Non-Holiday Holiday Brews – An Update

Christmas 2011 isn’t a thing of the past yet, and over here at the ATTN CRAFT BEER NERDS family estate, there will be plenty of craft brews consumed amongst family well into the evening. Before more beer is moved from the garage and into the house, I want to throw out a few quick updates as to what I’ve been enjoying on this merry-est of days.

Right now, as I type, I am admiring the work of the folks down the interstate at Brooklyn Brewery. The 2011 Black Chocolate Stout is a master lesson in brewing with cocoa; this sticky-sweet Russian Imperial Stout features an invigorating roasty quality that complements a heavy addition of chocolate. I’m sipping it slow as flavors reminiscent of chocolate-covered coffee beans and candied cherries make themselves known. Also asserting its presence is an ABV of 10%.

Last night I fought the chill of a winter Pocono evening with the offerings of Southern Tier and Dogfish Head. One of the most recent Dogfish creations, Ta Henket – a hieroglyph-informed resurrection of Ancient Egyptian beer brewed for gods and slaves alike, was paired with our Christmas Eve dinner. Low in ABV but packed with flavor complexities, this medium-bodied ancient ale is bready, floral and herbal in the nose with a subtle sweetness and biscuity wheat-like malt backbone. Plenty of ingredients went into the brewing of this beer including chamomile, za’atar (a oregano/thyme-based Middle Eastern spice blend), fruit of the doum palm, emmer bread, and yeast snatched from the Egyptian air. There’s an awesome (and complicated) little story about the intellectual and physical creation of this beer, and that can be found here as narrated by Dogfish’s founder Sam Calagione.

I also enjoyed DFH’s Burton Baton – a sturdy blend of Old Ale and Imperial IPA aged in an oak vessel featuring a hopping rate of one pound per barrel. This beer presents another level of flavor over other Dogfish Imperial IPAs, such as the 90 Minute, in that vanilla notes (albeit faint) from the oak aging come through to complement the citrusy hop flavors. The DFH crew gives fair warning that the oak aging tends to mask the bold 10% ABV, and I have to agree. BB ranks among my favorite Dogfish creations (out of 34 that I’ve tasted), and enjoying this beer with dessert makes it extra special. You’ll find that sweet dried fruit notes will be an unbeatable match for your Christmas fruitcake. Seriously!

However, neither of the two Dogfish brews came before Southern Tier Brewing Co.’s classic American Porter. Black, very roasty, faintly burnt and a tad bitter, it is flavorful and plenty clean. A great sessionable wintertime brew.

I hope your craft beer selections for this weekend have been as fulfilling as mine, and have a safe holiday! I’ll be back with more soon.

Cheers,

Dan

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

2011 Holiday Brews, Part 1

With Christmas only a few days away, it’s time to visit the local bottle shops to stock up on craft beer for this weekend’s events. In my last post, I highlighted a few of the area’s best offerings that were returning for 2011-2012. I’ve had a chance to taste of a few of these, and I’m more than content with I’ve had so far. It is my favorite time of year for seasonal brews and rarities, and it’s no secret why.

I started things off this year with Troegs Brewing Co.’s Mad Elf, a local classic brewed in the strong dark Belgian vein. It is just as sweet and spicy as ever this year, with cherries, honey and Belgian yeast lending to its huge aroma and flavor. At 11% ABV, it is one to sip slowly and share with friends and family. Mad Elf is one of those brews that makes a great gift as well.

Adoration Ale by Cooperstown, NY’s Brewery Ommegang is another sturdy, warming Belgian-style beer brewed for the holiday season. Spices are at the forefront of Adoration which meld wonderfully with an already spicy yeast quality. Cardamon, coriander, mace, and orange peel are among the seasonings that flavor this boldly sweet beer. A strong backbone of Belgian malts gives creates a chewy body, while natural carbonation lends a moderately coarse texture. The corked 750mL bottle also makes for a nice (giftable) presentation.

Dogfish Head Chicory Stout is my sessionable wintertime beer of choice. I usually pick up a case of this coffee stout and stretch it throughout the cold weather months. Among other high-gravity winter brews, Chicory Stout is on the lower end of the alcohol spectrum at 5.2% ABV. Roasty notes dominate this beer due to the addition of coffee, chicory, and dark malts. Imbibe this brew from a stoneware mug. I always find it difficult to drink just one.

Finally, a standout Philadelphia-brewed holiday beer that is returning this year after its 2010 debut is Winter Wunder by Philadelphia Brewing Company. On the drier side, this is another spiced winter warmer that showcases a beautiful copper and red-highlighted appearance with a sweet and fragrant nose. Warming nutmeg and cinnamon notes alongside piney hops give way to a flavor that is full of earthy and honey-like. It is one of the best values as far as winter warmers go. The nostalgic label makes it yet another great gifting option.

Christmas Wish List

Southern Tier Krampus – an imperial helles lager, Sly Fox 2011 Christmas Ale, and Fegley’s Rude Elf’s Reserve are still on the Christmas beer radar and I will update the blog with some tasting notes once I’ve broken into them. As far as non-holiday rarities, Dogfish Faithfull and Victory Dark Intrigue are resting in the cellar right now, but I also expect to have tasted these within the week. I have also acquired, but not yet consumed, Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace.

There’s a handful of beers that I have backlogged, and while they’re past their release season, they’re still worth mentioning. Some of these include Victory Yakima Glory – a black IPA, and Dogfish Head Immort – a strong American brown ale.

Until the next update, be sure to have a safe and healthy Christmas. Also be sure there’s plenty of local craft beer at the table.

Cheers!

Dan

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rotting pumpkins and bare tree limbs mean one thing…

…so long pumpkin beer, ahoy winter warmers.

I’ve been away from the site for a little while, but I figured the best way to get back in to the swing of things is to give a brief overview of this year’s local pumpkin beer standouts as well as some discussion of the already-released and forthcoming holiday brews.

This year, I started as early as possible when the first pumpkin ales hit the shelves in mid-August. It seemed that most of the local offerings weren’t available quite as early as some of the other national craft selections, but before long, there was a plethora to choose from. I rounded up as many of the local pumpkin ales that I could, and here’s a brief overview:

Southern Tier Pumking (NY), 8.6% – This imperial-ized pumpkin beer was for me the best of the season. From the eye-catching burnt orange color through the impressively fragrant aroma, Pumking is not like the others. Southern Tier has reinvented the style here; rich vanilla, spice, and butterscotch notes combined with a full, creamy body create a comforting flavor profile reminiscent of graham cracker pie crust. I’ve squirreled away a bottle for aging as I think the complexities of this beer will develop over time. Pumking gets a well-deserved A+.

Dogfish Head Punkin (DE), 7% – Punkin had always been my autumn favorite, until what I think was a disastrous year for this beer in 2010. Prior to last year, Punkin was big on spice while earthy pumpkin notes managed to hang on in the finish. The body was creamy, rich, and inviting. This was good as it got. The 2010 release came and delivered an all-around lackluster version with dialed-back spice and a weaker body. I invested in a case that year, and it was a struggle to get through. Towards the end, a few bottles ended up finding their way into pumpkin bread, stews, and ice cream floats. This year, however, was a great improvement on the last attempt; spicing was great with an appropriate body and great malt flavors.

Brooklyn Brewing Post Road Pumpkin Ale (NY), 5% – Always a go-to, very drinkable pumpkin beer, I was looking forward to this one as well. This year, Post Road appeared great in appearance and aroma, showing off some great orange highlights with an profile characteristic of roasted pumpkin seeds. Tasting revealed a mildly-spiced brew with a light body and crisp carbonation. It is overall subtle and not overdone. Post Road is a great choice if you’re looking for a sessionable pumpkin beer for a Halloween or Thanksgiving party, but otherwise it is fairly simple.

Manayunk Yunkin’ Punkin’ (PA), 5.5% – If you’re looking for a Philly-produced pumpkin beer, head for the brewpubs. As fas as I’m aware, Yards and Philadelphia Brewing Co. don’t offer a pumpkin beer. Yunkin’ Punkin’, like Post Road, leans on the toastier side of things both in aroma and flavor giving it that similar pumpkin seed character. Spicing was weak, and pumpkin flavor was restrained. I wasn’t thrilled with this one, but it is my 2011 winner for most clever name.

Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin (PA), 8% – I think that this is one of their best offerings, as I can’t say I’m a huge fan of most of their brews. This was the best of the group in term of appearance; deep brown with rust-colored highlighting gave Imperial Pumpkin the aesthetic edge over the rest. My favorite thing about this beer is the great pumpkin meat aroma and flavor you get up front; spicing is secondary to the squash. A boozy, spicy aroma along with bready malt and sweet flavor give this beer a generally warm flavor profile. It is heavy in both texture and alcohol, so go easy on this one.

Stegmaier Pumpkin Ale (PA), 5.5% – Ever since stumbling upon Stegmaier’s stand-out Holiday Warmer (now Winter Warmer) in 2009, I became intrigued by this branch of the Lion Brewery in Wilkes-Barre. The Pumpkin Ale, however, is a little strange. Unlike its holiday counterpart, some faint adjunct and alcohol notes come through in the aroma. Definitely not desirable for their craft product line. It had good pumpkin pie flavor with a full body, yet the syrupy-slick finish made this beer a little bit of a challenge to finish. Regardless, it is a great value.

Present pumpkin ale inventory is dwindling in most places as distributors and bottle shops are forced to make room for October/November-released holiday brews. In fact, many breweries which produce notable winter beers do not offer a pumpkin variety; I consider their early released of winter warmers an attempt to cut short the pumpkin beer season for which they do not participate in. Regardless, and provided I can find it, I’ll drink pumpkin beer well into the winter (and it’s a must-have for Thanksgiving). Hopefully these short reviews come of use for those of you who, like me, are still in search for squash malt beverages. Otherwise, keep these in mind for next autumn (late summer, really).

Tis the season…

I started this blog last year around the holidays when I was overwhelmed with one of my favorite heavily-caloric craft beer genres – Christmas ales/winter seasonals. For the most part, these specialty winter warmers are big on alcohol and often feature the addition of spice or another ingredient to make it special. Old local faithfuls that I’ll be looking forward to this year include Troegs Mad Elf, Sly Fox Christmas Ale, and Dogfish Head Chicory Stout. In fact, each of these are out now – a limited amount of Mad Elf, a strong Belgian-style ale brewed with cherries, was released in October and surely won’t be around for long. Sly Fox Christmas Ale once again arrived in corked 750mL bottles with the vintage on the label (great for vertical tastings), and Chicory Stout, as I just learned, is on store shelves as four-packs this year (as are their other seasonals).

For more winter brews on the stronger fireside-side, be sure to check out Southern Tier Brewing Co.’s three wintertime beers – Krampus Imperial Helles Lager, Old Man Winter old ale, and Choklat imperial stout. Another heavy hitter (which I regrettably missed out on last winter) is Ommegang Adoration, a 10% ABV Belgian strong dark ale. This spiced beer from the famous Upstate New York Belgian brewery is cellarable, giftable, and consistently receives excellent reviews. Additionally, Ramstein Winter Wheat by High Point Brewing Co. of New Jersey is one not to be missed. It is a strong dark wheat beer, or Weizenbock, coming in at 9.5%. Fragrant in aroma, complex and fruity in flavor, and rich in body, this is the ultimate winter warmer. If it hasn’t been released yet, it will be shortly. Look for it on tap for a special treat.

Philadelphia Brewing Company released Winter Wunder for the first time last year – a 6.5% winter warmer featuring an awesomely nostalgic label and brewed with figs, dates, and various warming spices. Last year, this brew had a stellar aroma with superb drinkability. It is a great value, and surely one I’ll keep on-hand all winter. Finally, keep an eye out for Brooklyn Brewery’s Winter Ale which features a rich, toasty and bready combination of malts with a warming 6.1% ABV. This beer is particularly great if you are in need of a break from spice-heavy, super boozy holiday offerings.

Check back soon for more updates as well as in-depth reviews of the season’s best local craft beer selections.

Cheers,

Dan

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Quick Mentions, Pumpkin Preview, and DFH/Sierra Nevada L&L 2.0

Hope you’re all enjoying the post on wild ales – after some research and tasting, part two will feature a few more examples of the genre. Otherwise, there’s a few more updates to share before the next feature post.

New Season Approaching, and New Brews Approaching Faster

If you follow me on Twitter, then you already know that I’m nearing disastrous levels in my beer cellar. I’ll be restocking ASAP, so look for a few new features in the coming weeks. I’m especially looking forward to picking up an armful of fall seasonals, including the plethora of pumpkin ales that are going to overwhelm shelves and taps in the next few weeks. Just the other day, the Foodery tweeted that they are already carrying five pumpkin beers, including Southern Tier Pumking. However, as of 2009, Dogfish Head Punkin has been at the top of my list for fall brews. That year was phenomenal for their special autumn offering, but 2010 didn’t really do it for me. It seemed like the spicing was dialed back considerably, and the body felt a little lighter. I’m hoping for something a little more like the ’09 this time around. I have one bottle left of that edition, and I’m apprehensive about uncapping it. Regardless, I plan on tasting as many pumpkin brews as possible this fall, and eventually I’ll declare a top beer. Keep an eye out for Brooklyn Brewing Post Road Pumpkin and Weyeracher Imperial Pumpkin for some other great local options.

Homebrewing Exploits

Patrick Theaker and I recently brewed our first batch of beer since this past winter – the last effort being a Christmas pale ale brewed with rosemary, aged on cranberry and pomegranate. The present batch – bottle conditioning at moment – is a single-hop imperial IPA. At 8.5%, it’s a big boy. We sampled the beer out of the secondary fermenter where it was being dry-hopped for a week, and the verdict was that it’s our best endeavor yet. It’s a bit on the sweeter side, but the hop aroma is huge and the bitterness is subtle and balancing. We’re particularly proud of the fact that it’s an all-grain brew mashed and boiled entirely on a kitchen stove. And, while it’s not a terribly efficient method, it hit all of the technical marks for the style.

Recent Tastings, Future Tastings

Quickly ascending to the top half of my all-time favorites list is a collaboration weizen between Brooklyn Brewery and Schneider (G. Schneider & Sohn) of Kelheim, Germany. Both brewing companies produce this beer, and each do so a little differently. I had the Brooklyn version, and it was an incredible experience. I’ll be featuring this beer next, so stay tuned.

Speaking of collaborations, I learned today on Beer News that Victory Brewing Co. is going to be releasing a new beer, Volver (you can view the label here). The joint venture is the work of the Downingtown brewery and chef and local restaurateur Jose Garces. There’s no information about in on Victory’s website, but from the label it is described as a “wheat beer with a citrus sparkle.” Sounds interesting.

This summer, Victory also produced a seasonal namedSummer Love, a hoppy yet well-balanced crisp warm weather brew. Grab it while this beer and the warm weather are still with us.

Festina Peche by Dogfish Head was also a faithful standby this summer, which I briefly mentioned in Sour & Funk, Part 1. I’ll be sure to include this beer in the next wild ale post, because I have a lot of good things to say about this one. Again, there’s only a few more weeks left until we start seeing Punkin on the shelves, so pick up this summer seasonal while it’s still around.

The Return of Sierra Nevada/Dogfish Head Life & Limb

In 2009, opposite-coast breweries Sierra Nevada (CA) and Dogfish Head (DE) teamed up to produce Life & Limb, a relatively small batch of a strong dark ale that was highly sought after. This special beer was made with ingredients from the breweries’ owners’ family farms – maple syrup and barley. I made it my #1 priority to seek out this beer, and I had the privilege of tasting Life & Limb on tap on two separate occasions. I loved every aspect of it, and I wish I was able to procure a bottle of it to age for a while.

In June I read that Life & Limb v. 2 would be released late this month or in early September, but in a larger quantity. Like a lot of rarities in the world of craft beer, the original release was something to savor and keep fond memories of. My brother and I were thrilled to find it on tap at a Dogfish event at the Grey Lodge in Northeast Philly – tasting it only after a proper toast by DFH founder Sam Calagione. I have some mixed feelings about the re-release, but I’m still proud to be a member of the exclusive ’09 club.

That’s it for the update – keep checking back for some new features and some reporting on the first of the 2011 fall brews. For some more quick updates, be sure to follow me on Twitter – AttnCrftBrNrds.

Cheers!

Dan

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sour & Funk, Part 1

In this post, we’re talking wild ales – beers that have been intentionally contaminated with bacteria or fermented with a wild yeast strain, typically of the Brettanomyces variety. Brett beers in particular are characteristically barn-yardy and overall funky in flavor, while brews laced with bacteria are sour and acidic. They’re an acquired taste, and some brewers even combine both wild yeast and bacteria to achieve a truly unique profile. While the flavor characteristics of wild ales are usually considered “off-flavors” in traditional ales and lagers, the distinction between beer brewed with a traditional strain of yeast and those brewed with a wild variety is enlightening. Wild and sour brews will change the way you think about beer. Some well-known sour styles include Oud Bruin, Lambic and Berliner Weisse – old school European styles traditionally brewed by continental greats such as Liefmans, Cantillon, and Lindemans. But some of the finest purveyors of wild beers are located stateside, and include breweries such as Russian River (CA), Allagash (ME), and Ommegang (NY).

The Featured Brews

I’m featuring two American wild beers as examples, both of which I’ve tasted recently. The first is the locally-crafted Wild Devil (a Brett-fermented version of the Hop Devil IPA) by Victory Brewing Co. of Downingtown, PA. The other is another import from a recent trip to Massachusetts – Samuel Adams American Kriek of the Barrel Room Collection (I have yet to see anything from this series in the tri-state area, so I figured it would be a worthy grab). Here are my tasting notes plus a few details to consider:

American Kriek by Samuel Adams (Boston, MA)

Pours a deep chestnut brown with ruby highlights; a large beige/pinkish head forms and quickly settles into a ring of carbonation with great lacing. Aroma of tart, sweet cherry up front with a musty and bready note in the background. Vinous and candy-like sweet characteristics present in the nose follow through into the taste. It’s fairly sweet and tart with massive cherry flavor all the way through. I’m not getting any flavor notes characteristic of barrel aging, however – it’s fairly one-dimensional. Great malt backbone with little to no hop flavor detectable. Light/medium body with prickly carbonation. Finishes sweet. Overall fairly drinkable and not too tart. The acidity is balanced nicely by the sweetness.

  • Brewery/location:Boston Beer Co. (Samuel Adams); Boston, MA (267 mi. from Philadelphia)
  • Name/style/ABV: American Kriek; Belgian-style wild ale brewed with cherries (Kriek), 7%
  • Availability: Rotating; 3 beers in the collection
  • Serving temp. and glassware: 50F; tulip
  • Pairing suggestion: This would probably best complement a fresh salad with apples and a vinaigrette dressing. Would also pair well with stone fruit cobblers.
  • Standout quality/area(s) for improvement: Cherry is a great fruit for brewing, and this beer showcases its aroma and flavor well; it’s a barrel series, but I didn’t detect any barrel-conditioning flavors
  • Bold statement: From the shape of the bottle to the flavor, this beer is a novelty. However, it’s a great alternative to a Belgian fruit lambic.
  • Overall rating: B

Wild Devil by Victory Brewing Company (Downingtown, PA)

Pours a hazy, golden/amber. It’s super carbonated and the bubbles are huge; the cork came out of the bottle with no hesitation. If I didn’t have my hand on it, it probably would have broken a window. Definitely has that “farmhouse” aspect. Complex nose with strong notes of cherry, lemon, and menthol. Generally floral, barnyardy and sweet with a funky and vinous edge. There’s a medicinal/chemical off-aroma there that also reminds of me of household cleaning supplies, which isn’t exactly pleasant. Dominated by harsh bitterness; piney, resiny notes barely poke through. Very dry, slightly sour and moderately astringent finish. I was looking forward to an explosion of hop flavor, but it really fails to establish itself with any certainty. Light-medium body with coarse carbonation. Victory is trying to marry German with American with Belgian, and the beer simply doesn’t convey this. I’m not picking up on a German malt character or American hops – just overpowering bittnerness, funk and off-aromas. It’s a struggle to get through this bottle, even when sharing it.

  • Brewery/location: Victory Brewing Co.; Downingtown, PA (29 mi. from Philadelphia)
  • Name/style/ABV: Wild Devil; Belgian IPA/Wild ale, 6.7%
  • Availability: It’s not mentioned on their website, but most likely a seasonal offering.
  • Serving temp. and glassware: 45F; snifter or tulip
  • Pairing suggestion: Cheese: an earthy Camembert, Maytag or Rogue River Blue /li>
  • Standout quality/area(s) for improvement: Good example of the qualities that Brett yeast imparts; hop profile needs to be reworked to stand up against the wild flavors
  • Bold statement: If this is your first wild ale, you’ll never come back for another.
  • Overall rating: C+

Some Extra Thoughts

The two beers I reviewed are not among the best wild ales that I’ve had, but American Kriek is definitely worth trying (if you can find it around here). It’s decent – my biggest criticism is that for a “Barrel Room Series” beer it doesn’t really convey much of a barrel-aged flavor. Otherwise, it has plenty of cherry flavor and aroma and a delicate sourness. I would suggest this brew for someone who wants to explore the world of sour beers without committing to anything over-the-top in terms of funky flavor.

Wild Devil, while providing the flavor that one would expect from a Brett-laced beer, didn’t live up to its description on the label (which described the beer within as a hop-forward with German, American and Belgian influence). It reminds me of a bit of homebrewing wisdom – you can ferment any style of beer with Belgian yeast (a la Brett) and you’re going to end up with something that tastes like a Belgian beer. However, that doesn’t mean it’s going to rival the Belgian greats. I think this is the problem with Wild Devil – the beer itself contains nothing substantial to back up the use of the funky yeast. It doesn’t remind me of a Belgian IPA as one would expect it to, and the flavor profile is without any real harmony. Unfortunately, the only discernible qualities of this beer were its bitterness, funkiness, and medicinal aroma – I could barely detect the pungent hop scent that Hop Devil typically displays.

It is really important to note that wild/sour beers are among some of my favorite in the world, so this post shouldn’t be taken as a damning criticism of the variety. In fact, there’s plenty that I recommend – both local and far away. For an example of an American brewery producing phenomenal wild brews, check out Russian River’s offerings when you can find them. Consecration and Supplication are among the best of their large line of wild brews, and aren’t super rare. Meanwhile, around here, Dogfish Head produces a summertime seasonal in the rarely-brewed Berliner Weisse style called Festina Peche. It is very tart, sour, crisp, a thirst-quencher and a great introduction to the sour side of beer. And it’s brewed with a hefty dose of fresh peaches. Festina Peche retails for about $12 per four-pack, while cases run about $50. Russian River’s brews tend to be a little pricey, but are well worth the splurge. Look for their 500mL corked bottles.

Hopefully the future will bring a few more wild beers produced by local breweries. The genre and all of its corresponding styles aren’t widely brewed to begin with, and a lot of experimentation of turning common styles wild doesn’t often prove successful. In the meantime, explore some wild craft beers and share your findings.

Cheers,

Dan

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

An Imperial-Sized Post

Preface: Drinking craft beer and reviewing it isn’t exactly a chore that you need to beg me to do. The tasting portion of each post is undoubtedly the easiest part to write because I’m required to indulge in craft beer to complete the task. The tricky part, which happens to be the bulk of my posts, is expanding upon a specific beer topic and discussing it. In the past I’ve written in-depth about hops, beers for in between seasons, etc. In short, that part which requires me to tap into the critical part of my brain accounts for my present failure to update the blog in quite some time. This post in particular was not easy to write, and the tasting portion has long been completed (I think I re-visited those duties a few additional times). The topic for discussion was elusive, but I’m fairly certain I’ve pinned it down and developed some talking points.

Styles on Steroids

The ales I’m featuring in this post are Hop’solutely from Fegley’s BrewWorks of Allentown/Bethlehem, PA and Samuel Adams’ Imperial White. Out of a long personal backlog of beers needing review, these two stood out because they’re both experimental/non-common styles of beer. Hop’solutely, a “Triple IPA,” made my list because it was the favorite beer of 2010 as named by Joe Sixpack, beer writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. And, other than the legendary Pliny the Elder by Russian River, Hop’Solutely was the only Triple IPA I’ve seen on store shelves (a quick BeerAdvocate search yielded only a handful of examples from brewpubs and very small breweries). Samuel Adams Imperial White was a four-pack that jumped out at me while in Massachusetts a couple months ago. I never before heard of the “imperial witbier” style before, so I figured this would be a great opportunity to try something new.

Judging the Un-Judgeable?

I was looking forward to getting down to business and reviewing Hop’solutely and Imperial White, but a puzzling question stood in the way: can these beers be judged in the same way that one would judge a classic Bristish, German or Belgian style? Can they even be judged at all? To answer those questions, the proper thing to do is consult a beer style guide. Among several that exist, two prominent guides frequently accessed by pros and homebrewers alike are the Beer Judge Certification Program’s Style Guidelines for Beer, Mead, & Cider and the Brewers Association Beer Style Guidelines. The first of these has been widely-cited by periodicals such as the Wall Street Journal and Philadelphia Inquirer. These manuals are important because they are regularly updated to reflect the dynamic nature of the beer industry; as more US beer drinkers become turned on to craft beer, the demand for new and exciting beer increases. So, if the market is receptive to a new style and examples are brewed with frequency over a period of time, then a new style may be added to the BA or BJCP style guide. In fact, the first page of the BA guidelines clearly states that all published styles have been included only after intense scrutiny and multiple considerations.

I consulted each guidebook, and both “triple IPA” and “imperial white” are absent from the style list. However, both bodies observe a “specialty beer” category for out-of-style examples such as Imperial White, while Hop’solutely would qualify in the Imperial IPA field; in essence, no beer goes un-judged. While the specialty categories allow for plenty of submissions, they don’t set acceptable data ranges as you would find with the classic styles. For example, the BJCP guidelines stipulate that a Berliner Weisse must have a color on the SRM scale between 2-3, the bitterness must be between 3-8 IBUs, etc. These specific technical details are also considered against the example brew’s flavor profile. If Sam Adams’ Imperial White were being judged according to the BJCP’s specialty beer category, the judges would be looking for a cohesion of aromas and flavors, and more importantly, an adherence to the style the Belgian white style. Hop’solutely, on the other hand, would be subject to the strict details of the imperial IPA category.

The Reviews

Finally, my questions of judge-ability had been answered. If either of these ales were being inspected in competition, they would be held to the same degree of scrutiny as a well-crafted Trappist beer. I read the style specifications and recalled imperial IPAs and witbiers that I’ve tasted recently, and I thought about the two brews at hand. These brews, Imperial White and Hop’solutely, aren’t necessarily experimental, but they both (inherent in their titles) claim to push the boundaries of a traditional style. This is the sort of brewing that craft beer nerds love; it takes a traditional style that breweries have re-created thousands of times over, and emboldens it. Therefore I was expecting some serious flavor, strong malt backbones, a complex hop profile on the Triple IPA, and a fragrant aroma from Imperial White. Booziness is implied in both styles, and certainly each beer complied: Imperial White comes in at 10.3% ABV, while Hop’solutely boasts a sturdy 11.5%. For the sake of keeping my senses sharp, I tasted these beers on separate occasions.

We’ll start with Imperial White. This is a Belgian-style white ale, known as a “witbier,” which gets its name from its very pale appearance. Always cloudy, it is pale golden in color with a dense, white, well-retained head. Witbiers have a hallmark spicy aroma which comes from the addition of coriander and orange peel. Zippy Belgian yeast also lends a strong clove characteristic to the nose. In the same way that hops balance the sweetness of malted barley, the spice is employed to counter the flavor of un-malted (raw) wheat. Many prefer to consume white beers in warm weather as thirst quenchers, and with a light/medium body, crisp carbonation, and low alcohol content, it’s no secret why they pair well with summer weather. This is a style that is overall mild, so the idea to give it an imperial boost is pretty intriguing.

When I poured Imperial White from the bottle, I noticed immediately that it had a dark orange/copper color – slightly too dark for the style. A substantial head failed to form. The aroma contained some spiciness, but not nearly as fragrant as I expect from a witbier (I would also have expected the spiciness to be more pronounced with this imperial version). Ripe banana, yeast and alcohol were most apparent in the nose. The taste was generally sweet with butterscotch and caramel notes encountered in many witbiers. Some spice characteristics were also present with a mildly sweet floral note in the middle, finishing with low bitterness. However, as the beer warmed, the booziness became very pronounced and overwhelmed the subtle flavor notes. The beer had a wonderfully creamy texture, but it was full-bodied and slick, therefore not appropriate for the style. Overall, Imperial White sacrificed the summertime drinkability and flavor for heavier texture and booze.

Imperial White was an interesting tasting experience, but I was generally disappointed with how far it had strayed from the traditional witbier style. I was hoping for a much more satisfying experience in Hop’solutely. I had heard plenty of great things about this beer, and Joe Sixpack’s praise had me intrigued even more. As mentioned before, Hop’solutely fits into the imperial IPA category. The term “imperial” is interchangeable – other breweries instead use “double,” but Fegley’s decided to use “Triple” to convey a mammoth dose of hops and barley. In this superstyle, a beer judge would be specifically looking for artfully-crafted layers of hop aroma and flavor that is the result of a combination of hopping techniques. A moderately sweet malt backbone is acceptable as imperial IPAs not only increase hops, but barley as well. Judges, however, do not want to notice the high alcohol percentage as a boozy flavor.

In the glass, Hop’solutely was a very hazy golden color with brown undertones. A bubbly head formed but didn’t retain its size for very long. The BJCP guideline for this style’s appearance is pretty broad, but it wasn’t the most visually enticing imperial IPA I had ever seen. Upon the first whiffs, this brew came off more like an American pale ale than a “Triple” IPA. The complex hop profile that I was expecting was barely present and struggled against a sweet cotton candy-like maltiness. The hop aromas that were discernible, however, were nice and fresh. Also interfering with the nose was a faint, solvent-like alcohol aroma in the background. The flavor was further disappointing – sweetness again went untamed with only a mildly bitter finish. Perhaps this was the result of Fegley’s attempting to achieve a very high ABV, but in the end, their efforts failed. On the tongue this brew is most pleasant; full-bodied and creamy, it only lacks in carbonation which runs a little flat. In the end, I wasn’t impressed – Hop’solutely has a long way to go before it can compete with the other imperial IPAs.

Back to the Drawing Board?

My experiences in tasting Imperial White and Hop’solutely left me wondering: are these beers, which were brewing forays in the “imperializing” of styles, failures in experimentation or examples of a much-needed practice to keep craft beer vibrant? Is there something profound in a brewery that just brews classic styles without any deviation? To answer those questions, one only needs to look at a list of the world’s most epic, sought-after, and legendary beers such as Beer Advocate’s Top 100. At the top is Russian River’s Pliny the Younger – a triple IPA. Among the top ten are bourbon, coffee, and vanilla bean stouts. And slightly further down the list are sour, flavor-packed “wild ales” such as Russian River’s Supplication. While the classic styles, like American pale ale and English bitter, are well-represented in the market, these intense styles combined with the use of unconventional ingredients are the reason why I and many others are so enthusiastic for the product. Craft beer is consistently and often dramatically changing. We’re fortunate to have local breweries like Dogfish Head of Milton, DE which has resurrected ancient brews and produces the world’s strongest fruit beer. Without boundary-pushers and style-benders, craft beer wouldn’t be positively growing at the rate that it presently is. While I may not have been particularly moved by either of the brews featured in this post, there’s plenty other of imperial varieties and experimental ales that captivate me on a regular basis, like Southern Tier’s Unearthly and Great Divide’s Yeti Stout. These are great examples of big beers that offer massive flavor without overwhelming the consumer, nor are they sickeningly sweet or solvently boozy. Still, I’ll always keep an IPA, brown ale, or porter on hand because these, among many other classic styles, are the foundation of craft beer; a well-constructed, balanced example of these styles takes skill and years of dedication on the part of the brewmaster. In conclusion, I say “cheers” to the brewers of extreme beers that challenge our palates and push the industry’s creative envelope. Brew on.

Cheers,
Dan

A few other noteworthy details about Imperial White and Hop’solutely:

  • Brewery/location: Boston Beer Co. (Samuel Adams); Boston, MA (267 mi. from Philadelphia)
  • Name/style/ABV: Imperial White; Imperial Witbier, 10.3%
  • Availability: Year-round
  • Serving temp. and glassware: 50F; tulip
  • Pairing suggestion: Salads with fresh, crisp greens. Great with breakfast or brunch, goat cheese omelettes in particular!
  • Standout quality/area(s) for improvement: Great flavor characteristics until the booziness develops; appearance is way off for a witbier, imperial or otherwise.
  • Bold statement: This witbier was imperialized so much that it’s a completely different style. I’d be terrified for anyone thirst-quenching with this one.
  • My BeerAdvocate rating/BA community rating: B-/B-
  • Brewery/location: Fegley’s BrewWorks; Allentown, PA (48 mi. from Philadelphia)
  • Name/style/ABV: Hop’solutely; Imperial IPA, 11.5%
  • Availability: Year-round – it’s a flagship beer
  • Serving temp. and glassware: 55F; snifter
  • Pairing suggestion: Mexican food and spicy cuisine in general. Sharp and pungent cheeses; Stilton. Randy Mosher suggests rich desserts such as carrot cake.
  • Standout quality/area(s) for improvement: Great full body typical of an imperial IPA; overly sweet and not nearly a complex enough hop profile.
  • Bold statement: It’s a somewhat hoppy malt liquor.
  • My BeerAdvocate rating/BA community rating: C+/B

—————————————-
No ownership of any image in this post is implied.
Hop’solutely image borrowed from
Samuel Adams image borrowed from

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Honorable Mentions for April!

The past few weeks have been busy and left little time for writing reviews, but rest assured my time away from the blog included acquiring new brews for posts coming soon. First, I want to throw out a few honorable mentions that aren’t going to be featured with full reviews:

Aprihop by Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales (Milton, DE) – This isn’t a fruit beer; rather, it’s an enticingly aromatic IPA brewed with apricots. It pours a beautiful copper/amber and features a bouquet of fresh hop notes and ripe apricot. While it’s just as drinkable as the 60 Minute IPA, be wary of it’s 7% ABV. Get it while it lasts – Festina Peche, DFH’s summer Berlinner Weisse release, is fast approaching the taps!

Choklat by Southern Tier Brewing Co. (Lakewood, NY) – This is just one of a handful of imperial stouts brewed by Southern Tier; the others include Oat, Mokah, Creme Brulee and Jah*va. I’m on a mission to taste all of these brews from which Soutern Tier calls the “Blackwater Series.” Choklat is the second strongest of the five, coming in at 11% ABV. It’s almost pitch-black, sticky sweet, and heavy on chocolate aroma and flavor – like a melted Hershey’s bar. Great served with, or as dessert. It’s a winter seasonal from 2009 that I’ve been aging; Jah*va and Mokah are the present releases.

Felur de Lehigh by Philadelphia Brewing Co. (Philadelphia, PA) – Here we have a golden Belgian-style ale somewhat of the farmhouse vein. Brewed with a hearty dose of lemongrass, ginger, and a blend of a few other herbs, it offers a potent nose to complement the allergy season – if you’re not overly congested, anyway. Regardless, you’ll appreciate the stellar thirst-quenching property.

Ludwig’s Revenge by Roy-Pitz Brewing Co. (Chambersburg, PA) – Rauchbiers (German-style smoked beers) are typically a bit of a challenge for the vegetarian craft beer nerd (i.e, me). You can have an example that offers a delicately sweet smoky aroma, a rich hickory perfume, or essence of grilled ham. The deal was, I’ve never tasted anything by RP, saw it on tap, went for it. While the smokiness was a bit overpowering, it was nothing ham-like. There’s a pleasant cocoa note and honey-like sweetness that complements the smoky aroma and taste. Drinkability is only average here; the body is a little too light for my liking and features a tartness that I wasn’t quite expecting.

For the next few weeks, I’ll certainly have my work cut out for me. My cellar is well-stocked with plenty of local, review-worthy brews. The following list also includes a few kinda-locals – those were acquisitions from a recent trip to Massachusetts where I made sure that I brought back a few New England craft beers. Here’s the future lineup:

Saison by Yards Brewing Co. (Philadelphia, PA)
Hop’Solutely by Fegley’s BrewWorks (Allentown, PA)
Exit 13 Chocolate Stout by Flying Fish (Cherry Hill, NJ)
Cuvee Series #2 by Southern Tier Brewing Co. (Lakewood, NY)
GestAlt by Haverhill Brewery (Haverhill, MA)
Imperial White by Samuel Adams/Boston Beer Company (Boston, MA)
American Kriek (Barrel Room Collection) by Samuel Adams/Boston Beer Company (Boston, MA)
Peeper Ale by Maine Beer Company (Portland, ME)

There’s a lot of styles and a handful of breweries in that list that haven’t been reviewed yet, so keep your eyes peeled for exciting updates. If you’re a Twitterer and not following my blog’s profile, search for AttnCrftBrNrds – there’s plenty of honorable mentions that don’t make it to the site, so start following!

Cheers!

Dan

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment