Friday, January 27, 2012

Bent River - Dry Hopped Pale Ale

If I'm spending the entire day in the Quad Cities unsupervised, you better believe that I'm going to be hitting up some great local craft beer!  Today's review is for Bent River's Dry Hopped Pale Ale.  I didn't have a camera with me that day, so I apologize for the lack of pictures.  Before I start this review, let me just say that I can't wait until this brewery has an opportunity to be "discovered" on a larger scale.  Let's pour!

Pic blatantly stolen from their website.
Aroma 11/12

This absolutely reminds me of the Bell’s Hopslam I had 2 days ago!  It starts out a bit piney, but quickly turns sweet and eminates aromas of dried pineapples and mango.  The hops in this are amazing and make a veritable tropical fruit salad for your nose.  The best part is… IT’S STILL COLD!  I can’t wait to see what else comes out as this beer warms.

Appearance 2/3
The head wasn’t monstrous, but then again the bartender (whom I just met) made sure that most of the head was poured off for me (good work, Justin).  What head remained appeared white in the dim light of the brewpub and remained as a disk on the beer for as long as I wished.  The color is a dark, earthy, pumpkin orange that glows a bit more golden toward the bottom.  I won’t say that the beer in unfiltered as I don’t see any sediment, but there is certainly a haze at work that under better lighting conditions could lend itself well to displaying a variety of hues.  If I can see that it's cloudy in this light, it must be an extremely cloudy brew.

Flavor 18/20
Only briefly is one exposed to a bright citrus flash before the sweeter, more tropical backbone arrives.   The mangoes from the aroma are abundant as is the candied nature of a dried pineapple, but without any of the pineapple acidity.  To hold the beer in the mouth accentuates a splendid hop bitter that shows a strong presence while going a long way to balance out the tropical sweetness.  The mangoes are present everywhere, even when on the back of the tongue during the finish.  Eventually they fade after the beer is swallowed and a moderate bitter rests on the tongue like a pill you didn’t swallow soon enough.  The after taste is a less intense version of the bitter, with no sweetness, and is somewhat drying.

Mouthfeel 4/5
This is a very full-bodied, big beer!  The heavy body helps rein in all the monster flavors present and gives the carbonation a free pass on being just higher than desirable.  Not in its quantity, but its somewhat prickly nature.  The foaming action in the mouth doesn’t lend any additional smoothness, but does help the experience from becoming too heavy as a whole.

Overall Impression 10/10
I enjoy this beer immensely!  I’ve never encountered hops that provide such a strong flavor & aroma outside of an Imperial IPA.  While this doesn’t have the caramel sweetness that traditionally comes with such a strong hop presence, it is not needed.  The hops in this case provide all the sweetness in a delightful and powerful mango tone.  The only thing needed to balance out those hops is… well, more hops.  The bitter note balances the mango nicely and makes this beer anything but sweet.  The body is also a great attribute to this beer, though easy to overlook after such a striking flavor and aroma.

Total 45/50
In case, you couldn’t tell I really enjoyed this beer.  Technically, it’s not the most complex thing on the planet.  However, the hop presence is soooo delicious in all its forms that I find it hard to justify any sort of lower score.  A beer doesn’t have to be complex to be good, right?  True, it helps, but a beer that can impress me while maintaining its simplicity is also deserving of praise (even if it might be more difficult to achieve a perfect score).  Mango and bitter.  Bitter and mango.  That tandem carries this beer to a delicious success.  If you’re even in the area, find it.  If you like Hopslam, find it.  My next growler is this beer, no questions asked.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Bell's - Hopslam

With all the hubbub surrounding this beer, I was sure that said hubbub would result in its rarity and great difficulty in my being able to find it.  Little did I know that my local grocery store Hy-Vee and their outstanding Wine & Spirits department would come through for me again (and again... and again...).  I grabbed the last two sixers of Bell's Hopslam that they had and quickly squirreled it away to be sampled in the near future.

In case any of you are wondering, yes I will be cellaring two bottles to see how it changes with age.  The other bottles I'm going to drink as fresh as possible, if not use them in trade.  Also, these beers were bottled on Jan. 6th, 2012 so I consider them, for me, as fresh as possible (other than the few days it took to actually review them).  I've already had one and it was heavenly, but now it's time to break this bad boy down and see what it's made of.  Let's pour!

Aroma 11/12
Wow!  There is a mango wallop at the beginning of this aroma!  It's so sweet and tropical before it allows a grassier still-on-the-vine hop note to protrude.  A bright honey adds to the sweetness, but not at the expense of a faint whiff of straw that timidly shows itself.  An alcohol warmth is felt in the nose, but does not offer an aroma.  As warming occurs, the hops gradually turn away from their sweet introduction and begin to become a bit more "traditional."  A good pine hop aroma comes forward, as does a bit of pineapple.  Who'd of thought this much tropical fruit would be present?

Appearance 3/3
A high clarity helps this beer to absolutely shine the color of honey.  A steady column of carbonation keeps the aroma going and eventually joins the rest of the average-sized head.  The head's size was nothing spectacular, but the color is a pastel version of the beer itself and in its full form has a marshmallow texture with a few lumps thrown in for good measure.

Flavor 19/20
Talk about flavors that come in waves!  This story starts with a wash of bitter and a bit of pine, but quickly changes its tune when held in the mouth.  The bitter fades away into a brief calm, creamy "eye of the storm," before becoming all the sweet flavors from the aroma.  Honey is abundant, mangoes add their syrupy juice, and the pineapples lend just a hint of acidic sharpness.  You can almost feel the thick honey roll across the tip of your tongue.  The finish is a brutal end after such a sweet treat!  The tongue is immersed in an intense hop bitter through which it is difficult to ascertain any of the other flavors other than remnant of the sweet honey.  Alcohol warmth is finally detectable and it seems to be making up for lost time.  Especially present in an exhale, it gives flashes of being medicinal at times.  This intense bitter and alcohol warmth make for a lightly lingering bitter that has a sensational drying effect in the mouth.  You desperately need to take another sip to wet your mouth and this beer dares you to do so.

Mouthfeel 5/5
I'm not sure how a beer this crammed with flavor and warmth maintains as light of a mouthfeel as it does.  It's a pleasant medium body with a carbonation level that successfully balances the "requirements" of a lighter hued, sweeter beer with that of a high ABV, hop monster.  The carbonation doesn't foam in the mouth, but always remains present - keeping the beer a bit bubbly and from feeling to heavy.  The warmth in the finish is strong, but far from many offerings' aggressive alcohol presence, which can often result in a drinker feeling that they're drinking part-spirit, part-beer.  The aforementioned drying sensation is incredible.  I feel like my tongue should be cracked like parched earth.

Overall Impression 10/10
What a complex, layered and satisfying beer!  It truly is a "bitter sandwich" of a sweet tropical fruits smooshed between two slices of bitter, bitter hoppy goodness.  The color is bright, the head is nice, the aroma is intoxicating, and the flavor is insanely robust.  This is a winner of all levels.  The only thing keeping from the perfect score it seems so close to, was the malt.  While I appreciate the honey taking over the role of the sweetening agent, I could have appreciated a bit more of that straw malt.

Total 48/50
This rating seems a bit low for this beer or like I'm being a bit picky.  I know there's not much room to ascend, but I still "want" it to be rate higher.  It's truly a phenomenal beer; taking the drinker from a tropical fruit medley to a pine needle bed to satisfying bitters to an alcohol warmth dried mouth.  Tons of sensations and tons of flavors!  I still can't believe that a beer this light in color has this much intense flavors layered within it.  This beer may come off as a bit pricey, but it's worth every penny.  Cheers to the folks at Bell's for another solid brew and helping put Michigan on the map of craft beer.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Blue Cat - Marley's Blackstrap Stout

Yesterday found me in the Quad Cities all day with little to do.  What better to fill my time than to review some local craft beer?  I visited a pair of establishments, but today's review is for one of my old haunts, Blue Cat Brew Pub and their Marley's Blackstrap Stout.  Never seen this brew around before and new, unsampled brews are just my style.  Let's pour!

Aroma 10/12
The aroma is not terribly complex, but what is present is extremely promising for the beer to come.  It almost smells like bananas in chocolate fondue.  I’m sure it’s actually a combination of some chocolate malts, a splendid dark roast, and loads of molasses, but there is more than a suggestion of chocolate covered bananas here.  As the beer warms, the dark roast and molasses aromas combine and make for a darkly sweet, almost smokey tandem.  There are a lot of things working in harmony!

Appearance 3/3
Finally a beer from the tap that shows more than a disk of head that barely covers the top!  This beer came with a thick, dark tan head that was about 1-2 fingers tall and creamy in appearance.  It looks like I could rest the salt shaker on it!  The longevity was surprising; it didn’t leave entirely until I drank it.  The beer is black and completely opaque, not even allowing a bit of transparency along the edges when held up to a light.

Flavor 18/20
The beer starts off with a hearty serving of the chocolate malts, their roast, and that wonderful blackstrap molasses.  The flavor still suggests a dessert, but less so than the aroma.  There seem to be other malts present as well, but they don’t seem to be adding a lot to the flavor profile.  For example, the neutrality of crystal malt is shown sans the customary accompanying sweet flavors.   The backbone really lets this beer shine by showing off gobs of molasses flavor, but without molasses’s sugary sweetness.  The roast is now coming off as almost bitter, but is aided by some unhidden alcohol warmth, the bittersweet nature of blackstrap molasses, and likely some hops.  The brewpub claims that the ABV is 5.6%, but I would’ve guessed higher especially when it comes to the finish.  The alcohol warmth crescendos and plateaus when held in the mouth and upon swallowing becomes quite present along with a coffee’s bitter note and a lighter caramel flavor.  The finish continues the coffee-like bitter, but rounds it off with roast flavors.  Together the two hint at a smokiness.

Mouthfeel 4/5
The beer’s body is not the largest thing I’ve seen, especially for a stout, but it remains fair for the style and it helped along by a carbonation that, while just high for the style, foams ever so slightly in the mouth and makes this beer all the silkier and smoother – something I always like to see in a stout.

Overall Impression 7/10
This turned out to be a beer that is very difficult to describe accurately.  The flavor doesn’t constantly change, but insists on continually shifting the flavor's emphasis to each and every ingredient.  The aroma says “chocolate banana.”  The flavor says “molasses…. Or is it  warmth…. I mean, look at this roast and bitter combination… nah, just focus on the molasses.”  There is lot going on in this beer!  Its only weak link lies in the mouthfeel where the carbonation is simply too active for a stout.

Total 42/50
This is a very tasty stout that I could sip on all night.  Blackstrap molasses is a very unique ingredient to put in a stout and I’m very glad someone did.  I was completely unfamiliar with blackstrap molasses until this beer and had to do a bit of research.  Turns out it lends the exact flavors I found in this beer:  a duller sweetness than a typical molasses and a bit of a bitter note as well.  This showcasing of a single ingredient doesn’t make this the most complex beer in the world, but it does make it darn tasty and a neat way to experience and learn an ingredient.  Much in the same way that Samuel Adams  taught me about different varieties of hops with their Latitude 48 Deconstructed or any of the Mikkeller Single Hop series, this beer has shown me what a single ingredient can do.  

I was most intrigued by this beer's ability to assume the flavors of a dessert (chocolate, molasses), but without the sweetness that we so often associate with those flavors.  I'm not sure how they were separated.  Balancing ingredients such as hops and a dark roast?  It's extremely interesting and keeps this beer from becoming to sweet by maintaining more of its stout-style roots.  Overall, I’d say it’s well worth buying, a smidge light-bodied for the style, and a unique, tasty presentation of a stout.  Cheers to Blue Cat for this brew!  It goes to show that you don’t have to be a super-experimental or national craftbrewer to successfully utilize a new and unusual ingredient.  And that makes me excited.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Big Muddy - Big Muddy Monster

The first time I tasted Big Muddy Monster beer was at the inaugural Midwest Brewers Fest (2012 date TBA), with Nik from ChicagoBeerGeeks & Wes from TGBOAT, and it was served up by none other than Big Muddy Brewmaster himself Chuck Stuhrenberg.  At that time we were told it was not widely available and we had good reason to believe him as I had never seen nor heard of it before.  Fast forward several months and I happen to see some bottles at Artale Wine Co. in Rockford, IL.  Regardless how these bottles passed me up in the middle of the state and went to one of the northernmost cities was not my concern.  All that mattered was that I finally found some and could give it a thorough review.  Let's pour!

Aroma 10/12
Even when poured at a bit of a colder temperature than it should have, this beer was rife with pine scented hops, pineapples, and wood - in that order.  It's a rather sharp, aggressive hop smell that makes me think this beer might try to strip the enamel from my teeth (gladly!).  There is a malt sweetness behind it that compliments the sharp hops, yet adds a touch of chocolate.  I am a curious and a bit scared to see how this plays out on the palate.  That seemingly out of place malt does combine nicely with the touch of alcohol warmth.  As the beer warms, the malts balance out the sharp hops very well and almost threaten to take away their spotlight.

Appearance 3/3
It pours a nice enough brown, but appears much darker in the glass.  Only when held to light does any "brown" in this India-style Brown Ale become apparent.  The underside of the surface shows a cola brown, and the bottom revealed some nice shiny copper colors.  It's a god looking beer, but tries to hide it in all that darkness.  The head is remarkable.  It's not too big, not too small, but still generous.  It's a great tan shade for this brown ale, pours in two tones, lasts very well, and leaves great lacing.  What more could you want?  It shows great craftsmanship in the making of this ale.

Flavor  17/20
There is no time wasted beating around the bush!  This beer begins bold with such a darkly roasted brown malt that at first I thought it might be coffee!  It is made to seem even darker by incorporating a nice hop bitter with it.  This flavor continues into the backbone where it dims slightly, but also gives rise to a faint creamy sweetness.  It's an interesting flavor to find in a beer this shade and a bit unusual to find a creamy sweet flavor this far removed from when the beer first contacts the tongue.  A quick slurp really helps bring that flavor to the front.  The finish is the most robust portion of this beer!  All the hops have been playing nicely with the malts until this point, but in the finish the hops apparently decide to throw an impromptu party!  The finish starts much more bitter than the backbone and is full of grassy and resin notes.  It's quite tasty and a great send-off for this beer!  The aftertaste is still those dark-brown malts and a pleasant lingering bitter.  This beer finishes strong.

Mouthfeel 4/5
The mouthfeel does not contribute to the "monster" promised on this bottle, but that doesn't make it bad.  It's medium bodied at best, and enjoys a refreshing level of carbonation that foams slightly in the mouth which helps lend the beer a slightly silky quality.  There's no warmth except for the bit detected in the aroma.

Overall Impression 8/10
This is a nice big, brown ale.  The malts are dark and mean business, the aroma is balanced (after warming), the appearance is flawless, and it is more than a sound value for the price.  Not a huge "monster" beer, but definitely more than your average brown ale thanks to a very nice inclusion and presentation of some great hop varieties.

Total 42/50
When I first smelled this aroma, I thought I was in for a shock.  The hop presence was crazy and I was ready for a big, aggressive experience.  However, that's not what this beer is all about.  Sure, they want to incorporate a strong hop presence (hence the label art and "india-style" in the name), but the overall beer is more important to them and rightly so.  The hops do diminish as the beer warms, but that's when the beer truly comes into its own.  All those wonderful malts play their part, not just as a balancing act, but as a contributor to the beer.  Now if the beer had continued its strong hop presence, it certainly could have been considered more of a "monster," but that monster would've also been a one trick pony.

This treads an interesting border between styles.  I feel the "India-style" portion was right on!  Great hop presence, though not much to speak of regarding caramel sweetness.  The brown portion is certainly robust enough, especially with the presence of hops, but felt it was a bit lacking as far a sweetness or nuttiness is concerned.  Overall, as a brown this beer is phenomenal!  It says monster on the bottle, but don't let that lead you into thinking "imperial" or "full bodied."  Instead, it's a beer chuck-full of flavor (Brewmaster pun not intended), that remains very drinkable and thankfully not as heavy as some of the more "extreme" beers available.  I would not be afraid to introduce this to my more experienced and serious craft beer buddies.  If you've ever enjoyed a brown ale, but wanted a more serious version, this is it!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Stone - Belgo Anise Imperial Russian Stout

I was way overdue for a beer from Stone.  The fact that I can't remember the last one I had is not a good indicator.  Today I resolve this dilemma by cracking open a bottle of their 2011 "Odd Year" Belgo Anise Imperial Russian Stout.  As the name suggests it's a big ol' imperial stout to which Stone has added a Belgian yeast strain and, according to the bottle, "liberal amounts of star anise."  If that doesn't sound delicious enough, they then "oak" the beer using oak chips!  It sounds like a whole heap of delicious, but when it was released there were some mixed reviews.  Shall we find out for ourselves?  Let's pour!

Aroma 11/12
Dark, almost burnt roast and loads of oak are abundant as soon as the cap is pried off the bottle.  It's so darkly roasted and woody that one can easily imagine a campfire.  To drink this around a campfire on a fall evening would be a true prefect pairing.  The anise is also there - a fruit with which I am not completely familiar.  It does have a "black licorice" scent to it, but more in a more slightly saltier"Good N Plenty" type way and not like a rope of black licorice. It is also less intense in the same way a shallot is more subtle than an onion.  Dark fruits remain behind it as does a well camouflaged warmth.

Appearance 3/3
This pours dark!  The only time I was able to get any light through this nearly opaque beer was when holding it up to a ceiling light.  Only then could I see a dark, deep brown from underneath the surface.  The head is dark tan, dense with tiny bubbles and appears almost solid from the top.  It takes its time to form (I love that), and its longevity is most pleasing.

Flavor 19/20
This is a unique and tasty beer!  Initial flavors waste no time in bull-rushing the palate with plenty of the wondrous, dark roasted malts, the woody oak, and bits of bitter.  After holding the beer in the mouth, the anise and dark fruits take on more of the heavy lifting.  Belgian yeasts add a sweetness, but not any of the banana flavors for which they are typically known.  The flavors are widely varied, but not contrasting.  It takes a lot of brewing prowess to blend so many different flavors together so well and to be able to taste each one.  The anise and a very nice warmth are apparently holding hands as the beer slides down the throat... and what a nice partnership it is!  Oddly, it's pretty much only those two flavors in the finish (a moderate bitter pops in to say good-bye), but the warmth isn't just the flavor of alcohol.  It actually seems to warm the way fine liquor/spirit would, as it were spreading across the chest.  Also, an exhale after the finish can bring the anise right back into the nose!  Very neat!  The aftertaste is still warm, and leaves a quiet, round bitter to remember this beer.

Mouthfeel 5/5
Carbonation is spread thin, but not buried.  The few bubbles one does come across add the vivacious quality expected of them, but they are spaced well apart from one another.  The abundance of malts give the full body expected of them, but are balanced appropriately and never become syrupy or slick.  The carbonation even foams up ever so slightly to make this beer more drinkable than perhaps its ABV (10.5%) and full body would otherwise allow. 

Overall Impression 10/10
Big aroma, big, complex flavor that remains nuanced, fantastic warming quality, and a very appropriate body are all details that make this beer a uniquely flavored winner.  When this beer was fresh, reviews would claim a lot of strong flavors, especially from the anise, but currently I find them wonderfully participatory while not becoming overbearing.  Good heavens the roast in this is tasty!  It's a big beer, but I could easily do with another bottle.

Total 48/50
This beer is insanely tasty!  I appreciated it more an more throughout the bottle and it did everything short of make me use expletives whenever I drank it.  The dark roast, oak, and dark fruit are a trifecta that is not to be trifled with.  Add warmth to the mix and you've got a beer that I'll be talking about when people bring up unusual and interesting stouts!  Dammit Stone, you do good work!  My only complaint is that I wish I had enough foresight to buy an additional bottle for cellaring purposes.  If the beer has changed this much already (according and contrasting to reviews from when it was fresh), I'd love to see it in a year or so!  If you can find this, buy a case.  Drink some now and save some for later.  You will not be disappointed!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hoppin' Frog - Frosted Frog Christmas Ale

Let me start right off by saying that I know nothing about this beer.  No preconceived notions.  No press.  Nothin'.  All I do know about is that my introduction to this beer was their seasonal pumpkin ale this past fall and I immediately felt bad for neglecting their wide availability in my area.  I picked up a few more bottles right away and this was one of them.  Today's review of Hoppin' Frog's Frost Frog Christmas Ale is rarin' to go!  Let's pour!

Aroma 9/12
Ahhh!  Finally a Christmas Ale that utilizes the "traditional" mix of spices.  I love a beer that breaks from the norm, but thus far it seems like all I had been drinking were those beers that dared to tread off the beaten path. This beer is a refreshing return to conformity.  Right off the bat, it's a mellow mix of sweeter Belgian yeasts and spicy cinnamon that has me thoroughly convinced this could be served for dessert.  I'd swear that molasses is present because of the color and dark sweetness, but the strong cinnamon makes it difficult to tell.  The ginger (which is almost citrus-like) and nutmeg hang back a bit, but are also present.  I also have a sneaking suspicion that a nice warmth is mingling in with those spices.

Appearance 2/3
The color on this beer alone could have earned it a three if the head were not so dismal.  The color is gorgeous and spans everything from tea browns to bright coppers, and shows tons of scarlets and magentas!  The high clarity lets the light play in the glass and the results are smile-evoking.  The head on the other hand is difficult to coax out, small when produced, and hisses as it quickly settles into a ring.  It didn't even give me time for two quick snapshots!

Neat magenta color and extremely high clarity!
Flavor 12/20
The caramel is given a brief show before the spices take over.  They are rampant!  Cinnamon is almost bitter with its strong presence and the nutmeg is extremely earthy.  The caramel malt is the only sweetness and seems to serve less of a purpose of flavor than simply balancing out the heaps of spice.  The ginger is all but covered up, but the alcohol is anything but shy.  A slurp brings out more of the Belgian yeast flavor and reinforces the warmth.  That warmth carries this beer into the finish where it becomes a bit medicinal and combines with an oriental trading route full of spices.  The Belgian yeasts are all but swallowed up by spices and can only be perceived by paying attention to the inhale while drinking.  The aftertaste is... oh who cares.  This is the hydrogen bomb of spice and hides almost any notion of a beer behind it.

Mouthfeel 5/5
It starts as a mouth-filling, über-smooth, full bodied beer.  I really enjoyed the way this beer filled the mouth and seemed to take charge.  In fact, it was the first thing I noticed about this beer, even before the spices, so it definitely attracted my attention in a good way.  The warmth is not camouflaged in this beer, but in a winter warmer I'm quite happy with that.  The carbonation is lively and sharp (though mellows nicely at the end of the bottle), and helps detract from the fact that you're drinking a bit of a heavier beer containing no less than one metric ton of spices.

Overall Impression 4/10
In case I made it vague, I was not pleased by this beer.  The spices were simply too much for my taste and did not let any of the other ingredients come to play (with the exception occurring in the aroma).  The color is fantastic, the aroma is pleasing, and even the mouthfeel is highly desirable... but those SPICES!  They make drinking the entire bomber seem more of a challenge (A cinnamon challenge?) than an enjoyable experiment in craft beer.

Total 32/50
I feel that this score is appropriate with the given system.  While there are no flaws that would earn it a score below a 30, the flavor is so out of line with my personal preferences that I cannot score it any higher.  If you love a super spiced winter warmer that has a nice alcohol presence, then this bottle is for you.  I actually mean that when I say a "nice" alcohol presence; I enjoyed the stronger tones in this winter warmer.  Upon finishing the bottle, I discovered that there is still a thin layer of residual spices covering the bottom of this bottle.  holy crap!  How much spice does a beer need?!?!

Hoppin' Frog... c'mon.  I know you can make great beer.  I've tasted it!  There's no reason to hide behind all this spice and such.  I actually want to taste your beer.  I do!  I understand the desire to make a strong flavored beer and I of all people can appreciate that.  I love a big, bold, flavorful beer.  However, it has to have more than one flavor.  "Big" and "nuanced" are not concepts that are mutually exclusive.  This simple beer seems to hide behind an intimidating veil of spice in the hopes that no one will notice that the behind said veil isn't actually the Wizard of Oz it claims to be.  I'm disappointed.  Although with such beers as Hoppin' Frog's B.O.R.I.S. and D.O.R.I.S. remaining unsampled (one of which is in my cellar), I hold out great faith that this brewery will more than redeem itself.

"Mama Mia!  Thatsa spicy craft-a bierra!"

Friday, January 13, 2012

Ridgeway - Bad Elf vs. Very Bad Elf

I see these beers nearly everywhere I go and could only go so long without trying them out.  Instead of drinking them one-by-one, I figure why not put them head to head and see how different they really are.  Bad Elf takes on Very Bad Elf in a slugfest of miniature proportions (they are Elves after all).  Let's pour!

First up Bad Elf

Aroma 9/12
My first sensation was that of tart apples and white grapes - the type of grapes one finds in a bottle of sparkling grape juice.  Citrus hops are not far behind and provide a hint of herbs and a stronger, syrupy apricot scent.  The alcohol warmth can be detected on the back of the throat with a deep inhale and the malts finally show up toward the end.  There is a little hay aroma and a molasses sweetness that blends with the other scents so well it's hard to detect.  This is fairly perfume-like, for better or worse, and the ingredients all come together very well.  If you like esters, you're in luck, especially since as the beer warms it takes on more honey and floral characteristics from the hops.

Appearance 2/3
The head was stark white and fairly small considering that I all but threw the beer into the tulip.  It lasts a while and does leave some nice lacing.  It's an extremely high clarity golden shade that includes some amber tones as well.  There are no bubbles rising to the surface, which is surprising considering how aromatic this beer is.

Flavor 17/20
I'm not sure why this is called a "Winter's Ale" as there are no discernible characteristics that would make it so.  The initial flavors are a rather plain crystal malt, honey, and a very nice apricot note from the aroma.  The backbone is eased into and provides a steady continuation of the apricot, but adds grapefruit, more honey, a "just right" bitter that doesn't detract from the sweetness, and a sweet cream.  The finish is crisp apples, a hint of the white grapes, more of the cream, and a bitter note that comes from nothing, but grows to a more than moderate strength.  This seems less like a winter seasonal and more like a floral, dry-hopped IPA.

Mouthfeel 4/5
Nothing wrong here.  Seems a bit more full-bodied than one would expect given the body and lighter flavors. Its body is medium, and the carbonation seems low for its lighter hue and flavors.  A slightly more aggressive carbonation would compliment these refreshing fruits and floral tones quite nicely.  It's going for a big beer feel with its lower carbonation, higher ABV, and medium body, but the ingredients all seem a little too delicate for such an undertaking.

Overall Impression 7/10
Not a bad beer by any means.  It definitely will appeal to drinkers of Heineken and those who are teetering on drinking something a little closer to the craft beer world.  It smells great, has some sweeter flavors, and a very nice bitter.  I'm not sure what this sold for originally, but I picked it up on clearance for $3.00 and I think that price is about right.  It attempts to bridge the worlds of a big beer with one that is sweet and drinkable.

Total 39/50
Upon some investigating, the "propaganda" section on the bottle declares this a Golden Ale.  While I can definitely say that it misses the mark on that style, Golden ales being one of my favorite styles, it is far from a bad beer or a run-of-the-mill winter/Christmas seasonal.  It seems to me more like a very floral IPA.  The apple flesh flavor, variety of aromas, and very nice bitter are all evident of the "three pounds of fresh hops" that allegedly "goes into every barrel."  If you haven't tried this, it's worth a shot.  It's definitely worth gifting to that friend who is trying to get into craft beers... if he/she can handle the bitter aftertaste, that is.

and now for... Very Bad Elf

Aroma 11/12
Ooo... lots of rich molasses and roasted malts right out of the gate.  Then the same apple and white grapes peek their way in, while showing a more present alcohol warmth than in Bad Elf.  This is a very similar tone to the first beer, but with more sugary molasses goodness and definitely more roast that balances out a diminished floral character.

Appearance 1/3
There is no head at all.  I even dumped this beer in the glass knowing that the first one also didn't have the strongest propensity for foaming.  Nada.  No head also equals no lacing.  The color is what one should expect from a good amber malt: deep copper tones, siennas, and hints of ruby.  Very nice color, but that's about it.

Flavor 17/20
This beer also starts with crystal malts, but this is much more creamy and savory.  The backbone keeps this creaminess and throws on top of it a rich, roasted amber malt, a mellow bitter, and a sweetness that I can only associate with the sweetness of a good brandy - without the warmth of course.  Not to say this is completely without warmth.  Slurping brings that warmth to the forefront and really helps accentuate the sweet apples notes.  The finish is a crisp, citrusy bitter and when combined with the higer ABV (7.5%) leaves the mouth a bit drier than Bad Elf.  The molasses and the apple's starring roles paint a very "caramel apple" theme to this beer.  A nice bitter aftertaste seems to evolve from the molasses sweetness and is a great memento.

Mouthfeel 4/5
Oddly the carbonation is greater here than in the lower ABV beer, both in amount and its presence.  Nothing distracting, mind you, but it seems much more appropriate than the Bad Elf.  It keeps the beer refreshing, compliments the beers "heavier" elements (ABV, molasses driven body) while respecting the "lighter" aspects (hue, citrus notes).  Warmth is difficult to detect, but is best seen after the beer is first swallowed.

Overall Impression 7/10
Despite it being the more "serious" or "hardcore" of the two offerings, this beer might actually appeal more to non craft beer drinkers than the first.  It's sweeter, smoother, and relaxes the bitter aftertaste.  The smell won't entice them as much, but its caramel apple nature and higher ABV should definitely make it a hit any holiday gathering.

Total 40/50
This rating feels a tad generous, but that doesn't make it a bad beer.  It's sweet, takes a chance on a flavor profile, and gives me a nice ABV with which to get warm.  I'd say it's a sweet beer with a lighter bitter that is tasty, but probably not worth the $5-7 it cost to originally procure it.  Wait til it goes on sale or give it to anyone trying to get into craft beer.  You won't have to worry about the bitter nature like in Bad Elf and I guarantee it'll be appreciated.

P.S.  Love the contrasting bottle caps.

and the winner is......
Very Bad Elf by a nose!  Yes, I know the pictures depict them with very large noses, but the race was close none-the-less.  It's less "in your face" than the Bad Elf and provides a greater harmony of ingredients instead of contrasting them.  In case, you didn't notice I spent most of the beers' summaries recommending them as "gateway beers" for non-craft beer drinkers.  I stand by this.  Most non-craft beer drinkers will enjoy this.  Heck, even seasoned craft beer drinkers will not be taken aback by drinking this beer, but for their price a veteran craft beer drinker will probably be better off spending the money on something a bit more substantial. They're tasty, sure and they're mostly well made.  But for the price it seems like more of a marketing gimmick than anything else, especially since the beers don't seem to evoke a winter/Christmas seasonal in any way other then their labeling.  Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a seasonal that attempts a new variation on the theme, but to just make a beer and declare it a "winter ale," smacks a bit too close to the marketing gimmicks of a macrobrewery to me.  That aside, either one is worth a try if you see it in a pub this time of year and you're feeling festive.  If you insist on bottles, I would wait on them to come down in price.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

New Belgium - Snow Day

Today brings to mind the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for.  You just might get it."  After unseasonably warm "winter" weather (50s, sunny), and many complaints about the lack of snow we finally got this winter's first snow.  And it's still falling.  I've shoveled snow twice today and I have a strong feeling that I'm going to again in the morning.

It should then go without saying that today's appropriately chosen beer to review will be New Belgium's Snow Day Winter Ale.  I obtained this bottle from their Folly variety 12-pack and have thoroughly enjoyed the other bottles.  As with the previous day's review, this beer really surprised me by straying far from they "typical" Christmas/winter seasonal.  It's dark and doesn't need to use a bunch of spices as a crutch.  Not to say that all beers with the "holiday blend" of spices are using a crutch, some are quite tasty, but there are those that hide behind them to flavor what would be an otherwise weaker product.  Since past experience has shown that will not be a problem with this beer, I'm just itching to really dissect this beer into its tasty elements.  Let's pour!

Aroma 10/12
The hops on the label do not lead the drinker astray.  The first aromas are a warm, piney hop, that is more "juniper berry" pine than it is "air freshener" pine.  It has that almost herbal quality to it.  There is a hint of straw aroma, but it is faint and fleeting.  Just when you think the hops have shown all their tricks, there is a citrus that brightens up the pine hops.  Very neat.  At first, it is difficult to find any malts behind this wreath of hops, but eventually a dark roast becomes detectable.  This dark roast hints at rye and smokey characteristics, but none come close to usurping the hops as the primary aroma.

Appearance 3/3
Generous, but not overdone head comes from a moderately aggressive pour, and lingers like a in-law at a Christmas gathering.  Unlike the in-law, which only leaves dirty dishes and a funny smell, the head leaves a most attractive, thick lacing.  The beer appears as a coffee brown (in hue, not clarity), but when held to light reveals some surprising scarlets and magentas.  Nicely done.  Again, I reiterate what a pleasant surprise it is to find such a dark beer as a winter seasonal!

Flavor 17/20
This beer starts bitter and rarely lets up.  The dark roasted malts in the aroma now taste burnt, but the roast is still detectable later on.  The citrus provides a light backdrop to everything especially if you run the beer over the tip of the tongue.  The backbone is this citrus overtone, with the juniper hops and charred malts.  This just goes to show that there are lots of different ways to express bitter in a beer.  The roast is the longest lasting sensation before departing in to a finish that seems smoother than in the main mouthfeel.  The hops show a more grassy nature combined with their previous pine character.  This grass note allows the citrus to be showcased a bit more and the result is a satisfyingly fresh finish with a light-medium bitter.  Despite the starring role of the hops, the finish is not very dry.  The aftertaste is a slow-to-die aspirin bitter.

Mouthfeel 3/5
Not the most substantial mouthfeel here.  It's not a huge beer, but packs a wallop of bitter despite it's body.  The lighter body makes it more quaffable, but it doesn't accompany it with an overly-bubbly, annoying carbonation.  The carbonation is certainly present, but it is so tiny that it just barely foams up the beer inside the mouth.  The bottle says 6.3% ABV, but I never caught wind of it.

Overall Impression 8/10
Never again shall a hop head complain about not having a seasonal beer.  Not that this is a showcase for hops, but the bitter nature of it should make it a satisfying selection.  It's not the big beer by a long shot, but it is chuck-full of flavor.  It's drinkable, bitter, smells great, and has a helluva lot more guts than most beers available in a variety pack.

Total 41/50
I enjoyed this beer a lot.  Best of all, if you don't spend your holidays with craft beer people, then you can probably have all of the Snow Days in the variety pack to yourself.  It's a little too bitter for the masses, even if its smell could entice anybody.  The best part is, you probably CAN drink all of them in the variety pack.  The lighter mouthfeel, carbonation, and citrusy hops all make this beer one you can enjoy several of in one  sitting.  Not every beer can be a monster, that's a fact.  This beer is not a monster, nor extremely complex, but that doesn't mean it's not worth picking up.  Heck, I'd bring this as a sixer to a gathering of craft beer drinks or just casual drinkers.  I wouldn't expect all of them to drink it up, but there might be a brave soul or two you could convert.

Even a festive bottle cap!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Mikkeller - Santa's Little Helper (2011)

The weather in IL is a bit odd for this time of year.  Granted, the weather in the midwest is always odd, giving rise to the expression, "You don't like midwest weather?  Wait 5 minutes," but we generally have an expected pattern.  This pattern is being mocked by Mother Nature and she has been giving us 50-degree days throughout January.  However, tonight is supposed to give rise to a less-than-punctual Old Man Winter and we might even get some snow.  It's just the type of thing to put me in the mood for more winter/Christmas seasonal beers.  Today's review will be Mikkeller's Santa's Little Helper.  It's a Belgian ale whose 10.9% ABV should help me land on the naughty list next year.  Let's pour!

How amazing does this look?
Aroma 12/12
At first it smells as a mild Belgian yeast strain should smell, but even that is behind a lemon citrus.  As it sits in the glass, all sort of interesting flavors rise to the surface.  Before I describe those any further, let me say that this beer surprised the hell out of me by pouring like a stout!  I was expecting some lighter, maybe amber, frou-frou holiday ale that has all the usual starring roles filled by cinnamon, nutmeg, etc, etc.  This beer flowed dark from the bottle and even evoked a "What the..?!" from this reviewer.  It was not at all what I was expecting, but I digress... back to the aroma.  While starting off with the lemon zest and Belgian yeast, two things I definitely didn't expect to smell in a beer this dark, it quickly turns to its dark roast for the majority of the aroma.  The roast is rich and dark, but has an aroma that accompanies it so closely I can't be sure if it's part of the roast or not.  There is a sweetness to the roast like a rye, but it sometimes mingles with the lemony notes that I can't put my finger on it whether it IS a rye or just the dark roast mixing with the lemon and perhaps grassy & piney hop characteristics.  There is only a hint of alcohol warmth and it is found only during the deepest of inhales.  In case you couldn't tell by the length of this paragraph, this smell's complexity is only eclipsed by its unique nature.  Full marks.  I've never smelled anything like it.

Appearance 3/3
OK, seriously.  How come nobody ever mentioned that this beer is this dark?  It genuinely surprised me!  This is darker than most recent stouts I've had.  It's black to its core and shows only bits a pieces of a coffee brown at the very top of the class.  The brown head is giant, light as if it has been whipped, and very creamy.  It left tons of ornate lacing.  This beer looks dark and amazing.

Behold its monsterous head!

Flavor 20/20
Oh. My. Dad.  It starts a little creamy from some body-enhancing malts and allows one to still catch a glimmer of the Belgian yeast, but crescendos perfectly into an absolute mountain of chocolate malt (the beer ingredient, not the frozen treat).  The chocolate isn't 100% cacao dark -it still allows a creamier milk chocolate texture- but it blends marvelously with the roasted notes and the present-but-not-subtle warmth.  The finish is more "roasted chocolate" (roast + chocolate), but with a new, distinct, resinous hop bitter and a brief wash of dark fruit.  The mouth is initially left a bit sticky, but as the alcohol and hops have their way, the tongue is left rather dry in the aftertaste and with a slight tingle of warmth.  Oh so good!

Mouthfeel 5/5
This beer is ridiculously creamy, but without weighing down the drinker with a huge, thick, heavy body.  The carbonation doesn't foam a lot, just enough to lend a more silky texture to the beer.  I should also mention that the carbonation is plentiful, but doesn't effect the over all composition of the beer.  Normally, stouts or other dark beers shy away from higher levels of carbonation to achieve a better beer as a whole.  This beer doesn't shy away from carbonation.  It instead embraces it and uses it as a tool to make the beer better.  The warmth is used in much the same way and adds a dimension to this beer instead of distracting from it.

Overall Impression 10/10
This beer is right up my alley.  Unique taste, aroma is interesting, body and mouthfeel are perfect, and it breaks convention with the norm.  This is not your average Belgian Strong Dark Ale!  It keeps all the things you love and brings even more to the table.  Even more, I love how far it strays from the typical Christmas/winter offerings available from most brewers.  It shows creativity, independence, and some damn high quality brewing.

Total 50/50
In case I didn't gush enough praise earlier, here's my chance to really heap it on.  However, I will do so with one caveat.  I checked BeerAdvocate after I finished my review to see if others thought this beer as excellent as I do.  They don't.  Thus the subjectivity of taste comes into play.  For me this beer has everything I want, roast, chocolate, smokey, sweet, warmth, Belgian hints, dark fruit, great carbonation, and the list goes on....  To be honest, I'm not sure how folks have ranked it so lowly on BeerAdvocate.

I've gone through my scores and tried to see if there is a portion where I could remove some points.  Perhaps I missed something where this beer could have done better, right?  Not for me and my palate.  This beer is complex, well-made, tasty as can be, boozy, and with a great mouthfeel.  I couldn't ask for anything more.  Now I know what I need to ask for for next Christmas!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bent River - Jingle Java

Gang, I've got good news and bad news.  Bad news is my job "restructured" on Friday and restructured me right out of a job.  It's a job I was planning on buying a house and starting a family with and now I'm set back a bit on those plans.  The good news is that there will be a significant increase in posts for the foreseeable future.

Don't think that this "job" thing is going to hold me back.  I've already got a good application in at a local craft brewery (today's review actually!) and can fall back on some substitute teaching to help make ends meet.  Who trusts me around children?  I'm not sure, but I'm glad they do.  In any case, I had big plans for 2012 and I'm not about to let them die.  I'm.  Still.  Here.

Personal stuff aside, today's review is for Bent River's Jingle Java, a seasonal treat that I look forward to every year.  In fact, Bent River recently started selling this in growlers at local supermarket chains!  A very exciting development for a local craft brewer.  Today's sample was originally to be given to a friend in trade for some East Coast beer, but that trade fell through for good reasons and now I'm left with a very tasty option for a winter seasonal beer review.  Before I get started, I would like to make it clear that just because I've got an application in at this brewery, does not mean that I'll be brown-nosing this review.  However, I have had this beer before and know it to be very, very tasty - and that is the only bias I'll be allowing.  Now it's time to drink this stuff before it goes too flat!  Let's pour!

Black as the growler it came from...
Aroma 12/12
Opening the growler releases a belch of coffee aroma (still carbonated!).  Dark chocolate abounds, cappucino roasts float in the nose, fresh ground coffee permeates the air, and is all followed by a secondary molasses note.  This smells EXACTLY like you have walked into a gourmet coffee shop.  Simply awesome.

Appearance 3/3
As you can see from the picture, this beer is as dark as the growler in which it came.  Only when held to light does one get a dark chestnut brown at the beer's surface.  I'm allowing for a little less head in this review as this growler has been in my possession for more than its allotted time.  Even with that allowance, as I poured no initial carbonation rose to the top and I was worried.  Then, ever so slowly, carbonation started to appear and rise to the top.  I'm very impressed that it has held its carbonation this long!  This beer has more legs than a centipede.

Flavor 18/20
First to the palate are darkly roasted, smoky malts with a bit of a salty tinge.  The backbone is righteously smooth, and brings authentic coffee flavors, rich thick chocolates, and touches of charred malt.  The coffee and char take over, leaving the chocolate not as much of a starring role as in the delicious aroma.  However, this is a coffee stout, not a chocolate coffee stout.  When heading into the finish, the first thing I noticed was the prick of pepper on my tongue.  Not something I was expecting, but there is a hidden spice element in this beer.  The finish is a lighter coffee than in the aroma or the backbone, but unlike coffee, leaves the mouth dry and relatively clean (again, compared to regular coffee).  A bitter remains that shows a hint of grass or herbal hops and that sensation lingers as a nice aftertaste to a flavor-filled beer.

Mouthfeel 5/5
Again, this category becomes a little harder to judge.  Because I've had it in a growler longer than intended, the carbonation was not at its optimal levels.  In fairness, I've never had a complaint with it before and I'm not about to start now.  Even in its current state, the carbonation is wonderfully present, lending the beer a silky, foamy quality to compliment the heavier-than-average body and the wonderfully rich, smooth nature of the beer.

Overall Impression 10/10
This beer is a winner from start to finish.  The aroma is one of the best introductions to a stout that I recall and the flavor is nothing short of filthy rich.  Bent River offers more than just the coffee/chocolate combination that many breweries can ride to success.  Instead choosing to imbue its beer with molasses, charred malt remnants, and a light hop bitter in the finish.  This beer is truly a holiday treat that I, like many a petulant child, wish I didn't have to wait for the holidays to receive.

Total 48/50
Full disclosure, this is my favorite local brew available, but I'm not the only one that thinks so.  Bent River's Jingle Java is so popular that they have hosted an event called "Christmas in July" where they tap a keg or two of Jingle Java in July just to satisfy their customers' cravings (as if their Uncommon Stout wasn't enough!).  This beer makes me swear every time I take my initial sip.  It's just that good.  Silky, rich, chocolatey, coffee-drenched goodness awaits you all.  Now if only I can make it until July...

Today's Song of the Moment

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Dogfish Head - 120 Minute IPA

Ahhh... the first review of a new year.  The next beer on my schedule was going to be Dogfish Head Punk'n Ale, however that seems an odd choice to ring in the new year.  Now DFH 120 on the other hand seems more than appropriate don't you think?  It's a beer that needs no introduction to the initiated.  To those still learning, it is the king of big, hoppy beers.  It is big, bitter, rife with alcohol, expensive, and the probably the most hop-laden beer you will find any time soon in a brewery of this size.  It sits around 18% ABV and at 120 IBUs (bitterness measurement), when most IPAs only rate from 40-80 IBUs.  Make no mistake, this is not for rookies nor the weak.  It is a hop bomb in every sense of the word and I'm ready for an explosion.  Let's pour!

Note:  Mad love to Keith for snagging me yet another premier bottle!!

Aroma 11/12
This is much sweeter than I anticipated with honey drizzled green apples bursting from the pour!  Soon after is a fresh bed of pine needles, apricot flesh, and orange rind with lesser grapefruits and lemon zest.  No citrus is safe.  The alcohol warmth is plentiful without overpowering the delicate citrus.  An area of concern is that the acidic citrus combines with this warmth and occasionally reminds one of a rubbing alcohol instead of a natural beer warmth.  Thankfully, this fades relatively quickly as the beer warms.  Hiding behind this virtual produce aisle of citrus is a bit of caramel and a roasted, grainy malt.  It is not a dark caramel and blends excellently in with the hops.

Appearance 3/3
The head is rather diminutive from a rather aggressive pour, but what head is produced remains for a long time and leaves a sheet of lace on my glass.  The beer is just short of being completely opaque; a bit of a surprise in an Imperial IPA.  Usually, one sees them a bit lighter, but this is not a usual IPA.  The color is rusty with lighter, squash-toned edges.  Not a lot of hues here, since the center of the glass is so dark, but the few colors available are very attractive.

Flavor 19/20
Ummm... consider me very confused.  This is supposed to be a hop bomb, but the initial flavors are gobs of rich, delicious honey and waves of creamy caramel.  It is astonishingly sweet and absolutely delicious!  The citrus makes it too bright to be maple syrup-like, but it only falls just short.  Without letting up one bit, this beer rhinocerous-charges full speed into the backbone and dumps in a crate full of the fruits from the aroma: primarily apricot, but also hints of the brighter citrus are present albeit less distinct.  When held in the mouth a peppery hop begins to show, as does the tingle of warmth, a bit of green apple, and a very light bitter.  Keep in mind all of this is against the backdrop of the rich, sugary caramel.  The finish is the first time the sweet, sweet malt begins to subside and allows the hop bitter a brief say in the beer's composition.  It's also a showing of the beer's hop content for such a sweet, potentially mouth-watering beer, to leave such a dry finish down the center of the tongue.  The aftertaste barely hints at some "American" piney hop flavors, and leaves intense (but not loud) bitter.  As if one accidentally chewed a small portion of an Advil, not the whole pill.

Mouthfeel 5/5
Of course with this level of sweet malts, it results in a supremely smooth, full-bodied beer.  It doesn't come close to being syrupy, and this is undoubtedly achieved by the drying hops.  The alcohol that was worrisome in the aroma was hardly a factor in the flavor and never came close to overpowering the other monster flavors.  The carbonation is appropriately low and the legs on this beer are ridiculous.  It literally clings to every surface it can.  I swear I see fingernail marks as it slides down.

"Ages Well"  That. Is. Promising.
Overall Impression 10/10
Big, huge, caramel-laden, full-bodied, experiment that pushes the boundaries of beer.  The packaging as a whole is rather misleading.  Instead of blatantly plopping a bottle of hop oils in front of the drinker, DFH has chosen to let other aspects the hop shine, especially in the aroma.  The malts may have second billing, but they steal the show in a very surprising way.  Not in a "this is here for balance" type way, but more like a "thank goodness the hops are here to balance out all this crazy sweet malt" type way.  Big-but-still-able-to-show-nuance is not something that every brewery can manage, but DFH pulls it off here.

Total 48/50
"They" say that 120 isn't a beer for everybody and I can only say they're half right.  If you're a novice beer drinker, you may not enjoy this.  However, if you have an affinity for craft beer this beer definitely deserves a try and some props.  It's not an over-glorified bottle of pine resin (though I'm not sure how fresh this bottle is), nor is is big for the sake of big.  It's a full-bodied, smooth, warm, sugary sweet, giant of a beer that shows us what else hops can do when they're not being slammed down upon our palates.

My initial paragraph was clearly written on reputation alone.  This bottle shatters it own reputation and provides a unique and surprising experience.  My wife even found this drinkable!  In fact, she sipped this more readily that some other hop aggressive beers that I have brought home.  Needless to say, not the hop bomb that I was expecting.  Buy it.  Try it.  You can't miss this beer.

In finishing, I'll simply quote the bottle.  "What you have here is the holy grail for hopheads.  This beer is continually hopped over a 120-minute boil and then dry-hopped every day for a month.  Enjoy now or age for a decade or so."

Warning: Dogfish Crossing