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Almanac Farmer's Reserve Grand Cru

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While the concept of a "Grand Cru" is formally defined for wine, there's little to distinguish it from a marketing tactic in beer. Nothing particularly wrong with that, it's just good to know that beery Grand Crus are not quite as reliable. But most brewers do try to make their Grand Cru special in one way or another, and when a brewer of the stature of Almanac introduces a series of beers with the designation, it's enough to pay attention.

So far, there have been two released, one of which we have here. Farmer's Reserve Grand Cru is an imperial version of their sour blonde ale (and base for a whole series of fruited sours that we very much enjoy here) with California-grown Muscat Blanc grapes added and then aged in white wine French oak barrels for over a year. Finally, it's packaged in a gorgeous looking bottle. There's been this persistent myth that beer and wine people don't get along, but California brewers seem to be continually turning that notion on its ear, frequently collaborating with their neighbors in many ways. This sort of beer/wine hybrid isn't on every shelf, but it's not particularly uncommon either, and it's always fun to see what happens when boozy buddies take inspiration from one another. "As the old saying goes, in vino veritas, in cervesio felicitas - in wine there is truth, in beer there is happiness." With this, I think they've hit both nails on the head:

Almanac Farmers Reserve Grand Cru.

Almanac Farmer's Reserve Grand Cru - Pours a light, hazy golden yellow color with a finger of white fluffy head that sticks around for a bit. Smells wonderful, lemon zest, vinous fruit, white wine, oak, very nice. Taste is more reserved than the nose might lead you to believe, but it's got tons of that vinous fruit, white wine barrel, some tart acidity lingering in the finish. Mouthfeel is moderately carbonated, medium bodied, light to medium acidity, a bit of boozy heat, and just a bit of stickiness in the finish. Despite the booze, this does not drink like a 10.2% sour, it's pretty light on its feet. Overall, this is really fantastic stuff, certainly worth seeking out. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 10.2% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a flute glass on 1/23/16. Bottled: Autumn 2015.

The other release is Dogpatch Grand Cru, basically an imperialized version of their Dogpatch Sour made with a variety of red wine grapes (instead of the typical cherries), which I plan to share with a few friends soon. As usual, Almanac is a reliable source of excellent sours that are readily available in Philly these days (which is certainly a boon).

Bourbon Barrel Aged Siberian Night

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Having just endured Blizzard Jonas this past weekend, I figure it's time to dig through the svelt 25" of snow outside and then come back inside and review beer. In truth, being snowed in particularly suits my temperament, so long as I don't lose power or internets (and even then...) Anyway this beer seems particularly appropriate, as Siberia is famed for its short summers and long winters of punishingly cold climate. That's "punishingly" in an almost literal sense, actually. The Russian Empire had a system of penal labor called Katorga in which prisoners were sent to remote areas (where voluntary workers were never available in sufficient numbers) and forced to into mining or lumber production. The Soviets later incorporated and expanded on the concept with the Gulag system. If you've ever read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, you know that Siberia is not generally a place you want to be.

Of course, this is a brewery called Thirsty Dog we're talking about here, so I don't think they were channeling Alexander Solzhenitsyn with this beer. Instead, they were probably thinking of adorable Siberian Husky memes.

Siberian Husky questions your marathon

Certainly more pleasant than crippling forced labor. Also more pleasant: The beer itself is an Imperial Stout aged in bourbon barrels for 11 months, which makes it good wintering beer, let's take a closer look:

Thirsty Dog BBA Siberian Night

Thirsty Dog Bourbon Barrel Aged Siberian Night - Pours a deep, dark brown, almost black color with a finger of light brown head that sticks around for a bit. Smells nice, some roasted malt, lots of vanilla, some bourbon and oak too. Taste has a rich caramel character up front, a little chocolate, oak, and vanilla pitching in, hints of boozy bourbon, with a little bit of roast coming to the fore in the finish. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, well carbonated, lightly boozy. Overall, this is a pretty approachable BBA stout, well balanced, tasty, a step up from the beginner's stuff, but not quite top tier. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 10.9% ABV bottled (12 ounce). Drank out of a snifter on 1/17/16. Vintage: 2015.

The regular non-BA version is pretty solid as well, and it's companion beer, Wulver has become one of my favorites.

Tahoe Mountain Recolte Du Bois Apricot

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Thanks to the ever generous Jay from Beer Samizdat, I've had the pleasure of drinking a few beers from Tahoe Mountain and found myself quite pleased with their offerings. Their Provisions saison is a pretty standard take on the style, but of course they've been doing more adventurous things with that most vague of styles (I kid because I love). Enter their Recolte Du Bois (translates to "harvest of the wood") series of Brett-dosed, barrel-aged saisons, music to my earballs. Some are fruited, some are aged in various wine casks, and one is even made with sage. What we have here is the Apricot Saison, which wound up being quite nice:

Tahoe Mountain Recolte Du Bois Apricot Saison

Tahoe Mountain Recolte Du Bois Apricot - Pours a mostly clear straw yellow color, gorgeous when held up to the light, with a finger of white head. Smells of apricot. I mean, there's other stuff going on here, a little farmhouse, funk, but nothing that overpowers the apricot. The taste starts out with more of that traditional farmhouse feel, slight funk, fruity esters, very light spicy phenols, and then that apricot kicks in towards the finish bringing a little tartness to the party, but there's a nice earthy note that balances it all out too. Mouthfeel is crisp and light, well carbonated, very approachable. Overall, this is quite nice, not quite a full-on apricot bomb (which is, uh, not a bad thing), but not a lactic bomb like, say, Cascade Apricot either. Well balanced and very tasty. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 6.2% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a flute glass on 1/8/15. Bottled: 20150623.

So yes, I want more of these Recolte Du Bois variants, particularly interested in the Peach version, though they all sound great. Oh, and why not try some of their Dark Ages beers? Old Ale? Imperial Stout? Bourbon barrels? Yes please. Thanks again to Jay for introducing me to these fine purveyors of beer.

Marius Double Feature

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Forest & Main's Marius series of oak-aged, fruited saisons is pretty clearly their most anticipated release. While normally laid back affairs, Marius releases tend to sell out right away. As a result, I've missed out on the first few releases. I finally got my act together for the most recent release, which was three different variants: Cherries, Peaches, and Plums. I split the Cherry with some friends and loved it (but never wrote down any notes - I'm the worst) so I was quite excited to crack open the other two whilst embarking on the great 2015 movie catchup. The Big Short kinda came out of nowhere and has a pleasingly odd pedigree, and I loved it. It's actually kinda the best explanation for the 2008 economic crisis I've seen (save the source material, of course) and the humor is mildly effective at toning down just how insane the whole situation was (and kinda still is). Kung Fu Killer is, erm, less successful, though it has some nice martial arts action sequences that'd make it worthwhile for fans of that sort of thing. Fortunately, this beer made up for any of that film's shortcomings:

Forest and Main Marius (Peach)

Forest & Main Marius (Peach) - Pours a striking, clear yellow color with a finger of fluffy head that has great retention that leaves a little lacing (for what it's worth, the second pour was more cloudy). Smells nice, some musty funk, but lots of fruit too, those peaches coming through well. Taste has a very nice earthy, musty funk to it with a fruity peach kicker, some tartness and oak pitching in towards the middle and lasting through the finish. Mouthfeel is well carbonated, crisp, and dry, lightly acidic, almost quaffable. Overall, this is a winner, rivaling the Cherry though probably not exceeding it. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 6% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a flute glass on 1/2/15. Bottled 11/4/15. Released 12/20/15.

Forest and Main Marius (Plum)

Forest & Main Marius (Plum) - Pours a much more cloudy, darker yellow color with more head, at least two fingers, great retention, some lacing. Definitely has a distinctly different smell here, still some musty funk, but moreso than the Peach, and the plums certainly lend a different fruit character. Taste has more of a yeasty character to it, some of that earthy, musty funk, but also some more traditional estery feel along with the plum fruit, not as sour as the peach either, though there is a bit of tartness. Mouthfeel is highly carbonated, crisp, and very dry, less acidic, though there is still something there. Overall, this too, is a winner, though not quite up to the level of Cherry or Peach. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 6% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a flute glass on 1/2/15. Bottled 11/4/15. Released 12/20/15.

More great efforts from Forest & Main. They've got an expansion underway, so I'm expecting to see great things from them in the nearish future.

A Few Trips to Levante Brewing

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It's hard to keep up with the throng of newly christened breweries in the area, but when the brewery in question is only a mile or two away, how can I not stop in? Of course, proximity isn't the only factor in play here, otherwise I'd be chatting up uber-local Boxcar's generally mediocre offerings (to be fair, they have opened a new brewpub, and it's a fantastic space, even if their beer still seems to be subpar). But being close helps, and Levante has more to offer than Boxcar ever did. (Full disclosure, one of the brewers there is a former coworker.)

They formally opened about six months ago, but had been open on a provisionary basis for a month or two before that. I've actually been there several times over the past few months, but I've only just recently gotten around to taking some formal tasting notes. The tasting room is just part of the little warehouse where they've set up their brewery, but they've done a good job making it a welcoming area, and they have a great little nook for food trucks to sidle up to the building. They're only open a few days a week, but they've gradually been expanding that, and their distribution footprint is getting larger as well.

Their standard lineup is comprised of your common opening break of styles (IPA, Pale, Rye, Wit, Kolsh, etc...), but their rotating limited releases have only gotten better over time. Out of the standard lineup, I've enjoyed Pallido Pale Ale and Ranger Rye the most (and the blended, bourbon barrel aged version of Ranger Rye? Excellent!). I've also quite enjoyed the Glen Mills Mild (now dubbed Mild Porter because no one understood what a mild was (I don't think I have any British readers, but I'm guessing some facepalms are in order)), a perfect little 3.2% session ale. They've been somewhat less successful with Belgian styles, though their most recent attempts have been improving.

But where they've really nailed it is with stouts. Longtime readers know I've been pining for a local brewery to really embrace stouts, and I appear to have found my savior. Darkness is Spreading was a superb little milk stout with well balanced chocolate and vanilla additions. And then we come to Bullit Train, an excellent imperial stout made with bourbon vanilla. Both stouts were delicious, so when my brewer buddy informed me that they'd be releasing a bourbon barrel aged blend of Bullit Train on the day after Christmas, I was all over it. Merry Boxing Day! Some notes on that and a double IPA are below:

Levante Bullitt Train Bourbon Vanilla Stout

Bullitt Train Bourbon Barrel Vanilla Stout - A blend of three batches, one of which was aged in Heaven Hill bourbon barrels, then it was put on the nitro tap. Pours a deep black color with a finger or two of gorgeous, dense light brown nitro head. Smells nice, big wafts of vanilla, caramel, hints of roast and chocolate. Taste follows the nose, lots of vanilla, some more roast than the nose, hints of the caramel and chocolate. The bourbon is there, but it's a light touch (I don't know the details, but I'm guessing only half or so of the blend was BBA). Mouthfeel is smooth and creamy, as befits a nitro pour. High medium to full bodied, very approachable at 10.5%, no real boozy notes at all. Overall, Levante has proven quite adept at stouts, and this is no exception! A-

Beer Nerd Details: 10.5% ABV on tap (nitro pour). Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/26/15.

Levante Panic Room

Panic Room - I have to admit that I'm not the biggest fan of Levante's single IPA, The Chief. However, their double IPAs are a different beast altogether. This pours a pale golden orange color with a finger or two of fluffy white head. Smells great, big citrus and pine hops. Taste hits the hops hard, again citrus and pine, with a substantial but well balanced bitter bite to it that lasts through the finish. This isn't one of them newfangled northeast "juicy" IPAs, but it's well crafted and delicious. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, well carbonated, no discernable booze, very nice. Overall, rock solid DIPA! B+ maybe an A- if I'm generous...

Beer Nerd Details: 8.5% ABV on tap. Drank out of a tulip glass on 12/26/15.

A promising start from an uber-local brewery! I am greatly looking forward to where Levante goes next. I'm sure you'll be hearing more about them in the near future, so stay tuned!

Yuletide Beer Club

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I don't know why I called this a "Yuletide" beer club except that 'tis the season and I am a bit tipsy (alas, none of the beers we tasted were particularly festive). For the uninitiated, Beer Club is a monthly get together amongst friends and coworkers (and former coworkers) to share some beer and partake in general revelry. We have been woefully neglectful of late, and indeed, after just barely sneaking a September meeting in at the very end of that month, we did not manage a meetup in October or November. But we're back on track and managed a pretty good showing.

Yuletide Beer Club
(Click to embiggen)

For the sake of posterity, some thoughts on each beer are listed below. Standard disclaimers apply, we were at a sushi place, not a sensory deprivation chamber. Notes are below, in order of tasting, not necessarily in the order pictured.

  • Fat Head Trail Head Pale Ale - It's like a toned-down version of Fat Head's Headhunter, dank, piney hops, tasty, a decent start for the night. B
  • Lost Nation Gose - Yup, a beer we've had many times here, and it's a nice, light, tart beer that works well as a warmup beer.
  • Rubber Soul Dropout - A super fresh crowler from this brand newish (less than 6 months old) Maryland brewery that is rather obviously comprised of Beatles Fans. This is a pretty solid DIPA, nice citrus and pine hop presence, and a decent amount of bitterness too (this will come into question later in the tasting). B+
  • Trinity Red Swingline - Was not expecting much from this beer named after an Office Space reference, but it wound up being one of the better of the night, super funky and earthy, with a decent amount of hop presence, and only a hint of sourness. One of these days, I'm going to buy a waxed beer that will totally lead me astray, and I thought this might be it, but I guess not. Also of note, the wax job was rather weird, like they dipped it once, realized that wouldn't be enough, so they dipped it again, and then just said "fuck it" and dipped it a third time because why the hell not. This is important, and I am totally justified in writing more about the wax job than the beer itself. B+
  • Free Will DC Cranberry Farmhouse - I picked this up at the semi-local Free Will release on Sunday. A pretty nice little saison number, but it's more subtle than the beer we just drank, so I think it suffered a bit from the comparison. Still, it seemed pretty darned good. B or B+
  • Pretty Things Jack D'Or - Thus begins a little, informal tribute to the sadly now defunct Pretty Things brewing company, this is a little more sweet and raisiny than I remember, but it's still relatively dry and a great match for the sushi we were eating at this point. B
  • Pretty Things Hopfenpop! - This was not a fresh bottle and you could sorta tell, but it was nevertheless pretty good and held up pretty well. I would have liked to have tried this one fresh, but for this, I'll give it a B
  • Stone Double Bastard In The Rye - This wound up being a sweeter take on the Double Bastard (as compared to, say, Southern Charred or even the base beer), but the hop character survived and tries its darnedest to counteract the sweetness. Still one of my favorites of the night though, and pretty fantastic. B+ or A-
  • Troegs Impending Descent - The Scratch beer that keeps on giving, I managed to get up to Troegs this Black Friday and pick up some of this solid imperial stout, perhaps not as great as their initial vintage, I still love it.
  • Pretty Things Fumapapa - A very nice imperial stout with all the standard notes and an additional and very complementary smoked malt character that manages to make itself known without overwhelming anything (or making you wonder who put their cigar out in your beer). Very tasty, and damn, I'm going to miss these guys. A-
  • Dogfish Head Hoo Lawd - Yes, this beer's premise, brewed to 658 IBUs (apparently the highest confirmed measurement ever, despite some others with higher "theoretical" IBUs), is gimmicky and such things tend to be hit or miss, but this was indeed an interesting beer to try. It pours a jet black color (i.e. not very IPAish), has a nice hoppy nose, dank citrus and pine, and the taste starts off just fine, like a malt-forward IPA, then the bitterness starts coming in towards the finish and building through the aftertaste. It's kinda like when you eat a hot pepper and you're all this isn't so bad and then 10 seconds later your mouth is on fire and 10 seconds after that you think you might die. Alright, so it never quite approaches fear-of-death levels of bitterness, but it is very bitter, which isn't that unusual, except that this lingers for much longer than normal. I'm really happy I got to try it and would recommend getting a sample if you see it, but the smallish pour I got was plenty, and it's not something worth really hunting for. Interesting though and one of those things that makes it hard to rate. B
After the Hoo Lawd, we opened a couple of "palate cleansers" that were IPAs that basically tasted like water, so I won't really go into detail on those. The Rubber Soul Dropout fared slightly better, but still didn't taste bitter at all. Go figure. So that wraps up this beer share, look for more in January, I hope!

Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek

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Along with the Oude Geuze, Drie Fonteinen's Oude Kriek is one of their flagship beers. It is basically youngish lambic aged on macerated cherries (pits included!) and refermented in the bottle. I'm reviewing one of the 2015 vintages, but the most intriguing vintage is the 2009.

Drie Fonteinen has been around in some capacity for over a century, but most of that time they were basically a blender. They would buy inoculated wort from lambic producers, then age and blend it. In 1999, they leased a brewing system and started producing their own lambic. In doing so, they became the first new lambic producer in over 80 years. It was pretty good timing too. Lambic was thought to be near dead in the early 90s, but the winds were shifting, and apparently Drie Fonteinen had their finger on the pulse, because the 2000s saw a dramatic increase in interest in Lambic.

This progress call came to a screeching halt one day when Armand Debelder entered his warehouse to find a catastrophic failure of his climate control system. In what's become known as the "Thermostat Incident", a hot air blower essentially never turned off, raising the temperature of the warehouse to 60°:C (14060°:F), essentially cooking over 80,000 bottles of lambic and even causing a few thousand to explode. Most of the lambic was ruined, and the 10 year lease of brewing equipment was coming due. Armand had to temporarily scrap his brewing operation and find ways to recoup. There were several strategies to do so, but the short story is that they're back to brewing again, and their future is bright.

One way they recouped was to take some of the cooked geuze and distill it into eau de vie called Armand'Spirit. They were also able to salvage a few thousand bottles of the Oude Kriek, which were released with a sticker that says "Saved from Thermostat Incident" and eventually became referred to as "Hot Cherry" bottles. You still see ISOs for these now and again, but reviews are difficult to suss out. It's hard to beat the romantic story behind it, of course, but that also tends to color impressions. Of course, this is all academic for me. It is unlikely that I will ever see a bottle of the stuff, let alone taste it, but a man can dream. In the meantime, let's check in with the current humdrum vintage:

Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek

Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek - Pours a striking, clear, radiant dark ruby color with a finger or two of fizzy pink head. Smells great, lots of tart fruit, cherries, blackberries, and the like, big funky earth character, and oak. Taste takes on a bright fruit character, lots of that cherry comes through strong, the earth and oak are present towards the finish but toned down a bit in favor of the tart fruit, and the moderate sourness anchors most of the taste. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, well carbonated, moderately acidic, maybe a hint of stickiness, but it's not syrupy. Overall, a rock solid Kriek lambic, not quite Cantillon levels, but on the same playing field. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 6% ABV bottled (375 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a flute glass on 12/5/15. Bottled: 2015 January 18th.

Drinking 3F is always a pleasure. Bottles are hard to come by, but not quite as impossible to find as Cantillon these days. Definitely something to keep an eye out for, and usually worth paying a premium for...

Dark Wednesday Redux

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About 4 years ago, I waited in line at my first beer release. I have since cycled through degenerate FOMO line-waiting and beer-hunting into a much more relaxed cadence. But it all started with Victory's Dark Intrigue in an event dubbed Dark Wednesday. Releasing something special on the day before Thanksgiving has become something of a tradition for Victory, though for reasons unknown, they never revisited Dark Intrigue (and claim they won't make it again). I loved that beer when fresh, and since I bought a case of the stuff, I've enjoyed checking it out over time. Other releases included Red Thunder and Earth & Flame.

The hype surrounding these releases has died down, but they're definitely worth checking out. Victory has grown considerably since then as well, opening new brewpubs throughout the area and even a new production facility in Parksburg. This year's Thanksgiving Wednesday release was called Java Cask, a bourbon barrel aged imperial stout made with coffee from local restaurant and indie rock venue, Johnny Brenda's. Unlike Dark Intrigue (or indeed, most of Victory's barrel aged efforts), the base beer does not appear to be something in the regular lineup, and the result clocks in at a whopping 14.3% ABV (to my knowledge, the highest they've ever brewed). It was much anticipated locally, but since the release was spread out across several locations, it was all very low key. I rolled up a little after opening, waited about 5 minutes and got myself some bottles. That being said, there wasn't that much left and I'm told it sold out not long after I snagged mine...

I love the local brewing scene, but I have also noticed a distinct lack of great bourbon barrel stouts. With Java Cask, we've now seen two new BBA Imperial Coffee Stouts in the past year alone (the other being Weyerbacher's Sunday Morning Stout). This is nice, but given my legendary aversion towards coffee, I wouldn't mind seeing some non-coffeed versions floating around every now and again. A man can dream. That being said, I feel like I'm gaining a better appreciation of great imperial coffee stouts, so let's get to the main event. Since I'm a glutton for punishment, I rooted around my cellar and found a bottle of Dark Intrigue to commemorate the occasion and compare both Dark Wednesday beers. Totally unfair comparison, but fun nonetheless.

Dark Intrigue

Victory Dark Intrigue 2011 - This is long past its prime, but it's still a worthy pour. Faded piney, resinous hops and oxidation are prominent, but the malt backbone and barrel aging keep things interesting. It felt much better integrated when fresh or within 1-2 years. It's fine now, just very, very different, and the bourbon barrel character has faded. If you have one of these tucked away, it's probably long past time to drink it, but it's still worth checking out. Chalk this one up in the "drink one fresh, save one to age" category... Difficult to rate this one, but if this was my first taste, it'd be somewhere in the low B range.

Beer Nerd Details: 10% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a snifter on 11/25/15. Bottled: Nov 08 2011.

Victory Java Cask

Victory Java Cask - Pours a deep, dark, oily brown, almost black color, thick looking, with half a finger of very short lived light brown head. Smells of coffee, coffee, and more coffee, roast coffee, chocolate coffee, and did I mention coffee? It's got a lot of coffee. Taste is less coffee focused, though it's still playing a lead role. Starts off sweet, with rich caramel, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, roast, and finally that coffee really takes over in the finish. As it warms, it gets more complex and the flavor elements come out more. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, well carbonated, and plenty of boozy heat. This is a delicious, intense coffee stout, and if I wasn't such a coffee ambivalent fella, this would be full on A material, but I'm not, so you get A-

Beer Nerd Details: 14.3% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a snifter on 11/25/15. Enjoy by: 10 Nov 2016.

It's been a while since I've reviewed a Victory beer, which is weird, since they are one of my most reviewed breweries. This was great, but man, I really want a non-coffee version of this. Fingers crossed that we'll see something like that in the future.

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

You might also want to check out my generalist blog, where I blather on about lots of things, but mostly movies, books, and technology.

Email me at mciocco at gmail dot com.

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