Thursday, January 31, 2013

Samuel Smith - Organic Chocolate Stout

If you've been reading for a while, you know I have a solid respect for Samuel Smith's Brewery out of Yorkshire, England.  It seems like every one of their brews that I taste simply defines that style; emphasis on "simply."  Samuel Smith's doesn't add new exciting ingredients, they don't blend existing styles or create new ones, at least not in their beers that are available Stateside.  What they do is make excellent versions of classic styles and if someone asked you what a certain style tastes like, you could point them to a Samuel Smith's.  

Now, statements like my last one might conjure up some opposition and people may ask, "How can one beer define a style when so many variations of the style exist" and I agree with those people to an extent.  There are nearly innumerable variations to any given style.  Brewers use different grain bills, hop varieties which can  vary by year, extra exotic ingredients, and so on.  However, each of those brewers is brewing with a particular style in mind.  Even if that style is as vague as, "Oh, I dunno.  I'm just brewing some stout-ish, porter-y beer that I added raspberries and blackstrap molasses to,"  it still has that classic stout characteristic in mind.  The essence of "stoutness" if you will.  And while one may never achieve that essence perfectly, Samuel Smith's comes close time after time.  Let's pour!

Aroma 10/12
True to its name, chocolate is abundant in the nose.  It's the smell of melting chocolate, dusty cocoa, and a medium roast that does not add much bitter balance.  Once the beer has warmed a bit, caramel malts become unmistakable and add another excellently paired layer of complexity.

Appearance 3/3
While initially appearing black and opaque, a quick look from the top down shows any number of brown shades comparable to (appropriately) chocolate, coffee, or cola.  The head size and retention were very nice and its tea-stained color was very appropriate.

Flavor 18/20
After a flash of neutral flavor and a hint of the roast, chocolate comes roaring in from all sides.  Things are much as the aroma would have us anticipate: chocolate with roast detectable behind it yet still not enough to provide a balance.  The sweet malts dominate this brew early on, but things are about to change in the latter half of this beer.  However, when one holds this beer in the mouth for around 10-12 seconds it takes on an unlikely characteristic: citrus.  Upon closer inspection, the sour turns out to be the combination of some bright, sugary caramel malts and some of the more bitter notes, likely the roast, but the initial sensation is out of place in a stout.  Thank goodness one rarely holds a beer in the mouth for extended periods of time.  Quicker swallows allow for a more graceful transition from the chocolate and caramel-laden flavors to a drier and more bitter finish.  A wise change in flavor which prevents this beer from being too sweet all together.  The aftertaste is almost exclusively the flavor of bitter roast.  It also leaves a watering mouth thanks to the previous sugars.

Mouthfeel 5/5
Despite all the sugary malts in this brew it remains medium bodied and shows a moderate carbonation that fades quickly in the mouth to allow a silkier mouthfeel.  No warmth.

Overall Impression 8/10
This is a excellent choice if you're ever looking for a desert beer.  The aroma is fantastic, the flavors are tasty, and it could be a gateway for those who don't yet appreciate dark beer.  The beer is not balanced in each of its sections, but is balanced as a whole.  For example, the main flavor profile was primarily sweet.  Granted, it did this with several flavors, but it was mostly sweet and not balanced.  However, the later parts of the beer provided the bitter that could have been utilized in the backbone.  Does this beer still earn the descriptor of "balanced" even though it does so in different sections and not within the same flavor sensation as is commonly understood?

Total 44/50
Another well made product by Samuel Smith's.  I can seldom believe that the beers from this brewery sell at the low prices that they do.  In fact, many times you can find a few sitting in your "pick six" section!  This is not a stout with chocolate in it.  Instead, it truly earns the nomenclature of "chocolate stout."  Chocolate is the primary consideration here and it uses a relatively meek stout framework to carry out that task.  You do have to be in the mood for something sweeter to fully enjoy this beer, but it achieves that sweetness with a trio of chocolate, caramel, and sugar.  It's far from simple.  It's just simply well made.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Pretty Things - X Ale

Let me first toss out a big ol' "thank you" to my wife who picked up this and several other bottles on a not-so-recent trip to Boston.  Normally, I'd never have access to this and I always appreciate something new and different.  Another reason I'm stoked to be reviewing this bottle is that it's a style of beer that I am currently unfamiliar with.  Zero experience.  Nada.  Thankfully, Pretty Things does a pretty great job of describing its history right on the label.  I shall reprint it here:

"Mild was a hugely popular style for more than a century (1800 - 1900s).  Here, we have released two Mild ales side-by-side: two beers from opposite ends of that period, brewed by the same brewery. If you drink both, you will drink the same brand from the same brewery, separated by 107 years.  Over those years, Mild changed considerably: something these beers amply demonstrate.  Though bearing the same name, X Ale, in character they could hardly be more dissimilar.

By WW II, Mild was firmly established as Britain's most popular style of beer, but the years had not been kind.  The wars years in particular had taken their toll on Mild, reducing its alcohol content.  There had been other changes too.  For example, the colour.  1945 X Ale was much darker, brewed from a blend of 5 malts and dark brewing sugar.  Wartime shortages also dictated the use of flaked barley.  This 1945 Mild contained just a fifth of the hops of 1838 version.  This is Mild as we know it today:  a low-gravity, lightly hopped, dark beer.  Drink the two side-by-side to see these changes in action.
                             -Ron Pattinson, January 2012

Also, I would be remiss if I did not include the thank-you note/history located on the front of the label.

"Once Upon a Time on February 22nd, 1945 a brewer brewed this very recipe in a now extinct London brewery.  The veracity of this 67 year-old X ALE is thanks to the private research of Mr. Ron Pattinson, a resident of Amsterdam.  In collaboration with Ron we present his beer with our Best Returns of the Day.

First batch brewed Feb. 22nd, 1945
This batch brewed Feb 14th, 2012"

It sounds like each version has its own benefits and while I don't have each one to do a side-by-side comparison I believe that investigating this historically researched brew for myself will be a neat learning experience.  Let's pour!

Aroma 8/12
Things are very malty here.  This is very akin to a sweet brown ale with cocoa and molasses as the main contributors.  A lactose sugar's aroma is also detectable.  Overall, this is a very simple bouquet, on par with beers that probably put forth much less effort in their brewing and their historic research.

Appearance 3/3
It certainly lives up to its brewer's name.  From the smell I was expecting a much darker pour, but was surprised to see it fall into the glass in a dark copper color, made to seem brighter due to its high clarity.  The copper also blends in its share of reds and magentas.  Be sure to take a moment to appreciate this one.  The head was excellent.  It's generous in size, egg shell in color, offers some lacing, and better than average retention.  Good work!

This was the first shot.

But this shot showed more true-to-life color.
Flavor 16/20
As much as the color was a surprise in the glass, the flavor is even more so in the mouth.  Things are not at all what one would expect when a bright, clean, citrusy flavor is the first in the mouth.  When sipped slowly, lots of neutral malts (crystal?) become apparent as well as a weak, watered-down citrus.  The beer is anything but dry at this point and certain to satiate thirst.  A quicker drink reveals more flavors, but it turns out that those are merely hiding in the finish as the backbone itself is quite lackluster for big flavors.  The finish on the other hand, is the high point of the beer.  It reverts back to the sensations in the aroma and gives a nutty, lightly bitter, dry finish with the roasted malts showing through and being a very nice addition.  The aftertaste is nothing much to mention other than a gently fading bitter from the finish and eventually a lingering citrus.

Mouthfeel 4/5
A light to medium mouthfeel is here, despite the malt emphasis.  The carbonation is abundant, but never comes close to prickly.  Instead, it serves as a texture and helps the mouth water through the dry finish.  The ABV is invisible and well it should be because further inspection of the bottle shows only a 2.8% ABV!!  Great googly moogly!  It's a small wonder that Brits could sit down and pound round after endless round with brews like this on tap.

For those not understanding the "great googly moogly" reference.

Overall Impression 7/10
So what's the overall impression?  I dig it.  It's like a refreshing brown ale or porter, but with much less body and definitely able to be consumed one after another after another.  Its shortcomings are the simplicity and lack of other flavors that other brews of this flavor profile have successfully incorporated.  Yes, the citrus helps keep things refreshing.  Yes, the bitter helps balance the malts while falling far short of overpowering them.  However, porter/brown ale flavors like this can also incorporate other flavors like molasses, caramel, dark fruits, brown or candi sugars, cocoa, or dark fruits.  I felt this stopped far short of its potential for flavor, even if the purpose it currently serves as a quaffable session ale is a noble one.

Total 38/50
It's difficult to give an unbiased review for this beer because beer has had such varying roles over the decades, let alone in different geographic locations.  I'm looking at this brew through "21st century glasses" and it was not made for that time.  For the current day and age, this beer feels light in flavor and watered down.  Today's priorities in the United States are on monster flavors to compensate for decades of flavorless macrobrews.  This results in intense flavors that often require the beer to be sipped and make it far less quenching.  Also, this beer is a British recipe.  Brits for many years placed a high value on highly sessionable beers because one could drink for extended periods of time and not become intoxicated.  Today's drinkers sometimes demand high ABVs in the brews to go along with the potent flavors.  It's clear that this beer is from a different century and from a different continent, but does that make it bad?  My vote is "no."  This is a version of brown ales and porters that provides those flavors in a lighter variation and can still be drank year round.  It's not a beer for today's drinker, but I believe that was Pretty Things' idea the whole time.  Cheers to Pretty Things for the history lesson on Mild ales, the trip to the past to actually taste one, and the character to not let old beer styles go extinct!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

New Belgium - Tart Lychee

The sour beer movement grows stealthily every day.  However, despite its recent press and critic acclaim I still have a rather difficult time finding many at my local bottle shop.  Granted, I live in midsize Midwest market, but it's still rather surprising to see Duchess de Bourgogne as the only sour beer staple inhabiting the shelves (OK, and technically the lambics).  For those unfamiliar, "sour beer" refers to those beers that are fermented using wild yeast of bacteria strains.  As their genre name implies, they often have a sour, tart, and/or acidic taste.  Typical brewing avoids these "contaminants" at all costs, but in sour beers they are welcomed.  Some common characters used in brewing sours beers are Brettanomyces (a.k.a. "Brett"), Lactobacillus, and Pediococcus.  Though the latter two are often known for their contribution to other foods besides beer: sauerkraut, yogurts, cheeses, pickles, cider, wine, kimchi, and sourdough bread to name a few.

Tart Lychee is beer that definitely steps outside any standard genre.  It is a sour ale, or American Wild Ale to be specific, with 56% of the ale aged in oak and 44% brewed with lychee and cinnamon.  Despite its pink exterior accents and sweet sounding ingredients, it still hefts a 7.5% ABV.  I'm excited to see if this beer will be a sweet treat or something with a little more "oomph."  Let's pour!

Aroma 10/12
Things begin, respectively, with a dusty barn smell, a note of the acid, and way back is a sweet, nectary fruit.  A little time to warm in the glass yields much more of the sweet, nectary smell, which has now morphed into a strawberry Starburst/pink Kool Aid type sweetness, and it is battling with the sour acidic aromas.  The acid does a superb job of balancing what appears to be a rather unyielding sweetness.  It also lends a bit of dryness almost like a champagne.  Overall, it's a very nice trifecta of sour, sweet, and dusty horse blanket.  Much to my surprise the cinnamon and oak are undetectable at this time.  Further warming erodes the sugary sweet note and leaves mostly the sour note to stand alone.

Appearance 3/3
It appears brightly enough in the bottle, but in the glass this beer is a cloudy glass full of earth color yellows, golden straw, and other shades of orange-yellow not out of place on a monarch butterfly or a  marigold garden.  Ridiculously small bubbles flit and dance their way to the top of the glass to sustain a ivory head that left a bit too soon.

Flavor 18/20
Given the reputation of the lychee fruit and the sweet aroma that made up one third of the nose, one could expect the first tastes to be very sweet as they contact they tip of the tongue.  Well, you know what Samuel L. Jackson says about assumptions...

The first flavors are actually quite neutral and sparkling with carbonation before the acidity takes the reins and refuses to let go.  It fades in with a champagne's dryness, but is instantly more acidic and sour once detectable.  Holding this beer in the mouth is full of a salty mineral note and lemon's acidity sans sweetness.  There are also notes of green apple.  It also grows more bitter in the mouth, leaving the hints of champagne further and further behind.  The origin of the growing bitterness is a mystery, but undoubtedly aided by the oak and the earthiness from the cinnamon, even if at this time no cinnamon flavor is detectable.  This is a nice wild ale combination of sour, funk, fruit, and the wood gently supporting them all.  The finish is a lingering, mouth-watering swallow that finally shows the cinnamon in a very subdued and appropriate role both in its flavor and with a slight tingle on the back of the tongue.  A good burp also brings back the cinnamon for a second visit.  The aftertaste is more bitter than sour, but even that flavor is timid at best.  However, despite the lack of lingering flavors, the mouth continues to salivate for quite some time.

Mouthfeel 4/5
This is a medium-bodied, highly carbonated beer, with invisible alcohol.  There is a tingle after the finish, but this could be from any number of contributors: alcohol, cinnamon, or acids.  Lots of flavor, but this beer never seems weighed down.  It has a crisp, lively mouthfeel that make it a perfect candidate for summer days or when you need a simple quenching.

Overall Impression 8/10
Not a bad sour by any means, but it's a far stretch from tasting like lychee.  The lychee was certainly present in the initial aroma, but was found lacking in any other aspect of the brew.  Color was typical for a sour and the carbonation, early on, went a bit beyond refreshing and bordered on distracting.  Its positives are the aroma, the strong sour, green apple and funk flavors, hidden ABV, and the easy-drinking body.  On a personal note, I really appreciated the subdued cinnamon as that particular spice has a tendency to overwhelm many of the beers to which it is added.

Total 43/50
Full disclosure, my experience with sours is limited.  In that same vein, my recollection of what lychee fruit tastes like is vague and based on impressions from a long, long time ago.  That said, this beer did not find cause me any trouble in getting to the bottom of the bottle.  It was crisp, flavorful, and of course sour.  Overall, its mostly sour with a bitter kick toward the end.  Unfortunately, there's not much sweetness to balance the sour and it results in what I feel is a rather simple creation.  I don't know when this was last bottled, but being that there is a large amount of sediment (and the high carbonation) in the bottle, I can infer that the yeast/bacteria continued to eat the sugars, perhaps leaving the beer much less sweet than when fresh.  Maybe.  Did anyone who had this beer fresh find the lychee and sweetness lacking?  Please feel free to comment.  There's plenty of the sour flavors, but in a beer that promises oak, sour, cinnamon, and the exotic ingredient of lychee fruit, just "sour" won't cut it.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Three Floyds - Behemoth

Today, I felt like drinking a BIG ol' barleywine.  No, a huge barleywine.  Nay, a Behemoth.  No really, 3 Floyds makes a barleywine and they call it Behemoth.  I acquired this little (er... big) gem from my buddy Lance and have managed to hold on to it for most of a year.  It's not quite the winter travesty outside that is usually recommended for consuming large barleywines - in fact, it's a gorgeous January day - but as long as there is still snow on the ground I imagine it to still be an appropriate choice of beer.  This is the second time in a month that I've cracked open a beer that has been wax sealed and I'm not upset about that one bit.  Let's pour!  

Aroma 11/12
The hop aroma is not shy in this beer.  First to the nose are several hop aromas that are all grass, pine, a bit of the "sticky icky icky," and a citrus tinge.  All that and it hasn't even warmed yet.  Once it has begun warming the pine and citrus take center stage and big gooey drops of caramel begin to slowly roll into the scene.  A bitterness sits behind this trifecta and a long, deep sniff makes the alcohol in the beer very apparent.

Appearance 3/3
This brilliant, clear beer pours a bright copper color that is made to seem darker by some reddish and sienna tones that also fill the glass.  Carbonation bubbles sllooowwwly ascend to the surface as they fight against what must be a beer as full-bodied as the cartoon on its label.  Stucco-like rings of lace run round the inside of my glass.

Flavor 19/20
I'm having a difficult time putting a finger on the initial flavors of this brew.  Things begin with such a mellow tone that it's hard to really notice things before the bolder flavors begin.  They are mostly a very subdued citrus from the hops and a distant candi sugar.  Before long both flavors are easily overcome by the brew's bitter and caramel flavors.  Both seem to be slugging it out for supremacy, but the caramel outlasts the bitter thus giving the beer an overall sweetness.  A bit unusual as most big barleywines tend to err on the side of bitter than sweet; unusual, but not unpleasant.  In that big battle of sweet vs bitter, the citrus from the aroma fades out completely, but the candi sugar weighs in to tip the scales toward sweet instead of bitter.  The aftertaste is largely a continuation of the backbone, but the finish is a hot tingle from the alcohol that lingers in the mouth well after swallowing.  The result is a dry, bitter finish that reminds one of a crisp pale ale on steroids.

Mouthfeel 5/5
The mouthfeel of this beer is definitely one of its strong points.  It's unique and definitely steals some of the attention away from the flavor.  First of all, one would expect a beer a beer with the nomenclature "Behemoth" to be a massive, giant of a beer, and while this beer is certainly full-bodied there are other forces at work as well.  The alcohol warmth from the 10.5% ABV puts its own mark on the beer, but without being too boozy or hot.  The carbonation is quite active and when holding the beer in the mouth results in a lighter foam than one would expect.  Long story short, this beer is full-bodied, but never syrupy and certainly not a chore to drink.

Overall Impression 10/10
This is a solid barleywine that strays from the pack a bit.  As mentioned earlier, it falls slightly to the sweet side as opposed to the bitter, while still making both characteristics prominent.  It uses its warmth judiciously to both add to the flavor and the mouthfeel.  While its flavors may not have been insanely complex, they're certainly bold and delicious.  A fresher version may have lent more of the citrus hops to remedy said lack of complexity, but the alcohol heat, undiminished by aging, would certainly have become more intrusive.

Total 48/50
I'd normally feel like rambling on here a bit, but the prior paragraph covers things rather nicely.  This is a damn good beer and coming from Three Floyds, I can't say that I'm surprised.  Whether or not its $15.99 pricetag is justified is another matter entirely.  I feel like I've had other comparable barleywines from less.  Does that make this bad?  Hell no.  Is it one you MUST purchase?  No.  Should you?  Yes.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Founders - Breakfast Stout (2012)

Ahhh, the first blog of a New Year.  A clean slate on which to begin and a new archive point in the right hand column.  It didn't take long for me to decide how to begin the new year of Sud Savant.  Maybe it was the desire to start the year strong or maybe it was simply all the "New Year's Baby" images floating around, but I knew I had to start the new year with a bottle of "the baby."  I'm referring of course to Founders' Breakfast Stout.

For those that don't know, Founders' Breakfast Stout is one of the premier go-to stouts brewed in America today.  You should be able to find a 4-pack for around $10 and it is worth every penny.  Its label lists it as a "double chocolate coffee oatmeal stout," and if that doesn't get your tastebuds all hot and bothered then I don't know what will.  In case that doesn't sound amazballs enough, Founders also makes special varieties of Breakfast Stout called Canadian Breakfast Stout (CBS) and Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS).  CBS is another imperial stout, but it is aged in maple syrup bourbon barrels.  KBS is somewhat the more sought after of the two and it is cave aged in oak bourbon barrels for one year.  If you see either of those beers you should never hesitate to pick them up because their availability is extremely limited and they are without question some of the finest stouts available.

For those that do know, I hope that this review can accurately put into words the sensations when drinking this national favorite.  This beer was bottled on 08/02/2012.  Let's pour!

Who could say "no" to those eyes?
Aroma 11/12
When served at a temperature colder than what is ideal, the beer has rich aromas only of coffee and a roast so dark you'd swear it was charred.  Slowly but surely, the sweetness begins to creep out as the beer approaches a proper serving temperature.  Chocolate tones are first and are especially sneaky since they had blended so well with the abundant coffee.  Then the beer simply begins to open up; aromas become larger and richer, a bit of warmth can be detected, and a bit of that lactose-like sweetness from the oatmeal all come forward and waft zealously from the glass.  You can smell this thing from across the table.  It's not like a mocha, that would be too light for this beer.  It's more like someone poured melted dark chocolate into your double shot of espresso.  Not complex, but it is beautiful.

Appearance 3/3
It's black.  Plain and simple.  Sure you might get a glimmer of a cola brown if you hold it right next to a light bulb, but for the most part it is an opaque, black hole of a beer.  The head was disappointingly small, but makes up for it by being a tan color with earthy red tones - almost as if cinnamon were part of this beer.

Flavor 19/20
Strong roast flavors begin this beer and then quickly meld into the chocolate and coffee storm that is raging inside this beer.  All dark flavors, all the time.  Darkest chocolate battles black espresso for supremacy of your taste buds and it is brilliant.  Lots of roast is present as well and adds a lovely smokiness to the whole.  A bit of a salty note is present when holding the beer in the mouth which I'm assuming is from one of the coffee varieties.  The blend as a whole is remarkably rich, fudge-y, bitter, and harmoniously blended.  The finish is a splash of pure coffee and a vibrant, albeit lesser, chocolate as it makes its way down the throat.  The aftertaste lingers as much as real coffee would, remaining bitter and inducing fears of future bad "coffee breath."  Oh, and the 8.3% ABV?  Invisible, unless you slurp.

Mouthfeel 5/5
Wonderfully smooth, but without falling into the trap of most stouts of being almost non-carbonated.  Quite the contrary, this stout has a level of carbonation that makes it much more lively that most stouts, yet does not distract in the mouthfeel nor butt heads with the smoothness inherent when using a ton of malts.  Also, I can't get over how the alcohol in this beer is completely camouflaged.  Well done!

Overall Impression 9/10
Truly, a first rate stout: delicious, big, well made, well blended, and deserving of its national acclaim.  Thankfully, this brew is not as hard to get a hold of as its big brothers.  This is not the biggest, baddest stout attainable, but should certainly be viewed as a treat whenever it is consumed.  

Total 47/50
I know, I know... some of you may find this rating a bit low.  In fact, most of the folks at BeerAdvocate and RateBeer would certainly find this score low as that FBS currently rates a 99 and 100 on those sites, respectively.  However, if one gives a perfect score to this beer, what are you supposed to give its big brothers, the CBS and KBS, which are even more highly regarded (even if that may be partially tied to their rarity)?  This is an excellent score for an excellent beer, but it is also given with a strong consideration to other contenders in the style.  It's actually quite the accolade to be compared to other amazing beers that are brewed on a much smaller scale.  FBS is one of the best widely distributed stouts in America.  Period.