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Philly Beer Week Recap

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As per usual, I did not have my act together for this year's Philly Beer Week, and thus only went to a few events. For whatever reason, this week always seems to sneak up on me and I'm always caught unprepared. I'm the worst. That being said, I did manage to snag a few pretty interesting beers, so here's a quick recap. First stop was the venerable Philly institution Monk's Cafe:

Monks Cafe

The event was all about collaborations, most of which involved Monk's very own Tom Peters... First up was the next entry in the whole PNC collaboration series (last year's collaboration yielded Firestone Walker PNC, a most spectacular beer). This release comes to us from Maine's Allagash brewing, and this beer actually began its journey over four years ago ("Brewed in April 2010 & racked into oak barrels on May 25, 2010"). In a nice touch, the little beer menu actually included details of each barrel (including a couple that were marked as "DO NOT USE", heh). Click for a larger version:

Allagash PNC Broken Elevator Barrel Details

Allagash PNC Broken Elevator

Allagash PNC Broken Elevator - Dark pour, fluffy tan head... darker than I was expecting, but when you look at the barrel details, that makes sense. Smells oaky, almost chocolaty and very sour, I can almost feel the sourness in my jaw (and I haven't even tasted it yet). Taste is bracingly sour, tart puckering fruit with some dark, chocolaty notes, almost a chocolate covered cherry feel. Mouthfeel is surprisingly full, not like a chewy stout but very big for a sour, which is an interesting feel. Extremely acidic, biting, but still nice... Overall, this is a really interesting, complex, unique, and very sour beer. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 8.1% ABV on tap. Drank out of a wine glass on 6/7/14.

So after that, I sampled a few other brews, including another small glass of Firestone's PNC stout (still exceptional, no change from my initial review):

Dock Street Trappiste Style Pale Ale - Inspired by Orval, this is obviously not a clone or anything, but it's nice. It's got a very dry feel, lots of peppery yeast notes, and some earthy funk in the finish. It's a fine beer, but not quite lighting the world on fire. I heard that this beer was actually made for last year's PBW, so perhaps it was better fresh? Not that it's terrible now or anything... B

Beer Nerd Details: 8% ABV on tap. Drank out of a wine glass on 6/7/14.

Dilewyns Philly Tripel - This is the official Philly Beer Week Collaboration orchestrated by Tom Peters, where one local brewer travels to Belgium to collaborate with a brewery there. This year it was Justin Low from Dock Street who went and collaborated with Anne Catherine Dilewyns from the relatively young Dilewyns brewery (they make Vicaris labeled beers) in Belgium. The result is a relatively straightforward tripel, with some small twists. Pale colored, sticky sweet, lots of honey flavor and fruity esters, less in the way of Belgian yeast spice. This is perhaps not my preferred take on the style, but it's nice. B

Beer Nerd Details: 8.5% ABV on tap. Drank out of a wine glass on 6/7/14.

De Molen Rook and Leer

De Molen Rook & Leer - The weirdest, most unique beer of the night, I've never had anything like this before. So get this, we've got an Imperial Smoked Porter base that was aged in whiskey barrels with brettanomyces and Rodenbach yeast. Oh, and it clocks in at 11.5% ABV. Um, yeah, ok. The more amazing thing: It actually works. Neither the smoke nor the sourness dominates, leading to an extremely complex beer. Usually high ABV sours don't work so well for me, but this one is just very well balanced. It's certainly odd, and I think the fact that this was originally brewed in 2011 has helped the flavors mesh together (and perhaps even mellow out some). It's a weird beer to rate, but I'll give it a A-, but maybe I was a bit far gone at this point.

Beer Nerd Details: 11.5% ABV on tap. Drank out of a wine glass on 6/7/14.

By this time, I was doing pretty well, so I slowed down a bit, got a table with some friends and ate some dinner. I did have a glass of Pliny the Elder, which was great as always, though I'm starting to see where the contrarians are coming. Naturally, I had some mussels, and as usual, they were fantastic. We also got a plate of Frog's Legs, which were basically a lot like chicken wings (I've had Frog's Legs before, but never like this).

At this point, we took our leave of Monk's and headed over to the Good Dog Bar & Restaurant, which is a great little place about a block over from Monk's. Well worth a visit if you're ever in Philly, and they also have great food (I'm pretty sure they've been featured on one of them Food Network shows at some point). They were having a Firestone Walker event and included this rarity, which I assumed would never make its way out East:

Firestone Walker Helldorado

Firestone Walker Helldorado - So you know how Firestone does that Anniversary blend where they invite a bunch of local winemakers to their brewery and set them loose on a bunch of barrel aged beers? Many of the component brews are available in bottled form, but most seem to be relative rarities, and Helldorado is one of those. I was shocked to see it at this event and immediately got myself a glass of the stuff. Alas, this is perhaps not my favorite style. It's described as Blonde Barleywine brewed with Honey, and boy can you really tell. It's extremely sticky sweet, with that honey coming through strong. It's supposed to be brewed with El Dorado hops, but I get almost no hop character out of this, so I'm guessing it was a light touch (or just used to balance out that intense sweetness). It's definitely a big, boozy bomb of a beer, and it's got a full body. However, something about the way light colored beers react in bourbon barrels is just not as exciting to me as when you get a darker base beer (the picture above makes Helldorado look darker than it was, though it wasn't super pale either). I mean, it's good, I'm really happy I got to try it, and everyone else who had it seemed to love it, so maybe this is just me, but I'll leave it at a B+ and go from there.

Beer Nerd Details: 12% ABV on tap. Drank out of a wine glass on 6/7/14.

Firestone Walker Lil' Opal - Now this, on the other hand, was way better than I was expecting. It's a toned down ("lil'") saison that's been aged in barrels with Brett and blended with various vintages, and it's fantastic. Granted, this is right up my alley, but I really loved this beer, a great funky saison, fruity, earthy, spicy, almost quaffable (even at this point in the night). It was a refreshing beer to have right after Helldorado, and it totally stood up to those intense flavors as well. Obviously, I was a little far gone at this point, so I'll conservatively rate it an A-, but I need to find me some more of this someday.

Beer Nerd Details: 5.9% ABV on tap. Drank out of a wine glass on 6/7/14.

Firestone Walker Agrestic Ale - Firestone has always been known for barrel fermenting and barrel aging, but they always stuck to non-wild styles, and they apparently greatly feared infections and the like. But when they opened up a completely separate facility, that allowed them to play with all sorts of sour bugs, and we're starting to get the fruits of that labor now (Lil' Opal also came out of that program). This was a really nice, light bodied sour, it reminded me a little of brighter Crooked Stave Origins. Again, I was a little far gone at this point in the night, but I really enjoyed this. I'll give it a B+, but I'd really like to try it again sometime.

Beer Nerd Details: 7% ABV on tap. Drank out of a wine glass on 6/7/14.

Phew, it's a very good thing I was taking the train home, and while the above does seem like a lot of beer, it was spread out over quite a long time. Again, I need to better prepare for Philly Beer Week next year, so we'll see what happens. That's all for now. Stay tuned for Beer Club tomorrow! (No post on Thursday though, as I didn't really drink much else this past weekend, for obvious reasons!)

Jack's Abby Smoke & Dagger

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So what I want to know is: who is Jack and why doesn't he know how to spell "Abbey"? Dear reader, I'm so sorry I haven't tackled this conundrum yet. It turns out that Jack is one of the three brothers who founded the brewery. He must be the oldest one, since he clearly got to name the brewery. So far, so normal, but then why the blatant disregard for spelling? Is Abby some sort of Ye Olde European spelling? Nope! Abby is actually Jack's wife, and he named the brewery in honor of her, presumably scoring major brownie points. Well played, Jack.

This particular offering is another smoked beer, but like yesterday's beer, I'm not getting much of that fabled meatiness out of the smoke, just plain campfire... which has its charms anyway, but still. I like bacon, is what I'm trying to say, and if there was a non-disgusting way to impart such flavors in beer, that would be nice. But I digress, let's brandish our cloak and dagger and fight dishonorably, like a spy:

Jack's Abby Smoke and Dagger

Jack's Abby Smoke & Dagger - Pours a dark brown color with a finger of bubbly tan head. Smells lightly of toast and maybe a bit of smoke. Taste is surprisingly tame, with some roast and that smoke playing around the edges. It's not a powerful smoke character, it's actually integrated rather well with the rest of the beer. Mouthfeel is medium bodied and well carbonated. Overall, it's a solid beer. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 5.8% ABV (500 ml). Drank out of a tulip glass on 8/3/13. Bottled 5.17.2013.

This exhausts my current supply of Jack's Abby. While none really made me fall down and see God, they were all pretty respectable in their own right, and represent a nice change of pace from the onslaught of saisons, stouts, and IPAs I seem to always fall back on. I'll certainly be keeping my eyes open for more of their stuff in my travels.

Jack's Abby Smoked Maple Lager

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Not content with serving the underappreciated market for lagers, Jack's Abby also apparently likes them some smoked beers... another underappreciated style. This time they teamed up with the almost homebrew-sized Vermont operation Lawson's Finest Liquids, who are also fans of smoked malt. I've heard great things about Lawson's, and one of these days I'll plan out a trek to Vermont to hit them up, along with the other usual suspects (Hill Farmstead, Alchemist).

I'm not a huge lager person, and while I can appreciate a nice smoked beer from time to time, I do sometimes find myself wondering who put their cigar out in my beer... That being said, this sucker also has a helping of maple syrup, which I am quite a big fan of, so let's see how this one works:

Jacks Abby Smoked Maple Lager

Jack's Abby & Lawson's Finest Liquids Smoked Maple Lager - Pours a deep, dark chestnut color with a couple fingers of bubbly white head. Smells lightly of campfire, definite smoked malts here but not overpowering, and a sweetness in the nose as well. Taste is very sweet, creamy malt character, with that smoked malt playing nicely with the rest of the flavors, none of which is particularly pronounced. Mouthfeel is velvety smooth, creamy, almost like a milk stout (sans roasted malt), medium bodied and very easy going (update: apparently this was made with lactose, which explains that character). Overall, a solid smoked beer. It doesn't have that "Who put their cigar out in my beer" character, and it is complex and balanced. B+

Beer Nerd Details: 6% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a mug on 6/28/13. Bottled 05/13/2013.

Another solid brew from Jack's Abby. Nothing that's blown me away, but really good stuff. I got a couple others to get through, and will certainly keep an eye out for more of their stuff if I ever find myself up that way...

Yeastie Boys Rex Attitude

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In the rough and tumble world of beer blogging, it's easy to become jaded. That's why it's sometimes good to throw caution to the wind and take a flier on something obscure, like this fanciful New Zealand brewing duo who have a punnily named brewery and take some ridiculous chances with their beer. Case in point: Rex Attitude, a beer with an absurdly simple recipe. No fancy specialty grains here, just a single golden malt (ok, I'm being a bit facetious here, but we'll get to that in a moment). No trendy hop blends, just 31 IBUs driven by the mild character of Willamette hops. No estery, phenol driven Belgian yeast monsters, just a clean fermenting US yeast.

The thing that makes this beer so interesting is that that single golden malt also happens to be smoked. And not just any smoke: peat smoke. Scotch fans just raised an eyebrow. Most smoked beers burn traditional wood to get that smokey flavor - stuff like beechwood, hickory, ash, maple, and, uh, vampire stakes. But historically, you used what you had, and Scottish folks had lots of peat moss. So that's what they use to smoke their malt. These days, that malt is mostly used in service of Scotch Whisky (I'm unclear as to whether or not Scottish breweries used to use peat moss to dry their malt back in the day, but Scotch ales don't usually feature peat smoked malt).

So these wacky Kiwis took that heavily-peated Scottish distillers malt and made their beer with it. And thanks to the simplicity of the rest of the recipe (mild hops, clean yeast), that peat smoked malt is the true star here. This is an absolutely ludicrous idea and I expected disastrous results. But that's just this jaded blogger being a goober, because this thing is a real eye opener. I cannot believe they got this to work as well as it does, and it's nice to know that after years of obsessing about beer, I can still be blind-sided by something this surprising:

Yeastie Boys Rex Attitude

Yeastie Boys Rex Attitude - Pours a cloudy golden color with a couple fingers of billowy, fluffy head and tons of lacing. Smells of smokey, peated malts and not much else... but it works shockingly well. I could sniff this all night. It's like the nose from peated Scotch (think Islay), but it won't singe your nose hairs. The taste has a nice sweetness to it, well balanced against the smoke, which is ever-present, but not at all overbearing. Indeed, it's extremely well balanced and quite tasty. And we haven't even gotten to the best part, which is the mouthfeel. Highly carbonated and relatively dry, reminiscent of the feel you get from a well attenuated Belgian yeast, but without the fruity or spicy notes. Medium bodied, but this thing drinks like a champ. It's like drinking an Islay Scotch, but without any of that burning booze. Probably not for anyone, but I'm a bit of a peat freak, so this beer pushed the right buttons for me. Overall, this beer has no business drinking this well, one of the most unique and interesting experiments I've had in a while. A-

Beer Nerd Details: 7% ABV bottled (11.2 oz). Drank out of a tulip glass on 1/19/13.

There's a doubled up version of this very beer called XeRRex that is supposedly just as audacious and successful, despite being a 10% monster. I must find that beer. In the meantime, I'll have to hit up my local bottle shop for their Pot Kettle Black (which they call a hoppy porter, otherwise known as Black IPA). Yeastie Boys came to my attention by way of Stephen Beaumont, and I'm glad I caught that post. Yeasty Boys is a contract brewing operation, but Stephen notes: "in New Zealand, where a small population base is stretched across a long and isolated land mass, or rather, masses, that is a status without the perception issues that tend to dog it still in North America and parts of Europe. Indeed, contract craft brewing seems at times almost the Kiwi norm rather than the exception." So this is the only one of their beers I've had, but if it's any indication, these guys are worth seeking out. And thus ends Smoked Beer week. I hope you had fun, I know I did. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a fresh box of West Coast beer to scarf down this weekend. Stay tuned.

Once upon a time, smoked beers were common. This was more a result of technology than anything else. You can dry malt just by spreading it out on the floor and letting it dry naturally, but if you're a commercial brewery trying to make a consistent product economically, you need to find a way to dry malt consistently, quickly, and in bulk. The process of kilning malt also imparts additional flavors, which is an added bonus. Initial kilns were direct fired, so the combustion gasses and smoke passed right through the malt, imparting that smoky character. However, once maltsters figured out a way to dry their product using indirect heat (looking at early 18th century here), smoke quickly disappeared from most beer. Some regional breweries have kept the process alive, notably in what was northern Bavaria (in particular, Bamburg), so we end up with things like Rauchbiers and Smoked Beers. I'm a little unclear on why these are distinct styles, but Rauchbiers seem to have a more narrow definition, basically using German lager recipes like Märzens, but with smoked malt, whereas the more general Smoked Beer can be just about anything with smoked malt.

Smoked flavors in beer can be a bit intimidating, but I find that after the initial shock of smoke (who put their lit cigar in my beer!?), my palate adjusts to the point where it can become enjoyable. Some smoked beers can certainly be overpowering and I don't think I've ever gotten to the point where I can taste the meaty, bacon-like flavor everyone talks about with smoked beers, but I can find an appreciation for a well crafted version or one that incorporates just a touch of smoke. As it turns out, I inadvertently went on a smoked beer kick recently, so this week, I'm going to review four beers that use smoked malt in one way or another.

We begin with the most obvious smoked beer of the lot, a tribute to a time when Norwegian farmers were required to brew their own ale (they don't say why, but I guess the lack of potable water made such practices common back then). Not being professional brewers, they generally just kilned the malt over an open fire, thus imparting that smoky character. In an added twist, those wacky Norwegians spiced their smoked beer with juniper twigs and berries. HaandBryggeriet enjoys a pretty healthy reputation here at Kaedrin HQ, and they seem to get a kick out of smoked beers, so we thought this one would be worth checking out:

HaandBryggeriet Norwegian Wood

HaandBryggeriet Norwegian Wood - Pours a deep, dark amber color with a finger of white head. Smells really interesting, but I'm having trouble articulating it. The most prominent feature is obviously a light smokiness, but there's a lot of other stuff going on too. Perhaps a rich malt aroma is also there, but there's something bright about the finish of the aroma too. Taste starts off sweet, some nice crystal malt character along with a very, very slight roast flavor that leads into the smokiness, followed by that brightness from the nose, maybe a kinda fruit flavor (I'm guessing this is the fault of the juniper berries). Mouthfeel, medium bodied and well carbonated, very well balanced, goes down easy. Overall, this is a very well balanced, complex beer. The smoke is extremely well integrated; it's the star of the beer and most prominent aroma/flavor, but it doesn't dominate the beer either. It's just that it's so well integrated into the rest of the beer. As smoked beers go, this may be the best straight version I've ever had. B+ (borderline A-)

Beer Nerd Details: 6.5% ABV bottled (500 ml). Drank out of a on 1/11/13. Label sez: Batch 358. Total bottles 1500.

So a pretty powerful start to smoked beer week. Next up, I strap on my Clown Shoes and Slay some Vampires. Stay tuned.

Victory Otto In Oak

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Let's see here: Take a Belgian style Dubbel, add smoked malt (inspired by German Rauchbiers), and then age it in American Oak formerly used to age Bourbon. Also, and this is key, don't tell anyone that you're doing it. Seriously, if it weren't for the eternal vigilance of my local beermongers, I probably wouldn't have known this even existed (heck, even they had it tucked away in the back, rather than out on display).

To be sure, I've had the regular Otto before, and I have to admit that I found it underwhelming. Belgian style Dubbels are one of my favorite styles, but the smoked malt in Otto overwhelmed any of that great Belgian character, making it a sorta-one-dimensional smokey affair. Of course, that tasting was at a beer club, so conditions weren't entirely ideal, but my opinion doesn't seem to be all that unusual. Even the guy at Pinocchio's agreed with me on that count. I did buy a bottle of the stuff to lay down in my cellar for a while, hoping for the smoked flavors to mellow a bit and maybe harmonize with the Belgian characteristics.

Well, I've still got that bottle in my cellar, but when I found out that Otto in Oak existed, I knew I had to get my hands on some of the stuff. It's not exactly a secret that I love me some barrel aged beers, and I think this treatment could give Otto some much needed balance (not something normally associated with bourbon barrel aging, but still):

Victory Otto in Oak

Victory Otto In Oak - Pours a very dark chestnut brown color with beautiful amber highlights, clear when held up to light, with just a bit of light tan colored head. Lots of bourbon in the nose, but also a bit of smoke and maybe even a hint of that musty, spicy Belgian yeast. The rich malt backbone and bourbon hit first in the taste, followed by a light, mellow smokiness, then some of that Belgian dubbel character as the bourbon reasserts itself in the finish. I really like how the bourbon has mellowed out the smokiness here. Indeed, I can even pick out the dubbel-like flavors, something I had trouble with in the regular Otto. As it warms, the flavors evolve and coalesce even more, and some additional flavors come out to play. There's an almost nuttiness (definitely the wrong word for it, but along those lines) that I was getting towards the end of the bottle. Mouthfeel is well carbonated with a rich, full body. It's a much better balanced beer than the regular Otto, though it is quite an odd combination. Overall, a complex, unique beer with a mountain of flavor. A-

Beer Nerd Details: No ABV listed, but original Otto is 8.1% ABV, so I'm guessing this is a little higher than that. 750 ml caged and corked bottle. Drank out of a goblet on 5/19/12. Bottled on April 26, 2012. Batch #1.

From the release dates of Otto (October 15, 2011) and the bottling date on the Otto in Oak, I gather that this has been basking in the glow of Bourbon barrels for around 6 months. I don't know that it's quite as successful as Victory's Dark Intrigue (Bourbon barrel aged Storm King stout), but I do find that I really enjoyed this beer, and I'm really glad I thought to buy an extra one to keep around... And I'm actually heading over to the brewery tomorrow night to meet some friends, so maybe they'll have some of this stuff sitting around.

Victory Smokin' Oats

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I know, it's unfair. This beer is only available at the Victory brewpub (and maybe a few local beer bars). I promise, tomorrow I'll review a beer that's more widely available*. Anyways, Victory seems to like smoked beer. They've got their roots in German brewing, so perhaps that's not a surprise, but they do a lot of smoked beers at their brewpub (though mostly not for wide release - one exception to this is Otto, a smoked Belgian Dubbel). But if they wanted to, I think this smoked porter (presumably brewed with oats) would actually work pretty well:

Victory Smokin Oats

Victory Smokin' Oats - Pours a very dark brown color with amber highlights and finger of tan head. Smell is smoky with a solid amount of roasted malt character. Those roasted malts take on more prominence in the taste, along with some coffee flavors and a rather well matched smokiness. Mouthfeel is medium bodied with solid carbonation and a nice crisp finish. It actually went really well with the brisket taco things I was eating at the time. A very good beer! B+

Beer Nerd Details: 5.8% ABV on tap. Drank out of a 0.3L glass on 1/7/11.

* Technically, the next beer on my list is Trappist Westvleteren 8, which is one of the least accessible beers in existence, but I'll skip it for a day or two, I think.

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

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