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Monday, May 24, 2010

The BOTB Guys Explore the Middle Ages

Salute, Slainte, cheers, skaal, prost to our Faithful Followers. I want to kick off this edition with an interesting and perhaps telling anecdote. We (the judges and jury - and occasionally executioners - who make up Battle of the Beers) decided to play around with our format a bit. We thought it might be fun to look at different craft brewers and rate their line-up of brews. We sent out a letter to thirty or so brewers across New York State (we decided to start with our home state) seeing if they would be interested in having us evaluate their beers. Middle Ages Brewery was the first to jump on board - and we'll get to that soon - but I wanted to talk about one of the replies we received.

I used Lew Bryson's "New York Breweries" as a guide. One of the breweries listed was Brotherhood Winery out of Washingtonville, NY. Despite the fact it is a winery, Bryson raved over the beers they brewed there, mentioning that their resident brewer, Nat Collins, has quite a reputation among New York State craft brewers. Intrigued, I decided to include Brotherhood Winery in our list of breweries and sent them a letter. I received what I can only describe as a curt response. They returned my letter and wrote across the top, "We do not brew, sell or import beer. WE ARE A WINERY!!"

Okay, so my information was perhaps outdated. Those things happen. But what struck me was the implied indignation over my assumption that they would sink so low as to BREW BEER. That got me thinking about the whole wine vs. beer thing and the superiority of the vintner over the brewer (personally I like wine and beer so I am of the opinion that, since this is not Congress, there's no reason why the vintner and the brewer can't be friends). If you're talking about the mass produced stuff affectionately known as "lawn-mower beer" (a good beer to stick in the cup holder on your riding mower) then the wine producers might have a point. But with the growing ranks of fine craft brewers out there, more and more beers are being produced with rich, complex flavors. Enjoying a good beer involves the sense of smell and taste, just as is the case with a good wine.

All of this brings us to this month's Beer Club tastings. As I mentioned earlier, Middle Ages Brewery out of Syracuse, NY was the first to respond to our challenge. And respond they did. We arrived at Herb Clark's place at Port Ontario to a couple of heartwarming sights. One was the fact that we set up shop in a bucolic location - outside, on the water, on a warm summer-like evening. The other was the sight of six growlers of Middle Ages brews: Middle Ages Pale Ale, Duke of Winship Scotch Porter, Old Marcus Ale, Kilt Tilter Scotch Ale, a test batch of Double Wench, and the final production version of Double Wench American Strong Ale.

The Middle Ages Brewing Company located in Syracuse, NY is everything you want in a craft brewer. They make a bunch of interesting, often bold, beers. They work around a theme (the middle ages) and have some fun with the names. The beers are based on traditional British brews which are then tweaked according to the brewer's whim, creating a wide array of full flavored beers.

Middle Ages Pale Ale

This is Middle Ages' signature beer, available only on tap. It started life as MacGregor's. It can be found around the region under various names (the Candlelight in Parish, NY has it on tap as Candlelight Ale for example). We started out with this beer. We changed up our format somewhat, creating a sort of round table discussion of each beer, looking at appearance, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, finish and general impressions.

The pale ale is a beautiful amber color, relatively clear as it is not an unfiltered brew. It has a solid head that hung in there for a bit.

The aroma was what struck us all first. Very intense aroma of bread and a sort of herbal hops underneath.

Flavor was very balanced, leaning more to the malty side. Neither overly sweet nor overly bitter. This would be my idea of a very good session beer. The hops aren't going to knock you over, but they are present. There's a creamy mouthfeel and is pleasantly carbonated. We all noted a long finish, with a very enjoyable aftertaste. In general we felt this to be an ideal summer beer, a great one for kicking back and having a few at the end of the day. At 5% ABV it was the mildest of the evening's offerings.

Duke of Winship Scotch Porter

The Duke of Winship Porter poured with an impressive head with great staying power. Dark brown auburn color. The aroma was not overpowering (or perhaps it was the allergies) but we all felt we could detect a hint of coffee. A more intense flavor than the Pale Ale as you would expect, it tended toward the sweet end of the spectrum with hints of coffee and perhaps caramel notes. I detected a distinct chocolate finish to it, though not everyone agreed. A tasty, full-bodied brew that is very drinkable. At 6% ABV it is mild enough to warrant the "when you're having more than one" label. This was not part of our Porter competition of a couple of months ago, but Mike mentioned that this one might well have won it. Nice one to have in front of a roaring fire.

Old Marcus Ale

This strong English ale had a beautiful pour - foamy, thick head with long-lasting lacing. It has an earthy and somewhat citrus-like aroma with a nice taste of grain. The hops in this one began to move to the forefront, though again, not overpowering. A very complex, full bodied beer. Real nice finish that stayed with you. A few random comments from our judges: "Clean finish," "Go to picnic, have a beer with your brother beer," "Tastes like another!" 6% ABV, so another would be possible - and was!

Kilt Tilter Scotch Ale

Okay, first of all, you gotta' love the name! Seriously. And this one will tilt your kilt. At a hefty 9% ABV this one made us all sit up and take notice. This is a big, bold beer. A "Helmet Beer" to be sure (as in "strap on your helmet").

The flavor is full and rich. Very complex - we argued over whether we detected undertones of toast or nut. I said nut but was outvoted. But there was definitely a distinctive flavor, perhaps toffee, which gives it a warm, unique character. The alcohol content comes into play, accounting for the "warming" mouthfeel. This is a beer you want to roll around in your mouth a bit, letting all the taste buds have a chance at it. This beer and the next two are great examples of what I was talking about earlier when I compared the crafts of brewing beer and wine making. These are beers to be savored not simply swallowed.

Double Wench - Test Batch & Production Version

Okay, so check out the new and improved Wailing Wench above (Double Wench is on the right). Just when you thought something couldn't be improved...
Double Wench is as bursting with flavor as the new wench logo is, well, bursting. After trying Kilt Tilter we were dubious that the ante could be upped much more. We were wrong. We started with the Double Wench test batch. Double Wench is to be Middle Ages' 15th anniversary beer, to be celebrated in August. Apparently it was considered too sweet. Any question that these guys don't have discriminating taste is dispelled once you taste the REJECTED version of this beer. I won't spend a lot of time on this because basically it's not available other than to say we couldn't believe it was rejected. A delicious beer about which Dan said, "They should make life savers that taste like this."

So, the production version was obviously similar to the other only less sweet. It is a robust, very complex American Strong Ale. 12% ABV gives it a lovely warm, intense opening. It's a deep copper, almost red, color with a wonderful pour. Rich, full head with lots of staying power. Like the Kilt Tilter, notes of toffee seemed to be the underpinning, while the hops really jump out at you. As noted by one of our members, "The only fault, it's too strong to drink for a long time."

It's another one of those you really want to roll around in your mouth awhile to hit all the notes.

According to Dan, "One you can puff your chest out and be proud of!"

In Conclusion...

In an informal poll of the members, the general consensus was that Old Marcus Ale won out as the choice for a session beer. Though this was not unanimous. Some called the pale ale the quintessential session beer, while The Duke of Winship got the nod by at least one. All agreed that any of them would work quite nicely, thank you.

As for the which beer was the flat out favorite - Double Wench won the day.
This was a very small sampling of Middle Ages impressive line-up of beers. Their website ( lists 22 regularly produced beers. Some are on-tap only. The brewery has an ever changing line-up on tap for tasting or growler refills. August 1st is their anniversary party celebrating 15 years, with live music, food and of course beer. It'll be at Leavenworth Park, right next to the brewery. Hope to see you there!


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