I was a metal kid in the late 80’s. Although I liked the music, it was the album art that drew me in. Iron Maiden, Dio, Ozzy, any album with demons or creepy magical glyphs on the cover was fair game for my tape collection when I was about twelve. See, back in the late 80’s before Viggo Mortensen and Peter Dinklage, it was hard out there for fantasy geeks. We didn’t strut proudly down the street shaking our D&D dice in their little bag, shouting about how geeky we were to passersby. Just being seen with a paperback of The Lord of the Rings was enough to get your ass kicked. But wearing a T-shirt or pin with album art from a metal band was, if not exactly “cool”, at least likely to scare people away so they’d leave you alone. It was a subtle way to get your geek on while people around you just assumed you were into something more socially acceptable than fantasy, like consuming heavy drugs or worshipping Satan.
The parental shock value of the album art was a factor as well. As an honor-roll student in the suburbs of a southern American city, there were few ways I could terrify my parents more than by hanging a life-size poster of Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie the Head next to my bed, where it hung for almost ten years. My wife – who has been with me since we were teenagers – still has fond memories of that poster, recalling our first evenings as a couple (studying, always studying) under the leering visage of Eddie in his Somewhere in Time cyborg form. And they say teenage boys know nothing of romance.
Today is the twentieth anniversary of my first date with that wonderful woman I married, so I’m celebrating the past by recapping two beers that I think the twelve-year-old me who bought that poster would be proud of.
Eddie himself stars in my first tasting, snarling at me in 19th-century dragoon uniform from the label of a pint-sized bottle of Trooper by Robinsons Brewery, named for – and featuring the art from the 1983 single release of – the Iron Maiden song “The Trooper”.
Billed by Robinsons as a hand-crafted real ale “developed” by Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson with “true depth of character”, it sounded about right for my taste. It poured a deep orange-gold with a thicker head than I expected, with the brassy, crackery aroma I love in an English ale. The taste was fine, a little astringent and earthy with a hint of slick, oily mouthfeel like one gets with oats in the grain bill, though I don’t know if there were any in this one. I don’t know about “true depth of character” but it was a pleasant enough pint at a sessiony 4.7% ABV. A friend of mine who is both a homebrewer and an Iron Maiden obsessive described the beer as “not as good as you want it to be”, and that was true. It’s a gimmick, plain and simple, and I bought into it; the beer was pleasant but not as remarkable as the song it’s named for. I could drink it again, but would rather drink my own English-style homebrew … though I will save the bottle.
Drawn in a style reminiscent of a seventeenth-century woodcut, a three-headed demon towers over a burning sea of tortured mortals beneath a ring of runes and glyphs on the label of Blakkr Imperial Black Ale, a collaborative brew between the self-proclaimed “unholy trinity” of Three Floyds Brewing in Indiana, Surly Brewing in Minnesota, and Real Ale Brewing in Central Texas, brought together by their “love of brewing and love of metal”. The black double IPA is available in 4-packs of – what else? – metal cans. Twelve-year-old me would totally have worn a pin of this label on his jean jacket.
How’s the beer? Well, it’s black. With a thick beige head and a citrus aroma that leans towards bitter orange and lime. But it’s surprisingly drinkable for an imperial brew with an ABV of 9%. I don’t find it syrupy at all. There’s a crisp bitterness on the front end from traditional American pale ale hops, though as I empty the glass and my palate becomes fatigued, I notice the hops less and the roastiness of black malts comes to the foreground, like a dessert of dark chocolate cake after a pungent salad. But for all that, the beer isn’t that memorable. It’s tasty, and I would drink it again (good thing since I have three more) but I’m not sure that it lives up to the awesomeness of the label art.
Which means we have a trend here. Wicked art that satisfies your inner twelve-year-old and tie-ins with your favorite metal band are neat, but only get you so far in craft beer. Both beers could have been worse, but could have been better. I’ve learned I’ll buy a beer once on a gimmick, but I won’t rush out and buy it again. And it seems that you can’t judge a beer by its label.
HBO’s Game of Thrones came back with season four last night. Hordes gathered in the homes of HBO subscribers for viewing parties, cosplayers donned their finest, and social media lit up as the geekosphere celebrated the return of a beloved show to weekly television.
Beer geeks had reason to celebrate too, as the show’s return meant the release of the third installment in Brewery Ommegang’s series of Game of Thrones-themed seasonal beers. Dubbed Fire & Blood, the latest release pays homage to House Targaryen – that’s the one with the dragons – with ancho chilis (presumably the fire) in a Belgian-style red ale (the blood).
The color of this beer is absolutely striking. When I hear “red ale” I’m usually imagining some middle-of-the-road amber kind of beer. This one was deep, dark red. Beautiful ruby highlights – impossible to see in the picture above, unfortunately – beckoned me to smell and taste it. This was an exercise in delayed gratification, because the rocky head was so thick and persistent I had to wait several minutes before it subsided enough to drink. So I contented myself with smelling it, taking in the tart lemon freshness and barely detectable hint of chili pepper.
I hate to say it, but I found Fire & Blood drinkable and yet unremarkable. The flavors promised on the label and website – spicy chili, “assertive” hops, dark fruit – just didn’t manifest for me. The chili pepper was detectable only when I looked hard for it. The hop presence was faint and the dark fruit notes were muted by the extreme dryness of the beer.
Not that disappointment came as a surprise. I love everything I’ve ever had with the Ommegang label on it except for the three GoT beers they’ve released. The first – Iron Throne Blonde Ale, released in March 2013 – was decent enough but sort of ruined for me by excessive hype. Take the Black Stout, released last fall, was interesting with its star anise and licorice, but fell short of my expectations. I’m glad Ommegang is making these beers, because anything that promotes awareness of craft beer is good. But I keep hoping that one day they’ll brew one that delivers as intense and memorable an experience as the show itself.
So what’s a Zyme Lord to drink when watching the rest of the new season? Not to worry! I’ve got my own GoT-themed beer on tap: Wit Walker Wight Ale (recipe here).
This beer that I made primarily to have something sessionable on hand for parties has turned out to be one of my own main pours these days. It’s an enticing cloudy straw color (again the photo above does it little justice) with a thick fizzy white head that dissipates quickly. There’s a faintly footy Belgiany aroma coupled with a hint of clove and spice. When it hits the palate, the blood orange comes out in full force – not overpowering the beer, but providing a backdrop of bitter citrus and zest that bounces effervescently on the tongue. I’ll be glad to finish a keg (or two?) of this beer as the season progresses.
It isn’t often that I face off one of my homebrews with a commercial beer. But when I do, it’s encouraging that my own beer can come out the winner. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ommegang and will continue to support their efforts to bringing beer awareness to GoT fans and vice versa. When the fourth GoT beer comes out this fall, I’ll buy a bomber or two. I’m just that big of a geek – for beer and for the show. But as a backup, it’ll be nice to have my own GoT-themed beer on tap so I can drink the beer I want, when I want. After all, that’s what homebrewing is about.
I took a trip for my day job last week to San Diego, an area known to many as the home of Stone Brewing Company. Stone is of course a force to be reckoned with in craft brewing, and some have called them synonymous with the American IPA style. But before I got deep in pints of the old powerhouse, I celebrated the relative local freshness of some beers from my other favorite West Coast breweries.
The first beer I had after landing was a Firestone Walker 805. These guys aren’t actually located in San Diego; their brewery is in Paso Robles in the Central Coast area of California (which, having lived in Southern California, I can tell you is considered practically a different state). But Firestone Walker is a perennial favorite of mine. I routinely stock several bombers from them in my cellar (their Wookey Jack Black Rye IPA pairs astoundingly well with a coffee-chipotle rubbed steak we cook at chez Zyme Lord twice a month). So I appreciated the chance to drink a Firestone somewhat closer to its home than usual. 805 is a blonde ale – not my favorite style but appropriate before dinner – and it exemplified the style: light, with a hint of noble hop character. The color was darker than I expect from a blonde, but that could have been the fault of dim lighting in the hotel bar where I drank it. The beer was also flat, which I’m sure was the fault of the hotel bar. Unfortunately, the lack of carbonation made the light apple-fruity notes common in blonde ales (and part of why I don’t care for them) ever more apparent. Too bad … but I’ll try it again if I find it on tap at a more trustworthy establishment.
My second beer, also at the hotel bar, was a Fathom India Pale Lager from Ballast Point. This is a San Diego brewery, and if I’d had more time in the city I would have loved to pay them a visit. They produce fine beers from their easy-drinking Sculpin IPA to the South Asian punch-in-the-face Indra Kunindra, and Fathom did not disappoint. I’ve been generally skeptical of this newcomer style called IPL, but Fathom showed me exactly why lager yeast is an exciting addition to a hop-forward beer. The ferment was clean and crisp, allowing the hops to take the stage with no estery fruitiness or sweetness like you may find in even the best made IPAs. I also found the malt profile perfectly calibrated to let the hops and lager crispness shine: there was very little crystal malt if any. Maybe some dextrin or Cara-pils in very slight amounts, but none of the caramel that plagues so many American IPAs (not the best made ones). As for the hops so deftly spotlighted, they exploded with delightful grapefruit and lemon verbena aroma and flavor, a similar profile to my memories of Sculpin. I wondered how similar the worts are for those two beers before yeast is pitched. I won’t say Fathom has made me give up my IPAs for their bottom-fermented cousins, but I am no longer skeptical.
My last beer before leaving San Diego – indeed, from the Stone Brewing Co. brewpub in the airport – was Stone Go-To IPA. A new offering this year in another trendy hop-forward style, the session IPA. I enjoyed it, finding it exactly what it purports to be: a beer with a ton of hop flavor and aroma that you can’t quite pin descriptors on but that you can drink all day. Pleasant, but it didn’t really surprise me. And I’m not sure I’d “go to” this session IPA sooner than another such as Founders All Day IPA. But I’m a fan of the session IPA trend; I prefer session beers and am glad they’re making a comeback. It’s a welcome change from the imperial everythings we’ve been getting so much of on shelves and in gatherings of homebrewers for so long. And at 4.5% ABV, it was perfect to get me in the mood for several hours of red-eye flights back home.