The ghost is infamously cryptic and mysterious, so when rumors started spreading through the Serious Knowers (of all and nothing!) community of a new series of Fantôme beers aged in various barrels, I knew I had to find a way to procure a bottle.
This particular iteration of Fantôme Nuit Noire is described in typical Dany-speak as “Fantôme Special stored from Long date in Calvados wood barrels” and it clocks in at a whopping 16% ABV. While this is more information than you can usually glean from a new tôme, I still had no idea what to expect from this. It was the perfect beer to crack open on Halloween night though, and it wound up knocking my socks off:
Brasserie Fantôme Nuit Noire Calvados – Cap pops off the bottle with nary a hiss. Pours a deep, viscous black color with no visible carbonation or head whatsoever. Smells of boozy oak, sweet, almost stoutlike in nature. Taste starts off rich and sweet, with a bitter roast element emerging in the middle, finishing with boozy oak and vanilla tamping down the roast. Mouthfeel is rich, full bodied, dense, and thick, completely still, no carbonation at all, and as such a little sticky, with a bit of not-unpleasant alcohol heat. The lack of carbonation feels oddly appropriate, and I suspect something more effervescent would not work nearly as well. If tasted blind, I think I could peg this as barrel aged, but probably would not guess Calvados and definitely would never, in a million years, have guessed this was made by Fantôme. Definitely a pleasant surprise coming from them (who are pretty famously difficult to peg down in the first place). A-
Beer Nerd Details: 16% ABV bottled (250 ml capped). Drank out of a tulip glass on 10/31/22. Lot 11 c20, “best before end 2028 or many more”
It’s nice to know that the ghost can still surprise me after all these years of strange brews… The bottle does mention that this was brewed “for our good friend Franco Fratoni, best beer connaissor [sic] in the world”, and that guy seems to be pretty well plugged into the beer world – Cantillon made a beer for him as well, so you know, good company (he owns a bar in Italy, so it’s not just some rando who drinks a lot).
There are several other Nuit Noire barrel variants, including Vermouth Barrels (side-eye, but it could be good I guess), Laphroaig (always suspicious of peated Scotch barrels, but the base seems strong enough and it has pretty good ratings), Rhum (would definitely be my top choice of the remaining, even if Rum barrels are wildly varying in quality), and De Garde (they make sours, so this might not work out so well and the ratings seem to bear that out, but then, who the hell knows?)
Every year, there’ve been some optimistic beer dorks who would claim that IPA’s ascendance and dominance would wane in favor of craft lagers. Well, IPAs are certainly still dominant, but I think the rise of craft lagers has finally come to pass in the last few years. And this isn’t just because I find myself drinking much more from the lager family (though that’s obviously a key indicator you should pay attention to, as I am definitely not the worst, no sir), but I do see more breweries specializing in lagers these days, and even beer geeks getting excited for new offerings from said breweries.
Granted, no one’s lining up in the streets overnight to get a taste of the latest Czech dark lager from the likes of Bierstadt Lagerhaus, Suarez Family Brewery, Notch, or Human Robot… but they’re not really doing that for IPAs anymore either and there seems to be actual buzz around lager releases sometimes. I actually see lagers rated higher than a 4.0 on Untappd occasionally, which is surely a sign of the end times…
Another sign of craft lager’s rising popularity (né end times) is the emergence of new styles, often sliced rather thin. Take today’s beer, Wayfinder Terrifica, described as an Italian-Style Horror Pils. The “horror” part is obviously tremendously important and speaks to the black magic used to make lagers popular (and also the Giallo movies I was watching whilst imbibing), but the “Italian-Style” Pilsner is something that does seem to be catching on with other breweries. With a traceable origin from Italy, it basically represents a standard German Pils that’s been dry hopped (with, it should be noted, noble or Euro hops that accentuate the standard pilsner profile – not so much new world citrus bombs, which is perhaps a separate thin slice of the new lager pie.)
This particular example is made by another brewery that seemingly specializes in lagers, Wayfinder Brewing. I’ve been drinking a lot of their stuff over the past few years (but, for some unfathomable reason, have not covered on the blog… until now). It’s a collaboration with Heater Allen (yet another lager specialist) and Modern Times, whose brewers were all inspired by a particular Italian brewery at a Pilsner beer festival (yes, those exist too, a further sign of the end times). Hopped heavily with Spalt Select and Tettnanger and then dry-hopped Polaris and more Tettnanger, this seems like a pretty damned good example of the style:
Wayfinder Terrifica Italian-Style Horror Pils – Pours a striking, clear, bright golden yellow color with a couple fingers of fluffy white head, great retention, and lacing as I drink. Smells nice, bready malts and lots of noble hop character, herbal, spicy, floral, a bit of brighter citrus too. Taste starts with a nice bready sweetness that gives way to spicy noble hops, some floral, herbal notes, and finishing with a solid bitterness. Mouthfeel is light bodied, well carbonated, crisp, fairly dry, and quaffable. Overall, excellent little pils, A-
Beer Nerd Details: 4.7% ABV canned (16 ounces). Drank out of a Willibecher glass on 10/28/22 (i.e. Halloween weekend!)
As mentioned above, Wayfinder has emerged as a reliable go-to brewery for all manner of lagers (not to mention the unsexy ale styles like Altbier), so you’ll hopefully be seeing more of them here sooner rather than later.
The first time I had Revolution brewing’s fabled Straight Jacket, I obviously enjoyed it, but came away somewhat disappointed. Years of hype had taken a toll, and expectations can be hard to live up to. It happens. That being said, it became somewhat easier to obtain cans for reasonable cost, and weirdly, with each new can I drank, I felt myself falling more and more in love with this barleywine. The 2022 vintage, in particular, was really something else. At this point, it basically lives up to the hype. Fortunately, that sort of thing happens sometimes too.
So when Revolution announced their most recent variant, a Double Barrel Very Special Old Jacket (V.S.O.J.), I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much. As fortune would have it, I managed to procure a can, which was far from a certain proposition. Why all the fuss?
Double Barrel V.S.O.J. is a blend of Straight Jacket barley wines that’ve been aged in bourbon barrels for one to three years. That type of blend has been released all on its own in the past as VSOJ, and is generally considered the pinnacle of Revolution’s barrel program. However, in this case, they took that blend and then racked it into Templeton Rye barrels for an additional eighteen months.
Lord knows I’m a sucker for this sort of thing, but it should be said that this is not necessarily the slam dunk that it seems. On its face, the heuristic of “longer age” and “more barrel treatments” being better makes sense, and it certainly justifies extra expense, but it doesn’t always result in a better beer. There’s a lot of moving parts here, and a lot of things that could go wrong, even excluding blatant failures like infection.
Extended aging can thin out a beer or provide too much oxidation character (a little can be pleasant and add complexity, too much can make a beer taste like cardboard). Age and extra barrels can result in too much oak extraction, providing tannic notes or overly boozy character. Choice of barrels makes a difference, especially if you’re mixing different spirits. And so on. Look, I’m not a brewer or cellarmaster and who knows what manner of barrel gnomes or beer gremlins lurk in the shadows of the brewery, but I’ve had some treatments that sound great on paper, but fall short in execution. (Not to point fingers, but for a couple examples of this sort of thing: Medianoche Premier Vol 1 and Bruery Soie Reserve both sound great on paper, but aren’t as good as their humble base offerings…)
If you’re still reading this, you may have deduced that the past couple paragraphs were basically just a pathetic attempt to throw you off the scent, because any fears about this beer are unfounded. It’s utterly phenomenal.
The Revolution Double Barrel Very Special Old Jacket (V.S.O.J.) clearly pours darker than regular old Straight Jacket, and this is rich, intense, decadent stuff, with the usual caramel, toffee, vanilla, and oak, but also a nice rye spice, graham cracker, booze soaked raisins aspect, dark fruit, leather, lots of complexity. At 16.8% ABV, it’s certainly boozy and you can tell, but it’s not overly hot either. Balance is not a word you’d really use for something this bold, but its disparate elements are in harmony, or something like that. A
Beer Nerd Details: 16.8% ABV canned (12 ounces). Drank out of a snifter on 2/3/23. Canned on 12-29-2022.
The Double Barrel certainly distinguishes itself from the humble, regular Straight Jacket, but the real question is how it compares to Revolution’s regular Very Special Old Jacket? Conventional wisdom was that regular V.S.O.J. was about as good as you could get. Fortunately, I managed to get ahold of the 2021 vintage of that release as well. It’s maybe got a bit less body and a tad more boozy heat, but we’re splitting hairs here at this point (i.e. neither of those things are faults, really, just different). Both are hugely complex beers, but they are distinct from one another, a little less of the earthier rye tones in the non-double-barrel version, but again – that’s not a bad thing. It’s got that whole Straight Jacket barleywine character, only moreso. Really can’t go wrong either way when it comes to this and the double barrel. Everyone loves to pit stuff against one another and declare a winner, but in reality, there’s no need to do such things. If you can get your hands on any of these Revolution Very Special Old Straight Jacket beers, you’ll be in for a treat. Hell, at this point, just plain ol’ Straight Jacket is worth the stretch. Anyway, V.S.O.J. also warrants an A
Beer Nerd Details: 15% ABV canned (12 ounces). Drank out of a snifter glass on 2/10/23. Canned on June 29/2021.
Obviously this is just contributing to the hype, I guess, but the Revolution barrel program deserves all the plaudits it gets. Except for Strawberry Jacket, that stuff is genuinely disappointing. Anywho, someday perhaps I’ll also cover the Ryeway to Heaven line, which are almost the equal of Straight Jacket, and in some cases, maybe even arguably better.
The likes of Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, and maybe even Tilquin tend to dominate the lambic discourse these days, but that just leaves some room for lesser known producers like Boon and maybe even Lindemans to peek their head in the door and sneak a word in edgewise. I’m… not sure where said door leads or why everyone is clamoring to get in there, but I’m glad to see other producers doing interesting stuff with lambic.
Indeed, due to their availability, Lindemans is probably the most accessible lambic out there. This is something of a double edged sword though, as part of the reason you see so much of this stuff is that it is basically young lambic that uses artificial fruit sweeteners which, to my palate, resemble a particularly fine vintage of Robitussin. That being said, while my first Cuvée Rene didn’t do much for me either, once I got onboard with sour beers, it turned out to be a legit Geuze (and the Kriek Cuvée Rene also has a leg up on their regular fruited line). So when I saw this 200th Anniversary Blend, I took a flier on it.
Named after Francisca Vandersmissen, the wife of Joos Lindemans, who together started a lambic brewery 200 years ago, this is a blend of 4 year old lambic and younger lambics. Traditionally, a Geuze is a blend of 3, 2, and 1 year old lambics, so the inclusion of 4 year old juice represents something quite special (reminiscent of Drie Fonteinen’s Golden Blend). My kinda blend:
Lindemans Oude Geuze Cuvée Francisca 200th Anniversary – Pours a slightly hazy golden color, maybe a hint of yellowish orange, with a solid two fingers of head and surprisingly good retention. Smells nice, a little earthy funk, a hint of spice, a helping of oak, all leavened by a tart, fruity character, pears and lemons. Taste is sweet up front, those pears and tart lemons make themselves known before the funky, earthy notes emerge, finishing dry and oaky. Mouthfeel is light to medium bodied, well carbonated, and crisp, with a pleasant dry character emerging in the middle and lasting through the finish and only moderate acidity. Overall, this is certainly an improvement over Cuvée Rene and honestly, the more effervescent nature compares favorably to recent 3F Golden Blend vintages as well. It’s definitely worth seeking out for Geuze aficionados. A-
Beer Nerd Details: 8% ABV bottled (750 ml capped and corked). Drank out of a flute glass on 9/23/22. Bottled: April 2021. Best before: 2031. Lot # BD15USE
This was a really pleasant beer and I’m absolutely going to buy another bottle of this stuff if I see it again. Here’s to hoping they make it another 200 years…
I mean, sure, I’ve drank a ton of Oktoberfest beers over the past few years (and indeed, they’ve been a key driver of my more lager-focused beer portfolio of late), but do you really need me to delve into esoteric topics like decoction mashes, the melanoidins that form via a Maillard reaction resulting from taking a portion of the mash, boiling it, and returning to the mash to raise the temperature and increase starch extraction? Probably not, but then there’s the whole historical component, in which this whole shebang started because thermometers hadn’t been invented yet and brewers used this as a way to reliably increase temperatures while mashing in, which almost accidentally resulted in a distinct flavor profile that is quite lovely. This is, um, equally esoteric I guess, but mildy more interesting.
I suppose there is a whole purist’s debate at this point, which is a reliable source of controversy. It’s still hard to get that worked up about the folks who are like, yes, decoction mashing is great, but we have thermometers and other state of the art equipment now and can achieve a step mash perfectly fine without adding 4 hours to the brewing process thankyouverymuch. To be sure, as a trusted blogging source, I should be researching each of these brews and ruthlessly shaming those who don’t do a decoction mash. “But I do do a decoction mash!” you (a brewer) say? First of all, you just said “do do” which is pretty funny, but what I really want to know is if it’s a triple decoction mash? No? I’m very disappointed in you.
Oh, I guess the other thing that’s worth mentioning about the hallowed Oktoberfest is that it can kinda, sorta divided up into two families: Märzen and Festbier. Märzen originated as a beer brewed in March because it was illegal to brew in the summer months and they needed to ensure that the beer would last until Oktoberfest. It tends to be a bit darker and stronger than the Festbier, which is a more modern take that is a less heavy take on the style and thus more suitable for pounding a few liters of during the festival. There’s certainly a distinction there, but I suspect a lot of breweries play it a little fast and loose with the terms.
Hmm, so for someone who whines about not having much to write about, I’ve just spent several babbling paragraphs barely scraping the surface of the subtleties that lie beneath the Oktoberfest style, haven’t I? Well, let’s actually take a look at some of the more prominent examples I took on this past Oktoberfest season:
Ettal Mythos Bayern Kloster Spezial – Obviously, I needed to include an actual German brewery in this roundup, and while some of the more famous and widely distributed examples are great, this one rivals just about any Oktoberfest I’ve ever had. I actually only discovered it a few years ago and supplies appear limited, but it’s worth snagging some of this if you ever see it. Truly great Märzen style Oktoberfest, gorgeous amber orange color, great toasty character, caramelized Munich malt, medium bodied but quaffable, well balanced, just fantastic stuff. A
Beer Nerd Details: 5.5% ABV canned (16 ounce pounder). Drank out of a mug on 8/7/21.
Human Robot Festbier – Local lager maestros at Human Robot have put out a couple different takes on the style; this one obviously leans more towards the lighter Festbier type, but it’s a rock solid version of that. Would love to try their take on a Märzen, but this one hit the spot for sure. Pours a clear, pale, golden color with a couple fingers of fluffy, big bubbled head that nonetheless has good retention. Smells bready, biscuity, a hint of toast in the background. Taste starts sweet, hits that lightly toasted malt backbone, finishing with a bit of a balancing bitterness. Mouthfeel is light bodied, crisp, and quaffable. Overall, rock solid Festbier here. B+
Beer Nerd Details: 5.6% ABV canned (16 ounce pounder). Drank out of a mug on 9/3/22.
Elder Pine Autumn Awaits – Like their Choice Pivo Pils, this is a traditional Märzen style Oktoberfest that’s been been lagered in an American Oak Foeder for 3 months, a nice spin on the standard takes. Pours a coppery amber color with a finger of off white head. Smells nice, toasted malt, a hint of noble hops. Taste hits those toasty notes up front, a little light caramel sweetness, earthy, spicy noble hops pitching in towards the finish. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, crisp, and well carbonated, very easy going stuff. I don’t really get much oak, but I think it does lend something to the overall complexity and balance. Overall, it’s a pretty fantastic little Märzen, worth seeking out. A-
Beer Nerd Details: 6% ABV canned (16 ounce pounder). Drank out of a mug on 9/24/22. Canned on 08/15/22.
Elder Pine Festival Lager – Elder Pine’s take on Festbier with an American twist: the use of Lemondrop hops adds a hint of citrus to the more standard proceedings. Pours a paler golden orange color with a finger of white head. Smells a little more hop forward than Autumn Awaits, a hint of citrus, but the toasty malt is still there (i.e. this isn’t some insane, over-the-top American citrus hop bomb, it’s a subtle difference). Similarly, the flavor is more hop forward but the toasty notes are quite prominent, moreso than a lot of festbiers. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, crisp and highly carbonated, perhaps a hint easier going than Autumn Awaits, and it’s almost dry (perhaps a hint too much so, but that doesn’t sink the beer or anything). Overall, I tend to prefer Marzens over Festbiers, but this is a decent enough example of the latter and it makes for a nice comparison with the aforementioned Autumn Awaits. B
Beer Nerd Details: 5.5% ABV canned (16 ounce pounder). Drank out of a tulip glass on 9/25/22. Canned on 08/08/22.
von Trapp Oktoberfest – The hills are alive with the sound of lager, and the von Trapp folks have naturally produced a straightforward but excellent example of the Märzen (even if it appears a bit paler than I’d expect). Pours a golden orange color with a finger of white head. Smells sweet, some light caramel notes, toast. Taste also hits that sweet note, light caramel, toasted malt, balanced hop character. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, well carbed, but still quaffable. Overall, pretty fantastic example of the style, as is typical from von Trapp. A-
Beer Nerd Details: 5.6% ABV canned (12 ounce). Drank out of a mug on 10/1/22.
Phase 3 P3 Oktoberfest – Pours… a golden orange color with a finger of white head. Yes, this is getting repetitive. Smells sweet, bready, biscuits, a bit of toast. Taste follows the nose, a bit of light caramel showing up here, but still heavy on the biscuity toast. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, well carbed, dryer than the other examples here, and still quaffable. Straightforward stuff. B+
Beer Nerd Details: 6.2% ABV canned (16 ounce pounder). Drank out of a mug on 10/23/22.
Locust Lane Oktoberfest – A local brewery that sourced ingredients from local Deer Creek Malthouse for this take. It’s listed as a Märzen but feels more like a festbier. Pale, with pretty standard Oktoberfest character, a little flabby, maybe my least favorite from this post, but I might have just been disappointed because their Farmhouse Pils was pretty damn good so I was getting my hopes up. B-
Beer Nerd Details: 5.5% ABV on tap. Drank out of a nonic pint glass on 10/26/22.
A hearty no-thank-you goes out to Sierra Nevada, whose annual spins on Oktoberfest beers were always a highlight of the season… until this year, when they scaled back dramatically in favor of a seasonal hazy IPA or some such. I love their standard take on the style, but they did a few years of collaborations with German breweries that were all pretty fantastic (and distinct). I hope they get back to that next year.
Remember when I said I’d get this post out in October? Lol, I’m the worst. I’ve a few reviews in the hopper, so mayhap we can get back to posting more than once a month sometime soon.
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.
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.