Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Beer Enthusiast Life Cycle

Based on my own beer journey, and the countless journeys around me that I've witnessed, it seems to me there are some distinct stages to beer enthusiast life cycle. I was discussing this phenomenon and the various stages with my local beer outfitter last night, and wanted to put my thoughts to digital ink before I lost them

Stage One - The AcoLITE

In this stage, our hero starts down the road of enjoying beer. Most start with your typical macro lagers and light lagers. To be fair, this is initiated more by the effects of the beer, rather than the beer itself, but you have to start somewhere. For the beer enthusiast, they begin to pick up on differences, wonder what's actually gong on in the can (What is this triple hopping I hear so much about?), and begin to branch out a little more.

When I began my drinking career, I started out full-bore with liquor, and mostly ignored beer. After a few too many trips down blackout lane, I turned to the humble light beer as a way to slow my roll. I found pretty quickly that I enjoyed drinking beer quite a lot, and thus my journey of thousands of beers (and even more calories) began.

Stage Two - The Adventurer

Once the enthusiast moves on to more unique pastures, things really take off quickly. In this stage, the enthusiast starts trying what many of us call "gateway beers". These beers are usually pretty straightforward, and may be highly-local. I'd throw the big Euro lagers in here, along with Sam Adams Boston Lager and other non-BMC big brands, along with those local favorites like the Shiner portfolio here in Texas.

The whole world of styles and flavors begins to open up rapidly, and beer knowledge (forums, rating sites, books, etc.) kicks off a new hobby. This is where you usually see a collection of hastily washed-out bottles on the wall, as the enthusiast starts to notch their belt (which is ever-expanding thanks to the calories), but before they realize if they keep every bottle they'll need a bigger apartment. Many hours are spent in the local beer aisle staring in wonder trying to work out the best six-pack on offer.

As the boundaries begin to expand, the enthusiast starts developing their palate, and begins to discover which styles and breweries are best suited for them. Many will lock on to a few brands and dig very deep.

For me, the aforementioned Shiner profile and Guinness Draught is where I started. I defined myself this way. I had the whole Guinness collection: the slippers, the shirts, the bottle-opener hat, the neon, 500 glasses, even the fridge. My family still buys me this stuff.

Stage Three - The Snob

As the enthusiast starts getting into more flavorful, harder to find fare, they inevitably turn their backs on the beers that got them to this point and begin to get snobby. Being into "good" beer becomes a defining characteristic for their personality. Those who enjoy Blue Moon or Shock Top are viewed as unwashed Philistines that would benefit from a winding tirade about the downsides of using adjuncts in beer.

Many times, you'll find this person in the same beer aisles they used to wander with wonder, now talking loudly to friends to impress others with their extensive knowledge and superior taste. We've all seen this guy. We may have all been this guy.

They begin to spend increasing amounts of money on rare beer. They begin to experiment a little with trading to tick rare and far-flung highly-rated beers of their beer rating lists. "Whales" becomes part of their beer lexicon, in a non-ironic way.

This is a phase all beer enthusiasts go through to some degree; it seems unavoidable. The question is how long they stay here. Some stay for a few months, many get stuck here and never progress past it. This is a bad place to be.

At this point I renounced Shiner. I renounced Guinness. I laughed at myself for enjoying such plebeian beers. If it was easy to get, I didn't like it. I made sure everyone around me at a bar or bottle shop knew I was a "heavy hitter" that had tried all of the best beers and knew everything about beer. I'm not proud of who I was, but I'm proud I was able to move on.

Stage Four - The Quasi-Enlightened

Things start to stabilize. They realize the beers they drink don't define them. They realize there's nothing wrong with popular beers. They realize that there are hardly any "bad" beers on the market, just a lot of beers that aren't good to them. Time spent in the beer aisle is more quiet, only providing information and recommendations when asked. The more books that are read, the more they realize how little they know about beer.

The spending, trading, and lining up don't stop. In fact, they get more intense, ramping up to potentially problematic levels. Many hours are spent driving from store to store looking for a score. They might even make their spouse line up on Black Friday in the cold for hours to mule for a release (I certainly have done this).

I like to think I am here. Though I chase the hyped beers with the best of them, I love a High Life on a hot day, and I'm proud to announce it. Though, now that I think about it, maybe there's an annoying side-stage where people go out of their way to not be a snob, and that's where I am. Hmm, best not to think about. Moving on!

Stage Five - The Zen Master

At this point, the enthusiast begins to move past the limited releases. The hype, the effort required, the $25 per bottle prices all get to be too much stress for the marginal increase in quality over well-crafted "shelf beers".

They begin to realize, not everything needs double-digit alcohol percentage, barrel aging, or a fancy label. They turn back to the easily-acquired beers they used to enjoy and focus more on what is local, still dabbling in a few high-priority limited releases from time to time.

To make it very clear, I have not reached this stage. In fact, I'm far from it, still chasing down limited release beers each week, waiting in long lines, refreshing Twitter like a madman each day. However, I'd like to get here one day. Maybe.

So, where are you in your journey?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Russian River Pliny the Elder Review

Brewery: Russian River Brewing Co. | Beer: Pliny the Elder
Style: American Double India Pale Ale | ABV: 8.0% | IBUs: 100
Serving Method: 510ml bottle poured into tulip glass

Russian River Pliny the Elder
Since the early days of my beer geekdom, Russian River has been a hallowed name. One of the most respected names in American craft brewing, Russian River was founded in 1997 with Vinnie Cilurzo hired as brewmaster. An innovate brewer with a passion for sours, Vinnie ended up taking control of the company in 2002.

Russian River now brews a highly praised and sought-after collection of Belgian and thoroughly West Coast beers. The most famous of these would be the duo of Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger. The Elder is a Double IPA available on draft and in bottles, while the Younger is billed as a Triple IPA available on draft and often ranked as the best beer on the planet.

After much longing from a distance and a few sips at bottle shares, I finally put together a trade for some Russian River bottles that can get the full review treatment. First up had to be Pliny.

As Vinnie is credited with inventing the Double IPA style, Pliny the Elder is in many ways the definitive example of the style. Clocking in at eight percent alcohol and 100 IBUs, it's brewed with Amarillo, Centennial, CTZ, and Simcoe hops.

Russian River describe the finished product thusly:

It is well-balanced with malt, hops, and alcohol, slightly bitter with a fresh hop aroma of floral, citrus, and pine.
It's been a long wait to finally get a bottle of this in front of me for review. Let's not delay another second.

Appearance: A clear orange-copper body capped by over two fingers of off-white lace that fade slowly and leave excellent lacing.

Aroma: Plenty of dank, piney, citrusy (grapefruit and juicy orange), floral, and spicy hops over caramel malt and light alcohol. Clearly a West-coast DIPA.

Taste: Up front, a big wave of hops that are grapefruity, peppery, resinous, and potently bitter. Underneath, a more reserved husky caramel malt backbone anchors everything, but lets the hops shine in the lead. The alcohol is present in low volumes throughout, adding a pinch of spice. Grapefruity, leafy, and bitter hops, toasted husky malt, and a hint of booze in the finish.

Mouthfeel: Medium bodied and a little silky with smooth medium carbonation and a bone-dry finish. The alcohol adds just a bit of slickness throughout.

Drinkability: Drinks just a hair faster than the alcohol content would suggest, making it a relatively quick-drinking DIPA.

Verdict: Clearly the quintessential West Coast Double IPA, Pliny the Elder lives up to the hype for me. Compared the brash and bruising DIPAs on the shelves today, I can see acolytes dismissing this as too reserved, but the craftsmanship and brilliant character are evident for anybody looking. There are just some beers that exude a special synergy of elements that mark them as classics greater than the sum of their parts; Pliny has that in spades. Now, to find some of that scion.

Grade: A+ (4.7 out of 5 stars)

Review by

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA Review

Brewery: Dogfish Head Brewery | Beer: 120 Minute IPA
Style: American Double India Pale Ale | ABV: ~18.0% | IBUs: 120
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into tulip glass

Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA
Now here's a beer I've been waiting to try for quite a while now. It's not that I haven't been able to procure any (in fact, I was able to squirrel away a bottle when I was but a poor intern in '08), it's just that every time that I bought some, I didn't end up reviewing it. Though I loved the other beers in Dogfish's Minute series, I just never got around to it. Perhaps I was afraid.

After all, this is a big bastard of a beer. As the name implies, it's boiled for a full two hours with continuous hopping form high-alpha hops. As if that wasn't enough, it's then dry-hopped daily in the fermented for a month and aged for another month on whole-leaf hops.

The result is a hop-monster with 120 IBUs and 15-20% ABV. Barleywine? Triple IPA? Bastard child beer liquor? You could make a good case for each.

Unlike most DIPAs, Dogfish encourage aging of the product, as it's hearty enough to positively evolve over time. I certainly have a nice collection in the cellar.

But, the time has come to finally jump in and review this beast. Wish me luck.

Appearance: A golden-orange body capped by half a finger of cream-colored head that fades in average time, leaving patchy lacing.

Aroma: Somewhat muted (almost aged) dank, piney, leafy, and citrusy hops over heaps of sticky toffee pudding malt. Plenty of spicy booze all around.

Taste: Up front, citrusy, green, dank, resinous, sappy, and bitter hops take charge. There’s a lot of peppery booze here to be sure, but it never gets to be too much. Underneath, enough caramelized malt to ground everything. It’s big, full of character, but not muddled. Leafy hops, grainy malt, and lots of spicy booze in the finish.

Mouthfeel: Full bodied with smooth medium-low carbonation and a dry finish. Plenty of heat and oiliness from the booze throughout.

Drinkability: Obviously, with the bonkers alcohol content, this is a beer firmly in sipper territory. However, that said, it still manages to drink a little faster than expected.

Verdict: 120 Minute is just as extreme as billed, but it’s not just extreme for extreme’s sake; it’s a damn good (and thoroughly interesting) beer. Not just a Double IPA, this is on another planet and an experience worth having. Looking forward to finally breaking into the aged ones in my cellar to see how it evolves.

Grade: A

Saint Arnold's Bishop's Barrel No. 4 Review

Brewery: Saint Arnold Brewing Co. | Beer: Bishop's Barrel No. 4
Style: Weizenbock | ABV: 9.9% | IBUs: ~40
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into tulip glass

Saint Arnold Bishop's Barrel No. 4
For the fourth beer in the successful Bishop's Barrel series, Saint Arnold has brewed up a big Weizenbock brewed with cocoa nibs and aged in Woodford Reserve barrels.

The majority was brewed a year before bottling, with 10% of the final product being a fresh batch to bring back the weizen yeast character which had faded in the barrels. The cocoa nibs employed came from Tejas Chocolate.

Here's how Saint Arnold describe the finished product:
The taste starts with bourbon and a rich maltiness. Chocolate and a light banana flavor emerges, reminiscent of a banana split made with chocolate ice cream.
I've been a big fan of the Bishop so far, let's see if the streak continues.

Appearance: An inky black body that lets no light escape, save a few highlights of brown if you force the issue. Up top, just over a finger of tannish head that fades in average time, leaving great lacing.

Aroma: A mix of dark malt, musty dark fruit, licorice, vanilla, bourbon, lots of oak, and a hint of booze as it warms.

Taste: Just like the nose. A big, bold mix of very dark fruit, licorice, vanilla, leather, bourbon, and oak over a solid backbone of dark malt. Clearly related to the other beers in this series. The alcohol is masked masterfully, never showing its head. Lots of barrel in the finish, along with dark fruit and dark malt.

Mouthfeel: Medium-full bodied and velvety with smooth medium carbonation and a full finish. Nice slickness from the alcohol throughout.

Drinkability: Drinks just as you’d expect given the alcohol content.

Verdict: As with most beers in the Bishop’s Barrel series, the barrel really is front and center here. It’s more than just barrel through, with plenty of big and enjoyable Weizenbock character complemented by the barrel. Without the barrel it would be a good beer, with it, it’s something more.

Grade: A

Note: While this review is being published in November, the tasting notes contained within were taken when the beer was fresh in August.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Saint Arnold Bishop's Barrel No. 3 Review

Brewery: Saint Arnold Brewing Co. | Beer: Bishop's Barrel No. 3
Style: Russian Imperial Stout | ABV: 11.5% | IBUs: 49
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into tulip glass
Saint Arnold Bishop's Barrel No. 3Here we have the third release in Saint Arnold's Bishop's Barrel series, and already we're seeing some retreaded ground.

Like the first release in the series, this is a Russian Imperial Stout aged in Woodford Reserve barrels. The differences being that it was aged for 12 months instead of 10 and that the house Saint Arnold yeast was used in place of the less estery yeast in the first release.

I was a fan of the first release, though wanted a bit more body. Sounds like I may just get my wish here.

Saint Arnold use the same description for this as the first release:

A pleasant sipping beer with the bourbon both present but not overpowering as you work your way through the glass. Oddly easy to drink for a beer this strong.
Let's jump back in and see what has changed.

Appearance: An inky black body with hints of red around the edge. Up top, just over a finger of tannish head that fades slowly, leaving good lacing.

Aroma: Bitter chocolate, cola, molasses, a hint of something lactic, booze, and lots of bourbon barrel character with a balance of oak and vanilla.

Taste: The base features dark chocolate, dark coffee, dark fruit, and well-toasted dark malt, but is on the lighter side as far as intensity goes for the style. There’s lots of barrel character on deck to compliment, with lots of vanilla, oak, and bourbon character. Taking a small nip of Woodford Reserve while sampling, it’s clear to see the influence here. Everything meshes well and it’s well balanced. The booze is apparent throughout, but never imposes. Dark malt, oak, and bourbon in the finish.

Mouthfeel: Medium bodied and creamy with silky smooth medium carbonation and just a little warmth from the booze. Doesn’t have the same thinness issue as the first release.

Drinkability: Drinks a little faster than the double-digit alcohol content and style would suggest.

Verdict: Plenty of deja-vu here, to be sure, as this is rather close to the first installment of the series. The yeast change is noticeable, making things a bit more full-bodied and creamy. However, that extra two months in the barrel hasn’t made much of an impact. The base beer is still just a little bit less intense than I’d prefer, but the barrel again comes through beautifully.

Grade: A

Note: While this review is being published in November, the tasting notes contained within were taken when the beer was fresh in May.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Saint Arnold Bishop's Barrel No. 2 Review

Brewery: Saint Arnold Brewing Co. | Beer: Bishop's Barrel No. 2
Style: Old Ale | ABV: 7.8% | IBUs: 13
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into tulip glass

Saint Arnold Bishop's Barrel No. 2
Time for a fresh old Saint Arnold beer, as we have a new Bishop's Barrel release to review. Bishop's Barrel is Saint Arnold's new experimental barrel-aged series, and the second installment just dropped. I was a big fan of the first release, so I've been looking forward to trying this one.

Luckily for me, it was released on President's Day and I had the day off, so I braved the elements and waited again outside Petrol Station here in Houston with a rowdy crew of beer geeks and was able to score a few bottles to bring home.

This time around, we have Saint Arnold's Christmas Ale (an Old Ale) aged with cherries in Chardonnay barrels. It was brewed in November 2011, racked that December, and finally bottled earlier this month (February 2013). 54 barrels were aged, yielding 1,146 cases of finished product.

When it came time to bottle, the brewers discovered that two of the barrels had taken on Brettanomyces wild yeast character, while another two barrels had taken on sour lactic bacteria character. Instead of dumping these barrels, after testing they were added to the final blend, and will hopefully add a little funk to the proceedings.

Saint Arnold describe the finished product as:
[L]ight malt up front, chardonnay in the middle and finishes try with a distinct tartness. The cherry throughout is a light note, never dominating.
A funky barrel aged beer from my hometown? Let's get to it!

Appearance: A hazy red-orange body with bright orange highlights. Up top, a half a finger of whitish head burns out almost instantly, leaving the faintest ring around the edge and no lacing.

Aroma: Sweet, tart, musty juicy cherries over biscuity malt and mild barrel character.

Taste: A mix of tart, sweet, and juicy cherries, white wine, caramel malt, vanilla and oak from the barrels, and just a hint of spicy booze. There’s a lot going on here, but everything is balanced rather nicely. Juicy cherry and biscuity malt in the finish.

Mouthfeel: Medium bodied with velvety-smooth medium carbonation and a drying finish.

Drinkability: Goes back about as you’d expect given the style and alcohol content.

Verdict: Bishop’s Barrel 2 is an interesting and thoroughly enjoyable beer. There’s less barrel character than the last release, but it’s still all rather solid and a total departure from the base Christmas Ale. I was hoping for a bit more funk and/or sour character, but when am I not?

Grade: A-

Saint Arnold Bishop's Barrel No. 1 Review

Brewery: Saint Arnold Brewing Co. | Beer: Bishop's Barrel No. 1
Style: Russian Imperial Stout | ABV: 12.0% | IBUs: 49
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into tulip glass

Saint Arnold Bishop's Barrel No. 1
Saint Arnold has been busy substantially increasing its portfolio substantially over the last few years. Along with new year-round and occasional brews, they've created two new series to accompany their Divine Reserve series. The first is Icon, originally conceived as a series of new beers iconic of their respective style. The second is Bishop's Barrel, a collection of inventive small-batch beers that have been graced with a period of barrel aging.

For now, Saint Arnold is releasing Bishop's Barrel via bars and restaurants. I've heard the logic is that this will help reward their loyal on-premise accounts and cut down on hoarding. Luckily for me some of these accounts chose to sell their bottles to-go and I was able to scoop up the first release after lining up outside Petrol Station here in Houston with a bunch of other beer geeks.

First in the Bishop's Barrel series is a big Russian Imperial Stout aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels. It was brewed in December 2011, racked in January 2012, and finally bottled in October 2012. Only 48 barrels were aged, resulting in just 948 cases, hardly enough to satiate the Saint Arnold army.

Saint Arnold describe the finished product as:
A pleasant sipping beer with the bourbon both present but not overpowering as you work your way through the glass. Oddly easy to drink for a beer this strong.
Let's crack open the barrel and see what lies inside.

Appearance: An inky black body with the subtlest of red highlights around the edge. Up top, half a finger of tannish head that fades in average time, leaving good lacing.

Aroma: Dark chocolate, molasses, licorice, booze, and a hell of a lot of barrel character with plenty of oak and vanilla.

Taste: The base beer has a decent amount of the typical dark chocolate, dark coffee, and dark malt Imperial Stout flavors, but is on the less-intense side. Again, there’s lots of big barrel on the edge (vanilla, oak, and full-on bourbon). Everything meshes well. The booze is masked well; it’s apparent throughout, but kept in check considering the amount here. Dark toasty grain, oak, and a hint of booze in the finish.

Mouthfeel: Medium bodied with velvety smooth medium carbonation and just a little warmth from the booze. Lighter in body than most of the style.

Drinkability: Drinks just a little faster than the healthy double-digit alcohol content and style would suggest.

Verdict: As a showcase for barrel aging, Bishop’s Barrel is off to a strong start with number one, as there’s heaps of barrel character all around this beer. I’m in love with the barrel character, but the base beer is just a little too thin in flavor and body for this to get absolute top marks. Can’t wait to see how this ages and what’s up next from the series.

Grade: A

Note: While this review is being published in 2013, the tasting notes contained within were taken when the beer was fresh in 2012.