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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Scotch Ales

Sherman on the Mount

Can Cans Battle Bottles for Best Beer?
The Great Beer Debate

Many years ago, before the Glorious Craft Brew Revolution, when all beers in the US strictly adhered to the commandment: "Thou shalt not produce beer other than lager," the biggest debate among beer drinkers may have been the cans vs. bottles argument. The general thinking was that beer from a can had a kind of metallic undertaste or aftertaste. Something you would never get from a bottle. I must admit that I always preferred bottles, assuming there was something to the whole metallic taste theory. This is not to say that I never drank beer from a can. Honestly, they are just too damn convenient. Cans stack better, are easier to store, transport, aren't as likely to break (and if they do, you don't have to worry about broken glass). But when it came to a preference, the hierarchy of the best way to drink a beer was always: 1. Draft, 2. Bottle, 3. Can. Any serious beer drinker knew that. It was tantamount to beer gospel.

However, there are some flaws in the reasoning here which of course most draft/bottle snobs failed to consider (I include myself in this group). Draft beer was always considered to be the primo way to consume beer. Yet, how is draft beer shipped and stored? Basically in giant cans! So why does no one complain about a metallic taste in draft beer? Secondly, what is the biggest enemy of beer? Well, there are two: light and air. Traditional beer bottles are tinted brown for a reason: to keep as much light out as possible. Some breweries use clear bottles for no good reason other than marketing (think Miller's old "champagne of bottled beer" ads  when they were trying to corner the female market with the clear bottles which were supposed to be somehow classier than the brown ones) but most tint the bottles to keep light at a minimum. And bottle caps, especially the twist-off type favored by the mega-brews, are not always completely air tight. 

So, what does keep out 100% of light and air? You guessed it. Cans! Which is why many craft brewers are beginning to offer some of their beers in cans. Sort of testing the waters. And the truth is, the interiors of modern cans are all lined with a polymer coating so that beer and metal never come in contact.

I mention all this because this month one of the beers we are tasting is Old Chub, a Scottish Ale brewed by Oskar Blues Brewery out of Colorado. Oskar Blues was the first craft brewer to offer beer in cans. Right from the start Oskar Blues bucked the craft beer trend of bottles only, feeling that cans were the best way to keep beer fresh. It also set them apart in the ever growing and ever more competitive world of craft beer. And Oskar Blues produces beer which deserves to be fresh. Additionally, we check out a couple of beers which are bottled in clear bottles. Did that have an effect on the taste? 

I think it would be interesting to do a bottle vs. can Battle some time. The problem is there are not yet enough craft beers produced in both bottle and can to get a good sampling. I suppose we could always compare Bud and Miller and Coors and Corona in bottles and cans. But we'd have to wait until Hell freezes over for that - so don't hold your breath.

This and That - Some Beers Worth Trying

-Saranac has come out with a new IPA - Saranac White IPA. It is a hybrid IPA and Belgian White. I was dubious, to say the least, at first and was quite prepared to dislike it. I have found very few wheat beers that I particularly care for. I picked up a bottle at Wegman's make-your-own-six-pack section, figuring if I hated it I wouldn't be stuck with five more. I found I liked it a lot more than I thought. It's a cloudy white color, quite carbonated with a nice piney, grapefruit hops scent. While there is a bit of coriander taste, it doesn't dominate. It has a very dry, refreshing finish to it. In talking with other BOTB guys, the reaction was mixed. No one hated it, but no one loved it either. I found it an interesting change of pace and one of the best wheat beers I've ever had.

-Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron - A deep, dark, roasty, rich brown ale. At 12% ABV it's not lawnmower beer by any stretch of the imagination. It is a very complex, rich ale with nice solid malt backbone. Definitely a sipping beer. It's aged in Paraguayan Santo Palo wooden tanks which imbue it with hints of caramel and vanilla.

-Firestone Union Jack IPA - Simply a terrific IPA! A hops explosion. If you are a hophead, you'll love this one. It has won back to back wins at the Great American Beer Festival. We'll be judging their Double Jack at our next meeting. Should be good.

On With the Show - This is it

Our January meeting was at Grindstone Brewery, otherwise known as the home of Mike and Diane Watkins. This month we decided to take on Scottish Ales, a first for us. The Scots play hard. For a good time they like to toss very large poles called cabers. They drink pretty hard too, tossing back some robust brews. 

A Wee Bit About the Wee Heavies (and Other Scottish Ales)

In general Scottish Ales traditionally were categorized according to strength as follows:
          Light (60 Shilling) Under 3.5% ABV
          Heavy (70 Shilling) 3.5% to 4% ABV
          Export (80 Shilling) 4% to 5.5% ABV
          Wee Heavy (90 Shilling) over 6% ABV
Scottish ales tend toward the malty and sweet end of the spectrum - with the Wee Heavies generally being full-bodied, rich and roasty. In many ways similar to traditional Christmas ales.

We used a rating sheet which was an amalgam of some of the others we have used. It allows us to rate color, pour, aroma, body, taste and overall impressions on a continuum, with milestone features at the beginning , middle and end of each. For example, let's look at "Pour." On the far left it states: "Some lacing with little head," at the center is simply, "Decent Head," and on the far right it states, "Guinness Class." Overall Impressions range from "Leave it on the shelf," to "I COULD DRINK THIS!" to "Can't Get Enough." There is, of course, the single most important section - "Comments" where we are allowed to wax in purely subjective fashion upon each selection. 


Providing a solid argument for canned beer, Old Chub is Oskar Blues' take on  Scottish style Strong Ales. 
      THE BEER FACTS: Brewed by Oskar Blues Brewery located in Longmont, CO. ABV 8% - Scottish Strong Ale - Gold Medal 2010 World Beer Championships; Top rated Scottish beer by; World's Second Best Canned Beer - Details Magazine.
      WHAT THE BREWER SAYS: This Scottish style Strong Ale is brewed with a bodacious amount of malted barley and specialty grains, and a dash of beechwood-smoked malt...A head-turning treat for malt heads and folks who think they don't dig dark beers."
      POUR:  Not much of a head. A little foam with a bit of lacing
      COLOR: Very dark, rich mahogany - approaching black.
      AROMA: Fairly neutral with a nice hint of malt..
      BODY: Full
      TASTE: Sweet and malty as expected in a Scottish ale. Notes of malt, toffee and chocolate. 

      COMMENTS: "It's like a liquid Heath Bar; A nice dessert beer; It's a 'feel good' beer; It warms - all the way down; It's more of a snow blower beer than a lawn mower beer; Wow! This is a big beer; A sippin beer/ book by the fire beer; It covers all the taste buds, a complex beer."


Boston Beer Company comes through with the the strongest of the evenings beers.
      THE BEER FACTS: Brewed by The Boston Beer Company located in Boston, MA. 10% ABV - 30 IBU'S. 2-row Harrington, Metcalfe, and Copeland Pale Malts. Zeus Hops.
      WHAT THE BREWER SAYS: "...inspired by both traditional Scotch Ales and Scotch whiskies, for a combination of deep roasted flavor and earthy smoke character."
      POUR: Decent head a bit of a carbonated look to it.
      COLOR: Similar to Old Chub - very dark, mahogany color.
      AROMA: Very malty.
      BODY: Full
      TASTE: Sweet - strong chocolate character with hints of toffee.
      OVERALL IMPRESSIONS: I COULD DRINK THIS! (with the caveat that you probably shouldn't drink too many!)

       COMMENTS: "You could chew this; Nice label; Tastes like a strong porter; Heavy stuff; Slightly sweet; Drink a glass of this with David Letterman, then go to bed; I really like it; It's a well made beer; Complex, and amazing from a somewhat 'main stream' brewery!"


Belvaven Brewery is located near Dunbar in Scotland. It is the only Scottish Ale from Scotland in the bunch we tasted. 
      THE BEER FACTS: Brewed by Belhaven Brewery near Dunbar, Scotland. 5.2% ABV - Belhaven has been brewing since 1719.
      WHAT THE BREWER SAYS: "Malty and hoppy, we at Belhaven love the classic Scottish Ale and we've been brewing it longer than any of the other beers we produce. Delivering a sweet, smooth and creamy finish, Scottish Ale has a stunning ruby color in a glass. Magic"
      POUR: Not much of a head, some lacing.
      COLOR: Amber.
      AROMA: Vaguely "skunky" scent. 
      BODY: Medium
      TASTE: Somewhat bittersweet. Notes of lemon, yeast were detected. An unpleasant "skunky" taste was also there.
      OVERALL IMPRESSIONS: Leave it on the shelf!
      COMMENTS: "Perhaps a strong argument for not using clear glass bottles; Do you think too much light got to it?; Maybe it's been on the shelf too long; Be interesting to taste this in Scotland, see if it was better."


Right in Middle Ages' wheelhouse here with the Sottish Ales. Kilt Tilter is one of three Scottish style ales brewed by Middle Ages. The others are Highlander Scotch Ale (a brown ale at 5.4%) and The Duke of Winship, a hybrid Scotch Ale/Porter (6.5%).

      THE BEER FACTS: Brewed by Middle Ages Brewing located in Syracuse, NY.  9.0% ABV - Scotch Style Ale brewed once a year.
      WHAT THE BREWER SAYS: "A Scottish 90 Shilling ale. Brewed only once a year, this ale is rich and full, with a dryness that is beautifully balanced with a classic malt sweetness."
      POUR: Once again, not a pronounced head.
      COLOR: Deep red to mahogany.
      AROMA: Malty with a hint of banana.
      BODY: Full, thick.
      TASTE: Starts sweet, but finishes with a little bitter bite. Notes of malt and banana and a hint of toffee.

      COMMENTS: "Middle Ages has got their act together; Balanced; This seems to be brewed by someone who likes English Ales; They certainly don't need to apologize for this; This is delightful."


The Vermont brewery has been producing this unfiltered Scottish Ale since 1995.
      THE BEER FACTS: Brewed by Long Trail Brewing Company, Bridgewater Corners, Vermont. 6.0% ABV 25 IBU's  - Malts: 2-row,Wheat, Crystal, Caramel, Black. Hops: Nugget and Mount Hood.
      WHAT THE BREWER SAYS:  "This robust and hearty brew will take the bite from a cold winter night."
      POUR: Nice big head. Not quite Guinness class, but impressive none the less. 
      COLOR: Unfiltered amber.
      AROMA: Balanced.
      BODY: Medium
      TASTE: Again, balanced with a bready taste and some notes of citrus - mostly lemon.
      COMMENTS:  "Nice, easy to drink; Unfiltered; a session beer; It's fresh linen on a spring morning; I can drink a lot of this; It's just good; Vermont does a great job of promoting their own."


Not to be confused with Kilt Tilter, this big Scotch ale out of California had us all buzzing (in a good way.)

      THE BEER FACTS: Brewed by Moylan's Brewery located in Larkspur, California. 8.0% ABV 25 IBU's - Malts: American 2-Row, Crystal Malt, Durst Vienna Malt,  Munich Malt, Special B Malt, Acidulated Malt.   Hops: East Kent Golding.
      WHAT THE BREWER SAYS: "The ORIGINAL KILT LIFTER SCOTCH ALE is robust and strapping, brewed with both balls, taking big beers to a whole new level. Rich malt balances perfectly with delicate hops to provide a concentrated and intense flavor... this is one beer that lives up to it's name (and no peeking!)"
      POUR:  Unfiltered with a decent head - right in the middle of our spectrum.
      COLOR: Amber leaning toward red.
      AROMA: Malty sweet.
      BODY: Medium.
      TASTE: Complex that is balanced with a nice bitter bite to it, despite being a Scotch ale. Hints of citrus interspersed with nut and caramel were detected.
      OVERALL IMPRESSION: Fell right in between the "I could drink this!" middle and the "Can't get enough." So overall a very positive impression.

      COMMENTS: "Delicate hops taste; Big blast; Riding the wave; One of my favorites; Not too sweet; Not a big banana smell; A true traditional Scottish ale."


Railbender Ale is the flagship beer of Erie Brewing out of Erie, Pennsylvania. It won a bronze in 2008 and the gold in 2009 for Scottish Ales in the Great American Beer Festival.

      THE BEER FACTS: Brewed by The Erie Brewing Company located in Erie, Pennsylvania. 6.8% ABV  26 IBU's 
      WHAT THE BREWER SAYS: "(Railbender) features a deep malt flavor, caramel sweetness lingering in a soft hop flavor.
      POUR: Unfiltered with a decent head with nice tight bubbles.
      COLOR: Dark amber.
      AROMA: Malty, nutty.
      BODY: Medium.
      TASTE: Balanced with malt and barley tones.
      COMMENTS: "Nice, easy to drink beer; not a bad beer at all; clean tasting beer; pretty balanced - not too hoppy and not too malty; A good aftertaste; There's a light malt sweetness to the aftertaste; Hops clean up the finish; There might be a barley malt taste."


A big beer from Quoyloo, Scotland. Random fact: the beer gets it name from Thorfinn Einarsson, the 7th Earl of Orkney.

      THE BEER FACTS: Brewed by Orkney Brewery located in Quoyloo, Scotland. 8.5% ABV - Malts: Pale ale malt, Crystal and Chocolate Malt. Hops: East Kent Golding.
      WHAT THE BREWER SAYS: "Skull Splitter is our strongest ale...Sophisticated, satiny smooth with a deceptively light character, it is a tribute to our colorful forebear."
      POUR: Decent to excellent head.
      COLOR: Amber.
      AROMA: Malty with notes of banana.
      BODY: Medium.
      TASTE: Mix or malt and a warming spice flavor with hints of banana from the English yeast.
      OVERALL IMPRESSIONS: Scored close to the "Can't get enough!" end.
      COMMENTS: "Tasty, complex: Starts sweet - finishes dry; Warm; I like this a lot; It sits with you nicely; Really good beer; Smooth; I like this beer - in all honesty, I do; The aftertaste is worth the swallowing; I'm setting sail for Scotland, and I'll need a bigger boat; I'd buy that!"


Another flagship brew, this one from a brewery out of Edinburgh, Scotland. Also, the second to be shipped in clear glass bottles.

      THE BEER FACTS: Brewed by Innis and Gunn located in Edinburgh, Scotland. 6.6% ABV - As the name suggests, the beer is aged in oak for 77 days. The beer has won three consecutive Modern Monde gold awards.
      WHAT THE BREWER SAYS: "Like the world's great wine and whiskey makers we strive for depth of flavor, complexity and mellowness in every beer we produce...the 77 day maturation imparts flavors of toffee, vanilla and oak (to) compliment the beer's backbone of luscious malt and fruity hop notes."

      POUR: Head was nearly nonexistent.
      COLOR: Golden.
      AROMA: Honey and oak.
      BODY: Thin and light.
      TASTE: A sweetish Scotch whiskey taste that variously includes toffee, butterscotch, oak, honey and vanilla.
      OVERALL IMPRESSIONS: Tended toward the "Leave it on the shelf" end.

      COMMENTS: "Tastes like a shot of liquor to me; It didn't jump at me; It's nothing I would seek out; Maybe an occasional beer; I don't know that you'd actually find it in my refrigerator."

In a side note, a different 4-pack of Innis and Gunn's was purchased at a different store. The beer had a strong skunky smell and taste. The conclusion might be that, while the clear bottles are pretty and allow you to view the contents, the damage done by light might not be worth it. I much prefer plainer bottles and better tasting beer!


Tallying up the results, it appears that Middle Ages Tilt Kilter came out on top, just nosing out Skull Splitter and Moylan's, and inching past Samuel Adams' Wee Heavy. Those four scored very well, as did Oskar Blue's Old Chub. All of them were relatively big beers (ranging from 8% to 10% ABV) that would be considered sipping rather than session beers.  
Of the "smaller" beers, Hibernator beat out Railbender, though both were tasty brews. Ironically, Belhaven and Innis and Gunn - two of the three beers actually from Scotland - did not fair well at all. Both earned a "leave it on the shelf" ranking. Perhaps not coincidentally, both were bottled in clear glass. I wonder how they would have been from a can?


Next up for the BOTB Guys are Double IPA's. Strap on a helmet boys!

The BOTB Guys

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