keg! It smells absolutely amazing. All sorts of juicy tropical fruits, just a little floral character, pretty much exactly what I was going for. Now I just need to force carbonate it. This is going to be so great. The little sample in the picture below is a bit on the turbid side because all the sediment is coming out of the keg right now, but it has a nice light color and will look great once the yeast settles and gets expelled...

Crom Approved

Final Gravity: 9 Bx, which translates to 1.012 and about 8.1% ABV. This is definitely a higher attenuation than I was expecting (somewhere around 83%), but it seems to be working out well enough. The bitterness in what I sampled seemed pretty light (exactly what I wanted), so the high attenuation actually matches my strategy well.

Trying to decide what my next batch will be. I was originally thinking about some sort of summer saison, but I might be able to squeeze something in before it gets warmer out...

Update 3/29/15: It appears that my zeal in dry hopping and lack of vigilance in transferring the beef from the fermenter to the keg means that too much hop sediment made its way into the keg and have now clogged up the dip tube (i.e. the tube thingy that the beer goes through on its way to the tap). This is most distressing! I tried letting it sit a couple of days, I tried agitating the keg a bit, and I even tried throwing the CO2 line in through the out connector (i.e. shooting CO2 down the dip tube), but it's still clogged. I was really hoping to get this resolved without having to crack open the keg, but that seems unlikely at this point. I'm pretty sure I'm going to lose some aroma when I release the pressure, and I want to avoid doing that as much as possible. I actually grabbed another keg, and will be racking the beer from the clogged keg to the new one, being extra careful while transferring to ensure no sediment makes its way through (will probably use one of those mesh strainer bags over the end of the racking cane to minimize debris). Lesson learned!

Earl Grey Teas

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And so we enter the non-alcoholic portion of our temporary detour from beer (need to come up with a better name for this). For shame, I guess. But after the week I had (it was fat weekend, which entails exactly what you think it would entail), this was probably a good idea. Glorious tea™ drinking will continue for the next couple of weeks.

We start with Earl Grey tea. I've already gone over the boring historical bits, so that leaves the Star Trek connection. As if you didn't already know that I first glommed onto Earl Grey tea because Jean-Luc Picard was legendarily fond of this particular variety. This being the internets, there are of course plenty of nerdy discussions about replicator syntax (why wouldn't you just say "hot Earl Grey tea"? Perhaps because "it produce a reasonable facsimile of the Earl himself, steeped in tea?") and much in the way of merchandise. That being said, I like the note of citrus that's added to the black tea base, so I thought I'd check out a few different varieties.

Two are flavored with stuff not normally associated with tea, but as someone used to the rough and tumble adjunct game in the beer world, this does little to phase me. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. Make it so:

Chocolate Earl Grey tea leaves

Chocolate Earl Grey - Leaves are very pretty and you can see actual chocolate chunks and some sort of citrus peel (apparently lemon) in there as well as some flowers (pictured above). The liquor is on the orange side of brown, it looks like a little sediment made its way in there too (probably my fault). Smell is dominated by that chocolate, not much else peeks through, maybe just the faintest hint of citrus. Taste is not quite as strong as the nose would imply, but it's got a little of that chocolate and the citrus comes out much more in the taste (especially towards the finish), all overlaying the typical black tea base. Mouthfeel is a little thin (I may not have used enough leaves and/or too much water) but very easy to drink as a result. Overall, I like this, a nice change of pace from the typical Earl Grey, though not exactly a replacement. The Chocolate feels a bit strange here, not artificial at all, but perhaps not quite right either. I'll have no problem finishing off my sample size packet, but it's probably not something I'd go for again...

Tea Nerd Details: 1 tsp for 8 ounce cup, steeped for 4 minutes at 212°.

Saint Isaac's Blend Russian Earl Grey Tea - Russia has a strong tea culture, often resorting to flavored black tea blends (Earl Grey a good fit!) and using ornate brewing vessels and those awesome gilded metal and glass cups (that I always associate with The Hunt for Red October). More of a standard looking black tea here, nice leaves, slightly less orange liquor than the chocolate version. Smells of a malty black tea and hints of that bergamot to lighten things up a bit. The taste has that malty feel you get from black tea up front, followed by a hint of that citrus on the back end. The citrus seems more subtle here, lurking in the background and reinforcing the base black tea character rather than overpowering. Mouthfeel is big and burly, but not too assertive, smooth and mellow. Overall, a very interesting, subtle take on your typical Earl Grey. I like it very much.

Tea Nerd Details: 1 tsp for 8 ounce cup, steeped for 5 minutes at 212°.

Vanilla Creme Earl Grey - Another more standard looking black tea, more brown than the above two. Smell has massive amounts of vanilla. I usually hate absurdly specific or weird descriptors, but this is totally a vienna finger aroma right here (i.e. vanilla creme cookies), with only faint hints of underlying black tea. The taste is more restrained, with the black tea components coming to the fore and the vanilla creme adding a little zing. Mouthfeel is somewhere between the above two - not thin, but not quite burly either. Overall, I really enjoy this one too, and it's another nice change of pace from your typical Earl Grey, though like the Chocolate version, it's not really a replacement. Again, there's that sorta weird, almost artificial flavor going on here that actually works well enough. Still not sure I'd go for more of this, though I think I liked it better than the Chocolate (I guess we'll find out as I finish off these samples).

Tea Nerd Details: 1 tsp for 8 ounce cup, steeped for 4 minutes at 212°.

Beer Nerd Musings: The two extra flavored varieties I tried remind me of Southern Tier's Choklat and Creme Brulee, though the imperial stout base comes through a little stronger than the black tea base does in the teas above. There are, of course, numerous beers made with chocolate and vanilla, but those two came to mind first (and if you've got a sweet tooth, they're worth checking out). I've mentioned beers brewed with tea before, like Dogfish Head's Sah'tea, and then, of course, there's my own tea experiment, when I used Earl Grey tea in an English Bitter homebrew (it turned out great, though the tea was not meant to be a hugely assertive character).

And there you have it, the first tea reviews of the year. Look for a few others before this accursed detour from beer ends (in about 11 days, not that I'm counting. Ok, fine, I'm counting. You got a problem with that? Fine, be like that.) And there'll probably be some wine and scotch as well, because why not?

Stag's Leap Merlot

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I've never particularly cared for the movie Sideways. It was well done and entertaining enough, I guess, but it never really resonated with me. The main character of Miles, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti, was just not my kinda guy and as a beer nerd, he represented one of the foolish reasons why beer and wine shared some sort of supposed enmity. Or something. I never really got it, and real beer and/or wine enthusiasts are pretty comfortable with both worlds. Not being particularly knowledgeable in the world of wine (as has been frequently established during the tenure of this website, I'm the worst), I never really picked up on how insecure and ignorant the character was. It turns out that Miles isn't nearly as much of an expert on wine as he wishes he was.

So his exhortation that he will not be "drinking any fucking Merlot!", while apparently swaying the entire country from drinking Merlot for, like, 5 years, never really held much influence with me. It appears to be one of the key components in Bordeaux wines (which seem to be the most highly sought after wines in the world, commanding ridiculous prices, etc...) and wines like Pétrus (which is all Merlot) certainly didn't suffer from Miles' wanking. So when a buddy of mine recommended this particular wine to me, I was totally on board.

When I bought it, the guy at the store seemed impressed by my selection, noting that Stag's Leap was a venerable producer. Looking into it now, it seems this particular wine is not made at their vineyards, but sourced from other Napa Valley producers. Whatever the case, it turned out well enough that I'd be curious to try more from them, and it was so different from the Sagrantino I had the night before that it made for a really nice contrast.

Stags Leap Merlot

Stag's Leap Merlot - Pours a deep, dark red color, beautiful reddish purple highlights and some decent legs on it. Smell is fruit forward, lots of jammy blackberries and raspberries, maybe a hint of something herbal or spicy, a very nice oak and vanilla opens up after some time. The smell reminds me of something that I can't quite place; it's quite nice though. Taste has a sweet richness to it that is very nice, lots of fruit jam again, blackberries, raspberries, jammy, plenty of oak and vanilla character, hints of spice and low tannins in the finish. Mouthfeel is silky smooth, a little rich, full bodied, sweet. Not much in the way of dryness at all. Overall, this is pretty fantastic! Perhaps not as complex as last night's Sagrantino, but it's a very well balanced and delicious wine, and it's also something that can work well on its own (i.e. doesn't need to match with food and can be drunk by itself, though it does so just fine). I'm really glad I tried two wines that just happened to be so very different. I actually finished the whole bottle, which I think says something! A- though, again, what the hell do I know?

Wine Nerd Details: 13% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a wine glass on 3/14/15. Vintage: 2011.

Food Pairing: I actually spent much more time working on the pairing with this than I did with the Sagrantino (though I think I probably could have reversed the wines for each meal and done just as well). I made a pan seared duck breast and hot wet rice (aka risotto), and the Merlot did an admirable job matching with the meal, though as noted above, it worked just as well on its own (no need to pair this with food) and went down quite easy.

Beer Nerd Musings: Merlot barrels have been used for a few sour beers, notably BFM's Abbaye De Saint Bon-Chien beers (which include a large variety of barrels). Merlot grapes were used in Cantillon's Saint Lamvinus, along with Cabernet Franc, all aged in old Bordeaux barrels. Both European beers, but also both tremendous and well respected in their own right (seriously, just try to find a bottle of Saint Lamvinous for less than $50 in the states). I don't know of any American beers that are specifically called out as using Merlot barrels, but I wouldn't be surprised (still, I tend to see a lot more Cabernet or Chardonnay barrels than anything else). Obviously, many sour beers have a sweet, fruity vinous feel to them that matches the experience here.

So there you have it. Miles is full of shit, and that was kind of the point. That being said, I'd love to try one of the Cabernet Sauvignons from Stag's Leap (alas, they seem prohibitively expensive)...

Villa Mora Montefalco Sagrantino

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Non-beer drinking continues with a weekend full of wine, but since my wine knowledge is minimal, I looked around for recommendations. This particular selection has its origins in a Beer Lover's Guide to Wine that was posted by a friend of mine right after last year's Philly Beer Week. It seems to be a great overview of wine from a beery perspective. When he recommended a bunch of wines based on local beers, and one of the options was "Whatever's on draft at Tired Hands", I knew I had to check it out. The particular bottle recommended was, of course, no longer available, but when I spoke with the author, he mentioned that it was really about the grape: Sagrantino.

It's a pretty rare grape, only cultivated in the village of Montefalco and its surrounding areas, and is little known outside of the region of Umbria in Central Italy. It seems to be a somewhat common component in blends, but wines like this particular bottle are produced exclusively from Sagrantino grapes and feature a DOCG status designation (basically noting that the wine is produced within a specified region using defined methods and meeting a certain degree of quality). The vineyards are located in a bowl surrounded by mountains, and the soil is primarily comprised of clay with limestone and sand. The weather tends towards extremes, heat in the summer and cold in the winter, but the hardy soil protects the grapes from extreme heat and the mountains provide a cool breeze at night. The grape fell into obscurity for a while, but has received a renewed interest in the past few decades.

Sagrantino is known as an exceedingly tannic, astringent red grape. For the uninitiated, tannins in wine are derived from the grape skin and provide a certain amount of bitterness and mouth-drying feeling (similar to how hops provide bitterness to beer, though in this case the tannins are built right into the grape itself). This generally yields a very dry wine with a full body that matches well with hearty meals.

Villa Mora Montefalco Sagrantino

2008 Villa Mora Montefalco Sagrantino - Pours a deep, dark red color, beautiful highlights when held up to light, moderate legs. Smells fantastic. Sweet, dark fruit, plums and the like are certainly present, but there's something earthy and rustic that really sets it apart. Leather, tobacco, oak, maybe even chocolate. Taste starts with all those earthy notes, quickly movies into dark fruit territory, plums, cherries, blackberries and the like, then a wall of tannins hit in the dry finish along with the return of those earthy flavors. Mouthfeel is full bodied, extremely dry, and a little astringent. It goes fantastic with rich foods, but is a bit too much to handle on its own. Overall, this is indeed quite funky and the Tired Hands comparison is not entirely unwarranted. Rustic, funky, robust, and complex, I quite enjoyed it. A- I guess, though I don't know where I get off rating wines. I'm the worst.

Wine Nerd Details: 14.5% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a wine glass on 3/13/15. Vintage: 2008.

Food Pairing: I didn't quite realize how important the food pairing would be with this wine, but I did have two separate things that went reasonably well. The first was a stromboli with Italian sausage, green peppers, and basil (along with the typical red sauce and mozzarella) that was quite hearty and matched well with the wine. Later, I had some charcuterie of wild boar that actually worked well too (supposedly, wild boar is a regional pairing, so it seems I chose well on this particular occasion). From what I can understand, this wine would go very well with various grilled red meats, so that's also an option.

Beer Nerd Musings: I don't know of any beers aged in Sagrantino barrels, though I'd be really curious about the result of such an endeavor. What effect would the high tannins have on the finished beer? I could see these barrels working for both sours and non-sour beers (though given the relatively exclusive nature of the grape, I imagine access to the barrels would be somewhat limited - perhaps there's some enterprising Italian brewers taking advantage of the situation). Obviously there's a parallel between tannins and hops, though it's not really a one to one comparison. Still, the earthy, funky components of this wine do really demonstrate just how extreme the differences in red wine can actually be (it wasn't quite so clear until Saturday, when I opened a Merlot that was exceedingly different from this wine - more details on Thursday).

So there you have it, a very interesting wine. I've already snagged a couple bottles for my cellar and plan on aging them a while (supposedly the high tannin content is actually very conducive to this sort of thing).

Charbay R5

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We continue our temporary tour through other realms of boozy glory with a rather unusual whiskey. Charbay is a small distillery and winery located in Napa Valley, and amongst whiskey nerds, they are most famous for distilling beer. Now, technically all whiskey is distilled from something called beer and the process for making that beer is similar, but it's usually not hopped beer. With Charbay we're talking about finished, commercial beer, hops and all. In this case, the R5 is distilled from Bear Republic's flagship IPA, Racer 5, then aged in French Oak barrels for 29 months.

The process used by Charbay is apparently mildly controversial in that it's not entirely clear if the whiskey is just pure distillate or if they've actually added hops later in the distillation process. Hops are certainly a volatile ingredient, one that does not respond favorably to heat or time very well. I would not be surprised at all if they did some form of dry hopping after the distillation process is complete (i.e. after the heat is applied), but the details are not actually known.

Racer 5 is made with copious amounts of American C hops (Chinook, Cascade, Columbus, and Centennial), which would leave me to believe the result would be citrusy and floral, with a little bit of hop spice and maybe some herbal character as well. A pretty standard American IPA profile. If it turns out that Charbay is dry hopping (or using some other technique), I would be doubly curious as to what varieties they're using. Not to give away the review, but I really enjoyed this whiskey. While very hoppy, I probably would not have guessed American C hops from what I get out of this whiskey. Could be due to the distillation and aging process, or it could be that they're dry hopping with noble hops or something (possibly all of the above). Not that this means anything, because my hop detection skills aren't that finely tuned. Whatever the case, they're doing something right, as this is some unique and tasty hooch.

This is naturally right up my alley. When I first learned of this concept and saw, for example, Sku's general enthusiasm, I was determined to track down a bottle of this stuff. It's a bit pricey, but I'm glad I took the plunge. Let's take a closer look:

Charbay R5

Charbay R5 - Pours a light golden yellow color with moderate legs. Smell has that distinctive new make character to it, but the hops come through strong. More floral up front than I would expect from all the American C hops in Racer 5, but that citrus is peeking in as well. And truth be told, I tend to think of Centennial and Columbus as being more floral than citrusy anyway, so perhaps that's not too surprising. Taste again features new make booze, but the hops save the day. Like the nose, the hops are floral and almost spicy up front, but provide a more citrusy honey-like note towards the finish. Mouthfeel has a nice spiciness to it, a little heat too. Maybe that's just may baby palate talking though, as all whiskey has a little harsh heat for me. Overall, this is a fascinating dram of whiskey here. The hops come through, but not quite in exactly the way I expected. Nevertheless, I enjoy drinking this and am quite happy with the purchase (despite the relatively high price tag). B+

Whiskey Nerd Details: 99 proof, 49.5% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 3/8/15. Lot: R5 511A (this was the 2014 release).

Beer Nerd Musings: Aside from several other Charbay variants on the theme, there are a bunch of other spirits that are distilled from drinking beer. There's one called Son's of Liberty that claims it starts as an IPA (not specified whether it's a commercial version or one they make themselves) that is distilled, aged, and then dry hopped with Citra and Sorachi Ace (which are some pretty fantastic choices). This seems to mostly be a small distillery thing, and I do have to wonder how more mature whiskey would react. Sku mentions a 12 year old version of distilled pilsner that was made for the LA Whiskey Society, and according to some reviews, the hop character has faded somewhat (or been overtaken by the oak, or both), even if it's still described as excellent whiskey.

I would be curious to see what other beers would make a good base for this sort of treatment. In terms of hoppy beer, I'd look at something like a Tired Hands or Hill Farmstead IPA. They both have super citrusy, juicy takes on the style (which I suspect is due partially to the yeast they use as well as the use of newer aroma hops). Would that character survive distillation? Or would that bright citrus turn into dank pine in time (nothing wrong with that either, to my mind)? Anchor made a spirit out of their vaunted Christmas beer called White Christmas, where I assume the spices would come through in the finished product.

I suspect the barrels used for this whiskey would not be the best to use for beer. The subtle hop character would get blown away by big, assertive stouts, or would get lost in the mix of a hoppy barleywine and new make whiskey doesn't quite integrate with beer as well as moderately aged stuff. That being said, there's really only one way to find out. I'm clearly not an expert on this stuff.

Well there you have it. Stay tuned for some wine reviews next week... and a couple weeks after that, a triumphant return to beer.

Orphan Barrels

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Beer nerds are familiar with all sorts of marketing hooey, mostly from the Bud/Miller/Coors behemoths (Triple Hops Brewed? Wow!), so it's not surprising to see it in other realms of boozy glory. The whiskey world seems particularly susceptible, as the high costs in producing well-aged juice mean most of the best stuff is produced at distilleries owned by multi-national corporate entities.

Enter Diageo's Orphan Barrel project, a series of high-age bourbons they said had been sitting "lost" in one of their warehouses and only recently rediscovered, a claim that lasted about as long as it took Chuck Cowdery to write a blog entry (I'm going to guess somewhere on the order of 20 minutes). The marketing and faux claims of "limited" availability clearly cheesed off folks who take this thing seriously (and marketing in general seems to strike a bad chord no matter what we're talking about; even craft breweries get slammed for marketing when it works a little too well, like Brew Dogs, etc...), but as I always say, it's what's in the bottle that counts. I'll let others recount the history in more detail, but while the marketing gives people hives, most people seem to be agreeable when it comes to the juice itself.

The two Orphan Barrel bourbons that I've had are very similar on paper. Both are 20 years old, 90 proof, and they use the same mashbill (75% corn, 13% rye, and 12% barley - Though I've seen conflicting reports). The whiskey newbie will invariably glom onto some poorly informed heuristics in choosing a whiskey, and one of the most common refrains is that "older is better", a sentiment that I admit I find somewhat appealing myself. Intellectually, I can understand the tradeoffs at play here. Older is certainly older and usually rarer and more expensive, but not necessarily better. Thanks to the Angel's Share, there's going to be a lot less older bourbon than younger bourbon (even in the same number of barrels).

I've read lots of bourbon nerds who claim that old bourbon is over oaked and undrinkable and, like, those bottles of Pappy 23 they have in their bunker are really nothing special. That's great, but I've found that the best way to tell what I like is to go out and try a bunch of stuff, and most 20+ year old bourbons are either prohibitively expensive (I could spring for a $215 bottle of Elijah Craig 23, I guess) or impossible to get a hold of. And look, I get it. I jump through incredible hoops and pay absurd premiums to get a taste of beers that are sometimes not worth the effort, so I can understand the impulse to impart such wisdom. Still, I like that these Orphan Barrel bourbons are extra-aged, readily available, and while expensive, not nearly as costly as other comparably aged bottles (Barterhouse cost about a third of that EC23 bottle... though who knows how the quality compares).

And now I know what over-oaked bourbon tastes like. As someone obsessed with barrel aged beer, the notion of "over-oaked" wasn't quite a turnoff, but now that I've had some, I can say I'm a little more mixed than I thought I would be. So last Saturday, I poured myself a dram of each and compared and contrasted:

Orphan Barrel Bourbons, Barterhouse and Rhetoric
(Click to Embiggen)

Barterhouse - Pours a golden orange color with moderate legs. Smells of oak (almost sawdust), a little vanilla and corn, lots and lots of spice. Taste also hits those spicebox notes pretty hard but it's really quite oaky and dry. Mouthfeel is minerally and dry. Very, very dry (not like red wine dry, but for bourbon, it's very dry). A little spicy kick in the finish along with the booze. Overall, a pretty solid little number, lots of oak and very dry. I can finally see what people talk about when they say that older whiskey is "over oaked", even if I feel like this comports itself well, even if the oak is the dominant character. It's not particularly well integrated, but I'm enjoying it well enough. B

Whiskey Nerd Details: 90 proof, 45% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 3/7/15. 20 years old.

Rhetoric - On paper, very similar stats, but the plan for Rhetoric is to release an older version every year (i.e. 2015 will see 21 year old Rhetoric, 2016 will be 22 years old, etc... on to 25 year old). Looks about the same and shares a lot of the same characteristics. Nose is woody and dry, a little lighter on the spicebox, not as corny either, though it has a nice almost caramelly aroma. There's something lighter playing around the edges here too, not quite fruity (though it may have been like that when this was, say, 15 years old or something - now I think the oak is really trying to overtake that). Taste follows along. Less spice than Barterhouse, just as much if not more of that dry oak. Does not feel quite as complex as Barterhouse, reliant more on the oak here. Overall, unbalanced but still a decent dram, cut from the same cloth as Barterhouse, but with subtle differences. I like Barterhouse better, but would be really curious to try the 21 year old (or 22 year old, when that comes to pass). B

Whiskey Nerd Details: 90 proof, 45% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 3/7/15. 20 years old.

Beer Nerd Musings: My scientifically wild ass guess is that older barrels aren't necessarily the best to use for aging beer. The oak seems to be spent, so the only thing the barrel imparts in the beer is a whole lot of bourbon. Unless, that is, you age the beer for a very, very long time (Bourbon County Rare spent 2 years in Pappy 23 barrels and is a prized brew, though I've never had the opportunity to try it). That being said, I have to wonder how well these bourbons would work in a homebrew that used fresh oak chips/cubes... something that's probably not realistic at this price point. Also, I'd totally hit up some more beers aged in very old barrels, just to be able to confirm my hypothesis.

So there you have it. These are far from my favorite bourbons, but they are not bad at all and I have to admit that I'm pretty curious about the other Orphan Barrel entries (Particularly the 15 year old Forged Oak, which maybe won't be so insanely oaky, despite its name?) And there is something romantic about really old whiskey that's worth considering as well. If I've learned anything from beer, it's that rare tastes so much better than not-rare. /sarcasm

In the meantime, look for another whiskey review on Thursday (this one will be of particular interest to beer nerds). This weekend is looking like wine, so expect a couple posts next week. Then there's Pliny the Younger day and Fat Weekend to contend with, followed by some more bourbon, at least one Scotch, and whatever else I feel like drumming up during my temporary detour away from the glorious world of beer.

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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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