Saison – The Real Elixir of the Working Class (featuring Victory Helios)

One of my favorite beer styles, and one of the least understood, is a crisp Belgian ale known as saison. It has its roots in the southern, French-speaking part of Belgium (Wallonia) and was first brewed over a century ago at the farms of the region. Traditionally, saison was a brown ale produced for the farmhands by the farmers as a means of sustenance during the physically intense growing and harvesting season. What the laborers needed was a thirst-quenching, nutritious, and calorie-providing beverage that would keep production high (and also keep from spoiling) during this most demanding part of the year. The farmers faced a challenge: because brewing in warm weather was out of the question due to lack of refrigeration (the result would otherwise be explosive fermentation), they needed to be able to brew a breed of beer at the end of winter that would last through October while keeping in mind refreshing qualities. I love saison for the same reason the Wallonian farmers did: it hits the spot on the hottest of summer days without sacrificing body. It’s also a godsend for pairing with food. More US craft breweries have taken an interest in this once-archaic style lately, and it’s no mystery as to why.

An Instant Pairing Success

Originally intended to be served as food, saison has evolved to be served with food. Garret Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewing and author of The Brewmaster’s Table writes, “if I were forced to choose one style to drink with every meal for the rest of my life, saison would have to be it.” The sheer versatility of saison in pairing is due to its crisp carbonation, acidity, powerful aroma, bitterness, and an earthy backbone. Dishes plentiful in warm spices will pair incredibly well with the saison’s aromatics, as will salads with sweet ingredients (I’m thinking goat cheese and apple or pear and pecan) due to saison’s acidity. I’ve never tried it, but I imagine that it would be an unbeatable match for rich and spicy Latin cuisine as well (try cilantro and pepper-heavy Mexican dishes). As far as cheese, saison’s earthiness and carbonation make it the perfect complement to rich Camemberts. I’ve paired Ommegang Hennepin with Herve Mons Camembert, and the result was magic. The mushroomy quality of the Camembert married with the funk of the Hennepin which simultaneously brought out the peppery quality of the beer. The more I think about saison and food, the more creative pairings come to mind.

From Wallonia to Southeast Pennsylvania

My first saison of this year is Helios, a local interpretation from Victory Brewing Co. of Downingtown, PA. A year-rounder, this bright golden ale is crisp, aromatic and flavorful; I love to re-visit it each year when the weather warms. Its name serves as an homage to its agricultural history when the farmhands would drink saison under the very Sun which brought the beverage’s ingredients to life. Victory offers a colorful description of Helios on the bottle’s label, and notes that they employ an imported Belgian yeast strain in fermenting the beer which lends zesty and peppery aromatics despite no deliberate addition of spices. This characteristic is a hallmark of Belgian ales and very important to saison. An explosive spicy bouquet is the first thing I look for in evaluating an example of the style. So how did Helios stack up to classic Belgian saisons? Here’s my tasting notes:

In the glass, Helios is a hazy dark golden color with an impressive rocky head and substantial lacing. Visually it is as remarkable as any Belgian great. Nowadays, saisons have generally the same appearance as Helios with a few exceptions (black saisons are popping up here and there). As I mentioned previously, they were originally dark ales, but owing to French influence they became lighter in color. The aromatics are overall malty and fruity, with notes of clove, cherry, lemon zest, a biscuity yeast scent lingering. It is medium-bodied, crisp and malt-forward in the taste. Helios is dominated by a fresh ginger character and a rush of spice in the finish. Hop bitterness is low. Its great drinkability stems from not only the body but a well-hidden 7.5% ABV. This particular bottle that I enjoyed was a major improvement from a batch I tasted last year; the aroma exhibited much more the traditional Belgian characteristics that I was hoping for.

Helios and The American Saison

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that I’m fairly critical of American takes on Belgian styles; the majority of them fail to mimic the classic examples. Perhaps it’s the old walls of the monasteries and brewhouses, the well-weathered brewing equipment, or the yeast indigenous to the brewing environment, but something tends to be missing. Helios seems to straddle the line between a rival to the Belgian greats and another ordinary American replica. It certainly has improved since earlier batches and visually is without flaw, but I think it could stand to exhibit a little more of that great funky Belgian yeast quality as well as a more powerful spicy aroma (my lowest marks were in the area of scent where my expectations are highest). It also really shines in the areas of carbonation and flavor complexity which makes it an excellent choice for experimenting with food pairing. I think that out of all of the Belgian styles being replicated in the US, saison seems to be brewed the closest to authentic Belgian examples, and Helios is no imposter. Other great American saisons include Yards Saison and Ommegang Hennepin (both local). However, Helios will always be a reliable selection and I hope Victory continues to brew this beer year-round.

Cheers,
Dan

A few other noteworthy details about Helios by Victory:

  • Brewery/location: Victory Brewing Compant; Downingtown, PA (29 mi. from Philadelphia)
  • Name/style/ABV: Helios; Saison, 7.5%
  • Availability: Year-round
  • Serving temp. and glassware: 55F; tulip
  • Pairing suggestion: Cheese – camembert; salads featuring apple or pear; many Indian, Mexican, Cuban dishes
  • Standout quality/area(s) for improvement: Stellar appearance; great body and carbonation. Needs to better showcase Belgian yeast aromatics.
  • Bold statement: Nothing bold to say either way this time. A hell of a saison, though.
  • My BeerAdvocate rating/BA community rating: A-/B+

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Helios label borrowed from examiner.com

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Spring Warmers?

Now that the days are getting longer and it’s warming up outside, we’re beginning to move further away from the days of hearty imperial stouts and potent barleywines. The need for these wintertime warmers is quickly vanishing as crisp thirst-quenchers are on the minds of most Philadelphia craft beer nerds. However, breweries are not quite yet releasing their warm weather offerings, but we’ll see these brews arriving to Philadelphia over the next few weeks. For now heavy, roasty beers are widely available at craft beer-serving establishments around the city. On my most recent beer-scouting trip to the Plymouth Meeting Whole Foods (the only PA location to offer beer), I was in search of some beers that would suit these late-March/early-April transitional weeks before spring is in full-swing. These brews, I thought, should be crisp and golden, but should still be full-bodied with a somewhat warming ABV around 6-7%. I was pleased with what I found.

One of these early springtime beers I came away with was Voodoo Brewing Company’s White Magick of the Sun, a cleverly spiced Belgian-style wheat ale. Opened in 2007, this Meadville, PA brewhouse boasts a line of craft brewed, oak-aged rarities available in large bottles and on-tap. Some of their lineup includes Black Magick – a 15% ABV imperial stout aged in 13-year-old bourbon barrels, Pilzilla – a complex unfiltered Pilsner, and Love Child – a strong fruit ale aged on passion fruit and berries and fermented with a Belgian yeast strain. I chose White Magick because having tasted it on several occasions previously, I knew its crisp bite and fragrant spicing would be the refreshing selection I was after. Spicing, however, typically reminds me of pumpkin ales and Christmas beers from autumn and winter from which I was specifically trying to depart. Yet the poetic flowery and earthy spice blend which enlivens White Magick, consisting of coriander, orange peel, juniper berries and peppercorns, perfectly reflects the spring season. Once the beer is decanted, an aromatic explosion occurs with no single spice taking a backseat to another. Despite the powerful spicing, a refreshing malted wheat character comes through along with funky Belgian yeast.

I was also impressed by the other components of this ale. It has a stunning appearance: hazy, yet vibrant golden with remarkable head retention that one rarely comes across (great head retention/carbonation I think is the hallmark of Voodoo’s bottle brews). The taste develops opposite of the aroma; wheat and yeast funk strike first followed by juniper and sharp peppercorn bite, finishing moderately bitter and slightly sour – perhaps because of the Belgian yeast or barrel aging (natural bacteria and wild yeast found in oak barrels contribute to souring while a myriad of flavor characteristics can be contributed to Belgian yeast strains). White Magick of the Sun is very crisp on the tongue yet it’s on the lighter side in terms of body.

Overall, this beer is super drinkable despite its potent, fragrant spicing. I think that it accomplished what I was hoping it would – serve as a bridge between winter and spring beer. The spicing reminded me of winter, but wasn’t anything typical of cold weather ales. The bright golden color was very enticing and visually quenched my thirst like a warm weather beer should. Also adding to its high drinkability and refreshing nature was the wheat malt backbone. Wheat is used in the highest percentage for this beer and was certainly an excellent choice of grain for this beer. I don’t think that these particular spices would suit non-wheat-dominated styles of ale. It didn’t quite hit the mark in terms of body – for a 6% ABV beer, I would expect something a little heavier. Because of this, it drinks a little more like a light summertime Hefeweizen. Regardless, I’ll have one of these in my fridge, ready to go, at all times throughout the spring and summer.

Cheers!
– Dan

Voodoo graciously gives us the ingredients of White Magick of the Sun and here they are as listed on the bottle’s label:

Wheat, 2 Row Belgian Barley, Unmalted Wheat, Spalter Select Hops, Coriander, Juniper Berries, 12 Varieties (of) Peppercorns, Sweet Orange Peel, Our House Belgian Trippel Yeast. 14 degrees Plato O.G. 3 Plato F.G. 30 IBUs, 6% alc.

Some additional details you should know:

  • Brewery/location: Voodoo Brewery; Meadville, PA (287 mi. from Philadelphia)
  • Name/style/ABV: Voodoo White Magick of the Sun; Witbier, 6%
  • Availability: Uncertain; most likely year-round
  • Serving temp. and glassware: 50F; tulip
  • Pairing suggestion: Beets and herb goat cheese salad
  • Standout quality/area(s) for improvement: Beautiful appearance and eloquent spicing; too weak in the body and mouthfeel
  • Bold statement: Drink and you’ll forget all about winter warmers.
  • My BeerAdvocate rating/BA community rating: A-/B+
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Ancient Ale #1 – Dogfish Head Midas Touch

The history of fermented beverages travels back 9,000 years to northern China where fruit, honey and rice were fermented to create a neolithic beer. Not much later was beer being brewed from barley in the Middle East. We now know this because we’re fortunate enough to have brew-loving archaeologists with us today who are applying their skills to the field of beer and wine history. Folks such as Patrick McGovern, biomolecular archaeologist and author of Uncorking the Past, are picking apart the ancient beer cans from places such as Latin America, the Middle East, and East Asia. At his laboratory in the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Anthropology, Dr. McGovern analyzes these pottery samples for microscopic evidence which points to the fermented beverages as former contents. His methods are so precise that he can tell which ingredients were used in their production. Utilizing his research, Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales of Rehoboth Beach, DE (see Rarity #1 – Dogfish Head Bitches Brew) recreated these ancient beverages with a series of “Ancient Ales.” This lineup includes Chateau Jiahu, Theobroma, Midas Touch, and most recently Ta Henket. You can find individual information on each of these brews here, but the focus of this review will be Midas Touch Golden Elixir.

The only offering of the series available year-round, it’s based on findings from McGovern’s analysis of pottery samples discovered in King Midas’ tomb in 1957 (located in modern-day Turkey). The tomb, nearly 3,000 years old, contained vessels that held food and drink for the funeral ceremonies of Midas. One of these offerings was an alcoholic beverage that was a potent hybrid of beer, wine, and mead (fermented honey). That elixir has been recreated as a 9% ABV ale brewed with barley, honey and muscat grapes, spiced with saffron. It doesn’t quite fit any traditional style of beer, but it can be best described as a spiced honey ale. The name “Midas Touch” originates from the Greek myth that everything King Midas touched turned to gold. And liquid gold it is – bright in color, and hefty in flavor and alcohol.

The biggest challenge in reviewing this beer was to imagine it as the replica of an ancient liquid artifact. Hop aroma and flavor are completely absent from this beer (though this is a similar occurrence in other conventional beer styles), and it’s only vaguely bitter. Barley malt is hard to discern against the complex sweet flavors that dominate each sip. Regardless, there’s some noteworthy features of this brew, so let’s get down to the details.

As you can see in the picture down on the right, Midas Touch is a shade darker than bright golden, and pours with a negligible haze and tempting, white head. Unlike draft pours of this beer that I’ve had which produce a flat, headless appearance in the glass, the retention was proper with some lacing. Sweet citrus notes (though not those associated with hops) of lime and lemon custard and a floral honey character hit the nose first which mingle with a pleasant grassy quality lent by the saffron addition. Malt notes struggle to appear, but are noticeable and turn up as doughy and sweet. Faint green grape and spice scents loom in the background but are quickly muddled by a strong alcohol essence that increases as the beer warms. With the first sip, I immediately perceived Midas to be a sweet beer on the verge of cloying. A rush of sweetness followed by big alcohol flavor is permeated by green grape tartness. An awkward pine note appears and vanishes quickly, leaving a somewhat unpleasant solvent and alcohol character lingering in the finish with the faintest suggestion of bitterness. On the tongue, Midas is medium-bodied, smooth and creamy thanks to smooth carbonation. It coats nicely without becoming too syrupy – a huge sticking point of mine on the texture factor.

From the pour to the last sip, I unfortunately became increasingly dissatisfied with Midas Touch. The beer looks wonderful in the glass, and smells fragrant and delicately spiced. From experience I know that honey and fruit aren’t the easiest ingredients to brew with, but Dogfish made them work well for this beer in terms of aroma and flavor. However, the high alcohol content of 9% is far too noticeable and makes the tasting experience hard to savor. It’s very sweet (though intended to be) – almost too sweet – and has me ready to move on to the next offering. Other than appearance and aroma, the other factor that keeps me from criticizing this beer further is the fact that it’s not a traditional style – it’s an experiment in living archaeology. This is what I love about Dogfish – their willingness to experiment and produce extreme ales that other operations are unwilling to brew. From a business standpoint, brewing and selling a beer whose recipe is informed by an individual’s interpretation of ancient pottery analyses is a serious gamble. But the brewers’ understanding and skill in using non-traditional ingredients to make an aromatically-pleasing beer is precisely why it does well in the market.

If you like your beer strong and on the sweeter side, you’ll find a friend in King Midas’ blend of booze reincarnate. Hop nerds, stick with the 60/90/120 Minute IPA lineup.

To ancient ale – cheers!

- Dan

Some things to know about Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch:

  • Brewery/location: Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales; Milton (brewery) and Rehoboth Beach (brewpub), De (72/85 mi from Philadelphia)
  • Name/style/ABV: Midas Touch Golden Elixir; spiced honey ale, 9%
  • Availability: Year-round
  • Serving temp. and glassware: 55F; snifter, chalice, wine glass
  • Pairing suggestion: Cheese – Gorgonzola; Pad Thai; spiced coconut rice
  • Standout quality/area(s) for improvement: A great example of brewing with honey, very aromatic; alcohol and solvent notes are harsh
  • Bold statement: King Midas had pretty odd taste in booze.
  • My BeerAdvocate rating/BA community rating: C+/B
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Revolution and Beer; Yards Ales of the Revolution Series – Part 1: George Washington’s Tavern Porter

I’ve been inspired by the recent political events in Egypt. So, I decided to write a three-part entry on brews from a local favorite: Yards Brewing Company’s Ales of the Revolution series. There’s not much of a connection between Yards and Nile country, but it’s much easier to get my hands on this line-up than anything from way over there. It’s worth it to mention that beer is brewed in the Middle East by a handful of breweries. Al-Ahram Beverages from Egypt (contract brewers of European macro beers as well as Egyptian alcoholic and non-alcoholic exclusives) is a large brewery distributing in Africa, the Mideast, and a few other parts of the world. But as far as I know, there’s no Mideast brews available for the US market, so for now our city’s own revolutionary-inspired brews will have to suffice. And suffice they do.

Yards Brewing Company has been making beer in Philadelphia since 1994, but began crafting the Ales of the Revolution series in 2003. A partnership with City Tavern, this series of three ales are produced according to the centuries-old recipes of the Founding Fathers. The innovation and brilliance of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin – all avid homebrewers back in their day – are recreated and available year-round for craft beer nerds and early American history nerds alike. This line-up includes General Washington’s Tavern Porter – a rustic brown porter brewed with molasses, Thomas Jefferson’s Tavern Ale – a strong, golden English ale, and Poor Richard’s Tavern Spruce – a sweet, golden brew of molasses bittered with spruce. Your best option for tasting this series to head over to the Yards brewery on Delaware Ave. just past Spring Garden St. for a $5 sampler consisting of all three plus a fourth selection. Otherwise, the series is available in six-packs and variety cases.

I’m starting out the series with a review of General Washington’s Tavern Porter. This is one of my favorite porters on the craft beer market today, and I wish I could taste it as George himself brewed it 300 years ago. However, the Yards crew is doing an outstanding job of recreating it. This porter is brewed with a dose of molasses as was common back then. Barley was not as widely available as it is today, so molasses was often used in its place. It lends a very homespun aroma and flavor to the beer – earthy, minerally, faintly bitter, and somewhat smoky and spicy. It’s dark in appearance, but just brown enough to allow some light to shine through to show off beautiful crimson highlights. I love holding a glass of the GW porter up to the light to admire its visual complexities. A great winter beer, it packs a sturdy 7% ABV. Try adding this to chili or drinking it with a hearty stew. The heavy roasty qualities are complementary to the spice and boldness of such wintertime meals. In fact, winter is when I find myself drinking offerings from this series the most. Now, let’s get into the specifics.

Most recently, I’ve had this brew from the bottle and from the tap. However, my greatest GW porter experience was when I had it on cask and poured from a hand pump at Varga Bar on the corner of 10th & Spruce in Center City. I made notes and reviewed it on BA back in April of 2010, and this is the review I’m going to use. I’m choosing it because the descriptions of flavor and aroma are the same as recent batches, as well as appearance and body. The cask temperature was perfect for this robust English style and really allowed for those complex flavor/aroma notes to stand out.

So I’ve already given a brief description of the porter’s appearance: dark brown (almost black) with beautiful dark red highlights. The cask pour I received looked chewy (thick) and inviting and arrived with a tan, creamy head. This remained present all of the way until the last sip and left sticky lacing down the sides of the glass – signs of a hearty, hoppy, and well-poured brew.

I think this porter is much more aromatic and complex than most examples of this style. The molasses characteristics hit the nose first giving a blast of those nuances I mentioned earlier – spice and smoke – and a scent similar to dark brown sugar. A faint dried cherry note along with subtle roastiness complement the molasses factor. The sweet, earthy notes present themselves once again with the first sip, followed by a thin layer of cocoa. Dark fruits follow with a roasty conclusion. Bitterness is minimal, and it finishes on the sweeter side. This brew isn’t about the hop profile – the addition of hops to the GW porter is strictly to keep the beer preserved and from becoming overly sweet. Faint bitterness is key in keeping the porter well-rounded while allowing for all of those rustic characteristics to become more detectable.

The GW porter lands approximately in the middle of the scale in terms of body. This particular pour was exceptionally creamy and smooth, which was most likely the result of soft, natural cask carbonation and the hand pump delivery. And, despite its overall sweetness and strength, the beer is very drinkable – a great option for a growler fill at the brewery (you’ll want a second or third pint). I’ve also seen a bourbon barrel-conditioned version recently. I’d be interested to see how a little wood and whiskey develop this beer. I think that the typical vanilla and toasted coconut notes one picks up from barrel conditioning wold complement the faint cocoa and cherry qualities, therefore creating a porter experience I could only dream about. And, bourbon always makes a terrific, flavorful addition to dark brews (try The Angel’s Share by the Lost Abbey if you aren’t convinced). After all, booze was often on the minds and breath of our Founding Fathers.

To revolution and beer – cheers!

- Dan

A few facts about General Washington’s Tavern Porter that you should know:

  • Brewery/location: Yards Brewing Co. (0 miles from Philadelphia – our city’s own!)
  • Name/style/ABV: General Washington’s Tavern Porter; English porter, 7% ABV
  • Availability: Year-round
  • Serving temp. and glassware: 50F; pint glass, or stoneware
  • Pairing suggestion: The porter’s smoky, spicy, roasty and cocoa notes will work wonders for a stew – add it right in there! It may also pair well with chocolate desserts.
  • Standout quality/area(s) for improvement: Complex aroma and flavor; body should be fuller to match the alcohol content and flavor
  • Bold statement: If this was just a general’s beer back in Washington’s day, it’s certainly Presidential now. Our first would be proud of Yards’ recreation.
  • My BeerAdvocate rating/BA community rating: A/B+
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Cheese & Beer Event Recap and Future Rumblings…

First, enormous thanks to my friends and blog-followers that came out to the Kite & Key event on Wednesday. Within 15 minutes of the cheese table opening, the place was packed. It was super special seeing a lot of old friends as well as family showing up to get in on the cheese and special brews. Thanks to Brandon from my department, Suzy from Sly Fox, Wendy from Dogfish Head, and Jim and Jake from the Kite & Key, our event was a major success. The brews of the night were without a doubt the Randallized Midas Touch and 75 Minute IPA from Dogfish, along with Odyssey and Ichor from Sly Fox. The special pairing for Midas – Rogue Creamery’s River Blue wrapped in pear brandy-macerated grape leaves – was a crowd favorite, as was the Jasper Hill Cabot Clothbound cheddar which paired incredibly well with Odyssey. Make sure you stop by Whole Foods Callowhill and redeem those coupons for more of your event favorites – for free!

Today, Brandon (my fellow WF cheesemonger and department buyer) and I received the sacred blessing for future beer and cheese pairing events. At this point, it looks like Belgian Cafe on 21st & Green St. is going to be our next venue with a late March/early April date. We’re planning on keeping our beer and cheese selections as local as possible, so this next event will feature a local brewery, too. I’m hoping for a meet-the-brewer and meet-the-cheesemaker event for all of the craft beer nerds (and specialty cheese nerds) out there.

Here’s a list of what was pouring and pairing at Wednesday night’s event:

Dogfish Head
Midas Touch – Rogue Creamery River Blue wrapped in pear brandy-macerated grape leaves
75 Minute IPA – Jasper Hill Cabot Clothbound cheddar, St. Agur
Indian Brown – Uniekass Reserve 18-month Gouda, Stilton

Sly Fox
Odyssey – Jasper Hill Cabot Clothbound cheddar, St. Agur, Aged Mahon
Saison VOS – Saxon Creamery Green Fields, Cypress Grove Purple Haze, Herve Mons Camembert
Ichor – Aged Mahon, Stilton, Uniekass Reserve
Dunkel Lager – Bruder Basil, Fratelli Medoro

All of these pairings were perfect matches and instant favorites. Check back for latest about our upcoming pairing events!

Cheers,
Dan

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February 23rd Craft Beer Event!

It’s not quite the beginning of the week, so there’s no need to be overly serious and fun-avoiding. It’s not quite the weekend, so you don’t have anything already planned. So, spend your Wednesday evening with myself, Sly Fox, and Dogfish Head at the Kite & Key on 18th & Callowhill. I’ll be representing Whole Foods Callowhill’s cheese department along with a fellow cheesemonger as we pair our personal cheese selections with the brews of Sly Fox and Dogfish Head – two of my local favorites. The event is going to start at 6pm, and our cheese offerings are free! Sly Fox and Dogfish brews are going to be served up in 10 oz. pours for special rates.

From Dogfish, there will be the Indian Brown Ale, Red & White and two super special rarities: the 75 Minute IPA and a “Randallized” Midas Touch. Sly Fox will offer Saison Vos, Ichor (a Belgian-style quad), Dunkel Lager, and Odyssey (an imperial IPA).

As soon as I’m off the clock, I’ll be indulging in my 30th Dogfish variety – the 75 Minute IPA which is a special blend of the 60 and 90 Minute IPAs. I’ll also be jumping at the opportunity to sample the aforementioned Randallized offering. That refers to a brew that’s passed through a special tap designed by the folks at Dogfish, known as “Randall the Enamel Animal.” The original idea was to create a chamber that would allow fresh draft beer to pass through a healthy quantity of whole-leaf hops. The alcohol from the beer would then leech aromatic oils from the leaves and make already hoppy brews, like the 90 Minute IPA, even hoppier. The most recent Randall version allows for the use of any flavor-enhancing ingredient the operator desires. On Wednesday, the Kite & Key will be pouring Midas Touch through brandy-macerated pears. We’ll be “pearing” a special cheese for this serious brew: Rogue Creamery’s River Blue wrapped in pear brandy-macerated grape leaves. We haven’t tested out this combination yet, but we’re sure it’s going to be unbelievable.

I’m eagerly counting the minutes until 6pm Wednesday. You’ll be sure to learn a ton about pairing cheese and beer. And, if cheese isn’t your thing, the beer offerings alone will be worth checking out.

Cheers,
Dan

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The Coming of the Anti-Unearthly

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a review for the Southern Tier Oak-Aged Unearthly Imperial IPA. I proclaimed it to be the best beer that I’ve had in a year, and I’m still singing its glories. The other day I discovered the Southern Tier Iniquity Imperial Black Ale – the self-described “antithesis of Unearthly.” The thought of Unearthly having an evil twin put me at the brink of having a stroke. I purchased a bottle and thus, the beat goes on.

If you haven’t tasted the Oak-Aged Unearthly yet (or just the standard non-oaked Unearthly), consider purchasing Iniquity along with it. After tasting and reviewing both, it became apparent that the best imbibing experience is having them side-by-side. Or, at the very least, one after the other. The Unearthly/Iniquity dyad is a lesson in the aromatic offerings that imperial light and dark ales have to offer. Iniquity, like Unearthly, is an explosion of flavor and aroma. It’s important that in reviewing Iniquity that I compare it to the O-A Unearthly so you understand the sharp contrast that takes place. In short, the aggressively-hopped Unearthly produces sweet fruity, floral, and earthy aroma/flavor notes, while Iniquity boasts chocolaty, roasty, and coffee-like qualities.

Let’s begin with the style, as it’s important to keep the brewer’s intentions in mind when reviewing a beer. Beer styles are not regulated by any one official organization; there is also no government oversight in this area. As far as the feds are concerned, a beverage is “beer” if it has hops and a small percentage of barley. However, there are various organizations and prominent individuals defining styles that have a much more expansive understanding of beer; the Brewers Association, a well-established group representing the nation’s craft brewers, has developed very specific technical details for beer styles. Their guidebook is based on historical considerations, prominence in the beer market and consumer acknowledgment of styles. Based on the constituency as well as its contributors, this is the source for beer styles that I trust most.

A chart of potential beer colors.

This guide is available for free, and it’s an indispensable resource for homebrewers like myself. You can find it here. Despite the fact that many craft brewers consider the details of this guide when brewing a beer, it is strictly up to the brewer to interpret the style – and that accounts for the exceptional variety and uniqueness that we have in the American craft beer market.

There’s plenty of classic styles that are well-known and easily recognized, such as stouts, porters, pale ales, and IPAs. But the less common and catch-all styles require discussion and understanding. Iniquity is one of these styles – an imperial black ale. Before I poured this beer, I read the label description as well as others’ reviews. It was coming off as if it were an IPA, brown ale, porter, or even a barleywine. The black ale, as defined by the Brewers Association, should pack a “medium high to high hop bitterness, flavor and aroma” with a “medium-high” alcohol content and “medium” body. The taste/aroma should be more like that of an IPA – “Fruity, floral and herbal.” It should also be underscored by the malt element of a porter or stout with a “moderate degree of caramel malt character and dark roasted malt flavor and aroma,” but no roasty bitterness should be detectable. The color should be near black to pitch black. This style is occasionally referred to as a “black IPA,” which I think is the best way of summing up the description formulated by the Brewers Association. Other examples of black ales include 21st Amendment’s Back in Black and the Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale by Stone. Keeping the “black IPA” idea in mind as well as others descriptions of this beer, I set out to review. That said, I still had questions about how this would differ from hoppy versions of porters, such as Flying Dog’s Gonzo Imperial Porter.

This brew is served in a 22 oz./650mL bottle and features the same ingredients list as the O-A Unearthly. Here’s the label specs:

Alc. 9.0% by Vol.; 21 degrees Plato; 2-row pale malt; debittered black malt; kettle hops: chinook, cascade; hop back: willamette; dry hops: cascade, centennial

It definitely features a hop profile similar to that of the O-A Unearthly, and it’s similarly hopped with multiple varieties in three vessels. Since the only two malt ingredients are pale malt and black malt, I imagined it would be an imperial IPA with a very dark appearance – perhaps a black Unearthly. I served it at 42F (as the label suggested) in a large snifter to capture the intense aroma. The pour revealed a brew that was not quite black; Iniquity is very dark brown with rich copper and chestnut highlights when held to the light. A coarse and bubbly head developed and slowly receded to a thin surface covering, settling out as a ring of soapy foam with great lacing.

The pour unleashed an unbelievably complex aroma of sweet milk chocolate and strong coffee-like roastiness. Secondary smoky and spicy aromatics complemented the dark maltiness exceptionally well. A hint of citrus was also detectable, and unfortunately the only evidence of hops employed in the brewing and conditioning processes. I think that the brewers’ intention for Iniquity was to have the strong fruity and floral notes of the Unearthly contrasting to the chocolate/coffee/smoky notes that decidedly overpower the hop aromas. I’m not sure that I’d know the difference if the brewers chose to use less hops and fewer hopping methods. However, it strikes me as irrelevant because we’re concerned with the dark malty flavors here. The taste reflected the aroma, yet the smokiness appears up front followed by bittersweet chocolate and roasty coffee notes. Vanilla rounds out and mellows the heartier notes and finishes with a rum-like flavor. It lacks strong bitterness, like that of a stout, because it’s brewed with debittered black malt. Regardless, the absence of bitterness was a bit of a head-scratcher considering the volume of hops.

As an imperial ale, Iniquity is very sturdy; it’s heavy and full on the tongue. The carbonation is very, very smooth and this yields a wonderful creamy texture. It has a slick and silky finish with no residual syrupy quality. The alcohol content is much more apparent in Iniquity than Unearthly despite a lower percentage by volume. Regardless, at 9% it’s severely drinkable and this is due to the impeccable mouthfeel and carbonation – very appropriate for this style. It terms of this factor, it was indistinguishable from the O-A Unearthly.

So my overall impression is as follows: if “black ale” is synonymous with “black IPA,” this certainly isn’t one. It doesn’t quite fit the Brewers Association outline for the style. It’s not quite black (but close), it definitely does not showcase a medium-high hop bitterness, and fails to develop fruity or herbaceous aromas. It seems to fall somewhere in between an imperial brown ale and an imperial porter. While that sounds like a pretty damning criticism of the ale, I rated Iniquity very high simply because it’s a well-constructed brew in every respect. The color is gorgeous, it holds a head fairly well, the aroma and flavors are outstanding, the texture is perfect, and the drinkability is nothing but pleasurable. I think that craft beer nerds looking for the next IPA experience in a black ale should look elsewhere; this is a pleaser for the brown ale crowd looking for something a step up. The barleywine-passionate will also find a friend in Iniquity. If we examine it as purely a dark beer, it’s damn near perfect. Chocolate, coffee, roastedness, smokiness, and spice are all typical characteristics of dark beers. The complexity, levels, and degrees through which these notes appear in Iniquity are impeccable; the vanilla and rum notes in the flavor are an exceptional match.

Unearthly/Iniquity – an expression of good and evil crafted by the hand of God? I think so.

Cheers,
Dan

A few facts about Iniquity that you should know:

  • Brewery/location: Southern Tier Brewing Company (266 mi. from Philadelphia)
  • Name/style/ABV: Iniquity; American Black Ale; 9% ABV
  • Availability: Year-round
  • Serving temp. and glassware: 42F; tulip, snifter
  • Pairing suggestion: Chocolate and coffee notes will complement chocolate desserts; roasty and smoky notes will serve as a great pairing choice for spicy stews or grilled vegetables; cheese: 3-year+ aged gouda
  • Standout quality/area(s) for improvement: Body, mouthfeel, and carbonation are all perfect for the beer and imperial style; hop aromas are largely muted against the complex malt profile; needs to be darker and more bitter for the “black IPA” style.
  • Bold statement: Iniquity plays an important supporting role to my favorite beer from the past year.
  • My BeerAdvocate rating/BA community rating: A/A-

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SRM Color Chart borrowed from “The Screwy Brewer.”

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