Garde Dog

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Maryland's Flying Dog brewery has never really wowed me with a beer. On the other hand, they've rarely disappointed. Looking through my ratings, almost everything is in the B- to B range, even for well respected stuff like Raging Bitch IPA and their Gonzo Porter. They seem to make well crafted beers, so it's not like I dislike them or anything and I have to admit that their distinctive Ralph Steadman artwork always catches my eye... Also, they've been doing some interesting seasonal stuff of late, like this new Spring offering, a relatively lightweight Bière de Garde that still manages to pack a nice punch:

Flying Dog Garde Dog

Flying Dog Garde Dog - Pours a clear golden color with lots of fluffy white head. Smells of musty Belgian yeast with some spiciness. Taste is sweet and spicy, finishing quite dry. Mouthfeel is very highly carbonated and packs a bit of a wallop, medium bodied, and dry. Not something you'll gulp down, but it's an easy drinking beer and at 5.5%, you could certainly knock a few of these back at a barbecue or something without getting too sloshed. Overall, this is a solid beer and it's very well executed. It strikes me as a great gateway beer for those folks looking to expand their horizons without getting too crazy. Also a nice beer to transition from the dark, heavy beers of winter into the lighter fare of summer (i.e. a good choice for a spring seasonal). B

Beer Nerd Details: 5.5% ABV bottled (12 oz). Drank out of a tulip glass on 3/17/12.

So it's not a revelation, but it's towards the top of what I've had from Flying Dog. Of course, I'd love to get my hands on some of the Bourbon Barrel Aged Gonzo, and maybe some of their other limited edition stuff too...

Pliny the Younger

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Yeah, so remember how I said that I wouldn't go out of my way for Pliny the Younger, Russian River's fabled "triple" IPA? Well, I'm a weak, weak man. My favorite local bar had a rare kegs and eggs event this morning featuring, among other things, Pliny the Younger. They're just down the road, so how could I really turn this down? I got there about 45 minutes before they tapped the keg, got myself a ticket, and partook in some excellent brunch eatings and a neutral Allagash White whilst I waited.

The hype surrounding the ultra-rare but highly rated IPA (as of right now, #1 on Beer Advocate's top beers in the world list) was a bit of a turnoff, but since the hoop-jumping was at a minimum, I couldn't really complain. The Philadelphia area is one of the lucky few to receive some of this stuff, but from reading about past events (mostly in center-city), I can't say I would have been too enthused to participate. The idea of trekking into the city, paying for parking, then waiting in long lines for a couple ounces of the prized brew was not appealing. But this was right down the street, relatively uncrowded, and mostly pleasant. No waiting for 4 hours in the snow, and I didn't have to pay 10 bucks to get a few drips of the beer applied with an eyedropper. I got a whole glass!

The bar got crowded, but never really approached madness. Oh, sure, there were lots of beer dorks in attendance, including some of the more annoying variety (one porn-mustachioed fellow walked up to the bar and proclaimed "You know why I'm here" in this sniveling, condescending tone and accompanying glare that was so annoying I'm surprised the bartender didn't respond with a punch to the face), but for the most part, beer nerds are amiable folk, and a good time was had by all. I even saw one guy sharing his bounty with less prepared strangers who had arrived too late to get their own, which is just plain nice.

For my part, it was a fun experience, and I'm happy to check another white whale beer off the list. But is it the best beer in the world? Did I hear celestial choirs as the angels descended from heaven aboard boats of transcendent light, penetrating through the dank windows of the bar? Let's take a look, shall we:

Russian River Pliny the Younger

Russian River Pliny the Younger - Pours a shiny gold color with minimal head. Wonderful nose full of citrus & pine. Really fantastic aromas. I just sat there sniffing the stuff for a while, and tried to make the beer last... Taste is full of that same citrus & pine, but it's got a very well matched sweetness & bitterness. It's a hop bomb, to be sure, but it's perfectly balanced with sweet malts. Mouthfeel is very smooth, very drinkable, and again, extremely well balanced. As it warms, a pleasant boozy note emerges, but that doesn't upset the balance at all... Overall, I can see what the hype is all about and I'm really glad I got the chance to try some of this. A

Beer Nerd Details: 10.5% ABV on tap, drank out of a 6 oz mini-snifter.

So is it the best beer in the world? No. But there may have been a hint of those celestial choirs and angels there too. It's a great beer, to be sure, and I loved drinking it, but quite frankly, there are tons of excellent IPAs and DIPAs out there there are close enough, and plenty that are just as good or maybe even better. I had a few glasses of Hopslam on tap this year that were just as good if not better than Pliny the Younger. It's certainly worth the stretch for a glass of the stuff, especially if you're a hophead, but I have a feeling that if I went really far out of my way, I'd be disappointed. Fortunately, that was not necessary. I mean no disrespect, and if Russian River distributed the stuff far and wide, I'd greedily partake in as much as I could, but I think this beer's astronomical ratings are at least partly due to how rare it is. My expectations were mitigated, of course, but they were met by the beer, which is often not the case. I love this beer and I'm really happy I got to try it without having to resort to any diabolical schemes involving the sacrifice of my left shoe and firstborn son...

World Wide Stout

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When do you drink an 18% ABV beer? Special occasions? Every other Flag Day? Leap Day? For breakfast? On the second Friday of March in the year of our Lord 2012? Ah, yes, that last one will do the trick, but it was a fortuitous turn of events that got me there, and I'm still at a loss as to when to open some of my other massive face-melters. It's a delicious mystery wrapped in an alcohol soaked enigma, with a chaser of dehydration and hangover.

Fortunately, Dogfish Head packaged this one in a 12 ounce bottle, so it's at least mildly approachable (I will leave the rant about big beers in big bottles for a later date). Apparently created on a whim at the Dogfish Head brewpub during the winter off-season months (which, I imagine, is how most Dogfish Head beers are created), this beer held the strongest beer in the world title for a short time. In this day and age where crazy Scottish brewers are making 55% ABV abominations and packaging it in taxidermied squirrels, it's easy for beers like this to get lost in the shuffle, but credit where credit is due: Dogfish Head was making this beer in 1999, well before extreme beers were trendy or popular. And I do think this still stands up well today.

Anyways, events conspired to keep me sober for a while after work last Friday, which left me in need of a stiff drink (and just the right amount of time for a single serving). This would normally be a job for Scotch or Bourbon, but I thought this 18% ABV face-melter would do the job, and boy was I right:

Dogfish Head World Wide Stout

Dogfish Head World Wide Stout - Pours a deep, dark brown color with a syrupy appearance and about half a finger of tan head. Wonderful aroma filled with caramel and vanilla notes, maybe even some fruity character poking through along with a little booze. Smells more like a really big barleywine than a stout. Taste has lots of sweetness to it, that caramel malt being quite prominent, with some chocolate and maybe even some vanilla, but the big surprise is the sorta fruity booze that emerges in the middle and dominates the finish. Very little roastiness here, but tons of intricate flavors emerging as it warms up. Maybe just a touch of balancing bitterness in the sticky finish. Mouthfeel is full bodied, chewy, and hot. Carbonation isn't high, but it's not at a bad level either. The finish has just a little stickiness to it. Surprisingly well balanced and approachable for an 18% ABV monster. Tons of warming alcohol character going on in my belly after just a few small sips. This is certainly not a beer to drink quickly. Overall, I'm very impressed by this beer, a complex sipper, something that will probably age well, and quite interesting. Dogfish Head says it has a depth "in line with a fine port" which just makes me want to go to the liquor store and get me some of that stuff, as I've never had any before and I'd like to know if that's an accurate description or just Sam making stuff up. For my purposes, this makes an excellent dessert beer. Not your typical stout, and definitely worth a try. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 18% ABV bottled (12 oz). Drank out of a snifter on 3/9/11. Bottled in 2010 (bottle has a "D" after the year, which I assume is some sort of batch indicator).

Man, this thing kicked my ass. As noted above, the bottle was apparently from 2010, which was something I bought inadvertently... but I'm glad I did so because I've heard the alcohol character overwhelms "younger" bottles. I've got another one of these in the cellar, which I can perhaps crack open the next time an 18% ABV opportunity comes along (and who knows when that will be). Incidentally, I also have some 120 minute IPA in the fridge (and in my cellar) that's definitely still young, and I have no idea when I'll get to that one... not to mention the bottles of Cuir and Coton I've been sitting on (those aren't quite as strong, but they're up there and they're in 750 ml bottles too)...

Update: Tee Hee.

Homebrewing has been a real blast. I mean, I'm not a miracle worker, but I have managed, on several occasions, to turn water into beer. How awesome is that? Even when the results don't come out as planned, it's a fun hobby. I reviewed my first batch of homebrew, a brown ale, before I started my second beer (around a year ago), but for a variety of reasons (i.e. laziness), I've since fallen way behind on reviewing my beers. So over the course of this past week, I've cracked open one of each unreviewed homebrew and gave it a whirl. I suppose I should note the obvious conflict of interest here. While I'm sure you all think of me as a BJCP approved expert and grandmaster Cicerone, my beer tasting notes are highly subjective on even the best day, so my notes on beers I've brewed myself might be overly harsh or too lenient. I really don't know which, and maybe both are present in my notes. Make of this what you will, but since I bore you all to tears with my tedious brewing-day recaps, I figured it'd be worth letting you know how they came out (at least, in my mind and in the probably-no-definitely biased feedback from friends and family).

Homebrew #2: Trappist Tripel - I went a little adventurous for my second brew. High gravity beers are more difficult to brew for a variety of reasons, but I did alright, despite a few rookie mistakes. There are some good things about it, but it ended up with a lot of alcohol character in the taste. It has gotten better with age though, and I think I may be experiencing "waves of maturation", as sometimes I think this has turned out reasonably well, and other times I think it's kinda horrible. I still have about a half a case of this left, and with such a high ABV, I think I'll let it continue to mature (checking on it occasionally). Feedback from friends and family indicates that the beer is rather heavy, which it is... Let's see how this one treats me:

Homebrewed Tripel

Pours a clearish golden color with a little orange and a finger of head. The smell is quite nice. Typical bready Belgian yeast and spice, along with a surprising fruity character and a not-so-surprising boozy factor. Taste is sweet with that Belgian spice character and plenty of booze, which really asserts itself in the finish and aftertaste. The mouthfeel is full bodied with solid carbonation to start and a little bit of a sticky finish (which becomes more pronounced as the beer warms up). Plenty of warming alcohol character... actually a bit too much hotness here, which is this beer's one major flaw. Overall, it's actually gotten better with age, though I wouldn't call it great. Not bad for my sophomore effort though! B

Beer Nerd Details: 10% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a goblet on 3/13/12. Bottled on 3/6/11.

Homebrew #3: Bavarian Hefeweizen - This is, without a doubt, the worst beer I've ever made. I'm not sure what went wrong here, but there's always been a very distinct off flavor here that I can't quite describe. I want to say it's vegetative, but that's not really right. None of the traditional off flavors seem to describe what I'm getting out of the taste of this beer. In any case, at no point has it ever resembled an actual wheat beer, aside from perhaps the yeast character (which shares a lot with Belgian yeasts). Let's see how it's doing now:

Homebrewed Hefeweizen

The beer looks pretty enough. Perhaps a little dark for the style, but a nice golden orangeish color with tons of head. When the beer was young, the aromas were dominated by banana, but as time has gone on, the clove has come out more. It actually smells pretty darn good. The taste is better now than it was when it was young, but there are some off flavors present and it still doesn't taste at all like wheat. There's an almost tinny undertone to the beer as well. Carbonation is very high and along with the spice, it's got a bit of a harsh mouthfeel (this isn't normally a bad thing in my book, but for this particular beer it is). Overall, it's not a complete abomination and it's actually drinkable, but there is something wrong with it. (Other folks have told me that they don't mind this beer, so maybe I'm being to hard on myself, but in honesty, this beer turned out nothing like what I was going for, and so thus I rate it lowly!) D

Beer Nerd Details: 5.25% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a shaker pint on 3/10/12. Bottled 5/15/11.

Homebrew #4: Saison - This was the first homebrew I made that I truly loved. I patterned the recipe after Saison Dupont (one of my favorites) and the beer actually turned out that way, so this all makes sense. I was very excited about this batch and impatiently cracked one open after only one week of bottle conditioning. And it was perfect. Beautiful fragrant spices and pale malts, very deep flavors, perfect carbonation and a well balanced, full body. Unfortunately, that perfection hasn't lasted. The beer is still good, but I perhaps used too much priming sugar, as bottles these days tend to be overcarbonated and as the beer has matured, it's taken on a bit of that boozy hotness (nowhere near the levels of the tripel, but still there). I think I underestimated how effectively the 3711 French Saison yeast would eat up the wort, as this did come out a bit stronger than I was looking for. If I make something like this again, it will be a little lower in gravity, with less priming sugar at bottling time, and again, I think better temperature control will also be helpful. Anyways, response to this beer has been generally positive, though some don't like the spicy and overcarbonated nature of the beer. Here we go:

Homebrew Saison

Pours a cloudy golden yellowish color with tons of fluffy head that leaves a little lacing as I drink. Smell is filled with spicy aromas (definitely clove, maybe some banana and bready Belgian yeast. The taste is sweet, but filled with spiciness (again clove), and a mild bitterness in the very dry finish (this level of bitterness wasn't in the beer on the first week, but it's not inappropriate either). Maybe just a hint of booze as well. Mouthfeel is very strong, full bodied, and harsh with tons of carbonation. Overall, it's still quite good, but it's not even really close to my initial taste of the stuff. B+ (though maybe an A for that first taste).

Beer Nerd Details: 7.5% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a goblet on 3/10/12. Bottled on 7/6/11.

Homebrew #5: Stout - The goal with this one was to make a stout with more than a one dimensional roasty character to it. I planned to emphasize chocolate and caramel in this batch, and for the most part I succeeded. However, the beer does have some issues. No real "defects" per say, just things that aren't ideal. For instance, the final gravity was around 1.020, which makes for quite a heavy tasting beer - I was hoping for more attenuation here. Perhaps as a result, the head on this beer is pretty lackluster, and it fades quickly. Its the sort of beer that starts off well, but gets to be a bit much by the end of the bottle. Perhaps it will improve with time, but here's what I'm getting out of it now:

Homebrewed Stout

Pours a very dark brown color, almost black (no highlights when held up to light) with a finger of quickly disappearing light brown head. The smell features that caramel malt in full force, with a chalky roastiness also present, maybe just a hint of coffee. The taste is similar, though the roasted malts are more prominent here and it could perhaps have used a bit more hop balance. Still, it's not one dimensionally roasty, and that caramel and chocolate malt adds a nice complexity to the taste. The mouthfeel is extremely heavy and full bodied. It's well carbonated, but a little acidic in the finish, especially as it warms up. It's the sort of beer that starts out well enough, but it really gets rough towards the end of the glass. Overall, it's ok, in the direction I wanted to go, but it hasn't quite reached the destination. I think some recipe tweaks, either toning it down (or up!) and using some more hops could help it out. I also need to figure out how to get a little more attenuation out of the yeast... Again, I like this beer, it's really interesting, but it's hard to rate it very high when even I can't seem to finish an entire bottle of it. C+ (would be maybe a B- or B if it held itself together longer)

Beer Nerd Details: 5.5% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a snifter on 3/11/12. Bottled on 8/28/12.

Homebrew #6: Spiced Christmas Ale - Not to toot my own horn, but this is the best beer I've made so far (ok, I'm going to toot my own horn a little ). It's a winter warmer style beer whose recipe was created on-the-fly in the homebrew shop (with a lot of help from the owner). Anchor Christmas was something of an inspiration, but this beer isn't patterned after a specific version and I came up with the spicing regimen entirely on my own. It's the beer I'm most proud of, from the recipe and spicing regimen to the way it turned out. Seems to be a popular beer when I give it to others, including the guy at the homebrew shop (I totally owed him a couple bottles thanks to his improvisation), who asked if I entered it into any competitions. It turned out to be pretty much exactly what I wanted, and unlike the saison, it's stayed that way for a few months now. Ok, let's toot some more horns:

Homebrewed Christmas Ale 2011

Pours a deep, dark amber color (almost, but not quite brown), with a finger of light colored head. Smells fantastic. The cinnamon and clove come through especially well, though I also get a fair amount of sugary citrus in the nose. A friend described it like it was a snickerdoodle cookie, which is pretty awesome. The taste has a sweetness to it, but it's very spicy and it has a well balanced, somewhat dry finish. The mouthfeel is a dream - smooth, almost creamy, medium bodied, a little harshness from the spiciness, but still quite quaffable (probably my most quaffable beer). Overall, I can't believe this beer came out as great as it did. I was worried that I'd overdo the spices (and in a lot of spiced winter beers, the spices are overpowering), but the spices I added balanced out really well. Again, this is probably my best beer, and I think it stacks up well against a lot of the commercial winter warmers I had this year. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 6.0% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a tulip on 3/11/12. Bottled on 11/20/11.

Homebrew #7: Simcoe IPA - My most recent brew, it's only been 3 weeks since bottling. I've had a few of these so far (again, I was very impatient with this one) and damn it's been good. A little undercarbonated in the first week, but that should have worked itself out by now, so I'm really excited to try this out...

Homebrewed Simcoe IPA

Pours a very pretty golden color with a finger of head that leaves a little lacing as I drink. Smells strongly of grapefruit and pine (interestingly, more pine now than in week 1) along with a nice sugary sweet aroma. The taste also starts off sweet, plenty of that citrus and pine hop character, and a nice, bracing bitterness in the relatively dry finish. Mouthfeel is quite good. Medium bodied and the carbonation has come up to speed too. Not sure how to describe it, but it's like the carbonation has small bubbles. Actually quite quaffable. Overall, this is one damn good IPA. There's nothing quite like a super-fresh IPA, but I can't wait to see how it matures over time as well. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 7% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a snifter on 3/10/12. Bottled on 2/18/12.

So there you have it. All in all, I think I've got 3.5-4 cases of homebrewed beer left, with another 5 gallons (about 2 cases) in the fermenter right now. Alas, my best beers are the ones that go the fastest, and the IPA was a small batch to start with. Anyways, I've learned a lot since my first batch, and I think my past couple batches show that I've at least got the basics down. I'd list out some of those learnings, but that's perhaps another post for another day.

Ommegang Seduction

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Ready for some hot Liefmans on Ommegang action? This is a Belgian style porter brewed with chocolate and, like Ommegang's most excellent Three Philosophers, blended with a Liefmans Cuvee Brut Kriek. It's an appealing idea, though I'm not sure I was entirely seduced by the end result:

Ommegang Seduction

Ommegang Seduction - Pours a very dark brown color with a finger or two of tan head that leaves lots of lacing on the glass. Smells of roasted malts and Belgian yeast, with a hint of something else lurking in the background (perhaps those cherries?) Taste features lots of muted roasted malts (not nearly as strong or overpowering as most stouts or porters) with a hint of chocolate, but the beer sorta shifts midway through the taste, finishing with a lighter touch which calls to mind those cherries... while I'm sure I'd be able to pick out the distinct flavor blind, I don't know that I would have attributed it to cherries. As the beer warms, that flavor becomes a little more prominent. The mouthfeel is full bodied and chewy, with ample carbonation and just a bit of stickiness in the finish. Not exactly an easy drinking beer, but it's not difficult or anything. All in all, it's an interesting beer with lots of complexity and I really enjoyed it, but it feels like all the various flavors are competing for attention, rather than harmonizing into something new and great. An interesting experiment and better than most beers that I'd classify as such, but I expect more from Ommegang and it doesn't quite reach the heights it perhaps could... but it's still a lot better than their Chocolate Indulgence and again, I really had a good time with it. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 6.8% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a goblet on 3/4/12. Bottled 12/5/11.

Ommegang was my introduction into the world of good (and Belgian style) beers, so I'm always willing to give them a shot, even on expensive gambles like this. I've actually had some old Cup O Kyndness sitting around for a while that I need get to at some point (I talked about it briefly in a beer club post a while back, but I'd like to do a full review), and I'm really looking forward to their forthcoming Belgian Strong Dark, called Art of Darkness...

Sly Fox Ichor

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The term "Ichor" has two meanings. The more recent usage is that of "a foul-smelling watery discharge from a wound or ulcer." Thankfully, I suspect that Sly Fox was going for the more classical definition when naming this beer: "an ethereal fluid flowing in the veins of the [Greek] gods." Yes, I think we've stumbled upon Sly Fox's nefarious plan to harvest the blood of long-dormant immortals and turn us all into unsuspecting vampires. Or something like that. Also of note: Apparently Greek gods had a Belgian style quadrupel for blood:

Sly Fox Ichor

Sly Fox Ichor - Pours a deep chestnut brown color with amber highlights and a finger or so of white head. Smells very spicy, tons of clove in the nose, bready Belgian yeast, and a bit of fruitiness peeking through. Maybe even a slight roasted malt aroma. Taste is also very spicy, with that clove showing up again (usually clove aromas and flavor comes from the yeast, but in this case, I suspect Sly Fox actually spiced the beer with clove in addition to using a Belgian strain of yeast...) Lots of sweetness, some brown sugar/molasses character, and some of that dark fruit peeking through too. Mouthfeel is full bodied and well carbonated, with a well balanced dry finish. You get some heat from the alcohol, but it's otherwise hidden pretty well. Overall, a very well done, complex beer. Not top tier in the style, but it's an interesting take. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 10% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a goblet on 2/25/12.

Sly Fox is yet another interesting semi-local brewery that I still have not visited. I'm going to have to rectify that at some point. Apparently this beer was featured in the Rare Beer of the Month club, though obviously I have no problem getting a hold of the stuff - my guess is that Sly Fox doesn't distribute very far at this point, as they're still a tiny brewpub operation. That being said, I'm always interested in trying their beers, even if I haven't had one that's really blown me away (every one I've had has been in the "B" range)...

So I've had this crazy idea for a while. I like beer. I like earl grey tea. Why not combine the two? The thing that makes Earl Grey tea distinctive is bergamot, which is a sorta orange-like citrus fruit. Very nice aroma and flavor, as evidenced by the famous earl grey tea. I love a little citrus in my beer, so my first thought was that I should just go out and buy some bergamot oil, and add a tsp or two to the wort towards the end of the boil. Unfortunately, food grade bergamot oil is not as common as I thought. Everything I found was for aromatherapy or skincare - for external use only. Now, I didn't exactly want to make tea beer, but it looks like that's what I'm going to end up doing. And in fact, I had some Stash Double Bergamot tea laying around, so I figured I could use that to impart some bergamotty character (with the tea hopefully being drowned out by all the malt and hops and whatnot).

The next question was what to use for the base beer. In looking around, I see that I'm not the first person to think of this idea, but other folks seemed to be doing this with something like a Belgian Wit beer. This would certainly highlight the bergamot and tea flavors in the finished product, but I didn't want a beer dominated by those flavors, so I looked around at some other options. Since I was making an Earl Grey beer, I thought I should try to use an English style as the base. This was also in keeping with my recent affinity for lower gravity beers (or, at least, non-face-melting beer), and I eventually settled on the English Bitter style. The name is a bit of a misnomer - these are not super-bitter beers, though perhaps there's more hop character than usual for low ABV styles. Still, it seems like a beer that would take on the nice flavors of the bergamot and tea without being overwhelmed either way. In searching around, I found this nice kit from Northern Brewer called The Innkeeper, which sounds rather awesome. I added in some of my tea and, for good measure, some Bitter Orange Peel that I had leftover from previous beers. Here's the final recipe:

Beer #8: Earl Grey Bitter
March 10, 2012

4 Bags Stash Double Bergamot Earl Grey Tea
0.25 lb. English Extra Dark Crystal (specialty grain)
0.25 lb. Belgian Biscuit Malt (specialty grain)
3.15 lb. Pilsen LME
1 lb. Pilsen DME
1 lb. Corn Sugar
1 oz. US Fuggle (Bittering @ 5.2% AA)
1 oz. UK Kent Goldings (Bittering/Flavor @ 5.8% AA)
1 oz. Styrian Goldings (Aroma)
1 tsp. Bitter Orange peel
Wyeast 1469 West Yorkshire Ale

It's a mildly unusual recipe to start with and I'm adding my own unusual elements too. Here's to hoping it turns out well. I started by bringing 2.5 gallons of water to around 150°F - 155°F, then I began steeping both the specialty grains and 3 of the tea bags (I was reserving one for the end of the boil). My hope was that adding the tea this early in the process would yield an interesting, but not overpowering flavor to the beer (after all, I imagine a lot of the character will be lost in the boil). I only steeped the tea for about 5 minutes, leaving the grains to steep for another 15 or so minutes.

Brought the mixture to a boil, added all of the malt extract and corn sugar, waited (again) for it to return to boiling, then added the Fuggle hops. The strangest thing about this recipe is that the second hop addition comes a mere 15 minutes later. This seems like it would provide more bittering than flavor, but I assume both will be present in the finished product (normally flavor hops are added no less than 30 minutes into the boil, as the flavor compounds are lost after long boils). Finally, with about 5 minutes left, I added the Styrian Goldings. About a minute later, I added the last teabag (though I didn't keep it in the whole time - in retrospect, I should have probably just made a cup of tea separately, then poured it into the boil). And while I was at it, I threw in some bitter orange peel, just to amp up the citrus a bit (in case the tea didn't provide it).

Off to the ice bath for cooling, which is something I think I've got a better handle on these days. I think some of the issues with my early beers were partially due to poor temperature control. And I'd guess that part of the reason my last few batches have come out so much better is that I've gotten much better about cooling the wort in an ice bath (I use much more ice now, basically, and it helps that I'm doing this during late winter, when I can open my windows and drop the room temperature quickly). Anyways, got this stuff down to about 80°F - 90°F, strained it into the bucket, and topped off with some room temperature and cold water, bringing final volume up to 50 gallons.

Apparently one of the things that makes this recipe distinctive is the yeast, which seems to have relatively low attenuation (certainly lower than the American and Belgian yeast strains I've been using of late), but given the relatively low gravity nature of the recipe, and the sizeable simple sugar addition, I think the result will still be dry enough. The yeast was packaged on 1/16/12, so it's relatively fresh.

Original Gravity: 1.042 (around 10°Bx). I got sick of using my hydrometer, so I invested in a fancy new refractometer. Unfortunately, I got the variety that only displays measurements in Brix, but the conversion is somewhat straighforward and I have an easier time reading this than my hydrometer. The gravity came in a little below the target, but it should be fine. If all goes well, this should produce a beer at around 4% ABV (maybe even less). Given the alcohol and simple sugar addition, I'm looking at a light (in body, not color), quaffable beer. Fingers crossed.

I plan to bottle in about two weeks time (could probably do so earlier because of the low gravity, but I'll keep it at two weeks). Since the style isn't supposed to be heavily carbonated, I'll probably end up using less priming sugar than usual, maybe 2-3 oz (as opposed to 5). Next up in the brewing adventures will be a Belgian style dubbel, though I need to do some work to figure out a good recipe for that one. After that, who knows?

(Cross posted on Kaedrin Weblog and Tempest in a Teacup)

The Grading System

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It occurs to me that I have not explained my grading system at all, and for the most part that's because it's a bit of a nebulous thing. How do I know something is an A (or an F or a B- or whatever)? To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart1, I know it when I see it (or, in this case, drink it). Then again, most beers could probably shift a level one way or the other and still be valid from my perspective, and I'll admit that a big part of this is just a sorta gut feeling. That being said, I have some definite guidelines that have been brewing2 in my head over the course of the year and a half I've been running the blog.

I'm not entirely sure why I chose the letter grading system this time around, but it probably had something to do with the fact that most of the folks I read used that scale and at the time, Beer Advocate was using letter grades too (they've since moved on to a much simpler system comprised of, like, 13 different values, all weighted and averaged on a logarithmic scale to yield 3 separate ratings that you must analyze separately and together in order to get a broad snapshot of what a bunch of strangers think about the beer3). Plus, I'd never used it before myself (I use 4/5 stars for movies and at some point I had a 10 point scale for books, though I've reverted back to stars).

One thing I've realized that might be important when considering the below is that, well, I was a huge nerd in school. Not super-genius nerdy, but let's just say that anything in the C range was unwelcome in my household (I got a C+ one one report card once and my parents grounded me for a month). Low Bs weren't exactly favored either. It's been a long time since I've been in school, but I think you can still see that bias seeping through my ratings. The other thing you'll notice is that I tend to avoid the extremes. Very few A+s and, correspondingly, very few Fs. Most of the stuff will be in the middle of the pack. Anyway, let's get this party started:

  • F: There's something dramatically wrong with this beer. Initiate quarantine protocols; the end is nigh. Fortunately, as of right now, I've only given this rating 4 times. Once was for a non-alcoholic beer, once was for the God-awful abomination that is Cave Creek Chili Beer, and two were for beers that were skunked to high heaven. I suppose you could argue that skunked beers don't deserve an F, but in both cases, I get the impression that the base beer wasn't very good to start with and in one case, it was packaged in a green bottle - a distinct decision made by the brewery to emphasize marketing over quality (and thus I have no problem giving it an F). I suppose there could be a plus or minus modifier on an F, but once you reach this level, there are other things you should be worrying about.
  • D: There's still something wrong with the beer, but there is at least some redeeming quality that prevents me from going nuclear and rating an F. Out in the real world, a D is technically a "passing" grade, but if I ever brought home a D, I'd be in serious trouble. To my mind, the textbook beer example is Brewdog Storm, an Imperial IPA aged in Islay Whisky casks. Interesting idea, but my bottle may have been well beyond its shelf life (this nerdy mystery is detailed in the linked post) and I'm not sure I can blame Brewdog for that snafu. All I know is that they tried something interesting and it didn't work out, hence a D. In other cases, I rate beers a D if they seem stale or if they have weird off flavors that don't necessarily overwhelm the beer. For some reason, traditional English Pale Ales that have a lot of buttery diacetyl seem to fall into this category a lot). Plus and Minus modifiers have actually been used on the blog, but that only really comes into play in a comparative tasting. In short, if a beer is anywhere in the D range, it's in trouble. It's possible that I will finish these beers, as I really do hate to waste a beer, even a bad one, but it's also possible that I won't be able to take it anymore either.
  • C-: There may be something wrong with this beer, but it's subtle and the beer is drinkable. I'll finish it, but I won't be happy about it. I've only given this three times, and in all three cases, the beer turned out to be a subpar version of better beers. In one case, there were minor off flavors, but nothing dramatic. Some of my least-favorite macros fit in here (for example: MGD, Natty Light, Beast, etc...)
  • C: Profoundly average beer. There's probably not anything outright offensive about this beer, but it also doesn't have much going for it either. Drinkable, but nothing to go out of your way for and probably not worth the calories. I would say that a lot of macro-lagers and light-lagers would fit into this rating (For example: Bud, Bud Light).
  • C+: An average (read: boring) beer. When circumstances are right, these can be acceptable. There's nothing particularly special about this beer, but it's the first rating discussed so far that isn't meant as entirely negative. These are beers that usually suffer in comparison to other beers, but again, in the right circumstances, they can be solid. For example, last summer, after an entire day spent out in the sun, a friend handed me a Coors Light. And you know what? I enjoyed it. At that time and place, it was just what I needed. Sure, it's practically water, but I think that's what made it work. Now, it's obviously not going to compete with most of the full-flavored beers I review on the blog, but it has its place. So I'd call this the top tier of the macros, with the occasional craft disappointment that still shows promise.
  • B-: This is the first genuinely positive rating, though I also tend to use this as a place to dump beers that I can tell are well crafted, but which never really jived with me. For example: Founders Breakfast Stout. Everyone seems to love that stuff. Me, I'm not a big coffee drinker. I can tell the beer is well made, but it's just not my thing. So while this rating is positive, a lot of beers rated here tend to be something of a disappointment to me. That being said, I'd pick these over anything in the C-F range any day and twice on Sunday.
  • B: Unambiguously good beer. It won't set your world on fire or melt your face, but it's a good brew worth drinking. Lots of beers fall into this range, so it's hard to really define a pattern, but if you're rated here, you're doing very well. These are beers I would try again, though I don't think I'd necessarily go out of my way to find (but they're certainly a sight for sore eyes when your in a bar sporting mostly macro crap).
  • B+: Extremely good beer that is nonetheless lacking something that would lead to true greatness. However, I really like this beer and would go out of my way to try it again. This is my most frequently used rating, so perhaps I am overrating some beers. Or I just have an amazing intuition when it comes to picking out new beer. After all, it's not like I'm trying to find bad beer!
  • A-: A great beer. Despite the minus, I wouldn't say the beer lacks anything or has any real flaws. However, there may be something that's holding me back just a teensy bit. Maybe the mouthfeel is just a hint off, or the flavors could be better balanced. While I may rate a ton of stuff at a B+ or A-, I still have rather high standards, so to get higher than an A-, your beer has to be something special. That being said, beers that get an A- are things I'm going to seek out again and things I'd recommend to others. If you've got an A-, you're doing very well indeed. These are great beers, and they actually are setting the world on fire... but it's an orderly fire, suitable for roasting marshmallows and making s'mores. Which are, like, totally awesome.
  • A: This isn't just great, it's special. Awesome, in the true sense of that word. Excellent, superb, brilliant, fantastic, fabulous, fantabulous, heavenly, sensational, hyperbole, HYPERBOLE! Oh God the world is on fire! And my face! It's melting! Yet somehow I want more... gimme! As of right now, I've rated 36 beers as an A, which strikes me as being a bit on the high side. And every one of them is truly great. These are beers I'd go far out of my way for. These are the ones that keep me drinking beer.
  • A+: No words. No words to describe it. Poetry! They should have sent... a poet. So beautiful. So beautiful... I had no idea. I HAD NO IDEA! Yeah, so at the extreme high-end of the ratings, I'm apparently very strict. Only 3 beers have reached this transcendent level. How does one attain this level? It's a little mysterious. You need more than just a great beer to get up here. This is the one rating where I really do try to make sure I've had the beer multiple times to ensure it holds up (though I did break that rule once, which would be mildly shameful if I didn't absolutely love that beer).

And to further demonstrate my nerdery, I've graphed the number of ratings I've given out. This is only really an approximation, as I'm using the post count rather than looking at individual beer reviews. This means that posts that feature, for example, 2 B ratings, will only count as one on the chart below. And if you look at those posts, there often are multiple Bs and B-s, etc... Anyway, here's my dorky chart:

ratings.png

Not quite a perfect bell curve and the peak is probably centered on too high a rating to be statistically sound, but I'm not that much of a nerd, so I'll just say that I think this is a rather fine distribution. I suspect that my hesitance to rate along the extremes (i.e. A+ and F) will continue unabated.

1 - Did I just reference a Supreme Court ruling in a freakin post about beer rating? Well, yes I did, and I normally try to avoid devaluing the Supreme Court by applying their rulings to the trivialities of my life, but I don't feel that bad about it this time because the court case in question was about pornography (for the record, I know that when I see it too.) I should probably just chill out and drink a beer rather than whine about ratings and the Supreme Court.

2 - Tee hee! Get it? Oh, you're annoyed that I made a whole footnote just to giggle at a lame pun? Well, fine then. Be that way.

3 - Ok, so it's not nearly that complicated. I just miss the letter grades. It was sooo much easier to tell at a glance what a bunch of strangers thought of a beer. Now I have to, like, do calculations. And why do their beer listings use a different, 5 point scale? Pick a scale and stick to it. Or make them all available all the time. Ungh.

Weyerbacher Insanity

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Ok, enough of that wussy low ABV beer. Let's check out this bourbon barrel aged monster from Weyerbacher. I was a little underwhelmed by Heresy, their bourbon barrel aged Russian Imperial Stout - it was very good, but it just didn't represent that big of an improvement over their base RIS (called Old Heathen). This time around, Weyerbacher is giving the treatment to their evocatively named Blithering Idiot barleywine, and I'm happy to report that this one represents a big improvement over the base beer:

Weyerbacher Insanity

Weyerbacher Insanity - Pours a deep, dark amber color with just a little bit of light colored head. Smells intensely of caramel, oak and vanilla, with some bourbon and a smattering of almost fruity malt aromas. Rich flavors of caramel malt, oak and vanilla, very light on the fruit and bourbon (but both are clearly there) and a nice, boozy finish. Full bodied, rich, and chewy, plenty of warming from the alcohol. It's a sipper, but it's well balanced and very flavorful. Overall, a big improvement over the standard Blithering Idiot. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 11.1% ABV bottled (12 oz.) Drank out of a tulip on 2/25/12.

I've got a few more bottles of this to put in the cellar (I feel like all the strong flavors in this would really harmonize over time), and I still have a year-old bottle of Blithering Idiot that I'll have to check on at some point as well. Weyerbacher continues to be one of the more interesting local breweries, though I feel like everything they make is just huge from an ABV standpoint.

Casco Bay Brown Ale

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So I've spent the past couple months trying to drink down my cellar and one of the things I've realized is that there's a reason I don't drink a lot of that stuff right away. They're mostly high-gravity face-melters (often barrel-aged and beyond 10%) to the point where I feel like that Nazi guy at the end of Raiders (not the fascistic part, just the part where his face melts).

As such, I've been craving something a little less rich. Something that won't make me want to go to bed at 8 pm. Something that won't obliterate my palate with rich, chewy flavors. Don't get me wrong, I love the deep, full-bodied flavors of a bourbon barrel aged beer, but you know, sometimes I want to be able to drink a second beer in one night. Usually I turn to my homebrew on such occasions, but even then, most of my stuff is around 6-7.5% range. That's not exactly face-melting territory, but it's also a bit too much (I keep saying that I need to recap those beers, and I will, but for now, I'll just say that something like my 6% stout still ends up being a pretty heavy, rather unsubtle beer). Beer nerds know what this all means: I need to drink me some British styles. I've had some really low gravity English-style beers of late, and it's been nice. This one's a brown ale that's actually a bit on the high range of what I was looking for, but it was still nice:

Casco Bay Brown

Casco Bay Brown Ale - Pours a deep brown color with a couple fingers of light tan head. Smells of caramel malt along with a nutty aroma and maybe just a hint of something along the lines of brown sugar. Taste features a lot more of that nutty flavor, along with some caramel malt and a surprisingly bitter finish. Nowhere near an IPA or a, er, Brown IPA or anything, but it's there. As it warms, it smooths itself out a bit. Medium to full bodied, lots of carbonation, not a big-gulp kinda beer, but pleasant enough. Overall, it's not lighting the world on fire, but quite frankly, that's not what what I needed right now. I suppose even in that realm, it's not a top-tier beer, but it hit the spot for me, and the world was spared a face-melting cataclysm, so there's that. B

Beer Nerd Details: 5.4% ABV bottled (12 oz). Drank out of a mug on 2/24/12.

I'm pretty sure the Portland, Maine brewery doesn't distribute much outside of the New England area (this bottle was a gift from my uncle, who frequents the region), but I'd be inclined to check out their Winter Ale if I ever got the chance... And their flagship Irish Red might tide me over the next time I get overwhelmed by the bourbon-barrel giants.

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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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