Summer of Sours: The Berliner Weisse

•June 19, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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After years of apartment living, my wife and I have a yard again.  Our own real yard, our own real grass, and even some nicely done landscaping which I admit we completely, totally inherited.  And best of all, there’s a real patio from which to gaze upon it all.

Of course, this real yard requires real mowing as well.  This is perfectly fine by me, because it makes for a bit of a workout and I enjoy doing it, although I’m not sure it’s as much about the exercise as it is the required post lawn mowing beer.  Now I’ll admit to some personal indecisiveness over the years when it comes down to my personal go-to beer style for the sweat through your shirt, warm weather, beach cooler, and now, post lawn mowing beer.  And if you’ve read this blog at all, you know that I’m not a big fan of the term ‘seasonal’.  But sometimes a particular kind of beer just fits the given situation like a glove.  For times such as these, I’ve tried IPAs, Ambers ales, Pilsners, and plenty of others.  Who knew, then, that for the first time that I tackled the yard, what really hit the spot was a Berliner Weisse style beer – a low abv, centuries old, sour wheat ale from Germany with (of course) with that typical cloudy, white pale, wheat beer like appearance to have inspired such beer names as Tropic Sneeze.

But when you truly taste a good example of one, the ability to quench my thirst makes plenty of sense.  For someone who’s never tried a Berliner Weisse, the common, easy fit description is that it tastes a bit like lemonade (without the sweetness) from its sour tartness and acidic nature.  And in many examples, the tartness can snap your head back a bit.  Nevertheless, these beers can be very refreshing, just like lemonade might be.

If you read this blog at all, you’ll probably know that I am a big fan of the beer blog Shut Up About Barclay Perkins, by beer historian Ronald Pattinson.  If you’re interested in where beer has come ‘from’ through the years, his posts are filled to the brim with great info, and more importantly than anything, he is a staunch believer in going to original sources for beer history.  I’ve read through several of his posts about Berliner Weisse, and along with some of my thoughts that are hopefully fairly accurate on the style, here are a few points I gathered up:

German Weissebier in its various forms as we have come to know them now has been made for centuries.  (So should you still think that sour wheat beers such as this are some sort of American made, craft beer madness, beers like the Berliner Weisse predated Pilsners.)  They are part of a small family of sour wheat ‘styles’ of mostly German heritage, which would include the Gose as well.

At different times during its history, Berliner Weisse was likely made with smoked malt, which continued up through the mid 19th century, before enjoying the same success other styles had in using a paler, “cleaner” tasting malt.  This may explain for some American craft brewers making the occasional sour wheat beer with smoked malt lately – Deschutes has a brewpub only smoked Gose, and Stillwater Artisanal recently released a collaboration beer called Smoke Signals, also a smoked/sour wheat beer.

Just how the bacteria that is responsible for the sour nature of Berliner Weisse got into the beer originally is still somewhat hazy.  But one of the texts quoted on the Barclay Perkins blog mentions the usage of an open – and wooden – cool ship type of container during brewing.  In that particular post, Pattinson wondered if this was the step in which bacteria made it into the beer to begin making it sour.  The manual addition of lactobacillus (bacteria that produces lactic acid) to sour the beer would come into being later, and is of course a common method used today.

There are quite a few other interesting points made in Pattinson’s research, of course.  They include that for a large portion of its history, Berliner Weissbier was delivered relatively young directly to pub owners for bottling and the fact that the beer can actually age quite well, which came as a complete surprise to me.  There are plenty of other points, and if you’re curious, I strongly urge you to check out some of the blog posts that I did.

I suppose that no post about Berliner Weisse would be complete without a mention of the traditional use of flavored syrups that some folks put in their beer to help cut their sourness.  The practice does continue today, with some brewpubs occasionally offering all sorts of fruit and herbal flavored syrups, and some inventive locations even make their own.  But when it comes to the Berliner Weisse style beers being made today by American craft breweries, these syrups seem to have given birth to the great numbers of Berliner Weisse style beers that are bottled today with all sorts of additional ingredients added to them.  Just one example would be Perennial’s good “Hopfentea”, a Berliner Weisse style beer “steeped on a tropical tea blend”.

Here is a breakdown of this often refreshing style, with “just the facts”, followed by a few examples of ones that you might be able to find:

The Berliner Weisse: A lemony tart and somewhat acidic beer, using wheat and barley malts, with a white/pale yellowish color, coming usually in at 4% abv or lower.

Perhaps my favorite go to example so far:

Evil Twin’s Nomader Weisse (can pictured above) – Only its somewhat limited availability and the typically higher than average, Evil Twin pricing would keep me from stocking the fridge with this all summer long.  There’s a near perfect level of lemony tartness and acidity on the tongue that this beer achieves without going completely overboard into face inside out sour territory, and then maintains all the way through drinking it.  Making it even more interesting was a slightly higher mouthfeel than expected.  For a style that sometimes gets slammed for being too one dimensional, Nomader Weisse has more than I’d expect going on, but not enough to detract from its primary tart qualities.

Champion Tart 2Other more mainstream examples are not difficult to find, but some of the easier ones to locate include The Bruery’s Hottenroth, Bell’s Oarsman, and Perennial’s Peach Berliner Weisse.  For a Virginia produced example, Charlottesville’s Champion Brewing is set to release their “Tart” Berliner Weisse in cans in the coming days and weeks.

Of course, any beer with the description “Berliner Weisse style” is certainly a very different creature from one made ages ago.  But we can thank those older examples for their current incarnations nonetheless.  And trust me, I’ll be keeping plenty of them in the fridge this summer, whether I’m working in the yard, or just sitting on the patio looking at it.

Revisiting The Shower Beer

•June 12, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Last summer, I wrote a blog post about a beer topic that is, and always will be, very near and dear to my heart.  I had wanted to write about this particular subject for some time, knowing that I had to ‘get it right’ – the words, the examples I used, the punctuation – in order to convey just my message with just the right amount of both fact and feel.  On a day in early June, something inspired me to do just that, and I admit being pretty happy with the results.  Never before had the words flowed so easily, as if they were travelling on a direct line from my soul.  I had finally found a way to properly write about…the shower beer.

I was pleasantly surprised then to hear that one of Virginia’s own breweries was making not just any good shower beer – but the shower beer.  First off, I keep asking myself why another brewery didn’t jump on this first.  A quick look on BeerAdvocate shows no such other beer exists.  But since I’m a pretty big fan of Charlottesville’s own Champion Brewing, I didn’t look much further.  Whether you want to admit it or not, there are plenty of folks out there who enjoy shower beers, so give much credit to Champion for actually making one.

On Friday, June 12th, Champion released their Shower Beer Pilsner – in cans, no less.  (It is being released at the brewery in Charlottesville first, but will be distributed throughout their normal footprint.)  So I thought I’d re-post last summer’s write up, an ode to one of the best beers out there, or rather, one of the best situations in which to enjoy a beer, while celebrating the Shower Beer itself:  a beer custom made for such a ‘situation’, as well as many others I’m sure.  Cheers, and plenty of suds to ya.

Champion Shower Beer Label Art

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just In Time For Summer:  A Clean Look At The Shower Beer“, originally posted 6/23/14:

It’s funny how one of life’s most practical routines – taking a shower – can become immensely more enjoyable under the right conditions.  Getting ready for work?  Unremarkable.  Just finished mowing the lawn in sweltering, eighty degree heat?  Nearly celebratory.  Preparing for bed?  Just a step in the process.   Coming back inside from a long day spent on the beach?  A perfect way to end a glorious summer day in the sun.  A shower with your better half?  Well, that’s a different blog topic altogether, for a different kind of blog I would think.

However, there is one particular “condition”, or in this case, specific activity, that can be added to most any shower (and which I can write about here) that can instantly take bathing from the banal to the blissful – the shower beer.  To this day, I can still remember my first experience.  It was a sweet addition to one of those very times listed above – a long, relaxing day on the beach – and though I can’t tell you exactly what beer I had, I do remember how purely satisfying it was.  Yes, I’m sure part of it was the fact that I was on summer vacation.  And true, there is nothing quite like washing off the remnants from the salt air after a wonderfully relaxing day on the sand.  So yes, it was a combination of all of the above.  But I’ll also I assure you, that to this day, that beer was one of the best I’ve ever had.  (Whatever it was.)

While I don’t recall from where, or from whom, I first heard of the “shower beer”, I do remember thinking some time later – incorrectly, I’ll add – that the idea seemed like one that might be restricted to a select few.  As if the shower beer was some urban myth quietly come to life, a closely guarded secret passed along only by rumor, and I was somehow one of the lucky ones who had somehow heard of it.  Little did I know just how many people do enjoy a shower beer from time to time until I ran across one particular Facebook post from Dogfish Head.  It merely said something along the lines of “who enjoys a good shower beer?”.  Figuring the thread would go on for maybe a couple dozen responses, it instead lasted a couple days.  It seems I was not alone in my suds upon suds enjoyment.

Several shower beers later, I now consider myself a bit of an expert on the topic.  Not that this is an area which requires much expertise.  There are, or course, a couple pieces of common sense which are obvious right away – it is a shower, there is soap, it can be slippery anyhow, and those enjoying shower beers are most likely naked…so no glass should be present…and things such as that.  (Yep, aren’t cans amazing?)  But consider that shower beers can actually be educational as well.  For example, I tend to pick beers for the shower that I usually allow to warm a bit anyway – pales, IPAs, for example – and the shower is a great way to expedite the process of warming up a beer.  After all, the beer is in there with you, so it will warm, unless taking ice cold showers are your thing.

For any shower beer newbies out there, I guess I might say that partaking in one is a bit like that age old idea of having a glass of wine while taking a bath, but for real people.  I mean, who does that?  Plus, it requires a lot less preparation than the imagined wine and bath experience, yet with all the relaxing, non-imaginary benefits that one might expect.  Simply put, there’s something that’s fun and wonderfully off key about the occasional beer in the shower.  In the end, it’s just a beer that when combined with the showers you look forward to the most – post lawn mowing, perhaps after a bad day at work – often becomes, regardless of style or the name on the label, one of the best beers you’ve ever tasted.

Cheers.

 

Tough To Swallow: Some Thoughts On Poor Beer Geek Behavior

•June 5, 2015 • 2 Comments

There’s something missing from my beer, and it’s not that great snap of fresh, citrusy hops.

It’s some common sense and decency.

For those who keep up with brewery releases of highly sought after beers, you are already well aware of what I’m talking about.  Or maybe you’re part of the reason I’m writing this, and it’s all lost on you.  And for those fortunate souls who aren’t in the know about what some folks will do to score some of the most highly acclaimed beers out there, possibly all you need to do is take a look at how some breweries are handling their release events for such beer.

Consider, for example, that some breweries are adding so many rules to their beer release events­­ in an effort to make them fair to everyone, they seem end up sounding like a statistical problem the folks at NASA couldn’t even begin to figure out.  And while it seems to be nearly impossible to please everyone who comes out for the beer, such changes seem to be aimed at those folks who drive hours in from other areas, other states, mostly to acquire as much of the beer in question as they can, only to often trade it away for other highly, similarly sought after beer, or even sell it to the highest bidder.

It isn’t that these kinds of beers don’t deserve seeking out.  There’s no problem in that.  But in my opinion, there is a problem in the behaviors some exhibit to acquire them.  Should you, for example, find yourself in one of those typically lengthy lines at a beer release, get ready to move back.  Simple line jumping is so commonly discussed in online beer forums during and post events that it is a given.  But that’s child’s play next to other tactics.  Hiring a small group of others (who might care less about the beer) to line up and help you acquire the largest quantity possible to haul back home is yet another commonality.  Some of the crazier stories involve the photocopying of admittance wrist bands, for example.

And heaven forbid should those who typically plan to hoard up as much of a particular beer as possible somehow not end up with it, or as much as they would’ve liked.  Recently, a certain South Carolina based brewery held the annual release of their much loved and highly traded Imperial Stout – but did it silently.  Without warning.  Without fanfare.  And without notice.  What would seem like an attempt to give as many of the locals a shot at buying some brought out, of course, the worst in others.  The ranting that ensued on the brewery’s Facebook page from those who would’ve otherwise planned an invasion of the brewery on release day from more distant locales – likely with car trunks emptied and ready to load up – went on and on for close to two hundred comments.  (In all fairness, some of those comments were in defense of the brewery’s silent release.  But it’s important to note these folks often characterized the latter group with photos of crying babies within the thread – an accurate visual description that anyone with a sense of reason at all would have to agree with, I think.)

True, it would seem that the breweries themselves don’t often seem to be experts at handling large crowds of whale seeking zombies, and have to learn on the fly from one event to the next.  And yes, it seems to be nearly impossible to please everyone who comes out for well attended beer releases. I also plainly realize that these are just a portion of the beer crazed folks out there, and plenty – the majority – of people are out there enjoying the beer for the often well crafted, incredibly interesting beverage that it is.  But the fact remains that there is plenty of poor consideration of others and immature behavior in the form of a wildly out of bounds sense of entitlement out there among some craft beer geeks.  And no matter how far I try to stay away from such things, it still has a way of simply taking some of the fun out of craft beer.  I simply wonder sometimes if we’re truly savoring it all – the beer, the scene, the experience of trying something new – any longer, at least for the right reasons.

In a counterpoint of sorts to all this, I thought I would throw out a list of four of the most memorable beers I’ve had to date, though defined not necessarily by the beer itself.  There have been plenty of others, but here are four right off the top of my head.  These beers include such rare and hard to find releases as Heavy Seas’ Loose Cannon and Wedge Brewing’s (Asheville) Pale Ale.  Not beers that are worth whale status, right – or even checking out?  Read on.

4. Heavy Seas Loose Cannon IPA, Blacksburg ‘Brewdo’ Festival, 2012. I had met the rep who was working the area for Heavy Seas a couple years before this festival, and he instantly came across as a completely genuine and friendly sort of guy. We exchanged a few emails occasionally, but then I ran across him at the smallish, mainly flagship based Brewdo festival in 2012. Over a couple of pours of Heavy Seas’ flagship IPA Loose Cannon, we had an unexpected but very welcome conversation about how each other’s lives were going, where they were heading, and even relationships, which was timely, at least for me. He lent an ear, when it was not expected. It was as if the talk was between two guys who saw each other weekly at the bar instead of two guys who really only saw each other at festivals, at best – a testament to not only how conversations can open up over good beer, but moreover, to this particular fellow’s easy going, disarmingly friendly nature. All in all, it might have only lasted twenty minutes or so, but I’ll never forget it. Thanks, man….and Cheers, as always.

3. Adroit Theory/Three Notch’d Bloody Roots Ale, 2014. Huddled tightly under a pop up to keep us out of an unwelcome rain storm, myself, my wife, and a couple friends had decided to camp out after a nearby beer festival that we had attended earlier in the day. Of course, not ones to let the spirit of the day die too quickly off, we also decided to have a mini bottle share that night at the campsite. By the light of the lone camping lantern sitting on the tiny table between us, we talked over some of the beer we had tasted at the festival, as we occasionally reached into our coolers throughout the evening to grab bottles we had to hold up to the light to truly see. The chilly air, the rain, the tight quarters – none of it could’ve mattered. It turned out to be one of those somewhat unexpected, great evenings with friends which was made more memorable by our deference to the dreary rain and the cool temps. Then it got even better. It was not lost on us that the fine folks from Adroit Theory, who had presented at the same festival we had attended, were, unbelievably, camping close by. And when they invited us over to sample their Bloody Roots collaboration beer late that night, a beer modeled after the drink of the same name – the night become even more memorable. How’s that for neighborly. Add in that the beer was a perfect solution to ward off that night’s chill to boot.

wpid-aviary_1421703821927.jpg2. Wedge Brewing’s Paynes Pale Ale, January 20, 2015. Having never visited Wedge before, my wife and I didn’t quite know what to expect. On an unseasonably mild January day, however, we shared a couple flights while taking in what we immediately could tell was a local’s favorite of a brewery, even in a town of about a dozen choices. Gathered around the picnic tables just outside the taproom were group after group of friends who I assumed took the weather’s hint and escaped their more rigid responsibilities of the day to share beers and conversation in the hazy mid afternoon sunshine, all complete with a lazy dog lying underneath nearly every other table. The whole scene was welcoming, incomparably laid back, and even though there was a line for flights and pints, not a single one of the folks in it even twitched to jump anyone else.

1. The Bruery’s Tart of Darkness, October 12, 2012. Sometime during the surprise bottle share that my wife had planned for my 40th birthday – reason enough to include it in this post – I stood behind the kitchen bar in our apartment, at a moment when I suddenly found myself not engaged in tasting, or talking, or pouring. It was a sweet snapshot, and I’ll likely never forget it. Each of my good friends who came to help celebrate were on the other side of the bar, happily and thoroughly engaged in some sort of storytelling with the other next to them, with plenty of interspersed laughter. And the beer? Some of the bottles which inspired those stories were likely not that easy to get, while others were probably easily found on store shelves. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the company.

For those who might miss the point, I’d imagine you’d say you’ve never had to chase down any of these beers, and might not even imagine having them to begin with. I’d say that I guess you’re missing out then, though it may be time to question what exactly you’re missing out on.

Who Needs Birthday Cake When There’s Beer?

•May 14, 2015 • Leave a Comment

It’s American Craft Beer Week, and one good party deserves another, especially when the latter is truly relevant to the beer being made around Roanoke.  While certainly well intended, ACBW can seem a little atmospheric – after all, at this point, do we really need an official reason to seek out and drink good beer?  But a few of the breweries in the Roanoke area are celebrating anniversaries at the tail ends of this week, and that’s definitely a reason to take notice.  At the least, it’s hard enough to start your own business much less keep it going, so such milestones are worth pointing out.  In addition, at least one of those breweries which are having birthdays are also expanding in one way or another, (check out Chaos Mountain’s plans to add additional brewing equipment in a post a couple weeks ago) which means that for folks like you and me a greater variety of beer is likely to come our way.  And that’s what keeps us interested these days.  (Whether or not that’s a good thing is another discussion for another day, right?)

Nevertheless, birthdays are always a good time to grab a beer, so I figured I’d recognize those which are enjoying them at the moment.

Last weekend, Sunken City celebrated their second anniversary at their location in Hardy.  The brewery has picked up the pace lately on offering some more limited run sorts of beers in bottles, including a Nachthexen, a Weizenbock (dark wheat ale) and Crooked Road, their (Imperial?) Cream Ale.  These join Tartan Tent (Scottish ale) and John Henry’s Hammer, which might be a good starting place if you’re seeking out some of the brewery’s non “flagship” beers.

Chaos Mountain One Year AnniversaryBoth Chaos Mountain and Soaring Ridge celebrate their one year anniversaries this coming Saturday, May 16th.  There will be plenty of food at both, as Chaos Mountain will be having three food trucks on hand, while Soaring Ridge is hosting a pig pickin’ for their event.  There will be live music throughout both events, and Chaos Mountain is featuring a $10 beverage deal that gets each ticket holder four 8oz pours (or two pints), with additional beer tickets available for purchase.  Chaos Mountain’s Ultimate Warrior Imperial IPA, not often available anywhere other than the brewery, is a good place to start for some of this brewery’s non “flagship” beers.

Also of note:  although it looks like Saturday’s Roanoke Craft Beer Tour is sold out, Friday night’s may still have some spots.  So if you’d like to kick off the weekend while being shuttled to some of the area breweries, check them out at the link here.

Cheers to all the breweries!

Quick Notes: Catching Up With Chaos Mountain and Parkway Brewing Companies

•April 21, 2015 • Leave a Comment

A couple of Roanoke area breweries, Chaos Mountain Brewing and Parkway Brewing Company, are currently undergoing growth spurts and adding additional brewing equipment.  The increased capacity will mean an ability to expand to newer markets, with plans also in the works to likely expand their ability to produce a greater number of limited release beers.

wpid-20150314_144830.jpgChaos Mountain will soon be installing two new 30bbl fermentation tanks with still other, larger 60bbl tanks to come soon.  The brewery has also invested in a couple of smaller ones to aid in producing more one offs as well.  Chaos Mountain debuted in Richmond in the last couple weeks, and with the added growth, the brewery hopes to be above the 2000bbl mark by year’s end.  From the looks of things inside the taproom, the brewery is also planning additional barrel aged beers as well (see inset pic).

Parkway Brewing Ravens Roost Baltic PorterSalem’s Parkway Brewing is also adding additional fermentation and conditioning tanks, and hopes to expand beyond Virginia both northward and southward in the next year or so.  The brewery is also currently working on expanding their barrel aged offerings, having acquired bourbon barrels from West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler Distillery.  In the works are a new barrel aged version of their Ravens Roost Porter (“regular” pictured), a barleywine, and also a barrel aged IPA.

Also of note…

wpid-20150403_110035.jpgEli’s Provisions in downtown Roanoke has added a four tap growler station and is currently offering pricing on both 32 and 64oz fills.  Please note that while I’m sure the beer and wine shop is looking to stock their own growlers in the future, they are currently only filling those you bring in.  The folks at Eli’s say they are committed to having predominantly local and regional beers, and of those, ones which are normally found slightly off the beaten path, such as a brewery only release.  For example, one of the first beers available at Eli’s is from Devils Backbone, yet it is hardly their Vienna Lager or Eight Point, but a Tripel instead.

 

Beer Cellaring Basics

•April 16, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Tonight, Local Roots Restaurant will provide the opportunity to taste a two year, comparative vertical tasting of Dogfish Head Brewing’s 120 Minute IPA.  Unless you’re already into cellaring/aging craft beer, this is a rare chance to taste what a year or so can do for a particular beer, as the restaurant will feature this year’s as well as last year’s side by side.  If you are interested in putting away a few (or more) beers from time to time, this just might be the kick start you need.  Many beers not only withstand the test of time, but can grow in complexity, providing a very satisfying personal (or shared, hopefully) tasting experience.  Needless to say, there are a few rules to follow, so take a look at the post below which hopefully covers some cellaring basics, seek out more information on the internet as there are many good articles covering the topic, and make it out to Local Roots tonight to get a taste of what some time can do – for beer.

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Stop. Aging. Beers.

I’ll never forget seeing this incredibly to the point phrase, typed out in the middle of an online discussion several months back.  The thread had begun when someone had decided to put away a bottle of some kind of beer which most wouldn’t generally consider aging, and then posted a photo of it, exclaiming how they couldn’t wait to taste how it would turn out in six months or so.

I think it was a relatively low abv amber ale, or something along those lines.  To which many in the thread remarked “good luck”.  Others diverted the talk into a general discussion about aging and cellaring beers.  And of course, as beer forums are typically fraught with, there were plenty of long, wordy diatribes about what beers had been cellared, and what cellaring experiences came out well and which ones did not.

And then came those three words.

I remember laughing out loud.  In the middle of all the discussion, the boastfulness over beer collections and such, came a not so slight suggestion which, especially in this day and age, cannot be understated.  Just don’t.  Just don’t do it.

Why?  If you’re well informed about cellaring beers, you know the rules already, and you already stopped reading several lines ago.  But there seems to be some amount of misunderstanding about putting bottles (or cans) of craft beer away that is more than a little scary, and I imagine that it pervades among those new to cellaring beers.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with putting some beers away to enjoy what a little time can do for them.  And experimenting with cellaring beer can be a winning, mind blowing experience.  But it can also come out fairly disappointing as well, so to give oneself the best chance at the former, there are some basic rules to follow, which are listed below.  These are certainly not all the suggestions out there, and there is also a ton of information readily available on the internet about cellaring.

  1. In the rare event that I come across a clear glass bottle of beer – because yes, they do still exist – I know I must have a look on my face as if someone has just shown me a field full of grazing unicorns. After all this time, how does this still happen?  Sunlight is well known for causing the “skunking” of beer.  So treat any beers put away for aging like little fledgling vampires and keep them in the dark as much as possible, and definitely out of the sun.
  2. Temperature control.  Keep beers cool to chilly, perhaps in the 50 degree range or so.  Just think about all the things that brewers do with temperature to affect the end product that is the beer.  Heat after the fact can cause the creation of various off flavors, and can cause beer to taste stale and speed up the oxidation process that causes beer to have that well known “cardboard” like flavor most of us have come across.  Also consider places where you might be able to control fluctuations in temperature as well.  (Time to invest in that second, full size refrigerator for the basement!)
  3. Know your beer. Time and aging steals away the characteristics we all love about hop centered beers, so IPAs and the like are generally a no go.  Light and the slow, gradual, unpreventable introduction of oxygen underneath caps and corks make all those citrusy, piney, tropical fruit, oniony, dank-ish characteristics fade away and otherwise can cause those stale, cardboard like tastes, overall making the beer a sad shadow of its former self.  True, there are exceptions to every rule (think Dogfish Head 120, an 18 to 20 percent “IPA”, but although I think we can all agree this is a totally different animal even when fresh and brand new).
  4. Higher alcohol content beers, say in the 9% or higher range, will age better, and as those ‘hot’ alcohol characteristics round out and mellow over time. Also, darker, more malty beers (barleywines, big imperial stouts and the like) often age beautifully.  Many folks say that oxidation, the same process that brings death to lighter beers, can bring out incredibly complex flavors and aromas from those darker beers, including currant or sherry like flavors.
  5. Thinking of aging a beer? Buy two of them.  At least.  Beer is still something to be experienced fresh, regardless of its attributes.  And how else are you going to know the effects of putting away a beer if you didn’t know what it tasted and smelled like right off the bat?

Again, there are exceptions.  Very high abv beers, even ones classified as IPAs, can turn into unique and interesting tasting experiences over time.  However, the hop characteristics will still fall out, causing them to become very different tasting beers than the original.  Only half jokingly, is it often said that aging a big time IPA equates into making a bitter tasting American style barleywine.  Still, my own modest but growing collection of cellared beer probably is made up almost entirely of stouts and barleywines.

One of the absolute best experiences with aging a beer I’ve had so far came from a one year old bottle of Bell’s Expedition Stout, a beer that has a reputation for growing old(er) very gracefully.  Time and patience had coaxed mind blowing, massive amounts of deep, rich, dark fruits and yes, sherry like flavors and aromas from a beer that starts out as an intense and roasty, bitter, near 11% Imperial Stout.

 

 

Up All Night: A Blind Tasting of Coffee Stouts and Porters

•March 24, 2015 • Leave a Comment

wpid-20150316_143133.jpgThank goodness for the coffee stout.  (Or coffee porter, if you prefer.) Before laying the groundwork for more outside the box ingredients such as maple syrup, ghost chilies, and raspberries, fusing the absurdly complementary aromas and flavors of coffee to those found in beers created from more roasted malts made a ton of sense, and it still does today.  The very malts used in beers such as stouts and porters can often mimic the roasted aromas and flavors in coffee, so adding a little joe to the mix to create beers such as Founders Breakfast Stout, Bell’s Java Stout, and Ballast Point’s Victory at Sea have long meant that some of the best of these beers have made for some of the slickest, velvety, most aromatic, more complex beers that one can easily attain.  But with such success, coffee beers have long become a crowded field, and each winter brings new chance to revisit old favorites and try new releases in this “category”.

With so many options available, the coffee stout/porter also lends itself to plenty of easy going debate over personal favorites.  Now, we’re not talking about IPAs here.  When it comes to giving your opinion of one heavy hitting IPA over another, escalation seems to sometimes occur quickly, and all of a sudden you can find yourself at the ‘them’s fightin’ words’ level before you know it.  Nevertheless, one night over a couple of beers (of course), and a light discussion over coffee beer favorites, my wife – the house’s resident stout fanatic, by the way – and I decided lining up a few coffee beers for a blind tasting sounded like a darn good idea, albeit one that might keep us awake all night.

A few disclaimers:  In deciding what beers would be included in the blind tasting, we both realized that while there are many, highly sought after ‘Imperial’ level coffee stouts (Perennial’s Sump, Bourbon County’s Coffee BCBS come to mind), that it would be far easier (and perhaps more interesting overall) to line up several more easier to find, more ‘household’ coffee stouts/porters.  Let’s face it, beers such as Sump and Bourbon County Coffee are all world class beers, and although such a tasting would be a world of fun, it would also be pretty difficult to put together to say the least, and in addition, a possible waste of those beers once the palate began to suffer.  To this end, we attempted to keep the relative abv% and limiting it to (mostly) lower alcohol level, non “Imperial” selections.  I readily admit, as you’ll see, that we failed to do this on a couple beers, to which we both told ourselves “oh well”, and didn’t give it another thought.  This whole tasting was put together with a sense of fun in mind.  And of course, given the number of coffee stouts and porters out there, we could’ve just kept selecting beers until the end of time.  So we also decided to cap the beers at ten selections.

We also realized that such a tasting is a snapshot in time, and of course, based on our own opinions.  One year’s release of a particular coffee beer can be different from the next, but then again, that can be true for most any craft beer.  It’s also interesting to take a moment and consider the number of additional variables coffee beers can bring to the table, most of them being fairly obvious, such as, when exactly was the coffee added during the brewing process, or what type of coffee was added, or what form of coffee was used – whole bean, brewed coffee, or something in between?  The combinations seem endless, so it was decided early on that this would be a wholly informal, somewhat un-scientific tasting.

wpid-20150316_143033.jpgEach beer was given an overall score based upon aroma, mouthfeel, and of course flavor.  The results, as they can be with blind tastings, were a bit surprising.  Below, the beers are listed in ranking from our lowest rated (#10) to highest (#1), with a little bit of information about each one and comments that we wrote down during the tasting if applicable.

So away we went, sleep be darned.

#10:  Troeg’s JavaHead Stout, 7.5% abv.  No joke, one of the comments written was “…where’s the coffee?”.  While I’m sure that tasting this beer alone would reveal plenty of coffee notes in the aroma and taste, amidst its brethren, it produced other comments such as “low coffee” and “not much coffee in the aroma”.  There was one quick “roasty” written down.  On Troeg’s webpage for the beer, there is reference to a fair amount of hop influence, perhaps mirrored in one comment “..grassy, way more hop forward”.  The beer is apparently run through a hop back loaded with both coffee and hops (Cluster, Chinook, Cascade), so if you are looking for something more leveled out with hop character, this could be your coffee beer.

#9:  Flying Dog’s Kujo Imperial Coffee Stout, 8.9%.  I’ve had this before and it’s been to my liking, so this was a bit of a surprise.  We both noted that we liked the beer though not as a “true coffee stout”, whatever that meant at the time.  This beer was clearly an abv% fail, easily touching at least the bottom end of the big boy spectrum, and that might have had something to do with us both noting some faint dark fruit flavors. Among other notes was a semi present dark caramel sweetness.  Other comments were “earthy roast”, “light coffee aroma”.  Made with a secret blend coffee from Black Dog Coffee in West Virginia.

#8:  Wolaver’s Alta Gracia Coffee Porter, 5.0%.  This one made it into the mix by being perhaps one of the first coffee beers we ever tasted, some years ago.  We both however dinged it a bit on what seemed to be an over active amount of carbonation and a light to light medium-ish body that detracted from any character the coffee gave to the beer, which I did note as being “earthy”.

#7:  Starr Hill’s Red RooStarr Coffee Cream Stout, 5.8%.  From here on for the next few beers, the ratings pulled a good bit closer together, kicked off by the first of two cream stouts in the mix.  Not surprisingly, we wrote down notes regarding a little bit of sweetness in the aroma and flavor.  We also wrote down straight ahead comments such as “tons of coffee”, and “rich coffee aroma”.  We’ve of course both had this before, and it definitely tries to achieve a balance between its sweetness and a bold coffee aroma and flavor.  We both wished the body had been a touch heavier though, which was a bit surprising for the style. An overall good beer.  Brewed with a special blend of coffee from Red Rooster Coffee Roasters in Floyd, Va.

#6:  Williamsburg AleWerks Coffeehouse Stout, 5.4%.  Ok, so this was a touch of a surprise as well.  Don’t get us wrong, we both love this beer, but we expected it to be a little higher in our blind tasting.  My wife guessed the style correctly by noting “more like a milk stout…”, also writing “..taste mild coffee, creamy, solid mouthfeel”.  Among my own notes were “healthy coffee aroma and taste, but not overly so, like coffee with the right amount of cream added to it”, and “sweet-ish finish”.  Brewed with Guatemala Antigua style coffee.

#5:  Bell’s Java Stout, 7.5%.  My own personal favorite landed squarely in the middle, and we both noted it for something that I have always loved about this beer, the body, which one of the notes mentioned was “heavier than the others”.  I remember later immediately writing down my note of “…coffee pot full of rich…espresso like rich coffee…pours heavy…” and then wrote “like the taste of coffee grounds with the slightest bit of water mixed in”.  The denser nature of the beer along with the full on, deep roasted but not bitter coffee taste continues to make this a favorite of mine.  Made with a blend of coffee from Water Street Coffee Joint, a coffee roaster local to Bells.

#4:  Founders Breakfast Stout, 6.5%.  I remember when finding FBS on draft or in bottles was a huge event.  Nowadays, expansion and success has made it relatively easy to find in many places, and competition from other coffee stouts has perhaps taken a little of the uniqueness of this beer away.  We wondered where this legend would fall in our tasting, it still wasn’t far from the top.  Aided by the addition of bitter chocolates, our notes mentioned such things as “heavy…slick mouthfeel…low carbonation..dark chocolate…super coffee heavy notes…”, “wonderful, dense coffee aroma”, “dry, almost tannic like finish” were among the notes…”Editor’s” note:  after I posted this, my wife reminded me that this was one of two beers she guessed perfectly, (in addition to Red Roostarr) a fact that I assure you that I did not leave out on purpose.  That’s what I get for not asking her to help proofread.

wpid-20150316_143650.jpg#3:  Pisgah Brewing Valdez Coffee Stout, 6.2%.  The surprise of the evening was Pisgah’s Valdez, with my notes remarking “straight up cup o’coffee, no cream…kick in your pants cup of joe” and my wife’s comments of double underlined “bitter coffee”.  It barely edged out FBS at the last spot, and although we both thought the body could’ve been a little better, the intense, straight ahead dark coffee flavor and aroma was a winner for us.  Made with coffee from Dynamite Roasting Co., in Pisgah’s own town of Black Mountain, NC.

 

#2:  Schlafly Coffee Stout, 5.7%.  The second surprise of the tasting came from a beer neither one of us had too much experience with at all, but our notes put it well above the rest.  With “the best so far” underlined in one set of notes, with “[caramel like] sweet butwpid-20150316_143358.jpg coffee forward” and “perfect mouthfeel”, Schlafly’s coffee stout was, in essence, the best of the entire bunch had a dead ringer not been included (see no.1, below).  The description on the brewery’s website mentions a story in which a local coffee roaster and the brewery worked together to find a solid combination between the brewery’s popular oatmeal stout and the roaster’s own espresso.  The match is a delicious mix of the two, with the strength and bitterness of the coffee balanced well against the sweetness and body of the stout.

And the winner… #1:  Ballast Point’s Victory at Sea, 10%.  Better suited for an Imperial Coffee beer tasting, its inclusion came about from the wider availability the beer seems to be enjoying this year.  A heavy hitter that can take on much bigger game, this beer got notes from us like “most complex so far”, and “most coffee forward yet”, “fresh brewed coffee aroma”, “not heavy but great, milky body”, and “light sweetness”.  The inclusion of vanilla beans also gives the beer an advantage, along with its rich but not over the top, completely dialed in coffee flavor and aroma.  Brewed with coffee beans from San Diego’s Caffe Calabria.

wpid-20150316_143611.jpgAmong the takeaways from the tasting was the fact that two beers we didn’t expect at all to be near the top of the list were: Schlafly’s and Pisgah’s, and the fact that nowadays, FBS still competes, at least for us, among some good competition.  One fun fact was that during the tasting, if we felt we strongly knew exactly what beer we were tasting, we’d write it down.  I somehow managed to nail down my favorite Java Stout from Bells, while we both wrote down Williamsburg AleWerks’ Coffeehouse Stout while tasting a beer we felt was one of the best of the whole lot.  The catch was that while we whole heartedly agree Coffeehouse Stout is certainly a fine beer, the beer we thought it was turned out not to be Coffeehouse at all – a swing and a miss on our part.  But this is the sort of thing that comes up in blind tastings and tends to get you thinking.  We were sure the best of the bunch, according to this particular tasting, was our personal favorite, but were solidly proven wrong.  So I began wondering about how an affinity for certain beers affect our view of that beer unfairly, giving it too high of a mark, perhaps to the point of not remaining open to trying similar beers (Schlaflys, for example), or at least giving others their fair due.  Contrarily, I wondered how having a disdain for a certain beer might keep one from trying it again down the road, or worse, how that negative opinion might spread to other beers from the same brewery.  If we’re honest with ourselves, I think most of us can admit to basing such an opinion of a particular brewery after relying on too small a sample size, only to find out later on they make some darn good beers after all.

In the end, our only downfall was including a couple of heavyweights such as Victory at Sea in our lesser alcohol content tasting, but then again, it was all  for fun – something blind tastings always are.  In addition, the matter of brewery perception based on singular beers was brought into full light, a lesson we can probably all remind ourselves of from time to time.

 

 
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