Drinking local is generally a good rule of thumb, but if you love barleywines (particularly barrel aged versions of same) and live in the Philadelphia area, pickins are slim. Even stalwarts like Victory haven’t made their old-school takes on the style in years (though I guess Weyerbacher is still chugging along, even if they probably wouldn’t fare that well against a lot of the popular bwizzle out there these days). Look, I know it, I shouldn’t complain, this is a great beer town and the brewery options are plentiful, but the barleywine supply is somewhat lacking.
Unless you consider Pittsburg or New Jersey local, the best you’re likely to get is the occasional one-off brew, like this Neshaminy Creek surprise release. Brewed with the ever important Maris Otter malt, standard English style hopping of Pilgrim and East Kent Goldings, and then aged in Woodford Reserve Bourbon barrels for 18 months, this thing certainly ticks the boxes on more modern takes on the style. Clocking in at 16% ABV, it ain’t shy about it either. I do hope they make this (or something along these lines) again, as it’s quite nice to grab a solid local barleywine.
Neshaminy Creek Electronic Witch – Pours a muddy looking brown color with a cap of very light tan head. Smells great, toffee, dark fruits, raisins, figs, plums, brown sugar, molasses, and the usual bourbon, oak, and vanilla from the barrel. Taste hits that rich caramel and toffee, brown sugar and molasses pretty hard, a hint of dark fruit, plums, figs, and that boozy bourbon, oak and vanilla pitching in. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, low to moderate carbonation (good for the style), boozy but not nearly as hot as you’d expect from the ABV. Overall, this is the best thing I’ve had from Neshaminy Creek and in the running for best local barleywine. It’s kinda reminiscent of Object Permanance, though maybe not quite up to that level. A-
Beer Nerd Details: 16% ABV bottled (22 ounce bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 1/1/2022.
Yes, I’ve been woefully neglectful of the blog once again. I actually worked through all the old reviews that I had started and never finished, so it’s probably about time to ramp up some new ones. Naturally, no one is reading this, so who knows, I might go on an October rampage of posting so y’all have plenty to not read. See, it’s funny because you are presumably reading this, right? Right? Ah yes, explained jokes, the highest form of humor.
What we’ve got here today is a Czech-style Pilsner aged in an American oak foeder for 3 months. So I guess there are some things to needlessly explore, as this is a distinct take on the style.
There is supposed to be a marked difference between Czech and German pils styles, but I get the impression that a lot of American breweries are just making the same recipe and if they use Saaz hops, they call it Czech (not your brewery though, you guys do it right). In theory, Czech is lower attenuated, more malt forward (using a decoction mash, if that’s what fuels your reactor), and slightly darker than German varieties. I can’t find too much in the way of Elder Pine’s specific process here, but I get the impression they’re doing it right. The lagering time is pretty standard, but using a foeder as a vessel is less common (though not unheard of.) Add all this up, and I think we’ve got a damn fine Pils:
Elder Pine Choice Pivo – Pours a clear golden color with several fingers of fluffy, frothy head, good retention, and lacing. Smells great, bready, crisp, herbal, almost spicy hops. Taste hits that same bready, herbal character, finishing with that note of spice, almost clove-like (but not quite Belgian or weizened – much more subtle than that), and a touch of pleasant bitterness. I don’t get much in the way of oak in the nose or taste, but perhaps it’s a sorta subtle x-factor, because this is great. Mouthfeel is light bodied, crisp, and refreshing, well carbed and utterly quaffable. Overall, fantastic pilsner, everything you could want out of the style… A-
Beer Nerd Details: 5.2% ABV canned (16 ounce pounder). Drank out of a willibecher glass on 6/25/22.
Elder Pine seems to have a lengthy catalog of pils varieties and other lagers, so I’m guessing we’ll see more from them soon enough. In the meantime, don’t fret, there’s plenty of barleywines and stouts and other swanky stuff in the pipeline, along with the lagers.
The annual hiatus from beer isn’t just about substituting one type of alcohol for another, and indeed, since the pandemic began and I spent a lot more time working from home, my Tea intake has risen commensurately. One of the things I discovered during this whole process was August Uncommon Tea.
Look, despite dipping my toes into the fine tea waters, I’m far from an expert. That being said, I see some similarities between what August is doing and what early craft beer pioneers did. August tends to focus on intense flavors, wild ingredients, and blended, flavored tea. This sort of thing doesn’t have the greatest reputation in the tea world because a lot of flavored teas use cheap, artificial ingredients. August claims to up the ante on that game, the same way that early craft brewers did. Funnily enough, “Uncommon Tea” calls to mind Dogfish Head’s slogan of “Off-Centered Ales for Off-Centered People.”
Near as I can tell, August seems to be sourcing quality full-leaf tea to use as its base, with additional ingredients and natural flavoring added into the blend. You don’t usually see the crazy acronym based tea grades, but it’s certainly not the prepackaged tea bags of fannings and dust you see in the supermarket.
Still, this sort of reliance on wacky ingredients and flavors can only take you so far, and eventually you just want to get back to “tea flavored tea” (the same way drinking a few Funky Buddha beers will have you pining for pilsners or other “beer flavored beer”). I don’t think August goes to quite that extreme, and some of these are phenomenal, so let’s take a gander at what I’ve been sampling over the past two years or so…
Black & Green Tea
Low Country – Black Tea with Bourbon Burnt Sugar Notes – Made with black tea, taiwanese lapsang souchoung black tea, barley malt, and the ever-vague “flavoring.” This is unquestionably my favorite August tea. The black tea backbone is there for sure, but it’s got a rich caramel, vanilla, and malt character that comes through well (from a beer dork perspective, it triggers similar feelings to a bourbon barrel aged stout or barleywine). The “burnt sugar” descriptor and inclusion of lapsang souchoung initially had me worried, but the smokey notes are really light and fit well within the overall profile (i.e. you’re not wondering who put their cigar out in your tea). It’s more intense than other flavored teas I’ve had, and while its impact might diminish if you use it as an “everyday” tea, it’s a pour that I look forward to once or twice every week (and I always have some of this on hand).
Golden Arrow – Elegant Black Tea with Smoke and Burnt Toffee Notes – Made with yunnan black tea, assam black tea, taiwanese lapsang souchong black tea, and the ever-vague “flavoring.” This is probably my second favorite August tea, though I think you can see that there’s a lot of overlap here between this one and the Low Country tea mentioned above. They used the lapsang souchong with a heavier hand here and the smokiness is thus a little higher, but the caramel, vanilla, and toffee notes really balance that out well. One thing I will say here is that this tends to feel a little more inconsistent – i.e. sometimes I feel like it’s smokier than other times. It’s always good, but I feel like I get different tastes from steep to steep. I get this with beer too – things that are intensely flavored like this can sometimes vary over time. In any case, it’s still one of my favorites and a weekly cup that I keep on hand. It’s similar to but different enough from Low Country that it makes for a nice one-two punch.
Cabaret – Malty Black Tea with Chocolate and Cherry – Made with indian assam black tea, cacao shells, german barley malt, german dark chocolate pieces, morello cherry, and the requisitely vague “natural flavoring”. This is a very nice, rich, almost chocolate cake-like tea with a bright cherry note that cuts the richness and provides a good counterpoint. Solid stuff, something I’d get again for sure, but not something I need to keep stocked at all times like Low Country.
Passage – Rich Black Tea with Hazelnut and Chocolate – Made with black tea, cocoa husk, hazelnut brittle pieces, cocoa beans, and that ever-vague “flavoring.” Super rich stuff without the bright cherry that Cabaret has to cut through it. I like this a lot and if I was one of those hazelnut-crazed freaks, this would be my favorite. As it stands now, it’s the sort of thing I enjoyed and I had no problem getting through the sample packet, but I’m not sure I’d order it again (it’s not out of the question though!)
In the Mood for Love – Pure Black Tea with Malty Cocoa Aroma – Pure black keemun mao feng tea from Anhui province, China. Despite the fanciful description of a “cocoa aroma”, this is basically just straight black tea, and a pretty nice one at that. I would say that it’s cool that August offers something like this… except that it appears to no longer be available. Not a huge deal, because you can get stuff like this from lots of other places, but still.
Combray – Organic Green Tea with Vanilla and Cardamom – Made with organic green tea, organic cardamom seed, organic cardamom pod, organic vanilla pieces, and the standard vague “natural flavoring.” This didn’t make a huge impression, but I do remember liking it. I think the cardamom sorta overwhelms the more subtle green tea and vanilla notes, but they’re still there. Solid, may try it again some day, but it’s not at the top of that list.
Breathless – Boozy Black Tea White Chocolate and Prune – Made with indian assam black tea, hazelnut brittle, sweet blackberry leaf, white chocolate, dried plum, and the usual vague “flavoring.” And here we come to our first real “miss” of the bunch. Something about the generic sweetness of white chocolate and the pronounced fruitiness just didn’t mesh for me. I drank through my sample packet just fine, but don’t anticipate ever revisiting.
Painted Desert – Crisp Black Tea with Chili and chocolate – Made with ceylon black tea, cocoa husk, cinnamon, chili, safflower petals, and the usual “flavoring.” Similar to the above Passage and Cabaret varities, this has a rich, chocolatey backbone, with the differentiator being the Chili peppers, which add a tingly spice to the proceedings. A lot of times in beverage tasting notes, I will use “spicy” to refer to things like cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, clove, etc… which have a sharp edge for sure, but that’s not the same as a chili heat, which is certainly present here, but not in an unpleasant or lingering way. Not calling this my favorite or rushing to reorder or anything (and it’s never going to be a regular go-to), but it was an interesting cup of tea.
Metropolitan – Vibrant Black Tea with Bergamot Plum and Clove – Made with assam tea, nutmeg, serbian plum, lemon peel, clove, mallow flower, and the requisite “flavoring.” Reading the description, this seemed to be a sorta play on Earl Grey, but there’s no actual bergamot in this, and the plum (or maybe lemon peel) completely overwhelms with a perfumey scent that feels more artificial than most of these flavored teas. It’s not, like, terrible, but it doesn’t deliver on the Earl Grey feel I was hoping for (and I get that they don’t necessarily want to tackle Earl Grey head on, as it’s such a ubiquitous style, but there’s probably way to put a spin on Earl Grey that is much better than this). Early Grey is certainly one of my mainstays, and will remain so, but I would be really curious to see if August could put something more interesting together along those lines than this…
Flower of My Secret – Organic Black Tea with Rose Cocoa and Clove – Made with tgfop organic darjeeling indian tea blend, organic cacao shell, organic clove, natural flavoring Certified organic by Lacon GmbH. I remember this as more of a clove driven black tea than rose or cocoa, but that’s not a bad thing at all. It didn’t make a huge impression, but it was a nice few cups of tea.
Breakfast – Smoky Vanilla Black Tea – Made with assam black tea, ceylon black tea, vanilla pieces, formosa lapsang souchong black tea, natural vanilla flavoring. I had high hopes for this given the description and the ingredients, but I have to say that this mostly just feels like English Breakfast tea with only a hint of smoky vanilla. That’s not necessarily bad, per say, I was just hoping for a much more prominent vanilla character, and it’s very light here. I’m not entirely sure I’d even pick it up if I were tasting blind. (I don’t really love smoky tea, but the way August employs it has been very successful in a few other teas, so again, it didn’t do much for me here.) Certainly a fine breakfast tea though…
Silencio – Spicy Black Tea with Tobacco and Pineapple Notes – Made with assam tea, south indian black tea, cacao shell, black pepper, dried pineapple, and mysterious “flavoring”. The pineapple adds a nice touch of sweet brightness here that certainly works much better than, say, the plum in Metropolitan. I don’t get much in the way of tobacco here, though I guess there is a bit of earthiness – still, the well integrated pineapple is the star here. This was a tasty cup and something I might revisit someday.
The Black Lodge – Black Tea with Smoky Banana and Truffle Notes – Made with chinese yunnan black tea, spanish olive leaf, smoked chinese black tea, dried banana, sweet blackberry leaf, madagascar vanilla, and vague “flavoring”. An intriguing confluence of flavors here. Lots of banana but also a pronounced earthy character (presumably what they mean when they say “truffle notes”) that is actually well balanced across the black tea base. Another tasty cup that I’ll surely revisit someday.
Gold Rush – Orange Rosemary Black Tea – Made with black tea, orange peel, caramel pieces, rosemary, and the usual vague “flavoring.” Drinks a little like an orange forward version of Earl Grey (Lady Grey?) It’s got a little more complexity than this implies, and I sometimes found myself thinking it had a small creamsicle note or even an Old Fashioned cocktail note. The citrus character is much stronger than the rosemary, which works more in the background. Very nice, and this has emerged as another weekly go-to tea for me…
Psychocandy – Darkly Sweet Rooibos with Pumpkin and Caramel – Made with south african rooibos, dried pumpkin, turkish apple, caramel, sweet blackberry leaf, madagascar vanilla, and the usual “flavoring.” Ah, the Pumpkin beer of tea! The Rooibos base comes through the strongest here, with some additional sweetness from the pumpkin and caramel differentiating things a tad. Still, it’s a nice fall brew to enjoy during the Six Weeks of Halloween (and beyond). Of the herbal teas I’ve had from August, this is one of my two favorites.
Biarritz – Velvety Rooibos with Amaretto & Orange Blossom – Made with rooibos, anise, almond, lemon peel, orange blossom, star anise, and that ubiquitous “flavoring.” This is a very nice take on rooibos, definitely getting an Amaretto cocktail character out of this that works well, the almonds coming through strongly but with a fruity, spicy background. Well done, might actually be my favorite of the herbal teas I’ve had from August…
Cult of Demeter – Silky Organic Cocoa Barley and Anise – Made with organic german barley malt, organic egyptian anise, organic cocoa husk (notably, no additional “flavoring” here). This is also quite nice and reminiscent of a Biscotti (or maybe pizzelles, but only if you make them with anise, which my family does not). Anise is not my favorite flavor, but this has a nice balance and reminds my of Italian baked goods, which is a very good thing. Not a go to, but I’d probably get this again.
Silent Night – Chocolate Nutmeg Rooibos – Made with south african rooibos, cacao shell, south african honeybush, indian nutmeg, marigold flowers, and the trademark vague “flavoring.” I’m a sucker for Christmas themed drinks/tea, so I always need to check them out. This is certainly an uncommon take, with the fruity/nutty rooibos base getting a little complexity from subtle touches of nutmeg and cacao. I think I might prefer a bit of a heavier hand on the spice, but I like it nonetheless.
Negroni – Bittersweet Orange Rooibos – Made with rooibos, sweet blackberry leaves, orange peel, licorice root, yellow gentian root, natural flavoring. Another rooibos based tea that is reminiscent of a cocktail, this time a Negroni (or even maybe something like an Old Fashioned). I very much enjoy this. I still have a few cups left in the sample, but I’m looking forward to them… and this could overtake my other favorite herbals
I’ll most certainly continue to explore August Uncommon Tea’s offerings, though I should again note that I do still go for the occasional “tea flavored tea” from time to time. Of course, I also like my Earl Grey (and vanilla variants) and I still have a couple of InfiniTea™ Tins that are continually being replenished (I will note that the ending bits of a Low Country or Golden Arrow have added some complexity to the vanilla earl grey tin, even if the grand majority of that blend comes from other sources). Alrighty, at this point, we should probably get back to writing about beer, this being a beer blog and all. Stay tuned!
One of the key alternatives I turn to during the annual hiatus from beer is bourbon, which can be a tricky proposition these days. The market is awash in NAS NDP juice that goes for double the price of standard expressions from the big distillers (which, unlike the beer world’s big producers, tend to make the best stuff), and yet somehow still commands hype and even higher markups from retailers (I’m not even going to pretend secondary is worth looking at).
In that light, I hesitate to even mention it for fear of this stuff disappearing from shelves forever (a la Weller’s status as a Pappy alternative causing the entire line to get snapped up by taters and profiteers etc…), but Knob Creek 12 is a nice find. A tween age-statement, 100 proof bourbon with a modestly higher price* than the regular expression? This sanity can’t possibly last… and yet I bought this bottle two years ago, and I’ve seen it around sporadically ever since.
One of Jim Beam’s specialty products, this falls right into the sweet spot for the Kaedrin palate (i.e. a beer-attuned baby palate). I enjoy the occasional dram of cask-strengthmonsters, but the 100 proof suits this bourbon well and the 12 year is a noticeable upgrade over the 9 year. It’s special, but not so special that you need to save it for a special occasion, which you probably shouldn’t do anyway, but even less so for this. It’s my favorite bourbon acquisition over the last few years, and will be an excellent addition to the Infinity Bottle when the time comes (it will reduce proof and add age to the blend, which is precisely what it needs).
Knob Creek 12 Year Small Batch Bourbon – Pours a standard brownish orange color, moderate legs. Smells nice, lots of oak, wood shavings, some nutty aromas, sweet pastry, cookies, hints of caramel, vanilla, and baking spice. Taste has a nice proportion of oak and sweetness, but those other notes from the nose provide complexity – nutty, rich, some cookies, light caramel, vanilla, and spice. Mouthfeel is medium to full bodied, moderate alcohol heat, but quite approachable, even for my beer attuned palate. Overall, this is really great stuff and while the price isn’t “cheap” it drinks better than stuff twice as expensive… A-
Bourbon Nerd Details: 100 Proof, 50% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass on 4/1/22. Vintage: 2021.
Beer Nerd Musings: Knob Creek barrels are used to age beer frequently (though I’m not sure about the 12 year expression specifically). A few years ago, the BCBS Reserve was aged in Knob Creek (I never got a hold of that one, but the other Reserve variants have been fantastic). There’s a local bar, Teresa’s Cafe in Wayne, PA, that did a couple of Knob Creek single barrel picks that were great, and they donated the barrels to semi-local breweries like Troegs and Stoudts to make barrel aged beers. I should really get over there and see if they still have those single barrel KC bottles…
I’ve got a couple other bourbons in the pipeline, but not sure when I’ll get around to reviewing them, as the beer backlog is starting to pile up as well and we’ve been reviewing non-beer for a while now…
* Alright, I just checked, and the price increase is perhaps not as modest now as it was a couple years ago? Or maybe I just plain misremembered what I paid for it last time… Regardless, it’s still pretty reasonable given other 12 year olds on the market, which often push triple digit pricing…
When you think of the top wine producing regions in the world, you’re probably thinking of somewhere in France, Italy, or California. You’re almost certainly not thinking Southeast Pennsylvania. And yet, here is Va La Vineyards, smack dab in the middle of mushroom country.
Indeed, for all you terroir nerds out there, Va La Vinyards’ 6 acres are neighbored by a mushroom farm. Supposedly the farm’s compost lot generates a steamy fog that drifts over the vinyard, providing a temperature-leveling effect that is good for grape growing. Said fog is referred to as “the ghost” by the Va La workers, who attribute part of their success with difficult wine grapes to their phantasmic friend.
Anywho, Va La is not a large producer and their wares are mostly available only at the winery itself (and maybe some restaurants). After reading about it at PA Vine Co, I decided to pop down and take a flier on local wine. To be quite honest, I was not expecting much, so imagine my surprise at recognizing that this was probably the best wine I’ve had all year. (Granted, I’m a beer dork and only really dabble in wine, but still…)
This particular red wine, Va La Mahogany, is made from a field blend of northern Italian grape varieties: “barbera, malvasia nera, petit verdot, charbono, carmine, lagrein, sagrantino, etc” (gotta love the grace note added by that unassuming little “etc” at the end there). It’s quite a production:
The grapes were harvested by hand on the mornings of October 4 – 6. The wine was aged in barrels sourced from Burgundy & central Pennsylvania forests for ~ 28 months, and then aged 12 months in bottle before release.
They recommend an extended decanting time and note that it’s well suited for aging. I will most certainly be revisiting this in years to come during the annual beer slowdowns…
Va La Vinyards Mahogany – Pours a very deep, dark red color. Smells of dark, jammy fruits, lots of cherry and blackberry, some oak and vanilla with earthy aromas in the background, chocolate, leather, spice, and the like. Taste starts sweet and fruity, those cherries and blackberries coming out to play, moves into funky territory, chocolate, a hint of spice, maybe leather or tobacco pitching in, finishing with a hit of acidity. Mouthfeel is full bodied, concentrated, bright, with moderate dry tannins underpinning the whole affair. This is complex, I keep discovering new notes, but incredibly well balanced and harmonious. Look, y’all know I’m no wine expert, but this is good wine. A- or maybe an A
Wine Nerd Details: 14.5% ABV bottled (750 ml corked). Drank out of a Bordeaux Wine Glass on 3/19/22. Vintage: 2017. Bottle No. 3250
I am very much looking forward to having this again, and to exploring more of Va La’s wines during future breaks from beer. Certainly recommended for wine nerds who find themselves in the area.
I’ve dabbled in the realm of mead in the past, but it’s never really become a go-to replacement for beer. Last year’s sampling of Schramm’s fruited meads left me feeling interested, but I’m still not convinced that meads will be able to fill the void when beer is unavailable (the way that wine or bourbon can). At its best, mead has filled the role of “interesting change of pace” or “I’m glad I tried that 2 ounce pour at a share,” and I don’t think that will change in coming years, so take what follows with the appropriate asteroid of salt.
One thing they had plenty of that I was curious about were barrel-aged meads. The treatment doesn’t seem to be particularly common at other meaderies, and I was curious to see if the process would add that curious x-factor that seemed to be missing for me when it comes to mead. And, well, let’s just say that, despite the enticing novelty of pretending to be a viking or Beowulf, I won’t be investing in a fancy drinking horn or any other such mead accoutrement.
Superstition Aphrodisia Bourbon Barrel Aged Mead – Mead made with Arizona wildflower honey and Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (this formulation is referred to as a Pyment mead), aged in bourbon barrels for 12 months. Pours a clear, deep, dark ruby red color. Smells very sweet, honey, lots of dark fruit, maybe vinous but it’s honestly less prominent than I’d expect, I don’t get much barrel at all in the nose either. Taste is rich and sweet, the vinous fruit comes out a little more here than the nose would imply and there’s a hint of tannins balancing out against the sweetness of the honey, a little booze and oak, but I’m not entirely sure I’d have pegged this as BBA in a blind tasting. As it warms, the barrel character comes out more, or I convinced myself that it did or something. Mouthfeel is rich and full bodied, but not as syrupy as some other meads I’ve had, even if it’s still sticky sweet. Overall, it’s a strange little mead – it’s really good, but I don’t get all the wine/bourbon barrel notes I’d expect in something like this and even 375 ml seems like a bit much. B+
Mead Nerd Details: 15.5% ABV bottled (375 ml corked). Drank out of a snifter glass on 3/22/22. Batch 1. Bottle #415 of 770.
Superstition Aphrodisia Rum Barrel Aged Mead – Very similar to the BBA version, only it was aged in rum barrels for 12 months. It’s still a little light on the barrel, though I dunno, maybe the brown sugary rum notes come out a bit more here than the bourbon did in that version? I had these about a week apart, so whatever. Ultimately, it’s really good stuff and it’s well crafted and I’d totally take this over some other meads I’ve had, but I was still hoping for more out of that barrel… B+
Mead Nerd Details: 14.5% ABV bottled (375 ml corked). Drank out of a snifter glass on 4/4/22. Batch 2. Bottle #298 of 350.
Superstition Safeword Mead – Made with Belgian Dark Candi Syrup in addition to the honey, and aged in oak. Pours a dark brown color with an amber highlight, no head, completely still (which, like, it’s supposed to be, was I trying to make a joke when I originally wrote this?) Smells nice, sweet, caramelized sugars, a hint of dark fruits in the background. Taste is also quite sweet, more of that honey character than caramel coming here, though you get hints of caramel and oak in there somewhere. Mouthfeel is rich and full bodied, but again not syrupy. A little boozy burn, but nothing outrageous. It’s nice! I like the idea, but once again, the oak isn’t transforming this the way I’d expected. The 750 ml packaging is way too much, but the swing top works well – I drank this over the course of about a week, and while it wasn’t the same at the end, it was still fine. B
Mead Nerd Details: 15% ABV bottled (750 ml swing top). Drank out of a snifter glass on 4/1/22. Vintage: 2021.
Superstition Lagrimas De Oro Mead – Traditional mesquite honey mead aged in a bourbon barrel. Pours a striking, crystal clear, very pale yellow color. Not getting much on the nose, just a faint, vague sweetness. Taste hits that sweet honey hard, and there’s a boozy bite to it, with the bourbon and oak coming through moreso than the above examples. Mouthfeel is not quite as syrupy as the others, but it’s still very sugary sweet, with a boozy heat to it. The balance seems a bit off here, with the barrel coming through well enough, but not as well integrated as happens in beer (or even wine). Overall, it’s fine, I’m probably just not as much of a mead/honey guy as I’d hoped. B- or B
Mead Nerd Details: 13.5% ABV bottled (750 ml swing top). Drank out of a flute glass on 4/10/22. Vintage: 2022.
Beer Nerd Musings – One interesting thing about Superstition’s barrel aged offerings is that they have actually used bourbon barrels that previously held beer (i.e. 3rd use barrels), and in at least one case, a specific beer. The aforementioned Peanut Butter Jelly Crime has a barrel aged variant that was aged in Bottle Logic Fundamental Observation barrels. According to my Untappd, I’ve actually checked into that mead, though I don’t remember much about the barrel impact (at the time, I may not have known much about Fundamental Observation either) – I suspect it wasn’t huge, as with the meads in this post. Still, it’s an interesting approach.
So there you have it. I’m clearly not much of a mead guy, but I tried to be fair in my ratings. I do have at least one beer/mead hybrid coming up soon, but I suspect I won’t be going out of my way for meads in the future…
For the past 8 years, I’ve taken an extended break from beer. There are numerous reasons for this, but one of the more fun ones is that I still explore other realms of beverage glory. One particular thing I kept meaning to try out (but was continually stymied by, for years) was Pétillant Naturel (aka Pét-Nat) wine.
Pétillant Naturel translates to “naturally sparkling” and is a sorta funky version of Champagne. I’ll leave it to the experts to get into the distinctions between Pét-Nat and other sparkling styles, but from a beer dork’s perspective, it seems like simple bottle conditioned stuff. It’s even bottled with a crown cap, like beer is (presumably due to the pressurization that can occur). Various descriptions of these wines kinda reminded me of Belgian beers. Maybe not as funky or earthy as Gueuze, but more like a Belgian Strong Pale Ale.
Despite the frequent proclamations that Pét-Nat is an emerging hipster trend, I had trouble finding bottles in PA. Maybe I’m not hipstery enough, but my guess is that, frankly, like a lot of good beers out there, you have to want it. So it took me a few years to actually procure a bottle. What can I say: the Kaedrin procurement department is obsessed with beer, not as much with wine, but they’ll come through if you give them enough time (and the requisite bribes).
Anyway, this appears to be a generally well regarded example of the style. I did leave instructions for the procurement department to seek out white wine varietals, as the notion of a sparkling red didn’t really seem like a good place to start (anecdotal evidence from a wine nerd friend indicates that my instinct was the correct one). This particular Pét-Nat is made with Chardonnay grapes, and it was pretty much everything I hoped it would be.
Donkey & Goat Lily’s PétNat – Pours a clear, very pale straw yellow color with a finger or two of tight bubbles, very pretty. There is a small amount of sediment, but keep in mind that wine dorks would probably be horrified by the amount of sediment that appears in some unfiltered beers. There’s maybe a slight haze, but none of the murky, muddy character some beers can have, nor are there tons of chunky floaters when you pour out the last of the bottle. Smells of musty yeast with some citrus zest, pears, honey it feels almost like a hybrid of a Belgian pale ale and Chardonnay. Taste starts off with some sweet vinous fruit, a little of that sort of musty, dusty yeasty funk, but quickly transitions into the more Chardonnay grape, pear, apple flavors, finishing dry, a hint of lemon zest. Mouthfeel is high carbonated and crisp, starts dry, gets a little sweet in the middle, finishing dry. When I say “dry”, I don’t mean like tannic dry, more in the way of little residual sugars (which the carbonation accentuates well). I really like this. It’s playing in the middle of a triangle consisting of Belgian Strong Pale Ale, Chardonnay, and Sparkling Wine. A-
Wine Nerd Details: 11.2% ABV bottled and capped. Drank out of a flute glass on 3/25/22. Vintage: 2020. “502 unfined, unfiltered cases made” Region: Anderson Valley, CA
Food Pairing: I paired this with a reasonably high grade nigiri sushi plate, and I think the carbonation, and relatively dry nature of the Chardonnay went really well with the dish. A go-to beer pairing for that meal would be a Belgian Strong Pale Ale, Saison, or Gueuze, and this fits comfortably in that space. I suspect it would work well with turkey or roast pork loin too.
Beer Nerd Musings: As already mentioned, this sits comfortably in the middle of a triangle consisting of Belgian Strong Pale Ale, Chardonnay, and Sparkling Wine. I do wonder if other white wine grapes would get even closer to the Belgian Pale styles. Perhaps due to my (relative) familiarity with Chardonnay, it still felt a lot like wine, even if I could see some overlap with beer. Interestingly, almost every beer/wine hybrid that I’ve had has utilized red wine grapes. I’m actually having trouble thinking of a beer/wine hybrid that uses white wine grapes. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that. I’m sure The Bruery, which does a lot of wine-forward takes on beer/wine hybrids, has done something like this.
This is definitely a winner. It’s a bit pricey, but not overwhelming and I’ll most certainly be seeking out more Pét-Nat wines in the coming years.
A welcome trend, as typified by Westbound & Down’s bourbon barrel-aged line, is to package high alcohol brews in smaller than normal packaging. Lord knows I’ve solo domed my share of bombers or Bruery 750s that are probably better shared, but it’s actually fun to tackle one of these adorable 8 ounce cans and not get completely sloshed. The trend towards ever-thicker brownie-batter style stouts also benefit from this approach. Such beers are absolutely delicious, but can get to be a bit heavy and cloying after a while. 8 (oz) is enough. Until it isn’t (12-16 ounce packaging seems to be the genuine sweet spot).
It turns out that the quantity of liquid imbibed can have a big impact on your experience. I used to go to Tired Hands Brew Cafe nearly every week, and I suspect on of the reasons I kept going back wasn’t just because the beer was good (it was!), but because the grand majority of what I drank was in 4 or 8 ounce pours. The generally sweeter NEIPA character just pops a little better at that size. I know 16 ounce cans are the norm these days, but one of the reasons I never really got into the line-life at Tired Hands was that 16 ounces of a Milkshake IPA is maybe too much. Oh sure, I’m also a novelty junkie and would rather 16 different 4 ounce pours than a 4 pack of 16 ounce cans, and also I didn’t want to wait in line for 5 hours under the confused but harsh glare of Ardmore locals anymore.
Anywho, the other thing that comes to mind when it comes to this sort of thing is New Coke. I wrote about this before a while back:
Why did Coca-Cola change their time-honored and fabled secred formula? Because of the Pepsi Challenge. In the early 1980s, Coke was losing ground to Pepsi. Coke had long been the most popular soft drink, so they were quite concerned about their diminishing lead. Pepsi was growing closer to parity every day, and that’s when they started running these commercials pitting Coke vs. Pepsi. The Pepsi Challenge took dedicated Coke drinkers and asked them to take a sip from two different glasses, one labeled Q and one labeled M. Invariably, people chose the M glass, which was revealed to contain Pepsi. Coke initially disputed the results… until they started private running sip tests of their own. It turns out that people really did prefer Pepsi (hard as that may be for those of us who love Coke!). So Coke started tinkering with their secret formula, attempting to make it lighter and sweeter (i.e. more like Pepsi). Eventually, they got to a point where their new formulation consistently outperformed Pepsi in sip tests, and thus New Coke was born. Of course, we all know what happened. New Coke was a disaster. Coke drinkers were outraged, the company’s sales plunged, and Coke was forced to bring back the original formula as “Classic Coke” just a few months later (at which point New Coke practically disappeared). What’s more, Pepsi’s seemingly unstoppable ascendance never materialized. For the past 20-30 years, Coke has beaten Pepsi despite sip tests which say that it should be the other way around.
So what happened? Why did New Coke fail and why is Pepsi also terrible? Malcolm Gladwell uses this example and the aftermath in his book Blink:
The difficulty with interpreting the Pepsi Challenge findings begins with the fact that they were based on what the industry calls a sip test or a CLT (central location test). Tasters don’t drink the entire can. They take a sip from a cup of each of the brands being tested and then make their choice. Now suppose I were to ask you to test a soft drink a little differently. What if you were to take a case of the drink home and tell me what you think after a few weeks? Would that change your opinion? It turns out it would. Carol Dollard, who worked for Pepsi for many years in new-product development, says, “I’ve seen many times when the CLT will give you one result and the home-use test will give you the exact opposite. For example, in a CLT, consumers might taste three or four different products in a row, taking a sip or a couple sips of each. A sip is very different from sitting and drinking a whole beverage on your own. Sometimes a sip tastes good and a whole bottle doesn’t. That’s why home-use tests give you the best information. The user isn’t in an artificial setting. They are at home, sitting in front of the TV, and the way they feel in that situation is the most reflective of how they will behave when the product hits the market.”
Dollard says, for instance, that one of the biases in a sip test is toward sweetness: “If you only test in a sip test, consumers will like the sweeter product. But when they have to drink a whole bottle or can, that sweetness can get really overpowering or cloying.” Pepsi is sweeter than Coke, so right away it had a big advantage in a sip test. Pepsi is also characterized by a citrusy flavor burst, unlike the more raisiny-vanilla taste of Coke. But that burst tends to dissipate over the course of an entire can, and that is another reason Coke suffered by comparison. Pepsi, in short, is a drink built to shine in a sip test. Does this mean that the Pepsi Challenge was a fraud? Not at all. It just means that we have two different reactions to colas. We have one reaction after taking a sip, and we have another reaction after drinking a whole can.
Have you ever had a small pour of something at a beer share and loved it, but then drank a whole bottle/can of the stuff at some later point and found yourself disappointed? This might be the culprit. Weirdly, the more intense or flavorful a beer is, the more likely that drinking a lot of it might not be the best of ideas. Unless, of course, you’ve got an 8 ounce can.
Colorado’s Westbound & Down seems like an almost under-the-radar type of brewery. Not of lot of hype around their stuff, but I’ve always heard good things. I was just reading comments about them, and someone was praising the prominence of “clear” IPAs, which I think is funny (clearly the West Coast IPA is poised for a returning pendulum swing since everything got hazy in the past few years). Anywho, this is a pretty straightforward imperial stout aged in Blanton’s, Weller, and Dickel barrels. Interestingly, this is the second time I’ve had a beer aged in Blanton’s barrels that have leaned heavily on fudgey chocolate notes (the other being last year’s BCBS Reserve). Go figure. Let’s take a closer look – just watch ol’ “Bandit” run:
Westbound & Down Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout – Pours a black color with almost no head. Smells sweet, a hint of roast and fudge, with the caramel, oak, and vanilla typical of the BBA treatment. Taste is very sweet, that roasted malt character makes itself known, with lots of fudge, caramel, oak, and vanilla. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, low but appropriate carbonation, thick, almost syrupy stuff. Not quite at the Cycle fudge stout levels of viscosity and attenuation, but in that ballpark. Overall, it’s a great little BBA stout and the adorable little 8 ounce can is perfectly suited for this… A-
Beer Nerd Details: 14.9% ABV canned (8 ounce). Drank out of a snifter on 8/20/21.
I have since had another one of these little BBA stouts called Western Justice, very similar, so maybe that fudgeyness isn’t entirely the result of the Blanton’s bourbon barrel… Whatever the case, I’ll be on the lookout for more Westbound & Down in the future – I’ve got my eye on a fetching little BBA barleywine called Louie. Stay tuned.
East End Gratitude is one of those storied, old-school, American-style barleywines that throws new money tickers for a bit of a loop. The original vintage in 2005, the now infamous paper-wrapped crow label with a red waxed cap, was certainly well received and those of you old enough to remember stuff like Beer Advocate Top 100 lists and the vaunted White Wale list know what’s up, but the new guard will question the liberal use of hops (what is this, a malty IPA?), the low-ish ABV (only 11%?), and the conspicuous absence of barrel-aging.
Oh sure, Pittsburg’s East End Brewing eventually broke down and started releasing barrel aged versions, but the mystique of those original paper-wrapped, non-BA vintages lives on, even to this day. I’ve managed a few tastes of the stuff over the years (including a decade old taster of the 2009 that had held up remarkably well), and I’ve always enjoyed it. When I finally got a bottle to myself, I was surprised at how well that throwback character suited me. Don’t get me wrong, a BBA English-style Barleywine is a thing of beauty, but there’s a place for this sort of thing too, even if (or perhaps because) we don’t see it’s kind very often anymore.
I didn’t get one of them swanky paper-wrapped versions – as far as I know, this pandemic-infused batch didn’t get that treatment – but it’s still got the violet wax and purple birdie on the label. They’re different every year, though this looks to be a repeat of the 2013 vintage look.
This is just your basic, no nonsense American style barleywine. First made in 2005, I’m guessing liberal use of old-school new-world hops like Cascade and Chinook. This is one of the few hoppy beers that actually manages to age well, but it drinks with a nice bitter kick when fresh. I suspect the 10 year old Gratitude I had a taste of a while back was a bit over the hill, but the faded hop character actually suits this beer (my instinct is that it drinks great, maybe even better than fresh at 3-4 years). Let’s look at a fresh one:
East End Gratitude – Pours a medium brown color with amber highlights and half a finger of very light tan color head that sticks around for a bit. Smells sweet, with a heaping helping of piney, resinous hops, a hint of citrus, candied raisins. Taste starts off with waves of rich caramel and toffee, raisins and figs popping in for a fine hello in the middle, with those hops only making themselves known towards the finish, with that same piney, resinous character and balancing bitterness. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, well carbonated but tight and appropriate for the style, not exactly dry, but the bitter hop finish does a good job balancing things. Overall, the best non-barrel-aged barleywine I’ve had in a long time, maybe ever. A-
Beer Nerd Details: 11.2% ABV bottled (22 ounce, violet wax). Drank out of a snifter on 9/26/21. Vintage 2020 (but they date vintages from brew day, it was released on June 26, 2021).
You’d think that I’d have made the trip out to Pittsburg for Gratitude Day at some point and gotten ahold of them vintage paper wrapped birdies, but I’ve never managed it. One of these days I’ll snag a vintage bottle and review it for you. In the meantime, I’ll just have to content myself with this cellar full of barrel-aged English-style garbage.
I still remember my first trip to Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown, PA. I was already a big fan of Hop Devil IPA* and Golden Monkey, but a visit to the brewery promised all sorts of new, unfamiliar beers to explore. I distinctly remember looking up their taplist online and running that up against ratings on Beer Advocate. I know, I know, ratings are dumb and the people who rate things on the internets are dumb and only dumb people think they are meaningful and I’m the worst, but this was like, well over 15 years ago and I didn’t think a bunch of pseudonymous strangers from the internet would steer me wrong.
Anyway, it looked like the best rated beer that was available on tap during that first visit was Prima Pils. I was incredibly disappointed. It tasted kinda like the dreaded Bud/Miller/Coors that was an anathema to beer dorks of the time. Obviously everyone hates the corporate behemoths for their size and abysmal business practices, but at the time, it was even just the flavor of their bland fizzy yellow stuff that people didn’t like. It was a sorta (over)reaction to the ubiquity of these bland macro lagers. Not that Prima Pils is bland, which is where we’re headed here, but there’s a reason the craft boom was fueled by IPAs and other flavorful brews.
Since then, I’ve had that lager revelation and no longer associate that sort of flavor profile with the BMCs of the world. Prima Pils and Braumeister Pils have become some of my favorite go-to pilsners and probably the sort of thing people in this area forget about too often. In other words, way back when, a bunch of strangers on the internet actually did steer me to the right beer, I just couldn’t recognize it at the time. We all live and learn.
Last year, Victory ran a series of small batch beers, and among them was a Dry Hopped version of Prima Pils, using Motueka, Vic Secret, and Galaxy to put a new spin on an old beer.
Victory Dry Hopped Prima Pils – Pours a clear, almost radiant bright straw yellow color with a few fingers of fluffy white head, good retention, and lacing as I drink. Smells nice, the dry hopping contributes IPA-like aromas of tropical fruit, mangoes, pineapple and the like, a hint of the more underlying herbal, floral character too. Taste features more of that pils base, but it’s got a bit of that bright citrus character from the nose too. The normal bread and cracker pilsner character is there, but this has certainly got the hoppy bite of a pale ale or IPA. Mouthfeel is light bodied, crisp, and refreshing, certainly quaffable stuff. Overall, it splits the difference between Pils and IPA in a way that doesn’t make me wish I was drinking one or the other, which is the real accomplishment here. It’s an interesting spin on an old favorite (or rather, a beer that has slowly grown into a favorite over time, but whatever). A-
Beer nerd Details: 5.3% ABV canned (16 ounce pounder). Drank out of a tulip glass on 8/21/21. Canned on: August 2021
Yes, I’m working through a backlog of reviews here, glad you noticed. Moar to come.
* Hoo boy, those old posts from 2010 are something else, aren’t they? Witness the awful pictures, the shaker pint glasses, the use of the word “smooth” in the tasting notes! I won’t claim to be the best (as has amply been established, I’m the worst), but I have improved over time, I think.