Thursday, June 30, 2011

New Glarus - Stone Soup

Can I get away with another Wisconsin beer during a month in which you're supposed to drink locally?  As I explained in the last post, I think so.  Today's review stems from New Glarus, WI where Dan & Deb Carey run one of, if not The, finest breweries in the state.  I have been holding on to my stockpile of New Glarus for a little while now, but I needed a fix.  This bottle is often commended by friends and family so it should do the trick quite nicely.  Let's pour!

Picture is my own.  Bottle art image used without permission for educational uses only.
Aroma 11/12
Loads of caramelized banana are the first and strongest part of this beer's nose.  It is accompanied by the customary spices: primarily clove, but also includes all-spice and cinnamon.  A citrus aroma hides in the background and could be brought on by hops or coriander, though one would tend to err toward hops as there are also extremely light floral and grass attibutes as well.

Appearance 1/3
 A brighter shade than the hazy color of store bought honey.  Head is medium-sized at best, cream colored, and dissolves extremely fast.  Nothing special here.

Picture is my own.

Flavor 16/20
Interesting.  This beer is almost nothing like its aroma.  It bursts in with an abundance of crisp lemon citrus, hints of the spices, and a lesser caramel tone.  The backbone gives us the banana from the aroma, but not enough to take away the spotlight from the citrus.  The finish finally allows the banana esters to show through, albeit in a fading capacity.  In fact, the citrus that comprises the majority of this beer's flavor profile mutes a lot of the finish and aftertaste.  The aftertaste is fairly clean, except for a muffled banana and some light hops bitter.

Mouthfeel 4/5
The higher carbonation contributes a lot to the citrusy, refreshing nature of this beer without becoming prickly.  The medium body does not contain any creaminess to speak of, slightly betraying its Belgian roots, but this beer has been a variation on the style through and through.

Overall Impression 7/10
A very good beer even if it does stray from the traditional Belgian stylings.  It offers some of the essentials, but is generally a lighter offering and definitely appropriate for this summer season.  However, it does leave out some of the preferred qualities of Belgian Pale Ales (BPAs): the creaminess, warmth, thick head, and banana esters in the flavor profile.  However, these are deliberate choices made by the brewer or consequences thereof (more citric acid = less head) and not flaws.

Total 39/50
This is a mild offering of a Belgian ale.  If you normally expect larger things from your Belgian styles, you may be a little disappointed, as I was.  However, when I finished scoring the beer still rated higher that I thought it would have.  It is a variation on a style and is remarkably true to the brewers' intent, even if that intent is not what we may or may not have preferred in that particular brew.  This is a nice option to have if you want the Belgian ale flavor, but might not be in the mood for a 9% (or more) ABV brew.  I could also see the citrus and milder flavors being used as an excellent gateway into craft beers for someone who already appreciates the "Blue Moons" of the market.

This beer definitely has its niche, unfortunately, I think my niche often opts for something a bit stronger.  Cheers to another solid offering from New Glarus!  This is a sound example of a lighter variation of a great style.  Prost!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Point - Whole Hog Raspberry Saison

June is almost over and so is my almost perfect adherence to drinking local beers.  This review's beer comes from Wisconsin.  Those of you who have been paying attention know that I currently dwell in Illinois.  However, I was born in Wisconsin and lived there for many years so I feel I get a pass on this one.  This is part of Point's "Whole Hog" series.  When I first saw it I thought that, per the name, it would be for a bacon beer(!), but upon closer inspection I realized it was simply a limited release of various styles.  Not that a limited release is a bad thing, but it cowers a bit to the excitement over the potential for bacon beer.  Have I blathered on enough yet?  Good.  Let's pour!

Picture is my own.  Bottle art image used without permission for educational uses only.
Aroma 10/12
There are some great sniffs on this one!  It, of course, starts out with the raspberry esters that also add a light acidic note to the brew.  The acidity is good to have in there as it is true to the fruit and indicates natural ingredients.  Some floral notes come in later to compliment the raspberries.  As the head fizzles away, there are spicy Belgian yeast notes as well as light caramel aromas.  The banana aromas from the yeast become apparent as the beer warms and is odd that it appears almost separate from the spice.  There could be a hop citrus in there as well, but I could very well be confusing the tartness of the raspberries.

Appearance 1/3
A hazy Belgian pale orange fills the glass.  The white head is small, dissipates quickly, and leaves no lacing.  A somewhat smaller head is to be expected when brewing with acidic fruits, but even with that consideration this seems small and brief.

Picture is my own.
Flavor 16/20
This beer does not pull any punches in its beginning!  You are almost instantly hit by a bready, caramelly, spicy pile of banana-y goodness.  The malt is present with a strong bready note, but this disappears almost completely by the time the backbone fades in.  One would expect the backbone to consist strongly of raspberries and maybe even be a bit acidic given the nose of this beer.  You would be wrong.  Where are the raspberries?  Make no mistake, the beer that is present is full of caramel and Belgian yeast flavors of pepper and bananas - it is darn tasty.  I just expected a raspberry beer to taste like raspberries.  Call me crazy.  The finish is darkly sweet from its caramel and very smooth.  It also shows a hint of the warmth that his brew has previously held a very close secret (7.2% ABV).  The aftertaste is also appropriate for the style, being mostly clean despite the sweet/peppery backbone, but with a light hop bitter to keep things refreshing and mouth-watering.

Mouthfeel 4/5
Medium-heavy body with plenty of creaminess and carbonation that starts out adequate, but fizzles out completely before the end of the pint.  Very little warmth is shown despite is relatively high ABV.

Overall Impression 6/10
This is a very tasty and stylistically accurate saison:  Belgian yeast, low to moderate malt presence (caramel), spicy, creamy, and it even gave us some unexpected warmth.  All very nice.  Unfortunately, the aroma was the only place the raspberries made themselves known.  The lack of head and raspberries are the major areas of concern with this beer.  Thankfully the rest of the beer is strong enough to carry it.

Total 38/50
If this was JUST a Belgian I would have given it a higher rating in flavor.  However, the raspberries were absent from everything except the aroma!  I want to rate it higher because it is darn tasty, but how can you make a raspberry beer that doesn't taste like raspberries.  Aren't there sensory people for exactly that task?  For the saison style, it is pretty darn close to the mark, but that is not what I was promised by this bottle.  I was hoping for something a bit more crisp and refreshing (hence the raspberries).  Overall, I would buy this again, but for the saison style and NOT the raspberries.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Two Brothers Hop Juice Festival

Oh man, had I been looking forward to this festival for a looong time.  A couple of times now (and more pending), my friends and I will make a "beer run."  It's usually friends from the upper half of Illinois (and one from Milwaukee) and we all meet at a brewery for a day.  We drink, talk smart, drink some more, appreciate beer, drink a little, eat, laugh a ton, buy beer we can't normally get, and then drive home.  It's a great excuse to see some long time friends that I don't usually get to see that often.  I highly recommend it.  It also works great for those with families and/or spouses because it's only a one day trip (hence a "beer run" not a "beer stay").

It had been drizzly and overcast all week, so several of us were preparing ourselves for a poncho-clad, drenched day of drinking.  Even the thought of "owning" a bad situation and making the most out of it excited us. Rain or shine we would be there and we were going to have a blast.

We arrived shortly after noon.  Parking was pretty poorly marked.  Two Brothers (old/primary) brewery is located in an industrial park, so there are plenty of adjeacent lots in which to park.  Only problem was we, nor anybody else knew we could park in those lots.  Turns out there were small signs at the entrance of nearby lots indicating we could park there, but cars parked on the shoulder had blocked those signs and lots of people ended up walking a looooong way to get to the festival.  After our own trek to the brewery, things were looking pretty good.  A bluegrass band was playing, people were drinking, the sun was shining, and we see this when we  arrive.

Oh, just a Tesla Roadster.  I'd never seen one of these before in person.  While cars and drinking are not a good combination, looking/lusting after cars and drinking is a fantastic combination and I appreciated the eye candy.  OK, one more pic for good measure.

The car was located at the tail end of a line that stretched out from the entrance gate of the festival.  Granted, the entrance gate of the festival did not have a long line.  They were checking IDs and admitting people very quickly.  Outside, the festival however is where the rare Hop Juice Black was being sold in large bottles.  Unfortunately, since one cannot bring glass into the festival there was a large line to procure the festival-exclusive brew, take it back to your car, and then finally get admitted to the festival.  For those of you paying attention, yes, that does mean another crazy long walk BACK to the car and then an additional walk to return to the festival.  Yikes.  This is the line.

The order/checkout counter for the many different Two Brothers beers was in front of the window.  Please note the blacktop we are standing on and the shadows we are casting.  Yes, the sun was in full effect and we were cooking out on the blacktop.  I would wait.  I had no idea how many bottles of Hop Juice Black they were going to be selling, but I knew that I wanted several.  Besides, they guys in front of us were cool, so we chatted and made smart talk until we all finally got our chance to buy.  There were jokes made that one buyer had originally only planned to buy 6, but to make all the time in line worth while (and the resultant thirst) "now I'm up to a 12 pack."  On a side note, after dropping off the beer at our car, one of the guys that was in front of us was driving by en route to pick up all his buddies' beer so they wouldn't have to walk them back.  He was kind enough to offer us a ride back to the festival.  This is just another example of why I love craft beer drinkers: great sense of community.

Our make-shift chauffeurs and some pretty cool guys.
After being chauffeured back to the front gates we quickly got our wrist bands and entered.

Thankfully, we were able to purchase food/drink tickets when we purchased the Hop Juice Black, so we didn't have to wait in that line.  However, there were still lines to be found.

This is the line for food.  Not too shabby.

These were the lines for beer and the first sight when entering the festival.  Yikes.
When we arrived, there was a gentleman (I use the term loosely) storming out of the festival raving about the lines. "Lines to get in.  Lines to get beer.  Lines to get tickets.  This is bullshit!"  We mocked him in line wondering if he expected to be the only person here.  However, as the day progressed we began to see his point from a calmer point of view.  Lines were everywhere.  Long lines.  Lines long enough that after you ordered a beer, you had to immediately get back in line so that by the time you finished your beer, you could have another.  Who wants to be beerless in line?  Also, I am currently only referring to the lines for the Two Brothers brand beer.  The line for the "guest taps" tent was even longer!  

More lines.

Perhaps the lines would not have seemed so bad were it not for the heat.  It was a gorgeous day to be in many places: the beach, the park, baseball game... blacktop parking lot is not on that list.  It was cooking outside.  We were pouring sweat and couldn't down the beer fast enough.  We were glad to have such amazing weather, but now were hoping for just a little more of that rain we heard about.  The heat and blacktop combination is what would eventually force us to leave the festival.  A little grass in the area would have went a looong way.

The blurgrass bands did their best to take our minds off of the heat.
I love that their stage is partially constructed with kegs.

There were some things that Two Bros. did really well.  

1.  Ample port-a-potties.  I never had to wait in line.
2.  Adequate space.  Not a lot of bumping into people, except when trying to go through a line that would be blocking your path.
3.  Cold beer.  Despite the beer in outdoor tents on a super sunny day, I always got a cold beer.  It might not have stayed that way for long, but they can hardly be blamed for that.
4.  Tasty beer and great guest taps.
5.  Bands that weren't offensively loud.  It was nice to hear music, but also hear the person next to me.  I cannot emphasize this enough.

We enjoyed the festival, but there were definitely some things that Two Brothers could do to improve it.

1.  Mark your parking better.  One long walk is bad.  Two more to take purchased beer in glass bottles back to your car and return is exasperating.  The fourth to leave is expected.  Help us shorten those walks and to utilize the lots you probably asked your neighboring businesses if you could use.  Bigger or better-placed signs would be a big help.  Especially on such a hot day when any additional walking sucks.

2. More tents.  Yes, this would cut down on lines.  However, it would also leave less room within the confines of your parking lot.  I understand that conundrum, hence my next suggestion...

3. Move the festival.   Moving the festival might cost more money, but at $6 for a half solo cup full of Hop Juice or Hop Juice Black (or full cups of year-round brews), money may not be your biggest concern.  Moving the festival to say, a local outdoor venue, would give you the following:
- Grass on which to sit.
- Trees to provide shade
- More room for tents
- More tents = shorter lines = less waiting
- Less waiting for beer also = more people with access to purchase point = more purchases = more money

People "picnicking" on blacktop.  Notice the line?
4. Stages of VIP tickets?
VIP tickets were only $65 (nice) and got you access to...
* Guaranteed entry to the festival even if the general admission is at capacity;
* Exclusive Access to the Two Brothers Tap House and Patio;
* Exclusive Access to the VIP Bar;
* Exclusive Access to the indoor Two Brothers Tap House Bathrooms;
* A seat to rest your hop lovin' feet;
* 5 complimentary beers (21 or older with state-issued ID);
* Unlimited free non-alcoholic drinks;
* Brat-and-finger-food buffet all day long and
* A special dinner buffet from 6-8pm

That's a damn good deal!  However, several of my comrades expressed a wish for a $20-$30 pseudo-VIP ticket that maybe just included ice water, air conditioning, a seat in said air conditioning, and maybe something else to be determined.  Not a necessity for a good festival, but Two Brothers could make more money and customers get something they want.  Win-win, right?  Yeah, I know that there are indoor space constraints on this one, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be nice to see in some shape or form (doesn't have to be in their super-nice bar area, maybe?).

Overall, we had some great beer and some great talk, but eventually we left to find some shade, A/C, and beers that weren't $6 for a Solo cup (or as mentioned earlier $6 for half a Solo cup for the higher ABV brews).  I know festivals are generally more expensive as are most things in the way of entertainment (amusement parks, fairs, concerts, etc), but does this compare to festivals in your area?  Please comment.  I'd love to know.

The day ended with bags games, cooking out, drinking more good beer.  What more could you ask for?  Thanks to Two Brothers for throwing a tasty festival and for giving us boys a good excuse to get together and drink some brews.  Cheers!

Two worst bag players, ever.
Leaving Chicago.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Two Brothers - Long Haul

Have I beat the dead horse enough, so that everyone knows I am trying to review local beers during the month of June?  It has been fun, but I am looking to break out some crazy stuff in July.  One would think that July would be a good time to support local/American beers, being the month of our independence and all, but I digress.  Here is another beer from Two Brothers brewing company that I picked up literally less than 5 miles from the brewery.  Other than getting it from the brewery directly (which I did last weekend), this is about as fresh as it gets.  Let's pour!

Picture is my own.  Bottle art image used without permission for educational uses only.
Aroma 9/12
A pale biscuity malt arrives not far behind a citrusy, hop profile.  After warming a bit, the hops add a bit more pine to the mix and a separate earthiness as well.  Simple, clean, and effective.  Well done.

Appearance 3/3
The beer pours a dark golden-orange with an ample frothy head.  The head is a light beige, sticks around remarkably well, and leaves moderate lacing on the glass.  The beer even has tiny pillars of bubbles ascending to the top.  Not only does that look nice, but allegedly it also helps keep aroma stronger, thus increasing the flavor of the beer.

Picture is my own.  And crooked.

Flavor 15/20
A clean start with what surely involves crystal or pale malts.  This changes in the backbone as the beer takes on almost a rye-like bite to it.  It is an odd sour quality that hides some of the hop citrus notes, but not all of them.  Whichever malts are used, they are lightly toasted and also have the lightest bit of caramel behind them.   That is a lot of malt flavors for one beer and certainly a lot for a traditionally light style.  Hops end up adding more bitterness for balance than actual flavor, but are still a welcome addition.  The beer finishes with the hop bitter, but also more of those curious "rye" notes from earlier.  The aftertaste yields no surprises and only more of the bitter.  A bit more of the citrus in the finish would really improve not only the balance as the hops tend to dominate a bit more than they should, but also in cleansing the palate for this "session ale."

Mouthfeel 3/5
Light-medium body with much lower carbonation that expected.  Very smooth and very drinkable.  You could put a few of these down with no problem.

Overall Impression 7/10
A sound offering from Two Brothers, but not anything that is going to knock your socks off.  The use of hop bitter is an unexpected surprise, as most session beer brewers tend to shy away from it.  This also has significantly more flavor than most session ales.  Definitely the winning choice when it would come to more common macrobrew taps.

Total 34/50
If I were having this at a restaurant like TGIFridays or somewhere like that I would definitely be impressed that they are serving it.  However, as a Two Brothers offering as a whole, I am afraid it does not quite meet expectations.  Don't get me wrong, I appreciate it as a darker offering than most session beer styles (Helles, pilsners, etc) and it certainly is not short of flavor, it is just that the flavor is not likely to have a regular place in your fridge.  The sour, the light caramel, and hop citrus/bitter are all ingredients for success, but perhaps not in their current ratios.  It does not taste like a session ale, but I suggest you try for yourself to see whether or not that is bad thing.  Its definitely share-worthy in a casual setting, but I won't be singing its praises to those more savvy in their beer undertakings.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Heineken Needs to Stop

In college I wanted to get into advertising because I hated the way it was being done: stuff that didn't make sense, preying on peoples' insecurities, stereotypes familiar and newly created, and ads that don't even tell you about the product!  They're only selling images in so many cases!  I know this isn't exactly breaking news to anyone in the last century.  Doesn't matter.  It still annoys me more than it should and I have found myself yelling at TV ads on more than one occasion.  Don't even get me started on Miller Lite's new campaign to "Man Up" and drink a "light beer with more taste."  If you didn't see the irony in that last sentence, please go self-immolate.  Here is one of the offenders.

Why does a beer determine how masculine we are?  Is this not ridiculousness that borders on insanity?  However, that little rant was not even the topic of this particular post.  This post is aimed at Heineken and their blatant ripping off of others' ads.

Exhibit #1:

I was first made aware of this when I saw Breckenridge Brewing's commercial that mocked all of the "bottle technologies" that are currently being introduced by macrobrewers.  Here are a couple of them.

I'm sure you got the point after the first one, but those ads speak to me.  Not only do they make a simple pitch for their product, they also mock crappy gimmicks that distract from products.

After much searching, I could not find the TV spot for Heineken that mocks "beer gimmicks," but I did find this print ad which is an extension of the TV spots.

It reads, "No gimmick," but I think their gimmick is stealing ad ideas.

Exhibit #2
Stella Artois has been focusing a lot of its efforts and marketing around a new 9 step process called "The Ritual."  I first heard of it when I learned there was a contest to see who could complete this 9 step process and deliver a "perfect" Stella Artois.  I'm talking judges and everything.  For those of you unfamiliar with the 9 step process, you can check the video below.

I find the whole thing to be more than a bit pompous, but the ad is well made and truly does make the beer look refreshing and amazing.  Stella has really built up much of their marketing around this theme of the Ritual.  Check out Stella's website and you'll see then even have a PR campaign regarding art revolving around it.  I could find YouTube videos dating back to 2008 regarding Stella's "Ritual."  Even if at that date it was only a 3-step process and rather sloppy, it still had the beginning's of their current campaign.  Here is a graphic sans words of the 6th step in the process known as "the beheading."

As I found it, there was text on the ad that reads, "The Ritual - Step No. 6: The Beheading"
"Like any European great, a proper beheading keeps the legend alive.  This is because
removing large, loose bubbles prevents the Stella Artois from going flat.  Such attention
is ideal.  After all, perfection is in the details."

I found this ad in the July 2011 issue of Chicago magazine which is essentially a "beer issue," describing breweries, beers, bars, and the best places to pick up craft brews in the Chicagoland area.  A scant 12 pages  after seeing the Stella Artois ad above, I found the following Heineken ad (taken from @adsonthesubway via Twitter).

The magazine ad includes further text that reads, "Nothing like this weapon of choice seals in the lager's flavor.  And with one swipe, it masterfully cuts the top foam.  Yes, all froth plays a role, and sometimes that role requires beheading."

Are you kidding?  They even call it beheading?  I know there are only so many things you could call it and beheading is probably the most marketable of those, but do you really want to borrow that closely from Stella!?  In my research (aka Google search) I was not able to find the origins of "beheading" a beer so chronologically I'm not entirely certain who started this first or even when it started in general, but all signs seem to point to the fact that Heineken is new to the game.  I'm not sure if they changed marketing firms or what.  Some ads used to be funny (walk-in beer fridge with men screaming), and most treated men as the stupid white oafs/frat boys image that has been so popular in the last two decades.  I appreciate wanting to step away from that stereotype (after all Bud Light has rather cornered that advertising market) and rebranding oneself as a more substantial beer, but you can't rebrand YOURSELF by stealing OTHERS ideas.  You can borrow, you can even like a vibe that another commercial gives you and try to replicate it, but don't blatantly take their ads and repackage them as your own.  I don't know what the legal precedence is, but in college we called it "plagiarism" and we got our asses handed to us if we got caught.

Stop it Heineken.  I'm only a blogger and you're a huge company, but if I could hand your ass to you I would.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Two Brothers - Bare Tree 2010

Another day in June means another craft beer from somewhere local.  This is a bottle from Two Brothers brewery in the Chicago suburb of Warrenville.  I have had it in the beer fridge for a little while now and having just been to their brewery I could hold off no longer.  In fact, the packaging of this beer is so pleasing that I am surprised that I was able to fight the urge to open it for so long.  There are several photos at the end of this review to show this visual appeal.  I am actually housesitting for a friend this week, so I do not have my normal "neutral" backdrop, but I think the pictures are effective nonetheless.  Let's pour!

Picture is my own.  Bottle art image used without permission for educational uses only.
Aroma 11/12
As the soda-like carbonation is fizzing away, the beer gave off an almost German-like funky smell.  It is not a good start, but it more than redeems itself.  The banana esters soon show themselves and are only moderately spicy.  A light clove aroma is the only spice that makes itself readily apparent.  Eventually, some paler malts show through as do honey and a barely a bit of alcohol warmth.  Halfway through the bottle, the bananas become much more subdued and the rich caramel malt starts strutting around the glass.  Very nice.

Appearance 1/3
The sediment in this bottle is unlike any other.  It is large, almost like pulp in orange juice, but hovers in the glass without moving.  It is very unusual and not all that appetizing.  The color is handsome, slightly darker than your average lager, and offers a few more orange hues.  The head is a bit fizzy, will show up exactly in proportion to how hard you pour it, dissipates fairly quickly and leaves no lacing.

Picture is my own.

A close-up of the gravity defying sediment.
Flavor 19/20
The style is listed on the bottle as a "Barley wine style weiss beer," and boy do they deliver!  It starts out with caramel malts and a sweet apple that stops appropriately short of being crisp.  Neither lasts long as this beer barrels into its backbone of a much more intense, silky caramel and all his friends.  Banana and caramel are the showcase flavors here, but they are escorted by a little alcohol warmth, faint hop bitter, and hints of raw sugar and apricot.  The fruits, with the exception of the banana, are hard to detect, but they are there.  The finish is a bit of an abrupt transition from the sweet, warm goodness to something distinctly more bitter.  The mild bitter starts suddenly, but tempers a bit with raw sugar and a fruit flavor like a mellow apple or a barely tart pear, take your pick.  The aftertaste is remarkably clean considering how sweet the rest of this beer is.  This is aided by a light bitter.  The bitter with still a bit of sweetness behind it yields mouthwatering results and a yearn for another sip.  In fact, 2-3 minutes after taking the last sip, there is almost no aftertaste at all except for a very faint bitter.

Mouthfeel 4/5
Toward the end of the bottle, one has to search for any remnants of carbonation left in this brew.  It has a great creaminess which is appropriate for the style, and a medium heavy body which lends to this beer's significant feel.  Warmth is all but invisible - an impressive feat for a beer with a 11.3% ABV.  I had to look it up because I never would have imagined that level would be possible with its current flavors.

Overall Impression 8/10
Wonderful style accuracy without going overboard.  Bananas are present, but not thrust upon us.  Spice is light and complimentary.  The body is nice, the creaminess is excellent, and the flavors diverse and nuanced.  The sediment was off-putting, but thankfully did not effect the mouthfeel, only the appearance.  Besides the look and the carbonation's vanishing act this beer is remarkably well put together.  However, this only goes as far with respect to the weiss style.  One often expects their barley wines to be a little more robust, but this offering's lack of "attacking" flavors is just as easily a praise.

Total 43/50 (Excellent)
How does this beer have 11.3% ABV?!  I still do not believe it.  It is perfectly camouflaged.  The weiss style is complex without throwing in a grocery cart full of ingredients, and subtle enough to let us appreciate each one.  Reason #1 to like this beer?  Caramel and banana.  Who cannot appreciate that combination?  It lends itself well to the rest of the beer to make a cornucopia of round, mellow sweetness.  Cheers to the Ebel brothers on another fine brew.  Prost!

Now some gratuitous pictures.

Bottles with corks mean business.

Bottle art just short of Ansel Adams' work.

Salivating yet?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bent River - Uncommon Stout

Well gang, I happen to be housesitting this week in the Quad Cities.  For those of you that may may missed it in an earlier post, the QC is an area that spans the Illinois and Iowa borders.  I spent a few years after college in the QC and am proud to say that the area is now up to four breweries and is going to give me plenty of material to write about regarding drinking beer from your local state or breweries.  I've reviewed Front Street Brewery earlier this month and now I'm moving on to Bent River Brewery.  Bent River has long been one of the QC's staple breweries and has recently made big strides in improving their location.  Remodeled bathrooms, updated patio area, and hiring staff that no longer has dreadlocks (I think before it was almost a requirement) has really helped the place's image in more than a few eyes.  In fact, now they even have some pretty good guest taps and bottles (Dark Horse, Stone, Founders, etc).  Unfortunately, I happened to leave my camera in my car and was not about to abandon a helpless beer while I went and got it.  "Never leave a beer behind."  So, it again looks like you'll be forced to deal with crappy cell phone shots or pics blatantly stolen from their website.  Let's pour!

Front of the brewery as stolen from their website.

Picture is my own.  Packaging art image used without permission for educational uses only.
Aroma 10/12
Right up front is an abundance of a mocha blend combination of dark chocolate and freshly ground espresso.  The dark toasted malt joins later to form a trifecta of stout wonderfulness.  If the malt does not include a bit of charring, then it comes as close as possible.  This near-charring or blackening of the malt also imparts a faint smoky note to this beer and is a great compliment to the rest of the aroma.

Appearance 1/3
Unfortunately, this stout is not black.  In fact, there are some rather robust brown ales on the market that could claim the same color.  There are tinges of brown/red visible at almost any spot in the pint glass (not just the edges).  It was also served from the tap with no head whatsoever.  The cappuccino brown is an attractive color, but even toward the top the edges appear watery, as if one had let their icy fountain cola sit around a bit too long and some of the ice water settled to the top.

Picture is my own.
Flavor 17/20
Initial flavors start slow, but soon blossom into the mocha from the aroma.  Its backbone is primarily the lightly burnt coffee with the dark chocolate taking up a supporting role.  A quick wine-taster’s slurp instantly brings the charred flavor to the forefront and a creamy taste as found in an oatmeal stout.  The finish is oddly more dark chocolate than coffee bitter and leads into a finish that is vice versa.  No hop presence of which to speak.

Mouthfeel 3/5
There is an above average amount of creaminess for the style that is not helped by the abundance of tiny carbonation bubbles.  Unfortunately, the carbonation does not fade throughout the pint, but the creaminess seems to counter that by increasing.  I’m not sure if creaminess can increase as a pint warms, but I initially had this marked as low creaminess.  Toward the end of the pint, however, there was no denying it.

Overall Impression 8/10
Most premier brewers seem to nail a style’s technical points, but fall short on some flavor/aroma aspects.  Bent River seems to have done the opposite here.  The beer’s flavor and aroma are quite good, but some of the beer’s technical aspects (color, carbonation, clarity) seem to cry for a bit of improvement.  However, a quick glance at the point distribution reveals that they got the important stuff down pat.  Besides, the areas that fell a bit short are not distracting to the beer as a whole.

Total 39/50 (Excellent)
This beer would definitely hold its own with many larger breweries’ stouts.  The flavor is more than a one trick pony, yet does not try to bowl the drinker over with pepper or dark fruits or several other ingredients that stout brewers can sometimes employ.  It is much more potent a stout than one would use to introduce someone to the style, but not as robust as some of the more extreme or Imperial offerings available.  Long story short?  Damn good stout.  In fact, it is one of my favorite year-round brews not only in this brew pub, but in the Quad Cities region as a whole.  In a small area that contains 4 ½ breweries (one has the mash sent to them), I am very pleased that Bent River is one of them.  I’ll be darkening their doorway many times.

Really cool advertising they have for this brew!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Two Brothers - Domaine DuPage

Another brew from my fine home state of IL!  Two Brothers is a fine craft brewery in the western Chicago suburb of Warrenville.  Now I had this beer on tap last night in a German themed restaurant called the Bier Stube in Moline, IL.  It was the first time I had drank Domaine DuPage and it was a little shocking.  It arrived to our table with no head, a gorgeous color, but was a sour, tart and overall unpleasant "exbeerience."  Knowing Two Brothers' knack for excellent beer, I assumed this was a bad keg (or end thereof), notified the staff, and promptly moved on to the next pint.  Today, I was going to review a different Two Brothers beer, but then found this bottle of Domaine DuPage in my beer fridge.  No better way to find out if the keg was off, right?  Let's pour!

Picture is my own.  Bottle art image used without permission for educational uses only.
Aroma 10/12
This is an earthy, grain-laden smell with some fun stuff going on behind it.  The mellow whole wheat smell is infused with some interesting fruit notes.  It starts out as almost an apple or white grapes, though it leans toward the apple by including just a hint of a dull sour.  As the beer warms, the caramel sweetness takes more of a starring role and the fruit smells are joined by some sweet, flowery fragrance.  This lack of intensity and combination of warm, natural smells make this beer almost relaxing to sniff.

Appearance 3/3
Perfect.  It pours a midwest sunset into my glass.  For those looking for a more specific color, it is pretty much a dead ringer for the color orange on the bottom of the bottle.  However, to paint this beer's appearance in such a monotone way is a discredit to the gorgeous colors.  You'll find the sunset description much more accurate.  The head is adequate in size and settles like a lumpy marshmallow.  Very little lacing, but the retention is excellent.

Picture is my own.
Flavor 17/20
It starts out with rich cream in both flavor and mouthfeel.  Gradually caramel and roast notes fade in, take over and never let go.  Toward the end they are joined by a lightly spiced earthy tone, but this newcomer never comes close to overtaking the primary flavors.  Slurping this beer revives the intense creaminess, but does not help bring out (at all) any of the esters from the aroma.  This would be a disappointment if the beer were not so fantastically balanced.  This beer prioritizes its malts, but not at the expense of a rounded, wonderfully balanced beer.  The finish brings about some more of the caramel/toffee sweetness, but then immediately finishes clean.  There is a faint hop bitter with an even fainter note of hop citrus that help the clean finish, but they do not come into play at any other part in the flavor.  Aftertaste is a light bitter combined with the toasty malt and none of the beer's prior sweetness.  No super-intense flavors, just an extremely tasty, balanced, refreshing, technically superb, drinkable beer.

Mouthfeel 5/5
Wow is this creamy!  Though it is only a medium-bodied beer, the creaminess helps makes this a substantial offering.  Also, because it still only has a medium body, it remains very drinkable.  There is moderate carbonation that falls to fairly low levels as the pint finishes.  No warmth.

Overall Impression 8/10
This is a very good beer.  Its balance, marvelous mouthfeel, and simplicity make it a winner.  It is a caramelly, roasted treat that deserves a spot in your glass.  Period.

Total 43/50 (Excellent)
Very pleased about this bottle, though it comes as little surprise given Two Brothers ever-growing reputation as an excellent brewer.  With every bottle of theirs I have, my respect grows in leaps and this one is no exception.  This beer is like a perfect woman: darker complexion, sweet, colorful, bubbly, and a little alcohol in it.  Today's review is to commemorate my first trip to their brewery this upcoming weekend to attend their Hop Juice Festival.  Hopefully, after the festival I will be bringing back some great beers from Two Brothers, their guest taps, and anything else that I can get my hands on in the larger market of the Chicago suburbs.  Gratuitous amounts of pictures to follow.  Prost!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Front Street - Raging River Ale

This brew, Front Street's Raging River Ale, was the second beer I had during my brief visit.  It was during this pint that I had a chance to talk to Jen, the wife of the husband/wife owner team.  In our brief talk she mentioned some talk of expansion!  This is great news for a local brewpub that definitely deserves its success.  Let's pour!

Photo again blatantly stolen from their website.
Aroma 10/12
The brew is definitely hop-leaning and the malt is not making its presence felt via the nose.  It is then a good thing that the hops are such a nice combination of citrus and pine.  This combined with an ester that recalls a bit of green apples is a very light and pleasant way to start this beer.

Appearance 2/3
A dark golden honey color with barely a covering of white head.  It is moderately translucent, bright, and very appealing in its shades of yellow.  Even an average amount of head and retention would have yielded a perfect rating in this category.
Photo is my own.
Flavor 18/20  
This beer starts off strong out of the gate with sweet notes of honey and almost a sugary sweetness!  Very light and refreshing.  The backbone starts with strong caramel tones, but has a lovely smorgasbord of sweet and light tartness involving the apple from the aroma, citrus from the hop, and a distinct floral tone that wraps everything up before featuring the hop bitter.   It should be noted that the hop flavors and bitter are almost completely separated in this brew.  The bitter does arrive in the very beginning of the finish.  It is an abrupt contrast to the prior sweetness, but an excellent finish that is appropriate for the style.  It continues the flowery sweetness while introducing the aforementioned hop bitter as well as an additional peppery hop flavor.  The pepper helps dry the finish and keeps it remarkably clean despite the mouth-watering sweetness introduced earlier.  Aftertaste is fairly clean, but does leave its bitter calling card on the edges of the tongue.

Mouthfeel 5/5
The beer has a medium body that feels heavier than its light color would have you believe.  Also, one is not accustomed to having light, hop-emphasizing beers attain this level of creaminess.  The carbonation is a perfect compliment and only adds to its refreshing nature being both abundant and non-distracting throughout the pint.  The mouthfeel is very nice and lends itself to the feeling that this is a more substantial offering of the style.

Overall Impression 9/10
This is a very impressive local offering!  It is clean, refreshing, bubbly beer with a complex hop profile.  It manages to neatly separate several hop varieties and showcase each one without becoming “hop crazy” or dominating the rest of the brew.

Total 44/50
This ranking puts this beer at the top of the excellent category and rightly so.  There is marvelous sweetness up front and a wonderful, complex garden full of hops to wrap up the flavor.  I am not sure how they separate the hop flavor and the bitter, but as I held it in my mouth I had to all but swallow it before those hop bitters became present.  It is definitely a two-phased beer.  This is not a bad thing; I rather enjoy the effect.   They finished it right by making this light ale with a dry finish.  I cannot wait to take another sip or order another.  Hoppy beers are not my forte, but I am coming to appreciate them more with every bottle.  This beer is no exception and I would recommend it to anyone taking that bold step into the world of IPAs and hoppy goodness.  As mentioned earlier, not only are hoppy beers not my forte, but they are also not usually my first choice off of the menu.  This beer is definitely an exception to the rule.  I will be back for this one.  Prost! 

Another stolen image.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Front Street - Bucktown Stout

Some personal business took me to the Illinois/Iowa border today and this was fortunate.  On that border there is an area consisting of four cities referred to as the Quad Cities and it is composed of Rock Island & Moline on the Illinois side, and Davenport & Bettendorf across the Mississippi in Iowa.  Despite being a smaller market, this area has given rise to FOUR, count ‘em, FOUR breweries and some would argue a fifth in a chain restaurant  called Granite City.  It makes a strong, nay, irrefutable argument for traveling into the area and having some great local beer and supporting local communities.  This review’s beer is for Front Street Brewery in Davenport, IA.  I am actually sitting in the establishment right now.

Quick Note: Please forgive the quality of any shots in this review or Front Street's next review.  I did not have a camera with me or even a decent cell phone.  My recently-deceased cell phone had an unfortunate accident involving a motorcycle.  But I digress...

The atmosphere is very nice in a remodeled early 20th century riverfront building - lots of wood and exposed brick.  In fact, out the front window I can clearly the mighty Mississippi rolling on by, the local Lock & Dam No. 15, and the Rock Island Arsenal (which manufactured TONS of rifles used in WWII).  Bucktown was actually an area of the city that Wikipedia describes as such,

"The eastern end of downtown Davenport, historically known as Bucktown, was infamous at the turn of the 20th century for its speakeasiesdance halls and German music pavilions. It was home to a documented forty-two brothels in a two block area. The reputation of Bucktown traveled across the country and garnered national media headlines as the "wickedest city in America... Bucktown was also known, however, for its culture. The strong German heritage of the community formed the identity of Bucktown and its infusion of the arts into the everyday... In Bucktown, the music of the people was played by the era's finest musicians, including Louis Armstrong and the legendary Bix Beiderbecke."

That is a pretty rich heritage.  If that heritage was an uncle, he probably would not be invited to many family gatherings.  This place is loaded with local history and it is literally plastered all over the walls in large black and white photos that depict not only the history of the area, but also of the building itself.  Very cool!  The community should be proud to have an establishment like this.  Enough gabbing though!  On to the beer.  Let’s pour!

Unflattering cell phone shot.
Aroma  8/12
The malty beginnings are smoky and toasted moderately.  There was no charring when making this stout.  There is, however, a chocolaty sweetness that makes itself more known as the pint warms.  Coffee is the primary aroma, but this typically strong scent is not allowed to overwhelm its counterparts.  Very mild beginnings.

Appearance 2/3
Like the aroma, the appearance is a bit light for the style.  The beer is not black, but gets probably as close as it gets without achieving that goal.  It is completely opaque, but black has been swapped for a ruddy chestnut brown that reveals dark reddish-browns at its edges.  Head is small, does not offer much in retention, but sticks around quite a bit as a collar.  There is a minute amount of lacing present.

The first sips show the malt used in this beer.  It tastes like a rather pale malt that has gone through some lighter roasting than expected.  It makes the beer less intense than other stouts, but that could work out very well for some drinkers who prefer just that.  The malt also adds a sourish sweet flavor that is again distinct, but not unpleasant in the least.  The backbone then steps in with the lighter chocolate notes and the stronger coffee flavors.  This fades a bit and gives way again to the sour/sweet malt and some pretty distinct earthy tones.  The finish is unusually sweet, but does have the appropriate emphasis on coffee.  The coffee gets to combine with a delicate hop bitter which always makes for nice finish.  Aftertaste is almost entirely hop bitters, but does involve a little of the prior coffee and the result is almost that of charred coffee beans despite the lack of blackened ingredients anywhere in this beer.

Mouthfeel 3/5
The carbonation is high and a little out of place for the style.  It is prickly and contrasts the body/creaminess that stouts normally seek to attain.  That said, it still does maintain a better than average creaminess and a medium heavy body.  No detectable warmth.

Overall Impression 6/10
A pretty good stout.  Definitely not an intense version, but not the type used to introduce others to craft beer stouts either.  It lies somewhere in that dangerous middle ground that achieves neither wide spread success (too weak), nor critical accolades (flavor powerhouse).  It is a good beer that I would not have problems ordering growlers of were I living in the area, but it would benefit from a push either to the extreme or to the acceptability of the masses.

Total 34/50
Almost every section of this beer’s review notes that it is light for the style and that sums things up rather well.  This can make for a very good “exbeerience” for those who are not looking for the insanely dark tones that an Imperial might provide.  It is a rather light coffee stout that I would prefer ANY day to almost anything most local places/chain restaurants have on tap.  It is a great alternative to have in the area, but falls a bit short when competing on a national stage.

I really like this brewery/brewpub (They do serve food.  Good food at that!).  I enjoy this beer.  It might not bring home any first place trophies, but it is a pretty good stout that you can definitely have several of without any reservations.  Cheers to Steve and Jen for running a fine establishment!

Photo blatantly stolen from their website.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Goose Island - Matilda (2011)

Another day in June means another brew from my current state of Illinois.  Today's is again from Goose Island in Chicago, IL and is one of their "vintage" collection.  I have not heard much about this brew so I am going in to this one with a "tabula rosa."  Let's pour!

Picture is my own.  Bottle art image used without permission for educational uses only.
Aroma 12/12
A heavenly aroma! A lightly toasted biscuit and caramel malt arrives and is followed by an absolutely lovely spiced banana ester!  Present are brown sugar, vanilla, and a bit of clove.  Some of the 7% ABV warmth is detectable, but does not interfere with this fantastic bouquet.  The brewer indicated it is a "Belgian Style Pale Ale," but it smells like a wondrous hefe with a more interesting yeast.  You could smell this for hours.

Appearance 2/3
It pours the color of honey and has a small head with a seashell-white color.  The head appears dense, almost milky from the top, and does leave lacing on the pint glass.

Picture is my own.
Flavor 19/20
The beer starts crisp with pale malt (2-row?) and does not waste much time arriving at what the aroma has shown.  Caramel is abundant and the unique banana-y yeast strongly shows itself.  As it is held in the mouth, the caramel grows fainter, the banana turns to alcohol warmth and then diminishes, and the whole backbone profile becomes much more earthy and brings a pepper spice.  This is an intriguing twist and was not shown at all in the aroma.  An occasional slurp can revive the banana and warmth, but the pepper and earth flavors are here to stay.  They continue into the finish where they also fleetingly encounter a fresh, grassy hop flavor.  This brings a wonderful balance to all the prior sweetness and is a wonderful compliment to the later earth and spice.  The bitter is mild at best, but does also contribute to the change of this beer's tone.  The aftertaste leaves the earthy bitter on the sides of your tongue, and finishes with zero slickness in the mouth.  What a departure from how this beer started!  The finish's flavor is not clean, but its texture certainly is.

I cannot express enough how important it is to let this beer's flavors develop in your mouth.  I initially had this beer scored lower, but its complexity takes its time to show itself.  Please give it that time and you will not be disappointed.  The technical merit and stylistic accuracy of this beer cannot be overstated.

Mouthfeel 4/5
Medium-heavy body with moderate carbonation that falls throughout the pint.  Toward the end, this low carbonation lends itself to a creamy feeling that this beer has lacked throughout the pint.  The only weak spot in this beer seems to be said lack of creamy texture.  Though creaminess usually shows later when in the mouth and in this beer that would be when the earthy/spicy flavors are also establishing themselves.  One would like to see the creaminess during the banana/caramel phase, but it could be unusual or distracting when showcasing the latter flavors.  Perhaps the only way to remedy without effecting flavors would be to have a lower carbonation overall.

Overall Impression 9/10
It is not the most jaw-dropping flavor in the world, but the technical merit and the stylistic accuracy of this beer cannot be questioned.  Maze-like in complexity, this beer demands you take the time to drink and appreciate it.

Total 46/50
It was very hard to find a weak spot in this beer.  The aroma makes you forget that you get to drink it.  I could have smelled it for much longer.  It also made me want to forget about drinking it and just rub it all over my face.  I am glad I did not.  This beer, if drank quickly or heaven forbid from a bottle, does not get to show its true potential.  There are times to drink beer from a bottle, but this is not one of them.  By holding this beer in the mouth, which in turn forces the pint to warm as one drinks it more slowly, releases a boggling juxtaposition of flavors.  It makes me feel guilty that I did not have a tulip glass to drink it out of... perhaps I missed something else!

As I later read the BJCP Style Description, it was almost like reading a checklist for this beer.  Big, floppy, magnificent kudos to the Goose Island brewmasters for this one.  You nailed the style to the wall and made a damn tasty beer while doing it.  This batch was bottled on 01/27/2011 (I love bottle dates) well before the InBev purchase of Goose Island. InBev, if you do not change a single thing about this beer, you will have done very well.  "If it aint broke..."  I will DEFINITELY be cellaring one of these for as close to the 5 year limit that the bottle recommends.