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Friday, February 25, 2011

What Ales You? Saranac's Latest Mixed 12 Pack

Sherman on the Mount
By Rick Sherman
What exactly makes a beer a craft beer? In noodling around the web a bit I found some good definitions. One very simple one was from

 "An American term which refers to beer brewing using traditional methods.This type of beer is brewed to be distinctive and flavorful rather than appeal to everyone."

I rather like that definition.

The Brewers Association refers to a craft brewery as one that is "small, independent and traditional." All three of those words are qualifiers - but what do they mean?
Small: Less than 2 million barrels per year.
Independent: An alcoholic beverage industry member (not a craft brewer) cannot own more than 25% of the brewery.
Traditional: Must have an all-malt flagship beer or have at least 50% of its production in either all malt beers or beers which use adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten the flavor (in other words, not rice or corn.)

So craft beers (or microbrews if under 15,000 barrels per year are sold) by definition are not brewed by any of the big mega-brewers (macrobrews). But as the sale of microbrews began to cut into the bottom line of the big guys, the macrobreweries began to take notice. By 2009 craft beers accounted for only 6.9% of the total dollars of retail sales of beer in the U.S. However the sales had been gradually trending upwards over the last several years. So, rather than be satisfied with the other 93.1% of the beer dollars out there, the Big Two breweries (Anheuser-Busch/InBev and Miller/Coors)  decided they wanted in on the craft beer boom as well.
This has taken two forms. One is to create beers like Budweiser's American Ale, where the familiar brand name was left intact, but the brew was tweaked to make it appeal more to the craft beer market. Miller has done a similar thing by adding lime and other flavorings to their lite beer. Trouble was most dedicated craft beer drinkers weren't about to buy a Bud (even if it had the word "ale" after it - and they sure weren't about to buy one of those God awful lite beers no matter what they added to it ) when there were so many diverse craft brews out there to choose from.

Coors hides their association with B-M
The second, some might say more insidious, approach was to create pseudo-craft beers. Miller/Coors has it's Blue Moon series of beers. Michelob has Shock Top. A-B has also introduced Beach Bum Blonde Ale and Jack's Pumpkin Spiced Ale. A-B "craft" brands include Red Bridge, Skipjack Amber and Wild Blue - as well as owning shares in Seattle's Redhook Ale Brewery. While Millers/Coors owns Leinenkugel and Killian's Irish Red. Meanwhile Craft Brewers Alliance, Inc. - a conglomerate of four of the major craft brewers: Red Hook, Widmer, Kona and Goose Island - has reportedly been targeted by A-B for takeover.
So what's the big deal? InBev has the money and the power, if they want to buy up some of the more successful craft brewers, so what? It's the American way (realizing, of course, that InBev is a Begian company). I have no problem with companies making money. I like to think that what separates the craft brewers from the corporate brewers is that the crafters got into this business because of a love of good beer, however I am sure that they are not averse to turning a buck as well. And certainly if A-B or M-C want to brew beers that mimic craft brews, more power to them. The problem is there is just so much shelf space in any grocery store's beer aisle and just so many taps in any bar, and the macrobreweries have the power to dominate that space and those taps.

The danger in all this is that the craft brewers who don't hook up with the big guys could be driven out of business. And those who do could lose control of the beers they produce as the parent company eyes the bottom line, pushing for cheaper (i.e. less flavorful) ingredients while looking for broader appeal. And we could be back to the same old same old. Couldn't happen? But it already did. After Prohibition was repealed, the number of breweries in the US grew to 498 in 1940. By 1983 that number had dwindled to 80, operated by 50 companies as small, regional breweries were bought up or forced out by the big guys. And they all pretty much produced the same beer. Using inexpensive ingredients such as rice and corn which contributed little to the flavor and counting on the power of Madison Ave,  U.S. beers developed a reputation as being bland and tasteless. The introduction of light beers did little to help this.

Today there are over 1,500 breweries operating in the U.S. - more than in any other country - producing the most varied array of styles and flavors in the world. We are in the midst of a brewing Renaissance. And for the 6.3% of us out here who appreciate the flavor and diversity of craft beers, that is a wonderful thing indeed.

What Ales You? - Well This Mixed 12 Might Just Be the Cure
At January's BOTB meeting at Mike and Diane's we checked out Saranac's newest mixed 12 pack - "What Ales You," and threw in a couple other ales from Lake Placid Brewing to round out tasting. Saranac's "What Ales You" mixed 12 contains 6 different beers, however two of them, the Irish Red Ale and the Irish Stout, we included last month. So this month we tackled the rest of the brews. We again used the same evaluation form as before, rating each beer by aroma, color, flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression - keeping the first four areas as objective as we can and saving our subjectivity for the last part where we rate it from "can't stand it" to "can't get enough." Then, of course, we have the comments which are purely subjective. So without further ado...

1. Saranac Pale Ale - Saranac's flagship beer, this is a classic English Pale Ale made with Crystal malt and Cascade and East Kent Golding hops. It weighs in at 5.5% ABV and has a 13.50 original gravity. A coppery amber colored beer, it pours with a full, rich head. The initial aroma is toward the hoppy end of the spectrum. The flavor starts out with a nutty maltiness and finishes with nice hop bite. Mouthfeel was right in the middle and our overall impression was very favorable, falling just one notch short of "can't get enough."
Comments: "As said before, this is truly a boat beer; When I think of pale ale - I want it to taste like this; More of an English style Pale Ale; Nice pale ale; The Cascade finishes it up - cleans it up; Better than Sam Adams."
2. Saranac Brown Ale - This is an American Brown Ale brewed with American two-row Pale, Victory and Chocolate malts as well as Cascade and Columbus hops. It's a medium amber color - halfway between amber and brown on our scale. There is a distinctive, warm malty aroma at the pour with a nice frothy head. The flavor was very balanced, with a full mouthfeel. This one was near the top of our overall impressions scale. At 5.3% and the balanced flavor this makes a terrific session beer.

Good time for a Saranac Brown Ale!
Comments: "Nice beer; Hearty; Nice winter beer - to warm the cockles of your taste buds; Nice finish; How about including this in the 12 Beers of Winter? Seems like a perfect fit; Perfect beside a warm fire on a cold winter's day; Could drink this all night; I hope they'll keep this as one of their core beers
 As you can see, this one was quite popular with all of us.

The women take a "hike" while we research.
3. Saranac Amber Ale - Most amber ales lean heavily toward the malty side and go easy on the hops. Saranac added a solid dose of Cascade and Fuggle hops to balance the sweetness of the Honey and Extra Dark Crystal malts they use.The result is a very balanced beer with a deep amber color, a malty aroma and a flavor that leans toward the sweet end of the spectrum. We judged the mouthfeel as a bit shy of full, but very pleasant. Overall impression put this again just short of "can't get enough." A very drinkable beer.
Comments: "Sweetest finish, session beer - have a few in the evening type beer; That's a good beer; Very similar to the Brown Ale; Easy drinking, nothing offensive or objectionable about it; Don't taste any fruit or caramel; I get a little caramel undertaste."

4. Saranac India Pale Ale - Saranac's IPA (an American IPA), like their Pale Ale, has become one of Saranac's core beers. Fully hopped, but not over the top, it's brewed with North American two-row malt and Cascade hops. At a modest 5.8% ABV it is not particularly strong for this style. A kind of honey colored, the hops aroma hits you right off. And the dominant flavor is those Cascade hops, providing that taste, somewhat reminiscent of grapefruit, that is the hallmark of a good IPA. This one we scored an enthusiastic "Can't get enough."
Comments: "Creamy, lacy, off-white head; Nice beer; One of my favorites of the Saranac line; One of their - and our - staples; A regular in my fridge."

5. Lake Placid Ubu Ale - Next up we checked out a couple of brews from Lake Placid Craft Brewing. Ubu Ale is their flagship ale. It is an English strong ale. It's a deep mahogany color with a rich malty aroma. It's a solid 7% ABV and has a full mouthfeel. The flavor tends toward the sweet end of the spectrum with a nutty maltiness and hints of toffee. Nice hint of hops. Overall impressions were very positive leaving it just shy of "Can't get enough."
Legend has it that Bill Clinton used to have this shipped to the White House.
Comments: "What you wish Guinness would taste like; Kind of reminds me of Guinness 250 which I liked more than Guinness; This is a good beer; Finishes sweet; Hadn't had this in a while and I like it even more than I remember."

6. Lake Placid Craft Brewing India Pale Ale - Another really good IPA, and one that is a little stronger than the Saranac. The aroma was strongly hoppy. It poured a deep copper color. Again the hops dominate, but there is a little more maltiness here than the Saranac. At 6.8% the warming sensation of the alcohol is more noticeable than Saranac as well. Full mouthfeel. It earned a hearty "Can't get enough" from all present. A really good beer. I wish it was more widely available.
Comments: "Nice eye appeal; Nice lace, nice malts; bitter finish; complex flavor; the best of Placid; A little maltier than Saranac, but no less hoppy - a bigger beer; A good acquisition by Saranac; I could drink this all night long (Sorry Gerry!)

A Couple of Shout-outs
We also got a chance to try Grindstone Brewery's Winter Blues Rye PA. It was awesome! Grindstone's brewmaster Mike Watkins does it again.

Had Southern Tier's IPA - Excellent beer.

I also tried Lagunita's Brown Shugga' - Looking for something really different - give it a try. With the name I thought it would be really sweet - but I was pleasantly surprised. There's the caramel malt flavor enhanced by a kind of molasses/brown sugar taste - but then it is nicely balanced by a strong hops presence. 9.9% ABV so it's a big beer. Real nice sipping beer.

The BOTB Guys

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