Thursday, November 27, 2014

Westmalle Tripel


4
   AROMA 8/10   APPEARANCE 5/5   TASTE 8/10   PALATE 4/5   OVERALL 15/20
Chad9976 (1227) - Albany, New York, USA - NOV 27, 2014
The Belgian-style Tripel Ale is one of my favorite beer styles, and believe it or not, I actually have never had Westmalle Tripel before now. It receives rave reviews and many consider it the best of the style. I wouldn’t go that far, though I can definitely see how people would come to that consensus. It’s classic Trappist all the way and definitely epitomizes the style. It is not quite the best-ever example of it, however.

I poured an 11.2oz bottle into a Trappist chalice. It had a best before date of 12/12/15 and cost $6.29 ($0.56 per ounce).

Appearance: Pale orange/golden hue over a hazy body. Spastic carbonation is visible and it never settles down. Pours to a two-finger, white, soapy head which never dissipates and leaves plenty of lacing.

Smell: Potent aroma of white grape, or even white wine per se. Not much in the way of spice or banana, though.

Taste: You know you’re drinking an authentic Trappist brew when the beer lights up your tongue with a spicy sensation immediately. Though it smells of white grape, Westmalle Tripel tastes more of pepper, flaked maize, and a hint of banana (though none of those ingredients are actually in there – it’s all yeast esters). A slight juicy sensation through the middle, followed by candy-like sensation of butterscotch and caramel (and no, it’s not diacetyl). I was hoping for banana and citrus flavors, but they didn’t seem to appear. It’s not so much bitter per se as it is spicy, though it’s a pleasant despite being rather intense. I’d be curious to try a fresher vintage since this style doesn’t usually improve with age. An older bottle, at the very least, is still going to deliver for the style, though.

Drinkability: If you want a beer with a truly intense carbonation mouthfeel, you’ll find it in a Trappist brew. Westmalle Tripel doesn’t have a viscous mouthfeel, though it has enough intense micro carbonation to really give it some presence on the tongue. At 9.5% ABV there’s some mild warming sensation, though it’s easily tolerable. It’s one of the driest beers I can recall, as the peppery character seems to suck all the moisture out of the mouth as it goes down. Some carbonation tends to get caught in the throat, but that’s to be expected. 
Grade: 8/10

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Leinenkugel's Snowdrift Vanilla Porter


3
   AROMA 6/10   APPEARANCE 3/5   TASTE 6/10   PALATE 3/5   OVERALL 12/20
Chad9976 (1226) - Albany, New York, USA - NOV 26, 2014
There are certain brewing techniques I always thought could be used to make any beer taste good (for example: adding a ton of hops, or adding a lot of sweet flavors). Though once in a great while I encounter one that shows that it’s still possible to screw up what should be an idiot-proof recipe. Leinenkugel’s Snowdrift Vanilla Porter is a good example of this. What should be a standard porter with vanilla added, it drinks like an amateurish homebrew. It’s not horrible, but it’s nowhere near as good as it should be.

I poured a 64oz growler into a nonic pint glass. My girlfriend picked this up for $12.99 ($0.20 per ounce).

Appearance: Opaque black hue. Pours to a small, tan, foamy head which dissipates quickly and leaves only a little lacing.

Smell: Quite faint aroma of mineral water and a hint of chocolate.

Taste: There’s a certain quality of faux craft (or “crafty”) beers like Leinenkugel’s that’s noticeable right away. I’m not sure how to describe it other than it’s simply not an authentic taste. Right away, I notice there’s a porter-like composition to this palate, but it’s not as genuine-tasting at it should be. There’s an essence of dark malt, but it’s not especially roasty or toasty. It actually kind of reminds me of a cola gone flat. There’s a consistent sweetness here, but it’s almost as though it’s from aspartame. There is a vanilla taste on the back end, though it’s mild and short-lived. All these complaints aside I have to admit there is nothing particularly off about this brew as far as brewing flaws. There is a noticeable mineral taste, but it’s tolerable.

Drinkability: Leinenkugel’s Snowdrift Vanilla Porter is most definitely not a fizzy yellow beer, yet the mouthfeel feels like that of one, only less carbonated. It’s definitely thin, but not slick; and at least there’s no cloying aftertaste (or any aftertaste for that matter). For a 6% ABV brew, it’s amazing easy to gulp down, but it should have more body and be the kind of beer that’s savored, not chugged. 
Grade: 5/10

Monday, November 24, 2014

My take on beer certifications

Here's my responses to the recent survey of beer writers' opinion on beer certifications:



Do you have a BJCP or Cicerone certification?
If you do, when did you receive it and why did you choose to pursue that certification?

I have the Cicerone Beer Server cert – does that count? I got it mostly as way to test my knowledge, and also out of curiosity. At the time, a lot of my fellow beer bloggers were picking this up so I thought I should too, and it was fairly cheap ($69), so it didn’t seem like too much of a gamble if I didn’t pass the test. I’m happy to say I only missed two or three questions and scored something like 94%. Though there are literally tens of thousands of people* with that particular certification so it definitely seems like less of an accomplishment.
*45,000 according to Cicerone’s Twitter.

If you don't, is there any particular reason why not? How would you respond to someone who asks why they should trust your opinion since you don't have ___ certification?

If that CBS cert doesn’t count, then consider me certless. I am an avid homebrewer and I have judged quite a few homebrew competitions, both BJCP-sanctioned, and non-BJCP sanctioned. I would like to get a BJCP cert for exactly the reasons Craig Gravina stated: to see if I can get it. I suppose it’s the same reason why people enter marathons or mud runs: to prove to themselves that they can do it. I would like to know how much I’ve learned on my own is enough to garner me some professional recognition. And the BJCP test isn’t too expensive, it’s just a major PITA trying to find a seat at a testing site that’s within a reasonable driving distance.

As for the full Cicerone certification, it’s something I would pursue if it were cheaper. It’s a whopping $395 just to take the exam! I do not understand how they justify that high of a pricetag. If I worked in the beer industry for a living and my reputation was hinged on having that title then I could see the benefit, but as a blogger I just don’t see the need. If they lowered the price to something much more reasonable I’d be more inclined to take it.

People have been questioning my reviews since Day 1. And when I first started out, I absolutely was naïve and starry-eyed. I’m not saying I’m an expert now, but I definitely know much more today than I did even a year ago. I’m able to articulate my thoughts and arguments clearly, and I can describe and critique beer using technical/brewing terms in the proper context now. So I notice that first-time visitors to my site as well as regular readers/viewers don’t scoff at my reviews now like they did back in 2008. If someone wants to argue taste, I just roll my eyes because you cannot debate taste as if it were empirical or academic. Though there are still a few psychotic trolls who would never in a million years take me seriously if I had the highest BJCP and Cicerone ranking in the world as well as the blessing of the ghost of Michael Jackson. I know I’m never going to earn their respect or even silence them no matter piece of paper I have, so I’m not going to let it bother me.

Do you think having either of these certifications is necessary in order for a professional [or even an amateur] beer writer/blogger to be taken seriously? 

I don’t think you have to have one of those certifications to be taken seriously as a writer, though it might help attract readers. If I come across someone who has something other than the Beer Server cert, well, that at least piques my interest because I’m inclined to believe they know what they’re talking about and that they’re not just some random shmuck or a troll. 

Of course, having a cert and being a proficient, entertaining, and professional writer, blogger or vlogger are two completely different things. Just because you’re an expert in something doesn’t mean you’re the best person to discuss it publicly. 

And, as I said above, you can have all the qualifications in the world, but there will always be that small – but extremely vocal- minority of dissenters that will give you grief for no apparent reason.

Are either of those certification programs, in your opinion, just for people who work in the industry, or can they be beneficial to regular drinkers as well? If so, how?

The Cicerone program is definitely for people who work in the industry in some capacity. In fact, they pretty much say exactly that on their website. So if you’re not a bartender, waiter or a waitress, wholesaler, or brewery rep, then there really isn’t much reason for you to go the Cicerone route unless you have money to spend and an ego to feed. 

As for BJCP, I suppose the most cynical way of looking at it is that you’re learning something in a confined context; namely – judging homebrew competitions. You’re learning how to judge beer relative to a fairly arbitrary set of conditions. It’s constrictive and it’s supposed to be. Those that apply BJCP standards to the real world I think are a bit delusional. Some of the most exciting and delicious beer is that which doesn’t fit into any one style category. You don’t have to be a Grand Master BJCP to realize that.

Overall, I don’t think there’s much benefit to even the average craft beer enthusiast to pursue either certification unless they really want to learn about traditional styles and traditional brewing techniques. Of course, you can learn all that on your own, too. I have through buying and trying thousands of beers over the years.

When someone has one of the higher echelon versions of those certifications (for example; a Grand Master BJCP or a Master Cicerone), does that impress you?

Yes, because I know those titles aren’t quick and easy to achieve. It shows they really have dedication, drive, and endurance. Being former Navy myself, it’s kind of like seeing a Master Chief (E9) with ribbons going up to his shoulder. Good for you. Just realize that it probably isn’t impressing laymen and outsiders.

Do those certifications do anything to make the craft beer industry a better place? Or do they just give people a de facto "license" to be a snob?

I’m not sure that certifications alone make the craft beer industry a better place by themselves. I mean, really, how and why would they? Craft beer still has a 10% share of the entire beer market. The macro breweries spill more beer than most craft breweries produce. We’re getting respected as the artisans we are, but we’ve got a loooooong way to go before we break the hegemony and overthrow the oligarchy. To think that simply having a couple professional certification programs will somehow radically alter the Zeitgeist is bit absurd. 

Perhaps a more optimistic way of looking at is that having these certifications is, as Gandhi said, becoming the change your want to see in the world. 

And I agree with the people who said snobs tend to be the uneducated and the pig-headed. You don’t get these certifications by only drinking the hot brewery of the moment or the flavor of the month, and crapping on those that aren’t trendy. If you were truly as seasoned a beer drinker as you need to be to get these certs, you’ll naturally come to appreciate a variety of styles and the consistency and professionalism of even the macro breweries.

What do beer writers think of beer certifications?

It seems like every industry has private (non-governmental) certifications that can be earned by professionals looking to expand their knowledge, skills, and advance their career. In the beer world there are two major certification programs: BJCP and Cicerone. In case you’re not familiar with them, here’s a quick synopsis:
BJCPlogoFrom BJCP.org:
The Beer Judge Certification Program was founded in 1985 and has administered the Beer Judge Examination to 8,277 individuals worldwide. 4,752 are currently active judges in the program, with 741 holding the rank of National or higher. The purpose of the Beer Judge Certification Program is to:
  • Encourage knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the world’s diverse beer, mead, and cider styles.
  • Promote, recognize, and advance beer, mead, and cider tasting, evaluation, and communication skills.
  • Develop standardized tools, methods, and processes for the structured evaluation, ranking and feedback of beer, mead, and cider.

CiceroneLogoFrom Cicerone.org:
The Cicerone Certification Program seeks to ensure that consumers receive the best quality beer at every service occasion. To facilitate this, those who sell and serve beer need to acquire knowledge in five areas:
  • Beer Storage, Sales and Service
  • Beer Styles and Culture
  • Beer Tasting and Flavors
  • Brewing Ingredients and Processes
  • Pairing Beer with Food
To encourage participation by those with various interests and ambitions, the program offers three levels of certification beginning with the simplest and building to the most complex and demanding:
  1.      Certified Beer Server
  2.      Certified Cicerone®
  3.      Master Cicerone®

Though I don’t work in the beer industry, I certainly spend a fair amount of time opining about beer, news stories, events, and trends happening within the industry. I can’t help but wonder if beer bloggers/journalists/authors expect their brethren to have a certification in order to have credibility. So I decided to poll several of my “colleagues” to get their take on the matter. The results were quite surprising, and the attitudes towards these certifications varied greatly – from apathy to absolute insistence.

I managed to survey a fairly diverse set of people: men and women of a wide age range; various nationalities; and from volunteer bloggers to professional authors. Click on the person’s name to read their answers to all questions (which are listed in the next section):

I asked them five questions:
1. Do you have a BJCP or Cicerone certification
1a. If you do, when did you receive it and why did you choose to pursue that certification?
1b. If you don’t, is there any particular reason why not? How would you respond to someone who asks why they should trust your opinion since you don’t have ___ certification?

The vast majority of the respondents answered that they had neither certification. Only two people had a BJCP title, and there was only one Certified Cicerone and one Cicerone Beer Server.
As for why they don’t have a certification, most people seemed to feel they were unnecessary for their field, since they’re not professional brewers or wholesalers or restaurateurs; they’re writers and feel they should be judged on their ability to communicate.

“I have a degree in journalism and have been writing professionally for almost (gasp!) 20 years, both in print and online. If that doesn’t count for something, well, you probably are not my target audience.” – Astrid Cook

“I know how beer is made, I understand its history and I have my own personal preferences and experiences to cull from when it comes to picking the beer that I drink. I’m not sure I need more than that.” – Craig Gravina

“…my years of experience writing and reviewing have informed my opinion and provided a certain expertise, albeit an uncertified one.” – Josh Christie

“Does certification make you a better beer writer? Not really. You don’t need a fancy diploma to prove to people that you know your sh!t. If you know your sh!t, it will show in your writing.” – Ashley Routson

“I know a lot more about beer than most people as a result of tireless research and paying attention. But sometimes in order to convey that I’ve got those things, I need a piece of paper to point to. In every single 21st Century endeavor, humans will find a way to discriminate against those who don’t have a piece of paper.” – Jordan St. John (Certified Cicerone)

A few people responded that they’re somewhat interested in these programs, but haven’t seriously pursued them due to a lack of time, inability to get a seat at a test, and/or they find the tests to be overpriced. The few that did have a certification were all avid homebrewers and/or professional brewers before they started writing.

2. Do you think having either of these certifications is necessary in order for a professional [or even an amateur] beer writer/blogger to be taken seriously? 

Admittedly, this question is essentially a re-hash of the second part of question 1b. Most people did not respond with a clear “yes” or “no” answer, but the majority seemed to lean towards “not necessarily.”

“…every writer has different styles s/he prefers, a BJCP certification will not make said writer any better or worse necessarily at making beer recommendations.” – Astrid Cook

“It’s the whole argument whether or not college degrees are important. Sure, getting a 4.0 in college is really impressive. But then, it doesn’t automatically qualify you for your dream job.” – Ashley Rouston

“As a writer, you should be judged by how gracefully you can turn a phrase and how accurately you report the facts. A big shot BJCP judge or highly rated Cicerone who spells everyone’s name wrong will have a very short career as a writer.” – Evan Rail

I don’t think it would hurt to have one. It takes a lot of knowledge to get one, but just because you have the knowledge, doesn’t mean you can get it down in an understandable and hopefully entertaining way as a writer or blogger.” – Norm Miller

There was only one person who answered with an affirmative “yes” to this question.

“Yes, it is very important to have credentials if you want to be taken seriously.  It is a widespread misconception that everybody is entitled to an opinion; an opinion that is not backed by knowledge is worthless. Proof of knowledge is important, most especially in today’s world where anybody with computer access can bloviate on any topic they wish. A simple analogy may help illustrate the prejudice people have with regards to titles: You’ve just returned from Liberia and have a fever. Whose medical opinion do you value most highly? A nurse, a PA an MD or the governor of NJ?”– George de Piro

I just about fell out of my chair when I read Mr. de Piro’s comment (the analogy part, that is). I think he’s confusing “opinion” with “argument.” When you argue (not “bicker”) you’re trying to prove a point. But simply spouting an opinion along the lines of “This beer is great; that movie is boring; this band rocks so hard; that restaurant sucks” is harmless since these are simply matters of taste. And yes, anyone can bloviate about any topic they wish, but if they are simply bloviating then it should be clear to the reader that’s what they’re doing so of course you wouldn’t take them too seriously. Isn’t this what we all do all day on Facebook and Twitter?

Additionally, I find the second half of the statement completely contradicts the first half. Is Mr. de Piro a politician or a doctor? No. So why -according to his own logic- should we take his opinion on that particular issue seriously? Though this further illustrates my original point: there’s a world of difference between personal preference and arguments/debates rooted in politics, science, medicine, or anything academic. Charlatans who attempt to make a name for themselves in these fields are quickly exposed as the frauds they are and tend to attract people who are as naive and gullible as they themselves are (e.g. Alex Jones, Food Babe, Jenny McCarthy, etc.)

Comparing beer certifications to a license to practice medicine is, quite frankly, ridiculous. In fact, a few years ago I made a cartoon spoofing exactly that kind of rationale (specifically, at 2:38):

3. Are either of those certification programs, in your opinion, just for people who work in the industry, or can they be beneficial to regular drinkers as well? If so, how?

The responses seemed to be divided right down the middle as to whether these certifications can be useful for the average drinker. They ranged from very cynical (i.e. BJCP is only worthwhile for knowing how to judge homebrew competitions; Cicerone is only for professionals looking to pad their resume) to optimistic (i.e. Knowledge is always helpful, so anyone can benefit by pursuing either certification).

Likely they are far more useful in the trade where being able to communicate a standard set of facts by rote is useful. This is not an unimportant thing in a commercial setting like beer and brewing, so I do not deny that value.” – Alan McLeod

I think if the regular beer drinker is really into craft beer then ultimately they will probably end up getting some kind of certification because it is so easy. But is it necessary? I would say not at all.” – Chris Steltz

I must admit that I don’t have much respect for the Cicerone certification program. It’s a made-up degree – a way to separate fools from their money. It’s something that anyone can do at home. Buy a range of, say, stouts; read something about the style; if you want, evaluate all of them, and you’ll get a good enough impression of what the style is about. Read the work of renowned authors, there are plenty, and trust your own senses. If a drinker would like to take things a step further, a sensory analysis course can do the job just fine.” – Max Bahnson

Both offer an opportunity to learn about beer, which may or may not enhance a drinker’s pleasure.” – Stan Hieronymus

I am a big believer in knowledge, so I think anyone can benefit from instruction so long as they do not simply accept all they receive blindly as gospel. Education is important, but so is the ability to question what is taught.” – Stephen Beaumont

Being a Certified Cicerone and BJCP judge would be important if you are in the industry. For regular drinkers, neither is really beneficial unless you are a homebrewer who wants to get into judging competitions and improving as a brewer.” – Ryan Reschan

If you’re in the business of selling beer, or pairing beer with foods, it’s definitely beneficial to have certification. We wouldn’t recommend a regular drinker take the Cicerone test, because why would they need to?” – Giancarlo and Sarah Annese

4. When someone has one of the higher echelon versions of those certifications (for example; a Grand Master BJCP or a Master Cicerone), does that impress you?

Most people said they do find either of these titles impressive because of the time and dedication it takes to achieving those ranks. A few were apathetic.

“I do think it’s impressive. It takes a lot of work and dedication. Just because I don’t have any real interest in getting them, I respect the time people put into it and the studying they have to do to get it. I’ve heard getting the higher level Cicerone certifications, in particular, is almost like taking a college course. That’s a lot of work and effort someone is putting in.” – Norm Miller

“I’ve never been one for needing affirmation or impressed by accreditations—really who, in the long run, cares? To be honest, BCJP or Cicerone certification always came off as something people did because they wanted to prove they were an expert.” – Craig Gravina

“I am impressed by the time and effort to get to those positions, and I have an added respect for their dedication and seriousness in beer. More than anything it indicates to me that they are “all in” and that they are not just dabbling in beer, it’s their life and livelihood. These are also the people that I sometimes seek for assistance and wisdom, so they also provide a great resource to the rest of us.” – Carla Jean Lauter

“It does, but only because I know how hard it is to get to that level. I also know that many people are physically incapable through no fault but their genetic make-up to pass those tests. Not everyone has the physical prowess to be a professional athlete no matter how many hours are spent at the gym. The same goes to those whose tongues can taste flavors that are very specific.” – Astrid Cook

Not particularly.” – Stephen Beaumont

It depends on the context. It’s probably good if people judging big competitions have those qualifications (we were very impressed by some of the judges we met at a competition in London last year) but we’re not sure they improve people’s writing.” – Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey

5. Do those certifications do anything to make the craft beer industry a better place? Or do they just give people a de facto “license” to be a snob?

I suppose these questions are mutually exclusive – one doesn’t have anything to do with the other. Just about everyone seemed to interpret this question that way and answered accordingly.

“Education makes everything better. If more brewers had more brewing education, beer quality would be uniformly stellar. There is a big difference between a snob and an educated person. I think that the uneducated reviewer is actually the snob; it is presumptuous and arrogant to publicly criticize another’s work with no qualifications.  A true authority has the knowledge and credentials to back up their assertions.” – George de Piro

“….do I think certification begets beer snobbery? No, I think d-bags will be d-bags regardless of the certificate.” – Craig Gravina

“We think in order for an industry to be taken seriously it’s good to have some sort of certification system. Some people just put more faith and trust in degrees or titles. So in that sense it makes the beer industry a better place.” Giancarlo and Sarah Annese

“You don’t need a license to be a snob!  The world of beer improves when regular customers know beer well. We talk about the “lowest common denominator” as the driver of markets, and I think it’s accurate…  As the industry professionalizes and servers have accurate information to provide to customers, the education will happen more quickly and with fewer BJCP-like detours into misinformation.  That’s definitely a good thing.” – Jeff Alworth

The certifications themselves are great. Let me suggest to you that having a standardized body of knowledge that people are tested upon is a really useful thing… It immediately separates the wheat from the chaff and the noobs from the leet. That said, anyone who talks to you and tries to impress you with the fact that they’re a Cicerone should be roundly laughed at for being a pretentious knob. Respect should not flow from titles. It should flow from displaying some value…“ –Jordan St. John

“Yes I think it is good for the growing craft beer world to have knowledgeable and enthusiastic people working in bars and pubs. I think it’s a shame when I know more about the range they are serving than the people working there do.” – Rob Derbyshire

I think certification is great for the service industry, as it helps servers communicate useful information to the customers. Anyone who uses their credentials as an excuse to be a myopic snob was probably destined to act that way whether or not Cicerone existed.” – Stephen Beaumont

Conclusion

I’m not sure if this is a large enough sample size from which to draw any kind of precise “conclusion”. About 20 people responded to this survey and each question resulted in, more or less, 20 different answers. True, there does seem to be a general consensus to some questions and even the topic of certification altogether. However, this is obviously not a scientific poll and was not intended to be. It definitely was fascinating to read each response to each question (I highly recommend reading them all and not just the samples used in this post).

I would like to perform a similar survey of people working within the industry to see what they think of BJCP and Cicerone. And of course I’d be interested to hear from readers – to what standard do they hold beer bloggers and authors they read? Feel free to answer that yourself in the comments section.

By the way, if you’d like to read my responses to these questions, click here.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Cigar City Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout (2013 & 2014 vintages)


4.4
   AROMA 8/10   APPEARANCE 5/5   TASTE 9/10   PALATE 5/5   OVERALL 17/20
Chad9976 (1225) - Albany, New York, USA - NOV 23, 2014
2013 edition
2014 edition
I try not to get caught up in the hype of beers like Cigar City Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout that are only released once a year on a special day at the brewery for which you need to buy tickets in advance (i.e. Dark Lord, Kate the Great, etc.). But since two friends of mine in Florida were generous enough to send me a bottle of the last two editions, I figured it was okay to get a little excited. And now that I’ve tried the beer I can definitely see why it receives the praise it does. This is a very unique and impression imperial stout brew as it utilizes a variety of spices and flavorings to give it a taste you’re not going to find in any other beer of the style. It’s not quite world class, but it is damn good.

NOTE: The scores are indicative of the 2014 vintage.

The 2013 vintage was given to me by Christopher G. and the 2014 vintage was given to me by Matt S. Thanks to both of my friends for sending me these beers! I split each bottle with four friends. We poured them into various stemmed tulip glasses and goblets.

Appearance: Both vintages are, not surprisingly, completely opaque black and a very dark shade of black at that. Both had a dark brown, frothy head, though the 2013’s was slightly lighter. Both heads faded relatively quickly and only left a little bit of lacing.

Taste: My friends and I started out with the 2014 edition, which at the time of drinking was an 11-month-old bottle. Right away there was a huge sensation of dark baking chocolate – intensely bitter, but also rich with chocolaty sweetness. Dark cherry and other fruit flavors are prominent as well, probably likely derived from the use of massive amount of malt in the brew (a lot of imperial stouts tend to have similar characteristics). On the second half, a strong surge of cinnamon spice sweeps across the palate – creating for a Christmas cookie-like taste. As it goes down, there’s a warmth from the peppers, though I would not consider it spicy in a peppery way. All in all it’s quite delicious, though a bit repetitive. I’d probably prefer a touch more sweetness, but what’s here is extremely pleasant.

The 2013 edition was noticeably different. The pepper character had faded, though the chocolate component had not only strengthened, but gone from bitter dark chocolate to sweet milk chocolate. The alcohol was also a bit more pronounced, ironically enough, though it did create for a slightly smokey, bourbon-like flavor. Cinnamon was still quite potent on the finish, though it was more a sweetness than a spice. It left a residual cloying/sticky sensation which is common for many imperial stouts. I don’t think anything was gained by aging this vintage, in fact, it was probably hindered a bit since the spicy character was weakened (though if you don’t like spice, cellaring a bottle is the way to go).

Drinkability: It was clear right away that both of these beers were pretty beefy. I believe the 2013 edition was 11% ABV and the 2014 was 11.5%, though neither had any kind of “extreme” quality to their weight. The mouthfeels were, of course, full-bodied, but with a soft texture and smoothness as it went down. Not much in the way of alcohol warmth, though the fresher vintage definitely had some noticeable heat from the peppers (but again, nothing too extreme). The 2013 vintage traded Scoville heat for alcohol heat and it was actually rather cloying in the aftertaste whereas the 2014 was remarkably dry. I’m glad I split these bottles with friends, though I was certainly feeling the weight of the brew bearing down on me afterwards. Splitting a bottle with friends and family is definitely the way to go. 
Grades:
2013: 8/10
2014: 9/10
NOTE: Read Matt's blog on the 2014 Hunahpu release day here: http://blog.timesunion.com/beer/a-firsthand-account-of-the-2014-hunahpu-day/2323/

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Rare Form Sabbatical Session Ale


3.8
   AROMA 8/10   APPEARANCE 3/5   TASTE 8/10   PALATE 4/5   OVERALL 15/20
Chad9976 (1224) - Albany, New York, USA - NOV 22, 2014
From what I can tell, Rare Form doesn’t seem to be a fan of traditional beer styles, which is fine with me. Their “Sabbatical Session Ale” could be considered a Session IPA, a pale ale, a specialty grain or – most accurately – “other.” Plenty of hop bitterness and actual flavor, but has a bit more body than your average highly-hopped/low gravity brew. It’s quite enjoyable.

I poured a 16oz growler filled at the tap room into a tulip glass. It cost $6 ($0.38 per ounce).

Appearance: Hazy, grapefruit juice-like complexion of pale orange. Pours to a thin, white, soapy head which mostly dissipates and leaves little lacing.

Smell: Sweet candy and citrus aroma, especially orange.

Taste: The palette to Sabbatical Session Ale is rather direct, as the most dominate flavors are the hops. Fairly intense dry bitterness crackles across the tongue right from the get-go, though the addition of rye and spices probably has a bit to do with that as well (they don’t say what spices are used in the brew). The rye definitely creates for its trademark spice, though it doesn’t seem to be accounting for much in the way of body as it does not taste like liquid rye bread. In fact, the malt composition is a silent partner here. There’s enough of it to give the beer true body, but not to the point of creating for distinct sweetness. I suspect the beer is brewed with Sorachi Ace hops as it has that distinct pink peppercorn/grapefruit taste on the finish (this would be a great beer to pair with seafood, by the way).

Drinkability: At only 3.8% ABV, Sabbatical Session Ale definitely lives up to its name. There’s a lot of flavor here for such a low gravity brew, though the actual mouthfeel is noticeably thin. It is crisp and even refreshing while in the mouth, and it’s easy going down. The hops linger and leave a slightly dry/spicy aftertaste, but it’s easily tolerable. 
Grade: 8/10

Rare Form L’homme Chat Belgian Black Ale


3.9
   AROMA 7/10   APPEARANCE 4/5   TASTE 8/10   PALATE 5/5   OVERALL 15/20
Chad9976 (1223) - Albany, New York, USA - NOV 22, 2014
Belgian beers don’t tend to be black and you rarely see a Belgian stout – it’s just not their thing, apparently. Additionally the “black ale” style is also quite rare as it’s not quite a stout or porter and definitely not a Black IPA – it’s just a black beer. That makes Rare Form L’homme Chat Belgian Black Ale quite unique to say the least.

I poured a 16oz growler into a tulip glass. It cost $6 at the tap room ($0.38 per ounce).

Appearance: Opaque black body (though hints of ruby red can be seen through light). Pours to a fairly small, surprisingly pale, foamy head which laces and retains quite well.

Smell: Fairly substantial nose of roasted malt, slight coffee and a hint of smoke.

Taste: I have a hunch “L’homme Chat” may actually be an Irish Dry Stout recipe that has been fermented with Belgian yeast. At least that’s how it seems to me, and it works quite well. It begins with the classic roasted malt character; lightly bitter, with a touch of iced coffee flavor. There’s a significant hop character and it’s much stronger than in any dry stout. Just a faint touch of dank resin, though nowhere near that found in a true Black IPA. On the second half the bitterness gives way to sweetness and there’s notes of milk chocolate and some dark fruit. I really don’t get any classic “Belgian” character out of this beer, which is fine since the final product works well.

Drinkability: Probably what’s most impressive about this beer is the fact it’s only 3.7% ABV and it in no way feels weak or watery. In fact, the first thing I noticed wasn’t the taste, but the texture: it’s soft, but has real weight to it. There’s more mouthfeel here than in some macro light lagers. The brewery occasionally offers L’homme Chat on nitro, and it works even better. I wouldn’t say it’s refreshing, though it’s plenty tasty for such a light body and still sturdy enough it could stand up to a meal. 
Grade: 8/10

Friday, November 21, 2014

Green Flash Double Stout


4
   AROMA 8/10   APPEARANCE 5/5   TASTE 8/10   PALATE 4/5   OVERALL 15/20
Chad9976 (1222) - Albany, New York, USA - NOV 21, 2014
The “Double IPA” has been a thing for a while now, but why not a “double stout”? Surely there’s a difference between a truly imperial stout and one that’s just bigger than usual. I suppose that’s the question Green Flash is asking with their “Double Stout,” which is pretty hefty at 8.8% ABV, though it drinks like something fairly nominal.

I poured a 12oz bottle into a goblet. It had a best before date of 2/20/15 and cost $3.99 ($0.33 per ounce).

Appearance: Inky opaque black body. Pours to a dark tan, two-finger layer of frothy foam which laces and retains extremely well.

Smell: Strong black licorice notes; black grape; some mocha.

Taste: Like all good heavy stouts, Green Flash Double Stout opens with a rich sweetness. Chocolate syrup, roasted malt, sour grape and licorice spice are all prominent throughout the first half. Through the middle I detect a surprisingly strong presence of hops, even though the brewery’s website indicates this beer is only 45 IBUs. A biting sensation of dry bitterness with perhaps a hint of pine as it finishes. There’s a slight tanginess in the aftertaste, though I also detect notes of toffee and peanut brittle. All in all, this is what is you expect to find in an imperial stout palette, though it’s missing a certain something to make it stand out. In the end it’s just a very good example of the style, though that’s good enough for me.

Drinkability: There’s a certain mouthfeel I expect in a beer of this style and I’d say Green Flash Double Stout nails it almost perfectly. A definite viscosity to the makeup – thicker than most, but without the cloying, sticky sensation of some. In fact, it might even be a little too crisp. There’s a bitter tang in the aftertaste, which is tolerable but a little distracting. At 8.8% ABV it seems a tad inefficient, though there’s no alcohol warmth or annoyance whatsoever. 
Grade: 8/10

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Great South Bay Splashing Pumpkin


2.8
   AROMA 5/10   APPEARANCE 4/5   TASTE 4/10   PALATE 4/5   OVERALL 11/20
Chad9976 (1221) - Albany, New York, USA - NOV 20, 2014
I used to be a big fan of pumpkin beers, but lately I’ve been having a difficult time finding one I like. I’ll often give a new brewery a try if they make a pumpkin beer since they tend to be generally likable, but in the case of Great South Bay’s “Splashing Pumpkin” it was most definitely not a good first impression. This drinks like a bad batch; if this is what they were going for I just don’t get it.

I poured a 12oz bottle into a tulip glass. There was no freshness date and it cost $2.75 ($0.23 per ounce).

Appearance: Pretty copper/orange hue; crystal clear body; no visible carbonation. Pours to a one-finger, beige, foamy head which mostly dissipates and leaves little lacing.

Smell: Smells of cooked vegetables with a slight acrid component. I can tell it’s supposed to be pumpkin beer, but it’s not nearly as pleasant as it should be.

Taste: This beer is the type of pumpkin ale that’s of the squashy/spicy/potpourri variety rather than the sweet pumpkin pie type of brew. Right away there’s an odd off-flavor of canned green beans or some kind of raw vegetal character (possibly DMS). The label indicates it’s brewed with roasted pumpkin, which is definitely interesting, and perhaps that accounts for this strange flavor. However, it doesn’t taste like toasted squash, nor is it smokey in any particular way. I do get some distinct piney hop flavor and bitterness through the middle, and just a subtle spice character on the finish – mostly of clove. There’s a tang on the backend that becomes more acidic and harsh as the beer warms. I tried really hard to focus on the good characteristics of this palette, but the flaws are just too distracting.

Drinkability: There isn’t a lot to enjoy about the taste of Great South Bay Splashing Pumpkin, but at least it’s not a challenge to get down. The mouthfeel is a little thin and noticeably calm, but it finishes clean with just a hint of spice in the aftertaste. For a 5% ABV beer it probably could have a little more flavor to it, though it’s light enough in body that it’s a breeze to throw back quickly. 
Grade: 4/10

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wells Sticky Toffee Pudding Ale


3.6
   AROMA 7/10   APPEARANCE 4/5   TASTE 7/10   PALATE 4/5   OVERALL 14/20
Chad9976 (1220) - Albany, New York, USA - NOV 19, 2014
I like it when a beer states its mission right in the name, and with a name like “Sticky Toffee Pudding Ale,” you definitely have some expectations going into it. I’m not sure this beer lives up to its name perfectly, but it does a good job in trying to do so. Yes there’s a sweet toffee taste to it, but there’s also a slightly generic palette lingering underneath as well. It’s good but not great.

I poured an 11.2oz bottle into a mason jar. It had an expiration date of 4/28/15 and cost $3.99 ($0.36 per ounce).

Appearance: Dark chestnut/maroon hue, but still transparent. Pours to a small, white, foamy head which laces and retains well.

Smell: Candy-like toffee aroma, though it seems a bit faux. A standard pub ale scent is noticeable in the background.

Taste: As soon as the beer hit my tongue I immediately started looking for the toffee pudding flavor, but it didn’t emerge until the back of the swig. The beginning is a rather familiar British pub-style ESB brew. Darker malts such as Maris Otter and some specialty malt character, but just a mild dessert-like flavor. I even get some bitterness at the apex; it’s mild but it’s noticeable (I’m actually impressed a novelty beer like this would even bother with hops). On the backend the confectionery sweetness of toffee and caramel suddenly emerges and it’s quite tasty… at first. My palate grew accustomed to the flavor rather quickly, so instead of sip after sip of liquid dessert it become an ESB with toffee flavoring implied. I also noticed a bit of a tangy astringency which is something usually found in old bottles, but this seems to be relatively fresh. While not off-putting in any way, it has a ways to go to be as delicious as the label makes it look.

Drinkability: I usually describe a beer as being “sticky” when it’s a high-gravity brew (from all the natural sugars). In the case of Wells Sticky Toffee Pudding Ale it’s actually quite light in body since it’s only 5% ABV. The mouthfeel is crisp, maybe even a little too thin. It finishes mostly clean with just a slightly dry and tangy sensation in the aftertaste. It works as a liquid dessert, but might be better if paired with a rich, heavy dessert. 
Grade: 7/10

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Brown’s beer dinner at Uncle Marty’s Adirondack Grill

The good folks at Uncle Marty’s Adirondack Grill in Averill Park have been offering a fine craft beer selection for quite a while. They’ve been taking it a step further by recently bringing in Dustin Aipperspach as their new head chef as well as hosting a series of monthly beer dinners. Last month was the “Taste of New York” beer dinner (which I hosted), and this month was an evening with Brown’s Brewing Company.

I’ve been a fan of Brown’s brewpub for many years. I’ve had pretty much everything on the menu and it’s all pretty excellent. Though I can’t say I’ve ever been to a Brown’s beer dinner until now. Since last month’s dining experience went so well, I had high hopes for this event – which did not disappoint.

Marty Balga, the owner, said everyone who attended the “Taste of New York” beer dinner really enjoyed themselves. However, the only “complaint” was that there was actually a bit too much food and beer (though, as a consumer, that’s not a bad problem to have). So they scaled back the menu to five courses and the portions seemed a little smaller and less calorific (as someone trying to lose weight, I appreciated this). Each beer was served in an 8oz-10oz pour.
Here’s what was on the menu:

Appetizer
Food: Smoked oyster and wild mushroom ragout with a Parmesan crisp
Beer: Brown’s Oatmeal Stout (5.25% ABV)

This was nothing like what I was expecting as it did not have a “fishy” taste at all. It actually reminded me of a pizza flavor as it was quite saucy with Italian-like spices and the Parmesan was like a pizza crust. Pairing it with the oatmeal stout was an interesting choice, if not a bit daring, since beers of this type tend to be associated with the main course or dessert. However, it offered an interesting contrast of sweetness and slight roasted malt bitterness that complemented the dish quite well.

brown's beer dinner 011Soup
Food: Butternut squash bisque with toasted pumpkin seeds
Beer: Brown’s Dunder & Blixem Strong Ale on cask (8.5% ABV)

The only time I ever eat squash is at Thanksgiving and Christmas meals; it’s never occurred to me that it could be prepared fancily. This bisque has the same consistency you might get from frozen squash, but obviously with a vastly superior taste. It was squashy, but not mealy or earthy, with a distinct sweetness. The texture was creamy and soft; it was almost like eating hot ice cream. The toasted pumpkin seeds added a nice contrast with their crunchiness.

As for the beer, it was another curious choice, but an appropriate one. This was my first time trying Brown’s annual Christmas beer, which is brewed in the Winter Warmer tradition with dark malts and ginger, star anise and cinnamon spices. It was sweet, but not cloying, and the spices made it reminiscent of a pumpkin beer. The fact it was on cask gave it a soft mouthfeel and extremely smooth finish which matched the bisque perfectly.

brown's beer dinner 016Salad
Food: Baby arugula with beets, pears, candied pecans, toasted goat cheese and pomegranate vinaigrette
Beer: Brown’s India Pale Ale (6.5% ABV)

The salad course took everyone by surprise last month and I’d say that was true this time around, too. Arugula is probably the best green to use in a salad, and the use of beets and pink pears was perhaps unusual, but tasty. It made for an interesting dynamic between the earthy vegetables and the tartness from the pear as well as the lightly sweet dressing and the candied pecans. The toasted goat cheese on top was the main attraction; with its rich taste and an interesting texture of being toasted on the outside and creamy on the inside.

Pairing this dish with the IPA was, yet again, an odd, but interesting choice. Brown’s IPA is more of an English-style brew with emphasis on balance rather than intense hoppy bitterness. There was a strong piney/resin flavor as well as a slight butterscotch flavor (possibly diacetyl, but it was tolerable). Next time you have a salad, try pairing it with an IPA to make the experience more interesting.

brown's beer dinner 020Entrée
Food: Smoked turkey breast with sausage chestnut stuffing and bacon-fried Brussels sprouts
Beer: Brown’s Whiskey Barrel-Aged Porter (5.75% ABV)

At the onset of the night, Chef Dustin said there was a Thanksgiving theme to the food selections. This was obviously the most traditional Thanksgiving food of the evening, though it wasn’t just a Butterball cooked in the oven. The turkey was brined with bourbon and the beer itself, and was smoked all day. These flavors all came through as the turkey was tender and moist with a strong smokey astringency to it. There was also a distinct candy-like taste as well, probably from the brine. The stuffing was a perfect accompaniment as the sausage also had a smokey flavor and the sprouts tasted of bacon to create for a meaty garnish (Dustin said he loves pork and will include it in every dinner somehow).

Brown’s Whiskey Barrel-Aged Porter tends to be a finicky beer; I’ve noticed major variations between batches (though I suspect it’s an issue caused by the individual barrels rather than the brew itself). Dylan Neary, Brown’s representative, said he just picked up the keg from their new brewery in Hoosick Falls and delivered it to the restaurant shortly before the dinner began. He clearly picked a winner as this brew had a huge sweet whiskey flavor. It was by far the most complimentary (and, in my opinion, best) pairing of the evening. I may pick up a bottle to try this at my own Thanksgiving dinner next week.

brown's beer dinner 025Dessert
Food: Apple Delight with hand-whipped sweet cream
Beer: Brown’s Cherry Raspberry Ale (6.5% ABV)

Dessert courses can sometimes be too indulgent at the end of a big dinner like this. But in this case, the “Apple Delight” was a nice alternative to a rich piece of pie or cake. It was essentially an apple muffin as it had a fluffy texture and yet was still plenty moist. The whipped cream and confectionery syrup drizzled across it was sweet and delicious.

Opting for the Cherry Raspberry Ale was definitely the way to go, as the beer itself tasted of real, authentic fruit. The three fruit flavors between the dessert and the beer all played nicely off each other, and the beer was at the perfect temperature as well (beers like this shouldn’t be served too cold).

brown's beer dinner 014Conclusion

All in all it was another highly satisfying dinner as well as a fun and memorable experience. Uncle Marty’s is definitely on the right track with these beer dinners as the food is gourmet, but still accessible to the non-foodie. And at only $58 (which includes tax) they’re pretty affordable as well (I’ve seen other beer dinners run as much as $80 per person – yikes!). I’ll be hosting a holiday/winter-themed beer dinner here on December 16. I hope to see you then, cheers!