To keep with June's "Drink Beer from Your State" theme, today I will be tipping back one of Goose Island's Pepe Nero. This beer is in the Belgian style (yeah, because that narrows it down), but is said to be brewed using black peppercorns. I like Belgian styles a great deal, so I worry a bit about using a spice as vigorous as black pepper. However, I am also always ready for a new "exbeerience"™. Let's pour!
First notes are of fruity esters and caramelly, roasted malts. There is barely a hint of alcohol. The roasted malt is very discernable, but for a beer named "Pepe Nero" (which assumedly translates as "Black Pepper") the spice profile is remarkably light. To its credit, as it warms the pepper becomes more prominent. It can only be described as very earthy and not comparable to what one has one their dinner table.
Despite its name, this beer is anything but black. It pours a medium body in shades of an überdark amber. There are too many beautiful shades of mahogany and auburn to ignore. The beige head's size was nothing to write home about, but its soapy appearance, fluffy texture, and excellent retention are certainly worthy of note.
The flavors begin as very earthy and malty. Unfortunately, this is where certainty ends. There are comlimentary flavors abounding and it is often difficult to tell where one begins and another ends. The initial flavors quickly develop as the beer is held in the mouth and mature into a ever-increasing pepper spiciness, deep, strong caramel notes (almost root beer-esque at times!), lightly blackened malt, and the banana esters from the aroma. In hindsight, the banana and the dark caramel are combining to give the false root beer flavor. Slurping during the backbone unleashes the esters' true potential as well as reveals the alcohol warmth. As if the complex backbone was not enough to earn this beer some serious props, the finish is fantastic. Banana esters and dark pepper make a very nice backdrop for more earthy tones, dark fruit, and a noticeable chocolate finale. The aftertaste is remarkably clean for a beer with such roasted characteristics, but ultimately has a faint hop bitter and mellow earthy notes.
Substantial enough to support the multitude of dark flavors and light enough to drink a second without a thought. There is excellent carbonation that lasts all the way through the bottle and the beer exposes its bit of warmth when slurped (as aforementioned). A bit of slick feeling is left in the mouth, but not enough to dissuade the drinker. The med-heavy body and creamy feel are nice with the earthy saison style.
Overall Impression 6/10
There is a lot going for this beer. The skill of the brewmasters is certainly one of them! Blending such bold flavors into such a round, mellow, and drinkable brew is certainly no easy task. This beer is technically on task and complex, yet it fails to amaze. Something intangible has escaped. Perhaps the inclusion of more of the toasted malt would lend itself to a stronger-flavored brew, but at the risk of overpowering the pepper and bordering on a dunkelweiss.
Far from a bad ranking for this staple Chicagoan brewery, but something is just not grabbing me the way I would like. Perhaps my own expectations were to blame as I was expecting more of a peppery blast and less of the Belgian yeasty esters than I received? Not sure. It is truly something intangible and I cannot quite put my finger on it. It is a good beer, just not an amazing one. Goose Island should receive credit for two things: first for being a large brewery that is not afraid to put out a style with which not many people are familiar (including myself). Two, I drank this beer well within 6 months of it being bottled, but the bottle clearly states, "Develops in the bottle for up to 5 years." If it is an above average beer now, then I cannot wait to see this thing in 5 years. You better believe I will be cellaring one of these for another day. Cheers!