Sam Adams Utopias

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Back in the early days of craft beer (we're talking circa 1990 here), small brewers were gaining traction and thus started to test the boundaries of beer. The next couple of decades would lend itself to hops arms races and, more relevant to this post, the competition for most alcoholic beer evar. Believe it or not, one of the opening salvos of this boozy race was Sam Adams' Triple Bock, released in 1994. After playing around with yeast, adjuncts like maple syrup, aging in old spirits barrels, and other manipulations of the fermentation environment, Sam Adams was able to coax a 17.5% ABV beer out of the ether. Ratings for the few releases of this beer are a bit of a mixed bag, with lots of people calling it one of the worst beers of all time due to the way early attempts at high alcohol brewing produced dead yeast cells that lent a distinct "soy sauce"-like flavor to the beer, especially as it ages (and a lot of the reviews you'll find are of long aged bottles that may or may not have been properly stored). Indeed, this is one of the few beers that users of BeerAdvocate would actually write about beyond the standard AATMD tasting notes, with some users waxing poetic about a "beer [that] has been described as with a flavor of 'soy sauce left out in the sun' a texture akin to 'manatee feces' and an aroma simply described as 'do not smell this.'"

Samuel Adams Utopias fancy bottle Samuel Adams Utopias other side of the fancy bottle

Fast forward a few years, and the fine brewers at Sam Adams had gotten much better at coaxing high ABV out of beer without generating the fabled off-flavors that plagued their earlier versions. In 2002, the first release of Utopias happened. Packaged in a swanky copper glazed porcelain bottle made to resemble a copper brew kettle and sporting a $150 price tag, it clocked in at a then-record 24% ABV. Later iterations would top 30%, but the title for highest ABV quickly moved elsewhere, especially as some brewers (notably the Scottish upstarts at Brewdog) started doing ice-distilling to really crank the ABV up into the 40%-60% range. After Utopias, though, Sam Adams thought they'd focus more on flavor rather than just high numbers. Interestingly, each iteration of Utopias apparently has a tiny, solera-like portion of the original Triple Bock included (by now, I'm sure that proportion is miniscule).

Samuel Adams Utopias cap

For a "beer" like this, categorization is a bit tricky. Some have called it a Barleywine, and it does share a certain kinship with that hallowed style (#BiL), but others have simply used the generic American Strong Ale, a catchall designation if ever there was one. None of which really describes what you're about to drink though. The closest thing I can think of is another beer we recently covered here, the experimental Italian barleywine Xyauyù. This is perhaps more due to the completely still nature of the liquid and general flavor family though, as Utopias is pretty clearly doing its own, unique thing.

Samuel Adams Utopias Closeup

I received the 2017 vintage of Utopias as a (particularly generous!) Christmas gift from my parents last year, and, well, when does one crack open a 28% ABV beer? Most of the year passed until I reached by birthday and thought that would have to be good enough to crack open the bottle (it comes with a standard Sam Adams beer cap (see pic above), but there's also a screw top to seal it after you open it - and it's lasted pretty well after my initial taste too, so it's not like you have to drink the whole bottle at once.) It certainly carries a hefty price tag (even when compared to some of the other, more ridiculous alcohol purchases you could make in wine or whisk(e)y) and it's not something I could see myself pursuing regularly, but it might be worth splitting the purchase with a bunch of other folks just for the experience.

Samuel Adams Utopias

Sam Adams Utopias - Pours a very dark auburn amber color with no head whatsoever, but it's got legs, like a fine liquor. Smells amazing, intense, rich maple syrup, caramel, toffee, brown sugar, dark fruit, oak, and vanilla. Taste is super rich, sweet, caramel, maple syrup, toffee, dark fruits, vanilla, lots of booze. It's somewhere between a burley whiskey and a massive barrel-aged beer. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, tons of boozy heat, maybe harsh for a beer, but nowhere near whiskey burn, and if you're used to that sort of thing, it's actually super approachable. I mean, I can't imagine drinking more than, say, 4 ounces in one sitting, but it feels more like a Port wine than a full strength spirit. Overall, huge and complex, this is unlike anything I've ever had before, and it's very nice. A- or A

Beer Nerd Details: 28% ABV bottled (500 ml porcelain). Drank out of a Glencairn glass on 9/14/17. Vintage: 2017. Bottle #: 14515.

Again, at two bills and such a high ABV, it's not exactly an every day beer, but it's a singular and unique experience that should appeal to any beer fan (at least, one that also appreciates big barrel aged beers and whisky, etc...). And yes, I'm way behind on some of my reviews. I shall endeavor to have them all sewn up by the end of the year.

Bourbon County Brand Fun

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Every year, beer nerds bemoan the influence of big beer and in particular the never-ending succession of breweries that sell out to the great satan, AB Inbev. And every year, a not insignificant portion of same line up hours in advance of the Black Friday release of Goose Island's Bourbon County Brand Stout and associated variants. This year, I heard tales of people getting in line overnight and still getting shut out of some of these variants. To give some context beyond the timing component (which is surely enough of a weird thing by itself), in the Philadelphia area, temperatures were somewhere around 15°F, which is mighty cold. Me? I rolled up right as a local beer distributor was opening, and picked up a full allotment... then popped over to another place on my way home and picked up some more. All told, it took about an hour, and most of that was just because the poor sales clerk at the first place was all alone and had to build up all the mixed cases that people were ordering, so it took a while (it was all very orderly and friendly, but I felt bad for the guy anyway). (Update: Even further context - most of this stuff can still be found on shelves somewhere. Maybe a tad overpriced, but it's out there if you're looking for it.)

Taste The Rainbow

Anyway, this year there were 8 different variants of BCBS, though two are Chicago-only releases. As usual, my favorite is the plain ol, regular BCBS. I suspect Vanilla could give it a run for its money over time, if previous iterations of Vanilla variants are any indication (the 2014 Vanilla Rye was phenomenal as recently as 2017). This year also mucked around with my other favorite release, the Barleywine. In its original incarnation, the Barleywine was phenomenal. After the 2015 infection-plagued batch, they tweaked it (in particular, aging it in fresh bourbon barrels rather than third-use barrels), but it was still great. This year, it's not being offered at all, being replaced by a coffee-dosed version and a new Wheatwine. As we'll see below, this represents an interesting change of pace, but ultimately left me craving the old-school barleywine (especially circa 2013/2014). All the other variants have their place and are interesting spins on the base, but not strictly necessary. Alright, enough preamble, let's get into it:

BCBS Vanilla

Bourbon County Brand Vanilla Stout - Pretty standard BCBS-like pour, black with not much tan head. Smell is more vanilla forward than previous BCBS takes on vanilla, straddling the line on artificial (I mean, not Funky Buddha levels artificial, but it's more prominent than you'd expect), but either way, it smells nice to me. Taste is still delicious, standard BCBS profile with that added vanilla marshmallow sweetness, quite nice. Mouthfeel is thick and full bodied, rich and sweet without being cloying, well carbonated. Overall, it's not quite as great as VR was the last time I had it, but that one got better with time, and it's quite possible that this will too (of course, it's also possible that this will turn into an artificial vanilla flavored mess - only one way to find out). For now, it's my favorite of the variants this year. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 14.9% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 11/23/18. Bottled on: 05SEP18.

Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine Ale

Bourbon County Brand Wheatwine Ale - Pours a clear pale amber color with just a cap of fizzy off-white head that quickly resolves to a ring around the edge of the glass. Smells sweet, candied fruit, maybe banana and coconut, and lots of boozy bourbon. Taste starts off sweet and rich, maybe some light toffee, and that candied fruit, banana with bourbon and a small amount of oak kicking in as well. Mouthfeel is rich and full bodied, sticky, well carbed, with plenty of boozy heat. Overall, it's a nice change of pace, but it's not really a substitute for the regular barleywine. It feels like a slightly more substantial version of pale-colored BBA beers like Helldorado or Curieux, meaning that it doesn't quite take on the BBA character as well as darker barleywines/stouts, but is still pretty good. I suspect this one could grow on me. B+ or A-

Beer Nerd Details: 15.4% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 11/24/18. Bottled on: 13AUG18.

Bourbon County Brand Coffee Barleywine

Bourbon County Brand Coffee Barleywine - Made with Intelligentsia Finca La Soledad coffee beans - Pours a very dark amber brown color with a cap of short lived off-white head. Smells of... coffee, and that's pretty much it. Maybe some underlying sweetness from the malt or bourbon if you really search for it, but mostly coffee. The taste starts off more like a barleywine, rich caramel and toffee, but then that coffee comes in and starts wreaking havoc. Alright, fine, this might be my coffee ambivalence talking, but in truth, it stands out more here than it does in the stout because at least the stout has complementary flavors. Here it sorta clashes. I mean, it's still tasty and it's not like I would turn down a pour, but coffee and barleywine together just aren't my bag. This represents yet another change of pace that is all well and good, but come on, the regular barleywine was awesome, and this isn't really an improvement. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 15.1% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 11/25/18. Bottled on: 27SEP18.

Bourbon County Brand Midnight Orange Stout

Bourbon County Brand Midnight Orange Stout - Made with orange zest and cocoa nibs - Pours dark brown, almost black, with almost no head. At first, it smells like a pretty standard BCBS profile, but then that citrus and chocolate really pops, especially as it warms. Taste follows the nose, that orange and chocolate popping nicely, especially as it warms. Indeed, the warmer it gets, the more and more this feels like its own thing. The chocolate and orange really overtake the base at higher temps and I'm not entirely sure that's for the best. Mouthfeel is rich and full bodied, moderate carb, plenty of booze. Overall, its a very nice take on the BCBS base, and I tend to like this more than the other fruited variants I've had... B+

Beer Nerd Details: 15.2% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 12/1/18. Bottled on: 18SEP18.

Bourbon County Brand Bramble Rye Stout

Bourbon County Brand Bramble Rye Stout - Speaking of other fruited variants, this is BCBS with raspberries and blackberries. Pours a similar color with a bit more head than normal. Smell is overwhelmed by jammy fruit. Well, "jammy fruit" is the nice way to say it. You could also say "fruit by the foot with a dash of Robitussin", but that's probably a bit unfair. Taste has a nice rich sweetness to it, but that is again overwhelmed by the fruit, not quite as tussin-heavy as the nose, but still not quite "right". It's like they buried BCBS and a bunch of fruit in Pet Sematary and it came back "wrong". I mean, it's not bad, but I'd rather be drinking regular ol' bcbs. Unquestionably my least favorite of the year, and vying for least favorite variant of all time. B-

Beer Nerd Details: 12.7% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 12/3/18. Bottled on: 24AUG18.

Certainly an interesting crop, and the Chicago exclusives like the Reserve (aged in Elijah Craig barrels) and Proprietor's (I think some sort of chocolate monster this year) sound great. Still, I always fall back on the original BCBS, and drink plenty throughout the year. Here's to hoping they bring back the Barleywine next year. In the meantime, stout season will continue with a local brewery's take on a BBA stout series, though perhaps I'll mix things up a bit and review something different next. Until then, keep watching the skies! Or, uh, this space. You'll probably find more beer talk here, and not the skies. But you should probably watch the skies too.

Dark Wednesday 2018

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Eschewing the Black Friday events most breweries seem to favor for their barrel-aged stout releases, Victory has always done their thing a day before Thanksgiving, which they hath dubbed Dark Wednesday. Once upon a time, this was for Dark Intrigue (basically barrel-aged Storm King and probably the first beer release that I'd ever waited in line for), but the past few years have seen the rise of Java Cask, and variants of same. This year, we were treated to three new variants on the Java Cask theme (plus the original). Alas, none of these variants is the one I've been pining for (i.e. one without coffee, so, like, just "Cask" or maybe "Bourbon Cask", though I'm guessing the TTB would have problems with that, but I think I've made my point.) But then, beggars can't be choosers, and despite my coffee ambivalence, I always look forward to trying a couple of these every year. Let's start with my favorite of the year:

Victory Java Cask Maple

Victory Java Cask Maple - Basically Java Cask aged in Bourbon Barrels that were previously used to age maple syrup (a treatment that appears to be gaining in popularity these days) for 8 months. Also of note, if you click on the picture above to embiggen it, you will see that this bottle was signed by Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski... and some guy named James, who I'm not familiar with but who I'm sure is incredibly important. - Pours a deep, viscous dark brown, almost black color with a finger of tan head. Smells of roasted coffee, chocolate coffee, maybe a hint of that maple (a light touch in the nose), and did I mention coffee. Taste starts off with a rich caramel note, followed by maple syrup, then coffee, finishing on that bourbon, oak, and vanilla jam. Plenty of coffee for this non-coffee drinker, but certainly less than the nose would imply. As it warms both the maple and the coffee come out more, so that is a thing that happened. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, ample but appropriate amounts of carbonation, and a pleasant level of boozy heat. Overall, I like this better than the Rye/Rye Vanilla variants and I might even like it better than regular Java Cask, but my lack of coffee enthusiasm is still a limiting factor. Indeed, I might even like this as much as or more than CBS. I'm the worst, but I still give it a strong A-

Beer Nerd Details: 13% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a tulip glass on 11/21/18. Bottled on 14 Nov 2018.

Victory Java Cask Latte

Victory Java Cask Latte - A DONG offering on Dark Wednesday that is basically a milk stout version of Java Cask that is calibrated at a much lower ABV of 8.3%. The addition of lactose is supposed to make up for the decrease in body. I didn't take formal notes for this one, but I did have two small glasses - one on regular tap and one on nitro. I think I liked the nitro one (pictured above) more, but both feel like imitations of their full-strength big-brothers. This sort of thing has its charms though, and I appreciate being able to sample something without taking in too much alcohol. B

Beer Nerd Details: 8.3% on draft/nitro. Drank out of a... small weizen glass? Whatever you call that thing in the picture. On 11/21/18.

Victory Java Cask Gold

Java Cask Gold - Not sure I'm on board with the whole blonde stout thing, but this is a blonde coffee stout made with lactose, brown sugar, cacao nibs, oats, and dark roast coffee, aged in buffalo trace barrels for 7 months. - Pours a clear, pale orange color with half a finger of off-white head. Smells... a lot like Java Cask. Lots of roasted coffee, coffee, maybe a bit of chocolate, and oh yeah, I almost missed... the coffee. The taste, though, does not feel like a stout. Which I guess makes sense, since it's not. Sweet, but not that deep, a bit of caramel, some coffee, but they're not quite playing together as well here; a heaping helping of bourbon, but not particularly well integrated with the rest of the flavors. I like bourbon and all, but it seems to be overpowering the base. Mouthfeel is medium to full bodied, well carbed, and quite boozy. Overall, an interesting experiment, but a little off-balanced and it never really harmonizes into a great beer... but it's certainly interesting! If a tad disappointing. B-

Beer Nerd Details: 11.8% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a snifter glass on 11/22/18. Bottled on 16 Nov 2018.

So there you have it. The Maple variant is the clear winner of the year, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they cook up for next year (fingers crossed for the non-coffee version!) In the meantime, we've got some actual Black Friday releases that we're going to cover, including tons of variants of Kaedrin favorites, so stay tuned.

A Night To End All Dawns

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Am I alone in just wanting a straight bourbon barrel aged stout? Lately, I feel like there's always adjuncts or additions of stuff like lactose, vanilla, coffee, cinnamon, maple syrup, toasted coconut, chile peppers, cacao nibs, hazelnut, pecans, and ever more bizarre ingredients "foraged" in obscure ways. I'm pretty sure you could just bottle actual brownie batter and call it a beer, and you'll get people lining up five hours before opening. Don't get me wrong, I'm a total novelty whore and love a good pastry stout as much as the next guy, but sometimes you want to just get back to basics. Ultimately, that's what I really love, and when something only comes in, for example, a coffee treatment, I'm always stuck wondering how much I'd love a version that doesn't have that coffee. Blasphemy to some, I'm sure.

We all know that Kane has a pretty great barrel program, and their big flagship in that arena is their series of A Night To End All Dawns (henceforth ANTEAD) beers. In the past, they've made variants with coffee, vanilla, cacao nibs, coconut, and differing barrels (probably amongst others), but for whatever reason, this year there were only two: regular ol' Bourbon Barrel Aged and a Rye Barrel Aged. Speculation was that the yields were low this year, so there wasn't enough to go around for the variants. Fortunately for me, I managed to snag a couple bottles of the regular BBA ANTEAD (the other set with the rye barrel variant sold out in about 10 seconds during the online sale), and truth be told, I'm not all that broken up about not getting any variants (though I did have a taste of Vanilla ANTEAD once that was pretty darned great).

The description is pretty simple: it's a big imperial stout that spent about a year in bourbon barrels. I keep thinking the name must be an allusion to something, but as near as I can tell, it's just a nice, evocative name for a stout. Certainly it's not a reference to Kane's advocacy on behalf of the antichrist, who promises an eternity of darkness and thus a significant lack of dawns. A Night to End All Dawns soon approaches, and Kane will wreak doom upon the earth (they are located in New Jersey, after all*). Or maybe they're just making really good beer:

Kane A Night To End All Dawns

Kane A Night To End All Dawns - Pours a deep black color with half a finger of short-lived light brown head. Smells retains hints of underlying roast, with lots of caramel, chocolate, marshmallow, vanilla, oak and bourbon. Taste is sweet, rich caramel up front, some of that underlying roasted malt, chocolate, followed by the bourbon, oak, and vanilla, maybe that marshmallow, finishing with a boozy bite. Mouthfeel is perfect, rich, full bodied, and chewy, carbonation is just right, with plenty of boozy heat. Some might say it's too "hot", but I rather enjoyed that aspect of it. Overall, yup, it's a fantastic beer with depth and complexity, even (or maybe especially) without the adjuncts and crazy ingredients. A

Beer Nerd Details: 12.4% ABV bottled (750 ml black waxed cap). Drank out of a snifter on 11/9/18. Vintage: 2017 (released in 2018).

Yep, I really need to continue hunting down Kane's barrel aged wares, as they've been uniformly great so far. Or, you know, one of you local Philly area brewers could build up an equally effective barrel program (beyond sours and, believe it or not, coffee stouts). Or I could just drink Parabola all the time. Not the worst option in the world.

* I kid! I kid because I love.

Zwanze Day 2018

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Zwanze Day is a worldwide event in which Cantillon releases a new, limited lambic to the huddled masses, yearning to be drunk. The event spans many countries and is limited to 70 or so bars, worldwide. I attended the 2016 festivities at Monk's Cafe in Philly and was dutifully impressed with that year's Raspberry/Blueberry entry into the Zwanze canon. It's always a crowded event and some people get there very early and wait in line. If it means getting a table, that's a very good thing indeed and fortunately for me, I had some friends who decided to line up early and had an extra seat at their table.

Along with the Zwanze entry, which isn't tapped until later in the day, Monk's pulls out all the stops, with a whole assortment of other Cantillon lambics available. It was quite the rainbow:

Taste the rainbow... of Cantillon
Click to embiggen

A few of these were even new to me, which is always nice. Nath is made with macerated rhubarb in 2 year old lambic, and it provides a nice little bump in the tartness and funk profile of your typical Cantillon (I didn't take formal tasting notes, so I'll leave it at that - it was excellent).

Cantillon 20 Ans D'Amitié

The other new to me lambic was 20 Ans D'Amitié, a blend of Rhubarb and Raspberry lambics (so Nath and Rosé de Gambrinus?) that was produced for the 20th Anniversary of Monk's Cafe in 2017. As you might expect, it's delightful.

And of course, there were a whole slew of other Cantillons that we all know are fantastic, like the Kriek (still my favorite, to be honest!), Rosé de Gambrinus, Grand Cru Broucsella, the Classic Gueuze, and Vigneronne.

Zwanze 2018

Finally, there was Zwanze 2018 Manneken Pise. If you're interested in lambic, you've no doubt discovered that it's damn near impossible to track down Cantillon lambic. Even ordering direct from Belgium (with it's absurd shipping prices) isn't a particularly viable option anymore. Back in 2015, Cantillion acquired a new building across the street from their current location. Over the next few years, they increased production and had to source a whole slew of new barrels to age their lambic. Enter three particular sets of barrels that stood out: those that had previously held Sangiovese, Amarone, and Chianti. Ah, the wine of my people! Anyway, Zwanze 2018 is a blend of lambic that had been aged in those three types of barrels. And it's quite nice, adding a noticeable but distinct vinous character to the typically oaky, tart, and funky Cantillon lambic base. Some subtle fruit notes and a nice, light, tannic dryness make this a somewhat unique experience. Again, I didn't take formal tasting notes, but they're normally pretty boring and ultimately, yeah, it's a big shock that Cantillon produced a good lambic. Stop the presses.

So yes, another successful Zwanze day under my belt. Well worth checking out if you have a Zwanze venue near you. I'd be curious to see what it would be like at a less crowded venue, but it's hard to turn down an afternoon at Monk's (and if you somehow manage to snag a table, many of the issues with the crowd are minimized!) Anywho, now that Cantillion has increased capacity, here's to hoping we see a little more of their stuff making its way into our hands... And maybe I won't wait a month to post something about it next time.

(Many thanks to Kaedrin friend Dana for taking/sharing that fancy picture with all the beers lined up.)

Xyauyù Gold Label 2011

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A solid decade of beer obsession has weakened certain of my more frugal impulses, sometimes to the extreme level of buying beers like Baladin's line of still barleywines like Xyauyù. It'll put a hurting on your wallet for sure, but I must say, there's nothing else quite like it.

Baladin's Matterino "Teo" Musso is one of the folks leading the charge in Italian beer, and likes to experiment with beers like this, which he calls a "sofa beer", presumably because he used real sofas in making the beer (or just, like, sitting on a couch and sipping this is cool. What I'm saying is that sofas are either an ingredient in the beer or a place where you'd want sit whilst consuming. One of those two things.)

This is a barleywine (#BiL) that has been exposed to air in order to kick off an intentional bout of oxidation, then aged for 2.5 to 3.5 years before release. It's bottled without carbonation and comes completely still. The whole process is tremendously unusual for beer, but has an air of dessert wines like an old tawny port or sipping sherry. I suppose some barleywines actually live up to their name. There's a whole bunch of variants, including ones aged in differing barrels and tea or tobacco or other wacky ingredients, but to my mind, the regular ol' gold label is pretty spectacular by itself.

I realize that most people won't pony up $45-$50 for a single 500 ml bottle of beer, but I will say that this pricing does put it in the company of well aged port, sherry, and madeira wines, which aren't exactly cheap (and are often significantly more expensive). Not an everyday beer in any sense, but as a rare splurge, I think it's worth the stretch and would fit a digestif role fantastically. After all, Barleywine is Life, and it doesn't get much more lifelike than this:

Baladin Xyauyù Etichetta Oro (Gold Label) 2011

Baladin Xyauyù Etichetta Oro (Gold Label) 2011 - Pours a clear, dark amber color, almost brown, no head whatsoever, flat as a board. Smells wonderful, raisins, figs, rich caramel, toffee, molasses, some nutty aromas, an intense nose. Taste hits those rich caramel notes, toffee, molasses dark candied fruits, dried plums, raisins, figs, a nice nutty character, some oxidation showing but in the best way possible, and a heaping helping of booze. Mouthfeel is completely still, flat, but still rich and full bodied, not quite syrupy, with a pleasant boozy heat. I used to be bothered by low carbed beers, but somehow it doesn't bother me here at all, and indeed, I can't imagine this having the same impact otherwise (not sure if this just means I've gotten over a carb sensitivity issue or if it's just this one beer that works). Overall, this is some spectacular stuff, though rating something so unique is a bit of a challenge. I'll call it an A-, but still recommend the experience if you've got the stomach for spending that much (some places will do a thing where they pour you a 3-5 ounce glass, which won't be particularly cheap, but definitely more manageable than a whole bottle. This was how I got my first taste of this years ago - it blew me away and made the decision to bypass frugality and purchase a bottle much easier.)

Beer Nerd Details: 14% ABV bottled (500 ml waxed and corked; packaged in a tube). Drank out of a snifter on 8/31/18. Vintage: 2011.

As mentioned above, there are variants, though I've only ever seen one or two. That being said, I may pull the trigger on one of those someday, though probably not anytime soon. That being said, I have another beer review coming for something uniquely pricey and boozy, so stay tuned.

Suarez Family Brewing Quadruple Feature

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Every year, I take a vacation in upstate New York (these are the occasions that inspire the Operation Cheddar trips to Vermont) and this year, I noticed that there's an alternative route to get to my vacation destination that takes me past a few NY breweries of note. Case in point: Suarez Family Brewery. Dan Suarez cut his teeth working at a series of NYC breweries in the mid aughts (notably Sixpoint and Brooklyn) and then became Sean Hill's first employee at Hill Farmstead. After a few years there, he set out on his own, creating his family brewery in upstate NY and putting out what he terms "crispy little beers". From what I can tell, they seem to specialize in saisons (which tend to be similar in character to what Hill Farmstead puts out) and pilsners, with the occasional pale ale thrown in for good measure. The brewery is a small but comfy little place, and Suarez seems to have lots of plans. For now, they're just serving their beers, but someday they hope to have tacos and other foodstuffs. Until then, we'll just have to deal with their world class beer. Let's dive in:

Palatine Pils

Palatine Pils - Before I left on my trip, I bought some local beer to drink whilst on vacation (and before Operation Cheddar), and promptly left that local stuff at home. So when I got to Suarez, I grabbed a few extra four packs of this, which became the unofficial beer of the week. Pours a clear, pale gold color with a finger of white, fluffy head that has good retention and leaves a bit of lacing. Smells of earthy, grassy noble hops with a bready crackery character that fits well. Taste follows the nose, a light bready character with some noble hops kicking in. Mouthfeel is light, crisp, and quaffable, really well balanced. Overall, yup, certainly one of the better pilsners I've had... B+ or A-

Beer Nerd Details: 5% ABV canned (16 ounce pounder). Drank out of the can on 7/31/18 (picture above is in a willibecher glass in September). Canned 06.27.18. Drink by 08.29.18.

Suarez Proclivity

Proclivity - Country beer brewed with fresh pineapple sage. Pours a pale golden color with a finger of white, fluffy head that doesn't quite stick around as long. Smells good, similar, light musty funk and hints of spice. Taste is sweet, with a little more spice and some sort of fresh herbs (presumably that sage), finshing with a light tartness. Mouthfeel is a little heftier than Call to Mind, well carbonated, no less crisp or quaffable. Overall, this is also great, maybe a hint better, but overall quite similar. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 5.4% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a tumbler glass on 8/1/18. Bottled: 2/18.

Suarez Call to Mind

Call to Mind - Country beer brewed with chamomile, lemon thyme, and lemon balm, briefly ripened in oak casks. Pours a pale golden color with a solid finger or two of white, fluffy head that leaves a bit of lacing as I drink. Smells nice, light musty funk, hints of spice, and some tart lemon lime action. Taste starts sweet, hits that tart lemony note, then moves on to a light spicy funk. Mouthfeel is light bodied, low acidity, well carbonated, crisp, and quaffable. This goes down fast. Overall, it's a great little farmhouse number, akin to something like HF Florence. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 5.4% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a flute glass on 9/7/18. Bottled: 3/18.

Suarez Postscript

Postscript - Country beer brewed with a generous portion of raw spelt sourced from their neighbors, then aged in oak casks. Pours more of a pale, straw yellow color with a finger or two of fluffy white head. Smell is back to the tart lemon character, but with plenty of funky aromas and some spice too. Taste is a little more rounded, starting off sweet, hitting those spicy notes, then some oak, and finishing with a well balanced tartness. Mouthfeel is more like Proclivity than Call to Mind, that oak is definitely doing its thing, well carbonated, moderate acidity, still pretty darned crisp and quaffable. Overall, oh wow, another great farmhouse beer from Suarez, big shocker. Very good. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 4.8% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a tumbler glass on 7/31/18. Bottled: 5/18.

So yes, well worth seeking out Suarez, and I've certainly found a new, regular stop on my way to vacation.

A Vinous Tilquin Double Feature

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Back in the day, I wasn't especially enamored with sour beers. Like the scared apes at the beginning of 2001, I'd cautiously approach the sour beer monolith and give it a tap every now and again, but it wasn't until I drank a bottle of Oude Gueuze Tilquin that I became a true believer. Obviously, I've since expanded my horizons considerably, but I'll always have a special place in my beery heart for Tilquin. They have slowly been introducing new fruited variants over the years (and are planning an expansion to drastically increase these offerings). A few weeks ago marked the worldwide debut of Oude Pinot Gris Tilquin. As it happens, Monk's Cafe had some bottles on hand for that event, and while there, I also got to try some of the Oude Pinot Noir Tilquin. Both are rather nice!

Oude Pinot Gris Tilquin

Oude Pinot Gris Tilquin à L'Ancienne - Made with 280 gr of, you guessed it, Pinot Gris grapes per liter of lambic. Looks like your standard gueuze offering, golden and a little cloudy, with minimal head. Smells nice, that vinous character coming through well, with a nice funk to it. Taste has the standard Tilquin character, funky earth, tart fruit, lemony sourness, oak, but with an added vinous sourness that is clearly coming from the grapes. Mouthfeel is a tad low on the carbonation, but good enough, medium bodied with a higher acidity than you get out of the usual Tilquin lambics, but it's not going to strip the enamel off your teeth either. Overall, it's definitely a winner, distinct from the other offerings, complex, tasty stuff. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 8.4% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a tumbler on 9/3/18 (the worldwide debut was 9/1/18). Batch 1. Best before: 21/12/2027.

Oude Pinot Noir Tilquin

Oude Pinot Noir Tilquin à L'Ancienne - Made with 260 gr of Pinot Noir grapes per liter of lambic (batch 1 may have involved more grapes). The grapes come from Valentin Zusslin Estate, because you've probably heard of that one, right? Pours a darker pinkish red color with an off white head. Smells nice too, vinous aromas mixed with earthy funk. Taste is distinctly more funky and less sour than the Pinot Gris, but the grape still expresses itself well, this time adding a hint of drying tannins to the normal funky and tart fruit party. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, well carbonated, and lightly acidic. Overall, I liked this one a bit better than the Pinot Gris, but it's quite close and they are different animals. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 8.2% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a proper Tilquin gueuze tumbler on 9/3/18 . Batch 2. Best before: 04/01/2028.

Tilquin is always a good time, and of the big three, is more reliably available. Variants like this... perhaps not as much, but even the standard Tilquin offerings are great and well worth seeking out. On second thought... no, just leave them on the shelves. Thanks.

Athens to Athens, Grist to Grist

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So Jackie O's Pub & Brewery is located in Athens, Ohio, and for this beer, they collaborated with Creature Comforts Brewing in... Athens, Georgia. This is surely not a coincidence and in fact, evidence of a deeper conspiracy. There is an Athens in New York and we all know the OG Athens in Greece. It's spreading. Fortunately this conspiracy seems to be aimed at making beer, so we might as well take advantage.

This is a smoked barleywine style ale aged in bourbon barrels for about a year, which sounds all well and good... except for that "smoked" bit, which warrants suspicion. Sometimes this means you'll be wondering who put their cigar out in your beer, but fortunately in this case, our collaborators either went with a light touch on the smoke, or the bourbon barrel treatment mellowed things out enough that it's adding complexity without overwhelming the base. For grist thou art, and unto grist shalt thou return. Well that doesn't make sense, but the beer is pretty good:

Jackie Os Athens to Athens, Grist to Grist

Jackie O's Athens to Athens, Grist to Grist - Pours a murky cola color with finger of light tan head. Smell has a bit of caramel, bourbon, oak, and vanilla, and a background of residual fruity sweetness. Taste is sweet, lots of caramel, more bourbon, oak, and vanilla than the nose would imply. If I do the tasting equivalent of squinting I can detect a hint of that smoked malt coming through, but it's not one of those situations that will leave you wondering who put their cigar out in your beer, it's just a sorta background note of tobacco that adds complexity. Mouthfeel is rich, full bodied, and well carbonated. Overall, this is pretty damn good. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 11.5% ABV bottled (375 ml). Drank out of a snifter on 7/15/18.

Very nice, but situations like these always make me wonder: what would a more "normal" version of this be like. I tend to think the same beer without smoked malt would be better, but maybe I'm just yelling at clouds here.

Von Trapp Double Feature

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A few years ago, after Operation Cheddar III: Cheddar Harder and in the midst of Operation Chowder, I had a sorta lager revelation. After overdosing on hops for a week, I sat down to a Pivovar Kout Koutská 12° Dvanáctka, the best pilsner I've ever had in my life. It turned out to be just what I needed at the time, and after years of giving lagers short shrift, I vowed to give them more of a chance. And I was pretty good about it for a while! I still don't post about them often and truth be told, many don't exactly stand out, but I do really enjoy the whole "palate reset" I often get when hitting up a clean, crisp lager or even something a little more wacky, like Hill Farmstead's experimental oak-aged pilsner Poetica (from the most recent Operation Cheddar).

Many breweries try their hand at a lager now and again, but few seem to actually specialize in them. Vermont's Von Trapp Brewery is one of the few that do. Yes, this is the same Von Trapp family that inspired The Sound of Music, and the brewery is meant to produce an American version of the lagers they loved so much from their Austrian homeland. Even Admiral Ackbar approves:

Admiral Ackbar approves of Von Trapp

On the most recent Operation Cheddar, I finally nabbed a couple bottles of the stuff to see what all the fuss was about. I loved one of them and while perhaps less taken with the other, it'd still fill the palate cleanse role I enjoy from lagers. The hills are alive with the sound of lager:

Von Trapp Dunkel Lager

Von Trapp Dunkel Lager - Pours a clear, dark amber color, mahogany, with a couple fingers of light tan head. Smells nice, biscuity, toasted malt, some earthy, spicy hops. Taste has that nice crystal malt backbone, some toasty notes, finishing crisp and clean with some noble hops kicking in. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, just a hint of richness (i.e. this ain't no barrel aged monster, but it's got a nice malt backbone that will stand up to pairing with relatively strong dishes), well carbonated, crisp and clean. Overall, this is a really nice beer, and pairs well with grilled foodstuffs. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 5.7% ABV bottled (12 ounce). Drank out of a pilsner glass on 8/24/18.

Von Trapp Helles Lager

Von Trapp Golden Helles Lager - Pours a very pale, mostly clear, bright straw yellow color with a couple fingers of fizzy white head. Smells earthy and grassy, noble hops. Taste has a very light crackery sweetness with a minimal hop kick. Mouthfeel is light, crisp, and clean, well carbonated. Overall, this is a good lawnmower beer and a well executed lager, but it's not doing a whole lot for me. I'm not sure it's really supposed to do a lot, really, and that has its place for sure. B-

Beer Nerd Details: 4.9% ABV bottled (12 ounce). Drank out of a Willibecher glass on 8/26/18.

So there you have it. Certainly worthy of a look if you're in VT and overdosing on hops (which, if you're in VT, is likely). Trust me, a good lager like this will reset your palate and allow you to enjoy those heavy-handed DIPAs all the more. Stay tuned, I've got another pilsner review coming (and that one is a really good one too!)

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Hi, my name is Mark, and I like beer.

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