Saturday, March 30, 2013

Surly - Smoke

"How do you know when a beer is really, really important?" he asked with a hint of sarcasm.  "I don't know," she replied matter-of-factly.  "They barrel age it and put some fancy wax on the top?"


This is precisely the reason that I'm pretty pumped to be drinking today's beer.  Well, that and the fact that it's brewed by Surly.  Not only does Surly make amazing craft beer, but it is also a rather blue moon (er... brew moon?) when I actually get to drink it as it is still only distributed in Minnesota.  No more puns.  Let's pour!

Aroma 12/12
There is no confusing a good rauchbier!  My nose gets a frying pan full of salty bacon, smokey clothes after a campfire, and a medium-deep roasted malt.  Oddly, there is a lack of the complementary charred malt aromas that one might expect a brewer to utilize.  One may even detect a distant plum or two as well as some alcohol warmth.  The only other analogy I can think to make is the greasy, browned skin from a chicken after being roasted over wood or grilled with wood chips.  After warming a bit, the smokey and salty combine to give a hint of what smells like soy sauce.  This seems like a short paragraph to dedicate to such an important feature as aroma, but it does what it does very well.

Appearance 3/3
This beer poured much thicker than I expected and much darker than a traditional rauchbier.  Perhaps I should have suspected something a bit "meaner" after I had to fight my way through that cantankerous wax cap.  The head was a shade of brown normally reserved for dark, top of the line stouts!  It hissed as it made its descent, usually a sign of a quick-dying head, but still offered a slightly less that average retention and no lacing.  Check out how dark this bad boy is!

Flavor 18/20
Something that any craft beer drinker should appreciate is present immediately in this beer.  Sure there are some dark, strong flavors at play here, but the base beer itself is still of a very high quality!  Lots of lager elements make themselves known despite the powerful smokey atmosphere.  The first flavor sensations are that of the roasted malt and the (again) distant sweetness of a dark fruit.  The sweetness of the figs, raisins, and almost chocolatey malts are allowed to play around for a bit in the smoke, but before long they give way to a more stern and straightforward beer.  Smoke is always the overarching theme, but after the sweetness things become more bitter and less complex.  All that remains is a dark, dark chocolate malt that gives almost zero sweetness to the roasted, blackened malt.  The elements of the porter have surrendered to those of the rauchbier.  The finish is again smokey while showing off a surprisingly great drizzle of chocolate and some charred malts that had previously remained hidden.  The aftertaste is largely a dry, bitter reminder of that char on the back center of the tongue.

Mouthfeel 5/5
I like everything about this mouthfeel.  It's light enough to drink, yet big enough to carry all these robust flavors.  Especially for a lager!  Typically lagers don't get a lot of respect, but this beer is definitely a counter-argument to all the lager haters out there!  The body is medium-full, but leans more toward full and exhibits a perfect level of carbonation.  The bubbles keep this otherwise creamy beer in check and lively on the tongue.  even though it had all the dark fruit sugars to potentially make it a chore.  Also, I'm not sure I can say enough about the warmth in this beer.  I have never had a beer utilize its alcohol content like this one.  It spreads its way across the inside of the mouth, but never in a way where one would assume it is alcohol.  It nearly teams up with the creaminess to coat the inside of the mouth with very subtle sensation that makes a very large contribution toward feeling like a much bigger beer.

Wax put my Beer Stick to work, SON!  I had to carve through this!

Overall Impression 9/10
So much about this beer is good and so little of it requires constructive criticism.  It has all the hallmarks of a excellent porter such as dark fruit, big body, and color, but also is still an excellent rauchbier!  The smoke never overpowers the other ingredients, but instead either works with them or takes its turn.  That statement may seem a little far fetched if you've just opened the bottle and the smoke seems a bit dominant, but as your palate acclimates, you will notice all sorts of balance happening in beautiful ways.  It also refuses to take for granted the "lesser"characteristics of carbonation and warmth and turns them into critical allies.

Total 47/50
Let me first say that I have been holding onto this beer for a long time.  When fresh, it may very well be umpteen times boozier and taste like it has a dozen more bushels of fruit added.  As it stands, however, it is a smokey, dark beer with glimmers of dark fruit and a stealth-grade warmth.  I never would have guessed anything close to the bottle's claim of 8.2% ABV.  Ever.  It's just one of the surprises that this beer packs beneath its iron-like wax cap.  "What are the others," you ask?  Well, it reads "lager" on the outside of the bottle, so one expects something lighter, less powerful, and more refreshing.  This hits more like a porter on every level.  I love it when beers exceed my expectations, don't you?  Porter lager... whatever.  It's a beer that deserves to picked up if you see it and is one of the best of this style that I've sampled.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Cigar City - Cucumber Saison

If you've read a review or two on Sud Savant, you know I love a beer with a new and unusual ingredient!  Were it not for experimentation, how would we have all the styles that we enjoy today?  Today's review is for Cigar City's Cucumber Saison.  Today's bit of cuke knowledge is that it is a member of the gourd family.  This should suit Cigar City's talents well, as they also brew a seasonal pumpkin ale called "Good Gourd."  It is the only cucumber beer that I've ever seen, and one of very few that I've seen that involves an ingredient you might find in your grandmother's summer garden.  Other weird cucumber fact: they originated in India.  Now you know... and knowing is half the battle.  Let's pour!

Aroma 8/12
This bottle rudely spit at me the moment the cap was cracked!  The aroma on this is very vegetal, almost unpleasantly so, but certainly not in a flawed way.  Any of the typical aromas associated with a good saison style are buried far behind that wall of cucumber.  Granted, the aroma of cucumber is very authentic, it is mildly sweet and largely clean, but the closest this beer comes to a saison scent is that of a distant sour/citrus.  This acidic note tends to lean more toward that of a sour fermentation than that of sour fruits.  No pepper.  No hops.  No cloves.

Appearance 3/3
I should have inferred from the spitting cap that this beer would require a gentle pour.  However, I screwed that up adequately and the beer provided a very large, barely off-white head.  It left almost no lacing, but the bubbles do provide a lively appearance as they dance their way skyward through a bright, golden, high clarity brew.  This never truly allows the head to fade completely and gives it a long-lasting attractive appearance that nearly crackles like a fire as it dissolves.

Flavor 17/20
Things start as one might expect, with a veil of cucumber's sweet, clean flavors.  Other flavors are allowed to  speak out from behind this veil, even loudly, but none may push it aside completely.  It is pleasantly sweet, like home-made relish or like a distant, home-canned sweet pickle, but some of the flavors in the background are woody, slightly earthy hops and flashes of pepper.  They do not stay in the background for long.  They grow stronger not only as the beer sits in the mouth, but as it warms in the glass.  This is a very dry tasting beer thanks to those aforementioned hops and a crackery malt.  This dry, earthiness provides the same balance that a more bitter note would to balance the sweet cucumber.  One would expect the finish to allow those dry flavors to show through more, however, it is largely comprised of the cucumber's sweetness even if it seems that sweetness is ever abruptly ended by the woodiness.  The aftertaste, on the contrary allows for no cucumber sweetness and instead only presents a dry, lingering, and delicate bitter.

Mouthfeel 5/5
The brew's high carbonation is certainly its strongest characteristic in this category.  It is aggressively carbonated, which is not entirely inappropriate for the style, however I have never had a saison with this much gusto.  It is more like a mixer for gin than a beer on its own.  By the way mixologists, this beer would be phenomenal with gin, without so much bitter than tonic water typically offers.  It is moderately bodied, but only upon close inspection.  Normally, such a dry sensation in the mouth and high carbonation would have the drinker believe that they are consuming a lighter-bodied beer.  This illusion of a lighter body lends itself extremely well to the beer as a whole, keeping it as light and refreshing as the cucumber on which it is based.

Overall Impression 7/10
There are many strong attributes of a solid saison in this beer: its appearance that would not be out of place on a summer day, its aroma is distinct and strong, it would be unquestionably well used in beer mixology, its mouthfeel is excellent and correct for the style, and the cucumber flavor is distinct.  Too often a promised rare ingredient is underutilized or undetectable all together.  Cigar City has not made that error.  The criticisms of this beer are a simplicity that does not allow for some of the style's finer attributes to shine.  I miss the cloves and citrus, in both aroma and flavor, that can normally improve a good saison.  One could argue that cucumber has been used in place of the citrus, but I imagine a harmony between those two flavors would be better than either one alone.  The beer did not suffer horribly without the clove, as the pepper was still strong, but the clove is always a welcome layer of complexity.

Total 40/50
There is a lot of good attributes about this beer, but I'm just not sure it's for me.  The sour of a typical saison is not present, only the sour of a faint, sweet pickling.  I also miss some of the other typical saison ingredients, but won't cover those again.  Overall, it tastes like a highly-carbonated cucumber lager, but with the dry, crackery malts that are so often found in a well-crafted pale ale.  Unfortunately for cukes, they often carry such a clean taste that does not lend itself to particularly bold flavors, though they may be quite discernible.  I think that with a few supporting ingredients, providing they do not overpower, such as citrusy hops, cloves, and maybe some zest, this beer could truly be a knockout.  As it stands, it is a refreshing change of pace that I'm glad I tried, but there are likely other beers I will seek out first this summer.  Not that I have the luxury of such options, as CCB is not available in my area and this bottle was acquired in trade from my good friend Keith.  Thanks Keith!  And thanks to CCB for not being afraid to try new and gutsy things!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

New Glarus - Serendipity

It's not often that I come across a New Glarus beer that I have not yet sampled.  However, when drought beleaguered the Wisconsin cherry crop, interrupting the brewing process for a world-class fruit beer, Diploma Master Brewer Dan Carey stepped in with his usual dose of inspiration and creativity.  Enter Serendipity.  Snatching up what cherries could be found, New Glarus blended them with some other grand Wisconsin flavors courtesy of a bumper cranberry crop and a harvest of apples that somehow pulled through the dry months.  The brew is then aged in oak barrels and left to ferment wildly, thus giving the brew's name its double entendre for both its fermentation as well as its makeshift ingredients.  Would we expect anything less clever from New Glarus?  I hope not.  Let's pour!

Aroma 12/12
This sprayed a bit when I was opening it, implying a feisty level of carbonation inside.  I then proceeded to smell the beer and my notes look something like "HOLYMOTHEROFCHERRY+APPLEAMAZINGIWANNARUBITONMYFACE!!!1!1!"  You know, more or less.  This smells like fresh-pressed cider from your local apple orchard blended superbly with cherry's tart bite and a hint of cranberry's patient bitter.  At this point I do not smell much of the sour ale within, but I'm getting plenty of the same dark cherry tannin smell that makes New Glarus' Wisconsin Belgian Red such a smash hit.  This is a beautiful bouquet with plenty of wow factor!

Appearance 3/3
I was surprised at the generous level of head for this style.  It was microscopic bubbles forming a soapy texture that lived longer than I thought it would.  Sitting on the table the beer is a crystal clear, gem-like magenta.  When held aloft, the top takes the color of real apple cider, while the bottom becomes a vibrant sports car red.  I'm just looking at this glass and am so impressed that I'm shaking my head, my brow furrowed.  Good grief.

Flavor 20/20
Wow!  This is an amazing sour/fruit ale!  It definitely borrows heavily from their Wisconsin Belgian Red, but that's not a bad thing, especially if this beer is to be a substitute until better cherry crops can be grown and harvested.   Apples, sweet cherries, and tart cranberries abound, but soon the tannins take a stronger foothold and impose a bit of their "browned apple" flavor.  It may have been a bad year for cherries, but apparently the folks at New Glarus found the best in the batch because there is no shortage of cherry flavor here.  Well, there might be, but they have supplemented it so well with the other fruits that one can hardly notice and if they did they certainly wouldn't have anything about which to gripe.  The finish is more of the tannins, plus a subtle cranberry bitter that becomes a bit more bold once the other flavors have found their way down the throat.  Two things surprised me about the finish: First was that the cranberry bitter was so light.  For me, this is a good thing since I generally don't care for cranberries.  Second was the saliva gland-pounding pucker that this beer put on me.  After swallowing, my spit factories were cursing a blue streak and ordering all hands on deck!  This lasted well after the swallow and my jaw was tingling like mad.  Very neat!

Mouthfeel 4/5
Very light in the mouth, undoubtedly aided by the teeny, tiny carbonation that we saw comprise the head.  A beer this sweet could very easily become syrupy, especially after warming, but Serendipity avoids this trap with the liberal use of cherry tannins which help provide a bitter backdrop against which they splash their tart, sweet fruits.  The back of the mouth is left slick, but the beer itself never comes close to that sensation.

Overall Impression 10/10
Another excellent, world-class effort from the Careys.  They have gracefully traversed what will hopefully be a short gap between bountiful Wisconsin cherry harvests.  The aroma is second to none, the appearance is very appetizing, and the flavor is not to be considered a consolation at all.  In fact, I feel that it's so similar to their Wisconsin Belgian Red, that were I not told, I might not be able to tell the difference.  Of course, it's been a very long time since I've sampled that particular brew, but I feel that Serendipity doesn't fall very far from the tree (the cherry tree?).  If I am permitted one other nit pick it is that the beer makes the back of the mouth quite slick and sticky.

Total 49/50
I feel bad for noting those minor grievances with a beer that is so damn tasty, but that's why there is only one point deducted.  Sure there are things to improve on, but they are so minuscule that they hardly affect what is otherwise a completely pleasurable drinking experience.  For me this is a near dead-ringer for Wisconsin Belgian Red (thus its fourth reference in this review), but if I had them side-by-side I'm sure I would be able to discern their differences.  In case you couldn't tell, if you like other New Glarus fruit beers, you're bound to like this one as well.  Chalk this up in the category that can also be used to sway non-craft beer drinkers over to our team.  I suppose I was hoping I'd get something new and different from New Glarus, but I'm almost as happy that I did not.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Founders - Kentucky Breakfast Stout

Today friends, I review a beer that needs no introduction.  I knew that cracking open my sole bottle of KBS was drawing near immediately after I was unable to procure tickets to this year's KBS Release Party due to some errors on the part of some 3rd party ticket brokers.  I, like many people, had a ticket in my cart, but to no avail.  But I'm not worried!  The past has passed!  I will not be broken-hearted or bitter over things I cannot change nor correct.  All I can do is enjoy the current bottle I possess, given to me by my good friend Matt D.  The last time I was fortunate enough to get a pour of KBS was at 2011's Screw City Beer Festival in Rockford, IL.  It looked a little something like this.

This is what it looks like when I poo my pants.

I think it goes without saying that I have been looking for an excuse to drink this beer for quite some time.  Let's pour!

Aroma 12/12
This is like dark, melted chocolate made violent love to black, gourmet coffee after a bourbon-soaked evening.  The coffee is bitter and strong, burnt, dark roasted malt is abundant, and dark chocolate's sweetness rounds things out nicely.  Warmth is more present than the actual aroma of bourbon at this point, but it is not overpowering and you'd never guess this was an 11.2% ABV beer.  I want to wear this as cologne.

Appearance 3/3
I hate to make the generic simile that this beer pours like motor oil, but... it's more like filthy motor oil.  It's a host of cola and coffee browns with a yellowish tinge around the edges.  The head was barely present, but was a shockingly dark shade of brown.  This beer had legs like road tar.  It stubbornly hung on the sides of the glass and refused to be moved.

Flavor 19/20
I don't believe that there is one milliliter of this beer that is not dedicated to being saturated with flavor.  It's not the most intense thing I've ever tasted, but nothing is wasted to deliver all the intended flavors to your waiting taste buds.  It begins with a oatmeal-y, sweet creaminess, which blossoms beautifully into the sweeter aspects of the rich, rich chocolate.  Then the bourbon rolls in and things get rowdy.  This goes from being a luscious, savory, delectable slice of German double molten chocolate cake with a side of coffee, to a beer that tastes like every bite of cake is first dipped lightly in bourbon.  The chocolate and bourbon are definitely the stars here and the coffee takes a supporting role.  When held in the mouth, however, the coffee is the most persistent of the flavors and makes itself known once the others have faded.  Be patient though because, sweet Holy delicious chocolate booze cake, are those flavors strong and it's going to take a while.  The finish is mocha coffee sweetness plus the tingling heat from the bourbon while the aftertaste is pretty much the same aftertaste if you combined how your mouth feels fifteen minutes after drinking coffee and two minutes after sipping bourbon.

Mouthfeel 4.5/5
Wait, can I even give half points?  To that I say in my best Eric Cartman voice, "It's my blog, I do what I WANT!"  I've never done it before, but I've never felt compelled to do it before.  I basically want to say that the mouthfeel of this beer is remarkable, but I cannot say that it is perfect.  The bourbon is simply too strong and covers some of the other flavors that I know are in there.  To add to that, this beer is from 2012!  It has aged for almost an entire year!  I can't imagine how aggressive this beer would be were it fresh.  It is just shy of being full-bodied and while the carbonation is wonderfully subtle, the alcohol warmth adds enough tingle to be as interruptive as a higher level of bubbles.

Overall Impression 9.5/10 
Well, if I'm gonna start issuing half-points I might as well use two so that the final score is a whole number, right?  This is a supremely tasty beer and for a guy that hasn't eaten dinner yet, its 11.2% ABV is definitely a force to be reckoned with.  This coffee-licious, chocolate oozing, bourbon monster simply must be tried.  It tries extremely hard to live up to its gargantuan reputation and does an admirable job, even if it doesn't taste like God himself lactated it into each and every bottle.  This is a chocolately delight that I will be aging even more next time to mute the bourbon into submission.

Total 48/50
I know, I know... It doesn't take a whole lot of fortitude nor prowess to drink a great beer and give it a high score.  Big surprise, right?  However, I was expecting to give this beer a perfect score and perhaps that expectation worked against it.  It is a towering giant of chocolate and bourbon warmth with coffee riding its coattails the whole time.  The warmth is not insane, but it is enough where I do feel that it overpowers some of the other flavors that should definitely be making a contribution, namely the coffee.  If you're fortunate enough to see some after the April 1, 2013 distribution date, buy it.  Even if it doesn't live up to its ludicrously lofty expectations (and what could), you won't be disappointed.