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Thursday, February 3, 2011

So Many Beers - So Little Time

Sherman on the Mount  
Whereupon Your Humble Blogmeister Pontificates on the Ales of the World 

Over the last several years it's been exciting to see the growth of craft beers throughout the U.S. What was for a while essentially a West Coast then East Coast phenomena is slowly spreading to all those areas in between and even into the South. It's great to walk into a grocery store and see a beer aisle that looks like this:
As opposed to one dominated by Budweiser, Coors and Miller products. Now, I have nothing against those beers and have been known to partake of them when nothing else is available. My problem is the mind-numbing (or taste-bud numbing) sameness of these brews. I know that many people are fiercely loyal to one or the other of them, but the truth is there is little difference between them. Try a blind taste test with the big three and throw in a Blue and a PBR and a Genny. It would be very difficult to tell one from the other (even more so if they are all Lights). And truly, that's what the big boys want because then it comes down to advertising and branding. Now, just for kicks, throw Saranac's Lake Effect Lager into that blind taste test mix for example. Even the least discriminating of palates could pick that out because it's different and distinct. Yet it too is a Lager just like the others.
My point is that for years the major brewers fought the beer wars not with brew masters but with ad execs. Image and packaging were the weapons, not innovations in style and flavor. But craft beers have brought true variety and choice to beer drinkers thirsting for bold, full-flavored brews.

January BOTB - A Little of This and a Little of That

At January's BOTB meeting at Hal's we realized we had a rather daunting and unwieldy task in front of us. As often happens, each member will bring along a beer or two that looked interesting and add it to the pot. This has resulted in a growing number of interesting brews as we cast our collective nets far and wide to haul in something new and different. But this also creates a bit of a dilemma. Namely, we suddenly realized we had sixteen different beers to taste. While I will agree that "too much beer" is a rather foreign (dare I say blasphemous) concept, my guess is that by the eleventh or twelfth we perhaps could not do justice to the beers. Ergo, we made the tough decision to limit the tastings to only seven. The seven we choose were an eclectic group and therefore once again have judged each on its own merits. 
This months Magnificent Seven:

Two from Saranac: 
Irish Red Ale and Irish Stout

Two from Middle Ages: 
Dragon Slayer Imperial Stout and Druid Fluid

Three from Wisconsin (Courtesy of Dan's son Evan - thanks Evan):

Capital Brewing's Capital Pilsner

New Glarus Brewing Company's Spotted Cow and Moon Man No Coast Pale Ale

1. Saranac's Irish Red Ale 

This was one of the two limited release brews offered us by Saranac this month. This one would definitely fit well in the Session Beer category as it has an easy to take 4.5% ABV (by contrast Budweiser weighs in at 5%). The aroma we found to be somewhat malty, but not extremely so. The color was a deep copper. Mouthfeel was toward the full end of the spectrum. Taste was rather typical of its style: a malty sweetness with nothing overpowering. Not a strong hops presence as you might expect. Overall impression fell right in the middle with some rating it above average, some below. There were a number of comments with a mini battle of words pitting this against Killian's Irish Red: "Nice label; a good football beer' I could drink this!; I don't care for this beer - the aroma and the lack of hops; I like it better than Killians; I disagree; It has more body than Killians; It is a good session beer - it is what it is."

2. Saranac Irish Stout
Stouts seem to bring out the most disagreements among the BOTB Guys. Nobody hates them, but some are fonder of them than others. So Saranac's Irish Stout made for a lively discussion. It has all the characteristics of a stout, with its deep black color, rich, malty aroma, full/thick mouthfeel and sweet malt flavor with hints of coffee. It is a solid 5.5% ABV. The overall impressions averaged out to good side of average, edging toward the "can't get enough" end of the scale. But again we were all over the place on this one. Comments: "Nice lacing - a lingerie lace; I don't care for most stouts; I'd buy that; A good snow blower beer; I can drink this; It's a good solid Irish Stout; It's not real smoky, almost a burnt malt; (and a typical BOTB suggestion) Hop it up a little more."

3. Middle Ages Dragon Slayer Imperial IPA
Middle Ages Brewing Company in Syracuse, NY produces an impressive array of beers, several of which we have reviewed in the past. Particularly impressive are their selection of high octane brews. Complex, rich and full bodied, these beers are uncompromising and the antithesis of the Imbev family of cookie cutter beers.
Dragon Slayer is a take-no-prisoners kick-ass Russian Stout. 9.5% ABV puts it right up there in the barleywine territory. It's not for everyone, which for me is high praise. The aroma is malty. It pours an opaque coal black, with a rich, full head. The flavor is complex and big, with chocolate undertones. It scored between average and can't get enough with some loving it some not so thrilled. Comments include: "Beautiful head and lacing; I can drink this; Heavy; Too much of a roasted flavor - it's over the top; This is a helmet beer - with a strap!; A nice beer to be enjoyed with Polish food (the food theme for the meeting); Chocolaty; Big flavor."

Middle Ages Druid Fluid

Druid Fluid marks a new style for the BOTB Guys. It's a barleywine. Barleywine is a strong ale which originated in England. The name comes from the fact that it is often nearly as strong as wine, typically clocking in at somewhere between 8% and 12%. It is made with grains rather than fruit, so it is in fact an ale. Bass No. 1 Ale was the first beer sold as a barley wine in 1900. Barleywines are rich, full-bodied and complex.
Druid Fluid, an amber colored ale, has a deep malty aroma, not surprising since it is brewed with six malts. Full-bodied and rich with a sweet, malty taste and warm alcohol mouthfeel. Our overall impression came out just shy of "can't get enough." Not shabby for a niche beer such as this. But again there was a mixed bag of opinions. "Too sweet; Very strong, with a sweet taste, it seems you either love it or hate it; a little grape-y for my taste; Certainly not a session beer!"

Capital Brewery of Middleton, WI - Capital Pilsner
Capital Pilsner is a German Pilsner style beer. It's a mild beer at 4.7%. The aroma quite honestly was not pleasant. It was described variously as, "bready, yeasy, skunky, dirty socks." Ouch! Hate to hammer any craft brew, but honestly the aroma alone was very off-putting. The color was very pale. It has a thin mouthfeel and the taste somewhat sweet. General impression fell just shy of "can't stand it." Comments: "Almost like a light wheat beer; definitely a lawnmower beer; After shoveling my car out of the snow bank I could drink that."

New Glarus Brewing Company - Spotted Cow

Our second beer from Wisconsin, and we were beginning to wonder if there was something in the water in this Midwest state. Described as a farmhouse ale, Spotted Cow is another mild beer at 4.8%. There was very little in the way of aroma and the color was pale yellow. Mouthfeel was thin and there wasn't much flavor. Kind of reminded me of one of the Imbev or Miller/Coors beers. No discernible hops presence and little in the way of maltiness either. Comments: "Would be a golf cart beer - when you want to shoot a good score; After shoveling, maybe a 'knock back' beer; Not objectionable, but why bother?: Incidentally, their web site suggests paining this beer with, anomg other things, brats and Limburger sandwiches.

New Glarus Brewing Company - Moon Man No Coast Pale Ale
After a couple of disappointing Wisconsin brews we approached this one with some trepidation. Hated to see  the Badger State go 0 for 3. Gotta' like the name "No Coast Pale Ale." The pour was encouraging with an unfiltered cloudiness that gave the pale color some character. The aroma gave us more hope as we detected the presence of hops which we had missed in the last two. The flavor was that of a decent pale ale with a faint hoppy bitterness. The overall impressions fell right between "can't get enough" and "OK." Comments: I'll tell you what, I could drink that; Wisconsin's best effort so far."

We did have three other beers which we choose not to rate officially for no other reason than we decided to just do seven. These all were unanimously well received. We agreed that they were all in the "can't get enough" category. 

Sierra Nevada's Harvest Wet Hop Ale

Three Heads Brewing - The Kind India Pale Ale

Brown's Brewing Company
India Pale Ale

All in all another day of good food, good friends, good music, and of course, good beer.

How Beer Saved the World

You might want to check out this fun bit of fluff from the Discovery Channel. It tells the story of beer and it's many virtues in a light-hearted hour, mixing somewhat silly animation with over-the-top narration and a fair amount of history. It's an interesting show, however I would have liked to have seen a similar thing done with a little less frivolity. It sort of undercuts the interesting bits of trivia and history of brewing. The little animated bits are just goofy and not particularly funny unless you're a five-year-old. It's almost like the producers said, "Well, it's beer after all, so let's not be too serious here." 
Also be prepared; it's underwritten by Miller/Coors so about 90% of the beer labels you see are either Miller or Coors. It's like we're in some bizarro universe where Budweiser doesn't exist. However, there is also no mention of craft brews either and the death of the small breweries with the rise of the mega-breweries. Nonetheless it makes for a diverting hour.

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