Monday, October 29, 2012

Smash Brewery - Belgian Waffle

Today, I'm reviewing a homebrew from a good buddy of mine who is brewing some truly creative and delicious beer.  Also, at the rate he is procuring larger scale brewing equipment, it wouldn't surprise me if he quickly becomes a neighborhood favorite (and beyond).  The beer of his I'll be drinking today is his "Belgian Waffle," which, you guessed it, will taste like a Belgian waffle.  It's my understanding that actual whole, cooked waffles were used in the brewing process, though I don't recall at which stage.  I'm excited to drink this and see who it stacks up against the more established, widely distributed craft brewers.  Let's pour!

Aroma 10/12
The beer begins pleasantly enough with the sweet aroma of crisp apples and a fainter caramel.  Oddly, I am not getting an intense maple or syrup aroma at this point.  Further back is a faint almost champagne-like dryness and it's a unique little nuance that seems thrown in for good measure.  Slightly more detectable is a lightly floral aroma that blends nicely with the sweet apples from earlier.  All these aromas were from a 2-3 oz pour, but after I poured the entire bottle and got all that tasty sediment off of the bottom, this beer really opened up.  It went from "just plain apples" to "apples and gobs of caramel apple dip."  The caramel complements the apple very well and only now can I begin to see the maple syrup arriving on the scene.

Appearance 2/3
During my initial 2-3 oz pour, the beer was golden in hue and quite nice.  After pouring the entire bottle and its sediment into the glass, it more resembled apple cider fresh from the orchard; brown, cloudy, and a pinch of dark crumbs at the bottom.  The head rose nicely with loads of tiny, tightly packed bubbles, fizzed loudly, and faded away very quickly to absolutely nothing.  No lacing.  No head.  Nada.

Flavor 17/20
The waffles sure do not take long to make their presence known as even the earliest flavors are that of golden, fried, sweet, bready goodness and even a sweet cream.  The sensation is longer than most introductions, but slowly the apples' honey-like sweetness creeps in and is easily detectable, especially on the tip of the tongue.  A slight alcohol tingle is also present from time to time.  When held in the mouth the beer has a blending of light sweetnesses almost like the aforementioned cream, but in its candied form, like the center of a "bulls-eye" or "cow tail" candy.  As the beer warms, the sweetness shows its true colors and reveals itself to be the Belgian yeasts that were undoubtedly used in the brewing process.  The finish truly adds another dimension to the brew!  Its 7.5% ABV is laid completely bare and gives the impression of a much more alcohol-laden beer.  The alcohol combines with a wonderfully high and unexpected smoothness and goes down like a caramel liquor with the tongue still left tingling.

Mouthfeel 4/5
There's lots of good things happening here, especially for what I consider to be a golden-style Belgian dubbel (or a duppel-style golden ale).  A medium body with lots of lively carbonation and well utilized warmth are all appropriate for the style.  Though even for a Belgian dubbel, the carbonation can be a bit to aggressive a prickly at times.

Overall Impression 8/10
Obviously this brew has some Belgian-style roots and is not afraid to show them.  The sweetness, yeast, carbonation, and warmth all point to its origins.  The overarching apples were an unexpected, yet welcome twist, as were the light floral notes in the aroma.  They almost had me classifying this with a "golden ale" twist, but the other stylistic points were stronger contributors to the brew as a whole.

Total 40/50
Definitely a great start for one of this homebrewer's earlier efforts.  It had tasty, distinctly Belgian characteristics and added something of its own to make it unique.  I must say, while the taste of the Belgian yeasts were certainly detectable, as were the waffles - thus satisfying both parts of its namesake - I was expecting some serious maple syrup action.  Not that the caramel didn't satisfy that necessary sweetness, and   not that said caramel didn't go phenomenally well with the apple notes.  I suppose I was just expecting more of the maple syrup used  during brewing to come through as... well, maple syrup that I use on my waffles and pancakes.  It's a minor complaint for a tasty beer that follows its style remarkably well and I'm sure will only become more refined in its subsequent batches.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Southern Tier - Pumpking

Now if you've had any of Southern Tier's big ol' bomber bottles, you know that those things are rife with flavor.  It's with that in mind that I'm pretty excited to be reviewing their pumpkin ale, Pumpking.  Pumpking is often listed as one of people's favorite pumpkin beers and definitely has a national reputation for excellence.  This should be a good review for me as I feel I am notoriously picky about pumpkin beers, especially their balance between pumpkin sweetness and those fall spices.  Let's pour!

Aroma 12/12
I unhesitatingly give this a 12.  It is completely unique to anything else on the market.  It erupts with a buttery pumpkin nose and a extremely delicate use of cinnamon and nutmeg.  The sweetness of the pumpkin comes later, and not far after a bready malt sweetness oozing with caramel.  There is also a distant dark vanilla which blends painfully well with the buttery notes.  As the beer warms, the initial buttery note turns into more of a vanilla custard.  This is insane!

Appearance 3/3
It pours a bright orange appropriate to an aisle in any big box store selling Halloween wares, but thankfully sits in the glass in a hue more natural to the season.  More of a "burnt orange," with golden highlights than the traditional Halloween orange.  The head was 1.5 fingers tall and its off-white color was tinted by that of the beer below to a pastel rust color.

Flavor 19/20
It begins humbly enough, with a mild-mannered, authentic pumpkin flavor and a dash of nutmeg and cinnamon.  Soon that delicious buttered pumpkin note from the aroma eases gently in on a viscous wave of caramel, though not in quite as strong a fashion as in the aroma.  What a flavor!  The backbone then transitions to that of pumpkin pie filling replete with all the spices and sweetness expected.  Minus the buttery flavor, which I would not remove for the world, this is almost an exact replica of pumpkin pie filling straight from the can.  Holding the beer in the mouth longer allows the spices and caramel to die down a little and one is left with a lot of natural tasting pumpkin, cinnamon, and some neutral 2-row malts.  The finish gives a brief reprise of the pumpkin flavor right before the cinnamon goes down the throat kicking and screaming.  Believe it or not the aftertaste does show that there are hops present in this beer!  Not long after swallowing, the mouth is left dry and bitter.  It's definitely not something that I expected after drinking a beer this sweet.

Mouthfeel 4/5
The mouthfeel might be the only noticeably lacking part of this beer.  It remains far from distracting, but the mouthfeel is far from anything I associate with "imperial."  The ingredients list 2-row malts, undoubtedly used to bolster the body of this brew, but I think they took the day off.  The body is medium at best but does a surprising job at carrying all these large flavors.  Its carbonation is tiny and feels active, but closer inspection will reveal the majority of that tingle on the tongue to be the cinnamon working its magic.  The ABV is listed as 8.6%, but I never saw a trace of it.

Overall Impression 10/10
A top 5 pumpkin beer on the market, maybe even top 3.  The nose is without question unlike any pumpkin beer currently available.  It is phenomenal and it alone would justify purchasing the bottle.  The flavor is less, but certainly not disappointing.  This has instantly earned the status of "go-to" bottle for pumpkin seasonals.  It is something that I'll will be purchasing on an annual basis.

Total 48/50
Boy, to dock this brew two points seems like a bit much considering how much I enjoyed it!  However, there are some areas that I see for improvement.  A bit more caramel would be appreciated and I think could really combine well with all the pumpkin/vanilla custard sweetness.  Also, if we're adding more caramel, presumably by adding more caramel malts, then that would also take care of the lighter mouthfeel.   However, knowing Southern Tier's ability to make huge, tasty, sweet beers, maybe this is something they tried and it made the beer thick, syrupy, and undrinkable.  Its mouthfeel might not be imperial, but it sure tastes like one and that's more important anyway.  If you haven't heard of this pumpkin beer already, it definitely deserves your attention.  It is anything but a spice bomb and easily ranks at the top of its style.  It should be widely available and at a decent price.  What are you waiting for?!

Approval from the ORIGINAL Pumpkin King has yet to be determined.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Innis & Gunn - Highland Cask

After my last Innis & Gunn review, there were a ton of comments both supporting and lamenting this brewery.  I've never written anything else that has received such a response!  In short, I knew I'd have to review another I&G beer in short order.  That day is here!  Today's review will be for Innis & Gunn's Highland Cask ale.  This beer is aged in oak barrels and their have a pretty cool genesis story for those interested in that sort of thing.  Some of their detractors talk about the apparent marketing machine that Innis & Gunn has at their disposal.  The good news is that there is virtually zero, I repeat, zero I&G marketing in the US, so I don't have to try and deal with any preconceived notions that I might have.  Big thanks (again) to Keith for snagging me this brew.  Let's pour!

Aroma 6/12
Initially, I didn't think this smelled much like whiskey at all.  I should know.  I love bourbons and whiskeys.  It didn't have that quintessential sweetness, but instead was more earthy and grain-like with just hints of peat poking through.  Just to make sure, I grabbed a nearby bottle of Redbreast (a 12 y.o. aged Irish whiskey) and inhaled deeply.  Sure enough, the I&G lacked that sweetness that makes whiskey such a treat.  Obviously, that missing characteristic is quite a disappointment.  To further add to that disappointment, there's not much behind the boozy warmth!  This could have been a great combination of sweetnesses from the English Strong Ale style and that of the whiskey, but I&G has definitely whiffed on all this potential and instead given us a boozy, timid smelling brew.  To those that might be saying, "Hey!  This beer is aged in Scotch Whiskey barrels, not whiskey barrels, you idiot," I say that's OK.  It doesn't smell like Scotch Whiskey either.  Again, I should know.  Johnny Walker and I have long been good friends.

Appearance 3/3
Despite a weak start in this review, the beer actually appears quite handsomely in the glass.  True to its name, it is just darker than some whiskeys and bourbons with shades of rust, mahogany, and burnt orange.  It's clarity is quite high, but the head hisses and dissipates too soon.  My photos do not do it justice.

Flavor 12/20
Thankfully the beer begins by tasting better than it smells.  It starts with a traditional English Strong Ale sweetness, some nuttiness, and hints of dark molasses.  These delicious sounding flavors are far from intense, but they are tasty.  A butterscotch is present, but is easily overtaken by the ESA flavor.  There's not much else to say as this beer is remarkably simple and thin.  What I am NOT getting is any semblance of Scotch Whiskey!  Where is it?!  Daddy needs his special medicine! Even slurping this beer only goes to show how bland it truly is.  There is NO reward for slurping, not even an extra alcohol kick.  The finish is unusual as it doesn't continue or reintroduce any of the already existing flavors in this beer.  It's just this oaky, bitter, earthy, toasted flavor that leaves the mouth more bitter than anything.  What an odd, underwhelming beer.

Mouthfeel 3/5
This beer is going to get points for its ridiculous smoothness and that's about it.  Overall, the beer feels thin and certainly not  big enough to adequately carry a flavor like Scotch Whiskey.  Carbonation is tiny, but adequate and persists until the end of the glass.  To their credit, the 7.1% ABV is invisible.

Overall Impression 4/10
This beer misses so many things that could have gone right.  It doesn't smell like whiskey or Scotch whiskey.   It doesn't taste like whiskey or Scotch whiskey.  It doesn't have a robust malt profile that could have potentially complimented the whiskeys' sweetness, had there been any whiskey in the first place.  Why is the end bitter?  Why does this beer feel so thin?  Arg!

Total 28/50
This is a world of difference from the last Innis & Gunn beer that I reviewed.  Their Rum Cask brew was really tasty and I enjoyed it immensely!  On the other hand, this beer is one-dimensional and lackluster in flavor, offers very little in aroma, and drinks as easily as the smoothest macro.  It begins with molasses and ends bitter with no scotch or whiskey in sight.  With it's shiney label, high ABV, and "cask-aged" claims, this beer is like dating a very dumb, gorgeous person:  all style, no substance.  It simply seems tired and vapid.  Thank goodness that this beer has only been brewed once and it not part of their regular line-up.  If anyone at Innis & Gunn is listening, please burn this recipe.  You are better off starting from scratch and building the beer that this SHOULD have been.  It's not up to what I perceive as your usual standard of quality.  C'mon!  It's brewed in Edinburgh for Pete's sake!  You should know if your beer tastes like Scotch whiskey before it leaves the brewery.  For shame.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Stone - 16th Anniversary IPA

In the interest of drinking beers before their hop profile has deteriorated, I have decided to crack open my bottle of Stone's 16th Anniversary IPA.  This beer promises to be a doozey with Stone stating right on the bottle that they're brewing this one with lemon verbena & lemon oil.  Now I had a pretty good idea of what lemon oil was, but I had not heard of lemon verbena, so if you need to look it up like I did, then click here.  Whether you know or you don't, new ingredients get me excited and I'm always ready to try one out.  So let's pour!

Aroma 12/12
Starting off, things were pretty impressive.  Excellent lemon and pineapple notes from the hops as well as a lesser herbal quality and a dash of pepper.  The warmth arrived calmly and easily, while the malts provided a dark bread (almost earthy) & roasted qualities.  Very nice all around!  I then sat down to do some typing and the like and came back to it after it had warmed and let me say this... LET THIS BEER WARM!  I know that it's fairly common knowledge in the craft beer universe that beers open up as they warm, but rarely can I recall a beer that so aptly provides such an example to that lesson.  This beer became infinitely richer and nearly succulent with hoppy goodness.  This is what world class IPAs should smell like!  The original flavors intensified greatly, but also brought in a great resin aroma, a surprising floral essence(!), some reminders of the hops' Cannabaceae relatives, gooey caramel malts, and upped the booziness just a little bit.  Fantastic!

Appearance 3/3
This is a beautiful beer.  It pours a color that nearly matches the shade on the bottle and is bright and clear as a crisp fall day.  When I poured it, the head overcame the top of the glass, but was so sticky that it continued to ascend in the shape it left the glass.  Almost like a Play-Dough Fun Factory, but for head.  I'm very impressed.

Flavor 19/20
As difficult as it was to stop sniffing this beer, my mouth wouldn't stop watering and I finally gave in and tasted it.  I was given a smooth salutation from some silky caramel malts, but before long the other flavors begin to slide their way in as well:  pepper, resin, very subdued apple/mango notes, and an undying caramel.  An unusual citrus is present as well presumably from the lemon verbana and/or lemon oil used in the brewing process.  It's definitely a more candied, sugary lemon flavor, but its appearance is not unwelcome.  In fact, this particular type of sweetness goes remarkably well with the caramel sweetness from the malts.  What a fan-freakin'-tastic balance of an intense sweetness and a big, strong bitter.  If held long enough in the mouth the sugary lemon can be easily detected on the tip of the tongue, but eventually transforms into a peppery, resin-laden concoction.  This type of complexity is SO satisfying.  The last two flavors in the mouth (pepper and resin) are a Stone's ridiculously talented way of foreshadowing the finish before it actually happens.  The finish removes 90% of the sweetness that was experienced in the backbone of the beer and instead gives the drinker a bitter, very peppery, resin-dripping, bitter affair that quickly leaves a moderate dryness.  The aftertaste is largely remnants of the bitter, but eventually the entire mouth is salivating for the next gulp.

Mouthfeel 5/5
This beer is a little more than medium-bodied, but made to feel like much more thanks to the buried carbonation and the ridiculous amounts of smoothness that provides.  It is insanely silk relative to its body.  The gads of peppery spice give the illusion of carbonation but make no mistake, any carbonation involved in this bad boy is far beneath the surface.  Warmth is used appropriately and also contributes to the big beer feel of this brew.

Overall Impression 10/10
What's not to like about this?  The balance of sweetness and bitter is fantastic, the mouthfeel is to die for yet avoids being a chore to drink, complexity abounds, and my mouth and nose are left extremely happy.  Some folks could argue that their DIPA has been made too sweet.  I understand that.  Some folks want their IPAs and DIPAs a little more one-sided than others.  For me, this really hit the spot with big flavors on both sides just slugging it out.

Total 49/50
I'm not sure why this beer is rated as low as it is by so many people.  Maybe there are more hopheads out there, who don't like any stupid malts sweetening up their beers, than I had originally assumed.  For me, I dig it.  Not only that, but I didn't find out until much later how much rye Stone used in brewing this beer.  That makes perfect sense!  The pepper spiciness and the earthy bitter now come clearly into focus.  Though admittedly, the bitter was easy to confuse as hops due to... well, the abundance of hops.  This is the second Stone beer in a row that I review that has received a 49/50.  The first was their 10th Aniversary Ruination and while this beer is much less intense than the 10th Anniv Ruination, it should not be overlooked.  ESPECIALLY because of its $7.99 price tag.  This beer is a steal and I can't believe I can still find it on shelves.  Do yourself a favor and take advantage of its wide and plentiful distribution.  You shan't be disappointed.  Good on ya Stone for another variation of the IPA style!!  Happy anniversary and many, MANY more.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Dogfish Head - Punkin Ale (2011)

Hey yo!  A good majority of us in the U.S. craftbeer scene have had the privilidge to enjoy a Dogfish Head Punkin Ale.  It's generally well-received, earning an 88 on and a 90 at RateBeer.  But how well does it age?  Will its 7% ABV have kept it safe throughout the course of one year?  Where ever will we find someone to answer these persistent questions?  Don't worry.  I might know a guy.

If you'd like a little history of DFH's Punkin' Ale, their website has this to say about it,
"Punkin Ale is named after the seriously off-centered southern Delaware extravaganza Punkin Chunkin (check out some of these Discovery Channel videos of Punkin Chunkin, you gotta see it to believe it!). In fact, Punkin Ale made its debut as it claimed first prize in the 1994 Punkin Chunkin Recipe Contest. Yes, that was a full 6 months before we even opened our doors for business!"

Obviously, being DFH's first award (even before they officially opened), gives it a special place in their history.  I'm sure there's a great attatchment and sense of gratitude toward this beer for a great start on a burgeoning business.  Shall we see why this brew received its award back in 1994?  Let's pour!

See the Dogfish even has little fangs for Halloween!  Extra
beer geek points if you noticed this before.
Aroma 11/12
This is very well done and exceptionally balanced.  First to the nose is actually the pumpkin flesh, a nice change from being ambushed by spices as is all too easy to do with this style.  The mix of allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg (as listed on the bottle) are not far behind, but they are presented as rounded and not a sharp kick.  There is also a distant brown sugar that blends very well with the light caramel malts.  This smells like the holidays!  I'm reminded of gingerbread men, but not quite as dark.  As the beer warms, the spice, pumpkin, caramel trifecta is right on the mark, as all three contribute and can easily be detected.

Appearance 3/3
It is several shades lighter than the below photo would indicate, which does not do it justice.  It is a combination of dark gourd hues, a mish-mash of autumnal palette colors, and a rusty amber shade.  Definitely appropriate for the season.  Its bisque head is adequate in size and shows above average retention.  

Flavor 17/20
With almost no introduction the beer rushes in and there is plenty of pumpkin and spice to go around for everyone.  Behind those primary flavors is some nice caramel sweetness and a surprisingly dark tasting malt. There's also an interesting bitter note to balance all the sweetness of the malts & pumpkin - likely contributed by the spices.  As the beer sits in the mouth, all the distractions of the spice, bitter, etc fall away and one is left with a relatively undisturbed, slightly sweet pumpkin flavor.  This isolation is shattered as soon as you swallow.  Immediately, the spices rush back in, practically tripping over themselves to be the first down the throat, and leaving a slight alcoholic warmth in their wake.  The spices and alcohol give the tongue a tingling sensation before transitioning to a rather drying and bitter aftertaste.  The beer as a whole is well-balanced between the dark, almost molasses-like malts and the spices, with the more subtle pumpkin flavors doing their damnedest to keep pace.

 Mouthfeel 5/5
The carbonation is kept at a perfectly subtle level for this beer and leaves most of the prickly sensation in the mouth to be contributed by the spices.  Thankfully the carbonation does give the drinker a fantastic(!) silky foaming action in the mouth.  This combination of low carbonation and nice foaming keeps the beer drinkable, yet substantial.  At 7%, I'm surprised I can sense much of the alcohol warmth at all, but if anyone knows how to expose and utilize an alcohol's warmth, it's Dogfish Head.

Overall Impression 8/10
A nice pumpkin beer!  It definitely does not hide behind its spices.  While said spices are certainly present in this beer, they never dominate the profile.  The aroma is well done in its balance and the mouthfeel is a "best of both worlds" characteristic that could be easily overlooked despite its importance to the beer as a whole.  There's a lot going on at once: spice sensations, spice flavors, pumpkin sweetness, malt flavors, bitterness, foaming action... take some time to appreciate all of it.

Total 44/50
This is a little less robust of a beer than Dogfish Head typically puts out, but they can't all be giant killers now can they?  In other words, it's not a super high ABV, flavor saturated, tongue punching ale to be reckoned with that we're used to seeing from DFH, but who says that's a bad thing.  This is one of the most drinkable DFH beers that I've ever drank and please do not infer that means it's short of flavor.  There is plenty of flavor to be found here, and thank goodness it's not all a Tony Montana-sized desktop coke mountain made of cinnamon and nutmeg.  There was restraint used in making this brew and I appreciate that to no end.  Usually, buying a less-than-powerhouse beer is not why I buy Dogfish Head, but if it can guarantee me an excellent pumpkin ale, then I will make that purchase time and time again.

"If only this were cinnamon and nutmeg..."