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Midnight Sun Arctic Devil

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Founded in 1995, Anchorage, Alaska's Midnight Sun Brewing Company was the brainchild of Mark Staples, a former computer nut who claims he became "obsessed with beer". Sounds familiar. While perhaps not a pioneering giant like Anchor or Sierra Nevada, 1995 was pretty early on for American craft beer (for instance, that was a year before the infamous class of 1996, which includes Victory, Stone, and Dogfish Head), and they were making this barrel aged barleywine pretty early on. At least as of the year 2000, if this Michael Jackson article is to be believed. He was part of a blind taste test and had this ranked third:

Arctic Devil is an extraordinarily creamy barley wine, aged for six months in a red wine barrel and its unusual flavours were deemed excessively rich and lacking in hop balance by some of the judges. Not a typical barley wine, but I gave it points for individuality.
How things have changed. As barrel aged barleywines go, this is actually a pretty good example. It's not typical, but only in that it's better than most.

He mentions that it was aged in Red Wine barrels, which could have something to do with the perceived atypicality (is that a word? It is now.) These days, the label sez that the beer is aged in Bourbon Oak Barrels, though the brewery also claims they've blended the spawn of diverse barrels, ranging from wine and port to bourbon barrels (seems heavy on the bourbon to me, which perhaps yields something more typical than a red wine barrel). On the other hand, clocking in at 20 IBUs, this definitely is on the extreme low end of the bitterness spectrum for barleywines (even if it didn't feel that way to me). Whatever the case, this is a pretty spectacular barleywine, well worth seeking out:

Arctic Devil

Midnight Sun Arctic Devil Barley Wine - Pours a murky brown color with a cap of tan head. Smells fantastic, candied fruits, toffee, caramel, vanilla, oak, and bourbon. Taste has rich caramel, toffee, a hint of dark fruits, oak and vanilla, bourbon, finishing with a touch of bitterness that is offset by some boozy bourbon (surprising, given the low IBUs - this seems very well balanced). Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, a hint of boozy heat, well carbonated, a little sticky in the finish. Feels along the lines of §ucaba or Bourbon County Barleywine, which is good company to be in. Overall, this is a delicious, superbly balanced, top tier barleywine. A

Beer Nerd Details: 13.4% ABV bottled (22 ounce bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 4/17/15. Vintage: 2015 (I think?)

Midnight Sun continues to impress. I will be seeking out more from them, post haste! I should also be looking into some other top tier barleywines that I've not managed to tick just yet. Patience, friends, all in good time.

Uncle Jacob's Double Feature

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While the origins of Bourbon are not well documented, there are a few legends and claims that are frequently made. One credits an early distiller by the name of Jacob Spears with being the first to call his product "Bourbon whiskey" (named after the location of his 1790 distillery: Bourbon County, Kentucky). This sort of obscure historical reference would normally be enough for a brewer to get all hot and bothered and brew a Bourbon barrel aged beer, but Adam Avery's sister discovered this tidbit while doing a genealogy project and it turns out that Jacob Spears is their 6th Great Grand Uncle.

As a fan of Bourbon barrel aged imperial stouts, I've been on the lookout for this beer for a while, and as luck would have it, I snagged a bottle late last year not realizing that it was a 2013 vintage. Then, when the new 2015 batch came rolling around, I started seeing it everywhere and obviously I cannot resist such temptation. It was fate, and I knew I needed to drink both side-by-side. Of course, both are 16.5+% ABV, so it's important to find a night where I could pace myself. So here we are, comparing two vintages of Uncy Jacob's Stout:

Avery Uncle Jacobs Stout

Avery Uncle Jacob's Stout (2015 Vintage) - Pours an almost cloudy (hard to tell, since it's so dark) pitch black color color with a finger of brown head. Smells of dark, roasted malts, a little caramel, bourbon, oak and vanilla, maybe a faint hint of coffee. Taste is all rich caramel, bourbon, oak, and vanilla, faint hints of dark malt in the background, an some booze in the finish. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, surprisingly well carbonated, but still a little sticky in the finish. Thick and viscous, I'm guessing a relatively low attenuation here. A pleasant amount of boozy heat. Overall, it's a pretty fantastic Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout, worth seeking out. A low A

Beer Nerd Details: 16.9% ABV bottled (12 ounce). Drank out of a snifter on 4/11/15. Batch No. 4. Bottled Feb 13, 2015.

Avery Uncle Jacob's Stout (2013 Vintage) - Looks pretty much the same, though I guess it's a clearer looking beer, even if that doesn't really matter because it's so dark. Smells much more of bourbon and oak, a little caramel and vanilla, brown sugar with an almost fruity aroma. Taste is similar to the 2015, but it again features a new brown sugary molasses type of character and less in the way of dark roasted malts. It feels a little more sweet and a little less boozy. Mouthfeel is the same - full bodied, rich, and chewy, well carbonated, a little sticky. Perhaps not quite as thick, though it's still a pretty viscous beer. The booze is a little more tame here as well. Overall, it's another fantastic BBA stout, a little sweeter and more integrated than the 2015. Just a tad too sweet though, so I'd go with 2015, though they're very close. A high A-

Beer nerd Details: 16.53% ABV bottled (12 ounce). Drank out of a snifter on 4/11/15. Batch No. 2. Bottled Jun 27, 2013. Production: 848 Cases.

So there you have it, a beer I'll totally get every year if I luck into it at Whole Foods like I did this year (while I had given up beer for a while, no less). It is certainly knocking at the top tier door, even if it isn't quite there just yet. But you never know. I gave Parabola an A- the first time I had that, and now it's an A+ candidate (yes, this is a thing, I should really get on that, seeing as though I have not awarded an A+ in, like, 2 years).

Tired Hands bottle releases happen about once a month or two, but in the past month, Jean has seen fit to hold 3 bottle releases. In January. I suspect Jean is trying to breed a new cold-resistant strain of beer nerd. Or perhaps to kill off lesser beer nerds, thus keeping the line to a manageable size. Judging from the incredulous Main Liners driving by and asking what the hell everyone is waiting in line for ("Justin Bieber tickets"), sitting around on the curb for 2-3 hours out front for just a few bottles of beer is a dubious way to spend time, but I usually manage. Best case, the folks around me are cool and we partake in much discussion and merriment. Worst case, I put in my headphones and zone out to an audiobook (chances are, if I were at home, I'd be in bed reading anyway). Still, after 3 releases in the freezing cold, I'm ready for my Believer's Club membership to go into effect.

Most releases are announced well in advance, but there are the occasional stealth releases, and sometimes they're at weird times. One such occasion was Thanksgiving eve, 2013. Jean announces that bottles of the first Emptiness series beer, Out of the Emptiness, would be available when they open at 4. Now, typical bottle releases range from about 400-600 bottles, with a bottle limit of 2-4 (generally optimizing it so that 150-200 folks can snag a bottle). I don't remember the specific number of bottles available that day, but Jean must have been feeling capricious and whimsical, because that day was on the lower range of bottles available, but the bottle limit was 6. I managed to get off work early, but missed out on bottles by about 10 folks in line. Dejected, my new friend Andrew (met in line) and I retired to the bar upstairs where we drowned our sorrows in the always stellar taplist and discussed the merits of aging Samichlaus (it being the holiday season and all). Then Jean saunters up, pours three glasses from an unmarked bottle, and gives them to three of us at the bar (in fact, this generosity may have been the result of the third guy, who seemed to be friends with Jean).

So thanks to that, I actually did get to try Out of the Emptiness, a wine-barrel fermented saison conditioned atop local Italian plums. As fate would have it, a second batch was made, and released just a couple weeks ago. So I finally got to enjoy a bottle of this stuff in the comfort of my own home:

Out of the Emptiness

Tired Hands Out of the Emptiness - Pours a beautiful, almost radiant amber orange color with a finger of fluffy very light pink (almost white) head. Smells of vinous fruit, cherries, plums, fruit by the foot, with some barnyard funk. The taste hits with that fruit up front, cherries, plums, grapes, with a bunch of oak tannins kicking in rather quickly, a bit of sourness emerges later in the taste. Finishes oaky and dry. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, well carbonated, and effervescent, mildly acidic, dry oak. From memory, batch one had a much less carbonated mouthfeel, which is something that does make a big difference for me. Not sure if the b1 bottles ever carbed up better, but I'm glad this new batch turned out well. Overall, really pleased I waited in line to snag some of these. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 7% ABV bottled (500 ml waxed cap). Drank out of a flute glass on 1/31/15. Batch 2 (2015 vintage).

In case it's not abundantly clear, and if you've gotten this far, it really should be, I end up at Tired Hands often. They usually have 8 taps on, and at least 2-3 will change over from week to week (and sometimes even more). Two and a half years in, they've remade a handful of their favorite stuff, but for the most part, once it's done, it's done, and you won't see it again. To that end, I figure I need to lord it over all you plebians, and post whatever notes I've taken over the past, yikes, year or so. In fairness, I don't take notes upon every visit (especially if, for example, I'm with a friend or otherwise conversing with the friendly folks at the bar), but I've still got quite a few notes piled up. I'll start with a recent one, but after that one, we've got beers dating back a year or so.

StonerWitch

StonerWitch - 10.5% ABV Black Barleywine brewed with clementine juice and zest - I gather a lot of folks found this weird and off style. I found it strange and beautiful, which I believe was the intention, and really, really enjoyed it. Pours a deep dark brown, indeed almost black, with half a finger of short lived tan head. Looks almost like a stout, but the smell is decidedly more barleywinish, some juicy fruit aromas, wheat, toffee, caramel, very slight dark malt component too. Taste is rich and hearty, some caramel and toffee up front, a bready middle, with juicy citrus in the finish (presumably that clementine juice at work). Mouthfeel is rich and creamy, dense and full bodied, just enough carbonation to tie it all together. Overall, I actually love this beer. It's quite an unusual take on a barleywine, but it still hits the right notes, and is downright delicious. A-

Shep's Memory - 3.7% ABV Bitter - Good for the style, biscuity malts with a very light hop component, light bodied and crushable. B+

BrainHands - 5.5% ABV Pizza Inspired Gose - Whoa, this is unexpectedly fantastic. Nice lemony citrus sourness tempered by earthy spices (does not taste like pizza, but who cares, this is great!) tingly and spicy, even a little heat... A-

Al Baby - 6.8% ABV Hoppy Honey Brown Ale - Nice hoppy brown, solid, easy going stuff. B+

Uyawa Pog - 8% ABV Imperial IPA - Really bright citrus and a sorta honeyed malt backbone, really nice. The citrus is super peach-like too, which is not common (and I don't think they actually used peaches for this, perhaps they're getting this out of the Simcoe/Nelson Sauvin combo?) A-

Stout Budino - 6.3% Dessert Stout - Smore like ingredients, not quite as sweet or rich as that would imply, but a really nice stout, chocolate and roast, like. B+

I Love You, Friend - 7% ABV Rye IPA - Juicy citrus hops up front, rye finish, great... A

Broken Basement - 6.3% ABV IPA - Hopped with Ahtanum and Simcoe, a typically fantastic IPA, maybe some more malt character than usual, still great. A-

Shambolic - 6.5% ABV dry hopped spelt saison - Nice, I feel like it's been a while since TH did something like this, great peppery saison character with a citrus, vinous hop kick... (Update: I opened a bottle of this recently, after a few months in the cellar), and while the hop character is still there, the farmhouse saisony elements came to the fore as well. Great.) A-

Lord Ladybug - 6% ABV dark sour cherry Berliner Weisse - Very tart, puckering sour beer. Chocolate covered cherries. Me likey. B+

EXTOL - 7.6% ABV Imperial Porter - my kinda porter, sweet, low roast, dark chocolate (hint of coffee?), very nice B+

Wilbur - 5.9% ABV Rye IPA - nice rye character, floral hops, well matched, very good! B+

Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt - 6.6% ABV Black Coffee Saison - Interesting mixture of elements, earthy saison yeast, fruity hops, and just a bit of that roasty coffee. B+

PowerChord - 4.2% ABV Crushable IPA - Beautiful citrus hop nose (clearly Mosaic hops involved here), more floral and piney in the taste, quaffable. B+

Exact Negative Charge - 7.7% ABV emptiness saison - Typical funky TH saison, very nice, really fruity, light earth, not a ton of funk, but really nice! B+

Sunulate - 6.4% ABV blood orange & chamomile saison - Solid stuff, not as funky, but really nice floral and citrus notes... B+

Go Ride A Bike - 5.5% ABV crushable IPA - Motueka bomb, lots of citrus and a little dank pine, crushable! A-

Exploding Nuclear Cauldron - 5.1% hoppy honey Grissette - Lemon zest, light spice, grassy hops, soft feel, really nice and refreshing... A-

Experience Neutral Chamber - 5.7% ABV emptiness saison - Bright, fruity funk, light salinity, lemon zest, quaffable... B+

Modern Artisinal Tragedy - 6.8% honey saison - Straightforward saison stuff, typical TH quality, very nice peppery spice and light hop character... B+

BloodRoot - 6.6% hoppy red saison - Brewed with rye, and you can tell, big spicy note along with peppery yeast, and a good amount of hop character, including more bitterness than I'm used to from TH - nothing wrong with that, of course... B+

Only Void 2014 - 11% imperial stout - This year's version is slightly less alcohol and not as sweet as last year's version. As a result, more roast and chocolate come to the fore. Still very nice. A

Here Lies - 2.5% hoppy bitter - Whoa, very tasty for such an extremely low alcohol beer. Beautiful hoppy nose, perhaps not as intense, but really tasty. Totally quaffable, not as thin as you'd expect, but very light. Crushable! B+

Gose is My Copilot - 4.7% Gose - Wheated Gose with sea salt, lime juice and zest, and cilantro from Jeans garden. Well balanced, sour, a little sticky. I'm not really a huge Gose fan or anything, but this is very nice (I got a growler, made a Top Gun ("Talk to me, Gose") joke on twitter, but no one got it, or they did and didn't care). B+

Savage Gold - 5.2% ABV IPA - Nelson Sauvin and Hallertau Blanc... Typically great tired hands ipa, beautiful hop character, crushable. A-

Boogie Board - 5.2% ABV blended saison (some 4 month cab franc barrel aged saison in the blend) - Very nice saison, light barrel character, but a big juicy fruit kick, tart lemons and grapes, some typical saison spice, super smooth, a little acidic, highly drinkable. A-

Fool in the Full Moon - 6% ABV coffee wheat porter - So I entered the name for this beer, but took no notes. I'm the worst. I'm pretty seriously doubting that anyone will ever actually read this though. Why am I even doing this?

Carpet on your Heart - 6% ABV Rye IPA - Darker and more substantial than your typical TH IPA, perhaps even more bitterness than usual, but great hop presence, juicy citrus, very well composed. B+

Watching Trees Decompose - 7% ABV blueberry IPA - Very pretty, a striking amber purple with light purple head... Taste has an extra sweetness that battles with the citrus hops, still decent beer though. B+

Reincarnated as a Cloud - 6.1% ABV Wheat IPA - More of a bitter bite here than normal, but a very nice citrus and pine hop character and clean wheat makes this worthy. B+

Green Fuzz - 7% ABV Cucumber Galaxy IPA - holy cucumber, Batman! I don't think of cucumber as being a particularly powerful aroma or flavor, but it's here in spades... Though more standard ipa notes come through too. B+

Red Fuzz - 6.5% Raspberry & Sumac Saison - Another one where I wrote the name, but not any notes. I really am the worst.

Psychic Facelift - 6.5% ABV Citra IPA - Beautiful, juicy IPA, all sorts of citrus, super quaffable, absolutely superb! Drank, like, 3 liters of this stuff during the one week it was on tap (it's rare that I get something more than once, so that's saying something). A

Yeast & Cats - 6.4% ABV wheat saison - Typically great TH saison, distinctive farmhouse awesome. B+

Ambassador Aardvark - 4.5% ABV Berlinerweiss - I seem to be relying on the "typical TH style" description for these reviews, and this is no exception - this is a typical TH Berliner and it's quite nice. Tart, tasty, and refreshing. B+

I See A Darkness - 8.5% ABV imperial honey espresso porter - Relatively light on the coffee, which is a good thing in my book, but it's really tasty, nice roast character, a little espresso, really solid stuff. B+

Singel Hop Saison Cascade - 5% ABV - This is a really interesting melding of farmhouse and hops, with neither element dominating. This represents a more balanced take in the series, and it's really nice... A-

Purple Fuzz - 6% ABV blackberry and purple basil Saison - Nice farmhouse going on here, spicy and fruity, though the fruit is not super powerful, well balanced, a little weird in a good way... B+

Yellow Fuzz - 7.2% ABV peach ipa - Beautiful juicy citrus, quaffable, typically great TH IPA! A-

Many Mouths With Pointy Teeth- 6% ABV Rye IPA - Very nice ipa, citrus hops and spicy rye, well carbonated and quaffable. A-

Cyclical Paranoia - 6% ABV Mohogany Hued saison - Light farmhouse with typical saison yeast character, but also some almost vinous notes. B+

Aphillyation - 6.6% Cabernet Franc IPA- Interesting, floral hops, a little grape character and an almost creamy mouthfeel. B+

Paranormalized - 8.2% blended barrel fermented super saison - Very nice saison, spice and fruit, with a very light sourness and decent oaky character. Delicious! A-

Pope Lick Monster - 8.5% imperial Porter - nice and dark, creamy tan head, sweet and roasty, with a mallow finish. B+ or A-

Mind Meet Mind - 6% ABV Coffee IPA - My ambivalence towards coffee is world renowned, but I still enjoyed this well enough. Great hop character, juicy citrus, with some coffee peeking through... B

Funny Top Hat Serenade - 7% ABV Classical Progressive Saison - Very nice saison of the TH house style, with a nice fruity hop character (not bitter though) B+

The Still-Beating Heart of the Hummingbird - 7% ABV Barrel Fermented Saison - Whoa, slightly lactic sourness, but not really that sour. A little oak, and that TH funk, very good! A-

GrassMan - 8.7% ABV Honey Double IPA - Hugely dank DIPA, Nelson Sauvin coming through strong, tropical fruits all over. I'm sure the Citra is contributing to that, but it's got a distinctly grassy character too. A-

Deathtripper - 6.7% ABV IPA - Fabulous, dank, juicy ipa, lots of citrus and pine, delicious. A-

Ekstra - 6.6% ABV collaborative saison - Collab with pizzeria beddia, first TH use of Hallertau... B

Cannibal Okt - 6.2% Sweet Potato IPA - A sorta heftier IPA, more of a balance between hops and sweetness here, quite nice! B

Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp - 6.2% ABV IPA - Another great TH house style IPA, less juicy, but still citrus and pine all over, higher than normal carbonation, great! A-

Chupacabra - 6.6% mole Porter - Whoa coffee! A little thinner than your typical Porter, but that matches nicely with the roasty coffee, so it's still tasty! If only I liked coffee more. B

Dobhar-chú - 4.2% heirloom squash bitter - Very nice, clean, malt forward, tasty... Not on cask right now, but would be perfect from the hand pump! B+

Watcher in the Dark - 6% ABV India Black Ale - whoa, beautiful citrus hops is the nose, with that slight roast coming through a little more in the taste, utterly fantastic! A

Corpse Finder - 4.4% ABV Galaxy IPA - Nice citrus, substantial considering the ABV, maybe a little more bitter than typical, but still quite crushable B+

Foliage - 8% ABV Double IPA - awesome, darker than typical TH IPA, sweet, citrusy and floral hops, smooth, medium bodied, delicious! A-

Infinite Universe Mind - 6% ABV sour IPA - Nice! I don't normally go in for sour IPAs but this is very well balanced, light sourness, well integrated, tasty! B+

Fifth Level - 6.2% Single Hop Motueka IPA - Typical TH house style IPA, very nice, juicy hops, yum. B+

Alien Church

Alien Church - 7% ABV IPA - My only notes were: Must. Get. Growler. (And I did. This was a great IPA) A

Window Mirror Section - 6.8% Hearty Wheat Saison fermented in oak barrels with our Emptiness culture and conditioned on oranges - Holy hell, this is Emptiness level stuff. Nice balanced with the oak, funk, and juicy, tart fruitiness. A

ALTAR - 4.6% ABV Berliner Weisse with hibiscus, Madagascar vanilla beans, and cinnamon sticks - I usually enjoy TH's berliners, but this one is a step above the norm. Very well done. A-

Such Passion - 7.5% Simcoe IPA conditioned on passionfruit purée - Um, yes please. Very good. A-

Whatever, Nevermind - 8.1% ABV barrel saison - According to Untappd, this was my 200th checkin at Tired Hands. Holy Crap. A-

So I'll end it there. Despite waiting in line several times over the past month, it's actually been a few weeks since I've made my way over there. I love the Winter, but it's cold and so easy to just stay home. We shall rectify that soon enough, and in time, the new production facility will open and I'll be drinking as much as ever... Alas, I don't know that I'll keep doing these posts. I can't imagine anyone actually reading through all of this, and it's starting to get repetitive (not to mention that just about everything gets B+ or A-, TH breaks my grading scale. Can't even do a curve, really.)

Pizza Boy Golden Sour

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I've been enjoying the Pizza Boy bottles that have slowly been making their way to the Philly area, but so far, I've not had a chance to try any of Pizza Boy's most famous beers, whichare, in general, their sours. They are quite pricey, but so far, they seem worth it.

Enter the Golden Sour, a svelt 3.7% ABV ale aged in white wine barrels with lemon zest. According to Stouts and Stilettos, they asked the brewer and "found out it's a blend of Cantillon, Fantome & Drie Fonteinen cultures." Damn. Go big, or go home, I guess. And hoo boy, did this go big:

Pizza Boy Golden Sour

Pizza Boy Golden Sour - Pours a cloudy golden color with visible sediment and a finger of bubbly head that recedes to a cap. Smells great, tart fruit, lemons, musky funk, pleasant barnyard, and oak. The taste starts very sweet, quickly hits a high sour note with lemons and vinous fruit, a little funk, then retreats into oak before a finish which sorta ties all the flavor components together. Great balance between sweet fruit, sourness, and oak. Mouthfeel is light, crisp, and refreshing, well carbonated with moderate acidity, it's still quite crushable. I will say, this does not feel like 3.7% at all - not that sours need a high abv to pack a punch, but usually when it's this low, there's some degree of thinness or something. Not so here. It's either labeled wrong or really impressive (and I'm inclined to think the latter). Overall, this is fantastic, no questions. A

Beer Nerd Details: 3.7% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a Charente glass on 1/30/15. 2014 Release.

So I've got something called Future Primitive that appears to be brewed at Pizza Boy, but is under an Intangible Ales label. Don't know what's up there, but mayhap I'll dig into that next time...

Firestone Walker XVIII - Anniversary Ale

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Alrighty folks, you know the drill: Every year, Firestone Walker invites their neighboring Winemakers to the brewery to tie one on and blend a series of barrel aged component beers for their Anniversary Ale. I'm trying to be concise here because if you've been paying attention, you'd know that I've written about this whole process in wonky, exhaustive detail before, not to mention delving into individual component beers with some regularity. Needless to say, I'm a fan.

The results can be quite different from year to year. XV was more barleywineish (and it was spectacular), XVI was a little more evenly matched between barleywines and darker stouts and the like (and alas, it was a far cry from XV). Last year's XVII returned to the realm of barleywine pretty successfully (and did better than XVI, but never quite reached the heights of XV). This year, Firestone goes to the dark side:

  • 38% Parabola (13% ABV) Russian Imperial Oatmeal Stout. Aged in Bourbon Barrels.
  • 16% Helldorado (11.7% ABV) Blonde Barley Wine. Aged in Bourbon and Brandy Barrels.
  • 16% Bravo (12.9% ABV) Imperial Brown Ale. Aged in Bourbon and Brandy Barrels.
  • 14% Stickee Monkee (12.3% ABV) English Barley Wine. Aged in Bourbon and Brandy barrels.
  • 5% Velvet Merkin (8.5% ABV) Traditional Oatmeal Stout. Aged in Bourbon barrels.
  • 4% Hydra Cuveè (10.5% ABV) Blend of Flying Dog Gonzo and FW Wookey Jack (both stainless), Double DBA and Bravo (both aged in Bourbon barrels).
  • 3% Wookey Jack (8.3% ABV) Black Rye India Pale Ale. 100% Stainless Steel
  • 2% Ol' Leghorn (12.5% ABV) English Barley Wine, Collaboration with Three Floyds. Aged in New American Oak.
  • 2% Double Jack (9.5% ABV) Double India Pale Ale. Aged in Stainless Steel.

Lots of unusual things (at least, when compared to the last few vintages). First up, 38% of Parabola is the single highest component I've seen yet, and when you add up stout-like components, you get about 59% (perhaps 66%, depending on how you consider Wookey Jack or Hydra Cuveè), with about a third of the blend hitting barleywine territory. Perhaps making up for the disproportionate amount of Parabola is that this features 5 components with 5% or less of the final blend. Heck, that Hydra Cuveè is only 4% and it's already a blend of 4 beers. This blend has the most components of any previous vintage I've tried and it's also the darkest and most stout-like version since XIII (which I have, sadly, never tried). The good news here is that all this weirdness basically translates to the best vintage since XV.

Firestone Walker XVIII- Anniversary Ale

Firestone Walker XVIII - Anniversary Ale - Pours a black color with almost no head, just a very small ring around the edge of the glass. Smells fantastic, caramel, oak, vanilla, bourbon, a hint of roast, and some dark fruit. The taste is Parabola up front, caramel, bourbon, oak, and vanilla with a bit of roast, followed by a more bourbon barrel barleywine-like dark fruit and toffee in the finish. Really delicious, lots of complexity that keeps emerging as it warms up. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, well carbonated, just a little sticky, with a bit of boozy heat. Well balanced though, and as it warms, it gets even better. Overall, spectacular and delicious, best vintage since XV and maybe even better. A

Beer Nerd Details: 13% ABV bottled (22 ounce boxed bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 1/23/15. 2014 vintage.

I really can't get enough of Firestone's barrel aging program. Really looking forward to snagging some Sucaba and Parabola this year, and whatever other specialties make their way around (apparently Helldorado is coming to bottles this year, replacing DDBA).

Bourbon County Vanilla Rye

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I thought I had missed out on this Bourbon County variant that people are losing their minds over. Back when Goose Island started doing Bourbon County variants, there was a Vanilla version that has been highly sought after ever since (despite apparently having fallen off a cliff). This new release has also been turning some heads and my local beermonger missed out on a case and I was too apathetic to go hunting for it until a friend mentioned that a local beeratorium was tapping a keg. Peer pressure, it gets things done.

The difference between this and the 2010 variant? Those fine Chicagoan Geese Cellarmen used Rye barrels instead of Bourbon, and even incorporated some "rye spice" into the base beer recipe (not sure if that's some rye-derived spice or if they're talking about stuff like fennel or cardamom). The vanilla beans are different as well, using a 70/30 split of Madagascar and Mexican vanilla.

For some unfathomable reason, the word vanilla is often used to indicate that something is bland or boring, but vanilla is one of my favorite flavors. There's a reason it's often used as a base for other flavors, and when you combine the intensity of something like BCBS with vanilla, well, the results are pretty impressive. Many thanks to Danur for holding my beer for this rather pedestrian picture. It was pretty damn crowded. Let's get to it:

Bourbon County Vanilla Rye

Bourbon County Vanilla Rye - Yep, looks like regular ol BCBS, pitch black with a tan head (maybe the head is lighter in color in this version?) Smells great, that vanilla comes through strong, a great complement to the bourbon and oak, but I'm also getting a sorta ice cream cone feeling mixed with a little roasty malt, chocolate, and even some coffee. Taste has that BCBS base awesomeness, lots of caramel, oak, and bourbon, plenty of booze too, but the vanilla really comes through and brings out some of the roasty and chocolatey elements, perhaps even a little coffee-like flavor. It doesn't feel quite as huge as regular BCBS, but as a result the complexity rises, yielding new tastes on each sip. I usually hate it when people pepper their tasting notes with ridiculous comparisons, but here I go: Pizzelles (the ones my mom makes, without anise), chocolate covered coconut, malt balls, sugar cookies, I feel like I'm drinking a bakery. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and velvety, with ample carbonation and a pleasant boozy bite, not quite the beast of regular BCBS, but that's a high bar to clear. Overall, this is a fantastically complex, tasty treat. Being boring, I probably still prefer regular ol' BCBS, but I'm weird that way - this is a superb beer worth seeking out. A

Beer Nerd Details: 13.6% ABV on tap (6 ounce pour). Drank out of a mini-snifter on 1/10/15.

Of the variants of BCBS, this is my favorite (with special mention to Bourbon County Barleywine, which is it's own animal) so far. Of course, I've not had Rare or the original vanilla or Proprietor's Reserve, so take that with a shaker of iodized salt, and it's not like I won't be seeking out new variants next year. I'm just a sucker for Bourbon County anything.

Firestone Walker Stickee Monkee

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Firestone Walker's excellent barrel aging program essentially grew out of their Anniversary beers. For their first entry in that series, they brewed 4 different beers and aged them in 6 different barrels (yielding 10 lots to blend, as it was their 10th anniversary). Some of these have gone on to become standard annual offerings on their own, like §ucaba or Parabola, but some have only been released in minute quantities at the brewery itself (or perhaps the occasional beer week surprise). For the past few years, Firestone Walker has been releasing larger doses of individual components in one-off bottles, and Stickee Monkey was 2014's entry.

They describe the base of this beer as a Central Coast Quad, and unlike many of their other beers, the ingredients are mostly "undisclosed". What we do know is that it "formulated to sit on the sweeter and malty side so that we could utilize it for blending" (bottle sez 22 IBU, which is indeed pretty low for such a big beer) and that it incorporates Turbinado brown sugar from Mexico in place of the traditional Belgian candi sugar. The result is decidedly more barleywine-ish or perhaps old-ale-ish than Quad-like, but I'm not complaining about this barrel of monkeys, it's delicious:

Firestone Walker Stickee Monkee

Firestone Walker Stickee Monkee - Pours a striking clear chestnut brown color with a cap of tan, fizzy head that quickly resolves into a ring around the edge of the glass. Smells of rich caramelized fruits, plums and the like, maybe some molasses, with huge barrel character, vanilla, oak, and bourbon. Taste follows the nose with a large, rich caramel presence, very sweet (but not cloying), a hint of fruit in the background, molasses, and that huge barrel presence brings the vanilla, oak, and bourbon, big time. Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and chewy, with ample carbonation to offset the sweetness, though it does finish with a bit of a sticky presence. Pleasant booze makes itself known with a little heat and warming in the belly. Overall, what we have here is a superb, complex, and intense barrel aged brew. A

Beer Nerd Details: 13.4% ABV bottled (22 ounce boxed bomber). Drank out of a snifter on 12/27/14. 2014 Vintage. Bottled 04/18/14.

I will never tire of Firestone Walker's barrel aged beers, despite being somewhat difficult to procure using standard methods. Even their sours and wilds are starting to come along. Up next: Firestone XVIII (14% of which is actually Stickee Monkey, heh). After that, well, Firestone has said that Double DBA will no longer be bottled, setting the stage for some sort of replacement. To my knowledge, this has not been chosen yet, but I'm guessing Parabajava (a coffee infused version of Parabola, relatively new) or Bravo (BA imperial brown ale, been around since the beginning). In any case, I'll still be hunting down bottles of §ucaba and Parabola, because they're so reliably great.

Cascade Sang Royal

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I was going to just make a Royale With Cheese joke and whine about the metric system, but as with the beer itself, DDB beat me to it by a few years. Instead I'll have to rely on pedantic translation backgrounding, like Sang Royal being French for "Royal Blood" and how popular it is to pretend that a given grape-based beverage is blood. Indeed, we're about the celebrate the birth of the guy who popularized the concept in just a few days.

The last couple Cascade beers I've had wound up being a little disappointing. The Vine, another grape-based beer, was fine I guess, but not as sour or oaky as I've come to expect from Cascade (It tasted more like a tripel dosed with grape juice than a funky sour). The Blueberry had a slight case of the Smoketômes, which was clearly not doing it any favors. Given the expense of acquiring these bottles, I wasn't sure if this would be worth the stretch, but it's one of their better regarded beers (which is saying something) and it's not like I haven't had some great beers from them, so I rolled the dice and I'm glad I did.

So what makes this one so special? Well, it's a blend of red ales that have been aged in wine (depending on where you look, these are Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon barrels) and Port barrels for up to 20 months on Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. It clocks in at a rather hefty 10.12% ABV, which I usually view as a little too high for a sour. Something about high alcohol and high acidity is hard to get right, but I'll be damned if Cascade didn't figure it out. This ain't a gulper, to be sure, but it's phenomenal:

Cascade Sang Royal

Cascade Sang Royal - Pours a dark ruby red color, almost brown, with half a finger of off white head that quickly resolves into a ring around the edge of the glass. Smells fantastic, vinous fruit, sour cherries, vinegar, a little oak and vanilla. Taste is very sweet, lots of dark vinous fruit, sour cherries, tannins, plenty of oak and vanilla and a pretty bracing sourness throughout, but especially in the finish. As it warms, more funky, earthy notes emerge, tobacco and leather come out and mesh well with the sour fruit. Mouthfeel is rich and full bodied, that oak really contributes here, moreso than most 10+% ABV sours, a pleasant vinegar acidity too. Overall, yep, pretty fantastic here. A

Beer Nerd Details: 10.12% ABV bottled (750 ml caged and corked). Drank out of a flute glass on 12/19/14. Vintage: 2012 Project.

So Cascade certainly came through on this one. I'm sure opinions vary on the $25+ price tag, but it is phenomenal beer. A few more Cascades in the Kaedrin pipeline, including Bourbonic Plague and Figaro, coming early next year.

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

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