Best of 2015 – The beers

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I am pretty sure I will never have another beer year like 2015. Looking back at my Untappd feed for the past year I find that I was able to imbibe multiple world-class beers. It is really quite staggering how many epic libations ended up gracing my palate.

This is list going to be ridiculously challenging to narrow down. In fact, to do my 2015 justice I’ve decided to do two lists. The first list is my top 12 (because beer drinkers love 12 packs) of the best of the best of the best that I tried for the first time this past year. The second list is the “honorable mention” list. The beers that made the honorable mention list could just as easily have made my top 12 list any other year.

As I said, 2015 was epic.

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Beer Chronicles – Pliny the Elder

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In one of my previous beer reviews on this page I lamented the status that so-called “whale beers” have in craft beer culture and how maybe we would all be better off if we just focused on what was available locally.

Apparently I am a poor example of taking one’s own advice. In April, I found out that a pastor friend was traveling in the San Diego area and so I immediately contacted him to see if he might be able to locate a California whale beer par excellenceRussian River Brewing’s Pliny the Elder. Through his diligent efforts he was able to track down a bottle of the rare libation, which he promptly shipped to me upon his returning home to Florida. Caveat Emptor!

Pliny the Elder is not for the fiscally fainthearted. A single one pint bottle will set you back around twelve smackers, which is the average on sale price of a 12 pack of Corona. So if you want to play the Pliny game, you have to be prepared to pay the piper. Caveat Emptor!

Can any one 1.25 fl oz bottle of beer be worth $12? In a word, absolutely. If you have a chance to try a bottle of Pliny the Elder, by all means do so. This is one of a small handful of beers that defines the “west coast IPA” style. In fact, some might consider Pliny the Elder to be the quintessential west coast IPA.

It is probably the best smelling IPA that I have come across. The aroma is all about citrus but also a pine aroma. Many IPAs have been rumored to have a pine aroma but my nose is still unskilled enough that I can never pick up on it. Not so with Pliny the Elder. I got the pine aroma right away.

As for the taste, it is west coast IPA perfection. I am no fan at all of mega-hopped beers that seem exist only as liquid sandpaper for one’s taste buds (yes, I’m looking at you Green Flash Palate Wrecker). When I imbibe an imperial IPA, I want to taste a delicate balance being struck between hop forwardness and a malty backbone. This beer has balance for days. It’s a gloriously great citrus hop bomb flavor married with just the right amount of malt that gives body and and balance to the hops. The aftertaste on the beer is also the driest I’ve ever had on any beer. It’s almost reminds me of a white wine.

I thought I had found perfection in Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA. I was wrong. My new standard of hop/malt perfection is Pliny the Elder. This beer is my new standard for an imperial IPA perfection. Will I try another imperial IPA later on that will take the place of Pliny? Probably. But for now, this is the one.

Beer prayer: Gracious God, we thank you for the hoppy excellence of Russian River’s Pliny the Elder. Thank you also for the life of this beer’s namesake, that we have received so much valuable history of antiquity from his pen. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen!

My Untappd rating for Russian River’s Pliny the Elder: 7/5

Beer Chronicles – Bell’s Hopslam Ale

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The craft beer scene is subject to as much faddish thinking as anything else. Although the latest beer crazes tend toward session IPAsbarrel aging and sour beers, running right along side of those trends is what I call the “imperialzation” beers. That is to say, “This beer is great. How about we ramp up the recipe and call it an “imperial” version of the beer?” India Pale Ales are no strangers to this imperializing trend as double IPAs and even some triple IPAs are popping up. Hopslam Ale by Bell’s is one of the early trailblazers in this imperialized IPA trend.

According to the Bell’s website, Hopslam contains six varietals of hops and a dry hopping addition of Simcoe hops at the end of the brewing process. The beer also contains a sturdy malt backbone and an ABV of 10%. To top things off, Bell’s adds what they call “a solid dollop of honey” to the brewing process, giving Hopslam a unique twist.

Bottles of Hopslam are notorious difficult to obtain. It is much-beloved and much-hyped beer that sells out quickly. I live in Kansas, which in not currently part of the Bell’s distribution network, so getting Hopslam is next to impossible. Impossible unless you have a good friend that lives in the Grand Rapids, Michigan area that is able to hook you up. Pastor Jeff Swanson, thank you so much for assuaging my Hopslam thirst and hooking me up with my own bottle.

So how was the 2015 version of Hopslam?[1] It completely and totally lived up to the hype and proved to be immensely enjoyable. Hopslam is an intensely flavored beer that helped set the standard in double IPA genre. The aroma is all about the citrus and the taste is also quite citrus forward. The 10% ABV is nowhere to be found and this is a very drinkable beer. Surprisingly, the honey flavor doesn’t really come through. In fact, my thought as I continued to sip the beer is that it tasted a bit of hoppy lemonade. I don’t say that to disparage the beer in any way. It was delicious and I would buy a four pack in a heartbeat.

Bell’s already distributes to the Missouri and rumor has it that their beers will be available in Kansas by the end of this year. So let it be written and so let it be done, perhaps just in time for the year-end release of the next round of Hopslam.

Beer prayer: Gracious God, thank you for the surprising deliciousness of Bell’s Hopslam Ale. And thank you for good friends in distant lands who share good beer, good beer, and a common salvation. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen!

My Untappd rating for Bell’s Hopslam Ale: 5/5

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1. My bottle was dated 1/8/15.

Beer Chronicles – Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout (2015)

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I have a love/hate relationship with the whole concept of “whale beers.” On the one hand, I have been a musician and music connoisseur for all of my adult life. I have logged a lot of time rummaging through used record stores looking for hard-to-find jazz recordings, classical rarities, and pop/rock imports in order to find inspiration. I get the whole idea of something being rare and therefore desirable and collectible.

At the same time, much of the current renaissance in craft beer springs from a locavore mindset — eat locally and spend most of your eating/drinking budget on restaurants, food trucks, farmers, gastropubs, breweries, owned by local folks. I’m sympathetic to that mindset and have thought to myself sometimes, “Why go to so much trouble to try beers made by breweries located thousands of miles away from me when there are a bunch of great breweries in Kansas? Why not give thanks for that and imbibe locally?” Then a brewery like Founders from Grand Rapids, Michigan comes along every year and releases a beer like Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS) and any thought of “only supporting only the local guy” temporarily goes out the window.

KBS is everything a whale beer should be. It is scarce, it has been around long enough to develop a cult following, and it has a mystique all its own. As of this writing, Founders does not distribute in the state of Kansas. My understanding is that they are working on it and that I should be able to find their amazing beers in my local bottle shop by the end of 2015. For now, in order to get beer brewed by Founders, I have to travel to Kansas City, Missouri where Founders beer is in plentiful supply. In the case of KBS, however, what happens is you call around to every local shop in town and send your brother (who lives in Kansas City) on a wild goose chase hoping that the store doesn’t sell out prior to his arrival.

Did I mention that the demand for KBS if off-the-charts?

But is KBS any good? Is it all hype? Is it worth paying $6 for a 12 ounce bottle (limit one bottle per customer)?[1] In a word: yes!

Upon opening the bottle one immediately smells the bourbon aroma pouring out. The aroma doesn’t even wait for you to get it into the glass. Once in the glass, the oaked bourbon aroma mixes with the smell of coffee, espresso, and dark chocolate.

I have tried Founders famous Breakfast Stout on many occasions and assumed I was prepared for how Kentucky Breakfast Stout would taste. Take Founders Breakfast Stout and age it for a year in bourbon barrels, right? Wrong!

Everything is so much more ramped up and amplified in KBS. Whereas the taste of Breakfast Stout focuses on oatmeal and coffee, the taste of KBS is a full-blooded Russian Imperial Stout that is so much more in your face than regular Breakfast Stout. In fact, the taste of KBS is unlike any beer I have ever had. With all of the forwardness of the bourbon smell you would think this beer would be a booze bomb. It is anything but that. Founders has hidden the alcohol so well behind layer upon layer of dark chocolate, espresso, and maltiness. Only when you feel the burning at the back of your throat and in your chest do you pause and consider, “Ah, yes. There is the bourbon and all of that 11.2% ABV.”

KBS is a massive sipping beer meant to be served at room temperature and enjoyed over the course of an entire evening. It is the complete antithesis of “buzz bomb beers” that are good for nothing more than getting inebriated as quickly as possible.

Beer prayer: Gracious God, how good you are to give us the sensory explosion that is Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout. We are reminded again that you have hidden great treasures in water, malt yeast, and hops and that finding those treasures and tasting them gives us a glimpse of your goodness to us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen!

My Untappd rating for Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout: 10/5

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1. There was a report on the web a few days ago of a bottle shop in New York charging $20 for a single bottle of KBS; $80 for a four pack. In light of that story, I consider my $6 bottle to be a steal.

Beer Chronicles – The skinny on stouts

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I have blogged previously on this site about my great love for Belgian beers. I love everything about dubbels, tripels, quads, and Trappists and am always up from trying just about anything in those styles.

My other great love is stouts, those luscious beers that range anywhere fairly dark brown to a syrupy, end-of-the-world black. Much like beer from Belgium, there isn’t any stout I would’t try at least once (except maybe Rogue’s bizarre “voodoo doughnuts” line of stouts).

There are a lot of myths about dark beers and stouts in particular (three of which are debunked here). The most common hesitancy I hear from some is that dark beers are “too bitter and heavy.” Bitterness in beer comes from most commonly from the addition of hops. In stouts, additional bittering can be added by the way that the malt is introduced into the beer. While it is true that some dark beers are bitter, dark does not always equal bitter. Milk stouts, cream stouts, and oatmeal stouts are not usually as bitter as an imperial stout or a Russian imperial stout.

The magazine Men’s Journal recently published a list of what they consider to be the “20 Best Stouts in the World.” You can click on the link above, read their list, and consider their rationale for each choice. For those in a pinch for time here are the beers on the list

  1. Victory Brewing Donnybrook Stout
  2. Beamish Irish Stout
  3. Deschutes Obsidian Stout
  4. Great Divide Yeti Imperial Stout
  5. Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout
  6. Perennial Artisan Ales Abraxas
  7. AleSmith Speedway Sout
  8. Goose Island Bourbon County Stout
  9. Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout
  10. Firestone Walker Velvet Merkin
  11. Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout
  12. Paper City Riley’s Stout
  13. Guinness Foreign Extra Stout
  14. Young’s Double Chocolate Stout
  15. Left Hand Milk Stout
  16. Lion Stout
  17. Gun Hill Void of Light
  18. Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout
  19. Rogue Shakespeare Oatmeal Stout
  20. Surly Brewing Darkness

For the record, I have tried nine of the 20 beers on this list. Of that nine stouts on their list, I would argue that five of them belong on the list with zero quarrels (Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, Great Divide Yeti, Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, Left Hand Milk Stout, Sam Smith’s Oatmeal). The other four I have tried (Deschutes, Beamish, Lion, Rogue) are, for one reason or another, not among my favorites for their styles.

Personally, I’m having trouble taking seriously a list that purports to be “the best stouts” that dares to leave off Oskar Blues Ten Fidy and especially North Coast’s Old Rasputin. The former is the best “stout in a can” on the market and the latter is a world-class Russian imperialthat can be had regularly for under $3.00. Seriously! God bless ‘Merica.

I have to quibble a bit with putting “whale beers” like Goose Island Bourbon County Stout and Founders KBS on the list. That is not to take anything away from either beer. I’m sure they are both transcendent brews. However, due to a highly limited release schedule and ridiculously high demand, one can be a seriously devoted craft beer fan and never even lay eyes on a bottle of either beer. The beer newbie would be better served by a list that includes mostly beer with a wider distribution. Old Rasputin and Ten Fidy could easily replace the Goose Island and Founders. Schlafly’s Oatmeal Stout or the Breckenridge 72 Imperial Chocolate Cream Stout would also be good choices.

The Rogue Shakespeare was great when it came out in the late 80s/early 90s. It was a good one to get in the late 90s when the choice of quality oatmeal stouts on the market was pretty much nil. I think time has passed it by now. It could easily be replaced by beers such as Tallgrass Buffalo Sweat Oatmeal Cream Stout or Anderson Valley Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout.

Those quibbles aside, if you are holding back on getting into stout style beers because you think you can’t handle how “heavy” or “bitter” they might be, never fear. Go to your local bottle shop, start with something like Left Hand’s Milk Stout Nitro or Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout and you will be on your way.

Beer Chronicles – Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout

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One of the best things about going to a new town (at least for me) is finding a few beer stores that offer a radically different selection from stores in my hometown. It’s fun to see the local breweries getting shelf space love as well as beers from out of the area that are otherwise impossible to get in Kansas.

Therefore, my craft beer bliss was high last week when my wife and I traveled to Chicago for church-related business. With the church business out of the way, our tourist agenda kicked in and featured (among other things) shopping at a jazz record/CD store and visiting a couple of beer stores. My beer shopping were quite profitable as I returned home with a four pack of Clown Shoes Chocolate Sombrero, a bomber of Lost Abbey Inferno Ale (which promptly went into the cellar), two bottles of Engelszell’s Gregorius, and a four pack beer pictured above — Brooklyn Brewery’s Dark Chocolate Stout.

I’ve wanted to try this beer for a couple of years but, alas, the closest Brooklyn distribution to Kansas is either Illinois or Texas. Ouch! A quick online search of the inventory at the Binny’s Beverage Depot near my Chicago hotel said that they had the beer but, upon arrival, the gentleman behind the counter informed me that they had pulled the Dark Chocolate Stout off of the shelf over the weekend because it was a seasonal and they were gradually phasing out the winter beers to make room for the next season. However, the gentleman also knew where it was located in the stockroom and, after a few minutes wait, returned with a four pack of the Precious.

According to the company’s web site, Black Chocolate Stout is brewed by combining six different malts followed by months of aging. Brooklyn also promises that a properly cellared bottle of this beer will keep for many years. I set one back into my cellar at home, so I’m looking forward to that.

So about the beer. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely! As you can see above, I poured a fairly aggressive pour into a nonic pint glass and was somewhat surprised at how little head the beer produced. The aroma was classic heavy stout — chocolate, coffee, and little bit of cherries. The taste was heavenly and grew even more deliciously complex as the beer warmed in my glass. As with so many good craft beers, it pays to take your time and sip rather than chug and be done.

Brooklyn’s website suggests enjoying this beer alongside “chocolate desserts, cheesecake, ice cream, fine cheeses and roaring fireplaces.” I have nothing to add to their suggestion except a hale and hearty “amen!”

Beer prayer: Gracious God, thank you for the luscious taste of Brooklyn’s Black Chocolate Stout. The combination of chocolate and beer never ceases to amaze and delight. May the tribe of world-class chocolate stouts ever increase. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen!

My Untappd rating for Brooklyn Brewing Black Chocolate Stout: 5/5

Beer Chronicles – Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA

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I am by no means a “hop head.” That is to say, I am not usually a fan of beers that contain massive amounts of hops. In fact, I rather dislike India Pale Ales (IPAs) and beers that are overly hopped. I’m usually turned off when a brewery chooses on purpose to use hops as a battering ram and not as one element among many in their brews. There are several brewing companies that seem to take pride in doing this. Yes, I’m talking about you Stone and Rogue.

Therefore, it was with great trepidation that I had my brother-in-law and sister-in-law seek out for me a four pack of Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA while on a recent trip to San Diego. Upon retrieving the beer, I invited over two of my trusted beer-savvy brethren, cooked up 1/2 pound burgers on the grill, and passed out bottles of Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA to enjoy with the burgers. We opened the bottles together, poured together, and tasted at the same time. The result? I can only speak for myself but, doggone it, what an amazing beer. If all IPAs tasted like this, I would be purchasing quite a few more beers in this style?

What did I notice in 90 Minute IPA that I hadn’t noticed in other beers of the same style? Simply this. The 90 Minute IPA was bitter but not in an unpleasing way at all. Even though the beer checks in with a hefty 90 IBU, it sure doesn’t taste like it. The hops (which is the source of most of the bitterness in beer) are more than offset by Dogfish Head’s massive infusion of malt. On company’s web site, they admit that the beer has “…a great malt backbone that stands up to the extreme hopping rate.” This seems exactly right to me. Too often breweries seems to add ever-more hops to cover the taste of a beer the way the Big Beer guys add massive amounts of sugar and corn to mask the real taste of their beers.

The beer’s aroma is huge going into a snifter (the only way to properly enjoy this florid of a beer) and the taste in definitely floral and citrus-flavored with tons of malt. In addition, this beer has one of the best aftertastes of any beer I have ever tried. Also, the beer had one of the most pleasing colors I have ever seen in a craft beer (the above picture doesn’t nearly do it justice). I cannot believe I just wrote all of that about an IPA.

Regardless of where you land in the ongoing “hoppy beers wars,” Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA is a must try. It easily belongs in the craft beer hall of fame and is (so far) my favorite IPA.

Beer prayer: Gracious God, thank you for the surprising deliciousness of Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA. We give you thanks that two things as different as malt and hops can combine with barley and water to create something as intensely flavorful as this beer. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen!

My Untappd rating for Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA: 4.5/5