Thursday, March 29, 2012

Finch's - Cut Throat Pale Ale

Alright gang, time to shine the spotlight on a local craft brewer that seems to be making big strides every time I hear about them.  I am, of course, referring to Finch's Beer Company located in sunny Chicago.  Now I like this company already for the following reasons:
1.  Umm, hello?  They're out of Chicago.
2.  They involve birds in their labels and I'm sort of a bird watching nerd.
3.  They have a great festival presence and were at both MWBF & SCBF in 2011.
4.  They can their beers.
4.  Their latest can design was in collaboration with another local business, Chicago clothier Threadless (@threadless), and is super cool.

Plus, if you head over to right now, they'll give you 50% on purchases $25 or more (through 10am CST, March 30, 2012).  No, I am not being compensated in any way to say this.  I just simply enjoy both companies and wish them a lot of success.

However, I'll try to put these biases aside and give this beer a fair review.  For those curious, this brewer is widening its distribution area every day.  I've seen it in WI & all over IL.  It's worth looking for.  Let's pour!

Aroma 11/12
It begins with a strong piney hop, but isn't afraid to show more.  The malt is a hearty version of a typical pale ale cracker/biscuit variety.  It's a toasted, bready malt with a touch of sweetness that shows enough grain aroma to make you think it might be one of the nice, seed-laden breads in the super market.  Citrus is there right along with it, provided a interesting citrus that I described once as "lymon" and I stand by that call.  It has the bright lemony citrus and is not hard to imagine, but it also has the darker, almost bitter citrus as when one bites into a wedge of lime after a gin & tonic.  It is definitely a different citrus bitter than a grapefruit.  As the beer warms, grassier hop notes arrive, but do not take anything away from the existing bouquet.  They only add to it.

Appearance 3/3
This has the bright, pumpkin-flesh colors that we expect in a pale ale and also a light haze.  The haze is well done as it is present enough to provide some color differentiations, but also light enough to provide a clarity that compliments the colors.  The head was a light rust pastel, almost two fingers worth, leaves little lacing, and had adequate, but not stellar, retention.

Flavor 19/20
There is a brief, but intense, flash of grain and then the palate is awash in bitter grapefruit citrus, which makes up the vast majority of the beer's backbone.  To be fair, the grain doesn't go away completely, but it does take a back seat to the hops and transitions to more of a crackery, traditional pale ale malt.  The hops are not only of grapefruits, but are also somewhat peppery and lend just a slight sour note.  This is a very nice myriad of flavors that all come together wonderfully!  The finish is a return to its grain and grapefruit origins, is remarkably clean, and leaves the mouth very dry.  Usually, that sort of drying is only achieved through a combination of hops and high ABV, but at 5.6% they appear to have done it through hops alone.  I'm hesitant to mention the orange peel notes in this beer (and on its label) because this is not a "orange" beer.  The only telltale sign of the orange is a rather generic citrus note and a definite bitter from the peel.  A quick slurp brings the citrus and what warmth there is rapidly to the surface.

Mouthfeel 5/5
Nothing wrong here.  The mouthfeel is incredibly smooth and substantial, especially for the style.  This is definitely one robust pale ale.  The carbonation is tiny, ample, and does not prick the tongue, again lending to this brew's smooth nature.  A light swish in the mouth yields some additional creaminess.  As mentioned earlier, a quick slurp does bring out some alcohol warmth.  Strange in a 5.6% ABV brew.

Overall Impression 10/10
This is a bruiser of a pale ale.  In its hop content, its hearty grains, its body, and its aroma.  Everything about this makes it a grandiose version of the style.  If you're drinking pale ales for their light, rice cracker malts and hints of citrus, then stay away from this one.  It'll make your eyeballs shoot directly into the bottom of your glass and because you couldn't see that you'd probably end up drinking your own eyeballs.  No one wants that.

Total 48/50
I really tried.  I did.  I went back and looked hard to see if there was anywhere I could deduct points that perhaps my bias had given them unfairly.  Then I realized, I'm biased because I've had this beer before and it was damn tasty.  Guess what?  Still is.  It's a great, big version of the style and if you're looking for subtlety go elsewhere.  If it weren't for the strong, grainy malts this could probably pass as an full-bodied IPA.  As it stands, this instead offers more balance due to its malts and still manages to be very refreshing.  It might be a bit much on a summer scorcher, but cookouts/picnics/4th of July/National Panini Month/Duct Tape Days or whatever it's bound to be a success.  As I've recommended before: buy this, share this, drink this.  It won't let you down and it's gonna be GREAT this summer.  Cheers Finch's!  This is fine work.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bent River - Jameson Oak Irish Stout & Food Pairing

Ahhh, another sign of the changing seasons... Bent River's Jameson Oak Irish Stout.  One of the many seasonal hits they create (along with their Sweet Potato beer and Jingle Java) and I wasn't about to miss out on this!  I picked up a growler one day and I've been waiting too long to crack it open.  It's a different stout than their flagship Uncommon Stout, as this stout does not use any coffee.  However, it is aged in Jameson whiskey barrels for about a month (according to a gentleman I briefly spoke with on the phone) and does not overpower the drinker with the flavor of the liquor.  I've heard enough.  Let's pour!

Aroma 10/12
A very dark, pleasing roast is this beer's warm welcome.  It borders on being charred, but stops just short.  Oak is also abundant and gives an almost tobacco like feel to the brew.  Those two sensations, the darkness of the roast and the smooth oak, combined with a hint of creamy sweetness (likely contributed by oatmeal), provide a subterfuge that at times give this beer wafts of chocolate.  No whiskey smell at this time, but the beer still has some warming to do.

Appearance 2/3
Very little head appears and what does dies down soon to leave a Milky Way type swirl on the surface.  However, a lesser head (and often a smoother mouthfeel) can be expected due to the barrel aging process.  The beer is a very appropriate brown/black with nice espresso brown edges

Flavor 19/20
The first sensations are that dark, dark roast and a bit of the sweet, creamy nature of what I assume is oatmeal (or another grain that evokes similar results).  The creaminess quickly fades and is replaced a very noticeable oak flavor.  The roast and oak flavors seem pretty happy together but eventually decide to allow a light whiskey note to join the party as well.  It takes a while!  Only after holding the beer in the mouth does the whiskey show, and even then ever so slightly.  You may insert your own joke about alcohol and a resultant lack of punctuality.  There's even a slight spice that goes well with the oak & whiskey.  The finish is definitely where the whiskey shines brightest!  It's full whiskey flavor without the heat or any sort of overwhelming characteristic, but with a nice earthiness added.  Wait another second and you'll get that same, barely sour, taste that you would get right after a shot of whiskey.  Very cool!

Mouthfeel  5/5
I'm quite impressed with this brew.  I bought this over a week ago in the growler and it hasn't lost a step.  The body is right for a stout; heavy and rolls along the tongue.  The carbonation isn't as low as some other barrel-aged brews I've had.  In fact, I'd have a hard time telling that this is barrel-aged at all were it not for the distinct oak aroma & flavor.  This beer also does not have any warmth that is sometimes used (and sometimes abused) in craft beers that involve spirits.  The thick, smoothness when lightly swishing it around the mouth is a fantastic sensation and Bent River should get full props for that.

Overall Impression 8/10
Definitely impressed.  While the flavor should (and would) compliment each other, these seem to come together at different times and allow the drinker to appreciate each flavor (roast, oak, whiskey) separately.  Would I like them blended into a seamless mixture?  Probably.  But that by no means makes this beer a disappointment.  The mouthfeel shows plenty of carbonation in each sip, but still allows that rich, creamy brew to slide over the tongue like mercury.

Total 44/50
This beer is tasty, an insanely appropriate choice for St. Patrick's Day (if you're not sessionability is not your aim), and allows a very easy breakdown of the flavors.  For those looking to refine their palate and being able to put into words what is happening on your tongue, this beer would be an excellent choice.  The roast, oak, and whiskey flavors come together at times, but one ingredient always seems to have the upper hand.  I suppose, in a perfect world, I would've liked a more concentrated malt and a combination of the ingredients instead of their separation.  However, often times the flavor of the liquor can override anything it comes into contact with, so perhaps this is a blessing is disguise.

Bent River Jameson Oak Irish Stout & Kerrygold Aged Cheddar with Irish Whiskey
This is actually a white cheddar, but it does crumble slightly along the edges to support its "aged cheddar" packaging.  The cheese itself is smooth in the mouth, but still has that almost crystalline quality in its center that is not uncommon amongst nice aged cheddars.  When I say crystalline, I do mean crystals.  I'm not a cheese afficionado, but there is the tiniest crunch as if one has bit into a grain of sugar or salt (in texture only, not flavor).  Cheddar that has been aged longer will exhibit a slightly higher amount of this characteristic.  Its flavor alone is a nice, pungent cheddar that is sharp but not intensely so.  It gives that wonderful salty, creamy, almost herb-like flavor that is in a good cheddar.  This is good cheese and well worth the dollars spent to procure it.  However, I am not getting much of the Irish Whiskey said to be within it.  There is only the finest hint of it and it lies well behind the cheddar's saltiness.

To pair it with the beer is interesting, but ultimately futile.  The roast refuses to be dominated by the cheddar, and the beer's oak notes and the cheddar's saltiness appear in that order immediately before the swallow.  Neither item compliments the other, they simply come in waves of their own flavors depending on which happens to be contacting the tongue at that particular moment.  Oddly enough, in a pairing where both food items involve whiskey in their creation, the whiskey is completely absent.  In the beer it was subtle to begin with and it was barely present in the cheddar so this should not come as a surprise.

Now is the fact that these two "don't play nice" a detriment to their pairing.  Yes.  Can good things still come out of it?  Yes.  For example, I love the salty, smooth finish that the cheddar gives to the combination as a whole.  I also enjoy that the same flavor can be completely muted by the roasted, almost-charred malts of the beer.  Ultimately, each ingredient is excellent on its own, but together this pairing is less than ideal.  Now according to a nearly ancient article on BeerAdvocate nothing really pairs with stout.  However, my dedication to stouts (& cheddars for that matter) is so strong, that I must continue the hunt.  Anybody have any suggestions?  No, seriously.  Leave a comment for a good cheese pairing to go with a stout and I'll make it a point to include that pairing in a future review, provided I have access to said recommended items.  Oh and please don't recommend that Porter cheddar, as most varieties I've had (which does not include the previous link) have virtually no porter characteristics.  Godspeed and good luck!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Brasserie d'Achouffe - La Chouffe

We made it!  The first day of spring is here!  This winter no one that I know had to resort to cannibalism or cutting open a Tauntaun to survive the much-less-than-brutal conditions.  This amazing weather makes me delay my inevitable March "Irish Beer Style" reviews and forces me to focus on something much more appropriate. The first time I had La Chouffe was on tap at Gutherie's Tavern in Chicago, IL.  We pitted it against every wit, wheat, and Belgian in the house and it still came out the winner.  At the time I did not know it was a golden and left very impressed with this beer that was unbeknownst to me until that evening.  Well, that started a search to find this beer and when I did I knew that I'd be sipping it on a beautiful sunny day and today is no exception.  Let's pour!

Note:  After coming to the realization that this beer is more classified as a Belgian Golden Strong Ale and not a true Golden ale, I adjusted the scoring accordingly.  However, I have left my initial "complaints."   You'll see my defense in the "Total" score summary.

Aroma 10/12
A wonderful blending of golden/Belgian styles that initially leans on the Belgian yeast and the usual accompaniment of spice (cloves, coriander, etc).  It doesn't begin very floral, shows a camouflaged warmth (8.0% ABV), and is almost like a witbier with the addition of a dash of warm caramel sweetness.  As it warms the Belgian notes must have been told to sit down and shut up because the aromas of the golden ale are in full effect.  The floral note is very bright and borders on a citrus astringency.  The Belgian yeast note refuses to be quieted, however, and remains in a more subtle form than its earlier incarnation.

Appearance 3/3
This looks like a Belgian should, but with much higher sediment than expected; no doubt a result from the bottle conditioning.  I mean, I like a little something in there for flavor, but dang!  I'm going to have to pour the rest of this beer very gingerly.  The color is a bright, translucent gold and topped with a nearly pure white head.  The head was nearly perfect in size (two fingers) and remained for an average time before coating the surface.

Flavor 19/20
Right off the bat, this beer squashes any qualms that it might not be a true golden ale.  The floral notes are unmistakable and delicate.  They're accompanied by the same bright, nearly astringent note as in the aroma, but thankfully that note is much lighter (and more complimentary) this time and lets the floral notes soak up the spotlight.  As you hold the beer in the mouth, the Belgian theme begins to take shape as the yeast and a particularly earthy blend of the spices grow in strength.  The spices border on becoming too spicy, especially considering the delicate floral notes from earlier that I happen to appreciate a great deal more than the spices.  Once the Belgian notes enter the picture, the golden ale elements are completely usurped.  Unfortunately, not even a good wine-taster's slurp can bring them back.  No wonder we thought this was a Belgian witbier!  The finish has the signature of the spices all over it, in both an earthy flavor and a quickly-fading prickle on the tongue.  The warmth is noticeable at this time as well and the aftertaste is more of the same, with the only notable exception being that it allows the warmth to become even more noticeable on the sides of the mouth.

Mouthfeel 4/5
The bottle conditioning in this bottle was simply too strong.  Even after prying off the bottle cap, foam slowly started to rise and overflow from the bottle top!  I'm OK with the alcohol warmth not being camouflaged; it actually goes rather well with the earthy spices, Belgian goodness, and leaves the same feel on the tongue as the busy carbonation.  I'm not OK with the carbonation.  It's actually good while in the mouth: tiny, unobtrusive, light, and delicate.  But when swallowing, it seems lightly prickly on the tongue and combines with similar prickly sensations from the warmth and spices.  The carbonation even seems to pop dryly on the tongue like a champagne!  This is not something I wanted in my delectable golden ale.  The mouthfeel is definitely that of a Belgian strong ale.

Overall Impression 9/10
While disappointed that the "golden" aspect of this beer was so brief, the Belgian strong ale that we are left with is excellent.  In fact, if I were to be evaluating this from an exclusively "Belgian strong" point of view, I could see the overall score being much higher (Note: which, of course, it ended up being).  It has everything that a Belgian strong should: good warmth, spicy, and bubbly carbonation.  I suppose I was hoping that delicate, fragile golden ale characteristics would be more present and permeate more aspects of this brew.

Total 45/50
As a Belgian strong ale, this beer is top notch and I can easily see it ranking close to a perfect score.  If you read the BJCP description, it's a virtual checklist for this beer.  It hits every single mark on the nose and does so in excellent style.  I feel like a whiny child, "But I wanted a goooolllldeeeeeen....."  According to BJCP, I should shut my mouth because this beer is right on the money and I'm essentially criticizing Cindy Crawford for having a mole.  Duh!  The mole is part of the goodness!

Anyway, I stand by my call since all the characteristics that I found were "correct" and appropriate for a Belgian Strong.  However, Brasserie d'Achouffe threw the world "golden" in there and got me all discombobulated.  I really was expecting more of a golden ale (a style that I absolutely love), but instead got a top notch Belgian Golden Strong.  I feel a little dumb having not known more about the style differences initially, but do feel a bit of solace in the fact that I will be able to better differentiate between the two in the future.

Oh, and you'll definitely want to to find this beer this spring/summer.  Just remember to leave some for me.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Samuel Smith's - Winter Welcome Ale

This review is rather ill-timed.  This beer is Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome Ale, even though the evidence of spring surrounds us.  It seems my little corner of the Midwest is having nothing but 70 degree days all week! Which means three things.  First, I can write this review outside.  Second, I picked the perfect weekend (that just past) to move all my beer from the garage (which in winter serves as an excellent beer fridge), to the cool dark basement.  Third, it's time to break out the motorcycle!

Goodbye winter!  You might have one last hurrah before you depart, but your demise is inevitable!  To that end, I toast you with your own brew.  Let's pour!

Aroma 10/12
This is very different from most winter seasonals and a welcome variation.  It's very malt-forward with lots of pale caramel and biscuit aroma, however its most unusual twist is the unmistakable apple esters from a cider (the alcoholic kind, not the orchard kind).  It's a accompanied by a tartness that borders on a citrus sour and I can only assume comes from the Fuggle and/or Golding hops.  Also appearing is the faintest of spices and a light alcohol warmth.  I'm not sure where the warmth comes from as the beer is only 6.0% ABV, but it is present and holds hands nicely with the citrus astringency.  The malts grow richer as they warm.

Appearance 2/3
A bright, high-clarity brew the color of orange liqueur.  The head was over 1 finger, barely beige in color, and appears wet and shiny as it sinks into the beer.  The retention is adequate and remains for some time to coat the surface.  Nothing wrong here, but nothing to write home about either.

Flavor 18/20
It's no surprise that the malts come forward again in the flavor, but they do so in a very unique way.  I'm not sure I've ever had a beer quite like this one.  The front end seems to be like a spice cake (and again, like the aroma, with very light spice.  Much to my relief), but quickly allows that same crispness & astringency to quickly enter and juxtapose itself with the caramel and an earthy butterscotch note.  This is very unique!  More butterscotch and toffee notes arrive as the beer warms and it adds a great sweetness which combines superbly with the aforementioned spice cake.  It also rounds out a superb balance!  Toffee +butterscotch + earthy spices (nutmeg) are all being brightened and "unbittered" ever so slightly by the citrus.  Brilliant.  The finish is dry, bitter on the sides of the tongue, and shows much more of the spices that were so well hidden earlier.

Mouthfeel 5/5
A nice lighter offering that would be just as good in summer as it would in winter.  Its medium-light body and perfect carbonation (Not too prickly.  Not too much.  Not too little), are a great combination.  Add to that its high clarity and the touch of citrus and you've got yourself a beer that's very easy to tip back, as well as extremely flavorful.  That balance of drinkability and flavor is also not an easy thing to attain.

Overall Impression 8/10
The balance and mouthfeel are definitely the high points in this beer.  No wait, the balance and overall composition of this beer are the high points.  The balance was covered well in the "Flavor" section, so I won't rehash that, but let me restate how pleased I am with the start-to-finish vision of this beer.  First off, it's definitely not the alcohol laden, cinnamon explosion winter ale.  It's a lighter, drinkable beer unlikely to offend and maintains that throughout: lighter body, perfect carbonation, citrus for balance, and high clarity.  However, it also has elements of a bigger beer: bitter finish, slight warmth, spices, earthiness, and a nice malt presence.  This is impressively well constructed and the results are satisfying.

Total 43/50
Now, all that said, is this a beer that's going to bowl you over?  No.  Is it going to satisfy the inexperienced and the veterans alike?  More than likely.  This beer earned more points for its remarkable balance and overall construction than for being a powerhouse that beer geeks are going to clamor over each other to obtain.  However, being that this beer comes from Samuel Smith, it should not be any surprise that it is excellently made and an overall solid beer.  It also is a really nice change in scenery for those who love winter seasonals.  It has everything a winter seasonal should and shows what some brewers should be striving toward.  This is classic Samuel Smith's.  Basic, well-made, and balanced.  Cheers!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ommegang - Rare Vos

I realize that somehow I have not yet reviewed a bottle from Brewery Ommegang.  This is not because I haven't been drinking it, far from it.  I've been drinking their beer at festivals (especially their BIPA), bars (Gnomegang, anyone?), and buying bottles to share with friends because I am supremely confident that even those new to craft beer will enjoy a brew from Ommegang (their Witte seems to go over especially well).

For those not familiar, Rare Vos is the Belgian-style amber ale from Brewery Ommegang.  Their bottle description reads as follows. "Rare Vos is Flemish for 'Sly Fox' and the name of one of Brussels' great cafés.  It is also the name of our cunning Belgian-style Amber, which sports a mellow, fruity character and an elusive spiciness."  That's all I need to hear.  Let's pour!

Aroma 11/12
The Belgian yeast is strong, sweet, and a delight.  I've always associated Belgian yeast aroma with bananas, but this bottle clearly let's me see why others say bubble gum.  The Belgian bubble gum aroma is strong enough to make it difficult, though not impossible, to smell the amber ale behind it.  Any of the amber malts sweetness is overcome by that of the yeast, but the malts do still add a toasty, lightly earthy note to things.  As the beer warms, a surprising citrus arrives with the previously absent malt sweetness, which also helps loosen some of the yeast's stronghold.

Appearance 3/3
I'm on my first glass, so there's still quite a bit of sediment at the bottom of the bottle, but currently this beer shines like a new penny.  A bright, high-clarity copper color that absolutely glows as it sits in the glass.  It also enjoys a column of ascending carbonation and a superior head.  The head pours generously without threatening to overflow the glass.  It's so thick and tighly packed that it mutes the sound of the pour.  I love that.  It retains this head for, what after a while seems like just showing off and eventually as the bubbles join each other, the sides of the head turn soapy and leave a delicate lace around the glass.  Full marks!

Flavor 18/20
The beer slides immediately into its primary flavors with no introduction.  I was concerned after smelling the beer that it was going to be a witbier with a bit of amber malts.  Not so.  This beer's flavor is that of an amber ale all the way and what an amber it is!  It has everything that an amber should, but also adds a clean citrus behind it, which I can only attribute to a hop presence.  Holding the beer in the mouth, allows the Belgian sweetness to make an appearance, but it never comes close to stealing the show.  Slurping this beer brings out the toasty notes from the malts and bits of the yeast.  The finish is again more amber than Belgian, by being crisp and clean.  Well, clean minus a final good-bye from the toasted malt and a hint of spice (nice!).  The aftertaste is also clean, but leaves whispers of the earlier citrus.

Whoa!  Ok, so I just got down to the bottom of the bottle where all the sediment (a.k.a. the good stuff) was resting.  I stirred it up a bit and it gave a whole new cohesiveness to this beer!  Obviously the appearance became much more translucent and hazy, but the flavors now seemed more in tune with each other.  Instead of having an amber ale with a Belgian yeast "witbier" note in the background, this beer is now a wondrous blend of amber malt grain flavors and toastiness plus a dull, darkened Belgian yeast note that now seems more inclined to wrap itself in the amber ale instead of being placed along side of it.  Oh, and a increased bitter in the finish.  Very cool.

Mouthfeel 4/5
The carbonation is appropriate even toward the end of the bottle.  It's tiny and far between, but what is there is quite lively and adds to the refreshing, clean nature of an amber ale.  The medium-full body is more substantial than an amber ale requires, but the Belgian yeast flavors allow that body to not seem out of place.  There is not detectable warmth in this 6.5% ABV brew, but sometimes the yeast aromas can make it seem otherwise.

Overall Impression 9/10
I'm pretty pleased with this.  It's a substantial beer, but never lost the refreshing, crisp nature that makes the amber ale so popular.  I love that it shows you its different faces at different times (when cold/warm, in aroma,  etc), but when utilizing the sediment at the bottom of the bottle, everything comes together in a very nice and unexpected harmony.  It's like when chords finally resolve in music; it is both a relief and pleasing.  Being from Ommegang, it should come as no surprise that the technical aspects (appearance, mouthfeel) of the brew are top notch.

Total 45/50
As I mentioned earlier, I was initially worried that this beer labeled as a "Belgian-style Amber Ale" would end up being a Belgian yeast laden ale, with touches of amber ale just to be able to sell something different.  Allow me to say that Ommegang is delicious even with my foot in my mouth.  This truly turned out to be a craft beer that proudly emphasized the amber ale and only gave hints at a Belgian influence.  True to form, this beer not only satisfies the experienced, but would also please the novice.  If you're looking for something crisp, but a more substantial that the light, citrusy spring offerings, then you should definitely pick up a bottle or two.  It's definitely worth sharing.  Cheers Ommegang!  You've done it again.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Rogue - Morimoto Soba Ale

Not to sound uncultured, but the only Morimoto that I knew of prior to drinking this beer was the guy on Iron Chef.  Thank goodness my hunch was correct!  Unfortunately, the Rogue website (and Google in general) is rather vague on just how he was involved, and only reads that it was "launched in the Spring of 2003 with internationally acclaimed Chef Masaharu Morimoto—a James Beard awarded chef and one of the stars of the Food Network series, Iron Chef."

However, Rogue is much more forthcoming with what Soba actually is, stating "Soba (also known as buckwheat) is not a type of wheat but a member of the rhubarb family and has been a longtime staple of Japanese cuisine because of its nutritional value. Buckwheat is high in potassium, phosphorous, vitamin B (50 percent more than wheat) and protein, and its virtually fat-free. The fruits of the buckwheat plant are like small beechnuts, which are milled to separate the edible groats from the dark brown hulls. The groats are then roasted and used more or less like a grain (a good example is Kasha)."

In any case, I'm looking forward to the incorporation of "eastern" ingredients into beer.  They're usually things we westerners are not familiar with and can be a fun, eye-opening experience. Let's pour!

Aroma 7/12
Initially, I thought I was pouring this beer when it was still too cold.  I was difficult to get any smell and what was there wasn't very impressive so I waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  No dice.  What I smelled was what I got, with a slight increase in the sweetness.  This beer smells rather like a wheat beer.  Plain and simple.  There is a grainy note, a light citrus and that's about it.  The only addition after waiting was an welcome increase of an orange zest citrus sweetness.

Appearance 1/3
It pours a hazy golden color that more resembles some earth tones than a bright shining one.  There isn't much variation in the shades, giving this beer a simple, dull look.  The head is scrawny and barely rises up a half a finger's breadth.  It leaves just as meagerly as it appears, and barely remains as a ring of foam at the top.  C'mon Rogue, you can do better than this.

Flavor 14/20
Interesting things are afoot.  This starts out with a distinct, but muted citrus (think: lemon water).  It is very clean, straightforward, and refreshing.  It leads into a backbone where that continues, but a strong earthy grain note is added to the works, no doubt the calling card of the soba.  I wish there was more to write, but this brew is remarkably simple.  As it warms, the sweetness does allow an almost vanilla tone to show and it's a very nice surprise.  The finish allows a slight bitter to be added to the earthy grain and said bitter lingers a bit as in a good pilsner.  The aftertaste allows on the lightest bitters to remain as well as a noticeable grain taste.  Unfortunately, this beer was not able to surprise me with any new eastern ingredient.

Mouthfeel 4/5
The carbonation is tiny, but abundant enough to compliment the refreshing flavors and the appropriately medium-light body.  Even the foaming action on the tongue feels light and airy.

Overall Impression 7/10
A lighter offering that focuses on simple refreshment and little else, this could be an excellent pairing with a salmon filet or a spicy cheese.  This beer is likely a safe bet to try on friends who haven't yet broken into craft beer.  It's inoffensive, but the enticing label art might make them feel a bit more adventurous.  As for those of us who are already seasoned adventurers, this might not fit the bill.  It reminds a sturdy-bodied pilsner with a squeeze of lemon and an earthy twist.  If simplicity and refreshment are your sole aims, then look no further.  If you think you're going to be wowed by some strange, new ingredient from a foreign land, then keep looking.

Chef Morimoto himself.  Who, by the way, FULLY endorses Sud Savant.
Total 33/50
Meh.  This beer underwhelmed me.  I know, I know that there's something to be said for simplicity and flavors that don't slap around the tongue.  However, this misses the mark.  It's not a simple version of a style, it's just simple.  Light lemon and some earthy Japanese grain?  That's it?  There is also the off chance that I'm being a boorish American and not fully realizing the Japanese appreciation of simplicity.  Just as Tokyo is nearly vandalized by neon lights, but many inhabitants choose to live in simple, uncluttered, minimalist living spaces, this beer mimics that.  It's label definitely drew my eyes, but what was inside was simple and functional and did not clamor for my attention.  (Note: By and large, I shy away from making sweeping generalizations about entire nations/cultures/religions/races/etc, but the Japanese have recently, as in the last decade or two or three, employed at large a minimalist design that enjoys a great deal of popularity).

An interesting ale if you're looking for a lighter beer.  I feel bad calling this a lawnmower beer, but damn I could see myself absolutely downing this bad boy on a hot summer day.  Or the beach!  If it didn't come in glass, I would fully endorse this on the beach.  Long story short?  I expected more.  I wanted a strange, new ingredient loaded with flavor.  I wanted a beer that would render me near speechless with its deliciousness, the same way that Chef Morimoto's food has earned him his fame.  This didn't come close.  When I pay $6+ for a bomber, I expect a little of that.  If I want a simple, quenching beer I can err a little closer to the cheap stuff.  This is like pricey lager.  I know it's better, I just don't care enough.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dogfish Head - Squall

It's definitely time for another craft beer from Dogfish Head.  In fact, my guilty conscience will no longer let me rest until I open and finish this IPA that has been in my presence for far too long.  At least, that's what I tell my wife.  Now, did I intentionally review two beers back to back that involve large sailing vessels on the label?  No.  Is it some sign of spring?  No.  Is it a sign that I should buy a boat myself?  Again, that's what I tell my wife.  That said, the only place I'd rather be drinking this is on a boat.  DFH needs no introduction.  Let's pour!

Aroma 11/12
This bottle opened with a violent hiss and then assuaged any startled souls with a relaxing floral  and pine combination.  The pine doesn't last long, but the floral is soon joined and usurped by strong honey and lemon zest aromas.  A nice bready malt balances the lot before a classic IPA smell is achieved by the reemergence of the piney hop note with a new caramel tone.  You'll definitely want to let the head die down on this one to receive the full experience.  This is a classic smell that doesn't have any of the strong alcohol warmth that can accompany some of DFH's bigger brews.  Squall rings in at 9% ABV.

Appearance 2/3
The head is perfectly foamy on this and was moderate in my 2-3 oz pour for smelling.  Pouring the rest of the glass yielded a monster head that will have me exercising caution in my pours for the remainder of the bottle.  I guess I should have known given the *hiss* that greeted me upon prying off the bottlecap.  In its defense, said head does leave fantastic lacing down the sides of the glass.  It is lightly hazy, but still relatively clear for an unfiltered beer, though this has been sitting a while and I assume most of the sediment has settled on the bottom of the bottle.  If the bottle weren't black, I could confirm such things.  The color is an array of golds and other tiger's eye shades and clearly shows a column of carbonation rising from the bottom.

Flavor 19/20
The first impression is a fabulous one!  Rich, smooth caramel rolls over the tongue and splashes to a halt with a light alcohol warmth and bitter.  Holding this in the mouth, the caramel can become sugary at times and mixes insanely well with the brighter honey, faint hop citrus, flakes of pepper, and a notable alcohol burn (the alcohol especially comes forward as the beer warms).  No real different waves of flavor to speak of, simply a cohesive unit of flavors doing their thing.  The finish is a dash of pepper (exacerbated by the prickly alcohol), resin, and that lemon zest that keeps hanging around in the background.  Oddly enough, all these flavors then make a hasty exit for a curiously clean finish!  It's very unusual, but another reminder of all the tremendous things that beer can do.  I really liked it.  The aftertaste continues that cleanliness, but does allow a light bitter to linger along with a very dry mouth.

Side note:  Slurp up some the foam (you WILL have the chance)!  It's all the beer's sweetness if a light, foamy package.

Mouthfeel 5/5
There is so much to love about the mouthfeel in this beer!  The carbonation is lively, as expected in a bottle conditioned ale, and is almost prickly.  Normally, this is something I rather shun in a beer, but in this case the slight prick of the carbonation actually goes well with the peppery hops and the alcohol warmth.  It all mingles together on the tongue for a rather complimentary, if not enjoyable, experience.  I've been waiting since the first sip to write about how SMOOTH this beer is.  Yes, even despite the carbonation.  The first sip was a wash of caramel in a body that is absolutely massive.  You can almost imagine caramel coating your tongue and it is fantastic.  The smoothness continues when the beer "foams" up in the mouth.  I place "foams" in quotes because instead of foaming, the beer instead takes on this wondrous creamy quality and it simply cannot be topped.  Best of all, with the carbonation being slightly more aggressive than usual, it prevents the creamy bodied beer from becoming syrupy or sluggish to drink.  I love that the warmth is part of the experience instead of being some strange offshoot that distracts from the beer as a whole.

The Dread Pirate Roberts takes no prisoners.

Overall Impression 10/10
The mouthfeel of this beer is superb, in case you couldn't tell by the unusually long paragraph used to describe it.  It's not often that a mouthfeel impresses me the most about a beer, but then again Dogfish Head has never been a typical brewer.  The flavors and aromas are few, but blend very well in a focused/teamwork sort of way.  The warmth definitely becomes stronger toward the end of the bottle and eventually begins to permeate every aspect of this craft brew.  It is not unwelcome, but definitely not something that was much of a factor when the beer was first opened.  (Note: Even when first opened, the bottle was at an appropriate drinking temperature.  I believe the alcohol warmth was evoked by the motion of tipping the bottle for subsequent pours and by leaving it open to "breathe" like wine.)

Total 47/50
This is one heck of a beer!  Coming from Dogfish Head, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise, but this IPA had sat for quite some time in my cellar so I was expecting a bit of a "deteriorated" performance.  Not so.  The aroma was top notch (even without the eventual addition of alcohol warmth), the flavor will go toe-to-toe with any IPA on the market, and the mouthfeel... well, I believe I've already beaten that dead horse.  Another top notch job from Sam and crew at DFH!  This is definitely giving me pause to think, "Why the heck am I saving all these Dogfish Head beers in my cellar?!"  I need to be drinking more of these.  Stat.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Mercury - Ipswich IPA

If you haven't heard of Ipswich, fear not.  You just don't live on the east coast or, in my case, ANY coast.  These were sent from a friend in Massachusetts and I was very excited to receive them.  They're a beer that is only available locally and, therefore, new to me.  The only time it gets better is when a beer with geographic limitations has a reputation.  Then, not only do I get to try something new to me, but I get to enter into a shared experience with the craft beer community.  It's another conversation I can have with a fellow beer geek over a pint or two.  Now, that doesn't mean I seek out beers exclusively with hype or publicity or else I'd be drinking nothing but Bud Light Platinum right now (as it was released 2 months ago as of this post).

In any case, as soon as I mentioned the word "Ipswich" in front of some of my friends who formerly lived in Boston, they both said, "Ipswich?!  Ohhhhh...."  I take that as a good sign I need to down these before they raid my house like a SWAT team of howler monkeys.  Let's pour!

Aroma 10/12
Lots of good stuff going on here and none of it is overplayed.  It starts with a very nice citrus and grass blend ad still manages to show a malt behind it that is at first crackery and then slowly shows a delicate caramel sweetness.  Once the head dies down a bit it begins to smell a bit more like a traditional IPA.  It has a nuance of pine to add with the already present citrus, but also shows a more earthy, herbal note.  My first impression of it was of dry leaves in the fall.  All in all a very nice, subtle showcase of hops that eventually settles into a nice carmel-pine-citrus trifecta.

Appearance 3/3
Fantastic.  A perfectly-sized head with nice soapy bubbles on the side and a creamy top that is dotted with the escape routes of carbonation bubbles.  The color is rusty and dark for an IPA, but when held to the light reveals a myriad of copper and orange shades.  It's quite striking, offers limited opacity, and leaves thick, chunky lacing.

Flavor 17/20
This beer begins with a Citrus flash across the tip of the tongue, an equally brief caramel interlude, and then makes a beeline for the backbone.  It begins with bitter hop flavors, but gradually fades to its bright citrus hops after it has been held in the mouth, which in turn fades into a less bright grapefruit tone.  Unfortunately, the beer someone peters out at this point.  The flavors have been fantastic up until now, but the beer loses nearly all of its flavor when it is held in the mouth long enough.  A light swish can bring back the grapefruit and a slurp provides a caramel covered version of the citrus from earlier, but I'm not accustomed to beers just stopping and not giving me any long-lingering flavor before beginning the finish.  When one DOES swallow the finish is a very interesting change!  The beer is awash with pepper, earth, and hop bitter a la grapefruit.  The aftertaste is remnants of the bitter finish and leaves the mouth surprisingly dry for a beer that isn't one of the monster varieties of the style (DIPA, IIPA, etc).

Mouthfeel 5/5
The carbonation is perfect: consistent to the bottom of the bottle, keeps the beer very refreshing, and is a nice compliment to all the citrus hops at work.  The body seems heavier than medium, but this is definitely aided by the generous foaming action in the mouth.  This foaming also makes the beer seem ridiculously smooth despite the fact that it has a carbonation lively enough that can still compliment its citrus.  This beer's mouthfeel is the best of both worlds.  Very nice!

I dig the scrimshaw look to this.
It's just like the beer: well-done, simple, and classic.
Overall Impression 8/10
Sometimes, it's hard to be overwhelmed by a beer that exercises such restraint.  The flavors are discernable, but each is reigned in so as not to upset the balance.  There are many flavors, earning this beer the adjective "complex," but each one is no roundhouse kick to the face.  Allow me to digress, it was not nearly so restrained in its near-prefect appearance nor its phenomenal mouthfeel.  Seriously, every IPA should try to emulate this mouthfeel.  The only time I was less than impressed with this beer was when the flavor quit between the backbone and the finish.  I can't say I ever experienced that before, even when holding other beers for a veeeery long time.  I was not accustomed to it and it was unwelcome.  In all fairness, it is a slight blemish for a beer that stays very true to the style in a time when it seems we can drink anything but a straight IPA.  It is also much more balanced than most IPAs.  Granted, it still has the hoppy nature true of an IPA, but it does not near the "IPA experiments" that most breweries seem enthusiastic to offer.  Basic and well done.

Total 43/50
Some might see this score and feel it's too high.  Those folks are probably used to drinking the mutagen enhanced, Barry Bonds-esque versions of IPAs.  This is a  solid IPA that hails much closer to the original style.  Its malt balance dulls a lot of the sharp hops involved, but still lets many different flavors come through for the drinker.  It's complex, subtle, nuanced, but still has enough bitter to let you know you're drinking a good IPA.  Cheers to Mercury Brewing Co!  This beer is nothing fancy, but that's exactly what I like about it.  Straightforward.  Good.  Beer.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Sierra Nevada - Ruthless Rye

I may be a little late boarding this train, but I had to write a review of a rye this potent.  Well, I had a pair of the bottles out of my sixer a few weeks back and they almost turned into sippers.  It seemed like it truly was "ruthless!"  Instead of most brewers stance of letting the rye stand in for some other malts, Sierra Nevada truly seemed to accentuate and showcase the rye in a beer all its own, not covered up by smoke or syrup or another featured flavor.  I'm ready to get this show on the road.  Let's pour!

Aroma 10/12
Not an especially strong aroma present, but does live up to its bottle descriptor.  There's plenty of sweet, earthy rye, which at times is almost reminiscent of cocoa nibs.  However, one can quickly replace the cocoa sweetness with the rye's spiciness and imagine a rough likeness.  As the head settles, and not a moment before, the hops become more apparent in a grassy, citrusy blend; a welcome addition to the rye's spice.  The first bottle I had difficulty smelling much of anything, but the second bottle I had, showed much more aroma.  I don't expect that lack on consistency from a larger brewer like Sierra Nevada.  However, the second bottle is more in line with what I recall my previous experience with this brew, so I've adjusted the score accordingly.

Appearance 3/3
The appearance is nothing less than what we have come to expect from Sierra Nevada.  An ample, well-formed, sudsy head with excellent retention adorns a glassful of sienna shades, amber hues, and the unmistakeable color of maple syrup.  I wouldn't normally expect a beer of such high clarity to have such a variety of shades, but clearly I underestimate the body of this beer and the malt/rye content that created it.  Careful, not to pour this one too aggressively or you'll have a monster head on your hands.  Tons of lacing.

Flavor 17/20
This beer's start is sweet, mellow, with a nice bready malt.  The backbone arrives gently, but adds the great flavors of rye.  The beer quickly becomes more earthy, obtains a bit of citrus sour from the hops, and a bitter that prefers to hang in the background.  Slurping the beer really brings the earthiness of the rye forward!  Holding the beer in the mouth allows it to foam up enough to cover the tongue and the pepper becomes very apparent.  The finish is a stronger bitter, a reprise of the earthy notes, and both of these flavors really allow the peppery flavors to stand out.  The aftertaste is milder bitter, but definitely a very dry one.  There's a great hop presence there as well.

Mouthfeel 5/5
Even the bottom half of the bottle has more than enough carbonation for this beer not to lose any of its mojo.  The pepper causes quite a bit of prickliness on the tongue and that can be easy to confuse for the carbonation.  However, the carbonation is done superbly, and in this beer it can be found as buoyant and bubbly. The body is medium-light and makes no show of the 6.6% ABV.

I love the graphics on this bottle. In the upper corners, it gives old school sayings like,
"Purest Ingredients" and "Finest Quality," and then contrasts it with a rather
comic book looking illustration of a chick with a scythe in a field.  Choice.

Overall Impression 8/10
Obviously, this beer ranks highly with any aspect regarding the technical aspects of the brewing (clarity, color, mouthfeel).  If there is one thing big breweries can do above an beyond their smaller competitors, it is definitely within those categories.  However, the less subjective areas of the beer are more up for grabs.  The aroma wasn't particularly strong (even after a warming) and the flavors were simple, albeit very complimentary.  This beer would be very accessable to those that already enjoy Sierra Nevada and enjoy the occasional twist.  However, I was expecting something a little more "ruthless" and a little less accommodating.

Total 42/50
This is very drinkable, well-made, and makes excellent use of the complimentary flavors (earthy, sweet rye + bitter hops + pepper).  Those flavors all sound pretty dark, but the high clarity, hop citrus, and lively carbonation all keep this beer from becoming boring and monotonous.  I enjoyed this beer, but I suppose I was looking for something more to break up the earthy, bitter drudgery.  In my head I would've liked something akin to a blackstrap molasses, but I know that would take the focus off of the rye.  While I really appreciate Sierra Nevada making a beer that focuses more on the rye, perhaps I enjoy it more as an additional flavor, and not so much a featured attraction.  This is not fault of the beer however.  If you like rye, by all means, pick this bad boy up while you still can!  In the meantime, it was something that I'm glad I tried.  It focused on a ingredient, I tried it, and I learned something.  In tasting, it doesn't get any better than that.