April Beer Club

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Every month, a bunch of friends and I get together at a local BYOB and drink lots of beer. I seem to have run out of beer puns for this month, but there was no shortage of beer at tonight's gathering (despite only 7 attendees):

April Beer Club
(Click for bigger image)

No real theme this month, but lots of new beers, along with some new ones. Not all of the pictured beers were cracked open, but most of them were (I believe only 4 left unopened, though there was still some beer left in a couple bottles). For reference, here's what I tried:

  • Sea Dog Wild Blueberry Wheat Ale - Intense blueberry aromas and very fruity taste. Overwhelmingly blueberry. Not bad, but not especially accomplished either. C+
  • Unibroue Éphémère - Again, an intense sour apple aroma and flavor, this one is much better balanced and an interesting beer. I've actually had this a few times before, and it's something I've always enjoyed, even if it's not my favorite of Unibroue's offerings. Everyone seemed to enjoy it though, and it's probably a good gateway craft beer. B
  • Southampton Biere De Mars - A very nice looking beer, with a nice spicy aroma and a flavor that is quite unusual, but still drinkable. The consensus among attendees was somewhat mixed, but I enjoyed it, even if it's not exactly a favorite. There's a flavor there that I couldn't quite place, but which made this a rather unique tasting beer. Fellow beer club members had a similar feeling. I'll give it a tentative B
  • Ommegang Rare Vos - One of my all time favorites, I've actually got a bottle of this in the fridge, so expect a full review... at some point. A great beer though, and very popular with the beer club crowd, even with the non-beer nerds.
  • Victory Prima Pils - I have had many of these over the years, and it's one of those beers that tastes very different out of the bottle than it does on tap. And honestly, I think I prefer the bottled version. For a pilsner style beer, it's extremely hoppy, but I rather like that distinction. Well worth a try, and probably something I'll give a more thorough review to later. For now, I'll leave it as a B+
  • Oskar Blues Gordon Imperial Red Ale (aka G'Knight) - One of my contributions for the night, and a solid DIPA. Expect a full review at some point in the near future. Beer club crowd seemed to enjoy it, despite it's hoppy nature.
  • Peak Organic Simcoe Spring Ale - It's got that pine resin aroma and flavor from the Simcoe hops, but it's otherwise a pretty standard IPA. Not particularly popular with the overall beer club crowd, but it's solid, if nothing special. B
  • Long Trail Pollenator - Holy shit, is this a terrible beer. And of course, I ended up taking more of this than most other brews. I immediately regretted the decision. Tasted like skunked piss. My first F since starting the blog.
  • Oscar Blues Ten Fidy - A very roasty 10.5% stout. I enjoyed it, but those who don't typically go in for stouts didn't seem to care for it. Not to get all sexist or anything, but all the guys seemed to enjoy it, while the females seemed to dislike. I have a couple more of these, so expect a full review at some point in the indeterminate future.
  • Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy - Smells and tastes of a sorta carbonated lemonade. Very little beer flavor and I really did not enjoy, though some of the more girly beer club members seemed to like it. D
  • Blue Point Spring Fling - A very average pale ale. Not bad, but absolutely nothing special about it. Profoundly average beer. C
  • My Homebrew Tripel - I brought a nice 22 oz bottle of my tripel, which has really undergone a transformation since bottling. I've been trying about one bottle per week since I bottled, and it's gone from an overly-sweet and under-carbonated beer to something much more drinkable. It used to be a very bright orange color, but it has since matured into a more appropriate lightish brown color. The taste is still a little too sweet and too alcoholly, but it's still a pretty good attempt, and I have a feeling it will mellow out with more time. Expect a more thorough review of this homebrew at some point. If nothing else, I do believe it came out better than my first attempt. This was one of the first beers we opened though, and someone did mention that it could have been a bit of a palate-killer because it's so intense (but luckily most people only took a small sample). It certainly was a strong beer - more than one person commented that they got the sorta wine-flush feeling from the alchohol. So far, I'm pretty happy with this beer, and I think it's only been getting better with time.
  • Dana's Maibock Homebrew - Fantastic homebrew brewed by my friend Dana from a Mr. Beer specialty kit. Very sweet with a nice tang in the finish that I couldn't quite place. Still, very enjoyable beer, maybe my favorite from Dana's homebrewing efforts. Most of the Mr. Beer stuff is pretty average (and Dana also brought a Red Ale which was pretty normal stuff), but their specialty kits seem to produce some really good beers, and this one is a prime example (I also rather enjoyed Dana's specialty Tripel from a while back). We made a deal to trade some of my tripel with some of her maibock. Excellent stuff
So yeah, I suppose you could take the ratings above with a grain of salt (as conditions were not optimal for tasting), but I think the ones I actually rated are pretty accurate. And several of the others will be reviewed on this blog in the near future. It may seem like the above are pretty low, and there were definitely a couple of real stinkers, but some of the ones I didn't provide a rating for will most likely come in to the B to A range, so there were definitely some great beers that were available tonight...

All in all, another successful outing for the beer club. I was surprised at the amount of beer that we ended up getting through, even if we did leave some of the beers pictured above unopened (though I will say that the only unopened beer that I've never had before was the Breckenridge Vanilla Porter). As always, I'm already looking forward to next month!

This week's double feature was a whopper. Barleywines are among the strongest beer styles out there (both of the below beers are over 11% ABV), so I knew I was in for an interesting night. From a filmic perspective, I was going to try and match the intensity of the style, but decided to go another route and perhaps contrast the style with something a little more lighthearted. As luck would have it, Netflix sent me an intriguing double feature this week: For Your Height Only and Challenge of the Tiger (both on the same disc, no less). If you haven't heard of them, I don't blame you. They're both pretty horrible films, but I was hoping for a "so bad they're good" experience out of them.

For Your Height Only is basically a Bond knock-off starring 3 foot tall filipino martial arts master, Weng Weng. Ok, so maybe he's not a martial arts "master", but it's a pretty fun film in that respect. Weng uses his height to full advantage, often sneaking up behind low objects, sliding across the floor, and of course, he punches nearly everyone in the crotch. In one particularly rousing scene, he takes on some tough guys with the help of a tall woman, who basically throws him at their enemies. It's very amusing. The story is absolutely dreadful, but manages to hit all the Bondian notes it should (there's even a jetpack!). Challenge of the Tiger was one of a long series of cash-ins on the popularity of Bruce Lee. After Lee's death, a number of imitators appeared, and chief among them was, of course, Bruce Le. Heh. Ultimately, I ended up paying much less attention to this film, though I have to admit that I was surprised by the amount of nudity and sex on screen here. Oh, and there's some martial arts and fighting too. Ultimately, both these movies suck, but I am easily amused, and these actually made a reasonable match for the Barleywines. Speaking of which:

Devine Rebel

BrewDog and Mikkeller Collaboration: Devine Rebel - Scottish brewery BrewDog has been making a name for themselves with some very extreme beers. They were one of the crazy breweries attempting to make the strongest beer in the world, achieving and losing that status multiple times in an arms race that seems to have only recently ended. I believe they currently hold the record with a 55% ABV behemoth called The End of History (which you may recognize as the beer that's packaged inside a rodent carcass). Interestingly, they also make a 0.5% ABV beer called Nanny State (apparently a response to uptight government officials worried about the brewery's pursuit of the strongest beer title). Clearly, these guys are not to be messed with.

Enter Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, a crazy Danish homebrewer and self-described "gipsy-brewer" who takes his show on the road, brewing his beers at different breweries throughout the world. He has a home base of sorts at the Mikkeller Bar in Copenhagen, but that is not a brewery. He releases his beers under the Mikkeller brand, and I suspect the fact that he doesn't actually own a brewery is partly why his beers tend to cost so much. Clearly Mikkeller and BrewDog are a match made in heaven, so when Mikkel heads over to Scottland to collaborate on this beer, titled Devine Rebel, you know the results will at least be interesting. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Devine is spelled with an "e" there (instead of the more traditional "Divine"). Maybe it's one of them alternate British spellings of the same word, or who knows, maybe Mikkel is an amateur astronomer and named his beer after an asteroid. Whatever the case, it's quite an eclectic brew. Partially aged in Speyside whisky barrels* and utilizing both an ale yeast and a champagne yeast, I was expecting a lot out of this beer, and boy did it live up to expectations.

Pours a very nice deep brown color with some amber highlights and a rather small head. Smells of sweet fruit and, in particular, raisins, with some alcohol present in the nose as well. Taste starts off sweet, fruity and rich, with some of those raisins and maybe some of that scotch whisky character as well. Some sticky alcohol in the finish. The real star here is the texture: silky smooth, rich and creamy. Full bodied, but lightly carbonated and very easy to drink. I have to say that I'm impressed. Well balanced but powerful, unique but approachable, amazingly complex and intriguing but not overly weird, this is a really fantastic beer. The best I've had in a while, this one just hit me at the perfect time I guess. A

Beer Nerd Details: 12.1% ABV bottled (12 oz). Drank out of a goblet. Batch 243, bottled on 7/5/09 (so not quite two years in the bottle, but close).

Weyerbacher Blithering Idiot

Weyerbacher Blithering Idiot - Not quite as storied or intriguing as the Devine Rebel, this local offering certainly has a wonderfully evocative name (put a few of these down in short succession, and you'll probably be living up to the name). Pours a deep reddish brown color (a little lighter than the Devine Rebel) and another small head. Smells sweet and a little spicy. Dark fruit and raisins are there, but not anywhere near as prominently as they are in the Devine Rebel, and there's a distinct yeastiness in the nose as well. Taste is very sweet and fruity, but less complex. Mouthfeel is smooth, but not as much as the Devine Rebel, and the flavors are nowhere near as rich. Carbonation is about the same and it is rather reasy to drink. I've had a few of these before and I do enjoy them, but it's not nearly as well balanced or complex as the Devine Rebel. B

Beer Nerd Details: 11.1% ABV bottled (12 oz). Drank out of a tulip glass.

I've got a few more Blithering Idiots in the fridge right now, and given the fact that this style ages well (part of the reason it's called a Barleywine is that it can be aged, like wine) I think I'll let them stay there for a while. In the meantime, I'm going to try and find me some more Mikkeller beers (and BrewDog beers, for that matter). It looks like the 2010 version of Devine Rebel came out a bit stronger (13.8% ABV!), so I'll have to try and find me some of that as well.

* I expect a certain Scotch loving reader will be salivating at this particular detail.

Wee Heavy and Founders Dirty Bastard

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I like Scotch, though I should also note that I'm certainly no expert. I pour myself a dram every now and again, and drink it slowly, attempting to pick out flavors. But then I read Water of Life and, to be honest, I don't really perceive the distinctions of flavors the way they seem to... On the other hand, that's how I felt about BeerAdvocate reviews up until about a year ago, when I started getting serious about this whole beer thing, so perhaps there's hope for me yet.

In any case, those wily Scotts do more than make great whisky*. There's a whole continuum of Scottish ales, ranging from light to heavy strength and historically designated in shillings (which at some point corresponded to a price of a barrel, but the specifics seem unclear). The strengths roughly correspond to the strengths of English bitter, though at the higher end, things get a little more confusing. At higher alcohol levels (approx. 6% and higher), the beer is simply called a Scotch Ale or a "Wee Heavy". The origin of the phrase "Wee Heavy" is a bit difficult to pin down, but as near as I can tell it refers to the historical serving size of 6 fluid ounces (about 1/3 of an imperial pint). A "wee" glass of "heavy" ale, as it were.

Because Scotland is further north and because of their... complicated... relationship with England**, these beers have some interesting historical characteristics. The cooler climate was not that conducive to growing hops, which meant that they needed to import them from England. As such, Scottish ales were generally lightly hopped. Tee hee. The lower temperatures also impact fermentation, meaning that these beers display less in the way of fruity or spicy flavors. Add all this together, and what you've got is a beer that emphasizes the malt (while yeast and hops generally take a back seat), sometimes even featuring peat and smoke, which seems appropriate for the land of Scotch whisky.

Of course, these days, the historical style isn't quite as rigid and Scottish brewers seem to be doing some interesting things (particularly BrewDog, who certainly don't seem to be very opposed to importing hops!) and of course, us American heretics are having our way with the style. Enter Founders' take:

Founders Dirty Bastard

Founders Dirty Bastard - Pours a deep reddish brown (mahogany!) color. Very dark, almost opaque, but when held up to light, you can see the red colors getting through. They head is very small and dissipates quickly. Smell is very distinctive. Despite my babbling above, I'm not very familiar with the style, but it seems to be appropriate for Scotch Ales, except perhaps for a tiny smattering of grassy hop aromas, which I understand are a bit unusual. Taste has a similar distinctive scotch ale flavor. Very sweet (but not fruity) with some light roastiness (or is that smoke?) in the finish. It almost tastes like something from the Bock family or maybe a European barley-wine. Some earthy hops are present, but it's subtle and not very bitter (despite the 50 IBUs which, again, is a bit high for the style, though certainly not enough to overwhelm the ample malt backbone and sweetness of the beer). Full bodied with light but appropriate carbonation - surprisingly easy to drink. For a strong beer, the alcohol is very well hidden. In the end, it's rich, complex and tasty. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 8.5% ABV bottled (12 oz). Drank from a tulip glass. Drank on 3/19/11 (Totally caught up on reviews now!)

I will make arrangements to try more of this style, though none are in the pipeline at the moment. I think, perhaps, some double features are in order here though, perhaps even mixing with some Scotch whisky to see if I can start to pick out some of the more subtle similarities.

* Also worth noting: Scottish Breakfast Tea, which apparently has a complementary flavor profile. Perhaps I can do a full day's worth of Scottish beverages: Scottish Breakfast Tea in the morning, some Scotch Ale with lunch and dinner, and a Scotch Whisky nightcap. Sounds like a good day to me.

** I should probably make some sort of William Wallace joke here. Or maybe a Mel Gibson joke. But that would be too easy***.

*** And by "too easy", I mean that I had already written the grand majority of this post before I realized the Wallace/Gibson angle and don't feel like fitting it into the post right now. Irony!****

**** Also, I've apparently been listening to Scottish hip hop for the past half hour or so. Go figure. Also of note: blatant abuse of asterisks.

Double Feature: German Hefeweizens

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As the weather warms and I begin to consider my next homebrew, I thought I should look into brewing something appropriate for summer, and of course the first thing that came to mind was wheat beers. Given my Belgian tendencies, you'd think I would gravitate towards a Belgian Witbier, but I also wanted to check out some Hefeweizens, as I've noticed that German beers are somewhat underrepresented on this blog.

Breaking down the style's name, "Hefe" is translated as "with yeast", meaning that the beer is unfiltered and will contain yeast (in fact, the spicy and unique yeast is key to the style), and "weizen" means "wheat". The difference between the Hefeweizen and the Belgian Witbier is that those wacky Belgians are always adding spices (like coriander and orange peel, amongst other, stranger, spices) whilst the Germans are very rigid in their brewing process. The original German Beer Purity Law (aka Reinheitsgebot or Bavarian Purity Law) limited the ingredients in beer to water, barley, and hops. This was later expanded to include wheat and, once it was discovered, yeast. The law was repealed over 20 years ago, but most German brewers are proud of their traditions and claim to still abide by it, even using it for marketing purposes. So no spices for the Germans.

I always find this sort of thing interesting though. Sometimes working within the box can be more rewarding or impressive than thinking outside the box. Using only the 4 annointed ingredients, the Germans are able to brew some really fantastic beer with a wide range of flavors and aromas. In a historical sense, this sort of purity law no doubt forced a lot of innovation within its boundaries while still retaining quality and consistency (two things that were much more difficult in the 16th century than they are today), and that's admirable. There's also something comforting and awe-inspiring about drinking a beer that is brewed in essentially the same way it was hundreds of years ago.

Of course, this isn't to say that thinking outside the box is a bad thing either, and indeed, I think that German brewers' lack of experimentation may be hurting them now that craft brewing has exploded in America. Indeed, even mainstream publications are catching on that German beer culture is in decline. As Charles Houston Decker notes: "...it's hard to look at a thriving American beer culture, a dying German one, and not pay attention to the obvious major difference between the two." It seems obvious to me that German beer culture won't vanish, and in some ways I kinda like that they're sticking to their guns and producing high quality beer according to their proud traditions. I think there's a lot of value in the basic fundamentals of beer brewing, and I'm glad someone has a different take on it than crazy Americans and Belgians. I'm always intrigued by these sorts of tensions: Oil and water, Democrat and Republican, John and Paul, American beer innovation and German tradition, and so on. It's important to have a variety of approaches to something like brewing, and while I probably prefer my crazy American beers to traditional German varieties, I'm glad both still exist.

Indeed, these traditional beers fit rather well with my recent "regular" beer kick, so here's a pair that I had a couple of weeks ago:

Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier

Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier - Pours a cloudy yellowish gold with ample, fluffy head that laces like crazy as I drink. Smells of citrus and wheat, with lots of spicy yeastiness in there as well (cloves?). It's an almost Belgian style yeastiness, actually. Taste features a light wheaty sweetness with lots of spiciness and citrus thrown in for good measure. Mouthfeel is crisp, clean and well carbonated. Very refreshing. I can see why this is among the best wheat beers. While not exactly a face-melting brew, it's a pretty good example of what you can accomplish while working within the boundaries of the Reinheitsgebot. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 5.4% ABV bottled (12 oz). Drank out of a shaker pint glass. Drank on 3/18/11.

Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse

Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse: The name "Franziskaner" always conjures Young Frankenstein for me (along with the need to use weird emphasis in the pronunciation of the beer). It's almost identical in appearance to the Weihenstephaner, maybe a little darker. Definitely less head, and what is there doesn't last as long either. Smells very similar. Perhaps a little more in the spiciness realm, but it's very close. Taste is a little deeper. More sweet, less of what I'd call the wheat flavor, though it's still obviously a wheat beer. It's got a fuller body and more carbonation. It's still got the crisp and clean refreshing feel to it, but perhaps not as much as the Weistephaner. Very good, but not as well balanced as the Weihenstephaner. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 5% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a shaker pint glass. Drank on 3/18/11.

I have to admit that I enjoyed both of these better than my recent Belgian Witbiers, so it looks like my next homebrew will most likely be a Hefeweizen. It looks like Norther Brewer has a nice Bavarian Hefeweizen extract kit, though the OG is perhaps a bit lower than what I was looking for (that should be easily remedied though). Interestingly, it looks like the brewing process is a lot simpler than my previous beers: no specialty grains, only one hops addition, and ready to drink within 4 weeks.

Stone Imperial Russian Stout

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We all know the famous stories about how India Pale Ale was brewed extra strong and with extra hops so that it could survive the long and warm trek to India. Slightly less known (though probably common knowledge amongst beer nerds) is the Russian Imperial Stout. Apparently the court of Catherine the Great was quite fond of English stouts, but once again, the logistics of shipping the beer required certain adjustments to the usual recipes. Like the trip to India, the trip to Russia was a long one. And it was cold enough that weak beers would freeze en route. So English brewers took to making an extra strong stout, usually around 10% ABV, to prevent their cargo from freezing (among other preservative reasons to protect against the duration of the trip).

Among craft beer nerds, this style is quite popular. Fully half of the top 10 beers on Beer Advocate are Imperial Stouts. You'll also notice that the term "Imperial" has been appropriated for all sorts of other styles: Imperial IPA, Imperial Pilsner, Imperial Red Ale, and so on. The "imperializing" of traditional beer styles is currently one of the big trends in the American craft beer industry. Ironically, despite originating the style, such beers are rarely seen in England. This is probably due to the way beer is taxed there. Since 1880, English beer taxes are based on the original gravity of the wort (which has a rough correlation with the eventual alcohol content). This has applied pressure to brew weaker and weaker beer. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that, and the English session beers and cask ales certainly have their own merits. But I digress. Let's try one of these Russian Imperial Stouts:

Stone Imperial Russian Stout

Stone Imperial Russian Stout - Pours a thick, black color with a minimal brown colored head. Smell is full of roasted malt and maybe a little dark chocolate. Taste is extremely well balanced - sweet and roasty with just a hint of bitterness in the finish and aftertaste. Full bodied and ample carbonation, shockingly drinkable given the high ABV. Indeed, the alcohol is almost completely hidden in this. As it warms, I can detect some lingering alcohol slickness in the finish, maybe even some harshness, but this is a welcome complexity. I've mentioned a few times recently that I think I'm beginning to come around on Stouts (a style I traditionally don't care for), and with beers like this, it's easy to see why. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 10.8% ABV bottled (22 oz bomber). Drank out of a tulip glass. Warrior hops, 90 IBUs. Drank on 2/25/11 (I'm almost caught up, I swears!)

More imperial stouts are on the shelf and in the fridge, and I'm actually looking forward to a few of them quite a bit. I don't think that stouts will ever be my favorite style, but I'm definitely gaining a big appreciation for them.

Allagash Black

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Regular readers (all 2 of you), may recognize this as the beer I mentioned a few weeks ago for my entry to the "Regular Beers" Session. Of course, that entry only touched on this specific beer... as an example of a non-regular beer. For most breweries, at least. For Allagash, it's one of their "classic" beers. For them, this is a regular beer. But they're one of the few American breweries that specializes in Belgian styles, and we all know that the Belgians don't make regular beer. Except for Stella Artois. That stuff sucks.

Allagash Black

Allagash Black - I don't know why, but when I popped the cork on this one, I took a whiff of the bottom of the cork and it smelled... light and fruity (more like a saison or tripel style). Unexpected for a beer that bills itself a "Belgian Style Stout". Of course, Beer Advocate classifies it as a Belgian Strong Dark Ale, which makes a sort of sense. Belgian styles are notoriously vague anyway, so I don't see why this wouldn't qualify as that. Belgian beers don't usually emphasize roasty flavors though, so perhaps it could be classified as a stout. In reality, it's probably more of a hybrid. Sometimes I like this sort of thing, sometimes I end up craving one of the styles being mixed instead of enjoying what's in front of me.

Anyways, perhaps too vigorous of a pour lead to a massive head. The beer underneath appears to be a very dark amber/brown color. The nose is all Belgian yeast, spicy and fruity. Perhaps just a hint of roastiness. Taste is rich, chocolately and roasty. A little dry bitterness lingers. Carbonation is just a hint low (and possibly the result of the aforementioned pour), but it works very well. Its smooth and quite drinkable. At 7.5% ABV, it's no monster, but it's big enough that I was expecting some booziness... yet none is apparent. Quite an easy drink. It's an interesting combination of flavors, though I'm not entirely sure it ranks among the best Stouts or the best Belgian Strong Darks... and quite frankly, I would probably rather have had one or the other, rather than this combination of both. It's kinda doing its own thing though and it is well made, but it didn't really strike a chord with me the way some other mixtures have. I'll give it a B, though I suspect a bigger fan of stouts would like this a lot more.

Beer Nerd Details: 7.5% ABV bottled (750 ml, caged and corked bottle). Drank from a goblet. Drank on 3/4/11 (Yes, I'm behind on my reviews. Again.)

Allagash has always been a bit of a mixed bag for me. As makers of Belgian style beers, they will always interest me, but I can't say that they brew one of my favorite beers or anything. Yet. But I've mostly only had their "Classic" series, which are the more normal styles. The most interesting beer of theirs I've had was the 2009 Fluxus, which I remember as being fantastic. I was a bit worried when I read that it was "Ale Brewed with Sweet Potatoes & Black Pepper", but it turned out to be fantastic. Unfortunately, it was a one time batch and I can no longer find it. In any case, I'm very much looking forward to the bottle of Curieux (a Bourbon Barrel-Aged Tripel) I've recently procured.

I have to admit that I have really grown to love the concept of a double feature. So far, I've generally used the opportunity to compare two beers of similar style to see how different they can be (not to mention, which is better). I feel like I'm getting better at evaluating beer, but I still really appreciate the opportunity to compare two beers of similar style, one after the other. It's something you don't see much. For instance, you rarely, if ever, see any sort of comparative notes on Beer Advocate or Rate Beer. I always found this strange. It would be much more helpful if you could tell me how a given beer differs from a standard or, at least, common version of a beer.

Noted beer scribe Andy Crouch has recently lamented the state of beer writing, citing the common reliance on tasting notes as a crutch that are uninteresting. I can see how one person's subjective evaluation of beer at a micro level could get tiresome, and indeed, much of the beer blogosphere is focused on that sort of thing. In the Aleheads' most recent All Beers Considered podcast, they discussed how boring a tasting notes sorta post could be, noting that they try to avoid such things. And yeah, I can see how that could strike some folks as being boring, especially if the review is solely based on one person's opinions.

When I started this blog, I didn't really want to fall back on reviews or tasting notes, but I almost immediately settled into exactly that sort of post. I think this is perhaps due to my tendency to blog for my own benefit, as opposed to what other people will want to read. This is no doubt why I have, like, 2 regular readers (if that). But as usual, my pattern of long-winded online writing has taken hold. Lately, I've been trying to be more interesting with what I write, even if it almost always culminates with tasting notes. Writing a review is easy, but being interesting and providing more information about the beer, the history of the style, or whatever, is more difficult, and I seem to have started to provide more context about the beers I'm writing about.

I always tried to spice things up with my other passion, movies. But I'm sure most beer blog readers don't really care much about that, unless I get ambitious and come up with a screenplay post. Still, I hope that my recent writing has been more enjoyable. I also hope that these double feature posts, with comparative reviews of similar styles, are considered more helpful and interesting than a simple tasting note.

And tonight, I have a particularly interesting double feature. I didn't watch two movies (as I often do), but I was switching back and forth between the Flyers game (we clinched a playoff spot tonight) and the NCAA Wrestling championships (college wrestling is rarely televised, so this was a welcome surprise). On the beer front, I tried two tripels I've been meaning to drink for a few months now. I always find it interesting when a single brewery releases multiple beers of the same style. When it comes to a style with a wide variation in flavors, like an IPA, it certainly makes sense. But for more narrow styles, like, for example, a Belgian style dubbel or tripel, there seems to be less room for variation. That being said, when I got my hands on a variety pack featuring 6 different St. Bernardus beers, I noticed that there were two dubbels and two tripels. The dubbels turned out to be interesting - one was a lot lighter than I was accustomed to, and the other was more of a standard dubbel. Both were great. And tonight, I've got two tripels for you.

St. Bernardus Tripel

St. Bernardus Tripel - The standard version seems to be quite popular, and this is the one that is more widely available as well. This is evidenced by the fact that his beer has 951 reviews on Beer Advocate, while the Watau tripel has only 217 reviews. This beer is a slightly hazy gold color with ample head and minor lacing as I drink. Smells of spicy belgian yeast (typical cloves and bananas smell) with a little fruity alcohol peeking through. The taste is fantastic - spicy and sweet with just a hint of sticky alcohol in the finish. Some fruitiness apparent as well, and that sticky sweetness lingers, especially as the beer warms up. High carbonation and full body with a bit of a harsh mouthfeel, but still extremely drinkable. Dangerously drinkable for such a high alcohol beer (even though 8% is relatively low for a tripel). That being said, I don't think it really contends strongly for a favorite tripel - though it's certainly a solid example of the style and something I can't imagine turning down. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 8% ABV bottled (330 ml). Drank from a goblet.

Palate cleansed with a single UTZ pretzel rod.

St. Bernardus Watau Tripel

St. Bernardus Watau Tripel - The less commonly seen version of the two beers, this version is named after the village of Watou in West Flanders, Belgium (where the beer is brewed, natch). Indeed, I've seen the St. Bernardus brewers labeled the "Wizards of Watau", which seems fitting given the quality of their beer. When I first got a hold of this, I searched around for some descriptions of what the difference was between this and the standard Tripel, but alas, I found very little on that front, which is a big part of why I wanted to do this as a double feature. Pours a slightly lighter, but still golden color. I want to say it's less hazy, but that might just be because of the color. Less prominent in the way of head and lacing. Smells more intense than the regular Tripel though. Along with the standard Belgian yeast aromas, there is perhaps more fruitiness apparent here as well. Again, taste is fantastic, though similar to the regular Tripel. I think the main difference is that there's more fruitiness here, and less sticky alcohol (which is a welcome development). There's some additional complexity and maybe even some funkiness that isn't present in the regular offering. The body seems fuller as well, and this is actually more drinkable. The ABV is actually less than the standard Tripel, so I'm not surprised that it's more drinkable, but I am surprised that I like the flavor more - usually I associate higher ABV with more intense flavors, but not in this case. The differences are subtle, but I actually think this one is better than the regular St. Bernardus offering and it could even rival my favorites. A

Beer Nerd Details: 7.5% ABV bottled (330 ml). Drank from a goblet.

There's less variation between the two than there were between the the St. Bernardus 6 and 8 versions of the dubbel, but I think the Watau is the clear winner. The differences are subtle enough that I can see why folks who don't drink them back to back don't offer much comparison between the two, but drinking them back to back made it clear to me.

One of my favorite beer-store games is what I'll call Belgian Beer Roulette*. I'm sure you're already familiar with the concept of Russian Roulette, but a quick google search yields a Belgian variant where instead of placing a single bullet in a revolver, you place rounds in all but one chamber, spin the cylinder, point the gun at your head and pull the trigger. Fortunately, Belgian Beer Roulette is not nearly as insane or deadly to play. To play, you need 5-10$ and a bottle shop with lots of Belgian beers you've never heard of. Purchase one of said unfamiliar Belgian beers, chill, and drink. I'm quite the fan of Belgian beers, so I daresay that my odds of "winning" are probably more like Russian Roulette (5 out of 6 win) than Belgian Roulette (1 out of 6 win).

Generally I look for something with a tasteful label (I'm a total sucker for a coat of arms). This is, of course, not always the most reliable indicator, but that's how I stumbled on to some of my favorite Belgian breweries, like Westmalle and Affligem. So one day, I see a series of beers from Maredsous. Nice clean label design and the store had a blonde, a dubbel, and a tripel (i.e. styles I love), so I picked up the Dubbel. As I write this, I now find out that the Maredsous brand is actually brewed at the Duvel Moortgat brewery. Maredsous is a Benedictine abbey, apparently famous for their cheese, but in 1963, they also began to license their name to Moortgat. I don't know how much the monks contribute to the actual brewing of the beer or the recipes or whatnot (sometimes monks direct brewing efforts outside their abbey, but I can't tell what's going on in this case), but I'm willing to bet that they drink a shitload of the stuff.

Maredsous 8 - Dubbel

Maredsous 8 - Dubbel - Pours a nice reddish brown color, decent head with bigger sized bubbles in it. The nose is a bit light, but that typical spicy Belgian yeast aroma is there and maybe some dark fruitiness as well. Taste has a sweet malt backbone, with a little spiciness and just a hint of tartness in the finish. Ample carbonation and a medium mouthfeel make it readily drinkable. Alcohol is reasonably well disguised too. Certainly a solid effort and a good representation of the style, but not particularly close to the top of my favorite dubbels. B+

Beer Nerd Details: Beer Nerd Details: 8% ABV bottled (750 ml, caged and corked bottle). Drank from a goblet. Drank on 2/19/11 (yeah, I'm really behind on this review.)

It seems my thoughts are pretty much in line with the Beer Advocate nerds, and they say the other Maredsous beers are about equal quality. I won't be rushing to the store to pick some up (and now that I've had one, I see them every where, so it's not like it's a rarity or anything) anytime soon, but I'll probably get to the other two varieties at some point...

* I'm not the originator of this term as a way to describe this process - I have Jay from the Hedonist Beer Jive (now just Hedonist Jive) to thank for that. It's a fantastic term though, and it fits how I sometimes shop. Thanks Jay!

A new style of beer has been making the rounds in the past few years. Aggressively hopped and bitter like an IPA, but utilizing the dark, roasted malts and sweetness of a stout, this type of beer was virtually unseen a few years ago. However, thanks to crazy American hop-heads and a free-wheeling, innovative craft beer culture, this new style has been spreading like wildfire. Of course, I'm being a bit cagey here by calling it a "new" style. New-Englanders claim the beer originated in a small Vermont brew pub in the early 1990s. Beer history nerds, of course, point to centuries old recipes that resemble the style, claiming that it's nothing new. Some of the early brewers of the style labeled their beer as a Porter, lending creedance to the history nerds. Enter the American Pacific Northwest, who have cleverly inserted their way into the controversy by coining a self-serving name for the style: Cascadian Dark Ale (named after the American Cascade mountain range, where many American hops are grown, including the popular (and, uh, obvious) Cascade hops).

Of course, naming the style is a controversy in itself. Cascadian Dark Ale has a wonderful and vaguely evocative feel to it, but the style has also been called Black IPA, India Dark Ale, American Dark Ale, and probably a dozen other variants. They all have their problems (for instance, Black IPA makes no sense because it unpacks to "Black India Pale Ale", which is just silly - the term "India" implies a history and geography that isn't relevant; "black" and "pale" are descriptors of color, and clearly conflict), so no one name has emerged victorious. Andy Crouch wrote about this semi-recently (and of course, his history of the style is better than mine) and proposed a poll with a dozen different options, including his own inspired suggestion of Noonan Black Ale (named after Greg Noonan, owner of the aforementioned Vermont brew pub). As of right now, Black IPA is winning the poll, and that's what RateBeer uses. Beer Advocate uses American Black Ale, which is similar to the Brewers Association's recently changed designation of American-Style Black Ale (changed from American-Style India Black Ale).

So yeah, more fuel for the internet flames of semantic debate. As a fan of "genre" films, amongst other geeky pursuits featuring detailed nomenclature, I can assure you such arguments are not unique to the world of beer. So, as much as I'd love to continue beating that dead horse, I think it might be nice to actually, you know, drink some of this stuff. Enter Stone's Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale. Originally brewed as a limited Anniversary batch (a good contrast to Victory's recent Headwaters anniversary ale), it proved popular enough that Stone now makes it available year-round.

Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale

Now, I really enjoy a good IPA (or DIPA) and I've recently been acquiring an appreciation of stouts, but sometimes these sorts of style mixtures rub me the wrong way. Instead of seeing it as the best of both worlds, I'll often end up craving one style or the other, without ever actually enjoying what's in front of me. However, in this case, I think the mixture actually works well, even if it's not exactly my favorite style of beer. Pours a very dark brown, almost black color, with a fluffy tan head. Smells fantastic. Floral, piney hops dominate the nose. Taste starts with a sweet but earthy bitterness sets in quickly, followed by some additional roasted malt bitterness in the finish. The roasted flavors linger a bit in the aftertaste as well, and they become a little more prominent (in both the nose and the taste) as the beer warms up. Texture is surprisingly smooth and the beer is quite drinkable. Very well crafted and, more importantly (given my feelings on hybrids above), it's extremely well balanced. Not being overly familiar with the style or the process of brewing, I imagine it would be difficult to pack in the complexity without letting any of the potent ingredients overwhelm the taste or the palate. I will give it a B+, though I suppose I could easily bump it up to an A- if I were to become more enamored with the style (which could very well happen). As it is, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Beer Nerd Details: 8.7% ABV bottled (22 oz bomber). Drank out of a tulip glass. Chinook, Simcoe & Amarillo hops, 90 IBUs. Drank on 3/11/11 (yeah, I'm behind on reviews again, wanna fight about it?)

The Stone example seems to be among the best ranked beers in the style, of course, but that doesn't mean I'm not willing to try more. Who knows, I might grow into it in the way that I'm growing into stouts (and perhaps my newly acquired taste for stouts is what is partially holding me back here... if you call B+ holding back!)

Update: Oh crap, I forgot to enter a style in my blog categorization. I was hoping to avoid that. I'll go with American Black Ale, since that's what Beer Advocate uses (and it's also similar to the Brewers Assocation) and I'm not entirely down with Black IPA or Cascadian Dark Ale.

Double Feature: Pale Ales

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You may be able to tell that I have a bit of a sweet-tooth (for example, I love Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout and I really enjoyed the Southern Tier Creme Brulee Stout, both uber-sweet beers). As such, Coca-Cola has long been one of my favorite beverages. However, I tend to drink too much of it, so every few years, I give up Coke for Lent. I find that the 40 day length of Lent makes for an ideal habit-breaker (Last year, I gave up television). Short enough that it's achievable, long enough to make you realize that you don't need to indulge in your habit quite so often. So this year, I'm giving up Coke again, which basically means that for the next 40 days or so, I'll most likely be filling the void of Coke with beer.

As I mentioned in my post on Regular Beers for The Session, sometimes I don't want a beer that will melt my brain and/or get me drunk after 12 ounces. So while I'm sure I'll have my fair share of brain-melting beers over the next few weeks, I'm probably also going to avail myself of some more "regular" beers, usually during dinner. Lower alcohol, lower taste, but easier drinkability. Interestingly, this month's beer club fit right into that strategy, with a few English session beers. And this weekend, I'm hitting up some pale ales. For these double feature posts, I usually try to match up with movies, but both of this weekend's movies are in the theater, so no drinking whilst watching. But if you're so inclined, The Adjustment Bureau was surprisingly good for a movie about people with magic hats (I guess that's something of a spoiler, but it's so stupid that I don't really feel bad about it). Of course, you have to overlook a few plot holes and the aforementioned magic hats, but it's still a pretty fun movie. After I finish this post, I'll be heading out to meet a friend for Battle: Los Angeles. Expectations are suitably low, but I'm hoping to see shit blow up real good. It can't be any worse than Skyline (the last Alien invasion movie I saw, which was abominable but almost worth it for the breathtakingly stupid ending) or, one would presume, the SyFy Original movie special that's playing tonight: Battle of Los Angeles (I haven't seen it, but if your movie isn't as good as a SyFy Original...)

But enough about movies, onto the beer:

Victory Headwaters Pale Ale

Victory Headwaters Pale Ale - Usually when a brewery makes it to a big Anniversary, they put out a special beer, and that beer is generally something extreme. An imperial stout, a double IPA, or something even crazier. So when Victory announced that they were making a 15th anniversary beer, I was expecting a big monster of a beer. Instead, they made this beer:

Reflecting over the years as we approach our 15th anniversary here at Victory, we can't help but be struck by the realization that Downingtown has made a great home for Victory. From the enthusiastic throngs that crowd our brewpub to enjoy our creative, flavorful beers and cuisine to the natural charms of the area, we are blessed with good fortune. As the active community contributor we've been over those years, we recognize our opportunity to both utilize and protect these assets.

Chief among those assets is the pure water we receive from the East Branch of the Brandywine Creek that begins its journey to us just under 14 miles from where we brew with it. We'll be celebrating this water (insert your lite beer joke here) with our anniversary beer, Headwaters Pale Ale, due to be released February 15, 2011.
That's right, Victory is celebrating... water with this beer, a 5.1% ABV Pale Ale. According to Lew Bryson, Victory has apparently been working on this for a while, as this new beer follows their Pursuit of Pale Ale, which I stumbled onto at a happy hour a few weeks ago (alas, I didn't save any notes, and the picture I took with my phone didn't turn out well). An odd choice for an anniversary beer, perhaps, but I think they've managed to pull it off. Pours a golden, slightly orange color. Clear with a light head that left lots of lacing as I drank. Aroma is really nice, floral hops, maybe some citrus and an almost yeasty feel. Taste has a light, hoppy bitterness throughout, a little sweetness up front and maybe just a bit of citrus fruits along with the earthy bitterness. Mouthfeel is a bit on the thin side, but not overly so, and I think that's what they're going for. It's certainly crisp and clean and compulsively drinkable (I should have bought a sixer of this!) As pale ales go, it's an excellent example of the style and something I could certainly drink a lot of, but it's not particularly aggressive either. Exactly what I was looking for, too! B+

Beer Nerd Details: 5.1% ABV bottled (12 oz). Drank out of a pint glass.

Oskar Blues Dales Pale Ale

Oskar Blues Dale's Pale Ale - Apparently the first modern craft-beer to be produced in cans, this beer has lead the way to several other canned craft beers, though they're still somewhat rare. In the beginning, brewer Dale Katechis hand canned the beers (one at a time! Uphill! In the snow!) and sold them as a way to promote his restaurant, Oskar Blues Grill and Brew. They encountered some skepticism from beer nerds, but they eventually came around and now Oskar Blues is one of the big Craft Beer success stories. Cans actually do have some advantages, namely minimizing exposure to light (brown bottles protect, but not completely) and oxygen (unwanted light and/or oxygen can produce off flavors in beer, leading to "skunky" beers). Cans are also cheaper and take up less space. Modern can linings are also supposed to be better at not impacting the taste of the beer itself (something older cans may have suffered from). I bought a six pack of this a while back (and drank a few during my Oscars Liveblogging adventure) and have been enjoying them for a while.

It pours a bit of a darker, light brownish color. I wouldn't call it hazy, but it's not as clear as the Headwaters. Smell is a bit less complex, but also a little stronger. Earthy hops, all the way. Taste is definitely sweeter and maybe even a bit less hoppy, but still complex and flavorful. It has a fuller body, but is still quite drinkable. I'm having a hard time comparing these two beers. They're both excellent for what they are and though they're both distinct, their strengths and weaknesses seem to balance out. So I'll give this one a B+ as well.

Beer Nerd Details: 6.5% ABV canned (12 oz). Drank out of a pint glass.

If you asked me which I'd rather have right now, I think I might choose the Victory. That may just be because I've only had one of those though, while I've had a few Dale's lately. Of course, this won't scare me away from the canned Oskar Blues beers and indeed, I just picked up some Gordon Imperial Red (apparently renamed G'Knight due to legal troubles started by dickheads at Gordon Biersch - more on that story in a review that will most likely be coming soon)...

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

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