BrewDog Tokyo*

Horrors!Scotland’s BrewDog has garnered many a headline for their incredibly high-octane beers over the past few years; while it might have seemed that they were caught up in the high-gravity-for-the-sake-of-it craze, I am happy to report that their substance more than backs up the style.  First off, a little about the beer’s origin – and you have to love a brewery that has a sense of humor about their products (notably their response to the hand-wringing that accompanied the launch of this beer – a 1.1% brew called Nanny State).  Tokyo* is described as an  ‘intergalactic fantastic oak aged stout‘ – inspired by an old-school video game, it has plenty of dark malts, a little bit of jasmine and some cranberries for good measure, Galena hops and it clocks in at a whopping 18.2% ABV.  No one is going to mistake this for any sort of session beer, regardless of who’s crafting the definition.

It’s certainly an ‘occasion’ beer – and even if the occasion happens to be, ‘hey, BrewDog Tokyo* is on tap and available in a reasonably-sized pour!’ well, that’s still an occasion.   The beer pours a deep brown, with a thin tan head; there’s no mistaking that there’s more than a little alcohol in store, but the chief aroma still might best be described as ‘malty goodness.’   There is a surprising amount of vanilla in the flavor that pairs very well indeed with the roasty malts; perhaps what is most unusual is how smooth the finish is.  I sometimes find wood-aged beers a little too ‘woody’ for their own good, but this never crosses that line.  It’s certainly very reminiscent of whisky, but still manages to stay on the ‘beer’ side of the equation.  While it would not be accurate to suggest that it disguises its alcohol content, it’s eminently sippable and doesn’t immediately suggest that it’s quite as strong as it actually is.  It made an ideal dessert beer.

As a side note, check out some of BrewDog’s ‘normal’ ABV offerings – their 5am Saint, in particular, is as solid and tasty a go-to ale as one could wish for – it quietly speaks for itself while its mega-strong labelmates generate a little (almost-always-welcome) publicity.

White Birch Barrel Aged Elysium

White Birch ElysiumAs a rule, I’m not a huge fan of barrel-aged beers. I realize that may count as heresy to some in the beer geek community, especially when it can seem that every brewery out there is doing a barrel-aged version of something, but with a few exceptions, they tend not to be to my taste.  Elysium, however, is one of those wonderful exceptions – but first a few notes of introduction to the creators of this beer.  White Birch Brewing is a small, NH-based brewery that launched in 2009 – they have only recently moved from bottling and labeling each beer by hand.  Despite the fact that they are still in an early stage of their growth, they are already helping newcomers to the industry through an apprenticeship program that offers some useful hands-on experience at each point in the brewing (and product launch) process – it’s an interesting initiative.

But let’s return to Elysium – it’s an imperial stout that’s been resting comfortably in a carefully-selected beer for just the right amount of time.  As mentioned above, woody beers and I do not usually get along, but this has quite a different character; rather than a heavy, oaky flavor often found in barrel-aged beers, this comes across as something of a ‘blonde wood’ (for lack of a better term) – it pairs well with the rich, dark beer for a unique flavor.  There’s definitely a bit of a chocolate taste in there, and something of a ‘wild’ flavor as well; it’s not terribly roasty, given the style, but I think that would have been overkill with the wood-aging.  It’s remarkably sippable, given its 11% ABV, and it was wonderful with dessert.

I’m looking forward to trying more from a small brewery that seems to be starting things off the right way.

Beer Review: Pretty Things KK

Pretty Things KKA few weeks ago, A Good Beer Blog asked whether brewing historic beer styles was becoming a new trend, and pointed to Pretty Things KK as one example.  The beer, a recreation of a dark-yet-hoppy ale originally brewed in London in 1901, was a collaboration with Ron Pattinson.  Pattinson’s blog, Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, has long been essential reading for those interested in beer history – using primary sources from brewery archives, he’s managed to dispel quite a few myths about brewing in the past and has exploded less-than-evidence-based theories about beer styles.  Obviously, as an ex-archivist, I have a lot of time for this sort of work – more breweries should hire archivists (and pay them reasonably well) – but I digress.

As a longtime reader of Pattinson’s blog and a fan of some of his previous historic recreations, brewed in partnership with Brouwerij de Molen (especially the 1914 London Porter), I was pleased to have the opportunity to try this beer.  I admit to no small level of Pretty Things fandom going in (their St. Botolph’s Town was one of my favorite new beers when it launched), so my expectations were very high for this beer – and I was not disappointed.

The physical description is simple – it’s essentially black, with quite a fluffy off-white head, and the hops and malt aromas swirl together.  The taste is harder to pin down – it’s much simpler to sum it up as ‘tasty goodness,’ as some of its complexities are a bit difficult to detail.  It’s roasty and malty, but almost chocolately as well; my co-conspirator suggested that it tasted not unlike Theo Chocolate’s Bread and Chocolate bar, and this was a very apt comparison (minus the hops, of course) – it had dark chocolate notes with earthy undertones.  But then, of course, there were the hops; in a marked difference from most black IPAs (or Cascadian Dark Ales, or whatever you’d like to call them), they were much grassier and lacked the citrusy punch that American hops tend to impart.  I did wonder, however, whether the English hop varieties employed (Bramling Cross and Kent Goldings, if you’re keeping score) have changed much over the past century – it’s entirely possible that the flavors have shifted somewhat over time as growing conditions have altered.

It might be said that KK has a bit in common with Tröegs Dead Reckoning Porter (in that both have a darker base style with a lot of hops added in), but they head in different flavor directions – and KK is considerably stronger, though it’s rather deceptive in that regard and eminently drinkable. Given the success of this beer, I am now very keen to track down the other Pretty Things/Ron Pattinson collaboration – an 1832 Mild that would readily confound those who adhere to the modern definition of the style.

On the whole, the endeavor can be summed up thusly: beer + primary sources FTW!

Halloween Beer – A Land Beyond Pumpkin

NightmareWhile I am certainly a fan of some pumpkin beers, notably Dogfish Head’s Punkin Ale, there’s a wider variety of Halloween-appropriate craft beers worth seeking out.  No doubt Rogue sees an uptick in sales of their Dead Guy and Double Dead Guy Ales, and both are fine beers indeed (although I’m partial to the DDG), but I usually prefer something a little more subtle for Samhain.  With that in mind, there are some fine British beers I like to seek out at this time of year – and many of them are very sessionable indeed, so it’s a good excuse to sample a few.

One of my favorites is Nightmare from Nick Stafford’s Hambleton Ales, an independent brewery in North Yorkshire – the beer is smooth, malty goodness, perfect for an autumn evening.  Moving over to Lancashire, another north of England brewery with regular US exports is Moorhouse’s – and they have a number of perfectly-named beers for the holiday: Black Cat, one of the best milds available anyway (yes, it’s only 3.4%, but it’s full of flavor) and Pendle Witches Brew, a slightly heftier beer with sweet malt notes.  Both brews commemorate the ‘Pendle Witches‘ – a group of women tried for witchcraft in 1612 (most of whom were imprisoned and subsequently hanged at Lancaster Castle – which was still a prison when I lived there in the 1990s).   Perhaps because the history is more well-known in the local area, their labels have never generated the sort of controversy currently engulfing Lost Abbey’s Witch’s Wit – but more on that later.

Heading south, Oxfordshire’s Wychwood Brewery famously exports its Hobgoblin around the world; their Scarecrow can also be worth seeking out if you prefer something a little less malty (but really, shouldn’t most fall beers be malty?), though it still has some nice biscuity flavors. One word of caution with Wychwood beers (and perhaps this problem arises because some stores stock up on them) – they are all outstanding when they’ve been properly looked after, but I’ve had more than one bottle of Hobgoblin that had clearly been sitting around a while – make sure you get it reasonably fresh from a good distributor or beer store so you know you’re getting the real flavor of the beer.  Even better, try one of them on cask near the brewery – they are lovely that way.

Of course, there are plenty of quality beers made in the US that are Halloween-ready. Colorado’s Avery Brewing produces a Demons of Ale series: Mephistopheles Stout is not brewed until December, but  Beast, a Belgian Grand Cru should be ready just about now – although it’s definitely not something you’re going to have many of at one sitting – ditto for the other in the series, Samael’s, an oak-aged ale hovering rather close to the 15% ABV mark.  For something a little more low-key, Gritty McDuff’s makes a Halloween Ale that makes its way out of Maine every year, and if you’re in more of a lager mood, there’s always Dixie Blackened Voodoo, originally from New Orleans (though still brewed elsewhere, post-Katrina).

Heading to the Midwest, Great Lakes Nosferatu also fits the bill (though I cannot comment on it specifically yet – it’s sitting in my fridge, waiting), Founders contributes their Devil Dancer, a Triple IPA and Bell’s Hell Hath No Fury…Ale is always tasty.

Out on the West coast, the aforementioned brouhaha over the label for Lost Abbey Witch’s Wit has certainly given the beer some publicity, if nothing else (although it seems to have also knocked the brewery offline) – while I’d have to agree I’d prefer to see something more along the lines of the Pendle Witches Brew approach, the beer itself is tasty indeed.  Moving up the coast to Seattle, Black Raven Brewing has a full lineup of potential Halloween beers – Morrighan Stout is just one that sounds thematically-appropriate, and ideal for a chilly night.

Of course, you can still enjoy a pumpkin beer for Halloween – but why not save that for Thanksgiving?  In any event, happy Halloween!

Beer Review: Victory Pursuit Pale Ale

Victory Pursuit Pale AleI enjoyed this on cask at the brewpub recently, and it was very tasty indeed – eminently drinkable, but with plenty of representation from both the hop and malt components.  There was plenty of hop aroma (it’s a limited-time single-hop offering from the Downingtown brewery) and a thick, creamy white head over a deep straw-colored beer.  I would be curious to compare a ‘normal’ version to the cask version, as the cask version is so deliciously smooth. There’s a great bready or biscuity malt character, but the hops are ever-present – although more in a floral, gently spicy way as opposed to a citrusy bitter manner.

This actually reminded me quite a bit of Manny’s Pale Ale, and that’s no bad thing by any means; it’s one of my favorite American pale ales.  One wonders if, perhaps, the Pacific Northwest character that is so evident in Yakima Twilight Glory was also something of an inspiration here.  That’s not to suggest the beer is identical to Manny’s Pale Ale, but they both fit quite comfortably (and rather high up) in the same section of the beer firmament.

I’d love to see this as a year-round offering – it would be a nice complement to Yards Brawler as a great beer to always have on hand, although it’s most welcome as an occasional treat as well.

Dogfish Head Chicha

Dogfish Head ChichaLast year, Dogfish Head’s Chicha proved to be much more difficult to produce than anticipated; the brewing of this year’s installment of the latest ‘new/old’ beer apparently went a little more smoothly, thanks to a bit more experience and research.  However, it’s still not easy to make this beer in any sort of quantity, since the production method goes well beyond ‘hand-crafted’  – there are many mandibles involved.  But fear not the saliva exchange – the chewing and spitting happens pre-boil, so the resulting drink won’t give everyone mono, and you have to like a beer that comes with its own beautifully-designed handout.

As someone with too many degrees in archaeology, I have great admiration for all of Dogfish Head’s historical recreations (or, if you prefer, reinterpretations) – Sah’Tea and Theobroma are some of my favorite beers, and I love a little Chateau Jiahu from time to time. Each one combines solid research with an experimental sense of adventure – it has been suggested elsewhere that historical beer styles are becoming a trend throughout the craft beer continuum; I would certainly be in favor of that – but I digress.

And so back to the tasting of Chicha 2010 – while it’s quite light in body and low in alcohol, something about it makes it seem like an ideal sipping drink.  The spearmint creates an interesting contrast with the overall grainy character, imparting an almost cooling sensation.  There are some notes similar to clove oil or banana that might appear in a hefeweizen, but the mouthfeel (I know, I know) is so different that it never suggests that direction.  Perhaps as some sort of psychological counterpoint to its production, it comes across as extraordinarily ‘clean-drinking’ – it’s refreshing and leaves an absolutely unique overall impression.

Beer Review: The Bruery Autumn Maple

The Bruery Autumn MapleI’m quite a fan of The Bruery; the Belgian-flavored California brewery just seems to get things right, and often from unexpected corners.  My only complaint is that on most occasions, their beers are only available in enormous bottles.  There’s good reason for that – everything they make is bottle-conditioned, and bottling lines are expensive – it’s not surprising that they opt to minimize costs by sticking with a single size.  But it can be difficult to find an occasion for 22 oz of a 10% beer; it’s a lot to split between two adults (especially when one of those adults has charitably been called ‘fun-sized’ on more than one occasion).  So, it was rather pleasing to find Autumn Maple available by the glass – it was a perfect amount for after-dinner sipping.

The initial impression is one of spices – the aroma is almost closer to mulled cider in some ways, and the allspice is very much in evidence.  The many flavors are almost layered; the sweeter vanilla and molasses start things off, but the nutmeg adds a kick to the end.  Rather than relying on pumpkin in this fall seasonal, as many breweries do, yams have been employed – many, many yams.  But they are never the primary taste – they become more obvious as you go along, but they never overpower things.  Cinnamon flits in and out and adds another nice counterpoint to the malty sweetness.  For me, the maple was actually one of the more subtle flavors in this beer – but it’s a minor point.  All told, it’s an ideal beer for a chilly evening; it would go remarkably well with a bonfire.

Beer Events: Dogfish Dash

Why we runThis year’s Dogfish Dash was bigger than ever – more than 1000 runners descended upon Milton, DE for the race (and for the free food and drink afterward). I was taking part for the third consecutive year, and had a great time once again (placing 277 out of 537 in the 10K run – reasonably solidly mid-pack – and 22 out of 66 in my division was a decent number as well). This was the second time the race course toured ‘downtown’ Milton, and there were even more locals out to cheer runners on this year. As another bonus, the route affords a fine opportunity to explore the town’s historic architecture, beginning and ending with the thoroughly modern brewery, and taking in everything from 18th century storehouses to Victorian Masonic halls along the way. The Dogfish Dash raised $26,000 for the Nature Conservancy – it was another successful Beer and Benevolence event.

The brewery seems to grow with each installment – this year, the new entrance, massive fermentation tanks and the Steampunk Treehouse were among the novel attractions. The store and tasting room finally seem to have enough room (for now), and while the brewery tour was somewhat abbreviated compared to years past (presumably a function of both the large crowds and the ongoing construction), a good time was had by all.

One of the best features of the race is the planning that goes into the pre- and post-race fun – race packet pickup the day before keeps the brewpub full (your packet includes a coupon for a meal – and it seems to fill the place up earlier and earlier each year around pickup time), and it’s an ideal opportunity to sample some brewpub-only rarities – the latest incarnation of Chicha was very interesting indeed (look for a review later). And there’s no cutting corners on the beer on tap after the race – yes, there’s Lawnmower Light for those who aren’t looking for a 7%ish beer at 8.30 am, but it’s lovely to rehydrate with a 60 Min IPA, Indian Brown Ale and/or Punkin Ale as well; the addition of the seasonal beer was particularly welcome.

What could be a better motivation to run than knowing there’s a Punkin Ale waiting for you at the finish?

Beer Culture: Post-GABF Thoughts

No, I wasn’t there, but I did enjoy watching the awards stream, and it was quite pleasing to see some favorite breweries and beers (both local and those from further afield) hailed.  Stoudt’s has been turning out incredibly well-crafted German-style beers since long before it was trendy to do so (and I would argue that high-quality German-style beers still suffer by association with their watery macro cousins – it’s hard for some to believe that a great lager exists, while it’s easy to accept an amazing Russian Imperial Stout, simply because there hasn’t been a craptacular macro version – yet).  Their Heifer-in-Wheat took home a gold, while I celebrated their victory with their excellent OktoberfestTroegs Flying Mouflan (an aptly-named beer of supreme woolliness) also took a top prize in the Barleywine category, and it was another well-deserved one.

But some locals were left out of the medals, though it’s hard to find a better bitter than Victory’s Uncle Teddy’s, or a better mild than Yards Brawler – it makes me even more curious to try the winners in those categories.  On the whole, the left coast had quite an impressive showing – Port Brewing and Firestone Walker (fine breweries, both) seemed to be collecting every other award.  It was quite interesting to see an ‘American-Style India Black Ale’ category (though I have yet to hear anyone refer to one as such), and once again, I’m now intensely curious about the Gold and Silver medal winners – there’s something better than Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale? A quick glance at the map, however, suggested that Turmoil from Barley Brown’s Brew Pub will be unlikely to make its way out of the mountains, much less to Philadelphia – though one may hope it magically appears somewhere.

There are, of course, many fabulous beers that would be quite deserving of a medal if only they were entered (and given the economy, it’s easy to understand why smaller breweries aren’t flying their beer and staff halfway across the country for some hardware) – just about everything Earth Bread & Brewery makes would merit a mention, and Nodding Head’s Philly Beer Week one-off Agave Berliner Weisse could easily fit in a few categories.  So, it’s an (almost) open thread – what local (wherever local is to you) brewery or beer do you find worthy of a medal, despite either not entering or being overlooked?

Beer Review: Erie Brewing Company Derailed

That would be the purple beer on the rightAs a very general rule, I dislike fruit beers.  Of course, there are some exceptions – Dogfish Head’s Festina Peche is a refreshingly unusual take on the Berliner Weisse style, and  Walking Man’s Black Cherry Stout is one of the few fruit/stout combinations I’ve found effective (and I’m happy to report it’s very effective indeed).   Despite those high points, I tend to avoid trying a beer that sounds like it’s going to be overtly fruity – but after a long day of spent outside doing Things Soccer-y, Derailed sounded like an interesting option.  Essentially a black cherry version of Erie Brewing Company’s gold-medal-winning Railbender Ale, it arrived quite purple indeed (it’s pictured next to the Abbey of Christ in the Desert Monk’s Ale, for your comparative pleasure).

The cherry aroma was certainly evident, and I wondered how well it would blend or compliment the solid malt flavor that Railbender is known for.  The answer is that the flavors work together surprisingly well – the cherry taste is refreshing and tart, so there is no overabundance of fruit and malt combining in a sort of sickly-sweet sugar bomb.  The malt is still very much the driving force behind this beer, which keeps it from verging into black cherry soda territory (something for which I have a terrible weakness – as both a beer and black cherry soda connoisseur, I can confirm there is little crossover here).  It was an ideal beer for the occasion – one that could slake thirst after a warm day, but with enough malt backbone to offset a cool evening.  It’s a little too peculiar to become a go-to beer for most circumstances, but it’s definitely worth a try; odd beers can be good beers.

After all, how can anyone dislike a beer that has its own origin myth?