With highland-like winter winds dropping the temperature outside to near freezing and the tune of “Auld Lang Syne” still in my head, it’s no surprise that my thoughts turned to Scotland for my first cellar beer of 2013. My attention was captured by a couple of bottles from BrewDog that I’ve been cellaring for the better part of a year.
I consider myself a BrewDog fan. Based in northern Scotland, they’ve earned a reputation for extreme beers. Three of their beers – Tactical Nuclear Penguin, Sink the Bismarck!, and The End of History – were freeze distilled to achieve ABVs of 32%, 41%, and 55% making each the “strongest beer ever made” at the time it was released. I stopped into their brewpub in Edinburgh twice while visiting the UK in 2011 and tried both Tactical Nuclear Penguin and Sink the Bismarck!. Served at a premium price in tiny pours (I believe they were 50 mL, not quite 2 ounces) and made for sipping, they weren’t drinks I would ever reach for when I wanted a “beer”, but they were enjoyable, unique and worthy of the recognition they received worldwide.
But BrewDog’s history of record-chasing hasn’t brought them unanimous appreciation at home. They’ve courted controversy, been targeted by industry watchdogs, and feuded with London-based international beverage giant Diageo. A couple of UK natives I’ve spoken to have even told me they didn’t appreciate BrewDog bringing American-style brewing excess to the British Isles, though their growth and success suggest that’s a minority opinion. In any case, from here in the USA – where excess in brewing often manifests itself through the same old tricks: higher gravity, more hops, stranger microbes, etc. – BrewDog’s innovative excess looks very original to me, and I’m glad they’re in business.
A 12-ounce bottle of BrewDog Paradox Isle of Arran Imperial Stout, barrel aged in scotch whisky barrels and 10% ABV, sounded perfect to stave off the cold. I put it in the fridge for a few hours to chill slightly and served it up.
The beer poured almost black, with chocolatey brown hues showing when the light hit the pouring beer just right. It didn’t pour nearly as thick or syrupy as I expected it to, suggesting a thinner body than many other imperial stouts. Once in the glass, it was tar black with no head.
The aroma was strong with scotch whisky at first, and burned my nose a little. As I continued to sniff, it faded to a barleywine-like booziness with raisin and black cherry notes along with blackstrap molasses and mouthwatering caramel.
Strangely, the flavor was very mellow – a bit too much so. I tasted more raisin than anything, with a little oaky whisky flavor underneath but very little indicative of an imperial stout; it tasted more like a very dark English old ale. As the beer warmed to room temperature, a little bit of roasty stout character emerged, but not enough to balance the whisky notes. And as the pour suggested, the beer was very thin, with very little residual sugar to hold up the whisky and raisin notes.
I suspect that I aged this beer too long, which is a shame. It didn’t taste stale, but was unbalanced, as though some flavor notes faded faster than others. For a brewery known for extreme beers, this one came across as soft in the wrong ways. But I won’t fault BrewDog for that. I’d love to buy another bottle and try it again someday, but it seems the Paradox line has moved on to other things.
Whatever is next, I’ll be watching.
I have an ever-growing collection of 22 oz and 750 ml bottles of beer cellaring in the Harry Potter closet. I save them for interesting meal pairings or other special occasions (which includes “another Sunday”). So December – a time of parties, good meals, multiple Christmas celebrations and the new year – is a perfect time to catch up on the cellar back stock. By which I mean drink them, of course.
It’s also when a lot of breweries release special beers, so I’ve found a few to fill the empty spaces in my cellar as I drink them up. Here’s a quick review of some recent bombers I’ve tasted and bought, and a preview of what I’m uncapping next.
This past Saturday, I opened a Stone Enjoy By 12.21.12 IPA. The occasion? Nothing more than resting up after seeing The Hobbit twice on Friday, and a December evening warm enough to put some filet mignons on the backyard grill. Steak and IPA aren’t two things I pair often, especially not when the steak is seasoned boldly (I used some coffee-chipotle rub left over from Thanksgiving), but time was running out on this time bomb of a bomber. The spicy beef and spicy beer matched better than I expected. The beer was light in color, with less melanoidin flavor than I usually want from an IPA, but I didn’t mind the hops overtaking the light malt profile. It was fresh, grassy, floral and spicy. Like a morning stroll through an English garden in spring. With a steak.
Then on Sunday, my wife Lisa and I had an early “Christmas” dinner: leg of lamb with garlic, lemon and herbs, which I paired with a bottle of Boulevard Collaboration No. 3 – Stingo that I’ve had for several months. Not knowing anything about “stingo” – a strong English style – except what was on the label, I expected deep malt and spice with a hint of sour tartness. I thought it would be a natural pairing for lamb with a little tangy mint sauce, but I was disappointed. There was some malt roastiness and a tang on the finish, but nothing in between. Not enough malt backbone, not enough depth, and not enough sourness to be pleasant. I had a lot of trouble finishing it, and that’s the first time I can say that about a Boulevard beer. Realizing it had been in storage for a while, I checked the date on the label, and it wasn’t out of date. Just not my thing, I guess.
Speaking of not living to see spring, this Friday night (December 21) I’ll open a bottle of Dogfish Head Theobroma in honor of the winter solstice and the end of the Mayan calendar. Since “theobroma” (a.k.a. cacao) is the food of the gods, this should be an excellent way to gain favor with Bolon Yokte K’uh, the Mayan god of war and creation who might be coming to destroy us all. If he is not amused and punishes me for my insolence – or if, more likely, he forgets to show up and the world continues to turn – at least I’ll be enjoying one of my favorite beers.
Saturday morning, assuming we’re alive and not already on the Dark Rift road to the Mayan underworld Xibalba, we drive to New Orleans to spend Christmas with our families there. I’m bringing a couple of bottles of Samuel Adams Norse Legend Sahti for Christmas Day. I haven’t tried it yet, but it should be something interesting to introduce to non-beer geeks in the family. The label might even open up some geeky discussion about Norse mythology, which I recommend highly as an excellent conversation topic, especially over grandmother’s Christmas lasagna.
Then there’s a bottle of Samichlaus Bier Helles which won’t see any action until New Year’s Eve. January 1 is Lisa’s birthday, and this year she can’t drink to celebrate thanks to our bouncing, kicking bun in the oven. So we’re having a small celebration at home starting on New Year’s Eve. Samichlaus, a rare Helles bock brewed only once each year by Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg in Austria, will be a fitting send-off to 2012: a very special beer for a very good year.
I’m pretty sure every homebrewer and beer geek has at least one personal story about how they surprised – and perhaps even converted – some non-craft drinker they know with the awesome power of real beer.
Maybe one night in college you handed an Imperial IPA to your malt liquor chugging buddy, and he quickly commended it before twisting open another 8 Ball. Or maybe you once convinced a co-worker to try a fruity wheat beer at a happy hour instead of a hard lemonade, and she now stocks her fridge with lambics. Or maybe you triumphed over decades of wine supremacy by pulling off a really successful beer pairing with a dinner, to the amazement of friends and/or family. My latest such story is a variation on that theme: a 3-course dinner with beer pairings, served in my own dining room.
The day was Thanksgiving (November 22 for those reading outside the U.S.) and the objects of my proselytization were my wife Lisa’s family: my mother-in-law and father-in-law in town from New Orleans, and my sister-in-law and her husband visiting from the United Kingdom. To set the stage, let me introduce them instead as: a coffee drinker, a whiskey drinker, a Bud Light drinker, and a foodie/pub manager from the south of England.
Out of everyone in attendance, Lisa was the only person who was as convinced of the greatness of this idea as I was. She co-envisioned this event with me but couldn’t join us in the beer tasting thanks to an unfortunate medical condition called “expecting our first child” that isn’t expected to clear up for several months. This toast is for you, X.
The dinner itself was rather unorthodox. We haven’t done turkey on Thanksgiving in my house for nearly ten years, and saw no good reason to start now. We decided to build an utterly un-Thanksgiving-y menu with several commercial Central Texas beers from my cellar as inspiration, while also giving everyone in the family a chance to cook something. Here’s what we came up with.
I should disclose at this point that I don’t usually cook. Brewed beverages and the occasional steak are all I make that’s fit for human consumption, so most of the actual cooking (except for the steak) was done by Lisa and my brother-in-law. But I did choose the beer, so I’ve snatched the right to bill myself as director of the whole production.
Salad Course: Romaine with blue cheese, pecans, dried cranberries, and homemade mustard vinaigrette paired with a bomber of South Austin Brewing Company Saison D’Austin. As a longtime fan of this ubiquitous local saison, I had been dreaming about this pairing for a few days beforehand. This is a very light and refreshing saison, and everyone at the table enjoyed it (especially my sister-in-law the Bud Light drinker). But I found it lacked the backbone to stand up to the bold flavors of the blue cheese and mustard. Something with a bit more spice and/or funk would have served the dish better, so next time I’ll go with something a little more intense – a more phenolic Belgian or something with some Brett – and save the Saison D’Austin for a cheese course.
Main Course: Grilled sirloin with a coffee-chipotle rub served with a relish of tomatoes, tarragon and mustard; dill-roasted tricolor potatoes and oven-roasted asparagus paired with a bomber of Jester King / Mikkeller Weasel Rodeo Imperial Oatmeal Stout. The rub and the steak were the only food items I prepared myself, carefully trying to match the flavor profile of the beer, which features chipotle and kopi luwak coffee. Coffee and pepper were more pronounced in the steaks than the beer, if I do say so myself. But the pairing was a match made in heaven, and the in-laws enjoyed it all so much that we actually drank not just one bomber of Weasel Rodeo, but also the second bomber I had chilled just in case.
Dessert: Pecan pie from the Salt Lick paired with a 12-ounce bottle of Real Ale Sisyphus Barleywine Ale from 2011. Okay, so we didn’t actually make the pie, and I had no idea how it was going to pair with the 2011 Sisyphus, which I had never tried. As it turned out, the rest of the family were stuffed and satisified by now, so the barleywine was shared by me and my brother-in-law alone; 6 ounces for each of us was more than enough. The beer was robust and nutty with toffee overtones, and I thought quite a good match for my favorite pie in the Austin area, though I found myself wishing I had some good vanilla bean ice cream to complete the ensemble. I wasn’t disappointed for long, though, because I soon found myself satiated and … well, let’s just say “sleepy”.
So. A fantastic dinner that we had fun preparing together, and a great opportunity to demonstrate for visiting family why I’m so excited about the Central Texas beer scene. Hopefully I even got them thinking about beer in new ways. Would I do it again? Hell yes. And since there’s nothing “Thanksgiving” about this meal, I may do it again before next year’s holiday season. I hope it inspires you to try something similar.
For this edition of From the Cellar, I opened a bomber of Ranger Creek Mesquite Smoked Porter (6.4% ABV) and pitted it head-to-head against my own homebrewed porter currently on tap: Smokey in a Plain Wrapper Rauch Porter (6.0% ABV).
Smoked porter or rauch porter is one of those style variations that seems to be springing up in all sorts of places spontaneously. Granted, Stone has had their version on the market for over 15 years now, so it’s possible we all got the same great idea from them. But it is a great idea. The astringency and bite of smoked malt plays well against the sweet and malty backdrop of a porter malt bill, giving complexity without having to resort to a ton of hops in the boil. It gives a flavor akin to stout without the sharp roasted barley notes that are so common (though not necessarily required) in a stout. So yeah, I’m a fan; and I was dying to know how one of my own brews stacked up against a commercial offering from one of my favorite up-and-comers in the Central Texas craft beer scene.
I poured a blind tasting of both beers and tried them side by side. I didn’t know which was which until after I had written down all of my notes. Picking a clear winner was tough, so I just judged each on its merits and avoided trying to score them (though I did have a personal favorite).
Beer A was nearly black with chocolate brown notes, and tiny bubbles with not a lot of head retention. The nose had some slight but noticeable fruity esters over dark chocolate and coffee. The aroma of smoke was present, but not obvious.
Beer B had a much more persistent head and was completely black with bigger and rockier bubbles. There was a distinct woodsy scent and a smell not entirely unlike good Texas barbecue. But the beer had a boozy smell, like it was barrel-aged, which would be a surprise. The thick head and carbonation would suggest that if it was aged, it wasn’t aged for any considerable length of time.
As for the flavor, I generally preferred Beer A even though Beer B was arguably a better crafted brew and a better example of a rauch porter. Beer A was full of dark chocolate and vanilla flavor, with a slight amount of esters and very little smoke. But it was refreshing and easy to drink, and ultimately really satisfying. Beer B was cleaner fermented, but the smoke really, really dominated the flavor … to the point of being almost too much for me. There was some leather and wood in Beer B, but really it was all about the smoke. It was drier than Beer A, but less refreshing because of the harsh, aggressive character I found the smoke imparted.
Within seconds of tasting, I knew which one was mine. Smokey in a Plain Wrapper has been on tap in my kegerator for a couple of months, so I know it pretty well and could pretty much tell it was Beer A. The Ranger Creek Mesquite Smoked Porter was Beer B.
So while the results weren’t shocking, they were very informative. My homebrew was more estery and with less smoke flavor (thus arguably less true to the essence of a rauch porter) than a commercial equivalent. But I would rather drink my homebrew, even when I didn’t know it was my homebrew, simply because it was more refreshing. Am I just getting used to the unique flavor produced in my brewing setup, or am I just subconsciously making beers I like? Or was it simply the fact that I wasn’t crazy about the mesquite smoke in the Ranger Creek beer, and another rauch porter from another brewery (with another kind of smoke) would have fared better? It’s hard to say. It could have been just familiarity with Smokey that made me like it more.
Regardless, it’s great to know that I like my beers not only because I made them, but that they also stack up well against commercial brews. I have no idea how I’d do against the commercial brew before a panel of judges, but as long as I like it and want to drink it (and share it with others) that’s good enough for me. Prosit!
The closet under the stairs – affectionately referred to as the Harry Potter closet – is the coolest, darkest part of the house. It’s where I keep all my fermenting beers and where I “cellar” store-bought beers in bombers. I seem to collect them faster than I can drink them, taking them out mainly for special occasions: a Chateau Jiahu on my birthday, a Brooklyn Sorachi Ace to celebrate the purchase of a new Japanese film on Criterion Blu-Ray, that sort of thing. But once in a while, we open one just for the hell of it.
Saturday night was one such time. Thirsty from the effort of arranging our new outdoor furniture into Tetris-style configurations on our limited square of backyard patio, my wife Lisa and I decided to open a bottle of Boulevard Saison-Brett that we’d been eying predatorily for months since we’d bought it.
The words “farmhouse” and “sour” are bandied about so much in the craft brew community lately, it’s easy to forget that just a few short years ago, the word “rustic” was a euphemism for “needs time,” and Brettanomyces (the aggressive wild yeast responsible for the funky flavor in many wild fermentations and notoriously hard to clean out of one’s brewhouse once it’s been introduced) was spoken of in hushed tones like Jack the Ripper was in the back alleys of Whitechapel in the 1880’s. Now many craft beer lovers are on a first name basis with “Brett” and we like a little funk to shake our glasses. But there are no doubt still some brew aficionados out there who haven’t jumped on the funk train just yet. To them I say: this beer’s for you.
The first word that comes to mind when I think of this beer is “accessible”. It’s the same word people use to describe Frank Zappa’s Apostrophe(‘) album, or the Lars von Trier film Melancholia. Boulevard Saison-Brett is as good an entry point for the newbie down the rabbit hole of “sour” beer as those works are into the intimidating corpora of those artists’ careers.
The beer pours a cloudy orange-straw color. The color reminded me of photos from Belgian breweries that I’ve spent hours gazing at online with longing, like a lonely teen with an Internet girlfriend. The head is pure white and rocky, with big bubbles you want to dive right into. There’s a respectable amount of sediment in the bottle, but not too much. To call the aroma “floral” is an understatement. It’s perfumey, with citrus notes and just the tiniest hint of barnyard aromatics from the Brett.
The flavor starts out much the same: perfume on the front end, with a tart and citrusy middle. But this is where it gets interesting. Once the citrus leaves the palate, astringency and sherry-like oxidation notes scrub it right away, leaving the finish very dry. It’s almost like champagne and just as refreshing. There’s not a hint of boozy flavor in this brew, which boasts a not-too-shabby 8.5% ABV.
I paired mine with some crumbled blue cheese, fig spread, and sesame crackers. I had to remind myself to take bites of my snack between sips, as the dry finish left me wanting to wet my whistle again and again.
As for the funk, it was present, but in the background – not the star of the show. Think George Clinton backup singer, not Bootsy Collins standing radiant in all his platform-booted, star-shaped-spectacled glory. There was very little of the barnyard, musty flavor typically associated with Brett beers, but that could very well be because we drank it so soon. Brett character tends to evolve over time, and I just couldn’t wait to try this one; but with a few more months in the cellar, the funky character may have come more to the foreground.
All in all it was a fantastic beer, and I wish I had bought a second bottle to hold onto and see how it ages. Once I get through a few more of the bombers in the Harry Potter closet, I will make sure to save some room for another couple of Saison-Brett bottles if and when Boulevard decides to release another.