30 March 2008

Trappistes Rochefort 8 (BEL)

I have to admit my heathenish inclinations force me to roll my eyes a bit at monastic orders. Is there really something noble about a life of prayer and penance? How about prayer, penance and beer? A little better, at least. This Wikipedia page says "the Trappists received greater attention in recent years on account of the life and writings of Thomas Merton and, more recently, because of the popularity of Trappist ales such as Chimay." I'd guess the type of attention from these two sources differs.

My bottle is stamped "L050912," which I understand means it was bottled September 2007 to drink by September 2012. Uncapping releases an audible "pop" and a whiff of fruity ale. It turns out to have a good deal of soft carbonation. One consequence of this is a head that lasts forever. Another is that it slows me down (even so, my last sip was still foamy). It's hard to guzzle through the carbonation, but the rich taste and alcohol content wouldn't make we want to do so anyway. It's malty with dark fruit, slight spices, and some of the 9.2% alcohol coming through. It's not harsh or peppery, but I can feel the booze in my rib cage. The finish lasts forever.

There probably isn't much to say about this that hasn't been said already. Instead, I'll ask: is it possible not like this, or just not "appreciate" it (i.e., not like it yet)? I'm sure some beer geeks are less than enthused by Rochefort 8, but that's not the same as rejecting it outright. What do Bud-Miller-Coors drinkers would make of Trappist ales? Would they be better of starting with, say, Ommegang, and working their way up? Given the price, I haven't risked wasting the likes of Rochefort 8 on those who aren't predisposed. Still, I'd be curious as to whether others have any experience with this.

27 March 2008

Mac Queen's Nessie (AUT)

This isn't really Scottish; it's from Schloss Eggenburg brewery in Austria (best known for Samichlaus). It isn't even red, despite it's claim to be an "original red ale." Gebraut Aus Whiskymalz: brewed from whiskey malts. Beer Advocate categorizes it as a scotch ale/wee heavy, while ratebeer calls it a smoked beer, which is way off (it's only faintly smoky). Reviews aren't great at either site, with lots of category grumbling and claims that it tastes more like a lager. A bock, maybe.

It's golden rather than red with a quick-dying head. In the glass, it looks a bit like syrup slowly coming to a simmer, with just a few bubbles ascending. I like low carbonation, so I think the fairly hefty body and restrained fizz is just right. It's big malt, for sure. Rich, sweet-tasting, slightly of honey, it has very faint whiskey smokiness as well. Hops are present, but not enough to change the general tone of it. The 7.3% alcohol is noticeable.

Overall, like a lot more than others seem to, although I can't defend it's price (more than a penny a milliliter). I think it helps if you keep an open mind about the style.

25 March 2008

Drinking Ages Up and Down

From a few days ago in the USA Today, there's a surprising movement to decrease the drinking age in several states. The impulse seems to be the War (if you're old enough to fight...). In fact, Kentucky, Wisconsin and South Carolina are considering lowering the age for service personnel only. But this won't succeed anywhere.

In Scotland, some want to go in the other direction. In the US, pro/con arguments about this issue center on little other than military service and drunk driving, which says a lot about the size of our military and the quality of our public transportation. In Britain, the discussions seem mostly about "anti-social" behavior (in the US, this would mean shyness).

I'd be curious how raising the age in Scotland but not in England would play out. Young Americans have often gone to Canada to drink, although nowadays you need a passport. If this passes in Scotland, I'm opening a pub in Northern England.

24 March 2008

Belfast Bay Lobster Ale (ME)

Name notwithstanding, this beer in fact has no more lobster in it than does Green's Discovery, a brew which brags that it contains no crustacean. I think Belfast Bay makes only this and an oatmeal stout. Apparently, they contract brewing out to Shipyard, although I find no confirmation of this on the label. Ratebeer actually lists this under Shipyard, which suggests the breweries share ownership or something, but the site seems inconsistent in how they do things.

This is a red ale of the warm weather variety, with it's fairly light body and thorough fizz. Taste-wise, sweet malts are countered by faint citrus hops; caramel sweetness converts to dryness. Based on other reviews I've read, they use Ringwood yeast, but I didn't find this to be buttery or diacetyl-laden. Instead, it's noticeably tangy. I don't know if this is character or a flaw. I don't entirely like it, but without it, the beer would lack distinction. Overall, it's not a bad ale, but nothing to jump up and down about.

21 March 2008

St. Peter's Old-Style Porter (ENG)

Suffolk-based St. Peter's has a reputation for brewing traditional ales, but their website now shows they have a gluten free offering. That's pretty low on the list of the ones I want to try. My Old-Style Porter comes in a round, rather than oval, olive green 500 ml bottle. "This beer is a blend of old mature ale and a younger light beer," says the label.

Dark brown/mahogany with a restrained head, the aroma is sweeter than the flavor will prove to be. It's dry, roasted dark chocolate with a charcoal undertone. Not as smoky as Stone's Smoked Porter (thankfully, IMO), but still persistently so. There are some slightly bitter hops at the end, and even a yeasty Belgian aspect to it. However, those are both in the background. The body has pinpoint carbonation but also might be a bit too thin for me. In fairness, this is a porter and not a stout. That's the problem with these pricey imports: "sessionable" just doesn't seem to be enough.

An excellent porter, but maybe not as good as Edmund Fitzgerald, and certainly not as good a value. I'd still love to try the cask version of the St. Peter's.

18 March 2008

Samuel Adams White Ale (MA)

I believe I bought this way back in January. By now, I've pretty much given up waiting for the warm weather to put me in the mood for a spring seasonal. The labels claims it is brewed "especially" for spring, which to me implies it is available year-round, but is best for spring. I really think it should be "specially."

It pours a clear yellow-gold until the sediment is poured in to haze it up. The aroma is pronounced, reminding me of banana bubble gum (though I'm sure any banana bubble gum I've had wasn't natural banana). If it's citrus, it's more orange than lemon.

The brewer claims ten spices: coriander, anise, rose hips, grains of paradise, lemon zest, orange zest, vanilla, hibiscus, tamarind and plum. I'm skeptical enough to question whether anyone would notice if they left out the hibiscus, but I don't doubt that you could find online reviews saying "hints of hibiscus." I do taste the zests, coriander, and possibly vanilla and plum. Also, pepper at the end, which comes across harshly. To me, it's all a bit of a mess. It's fruity/citrusy and spicy, but doesn't all come together. Also, the body is a little too thin, even for a warm-weather beer (but maybe I haven't adjusted yet).

I don't like it much, but if you think most witbiers are too quiet , then maybe this will work for you.

Beer Isn't (Necessarily) Good for Your Brain

Joel: Is there any risk of brain damage?
Howard: Well, technically speaking, the operation is brain damage, but it's on a par with a night of heavy drinking. Nothing you'll miss.

I've noticed a few bloggers have linked to a recent report claiming that beer and spirits aren't as bad for your brain as wine is. I'll note that The Australian titles its article on it Beer better for brain, wine a worry, and another Australian news outlet -- The Courier Mail (I'll admit I don't know these guys) -- claims Beer is good for your Brain.

Ugh. The original journal article compared non-alcoholics to alcoholics, concluding that the hippocampi of the former are larger. Alcoholics were asked their preferred beverage, and those who said wine were worse off than those who said beer. Setting aside all the the caveats (any difference between teetotalers and casual drinkers? are there outside causes? is "preferred" the same as most consumed?), these are pretty awful headlines. The Independent (UK) is closer to the truth with Wine is worse for the brain than beer, research finds, but the Daily Mail goes off on its own with Wine is worse for brain than beer, scientists reveal in blow for women drinkers (women drink more wine than beer; I don't know if the actual research concluded anything about women vs. men).

The story doesn't seem to have been picked up by US news outlets, but I'll be curious how they play it.

15 March 2008

Green's Discovery (BEL)

St. Patrick's Day has me thinking about all things green: Eire, money, envy, ecology. Slate magazine has an interesting piece about the environmental impact of beer cans versus bottles. In summary, aluminum's disadvantages due to bauxite mining appear to be offset by its advantages of higher levels of recycling and lower transportation costs due to its lightness. Refillable (rather than just recyclable) glass bottles would be a big step in the right direction, however.

This leads me to the Green's Discovery, a gluten-free beer made in Belgium by a British brewer and imported by Merchant du Vin. I bought this to review for The Session, but then realized it's all-natural but not organic. The label assures:

Green's Beers DO NOT contain any of the following: Gluten, Barley, Wheat, Crustaceans, Eggs, Fish, Peanuts, Soybeans, Milk, Lactose, Nuts, Celery, Mustard, Sesame seeds, Sulfur dioxide, nor Sulfites.

It's hard to have high hopes for a beer that has to tell you that it doesn't contain crustaceans or mustard. Needless to say, if your friend says he's bringing over Belgian beer and shows up with this, you'd be a bit disappointed.

Actually, more than just a bit. This looks decent -- hazy amber with a very long-lasting, craggy head -- but tastes awful. It has kind of a multi-grain apple cider thing going on. It's acidic to the point where I need an antacid later on. The millet, rice, buckwheat and sorghum of which it is made dominate any hops and leave an off taste. After a while, I can't bear to inhale, let along ingest. Also, the body is way too fizzy.

Most dismaying of all, Green's Discovery runs $5.99 per 500 ml bottle. Worst. Purchase. Ever. I won't presume to tell sufferers of celiac disease what they should drink, but this experience makes me think of vegetarians who eat meat-free variants of "real" food (e.g., tofu hot dogs). There are plenty of great vegetarian dishes out there, and for those intolerant to gluten, there's always bourbon. [Update: as pointed out in comments, Bourbon is not gluten free.]

12 March 2008

Cooperstown Back Yard India Pale Ale (NY)

The most important point that can be made about Back Yard IPA is that it is not a West Coast hop bomb. It's not even an East Coast hop bomb, but instead is something closer to a traditional British IPA (not a surprise from this brewery). This is, presumably, one IPA that won't be affected much by rising hop prices.

According to the brewer:

English pale barley malt is predominant in this beer with just a small amount of crystal malt. It is well bittered with Cluster and Cascade hops and finished with a mix of local hop and larger amounts of Fuggle hop.

The malts probably beat out the hops here, and there's slight Ringwood yeastiness as well. To me, it's grain and grass, with a touch of citrus hops coming through at the end. Overall, it's subtle, or maybe just quiet, and doesn't tip it's hand too far in any one direction. I checked the comments at the big review sites, and unsurprisingly, there's a lot of complaining about the low hop content. Judging it by what it tries to be, I think it comes across better, but still isn't essential drinking.

06 March 2008

Samuel Smith's Organically Produced Ale (ENG)

Beer Activist is hosting The Session in March and chose organic beer as the topic, which is a departure from the usual style-oriented topics. I liked the two organic beers I've reviewed already: Samuel Smith's Organic Lager and Orlio Black Lager. For The Session, I chose the Tadcaster brewery's other organic offering.

This ale pours clear golden with a fluffy white head. It has that Samuel Smith's texture that I love: fairly full, restrained carbonation, creamy. The flavor is on the subtle side, at least compared with American takes on the style. Slightly bitter hops are accompanied by lemon and somewhat acidic notes. The finish is mostly clean. It's a fairly good beer, but in some respects, I was more pleased with their organic lager. I suspect this has to do with my expectations. As an American, I expect pale lagers to be flavorless pale ales to be hop-laden. This isn't really fair to Samuel Smith's, I'll admit.

As far as the politics of organic go, I'm more likely to jump on the "local" side of the local vs. organic debates (of course, SS is organic but not local). Some of this is because I have more confidence that the person at my local farmer's market is really local than I do that the food labeled organic is really organic. When I read that Wal-Mart is trying to make a dent in the organic market, I cynically assume they'll just try to lower the standards for the category. But my foodie leanings trump both local and organic considerations. There's a local natural foods store that is loaded with dreck such as organic canned mac 'n cheese that I wouldn't eat with your tongue. Of course, in many cases, organic, local and tasty coincide.

Will this be the case for organic beer? It's hard to tell. Remember, the brewer may not be trying to appeal to craft beer fans, but to organic shoppers who are merely looking for a more socially-conscious version of Miller Genuine Draft. I guess we'll see. Anyway, check out SS's Organic Ale if you'd like, but I'd rather steer people toward Orlio Black Lager, which is less well-known but a good beer, IMO.

IPA Tournament, Final Four

Following up on the NIPAC IPA Tounament, they're now in the final four, and Ithaca Flower Power is still alive. The others are from Bell's, Green Flash and Cambridge House, none of which I can buy here in western NY. I know Bells' Two Hearted gets rave reviews, but the others seem to be a surprise, particularly Flower Power, which is currently only in ratebeer's 25th percentile by style.

The tournament bracket makes it look like a complete crapshoot, which could mean these tasters don't know their beer, or that blind-tastings expose label snobbery that affects the mob, or perhaps just that there's no accounting for taste.

I'll also note that Flower Power is now available in six-packs rather than just the summer variety pack.

04 March 2008

Sackets Harbor War of 1812 Ale (NY)

Sackets Harbor Brewing's War of 1812 Ale plays up the history of its region (eastern edge of Lake Ontario). I liked their Thousands Island Pale Ale, but War of 1812 turns out to be "safer," which I suppose isn't surprising given that it's their flagship beer.

It pours clear golden, not rich amber, without much of a head. Not a whole lot of aroma either. It has considerably less citrus hoppiness than the pale ale, which isn't unexpected, but unfortunately there isn't enough malt to pick up the slack. Slightly bready/biscuity, and only very faintly of caramel sweetness, War of 1812 really goes down easy -- too easy, I think. The body is nicely crisp, if a tad thin. I wouldn't mind knocking down several of these on a warmer evening, but in a world of interesting craft beer, this one isn't worth seeking. Not disagreeable, but not memorable either.

01 March 2008

Stone Smoked Porter (CA)

The brewer claims this to be only subtly smoky, and most reviews I've seen agree that the smoke is only secondary. Some consider this a defect, but I'm not sure if I'd want more smoke. Maybe it isn't my thing.

It pours nearly black with only a small head. The body is medium with a fairly assertive small-bubble carbonation. I'd rate this on the dry side for a porter, and the typical chocolate and coffee roasted flavors are supplemented by burnt charcoal briquettes. The bottle claims that there are deep layers of "licorice, dark fruit and perhaps even caramel," but to me, there's just enough smoke to cover up these flavors.

I don't want to sound harsh: this is a good beer, and a good value at $3.99 a bomber. But I don't like this as much as most others do, and it's a bit of a disappointment to me coming from Stone.