During these times of beer recession, I find myself reaching for wine more than I would have thought. This despite being pretty clueless on the finer ins-and-outs of oenophilia. It can be pretty fun to just grab something off the shelf and explore, something that is less common for me when it comes to beer these days. Remember the days of Belgian beer roulette? Well, say hello to Italian wine roulette! I grabbed this bottle a little while ago knowing almost nothing about it other than that it was from Italy and had one of those ritzy DOC stickers.

How'd I do? It turns out that this is an Italian Amarone, typically a rich, dry red wine made from partially dried grapes. This particular bottle is made from grapes picked in October, then dried under shelter in the open air on flat wood crates until January or February. The classy name for this process is the "appassimento method", but most of us would just call these suckers raisins (perhaps not quite full-raisin, maybe just quasi-raisin). The "raisined" grapes are fermented and initially aged one year in stainless steel, followed by a lengthy 4-5 year stay in traditional, large Slovenian oak casks. This sounds quite intensive, so let's dig in:

Le Ragose 2007 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico

Le Ragose 2007 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico - Pours a deep, dark, garnet red color. Smells of dark fruits, cherries, plums, and the like, some vanilla, and something a little more earthy. Taste hits those jammy fruits up front, then moves into an earthy, almost spicy note, followed by dry tannins in the finish. Mouthfeel is medium to full bodied, rich, and intense with moderate to high dryness. Definitely benefits from a pairing with rich, hearty dishes (I had steak and sauteed mushrooms). It's not quite the beast that Sagrantino can be, but it's on that spectrum and would you look at that, the ABV is certainly on the higher end and kinda snuck up on me... Overall, this is a great little Italian wine, intense, complex, and tasty. Let's call it a victory for Italian wine roulette!

Wine Nerd Details: 15.5% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a wine glass on 3/19/17. Varietals: Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara. Vintage: 2007.

Food Pairing: As mentioned above, this wine kinda needs rich, hearty dishes, and I prepared a nice NY Strip steak and sauteed mushrooms, which fit the bill nicely.

Beer Nerd Musings: Alas, I am unaware of any Amarone barrel aged beers, though I think the intensity of the wine could pair well with some American Wild sours or maybe even non-sour stouts. I'd also be curious about the idea of using "raisined" grapes as an adjunct in beer as well. That could lend a certain intensity that would be interesting. Again, I'm not really aware of any beers that make use of this though... Opportunity, thy name is raisin. Or something.

I have another Italian wine in the pipeline, one that I'm told pairs well with pizza, so stay tuned.

Barrell Bourbon Batch 009

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Barrell Bourbon is a NDP that's nevertheless gained a following amongst whiskey dorks. It's also got an extra "L" on the end of their name there, which means... well, owner Joe Beatrice has declined to explain. My guess? It's a branding gambit. Searching for "Barrel Bourbon" will produce millions of irrelevant results, whilst "Barrell" (with the extra "l") will get you the right stuff.

We've covered NDP (non-distiller producer) before, so I won't harp on it, but it is the sort of thing that normally arouses suspicion in whiskey nerds. That being said, Barrell puts a few interesting spins on their philosophy. First, they're all bottled at cask strength, which is like catnip to whiskey dorks. Second, each batch is unique and will never be seen again. Exclusivity and rarity is always a draw. Third, while the sourcing is usually vague, most other details about the bourbon are often available (i.e. state of origin, mashbill, age statements, etc...) Fourth, they appear to be doing a good job of picking their barrels, so while they may not be as transparent as everyone would like, they have cultivated a reputation for quality.

What we have here is Batch 009, a 13 year old bourbon sourced from Tennessee with a mashbill of 75% corn, 18% rye, 7% malted barley. Again, Barrell does not specify the exact provenance, but reading around, I see that well-aged bourbon sourced from Tennessee is usually code for "George Dickel", so there is that. Let's dive in:

Barrell Bourbon Batch 009

Barrell Bourbon Batch 009 - Pours a clear golden orange color with big legs. Smells quite oaky, lots of wood, vanilla, coconut, caramel, rye spice, something a little bready too. Taste has a nice rich caramel and molasses sort of thing going on, a little spicebox in the middle and finish. Oaky without being overly so, which is certainly in my wheelhouse. Mouthfeel is rich and coating, lots of alcohol heat, but in a pleasant, mellow way, with a finish that lasts a while. Overall, this is fabulous stuff, complex and balanced, great. Compares favorably to my favorite bourbons. A-

Whiskey Nerd Details: 112.10 proof, 56.05% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 3/14/16. Aged: 13 years. Vintage: 2016. Mash bill: 75% corn, 18% rye, 7% malted barley.

Beer Nerd Musings: I've already talked about the NDP parallels with contract brewing and gypsy brewers. Barrell's approach seems more reminiscent of Scotch's independent bottlers (except, of course, for the lack of transparency around the original distillery). The notion of each batch being unique (and not just from a "each single barrel is unique" sort of situation) is interesting and certainly speaks to the explosion of craft beer offerings. I mean, it's not Tired Hands with their ~900 different named beers in 3 years, but there's something to be said for the experience of drinking something you know you'll probably never get again. I have not ever had a beer aged in a George Dickel barrel, but they do exist, even if they don't seem particularly common. There are some beers that only specify being aged in a Tennessee whiskey barrel, which I suppose could also mean Dickel. If this bourbon is any indication, I think these barrels would work pretty well with beer (though this is perhaps too good to waste on homebrew!)

Fellow Travelers: As mentioned above, these bourbons have gained something of a following, so if you don't feel like taking a beer nerd's word for it, here's some other folks who've reviewed it:

  • signde drinks gives it a B/B+ and calls it "this is the best by far" of Barrell batches he's had...
  • The Bourbon Buddy gives it a 90-91 (A-) and also mentions that it's the best Barrell batch he's had...

So yes, I'm going to be keeping my eyes peeled for more Barrell batches, as this is a new favorite. I've got two more bourbons in the pipeline, and who knows what I'll find in the meantime. Up next this week, though, we move to wine. I might even have a beer review or two, even during my current beer hiatus. Or quasi-hiatus, as it were. Stay tuned!

The Annual Beer Recession

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I am entering that cyclical period of contraction which results in a general slowdown in drinking activity (i.e. a beer recession; like an economic recession, but nowhere near as dire). As with previous experiments on this sort of thing, this is not quite a strict ban on beer drinking (nor alcohol in general), just a reduction in consumption. The goals are pretty much the same as ever: break some bad habits, get my health in order, explore other realms of boozy glory, reset my palate, delay gratification, and so on.

Posting will slow down a bit for the next few weeks, but you can still expect one or two posts a week. Some will cover differing areas of booze (I've got some Wine and Bourbon on deck right now) and others might even involve non-alcoholic substances (customarily Tea, but I might throw something out there about maple syrup and/or hot sauce). As usual, while I might be writing about something other than my preferred beverage, I tend to do so from a beer dork's perspective, which I hope is enlightening. Indeed, I sometimes wonder what a whiskey or wine nerd would think about my posts on that topic... as if I have enough readers for that to matter! Anywho, I might even do a little straightup beer commentary while I'm at it, who knows?

When I started doing this a few years ago, I didn't really know what to expect, but I enjoyed it enough that I've done it every year since then. Detoxing and realigning for a while really does make for a triumphant return, and my waistline is usually pretty happy about it too. So stay tuned, we'll almost certaining be talking Wine and Bourbon next week...

Firestone Walker Bravo

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Bravo was Firestone Walker's first barrel-aged beer, dating back to 2004 when they were still in the experimental stages of their first Anniversary blend (which is a process in itself). Since then, it's always been an available component, even if it wasn't bottled by itself and thus has not been widely imbibed. Labeled an imperial brown ale, it comes off as more of a highly attenuated strong ale hybrid barleywine type of thing (I believe that's the official industry designation of style); the sort of beer that would be useful in balancing out more sticky sweet barrel-aged offerings in a blend.

For the past few years, though, we've seen Firestone cycle through their various blend components, sometimes retiring other offerings to make room for new ones. In this case, they retired our beloved §ucaba barleywine, one of the classics of the style, in order to make room for Bravo. Them's some mighty big shoes to fill.

In addition, this is also the first of Firestone's Vintage Reserve line to be released in 12 ounce bottles (still boxed, which remains a nice touch). This is kinda funny because while I sometimes think large-format bottles are a bit of a bear (i.e. Patrick Rue is trying to kill us all), Firestone's beers are usually so well balanced and approachable that I could easily put down a bomber of any of their barrel-aged offerings. This does allow for more beer to be spread around though, and I suppose my waistline thanks them too. Prepare for the incoming "This was better in larger format bottles!" hot takes though.

Anywho, let's strap on our Raymond Chandler hat and see if this beer is "as deadly as the bravo's rapier":

Firestone Walker Bravo

Firestone Walker Bravo - Pours a clear amber hued brown color with half a finger of off-white head. Perhaps a little lighter in color than your typical brown, but it works. Smells very sweet and candy like with bourbon, oak, and vanilla kicking in too. Taste starts off sweet, rich caramel, moving into bit of bourbon, oak, and vanilla, finishing with a touch of darker (but not roasty) malt and hop bitterness. Mouthfeel is medium to full bodied, with moderate carbonation and some warming booze, not exactly "dry" but not as sticky sweet as Firestone's other barrel-aged beers. Overall, this is very good, I can see why it'd make a good blending component. On it's own, it's still worthy and worth seeking out. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 13.2% ABV bottled (12 ounce capped and boxed). Drank out of a snifter on 2/24/17. Vintage: 2017.

Always a joy to try something from Firestone's barrel aging program. At this point, I think I've tackled most of the obvious ones. The only things remaining are stuff like Imperial Walker's Reserve or Rye Double DBA, which seem substantially more limited than the others. Regardless, I look forward to trying more in time!

The Alchemist Beelzebub

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Beelzebub is the name of a demon, sometimes used synonymously with Satan or the Devil, but more often referred to as the second in command, the chief lieutenant of Lucifer, the Emperor of Hell, and other such dubious honorifics. As John Milton sez "than whom, Satan except, none higher sat." It's believed to be derived from the Canaanite god Baal, who was sometimes referred to as the "Lord of the Flies" and there's lots of conflicting accounts of Beelzebub's true nature, almost as if no one has had any actual contact with... him? It? You guys, it's time for some game theory.

Um anyway, there is, in fact, a beer named after Beelzebub. No game theory needed. The label even has a fly on it that our demonic friend is apparently the lord of. It's one of The Alchemist's rotating releases, a hoppy imperial stout clocking in at 8% ABV. This is the first non-IPA I've had from our friends in Vermont, and while it is indeed intense and unique, I don't think it quite nails the style like their various IPAs manage. I got these cans in December and have been slowly working through them to see if a few months has softened the harsh edges. Alas, we have once again run into the this is pretty good, but it's the worst beer from The Alchemist that I've had conundrum:

The Alchemist Beelzebub

The Alchemist Beelzebub - Pours a deep black color, maybe the darkest beer I've ever seen (faintest hint of brown can be seen while pouring, but no light can otherwise escape), with a gorgeous finger of brown head. Smells of roasted malt, char, roast, some dank hops, roast, coffee, bitter dark chocolate, and did I mention roast? It's roasty. Taste is rich and roasty, a little coffee-like (no actual coffee in it, but reminiscent), maybe some bitter dark chocolate, an intense roast, some dank hops, finishing with a big bite of roast and hop bitterness. Mouthfeel has a light richness to it, full bodied, well carbonated, not dry overall but there's some sort of drying element going on here, tannins or something. Overall, this is an odd duck. This can is from December, and when fresh it was even more intense, but it's held up quite well, and I like it a little better now. I've never had anything quite like it, which is interesting but there's also probably a reason for that. Intense and roasty, certainly unique. B or maybe a B+, but we'll leave it at B.

Beer Nerd Details: 8% ABV canned (16 ounce pounder). Drank out of a snifter on 2/25/17 (also 12/2/17, about a week after release and a couple times inbetween).

Many thanks to Kaedrin friend Adam for braving a snowstorm to acquire his allotment (and, obviously, for sharing with me). I am, obviously, still in the bag to try moar Alchemist beers, as Heady and Focal are some of the best out there and minor missteps like this can't detract from that.

Rare Barrel Wise Guise

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Another concoction from those barrel jockeys in California, this one takes a golden sour beer and blends it into one of Rare Barrel's other offerings, Ensorcelled (a dark sour with raspberries). I was lucky enough to get a small taste of Ensorcelled a while back, but my only tasting note was "Hnng!" which I think means I loved it. Will this live up to those expectations? Let's see if this guise is as wise as the label claims:

The Rare Barrel Wise Guise

Rare Barrel Wise Guise - Pours a murky reddish brown color with a finger of fizzy, very short-lived head that completely disappears within seconds. Smells of tart raspberries, musty funk, and oak. Taste starts sweet, quickly hitting that oak, then moving into raspberries and a sourness that intensifies through the finish. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, well carbonated, quite acidic but not overly so. Overall, it's another winner from Rare Barrel (if, perhaps, not Ensorcelled-level good). A-

Beer Nerd Details: 5.6% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a flute glass on 2/24/17. Vintage: 2016. Blend No. 038.

Another strong showing, so we'll be on the lookout for more Rare Barrels in the future. In the meantime, we've got a couple of darker offerings on tap for this week, followed by the now annual beer slowdown in which we will be discussing a limited selection of wine, bourbon, tea, and other glorious beverages.

La Sirène Paradoxe

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Australia is one of those places that's supposed to have a great brewery scene and drinking culture (as one might expect from a former penal colony), but thanks to taxation, regulation, and trifling things like import duties, we don't see a lot of their stuff in the U.S. Sure, you'll see some overpriced bottles floating around here or there, but with the U.S. brewery count passing the 5000 mark, most beer dorks over here seem content with exploring their local environs rather than taking a flier on some obscure Aussie farmhouse ale like this. Well not at Kaedrin! We just had to know if the whirlpool swirling wort in a counter-clockwise fashion made a difference. Or something like that.

La Sirene Paradoxe

La Sirène Paradoxe - Pours a cloudy pale yellow color with a finger of white, bubbly head that sticks around for a bit. Smells very nice, tart, vinous fruit, a little funky earth, a hint of spice, maybe even some tropical citrus hops. Taste has that same tart, vinous fruit, less intense than the nose would imply but nice, a little bit of earth and spice in the middle, finishing on a tart note. Mouthfeel is light bodied and well carbonated, goes down easy. Overall, this is a solid offering, could use a little more body and intensity, but it's quite nice! Is it worth traversing the seven seas to obtain? Probably not, but it's worth a shot if you like this sort of thing and it's conveniently available. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 4.8% ABV bottled (375 ml). Drank out of a charente glass on 2/17/17.

I would certainly give La Sirène another shot, but alas, I have no immediate plans to do so. One never knows, though, and I'd obviously like to try more beer from Down Undah (as this was apparently my first! (Not counting, Fosters, I guess.))

Rare Barrel Shadows Of Their Eyes

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We covered de Garde, a pioneer in the next generation of American sour beer, on Monday. Today, let's take a look at a contemporary located in California. While perhaps not as ambitious as de Garde's all-spontaneous program, these hippies in Berkeley still managed to come up with a novel approach. They limit themselves to sour beers (still somewhat unusual, even in today's landscape) and periodically initiate an extensive search of their barrel house to find the eponymous "Rare Barrel", the finest sour they have aging at the moment. Naturally, that beer is released, but the barrel is then used to inoculate future batches of beer too. Not exactly natural selection, but evolutionary enough, I guess. And the "search party" isn't exactly filled with scrubs. They've had folks like Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River and Lauren Salazar of New Belgium (both early adopters in American Sour beer). I've managed to snag a few tastes of their stuff and I can attest: This approach works.

Shadows of Their Eyes is a dark sour aged in, yes, oak barrels. The name looks to be a reference to Harry Nilsson's song Everybody's Talkin'... I can't see their faces. Only the shadows of their eyes:

The Rare Barrel Shadows Of Their Eyes

The Rare Barrel Shadows Of Their Eyes - Pours a clear, very dark brown color with ruby highlights, appears almost black, with a half finger of off white head that quickly fizzes out. Smells of dark malts, dark fruit, cherries, oak, and vanilla. Taste is sweet and sour, some dark malt presence, oak, dark fruits, cherries, and did I mention sourness? Mouthfeel is medium bodied, well carbonated, with a richness associated with barrel aging and moderate to high acidity. Overall, this is a pretty fantastic dark sour. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 7% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a flute glass on 2/11/17. Batch 4 (2016).

So we will be seeing more of the Rare Barrel soon enough. Oh yes. Stay tuned.

de Garde Double Feature

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One of the most interesting breweries to open their doors in the past few years, Tillamook, Oregon's de Garde brewing has been making waves in the beer dork community. I got my first taste of their wares at a share last year, their Yer Bu (one of many Berliner Weisse inspired variants) was incredibly nimble at just 2.3% ABV and yet turned out to be one of the highlights of the night. Since then, I've heard enough about these folks to know that they make beer that's worth seeking out.

What makes them so special? While some breweries have worked with spontaneous fermentation (notably Allagash and Jester King, amongst others), it appears that de Garde is the only U.S. brewery to rely solely on spontaneous fermentation for their beer. And what does that mean? They don't use laboratory cultured yeast, they simply cool wort in a coolship, which is basically a huge, wide pan that exposes the wort to naturally occuring yeast and microflora, after which the wort is dumped into oak barrels of varying sizes and left to slumber until ready to be blended. As Pat's Pints opined, "the brewers at de Garde pitch yeast with the same frequency that the Trappist monks in Westvleteren have sex."

I've had discussions with wine-loving friends about terroir in beer, and while I usually point towards hops in said discussions, I think this sort of brewery deserves mention. It turns out that the year round temperate climate mixed with a mess of rivers and estuaries leading into the nearby Tillamook Bay has created conditions ideal for spontaneous fermentation. Indeed, they even experimented for over a year in trying to find a location for the brewery:

So we took wort and exposed it in different areas up and down the coast and tracked fermentation circuits over the course of a year or more. We narrowed it down to a few places and proceeded to do more trials to see if there's consistency. Finally, we narrowed it down to Tillamook for the most viable opportunity. In the US we don't have the benefit of a long history of this truly wild and natural brewing. So it took this extra exploration to see what works.
Tillamook: it's not just for cheese. Anyway, that's some serious dedication there, and from what I've seen, it's paid off. I've had small pours of a few beers from them (all uniformly excellent), but these are the first I've managed to procure for myself. They aren't the most prized releases and indeed are among the offerings that take the least amount of time to produce, but they're quite nice nonetheless and someday I hope to procure the more lambic-like releases (which they seem to be gravitating towards anyway). For now, we've got saisons!

de Garde Saison Facile

de Garde Saison Facile - A wild farmhouse ale aged in an oak foeder - Pours a clearish honey gold color with a finger or two of fluffy, medium bubbled white head that leaves some lacing as I drink. Smells nice, big waft of musty Belgian yeast spice, a little earthy funk, some fruity notes. Taste hits the sweet, tart, lemony fruit notes much harder than the nose would imply, but that yeasty spice and light funk are still there, with a light sour bite in the finish. Mouthfeel is well carbonated, crisp, and effervescent, not quite dry but the carbonation lends that impression, with low to moderate acidity. Overall, a rock solid foudred saison. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 7% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a teku glass on 2/3/17.

de Garde Petit Blanc

de Garde Petit Blanc - A tart farmhouse ale aged in oak with late harvest Riesling grapes - Pours a clear golden color with a finger of fluffy, dense head that quickly dissipates. Smells nice, lots of spicy Belgian yeast, a little oak, plenty of vinous fruit. Taste is sweet, vinous, fruity, with some spice in the middle, followed by oak and a little tartness emerging in the finish. Mouthfeel is well carbonated, medium bodied, less dry than the Facile but quite nice. Overall, another great saison offering. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 7.1% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a tulip glass on 2/10/17.

Must. Get. Moar. Would love to try their more lambic-inspired beers. Alas, those seem quite prized (see: The Broken Truck) and until production increases, I'm guessing it'll be saisons and Bu variants for me. I know, boo hoo, poor me.

A Trip to La Cabra Brewing

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Longtime readers (all three of you) may remember a couple of posts (a review and an interview) from back in 2013 about an up-and-coming brewery called La Cabra. Well, they finally opened their doors last summer and I figured it's high time I write about them. I've been there a few times at this point, and I'm looking forward to watching this brewery grow.

La Cabra sign

Located in Berwyn, PA, the brewpub has a great, spacious feel without feeling at all corporate or bland like all those old-school, turn-of-the-century brewpubs. Two floors with sizeable bars and some cozy nooks and comfy couches and whatnot. Also darts! And goats! Eclectic decor fits with La Cabra's goat-like attitude which brewer/owner Dan Popernack describes as "independent, rugged, and endearingly crazy".

Goats!

The beer is quite nice and has been getting better over time. Brewer/owner Dan Popernack has been brewing for quite a while and has done a good job dialing in his standard offerings. I haven't taken a lot of formal tasting notes just yet, but highlights include Leo (a standard but tasty IPA), Coquette (a 3.5% Brett beer with mixed berries), Grace (a Brett saison with a touch of oak aging), and Bantlers (A most welcome weizenbock, a style I wish more brewers would tackle. Great weizen yeast character, dark fruit, esters, cloves, spice, sweet warm malt, complex but balanced and true to style. Might be my favorite thing from them yet, off the beaten path. B+ or A-)

La Cabra Bantlers
Bantlers!

La Cabra Coquette
Coquette

To pair with the beer is a full menu of "Latin-inspired gastropub fare" that is absolutely fantastic. Everything I've had from them is delicious, like their Duck Fries, Fois Gras Pierogies, and Chimichurri Flank Steak.

Duck Fries
Duck Fries

Fois Gras Pierogies
Fois Gras Pierogies and Grace

All in all, this is a promising start to a brewery that I know is capable of putting out some true face melters. I'm quite looking forward to trying Brettophile again (it's one of those beers that will really put La Cabra on the map), as well as continuing to sample new brews as they come. It's a good addition to the local scene and I'm sure it will thrive.

A flight of La Cabra beer

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

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