Black Friday Recap: Ralphius & Bourbon County

We’ve been through this roundelay before. Beer nerds constantly bemoan the influence of big beer in the craft community, then line up for Bourbon County Brand Stout and its associated variants on Black Friday. The reason for this is simple: the Bourbon County series always has great beers. There might be some misfires when it comes to the variants, but there’s always a pretty fantastic core release. That Goose Island is owned by AB Inbev has not fundamentally changed the Bourbon County line much… except for making it more widely available, perhaps.

Locally, Free Will puts out a series of comparable barrel-aged stouts under the Ralphius banner. The inevitable comparisons with BCBS must be made but they inevitably boil down to: They’re both good! Of course, supporting local independent breweries is important in these lean, pandemic infused times, so I went long on Ralphius this year.

And the options were plentiful. Free Will put out a whopping 19 different variants of Ralphius this year. Some are repeats from previous years, some are brand new this year. Will they break the 20 variant mark next year? Only time will tell, I guess. In fairness, many of these variants are 300-500 bottle releases, meaning only 1-2 barrels of each. Some of these are really great, though, so let’s dive into those first (we’ll get to BCBS further down the post).

Nota bene: I didn’t drink all 19 variants of Ralphius because I’m not insane. Or, like, not that kind of insane. I also didn’t take detailed tasting notes because such observations are boring and repetitive when it comes to this sort of thing. There’s only so many ways to say that the stout poured a black color with a bit of light brown head, you know? I’ll try to be more interesting than that. You’re welcome.

2020 Ralphius Variants

Ralphius (2020) – The base bourbon barrel-aged stout is as good as it ever was, and I’ve written enough about it in the past, so I’ll just note that this year’s innovation of 8 ounce cans is a welcome development (alas, only 7 of the variants are available in these cans). Maybe doing mixed 4 packs of the 8 ounce variants would be cool, but I didn’t mind buying a 4 pack of this one by itself. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 14.1% ABV canned (8 ounces). Drank out of a snifter glass on 12/21/20.

Two Year Aged Ralphius

Two Year Aged Ralphius – Exactly what it sounds like, these were aged in bourbon barrels for an extra year (presumably a single barrel kept over from last year – I do wonder what kind of barrel it was), and the result is phenomenal. The extra aging adds a decadent, more concentrated richness to the base. Caramel, fudge, vanilla, and oak are all over this thing, and the mouthfeel is richer and chewier than the base. It almost resembles something like one of those Cycle brownie-batter stouts. Well worth the wait, and I hope they increase production next year. A

Beer Nerd Details: 15.6% ABV bottled (375 ml). Drank out of a snifter glass on 11/29/20. Bottled: Oct. 2020. A total of 300 bottles were produced.

Double Barrel Aged Ralphius

Double Barrel Ralphius – They’ve offered this variant for the past two years now, though they’ve changed the second barrel this time around. Last year, it was Bourbon and Rum barrels, and the result was great. The rum barrel added a sweet, treacly fruit note that complemented the base and bourbon barrel well.

This year, the second barrel was a locally sourced “American Whiskey” barrel (my guess: Manatawny). This worried me a bit, but while it’s different than last year’s, it’s still a standout. The extra barrel does introduce some subtle differences and complexities, and the result feels a bit more concentrated and intense than the base… I look forward to future iterations on this concept, and don’t really mind that they switched it up this year. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 17.5% ABV bottled (375 ml). Drank out of a snifter glass on 12/4/20. Bottled: Oct. 2020. A total of 550 bottles were produced.

Rye Whiskey Barrel Aged Ralphius – This is another new variant this year, and it works reasonably well. I’m not sure why, but Rye barrel treatments seem inconsistent to me. Perhaps there’s less consistency than bourbon, which carries over to the beers aged in rye barrels. I mean, there are some “barely legal” rye barrels (i.e. only 51% rye) like Rittenhouse that taste an awful lot like bourbon. But then you’ve got stuff like the local Dad’s Hat, which is 85% rye (and 15% barley) and tastes more distinct. They don’t list which barrels were used in this beer, so who knows? It works fine, but the other variants are better. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 17.5% ABV bottled (375 ml). Drank out of a snifter glass on 12/6/20. Bottled: Oct. 2020. A total of 550 bottles were produced.

Rum Barrel Aged Ralphius

Rum Barrel Aged Ralphius – Another new variant, though it sorta recalls last year’s double barrel treatment, just with a more prominent sweet, treacly fruit character that complements the base really well. I really appreciate these alternate barrel exercises, and this one really works well. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 14.1% ABV bottled (375 ml). Drank out of a snifter glass on 12/1/20. Bottled: Oct. 2020. A total of 550 bottles were produced.

Bitters Barrel Aged Ralphius – I didn’t even know that aromatic bitters were aged in barrels, but I guess that makes some sort of sense. The treatment introduces an overwhelming citrus character to the beer, which says a lot since the base is pretty strong. There’s a little spice to it, but it’s also overpowered by the citrus character. The whole thing feels a little like a citrus-forward Coca-Cola, especially the aroma.

It’s not a bad beer, but it’s not something I’d be seeking out again. Perhaps it’s that, just like actual bitters isn’t something you’d want to drink straight up, this beer should be blended with the base bourbon Ralphius (with only a smallish proportion of the bitters variant) in order to get closer to that Old-Fashioned vibe? (I suspect that’s not a realistic option for Free Will, but if you have a bottle of this stuff, maybe grab some regular Ralphius to blend with…) B-

Beer Nerd Details: 17.5% ABV bottled (375 ml). Drank out of a snifter glass on 12/13/20. Bottled: Oct. 2020. A total of 300 bottles were produced.

Vanilla Ralphius

Vanilla Ralphius – This was added to the lineup last year, and it was great then. This year’s feels even better, with an almost creamy marshmallow-like character that really meshes well with the base. It says it’s aged in “Bourbon Vanilla Barrels”, which is a little unclear. Most vanilla beers just have vanilla bean added at some point, but maybe these were aged in vanilla extract barrels? This may require further investigation. A

Beer Nerd Details: 14.1% ABV canned (8 ounces). Drank out of a snifter glass on 12/20/20.

S’mores Ralphius – Another returning variant from last year… or is it? Last year’s variant was “Aged in bourbon barrels with vanilla and cinnamon” and it was great. They went really light on the cinnamon, and I love vanilla, so this was really enjoyable. This year’s S’mores variant is a little different, if more in line with the name: aged in bourbon barrels with marshmallow, graham cracker, and cinnamon. Alas, while technically incorporating more s’more-like ingredients, the result isn’t as good. The marshmallow and graham cracker don’t really come through in such beers, so what you’ve really got is a cinnamon beer, which is fine, to be sure, but not as good as last year, and not really comparable to my other favorite variants. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 14.1% ABV canned (8 ounces). Drank out of a snifter glass on 12/6/20.

2020 Bourbon County Variants

The regular ol’ Bourbon County Brand Stout often winds up being my favorite of the bunch (with a possible exception for vanilla and rare barrels), and I get a bunch every year. However, a couple of this year’s offerings play to Curmit’s (the name for my inner curmudgeon) biases.

Anniversary Bourbon County Brand Stout

Anniversary Bourbon County Brand Stout – To celebrate the 10 year anniversary of Black Friday releases, they aged BCBS for two years in Twelve-Year Weller bourbon barrels. Weller is a goofy bourbon brand because it shares some heritage with fabled Pappy Van Winkle bourbons (Weller 12 is basically the same as Van Winkle Special Reserve Lot B) and thus it’s basically impossible to find these days. Perhaps one advantage of Goose Island being owned by AB Inbev is access to high-end bourbon barrels like this.

The result is phenomenal. It’s a more burly, intense affair than regular ol BCBS, but it’s not lacking on complexities or nuance. Of course, this sorta demands comparison with the aforementioned Ralphius Two-Year, but they’re surprisingly distinct takes. I’d say that the Ralphius is more concentrated and intense, while the Anniversary BCBS is softer and more subtle in its intensity. Fortunately, I don’t really need to prefer one or the other. We’re really splitting hairs here; they’re both awesome beers, in slightly different ways. (It is nice that there’s a local, independent alternative though.) A

Beer Nerd Details: 15.2% ABV bottled (500 ml boxed). Drank out of a snifter on 11/27/20. Drink by: 08 JUN 25.

Birthday Bourbon County Brand Stout

Birthday Bourbon County Brand Stout – Another beer defined solely by the high-end bourbon barrel it’s aged in. Old Forester’s Birthday Bourbon is a widely acclaimed and highly sought-after bourbon, and this beer aged in those barrels (from the 2019 release of Birthday Bourbon) is a revelation. We talk about the difference barrel selection and bourbon brands can make, but this beer is a testament to how different barrels can imbue beer with distinct flavors.

I can’t get over how well integrated this beer is with the barrel. There are all sorts of subtle nuances that make this distinct from regular BCBS (or even the Anniversary we were just talking about), but the most surprising note is the berry-like fruit that emerges from what is already a complex beer. There’s no fruit added to this beer (and frankly, I tend to dislike the fruited variants of BCBS), it’s solely the influence of the barrel. I’m suddenly more interested in tracking down some actual Birthday Bourbon, because this beer is just truly great, and might be my favorite of all the beers in this post. A

Beer Nerd Details: 14.6% ABV bottled (500 ml boxed). Drank out of a snifter on 11/28/20. Drink by: 04 AUG 25.

Bourbon County Brand Kentucky Fog Stout – Inspired by London Fog tea, this is BCBS blended with Earl Grey Tea, Black Tea, and Honey. This is bound to be one of the more divisive releases, but I was kinda looking forward to it. I love Earl Grey tea and I even did a homebrew that attempted to incorporate Earl Grey in the process. I liked the result, perhaps because the tea influence was subtle. Unfortunately, I don’t particularly love this beer.

They achieved what they set out to do, it’s just one of those situations… I love BCBS and I love Earl Grey tea. But put them together and it feels like less than the sum of their parts. I just found myself wishing I was drinking regular BCBS or regular Earl Grey tea. I have this reaction to plenty of things that other people love, so I’m perfectly willing to concede that this is probably just my own idiosyncratic taste talking. That said, I do think there’s a version of this that might work for me, perhaps with less tea character? I’m curious to try it again at some point (maybe age will mellow out some of the elements that aren’t working for me), which I think says something. I didn’t hate it, but it’s right there with the Bitters-Aged Ralphius in terms of disappointment B-

Beer Nerd Details: 14.1% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 11/30/20. Drink by: 12 AUG 22.

Bourbon County Brand Caramella Wheatwine

Bourbon County Brand Caramella Wheatwine – Wheatwine aged in Larceny Wheated Bourbon barrels with apple, cinnamon, and natural caramel flavor added after aging. I was kinda dreading this release. I’ve never loved the wheatwines, though they were an interesting change of pace. Still, Curmit is getting kinda sick of all these additives that are intended to make beer taste like not-beer. That being said? This was surprisingly decent. The used a light hand on the apple and cinnamon, and the caramel flavoring complements the barrel treatment well.

Of course, the real problem here is that it’s not the barleywine, which was clearly superior in every way and should be brought back next year. I’d be much more lenient on these wheatwines if it didn’t displace the barleywine. Still, as apple-pie inspired beers go, this is solid. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 14.6% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 12/17/20. Drink by: 12 AUG 22.

So there you have it, a crapton of barrel aged stouts, all released on Black Friday. All told, this is actually one of the best years for this sort of thing yet.

Warwick Farm Brewing Triple Feature

It’s hard to keep up with the throngs of new breweries, even when we’re not mired in a global pandemic. However, given the lean times, it’s worth making the extra effort to support local breweries in whatever way you can.

Warwick Farm Brewing has been in the works for a while, but near as I can tell, they only opened their doors around a single twelvemonth* ago. It looks like they’re still hard at work on a tasting room that will be available right around the time a vaccine should be making the rounds, so maybe it’ll work out well for them. In the meantime, they’re still open for takeout orders, so I made the trek north to pick up some cans.

It looks like a good location, lots of space, and they’ve got ambitious plans to make use of their many acres of farmland to provide fresh ingredients, hops, etc… for their beers. Local buzz is good, if not monster hype levels (which is probably for the best), so let’s take a look at a few of their offerings:

Warwick Farm Leuven

Warwick Farm Brewing Leuven – Belgian Style Dubbel – Pours paler than your typical dubbel, more orange than dark amber, with a fizzy, off-white head that resolves to a ring around the edge, but sticks around like that for a while. Smells of spicy, phenolic Belgian yeast, tons of clove, maybe a hint of black pepper, less in the way of fruity esters. Taste is sweet and spicy, again more focused on the spicy clove than fruity esters, though the fruitiness does emerge a bit more in the taste. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, well carbonated, reasonably well attenuated but not super-dry. Overall, a bit atypical for dubbels, but then, that’s not really out of character for Belgian-inspired beers… I actually quite like this, even if it doesn’t achieve the heights of my favorite dubbels. B

Beer Nerd Details: 7.2% ABV canned (16 ounce pounder). Drank out of a goblet on 10/30/20. Canned on 10/27/20.

Warwick Farm Certain Conclusion IPA

Warwick Farm Brewing Certain Conclusion – A northeast IPA with oats and dry-hopped with Citra, 586, and Columbus hops – Pours a pale golden yellow with only a light haziness to it, and a finger or so of white head. Smells nice, sweet fruit punch, some floral notes, a little dank pine. Taste is also sweet, that fruit punch character coming through here too, a hint of bitterness in the finish. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, moderately carbed, a little sticky sweet. Overall, it’s a fine little IPA with a distinct hoppy fruit punch character that is interesting… (I didn’t notice until now, but this can is over a month old – this may have fared a little better while fresher as some NEIPAs fall off very fast…) B+

Beer Nerd Details: 7.2% ABV canned (16 ounce pounder). Drank out of a tulip glass on 10/31/20. Canned on 09/29/20

Warwick Farm Workshop Series No. 14 - Dark Czech Lager

Workshop Series No. 14 – Dark Czech Lager – A dark sessionable lager made with Saaz hops – Pours a very deep, dark brown, almost black color with a solid finger of tan, tightly bubbled head. Smells roasty, some chocolate and coffee notes mixed with the earthy, herbal, spicy notes of Saaz. Taste again tackles those roasted malt notes, chocolate and coffee grounds, with a mild but balancing bitterness. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, well carbonated, it doesn’t at all feel like it’s only 4.5% ABV. It doesn’t really approach imperial stout levels or anything either. Overall, this one is a pretty fantastic take on an unheralded style. Honestly my favorite of the three, which is a little surprising… Maybe I’m becoming a lager person? A-

Beer Nerd Details: 4.5% ABV canned (16 ounce pounder). Drank out of a tulip glass on 10/31/20.

A most promising introduction to a new local brewery that I’m going to have to become more acquainted with.

* This is the Shakespearean way to say “one year.”

Heater Allen Triple Feature

Over the past five years or so, I’ve cobbled together a functional relationship with lagers… but I don’t post about them very often. It’s sometimes difficult to find an interesting angle on lagers. Still, I do find myself opting for lagers more and more often these days, so maybe I’ll just need to buckle up and plow through some more reviews.

We’ll start with a trio of beers from Heater Allen out of Oregon, a brewery that specializes in lagers (nary an IPA in sight!) I feel like craft lagers in general have turned a corner in recent years (roughly in line with my own palate (I’m a trend setter, is what I’m saying (The three people who read this blog agree. Probably.))), such that a lager-only brewery is feasible today. But these folks started their brewery in 2007, at which time lagers where not especially hot in the craft world. Good on them for surviving and perhaps even playing a part in the shift towards lagers (alright, fine, probably much more than my trend setting ways). These days, they do sport a few ales in their lineup, but they appear to focus on deeply unsexy traditional styles like Altbier or Kölsch.

Alrighty then, enough preamble, let’s get into it:

Heater Allen McMinnville Harvest Lager

Heater Allen McMinnville Harvest Lager – The chief difference between this beer and the flagship Pils (see below) is that it relies on local Willamette hops (instead of traditional Czech Saaz hops in the Pils). They don’t mention that it’s a wet hopped beer, but that’s usually what “harvest” connotes when it comes to beer. Or it could be a reference to the wine grape harvest, as the area is a big wine-producing region and as the old saying goes: “It takes a lot of great beer to make great wine.” And damn, if I worked at a winery during harvest, this would be a perfect beer to kick back with after a long day…

Pours a striking, clear, bright yellow color with a few fingers of fluffy white head that has great retention and leaves lacing as I drink. Smell is fabulous, a crackery pilsner character for sure, but then a whiff of sweet citrus hops, a hint of lemon, bright and sweet. Taste starts sweet and goes a little more earthy, herbal, grassy than the nose would have you believe. Mouthfeel is bright, crisp, light bodied, and quaffable. Overall, ayup, this is one great little pils. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 5% ABV canned (16 ounce pounder). Drank out of a willibecher glass on 10/9/20. Canned on 09/16/20

Heater Allen Bobtoberfest

Heater Allen Bobtoberfest – Named after the owner’s late brother, Bob, this is a pretty standard Märzen style Oktoberfest beer. Pours a mostly clear, pale copper color with a solid two fingers of fluffy white head that has good retention. Smells nice, toasted, bready malt, light caramel, a hint of earthy hops. Taste has that sweet, bready malt, a hint of toast, maybe some very light toffee, some earthiness from the hops with a well balanced finish. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, but still crisp and refreshing, well carbonated, quaffable. Overall, it’s a great take on an Oktoberfest beer, one of the better that I’ve had this year. B+ or A-

Beer Nerd Details: 5.6% (16 ounce pounder). Drank out of a mug on 10/11/20. Canned on 8/11/2020.

Heater Allen Pils

Heater Allen Pils – Pours a clear, bright yellow gold color with a few fingers of fluffy white head, good retention, and lacing as I drink. Smell is very good, sweet, bready pilsner, crackers, herbal saaz hops. Taste hits the sweet cracker up front followed by an herbal kick. Mouthfeel is light bodied, crisp, and bright, quaffable for sure. Overall, I think the Harvest Lager is better, but this is still a good pils! B+

Beer Nerd Details: 5% (16 ounce pounder). Drank out of a willibecher glass on 10/9/20. Canned on 09/16/2020.

I’ll try to pepper some more lagers inbetween reviews of mammoth barrel-aged stouts and teeth dissolving sours.

WeldWerks Barrel-Aged Fluffernutter

No one wants to admit that they like peanut butter beers, but brewers are out there making them all the time, so I guess some people actually do… My inner curmudgeon gets mighty suspicious about gimmicky ingredients but even that bastard can kinda see the appeal of peanut butter beer if he squints. I mean, he’s never truly loved one… but he gets why someone would drink it.

Of course, Curmit (the name for my inner curmudgeon that I just made up because typing out “inner curmudgeon” every time seems like a waste and yes, I’m aware that I just wrote the words out twice in a long paranthetical, but Curmit thought it would be a good idea and I like that guy) can be won over if you play to his biases. Like, say, aging your peanut butter beer in bourbon barrels for almost two years.

To be more specific, Weldwerks Barrel-Aged Fluffernutter starts with a big imperial stout base that is aged in freshly emptied 6-12 year-old bourbon barrels for 19-21 months, then conditioned on peanut flour, toasted marshmallows, marshmallow creme, and Vanuatu vanilla beans. Curmit might have been a little suspicious and he probably likes plain old BA Medianoche better, but he thinks that marshmallow is a better fit in beer than some sort of fruit/jelly (i.e. fluffernutter is a better idea than PB&J when it comes to beer) and we’ve already established his love of vanilla. One sip was enough to convince him this endeavor was worthwhile:

Weldwerks Barrel Aged Fluffernutter

WeldWerks Barrel-Aged Fluffernutter – Pours a deep, dark brown, almost black, with just the faintest ring of tan head around the edge of the glass that disappears quickly. Smells great, bourbon, caramel, oak, peanuts, and vanilla. Taste hits the rich caramel up front, moves quickly into that fluffernutter peanut and marshmallow, followed by boozy bourbon and oak in the finish. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, the bottle doesn’t have an ABV on it, but it’s plenty boozy with some pleasant warming alcohol character. Overall, yup, it’s spectacular and all the doodads and extra ingredients work well enough, especially as a change of pace. A

Beer Nerd Details: ? ABV bottled (22 ounce bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 10/2/20. Vintage: 2020.

This is one of those beers that would have been great to bring to a share… if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. I miss shares, is what I’m saying. Anywho, I’ve really enjoyed WeldWerks’ barrel aged program, so I will always seek them out. Even if they have gimmicky ingredients that don’t necessarily excite Curmit.

You know what, screw it, bonus review! One of Curmit’s favorites here, also from WeldWerks:

Weldwerks Medianoche

WeldWerks Medianoche – I didn’t take tasting notes for this, but Curmit loves this thing and there’s plenty to say about it. Legend has it that this big imperial stout was designed to stand up to extended barrel aging, and while brewing process details are often uninteresting, this one has a standout step that I think pretty much anyone can peg as extreme: After mashing in, they then put the resulting wort through an arduous 36 hour boil (for context, most beer goes through a 1 hour boil). After fermentation, the beer goes into 7-12 year bourbon barrels for 18-24 months. Don’t take my word for it, here’s an interview with the brewer:

“So, we designed the beer from the ground up, using the barrel, the spirits from the barrel and the time spent in the barrel as essential ingredients, and made adjustments to the recipe accordingly,” he explains. “After several years of tweaking and pushing the barrel character further and further, we have landed on an incredibly high-gravity stout that is 100% malt-derived. That means no extracts, syrups or other sugars. To achieve those targets, we boil each batch for over 30 hours, which is insanely inefficient and labor intensive, but it has resulted in a beer that can hold up for 18-plus months in casks and showcase all the complexities our barrels have to offer.”

The result is phenomenal. The base retains some of its roasty notes, but the typical caramel, oak, and vanilla barrel aged character is also there in full force. Totally delicious, complex, but well balanced stuff, and worth seeking out. A

Beer Nerd Details: 12.8% ABV bottled (22 ounce bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 6/26/20. Bottling Date: 04/16/2020.

So there, both Weldwerks Fluffernutter and Medianoche are pretty great stuff, if you can get ahold of them.

Boon/Mikkeller Oude Geuze White Vermouth Foeders

Boon tends to get lost in the shuffle of lambic producers. Maybe it’s their relatively lackluster fruited offerings, or perhaps their distinct minerality character isn’t as exciting to folks, or it could be a cosmic roll of the dice, and Cantillon and Drie Fonteinen rolled higher (alright, Tilquin seems to have rolled well too). Maybe Frank Boon cheated the devil in a game of chance. That sort of thing. That said, I appreciate Boon’s availability, usually approachable price-point, and their variety of releases. Their geuze offerings are generally underrated and plentiful.

This particular release is the third in their series of collaborations with Mikkeller. To my mind, the best is still the first collaboration, Bone Dry, and the subsequent Boon Black Label batches (basically the same beer, but without Mikkel’s blending notions). Indeed, despite the glaring fact that the label is not actually black, Black Label is my go-to lambic and it’s a terrible shame that it doesn’t appear to be produced anymore (though hope springs eternal for a batch 5).

This beer is aged in old White Vermouth Foeders and the blend consists of mostly 2 year old lambic, with some 1 year old for bottle conditioning and just a touch of 3 year old for complexity and, I dunno, joy. Will these vermouth foeders provide a more noticeable character than the Calvados barrels from the second collaboration release? Only one way to find out:

Boon/Mikkeller Oude Geuze White Vermouth Foeders

Boon/Mikkeller Oude Geuze White Vermouth Foeders – Pours a slightly hazy yellowish gold color with a solid finger of white, fluffy head, moderate retention. Smells good, a healthy amount of earthy funk leavened by some nice vinous notes from the vermouth. Taste is sweet up front, followed by funky earth, some herbal and spice notes, that Boon minerality, and then tart fruit with a sourness emerging towards the finish. Mouthfeel is light bodied, well carbonated, and crisp, dry up front yielding a bit into the finish. Moderate acidity. Overall, it’s a nice vinous spin on your typical Boon Geuze, the Vermouth Foeder definitely provides more character than the Calvados barrels from the last release. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 6.6% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a flute glass on 9/19/20. Lot: 73321.

It does seem as if Boon’s riffing on Geuze is slowing down. There aren’t any new Vat releases. Black Label seems dormant. And while these Mikkeller jams are interesting, the pricepoint does seem higher. Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to keep drinking the regular OG or Marriage Parfait. Both are well worth your time, and there are still Black Label bottles can be scrounged off shelves. There is a fourth Boon/Mikkeller Collaboration that I’m sure will eventually make the rounds, so there is that.

Allagash Coolship Resurgam

Back in the before times, the long long ago, there were two American breweries that had made a name for themselves by specializing in Belgian style ales: Allagash and Ommegang. I thought it might be fun to catch up with both and see how they’re faring in the current beer scene. Now that we’re awash in barrel aged pastry stouts, hazy slurry IPAs, milkshakes, fruit juice beers, and other stuff that doesn’t actually taste like beer, how’s a traditional Belgian style brewery to adapt in tomorrow morrow land?

Allagash’s flagship beer is White, an excellent, flavorful Belgian Wit that’s been a popular gateway beer for all those Coors/Blue Moon drinkers out there, but doesn’t exactly get twixt the nethers of beer dorks. For those already ensconced in the warm embrace of beer nerdery and thus more fickle in their tastes, Allagash has been building an excellent sour beer program and basically become an American Lambic producer.

They’ve even installed a Coolship at their brewery. For the uninitiated, a Coolship is basically a long, shallow pan that’s used to cool the wort while also exposing it to the environment and inoculating it with wild yeast and other microflora. Only a handful of American breweries have even attempted something like this, and Allagash is definitely one of the pioneers of such projects (at least, in America).

What we have here is an American take on Gueuze, a blend of 1, 2, and 3 year old beers aged in oak. The term “Resurgam” is latin for “I shall rise again,” which has obvious Christian connotations, but it is also apparently the name of a Victorian submarine. Go figure. Now: it’s beer!

Allagash Coolship Resurgam

Allagash Coolship Resurgam – Pours a slightly hazy pale golden color with a solid finger of white fluffy head. Smells great, lots of earthy funk, a little stone fruit, lemons, and the like. Taste hits that earthy funk up front, quickly followed by fruity esters, apricots, lemon zest, finishing with a tart bite. Mouthfeel is well carbonated and crisp, light bodied, moderate to low acidity, dry finish. Overall, it’s a pretty damn spectacular beer. Something about Allagash’s sours always seem to just click with me. Also of note is that this is about 3 years old, which means that it ages pretty well too… A

Beer Nerd Details: 6.4% ABV bottled (375 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a tulip glass on 9/12/20. Bottled: Aug. 31, 2017.

N.B. The picture above was taken almost two years ago at a local bar, but the tasting notes were from a different bottle I drank this past September. I just thought the older picture was nicer looking than my standard setup so I used that instead. I’m pretty sure it’s the same batch of beer, so there’s that…

The Coolship program also releases several fruited variants, like Coolship Red (made with raspberries) and Coolship la Mure (made with blackberries), both excellent. There are many others that I have not had, but one of these days I’m going to try and snag a bottle of Ghoulship for the Halloween Season.

Anywho, as hinted at above, I’ve got some Ommegang beers in the pipeline too. They’ve gone in a bit of a different direction, but are still putting out some interesting beer…

Anchorage Wendigo

So what exactly is a “black barleywine”? During the arduous research phase of this post, I stumbled across these BJCP Style Guidelines for… Russian Imperial Stout (emphasis mine):

The malt aroma can be subtle to rich and barleywine-like, depending on the gravity and grain bill.

Malt backbone can be balanced and supportive to rich and barleywine-like, and may optionally show some supporting caramel, bready or toasty flavors.

Overall Impression: … Like a black barleywine with every dimension of flavor coming into play.

Ah, so basically a Black Barleywine is a Russian Imperial Stout that tastes like a barleywine but is secretly a stout but is ultimately a barleywine. I’m glad we cleared that up. Alright, I guess that’s enough of the inconclusive, pedantic semantics of style analysis, let’s get to the actual beer…

This is a black barleywine *ahem* that’s been aged 6 months in Willet Bourbon barrels and then transferred to Woodford Reserve Double Oaked barrels for an additional 7 months. A lot of barrels were harmed in the making of this beer is what I’m hearing, and that sounds mighty appealing. Plus, despite the nonexistent style wankery, they didn’t sully this with additional pastry adjuncts or off-the-wall ingredients, which is also nice.

But maybe I spoke too soon, because then there’s the packaging, which is a bottle that has a waxed cap. And they used glow in the dark wax. This will clearly make the beer taste better, though perhaps not as good as the mislabeled “Wenidgo” bottles. Something about an incompetent label printer typo that made it on some bottles, but got caught early enough that Anchorage just gave the affected bottles to their employees. But they got out in the wild or something and yadda yadda yadda, Barlywine is Life had a field-day creating Wenidgo memes.

Alright now that we’re referencing obscure memes, I think it’s time to get back to the beer itself (again). But we haven’t even gone into the obscure Pet Sematary references! I know, I’m surprised too.

Anchorage Wendigo

Anchorage Wendigo – Pours a very dark brown, almost black color with a half finger of tan head. Smells nice, lots of vanilla, some caramel, toffee, oak, and bourbon. Taste is very sweet, rich with caramel and toffee, vanilla, brown sugar, more caramel, bourbon and oak. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, boozy but not overly hot. Not exactly balanced, but this is my kinda stupid. Overall, despite the above wanking about style, it certainly reads like a barleywine. A really good one too, though hey, maybe they should just make more ADWTD. Also, I suspect this will age fabulously, if that’s your bag and you have millions of dollars to burn. A

Beer Nerd Details: 15.5% ABV bottled (375 ml waxed cap). Drank out of a snifter on 8/14/20.

It’s probably too pricey for most folks (especially at the inflated $60-$80 rates a lot of places are selling them at) and while it’s great, it’s hard to justify the purchase unless you hate money or are involved in a Brewster’s Millions-like wager. It’s great, but if you’re sensitive on price, it’s not like this is a necessity.

Suarez Family Brewery Triple Feature

Remember last week a couple weeks ago* when I said that we all know that Suarez Family Brewery is good at making saisons? Let’s put that to the test. Also, let’s drink a Blonde ale that doesn’t feature a busty blond bimbo on the label, because Suarez is classy and doesn’t need to resort to that kind of thing. Also because I was drinking it out of a growler, but still. They did release it in cans, and the label is very elegant. So there.

N.B. Now is usually the time where you can skip to the end of the boring tasting note paragraphs to see the grade, but in this case, I’ve actually written some general thoughts about each beer. This is probably something I should do more often, no? No? Fine then, be that way. But I did it this time, so enjoy:

Suarez Walk Dont Run

Walk, Don’t Run – This is billed as a hoppy New Zealand blonde ale with Nelson Sauvin and Moteuka hops. Sometimes, when a brewery puts out a blonde ale, it just feels bland and watery. Other times, especially when described as “hoppy”, it just feels like a pale ale or IPA. Here, Suarez has somehow found middle ground that does feel like it warrants the blonde style without veering too far into hoppy or malty territory. Instead, it’s just a perfectly balanced, light, but subtly flavorful session beer. Clocking in at 3.7% ABV, it’s tasty and yet, crushable. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 3.7% ABV growlered (750 ml swing-top). Drank out of a tumbler glass on 7/25/20. Drink by Jul 27 2020 (I drank it the day it was filled/picked up).

Kinda Classic – Remember when saisons weren’t sour? Like, no oak, no wild yeast strains, no bacterial beasties? I do, and they were and still are great, and this is a nice example of that sort of back-to-basics saison. It’s got a nice, expressive Belgian farmhouse yeast going for it, but it doesn’t have the intense earthiness of a Brett beer or the sourness of other varieties. I mean, we’ll get to that soon enough (see below), but I appreciate a take like this:

Suarez Kinda Classic

Pours a hazy straw yellow color with a couple of fingers of fluffy white head. Smells of musty Belgian yeast, lots of spicy phenols, coriander, clove, and the like, with some herbal hops kicking in and maybe a touch of sweet citrus. Taste features plenty of those spicy phenols from the nose, coriander and clove showing up in force, with something a little more herbal pitching in towards the finish. Mouthfeel is crisp, dry, and refreshing, light to medium bodied, well balanced. Overall, I miss a good, non-sour saison like this. Refreshing, tasty, pairs well with food. B+ or A-

Beer Nerd Details: 4.5% ABV bottled (500 ml bottles should have a nickname like “bomber” or something, shouldn’t they?) Drank out of a tumbler on 7/30/20. Blend #3, bottled 4/20.

Slow Bustle – I believe I’ve mentioned before that Daniel Suarez worked at Hill Farmstead before he opened his own brewery, and that influence clearly shows in a lot of his saisons, which bear a marked similarity. This is a good example of that sort of thing, but it manages to coax out some distinct flavors that I’ve not seen in a saison before, so good on them. Maybe it was the “generous portion of raw honey from our neighbors” that they brewed this beer with?

Suarez Slow Bustle

Pours a yellowish gold color with a solid finger of white head that lingers a bit and leaves a bit of lacing. Smells great, sweet, with tart pineapple and a hint of funk, maybe some other tropical aromas. Taste hits the funk a bit harder than the nose would imply, with a nice earthy character that eventually gives way to the sweeter, more tropical pineapple and a bit of tartness with some oak making itself known towards the finish. Mouthfeel is well carbonated and crisp, light acidity, low to medium bodied. Overall, a pretty great saison in the Hill Farmstead mode, but the pineapple character really distinguishes this one from its brethren (or, like, any other saison that I’ve had). A

Beer Nerd Details: 6.1% ABV bottled (750 ml now that I think of it, these don’t really have a nickname either). Drank out of a wine glass on 8/14/20. Blend #4, bottled 3/20.

So it’s been another successful Suarez Family Brewing expedition this year. For the pandemic curious, they had a very easy online-ordering and contact-less curbside pickup situation going, so if you think you’ll be heading through the Hudson Valley anytime soon, give their website a whirl and order you some saisons and pilsners. And apparently pale ales and blondes too. Really, just order whatever they’ve got. I’ve yet to discover an even remotely bad beer from them.

Suarez Family Brewery Hecto

We all know Suarez can nail those Pilsners and Saisons. I mean, weird flex (who focuses on those two styles), but it’s very true. My only experience with their hoppy wares was a few cans of Crispy Little that I accidentally froze because the meager alcohol content couldn’t stand up to the bitter cold of a rental-house’s refrigerator. However, I did manage to crack one of those cans before the fridge ate the rest, and while I enjoyed it well enough, it doesn’t quite stand apart from the neverending throngs of pale ales and IPAs out there.

Enter Suarez’s Hecto. On paper, it’s a similar beer. It’s a 4.5% ABV pale ale hopped with Citra, Mosaic, and Amarillo. And I dunno, it’s awesome. Maybe it’s just because I had been on the road for about 7 hours and I had cracked a can whilst sitting on the dock by the lake, but damn this was great. Now, I also managed to get another taste of Crispy Little this year, and while it’s very good, Hecto is just noticeably better (i.e. it’s not just the malevolent refrigerator coloring my opinion of Crispy Little). Worth trekking into the wilds of the Hudson Valley to procure!

Suarez Family Brewery Hecto

Suarez Family Brewery HectoI didn’t pour this out, so I don’t know what it looks like. Imma guess it’s pale with white head. Smells fantastic, sweet, bright citrus fruit, pineapple, a hint of dankness. Taste follows the nose, citrus, sweet pineapple, a hint of grapefruit, dank pine. Mouthfeel is light bodied, crisp, and refreshing, utterly quaffable. It doesn’t suffer from that whole “diet IPA” feeling that a lot of similar beers have. Incredibly well balanced. Overall, this is an astounding beer for a such a low ABV pale ale… A

Beer Nerd Details: 4.5% ABV canned (16 ounce pounder). Drank straight from the can, like a man on 7/25/20.

I didn’t save the can and didn’t note the canning date; I know you’re crestfallen, but rest assured, it was very fresh. As usual, Suarez is just killing it. I have some more saisons from this year to cover, so stay tuned (at this rate, I’ll get to it sometime in 2022).

Gigantic Massive! Variants

I enjoy when a brewery starts playing around with using different barrel treatments on the same base beer. The differences are sometimes subtle, but they do emerge in a horizontal tasting. When Gigantic brewing started releasing variants of their most excellent Massive! barleywine, I sought out a couple to see how they’d fare.

Barrel diversity is great, but I’ve never had a beer aged in Port barrels that I loved. Now, I do enjoy a good Port wine, but something about the Port barrel-aged beers I’ve had just never worked for me. In fairness, I haven’t had some of the heavy hitters of the category. I’m looking at you, Damon. Likewise, while I enjoy Rye whiskey from time to time, I often end up feeling like a Rye barrel-aged beer is too similar to Bourbon barrels (and usually not as good).

So I’m happy to report that these variants are awesome. Maybe even better than their Bourbon barrel-aged counterpart. I don’t know what sorcery the Gigantic brewers practiced, but it worked:

Gigantic Massive! aged in Port Barrels

Gigantic Massive! Port Barrel-Aged – Pours a turbid, muddy brown color with a solid finger of off white head that doesn’t stick around very long. Smells great, the base caramelized malt character shines through, the oak makes itself known, but the port is lurking more in the background. The taste is all rich caramelized fruit, the port wine is very well integrated with the base here, caramel, toffee, fruit, a little booze. Mouthfeel is still rich and full bodied, maybe not quite as much in the way of booze, but still plenty of alcohol heat, making this a nice little sipper. Overall, this is fantastic. It is, by far, the best Port barrel aged beer I’ve ever had, and at least as good as the standard Bourbon barrel version if not better. A

Beer Nerd Details: 14% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 5/15/20. Vintage: 2019.

Gigantic Massive! aged in Rye Barrels

Gigantic Massive! Rye Barrel-Aged – This appears similar, but comports itself much more like the bourbon barrel aged version, which is about what you’d expect. I’m not having them side-by-side, so I can maybe talk myself into this having more of a spicy rye note and these variants do seem to be a bit more balanced or integrated… whatever that means… Look, this is a great beer, much like the regular Bourbon version, and I’m really enjoying it. Would highly recommend checking these variants out. It seems like they’ve done a great job with them, but this Rye variant isn’t as distinctive as the Port version, so if you have a choice, I’d go for the Port before this… This is still great, though! A-

Beer Nerd Details: 14% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 5/16/20. Vintage: 2019.

These were both phenomenal and if you see these Gigantic Massive! variants out in the wild, I would highly recommend checking them out. I’d certainly love to try some of the other variants, notably the Cognac (which I find works well with barleywine). Maybe Gigantic even managed to tame the Scotch barrels (or, more likely, they chose a non-Islay/non-peated scotch barrel). Maple barrels are nice, but do tend towards the overly sweet. The Mezcal variant is the only one that seems like a bad idea. But it gets good ratings, so what do I know? I certainly wouldn’t turn it down.