Tuesday, May 29, 2012

From the Cellar: Samuel Adams Imperial White

From The Cellar posts are about aging beer just like you would wine, and this time around we've got a pretty interesting one: Samuel Adams Imperial White.

This is an odd one to cellar. Traditionally, witbiers are not good candidates for aging. You want to drink them cold and fresh in order to get the nice notes of orange peel and coriander. This Imperial White, however, is a high alcohol monster that Sam Adams allegedly brewed with aging in mind.

I should hope they had aging in mind with this one, because frankly, when fresh this beer is a mess. It's big, hot, malty yet spiced up, and trying to do too many things at once. It doesn't know what it wants to be -- it's neither refreshing like a great witbier nor hearty and satisfying like a big alcohol brew -- and it's not something I'd recommend.

But what does some time do to it?

The bottle I opened was about two years old, stored in a covered mile crate in the corner of a bedroom. It remained at about 65 - 70 degrees the whole time and saw no light.

The beer pours a deeply hazy orange, with a light, fizzy head that dissipates pretty quickly. There is a surprising amount of orange in the aroma, shockingly up front despite the beer's age and having come directly from the fridge. (Lower temperatures inhibit aroma, which is why the "cold, cold, cold!" push of Bud, Miller and Coors is so idiotic; most of what we perceive as taste, after all, is actually what we're smelling.) As Imperial White warms to room temperature, however, it begins to develop an aroma note that is almost akin to window cleaner. Oof. This beer wants to consumed slightly on the cooler side -- which makes sense, since wheats tend to be preferred at lower temperatures.

Thankfully, it tastes pretty damn good. After two years, plenty of orange and some coriander remain in this uber-powered witbier. The malts have developed into a more complicated mix of crisp wheat and heady sweetness. Whereas fresh this beer was a mess that didn't quite know what it wants to be, with some time under its belt this is a surprisingly interesting beer. There is a note on the back end that is just this far into "funny," but for the most part the wheat and spice have evolved into a more complex brew than when first purchased.

The alcohol has really mellowed after all this time, too. This beer comes in at 10.3% ABV, which is HUGE for a wheat beer/witbier, yet after two years you'd never know it was as potent as it is. The beer drinks smooth. Not quite refreshingly smooth, but smooth. Which isn't to say this beer drinks easy. It doesn't. There is a lot going on here, and halfway through the glass you begin to get some fatigue. But overall, this beer is FAR better after being laid down for two years than it was fresh. And just to back that up, I had quite a few bottles on hand and tried them at roughly six-month intervals. I can say unequivocally that this beer gets better over time.

If I have another bottle on hand -- I don't recall offhand if I do -- I'll be trying it at three years to see how it is.

BEER: Samuel Adams Imperial White
VINTAGE: 2010 (estimated; Boston Beer Co., please date your Imperial series)
TIME AGED: About 2 years
NOTES: Would probably pair very well with a meal

VERDICT: Put this beer away for a while and enjoy, this one gets better with age!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

From the Cellar: Founder's KBS

Starting with this post, I'm going to periodically pull something from my beer cellar and report how it has aged. (Yes, you can age beer; check this post for more details.) Sometimes I'll touch on beers that have been aged for several years or more, other times the beers will be as little as a year old. Whenever possible I'll touch on something I've reviewed before as a Quick Sip so as to compare where a beer started and where it ended up.

We begin with a very special beer indeed. Founder's KBS (which stands for Kentucky Breakfast Stout) is a highly sought-after, hugely tasty imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels. Read my initial impressions in this post from last year. This bottle comes from that same batch and was purchased at the same time. It has been stored since purchase, boxed in the back of a dark closet, and kept between 65 and 70 degrees during that time.

So how did it hold up?

Fresh from the fridge, the beers pours with only a faint sliver of head, no more than a thin layer of chocolate tan foam. The beer itself is as black as used motor oil. You might find dinosaur bones preserved in this thick black liquid. The aroma has hints of bourbon, but it falls well short of the overpowering bourbon nose of this beer when it's fresh.

The taste of bourbon hasn't faded, at least. This is still one potent brew, with the beer immediately hitting your mouth with powerful bourbon, then shifting to a complex mix of rich, roasty malts, and finally finishing on yet more bourbon with hints of vanilla from the oak aging thrown in for good measure. The oak comes on stronger than I recall first time around, especially in the finish. Despite a year to mellow out, the robust 11.1% ABV is still clearly noticeable; this brew is warming, but not "hot." As the temperature begins to rise -- and that will happen, since this is a beer you'll sip for an hour -- the booze becomes even more apparent both in the taste and the aroma.

After a year, Founder's legendary KBS remains a delicious, supremely satisfying beer. However, in my view the fresh bottle was the better bottle.

BEER: Founder's KBS
TIME AGED: One year

VERDICT: It's okay to cellar this, it will hold up well, but don't wait too long before you drink it. It's better fresh, and after a year no new complexities are revealed in this beer.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Quick Sips: Sierra Nevada Ovila Abbey Saison

Along with Samuel Adams and Brooklyn, Sierra Nevada are one of the breweries that first got me into craft beer many, many years ago. They were true pioneers in the American craft beer movement, their pale ale is an iconic American beer, and they remain relevant today with a roster of strong to outstanding beers. Recently, they teamed up with the Abbey of New Clairvaux to create a line of traditional ales. In additional to an Abbey-style Dubbel and Quad, they also produced a saison released in June 2011.

The beer has a zesty, mildly floral aroma that reminds you of a spring day on a farm. The beer itself is dry, with some spice and peppery notes. The yeast is present in the taste, offering mild breads and light fruits. Overall it drinks light and refreshing, the kind of beer you enjoy while lounging around under the sun.

Still, you can't help but hope for more given Sierra Nevada's otherwise impeccable track record -- and given how gorgeous the bottle is! As far as saisons go, this one is good but not noteworthy. If you want a great example of the style you're better off trying the legendary Saison Dupont, Ommegang's wonderfully musty Hennepin, or Brooklyn's offbeat, not-very-traditional, lemony Sorachi Ace.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Bell's Week: Special Double Cream Stout

Cream? What an understatement! This beer is creamy, creamy, creamy, with a silky soft mouthfeel that might as well be stout-flavored Cool Whip. Super creamy. Achingly creamy. Delightfully creamy. It's utterly delicious, akin to a sweet, dry Irish stout -- Guinness is the best known of this style -- but with the heavy-bodied awesomeness of a milk stout.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, launching into a review without an introduction.Bell's Special Double Cream Stout is a winter beer that ducks away from the bitter, roasted approach of many stouts and instead goes for smoooooth and creamy.

And that it is. It's fluffy and puffy like a dessert, silky like a milk sotut (but it's not a milk stout), and overall delicious. Jim,. my coauthor on A Year of Hitchcock, ranks this as one of his favorite beers. It's easy to see why. While I don't rate it quite as highly -- it's excellent, but not a life-changing brew -- this is truly a stellar beer. If I could get this all the time, it would be on my regular purchase list. I was initially going to finish Bell's week on a different beer, but decided to do it on a good note ... and this is a DAMN GOOD NOTE.

Bell's, you bastards, why don't you distribute in New Jersey!?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Bell's Week: Bell's Pale Ale

Thanks to the pioneering efforts of Sierra Nevada, who crafted the quintessential modern American beer with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, every craft brewer needs a pale ale in their roster. Bell's Brewery is no exception.

Nothing wrong with that. Pale ales tend to be tasty but drinkable. And this one fits the bill.

The sharp bitterness here is more aggressive than most pale ales, a notch above the aforementioned American standard set by Sierra Nevada (which, to the rest of the world, borders on an IPA). Unlike that classic Sierra brew, however, the hops aren't full of pine forest. Here they're laden with citrus notes and a vague aroma of, errr, cat piss

Which sounds terrible, I know, but it's not meant to be negative! It's just that the smell is sharp, acidic, and faintly medicinal. It's actually not unusual to hear some hops described that way -- the popular Simcoe hops are often described that way, and people love Simcoe-hopped beers -- it's just, well, that's the first thing that springs to mind.

That doesn't make Bell's pale ale bad. I'd say it's quite good. It's a tasty brew. I'd also say, however, that it borders on ordinary. It's not a hoppy enough monster to be a good IPA (but it's close), and it's not lovely and drinkable enough to be a session pale ale (it's not even close). It's just ... a decent craft beer.

Again, nothing wrong with that. But also nothing to write home about.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Bell's Week: Hopslam

The beer geeks are going mad about this one, I'm sure.

Here's the thing about Bell's Hopslam. There is MADNESS surrounding its release each year. Madness! The beer is released once a year. Nothing special there, many craft beers are. Yet people buy it by the case -- bad idea, this is a beer best consumed within two months (8 weeks) of release -- drive miles out of their way to get it, and brag with abandon at having snagged some. The hype in beer enthusiast communities around this beer is INSANE.

The thing is, is this a good beer? Actually, hell YES it is. I've had it each of the last three years. With no Bell's available in New Jersey I've actually had to trade through the mail to get it. Glad I did. It's damn delicious. It really is.

But is it worth the insanity and hype that follows it? Is it one of the best beers in the world, as many would insist?

No. And let me explain, because it IS an excellent beer.

Hopslam is really really good. It's a double IPA released once each winter, usually around February. It's brewed with a load of honey, which gives it a wonderful sweetness, and it's also hopped to high hell. Tons of dry-hopping, I suspect, because while the beer has loads of hop character in the glass, it's got less bitterness than you'd expect in the taste. The aroma is wonderful. The taste is potent (backed by a huge 10% ABV) but very drinkable. The honey comes through nicely. It's super tasty, well-balanced, and overall awesome.

But dammit, this is NOT one of the world's top beers! Beer Advocate has it ranked in the Top 20, and Ratebeer has it at a more modest #26 overall. This IS a damn good beer, and if you can get it, get some. Drink it. Enjoy it. I have and I love it. But it's not so good that it warrants waiting on line (some people do), getting on waiting lists (ditto), or bragging as if you just snagged something super elusive like Westy 12 (considered by many the best beer in the world), because you didn't.

It's Hopslam. It's really good. But calm down, folks.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Bell's Week: Kalamazoo Stout

Kalamazoo. That's where Bell's got its start. It has a map and a bad website and a Wikipedia page and even a college.

But the most important thing of all is, it has a beer.

Hey, that's pretty awesome. Even Lakehurst doesn't have a beer, and that town has the damn HINDENBURG!

Kalamazoo Stout is (obviously) named after the town of Bell's birth. It's a stout brewed with brewer's licorice, which might sound weird but used to be common.

(Licorice isn't unheard of in brewing, and in fact used to be used fairly often in classic porters. Still is, at times. I used it in the colonial porter you can see in these pictures.)

With Kalamazoo Stout, the brewer's licorice is very up front, stepping on the typical roasted malt of a good stout and dominating it with licoricey (is that a word?) sweetness. It's tasty but just off-kilter enough so that I'm not sure you'd want to have more than one in a row. Definitely a nice twist on the style, I can't say I disliked this stout because I didn't, but Bell's makes better stouts. And so does everyone else.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Bell's Week: Two-Hearted Ale

Two-Hearted Ale is Bell's flagship beer, their American IPA made with Centennial hops. You ask a Bell's fan which beers they like and this one will invariably come up. (The fish on the label? The name? It's a reference to the Two-Hearted River in Michigan, a popular fishing spot made famous in a story by Hemingway.)

So goes without saying you've got to have one of these if you have some Bell's.

Once in the glass you'll get citrus on the nose, but it's laced with mild pine and a somewhat clinical herbal quality, as if it was a bag of illegal plants dunked in mango juice. As for taste, well, it tastes like it has been dunked in mango juice, and in the best way possible. Unlike most beers, this one is made with just a single hop; all the bitterness and hop flavor comes from that one hop instead of the usual blend of 2-4 in most beers. It's amazing the flavors this one hop can dish out. Very fruity. There is orange and mango and a touch of pine (but not much).

Two-Hearted Ale is bitter but not overly so, balanced so that it never veers into sweet but also doesn't merely blast the mouth with bitterness. You'll find few IPAs that manage to be both as hoppy yet as balanced as this. Bell's Two Hearted Ale is a highly regarded American IPA for a reason. It tastes damn good.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Bell's Week: Bell's Oarsman Ale

The first stop on our week-long journey through Bell's Brewery begins with Oarsman Ale, a new-to-me beer that surprised me with its deliciousness. Bell's touts this as their session beer, meaning it's a low-alcohol brew meant to quench your thirst. The kind of beer you can throw back all afternoon without ending up in the emergency room. Sounds fine to me, though it's not the sort of description that left me expecting big flavor.

How wrong I was.

First, a quick pour and a sniff. You don't expect much aroma from a session beer, but what a great smell from the glass! It's slightly tart with a bit of fruitiness. Very pleasant. The taste follows suit. This beer SCREAMS crisp spring days. There is a tart snap at the start and a hint of early summer fruit mixed nicely with the easy drinkability of a light ale. Frickin' delicious. Coming in at a dainty little 4% ABV, you don't expect much, but this is an outstanding session beer. I wish it was available in New Jersey. If it were, I'd drink it all summer. This beer is a winner that proves a beer doesn't have to be a monster to taste great. One of the best I've had from Bell's.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Bell's Brewery is awesome. They make a ridiculous selection of beers which are almost always great. And by great, I mean freakin great.

Yet I can't get their beers. I write this blog out of New Jersey, which is unfortunate for a big reason: we don't get Bell's beer. New Jersey, believe it or not, gets distribution from more breweries than any other state in the nation. More than Oregon. More than California. More than New York. Yet we get no Bell's (not to mention no New Belgium, a craft brewery that gives Sam Adams and Yuengling a run for their money when it comes to size). Bell's just doesn't get here.

Bell's is out of Michigan, which, you'd never guess, is one of the best brewing states in America. I'm firmly on record as loving Founder's beers, also out of Michigan. Michigan also has Atwater, the much celebrated Jolly Pumpkin, the cool New Holland Brewing Co., Arcadia Ales, and dozens more. Bell's may be the biggest of all. They're pretty major when it comes to craft beer.

My first Bell's beer came courtesy of my friend Eric Ceresa. When he visited from Michigan in 2007 he brought local beer with him. That beer was Oberon, and as he explained, in Michigan you had Oberon with a slice orange. At the time, this idea was alien to me. Blue Moon had yet to explode and fruit in beer? No.

Well, yes. Because good is good. I had it that way, it was delicious, and I'm forever in his debt.
But I can't buy Bell's in New Jersey.

Thankfully, my buddy Jim, my coauthor on A Year of Hitchcock and co-host of the Year of Hitchcock Podcast, hooks me up when he visits. I've been able to have over a dozen Bell's beers, most more than once. On our most recent get together he brought me a fantastic assortment that included a six-pack of my already reviewed Bell's Oberon, among others.

So this week is dedicated to Bell's. Each day, I'm going to do a quick review of one of this brewery's awesome beers. Hope you enjoy ... especially if you can get their beer. Enjoy!