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Monday, December 27, 2010

The BOTB Guys Dive into Saranac

Oh, brew me no brew with artifical bubbles,
Those carbonated beers of today;
But Utica Club will still take the trouble
To age beer the natural way.

Okay, so if you can jump right in and sing along with the above then I'm guessing you're on AARP's mailing list. No doubt you also remember good old Schultz and Dooley, the talking beer steins voice by Jonathan Winters, who pitched Utica Club beer in a long-running series of TV spots. Sort of the Geico Gecko of their time. 

(Check out those cans at the top of the page. When is some brewer going to bring them back? They look like old style oil cans, so you could see a sort of engine-oil themed line. You know, Old Crankcase Stout or Lubicator Premium Pilsner or 40 Weight IPA. Something like that. )

Utica Club was the flagship beer brewed by the West End Brewery - later renamed Matt Brewing Company after founder F.X. Matt. It is the fourth largest family owned brewery in America (behind Yuengling, August Schell Brewing Company, and Straub Brewery - for you beer trivia enthusiasts). Having survived Prohibition by producing soft drinks and malt syrup as well as other food stuff, West End was one of the first breweries to be back on line once sanity was restored. In the '60's and '70's as many of the smaller breweries were being gobbled up or driven out of business by the mega national brands, West End persevered through a combination of regional brand loyalty and by brewing private label beers (remember Billy Beer?) Soon came Matt's Premium and Maximus Super (a malt liquor at around 7% ABV - pretty high for the time).

Today Matt Brewing is best known for their line of Saranac craft beers. We have included a number of Saranc brews in past BOTB meetings (Herb refers to Saranac Pale Ale in a can as the quintessential boat beer; their IPA scored very well with us and their Imperial IPA is to die for) but at our December meeting we decided to focus our taste buds with our usual laser-like precision on seven of Saranac's seasonal selections: Bohemian Pilsener, Lake Effect Lager, Big Moose Ale, Rye IPA, India Copper Ale, Vanilla Stout - this years 12 beers of Winter - plus Season's Best.

 For the sake of full disclosure (and to send out a heart-felt thanks) Saranac, through friend of BOTB Meghan, provided us with the beers. Thanks Meghan, I think I love you. Now, lest you think this in any way biased our impeccable judgment, let me assure you that this was not the case. We made a pact at the start that we would above all be honest in our assessment of the beers. Having said that, I must say that by and large, damn, these were an impressive bunch of brews!
With a mixed case like this though, it made no sense to compare them to each other, so we decided to evaluate each on their own merits. Dan devised a chart for evaluation. We were to look at four areas as objectively as possible then give it an overall subjective evaluation. Each area was on a continuum. For example, aroma had "hoppy" at one end and " malty" at the other. A "3" would be dead center meaning it was pretty balanced with equal
notes of both. Besides Aroma we also looked at the following: Color - Pale, Golden, Amber, Copper, Black; Flavor - Bitter to Sweet; Mouthfeel - Light/Thin to Full/Thick. These were the objective observations. The final, subjective category was "Overall Impression" and this went from "Can't Stand It" to "Can't Get Enough."

A Pilsner (or Pilsener)  Kicks off the Evening

Saranac's Bohemian Pilsener

We started off the night's festivities at Dan's with some of his world famous whiskey infused cherries. They've been marinating since the summer and they were wonderful. Our first beer was Saranac's Bohemian Pilsener. Now, as I have mentioned often in this blog, we are a bunch of unrepentant hop-head. Pilsners are not generally noted for a strong hops presence so there was a bit of, shall we say, apprehesion as we sized up the evening's first offering. In truth I think most of us were prepared for a rather bland brew. What we found  was a surprisingly good beer. Brewed with Pilsener malt and Saaz hops, the general consensus was that it wa a very smooth, drinkable beer. At 4.8% ABV it works nicely as a session beer. The color was pale, which you would expect from a pilsner. In the rest of the categories it scored right in the middle. No one said "Can't stand it." By the same token no one said "Can't get enough." While by no means a hop lover's dream beer, there was a nice hoppiness there.
There was considerable discussion on this one. A sampling of the comments: "Bitter finish, with a surprising hops presence; Could be a lawn mower beer - if well iced; Maybe a session beer, ice cold off the golf course; Nice label." It landed right in the middle for Overall Impressions which, considering the fact that we all   believe fervently in the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of hoppiness, that was pretty good.

A Lager Sneaks into BOTB 

Lake Effect Lager

We at BOTB have at times been accused of being "beer snobs." To which we generally reply, "And this is a problem because...?" I actually had someone suggest that we really should include Budweiser, Miller, Coors etc. in our evaluations. But why? Everybody knows what they taste like (which is essentially the same) so what would be the point? 

Anyway, a Lager is a beer that is brewed and stored at a low temperature and includes Marzens, Pilsners, Bocks, as well as Dunkels (dark lagers). They are generally mild in flavor wihtout the strong hops presence of other beers. In the U.S. the style was essentially co-opted by the Imbev/Millers-Coors conglomerate of beers. So when one hears "lager" one thinks "pale yellow, mild, light." The truth is a lager such as the German Doppelbock can be quite strong (up to 14% ABV). However in the U.S. lager often means light (light in color, light in taste). Though more and more you are starting to see some interesting craft lagers. The unspoken attitude among the BOTB bunch when we saw the word "lager" was "When do we get to the IPA's?"

Lake Effect Lager is nowhere near the 14% mark, but it weighs in at a respectable 5.59%. It's a German style lager brewed with Pilsner and and Kiln Coffee malt. Perle and Hallertau hops are used. It has a pleasant malty/yeasty aroma. It's a deep amber in color. The taste was judged as tending toward the sweet, which doesn't sit well with some of our members. The mouthfeel was just shy of full. Overall impression again fell right int the middle with no one hating it but no one ready to propose to it either. A few of the comments: "Doesn't look like a lager; a caramel-like taste; I'm not a fan - too sweet; Beats the hell out of Bud!"

Overall, it's a smooth, easy drinking beer with more flavor than your typical lager. You gotta' love the name though. It's alliterative plus evocative of the region. Those who live around the Great Lakes are well acquainted with lake effect.

Bullwinkle Would be Proud of This One

Big Moose Ale

Big Moose Ale is an American Pale Ale and at the pour we knew we were in for a treat. Right off the bat you got a whiff of those Centennial and Amarillo hops, and they were there front and center with the first taste as well. Pale and Caramel malts give a warm balance to the beer. We judged the mouthfeel as just short of full. The overall impression was "Can't Get Enough!" This was one we all wished Saranac would sell year round as a stand-alone.
The comments speak for themselves: "Nice head; Clean pleasing aftertaste, stays with you; I'd buy this - I really like it; Better than regulat pale ale - nearly an IPA; Big taste, seems more than 5.3%; I can drink this!!" [Sidebar - "I can drink this" is a kind of catch phrase of Gerry's, in case you haven't noticed. He schooled us in the nuances of enunciation - there is a subtlety here, but that one phrase can denote "Hmm, not bad" or "This is great!"  or a myriad of meanings between the two. It is important to note the end punctuation, underscore, etc. to get a feel for the passion behind the comment.]

We Revisit a Seasonal Fave

Season's Best

Seasonal brews are interesting. It's not  a style unto itself, so there are really no rules. Brewers can have a little fun, get kind of spicy or malty or hoppy or throw in something really different. There are winter seasonals with cinnamon, ginger, cherry or any number of other interesting flavors thrown in. They can be quite strong or more of a session type beer. This time of year they are generally dark in color and hearty with a "warming" feel to them.  We included Saranac's Season's Best last year in our Holiday Beers evaluation and it fared quite well. So we gladly welcomed back this Vienna style lager. It is brewed with Munich and Biscuit Malts and Tettnang hops. A dark amber in color, the aroma was malty with a warm, malty taste tending toward the sweet end of the spectrum. Mouthfeel was full. The overall impression was positive, finishing up one notch below "Can't Get Enough!"

Comments: "Nice lace; Clean finish' Nicely balanced' Good seasonal beer. I could drink this."

A Wry Approach to an IPA


We always like to see those three little letters: I-P-A. This one, as you no doubt could infer from the name, is made with rye. At 5.95% ABV it's not particularly strong for an IPA, but it has a very distinct hops nose that translates into a sharp, pleasantly bitter taste; the result of generous use of Hallertau and Sazz hops. It's a golden color and has a medium to full body. The overall impression was enthusiastically "Can't Get Enough."

Comments: "Good summer IPA; Nice, nice, nice!; I like the Moose better; If you're a hophead, you'll like this; I could drink this!"

From India With Love

India Copper Ale

We followed up the Rye IPA with another India Ale with a twist. The India Copper Ale is a strong brown ale. The idea here was to take the hoppiness of an IPA and give it a malty underpinning using Marris Otter and Crystal malts. the result is a balanced, full flavored brew. 
The beer poured a dark brown in color. The initial aroma was the Columbus, Cascade and Centennial hops. The hops also give it a nice citrusy bitter bite leavened by the malts. Another big winner with a unanimous "Can't Get Enough!"

Comments: "I can drink this!!; Extremely hoppy presence; Unique; Nutty undertones; Damn good!"

Can I Get This in a Cone?

Vanilla Stout

We were all over the place on this one. And there's not a thing wrong with that. Here in the U.S. we went for years with essentially one style of beer - the lager. Even the "dark beer" produced by the big three breweries were dark in color only. And if you like that, fine. But it's kind of like American cheese - bland and inoffensive. Some people like American cheese, but how awful if that was the only cheese available. Craft brewers don't aim for the middle, they create beers that are all over the map. It's called choice and isn't that a great thing?
Anyhow, the concept here is interesting: take a stout, a beer generally associated with chocolate notes, and add vanilla - creating that classic combination of chocolate and vanilla. Saranac's Vanilla Stout is a rich, full-bodied sweet beer and we were split pretty evenly in our opinions. I for one liked it. I thought it would make a nice dessert beer. I really enjoyed the richness and that hint of vanilla made it a very different kind of stout. Others adamantly disliked it. This was the only one that veered toward the "I can't stand it" end of the spectrum. Typical of stouts, it is a relatively mild 4.8% ABV. Dark chocolate, caramel and vanilla blend for a sweet, rich beer which may not to be to everyone's liking. 

You can see from the comments how varied the opinions were on this one: "You can smell the vanilla; Nice dessert beer; This would keep me from buying a mixed 12 pack with this in it; If that was all that was in the fridge, I'd drink it; I kind of like; Nicely roasted malt taste; It's absolutely wonderful!; A little too sweet for me; I don't mind it for a change of pace."

I went out and bought the 12 Beers of Winter the next day - in part because of the Vanilla Stout! Had it later, still liked it. 

We Get Creative

On a whim, we created our own hybrid brew. I think it was Mike's idea, but we mixed India Copper Ale and Big Moose Ale half and half. Turned out to be really good. They kind of complemented each other nicely. Call it Copper Moose Ale.

Thanks again to Meghan for supplying the beer. It was a tasty bunch to be sure. We'd like to see Saranac offer some of these in six or twelve packs on their own. We look forward to delving into more Saranac brews in the upcoming months.

Some Other Noteworthy Winter Ales

Not to be slackers, each of the BOTB guys contributed a seasonal ale into the mix. Some quick notes on our findings.

-Alpine Creek Alpine IPA - Hoppy aroma, black in color, bitter flavor, full/thick mouthfeel and an overall impression leaning toward "Can't Get Enough." Comments: "I could drink that!; A mimic of Grindstone's. (See Hoppy Holidays.)"

-Grindstone Creek's Hoppy Holidays - Hoppy aroma, black color, flavor leaning toward bitter, full/thick mouthfeel and an overall impression of "Can't get enough." Comments: "Guinness head; Not too bitter; Nice clean finish; Good beer; I can drink this! You can smell the hops; I'm not a stout fan, but this is great!"

-Harpoon Winter Warmer - Malty aroma, brown in color, sweet flavor, between average and full mouthfeel.  Not one of our favorites from Harpoon. Comments: "Spicy; made for pumpkin pie - not beer; taste of banana, I don't care for it; Moste Harpoons are delicious, this is the worst of the Harpoons."

-Old Man Winter Ale - Southern Tier Brewing - Deep copper color, balanced flavor with some hint of spice, full mouthfeel, just short of "Can't get enough." Comments: "I could drink this!; Southern Tier makes some good beers; Nice and clean; balanced."

-Rock Art's Mountain Holidays - Malty aroma, deep brown color, flavor tends toward sweet, a surprisingly thin mouthfeel. Comments: "Inviting head; beautiful color; Horrid!; Because it doesn't have pumpkin spices I put it a little above average; I don't like allspice flavor; There is a back taste of banana; I had higher expectations of Rock Art."

-Rogue Ale's Santa's Private Reserve - Aroma tends toward hoppy, amber color. Taste is nicely bitter and hoppy. Full mouthfeel. Overall - "Can't get enough!" Comments: "Inviting color - nice lace; I could drink this!; You could chew this; I like the Rogue - a lot!"

-Sierra Nevada Celebration - Hoppy aroma, cloudy amber color, bitter flavor, full/thick mouthfeel and an overall impression of "Can't get enough!" Comments include: "This I could drink!; It grows on you." 

Once we finished the business at hand, we had a delicious meal followed by music by the Beer Club Trio - Christmas themed of course. Touching ballads such as "Daddy Don't Get Drunk This Christmas." And finishing off with our unofficial theme song, "Beer Run."


And special thanks to our wonderful designated drivers who make these meetings possible and the food fantastic. 

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