Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Belgium 1554 Review

Brewery: New Belgium Brewing | Beer: 1554
Style: Belgian Dark Ale | ABV: 5.5%
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into globe glass

New Belgium 1554In 1997, a flood at a Colorado library wiped out a recipe for a Belgian Dark Ale that New Belgium was interested in brewing. Instead of just forgetting about it or faking the recipe, New Belgium sent their brewmaster and the researcher that had originally found the recipe off to Belgium to track the original down. After much deciphering of ancient script, converting obscure measurements into something usable, and a lot of trial and error back at the brewery, 1554 was what they ended up with.

New Belgium describe 1554 as "a highly quaffable dark beer with a moderate body and mouthfeel." They list it as an "Enlightened" Black Ale, but as that's not a recognized style, I'm going with Belgian Dark Ale. Apparently, it uses "a light lager yeast strain and dark chocolaty malts to redefine what dark beer can be." An ale with lager yeast, what will they think of next?

Appearance: Dark reddish-brown body with ruby highlights. The head is a couple of fingers high, tan colored, tightly-packed, and sticky. Lacing is good.

Aroma: Dark roasted malt, cocoa powder, and fresh coffee with a slight bitterness. In the nose, this beer reminds me of a Porter.

Taste: Very much the same as the aroma: dark malt, dark fruit, and cocoa powder tempered with a decent amount of malt acidity and hop bitterness. There's a little bit of spice mixed in, giving the beer a little Belgian flair. Despite only clocking in at 5.5% ABV, every now and then you get a pop of booze. Aftertaste is of roasty cereal and cocoa (but not Cocoa Puffs...).

Mouthfeel: Silky and creamy medium-body with moderate carbonation.

Drinkability: This is a somewhat slower beer, but is still light enough to allow you to run through a six-pack in an evening if you set your mind to it.

Verdict: Another complex and interesting offering from New Belgium, 1554 is a roasted-malt delight with that little Belgian twist New Belgium is so famous for. If you haven't sampled 1554 yet, put it on your list of beers to try.

Grade: B+

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Victory HopDevil Ale Review

Brewery: Victory Brewing Co. | Beer: HopDevil Ale
Style: American India Pale Ale | ABV: 6.7%
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into pint glass

Victory HopDevil AleVictory Brewing, a brewery and brewpub out of Pennsylvania, was founded back in 1996 by Ron Barchet and Bill Covaleski. In the meantime, they've grown to a production level of around 55,000 barrels a year, with their beers distributed in 23 states. The company is rather particular about using whole hop flowers, rather than the pellets or extracts many other brewery employ.

HopDevil Ale, an IPA, seems to be their flagship brew. Victory describe the brew as "menacingly delicious, with the powerful, aromatic punch of whole flower American hops backed up by rich, German malts." The label features an distinctive little cartoon hop-devil character, who seems to be just a little too happy to be a considered a "devil." HopDevil has built quite a name for itself in the beer community as a very malty, yet balanced, American IPA.

Appearance: A somewhat hazy burnt-orange body with a solid finger of off-white and bubbly head. Good lacing.

Aroma: Floral, spicy, and citrusy hops balanced by a brown-sugary malt body. A bit of booze is lurking around the edges.

Taste: Spicy, grapefruity hops dominate at first and are decently bitter. There's a solid biscuity, sweet, and nutty malt backbone bringing up the rear, well up to the challenge put forth by the hops. The booze is there, but stays in its place. Everything meshes well and is perfectly balanced.

Mouthfeel: Medium-bodied with good carbonation and a somewhat dry finish.

Drinkability: Goes back easily enough given the style and alcohol content. A good session IPA.

Verdict: With a solid malt backbone balanced perfectly with brilliant hops, HopDevil is one of the best IPAs that I've tried yet. I'm very much looking forward to trying the other Victory offerings I can get my hands on here in Houston.

Grade: A

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig Ale Review

Brewery: Boston Brewing Co. | Beer: Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig Ale
Style: Winter Warmer | ABV: 5.9%
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into pint glass

Samuel Adams Old Fezziwig AleOld Fezziwig is named after the character in Dicken's Scrooge, the main character's jolly employer from the "Christmas Past" flashback. Sam Adams call this beer a Stong Brown Ale, but I think it's more appropriately listed as a Winter Warmer. This was a Winter seasonal from 1995, when it was first brewed, until 2000, when it was discontinued. People were disappointed, and although there apparently wasn't enough demand to justify bringing it back as a solo offering, it's now included in Sam Adam's Winter twelve-pack.

The malt body is composed of what the brewery calls Two-Row Pale, Munich 10, Chocolate Malt, and Caramel 60 varieties. While hops come in the form of Tettnang Tettnanger and Hallertau-Mittlefruh Noble varieties. The brewery also adds orange peel, cinnamon and ginger in the way of spices, to "impart a rich spice complexity that balances against the deep malt character." The brewer describes Old Fezziwig as the "Christmas cookie of beer," and I can see why.

Appearance: Clear dark reddish brown body. One finger of off-white head. Leaves above-average lacing. A handsome beer that really looks the part for a Winter evening.

Aroma: Roasty sour malt with lots of spice and some hints of booze. Not much in the way of hops.

Taste: Lots of sour roasted malt that's chocolaty and nutty. The hops ramp up a little in the finish, but still but never really come all the way to the forefront. Alcohol comes through every now and then, but the malt body conceals it well. Everything is nice and balanced for the style, but unfortunately a little thin. The aftertaste, conversely, is rather full very malty.

Mouthfeel: A little creamy, but much more lighter-bodied than you'd expect. Moderate carbonation.

Drinkability: It goes back easily enough with it's thinnish body and moderate alcohol. Certainly one of the quicker Winter Warmers I have tried yet.

Verdict: As you'd expect from a Sam Adams offering, this is a solid beer, but nothing that special. I'd heard great things about this beer, but it just seems kind of average to me. Certainly not worth buying the mixed Winter twelve-pack just to get two bottles of this beer, but not necessarily the weak spot in the pack either.

Grade: B-

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale 2008 Review

Brewery: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. | Beer: Celebration Ale 2008
Style: American India Pale Ale | ABV: 6.8%
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into pint glass

Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale 2008Celebration Ale is Sierra Nevada's Winter seasonal and has garnered quite a reputation in the beer geek community as one of the best. Like the company's Fall seasonal, Anniversary Ale, Celebration is an India Pale Ale and slightly different each year. Two back-to-back India Pale Ale seasonals might seem a bit strange, but it makes sense for a company that built it's reputation on hops. And as much as I love a good IPA, I couldn't be happier with their decision.

Celebration has racked up numerous medals in various beer contests, including a gold at the United States Beer Tasting Championship and a silver at the Great American Beer Festival. Stan Sessor of the San Francisco Chronicle went so far to call Celebration Ale the "best beer ever made in America." The beer is bittered with Chinook hops and dry-hopped with Cascade and Centennial varieties. Recently, the 2008 edition has started to show up here in Houston, and I'm eager to try my first ever Celebration. Let's see what all the fuss is about, shall we?

Appearance: Pours a slightly hazy golden-amber below a glorious, two-finger off-white head with great lacing. Brilliant looking beer.

Aroma: Grapefruit, orange peel, and piney hops over a sweet, brown sugar malt. Everything is in it's perfect proportion here.

Taste: Piney and citrusy hops are in the forefront, with grapefruit and orange the dominant varieties of citrus. The malt backbone is mostly pale with some caramel coming through. Every now and then, a bit of alcohol shines through it all. This beer is sublimely balanced.

Mouthfeel: Medium-bodied with moderate carbonation. The finish is a little dry and does well to keep the bitterness going.

Drinkability: I can knock these back all night long, although I'd probably be pretty buzzed by the end of the night...

Verdict: Simply one of the best American IPAs I've sampled yet, Celebration is certainly something I'll look for each Winter. Miles ahead of Sierra Nevada's other seasonal IPA, Anniversary Ale, this is the Sierra Nevada IPA to get. I'm not sure if this is the best beer America has ever produced, but it's probably on the short-list. Brilliant.

Grade: A+

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Anchor Christmas Ale 2008 Review

Brewery: Anchor Brewing Co. | Beer: Christmas Ale 2008
Style: Winter Warmer | ABV: ~6.0%
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into pint glass

Anchor Christmas Ale 2008Anchor releases a slightly different Winter seasonal each year, known as Christmas Ale. They've been doing this since 1975, back in the Dark Ages of American beer. The beers age gracefully, and I intend to save a couple bottles for an update next Winter. This year's offering, the 34th, is in the classic stout little Anchor bottle adorned with an achingly beautiful label featuring a Jeffery Pine tree. Each year's Christmas Ale features a different tree, a nod to the tradition of trees representing the Winter Solstice, when the world is born anew.

Anchor are quite secretive with the details each year, not releasing (as far as I've found anyway, feel free to correct me in the comments) the specific style, the alcohol content, or the ingredients. Even the name doesn't seem to be nailed down 100%, as it appears with names as varied as Our Special Ale and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Anchor simply calls it Christmas Ale on their site, so that's what I'm going with. For simplicity's sake, I've listed the beer as a Winter Warmer and the ABV as ~6.0% (I've seen it listed, without documentation, anywhere from 5.5% to 8%). Let's try to unravel this year's mystery.

Appearance: A thick, dark brown body allows hardly any light to penetrate. What light does manage to make its way through manifests as brilliant ruby. Pours a healthy caramel-colored, two-finger high head that leaves dramatic lacing. Simply put, this is a gorgeous beer.

Aroma: Dominant are cloves and spices, especially nutmeg that is reminiscent of eggnog (quite appropriate for the season), with some pine on the edges. There is a solid roasted malt background, but not much in the way of hops. A very unique start.

Taste: Not quite as brilliant in the mouth as in the nose, but still damn good. Sour dark malt with a lot less of the spices coming through. There's lots of chocolate and dark fruit with some pine coming from (I'm guessing) the hops. I'm not sure what the ABV is exactly, but I would estimate its somewhere between 5.5 and 6.5% ABV.

Mouthfeel: A chewy medium body with moderate carbonation. Even though I don't know the exact style, this seems a little thinner than it should be. The finish is somewhat dry.

Drinkability: Definitely something you savor over a period of time, Christmas Ale is something I would enjoy at a rate of one glass per evening.

Verdict: A great holiday sipper, with a complex malt body and lots of spicy fireworks. I'm very much looking forward to trying this vintage again this time next year, to see what has changed.

Grade: B

Sierra Nevada Anniversary Ale 2008 Review

Brewery: Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. | Beer: Anniversary Ale 2008
Style: American India Pale Ale | ABV: 5.9%
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into pint glass

Sierra Nevada Anniversary Ale 2008Sierra Nevada, of Chico, California, was one of the first players in the American craft brewing renaissance. With their flagship, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, they almost single-handedly brought the humble hop back into the American beer spotlight after decades of abuse. Since then Sierra Nevada has enjoyed continued success with a lineup consisting of only four year-rounds (the straightforwardly named Pale Ale, Porter, Stout & Wheat), four seasonals and four special releases.

Anniversary, an India Pale Ale, is the company's Fall seasonal and this year commemorates their 28th year in the craft-brew business. I missed this beer when it first came out this year, and I was beginning to think that I was going to have to wait another entire year to see it in stores again. But, to my great surprise, I ran into a stack of twelve-packs at a local liquor store and promptly brought one home.

The beer changes a little bit each year, with no two years being the same. Sierra Nevada describes Anniversary 2008 as "a big, full-flavored ale bursting at the seams with fresh, spicy and aromatic hops." The malt backbone is composed of four varieties, Chinook hops are used for bittering and the brew is finished and dry-hopped with Cascade hops.

Somewhat hazy pumpkin-colored body with a massive two and a half finger off-white head that leaves brilliant lacing. The head is so massive, in fact, that after my first serving I decided to switch to a pint glass I use for sixteen-ounce beers. Trust me, you're going to want to leave yourself some headroom.

Aroma: Spicy, piney, and citrusy Cascade hops over a solid brown sugar malt. Definite notes of booze arise, despite the middling alcohol content. Very appetizing.

Taste: Juicy, citrusy, and spicy Cascade hops over a solid biscuit and cereal malt backbone. Every now and then, I get interesting notes of tea-leaves. Everything is just a little bit thin and muddled together here. But, despite the lack of intensity, all of the elements are balanced well. The alcohol promised in the aroma never quite comes through.

Mouthfeel: A little frothy and wet, as the explosive head would suggest, with a medium-light body and light carbonation. The finish is somewhat dry.

Drinkability: With a balanced flavor profile and only a 5.9% ABV, this makes a great session beer.

Verdict: The flavors here are solid, but I keep coming back to the frothiness, somewhat thin taste, and crazy head. Maybe this is all by design, or maybe something was awry with my twelve bottles. Either way, this is a decent enough balanced IPA, but nothing that special. I'm cellaring two bottles to see how they change over the coming months.

Grade: B

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Samuel Adams Hallertau Imperial Pilsner Review

Brewery: Boston Brewing Co. | Beer: Samuel Adams Hallertau Imperial Pilsner
Style: American Imperial Pilsner | ABV: 8.8%
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into Pilsner glass

Samuel Adams Hallertau Imperial PilsnerHallertau Imperial Pilsner is part of the Sam Adams "extreme beers" portfolio, along with beers like Chocolate Bock and Utopias. This beer was designed as their hop-centric extreme beer, and was first brewed in 2005. The style is American Imperial Pilsner, basically just a Pilsner with a lot more malt, hops and alcohol. Sam Adams markets the beer as "an intense hop experience" and "one of the hoppiest [beers] in the world, without being overly bitter."

According to their website, Hallertau Imperial Pilsner is hopped exclusively by the Hallertau Mittelfrueh hop variety, from the Hallertau region of Bavaria. The brewery describes the beer as containing "enormous, almost reckless, quantities" of these hops - twelve pounds per barrel in fact (twelve times more than their Boston Lager). The malt backbone is composed of two-row Harrington and Metcalfe malt varieties.

Appearance: A murky amber body with a finger-high, fluffy, off-white head that leaves fantastic lacing. Reminds me of a good Hefeweizen in the glass.

Aroma: Slightly hoppy with bananas, lemons, and a juicy, fruity sweetness like that of gummi bears or wine gums. You can find a little bit of biscuity malt at the end if you focus.

Taste: Hoppy and crisp, but not very bitter, with the juicy sweetness at the start. Soon, biscuty malt comes into sharp focus and then a brilliant bitterness that lingers in the aftertaste for minutes. Unlike the nose, this is actually very well balanced and intense. Alcohol is certainly there, but never ruins the party. As it warms, the focus gently starts to drift away from the hops and more towards the malt and alcohol.

Mouthfeel: Medium-bodied with a healthy amount of carbonation and alcohol warmth in the cheek. While it's a little juicy in the mouth, it drys a bit in the finish.

Drinkability: As the bitter aftertaste here is intense and the 8.8% ABV is on the higher side, this is something best enjoyed at a snail's pace.

Verdict: Sam Adams developed this beer as a showcase for Hallertau Mittelfrueh hops, and they've done a great job showing them off here. Instead of just brewing up another great American IPA for their hoppy "extreme" offering, they went a different direction and came up with something really special. They're not bullshiting with all the marketing, this really is a brilliant hop experience.

Grade: A

Friday, December 19, 2008

New Belgium Frambozen Review

Brewery: New Belgium Brewing | Beer: Frambozen
Style: Framboise | ABV: 6.5%
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into globe glass

New Belgium FrambozenOne of New Belgium's Winter seasonals (along with 2° Below), Frambozen is New Belgium's take on the Framboise style. According to the late beer scholar, Michael Jackson, the Framboise style is a "[r]aspberry beer, usually based on Lambic." This particular example is constructed by mixing fresh red raspberries into a Brown Ale. Regarding the berries, according to the brewery: "Every year, New Belgium sends a delegate to the Pacific Northwest to oversee the process of turning freshly picked berries into a pure juice to be added in fermentation."

Apparently, the Serbian raspberry crop failed this year. As it's the world's largest, raspberry prices are up across the board. Accordingly, you might find that this year's Frambozen six-pack commands a dollar or so premium over last year's. But, with the hop shortage driving beer prices up everywhere, you probably wouldn't have noticed the difference anyway.

Appearance: A thick, dark burnt-umber body with ruby highlights. A huge, bubbly, off-white head with a rose tinge sits on top and leaves good lacing.

Aroma: There's certainly no doubt that this beer is infused with fruit. It reminds me of a good crisp grape juice with a bit of Ribena blackcurrant mixed in. Not much as far as hops or malt come through. This is intriguing, to say the least.

Taste: Tart, gushy berries mixed with a somewhat subdued roasted malt. If you go looking for the malt and alcohol, you can certainly find them underneath the fruit, but I'm not really picking up any hops here. Grape makes a bit or a return and, in a bizarre way, makes the beer remind me of red wine at times. You might think all of these flavors wouldn't mesh, but they actually come together pretty well. This tastes like an adventurous homebrew, not that that's a bad thing. The aftertaste cranks the malt up a notch or two and loses most of the raspberry.

Mouthfeel: Light-to-medium body with lots of carbonation and a nice dryish finish.

Drinkability: While it goes down easily enough, and only clocks in at 6.5% ABV, I still probably wouldn't want to be drinking these all night. Interesting and pleasant enough, but more fitting for a glass or two than a full session.

Verdict: Frambozen is a solid and unique fruit beer; nothing more, nothing less. A nice change of pace as far as holiday seasonals go, there's a good chance that I'll be picking up another six-pack of this next winter.

Grade: A-

Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA Review

Brewery: Dogfish Head Brewery | Beer: 60 Minute IPA
Style: American India Pale Ale | ABV: 6.0%
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into pint glass

Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA60 Minute IPA is Dogfish Head's flagship, and best-selling, beer. As it's name suggests, hops are added to the wort continuously for 60 minutes during the boil. When he set out to brew a proper India Pale Ale, founder Sam Calagione was unhappy with the results of the traditional method of adding bittering hops early in the boil and finishing hops at the very end. He decided that to get the balance he was striving for, he would have to continuously add hops during the entire boil.

His first attempt at this was to rig a vibrating football game covered with hop pellets above the brewing kettle during the boil. While it worked for that one batch, it wouldn't last, so "Sir-Hops-Alot" (a more "industrial" version) was born, and is used to this day. Dogfish Head also brews 75 (available at their brewpub), 90 and 120 minute versions of IPA this way, obviously all with more exposure to hops. Another neat thing about this series of beers is that the number in the name corresponds not only to the amount of time hops are added to the boil, but the ABV and IBU (International Bittering Units), as well. So, 60 Minute is 6.0% ABV and measures in at 60 IBUs.

According to Dogfish Head, the hops varieties that 60 Minute is exposed to consist of Warrior, Amarillo, and "Mystery Hop X." While it sounds like something out of Speed Racer, I'm sure it's something pretty cool if it comes from DFH. The brewery describes the beer as being as a "powerful East Coast I.P.A. with a lot of citrusy hop character" along with "cedar, pine & candied-orange flavors." 60 Minute used to be bottle-conditioned, meaning that there's a secondary fermentation and maturation in the bottle, but all references on both the label and website have been struck. I don't see any reason for the brewer to remove these references unless the beer is no longer bottle-conditioned, which is a real shame.

Appearance: Crystal-clear amber body with a two-finger tall bubbly, white head that slowly fades into a quarter-inch blanket that leaves above average lacing.

Aroma: The second I cracked the bottle open, my porch filled with the smell of hops. On closer inspection, the hops are citrusy (specifically grapefruit and orange peel), piney and ride on top of a caramel backbone. There's also a strange smell, reminiscent of Orange Lucozade in there somewhere.

Taste: Hops are surely the showcase here, and they're bitter, citrusy, and piney. The sweet, biscuity malt character is very much in line with what the hops dish out, allowing for a near-perfect balance. It tastes like there's more alcohol than there really is for some reason. The aftertastes is biased towards the malt and booze, but the bitterness is still there.

Mouthfeel: Medium-bodied and a little creamy with moderately-high carbonation.

Drinkability: With the brewery describing this as "the session beer for beer geeks like us," it better go down the hatch easily. Even with the moderately-high 6% ABV, 60 Minute IPA is certainly the most sessionable offering from DFH head I've tried yet (of course, most of their beers are well over six percent...). The hops are intense, but not to any level that keeps you from ordering another.

Verdict: When compared to the rest of the Dogfish Head stable, 60 Minute is certainly one of the least extreme offerings. But that's the point, DFH mean for 60 Minute IPA to be a balanced, very drinkable, yet still exciting and unique everyday beer. A terrific example of the American India Pale Ale style, and of beer in general. After this, I'm dying to try the four-pack of 90 Minute and single bottle of 120 Minute that await me in my "cellar."

Grade: A

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Oskar Blues Dale's Pale Ale Review

Brewery: Oskar Blues Brewery | Beer: Dale's Pale Ale
Style: American Pale Ale | ABV: 6.5%
Serving Method: 12 oz. can poured into pint glass

Oskar Blues Dale's Pale AleThe first thing you notice about Dale's Pale Ale is its very plain looking red-white-and-blue can that looks more like a 70's macro than a cutting-edge craft-brew. I'm not about to start judging beer on it's packaging any time soon. In fact, a lot of the time I've found a plain label can be a statement of confidence in the product itself. And after enjoying another Oskar Blues offering, Old Chub, so much, I have some pretty high hopes for Dale's and the other OB beers showing up in shops here in Houston (and my fridge): Ten Fidy and Gordon.

Dale's Pale Ale is Oskar Blues' flagship beer, and, according to them, America's first hand-canned craft beer. Its racked up a number of mentions and awards from many mainstream publications including The New York Times, Details, & Men's Journal. A heaping post-boil addition of Centennial hops pushes this beer into an area that the brewer calls "somewhere between an American Pale Ale and an India Pale Ale." The can chimes in describing the brew as "a huge, voluminously hopped mutha of a Pale Ale." Well, one thing I'm going to be expecting inside this can is a decent amount of hops.

Appearance: A hazy, yet bubbly, carrot-orange body with a one-finger, white head that leaves good lacing.

Aroma: The can didn't lie, this is one heavily-hopped beer. The hops slap you in the face well before you even start pouring the beer into the glass. Grapefruit dominates in the hop department, with orange-peel and pine bringing in the rear. As for malt, there isn't much shining through. This really seems more like an IPA than a Pale Ale.

Taste: Very bitter, citrusy hops off the bat. Grapefruit is still very much the focus, with the pine and orange-peel only slightly more prominent than before. The malt isn't completely choked out by the hops, and has a clean, caramel character. I would have liked to see just a little more of a balance between the hops and malt here, but these hops are good enough to make up for it. The aftertaste is decidedly bitter and, at times, a little soapy.

Mouthfeel: Sticky and medium-bodied with moderate carbonation. The pleasantly bitter aftertaste lingers a long time.

Drinkability: Due to the bitter character and moderately-high 6.5% ABV, only committed hopheads are going to be chugging this all night long. However, this is certainly an easily drinkable beer for anyone who isn't allergic to hops.

Verdict: Dale's is certainly no slouch, but it's lacking just a little bit of malt to be perfectly balanced. To me, and apparently Oskar Blues themselves, Dale's clocks in somewhere between an IPA and an APA. One thing I can say for sure though, this is the hoppiest canned brew I've ever encountered, and that has to count for something.

Grade: A-

Friday, December 12, 2008

Saint Arnold Christmas Ale Review

Brewery: Saint Arnold Brewing Co. | Beer: Christmas Ale
Style: Winter Warmer | ABV: 7.0%
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into pint glass

Saint Arnold Christmas AleIt's that time of year again, time to review a Saint Arnold Winter seasonal. Last Winter, I reviewed Winter Stout, this time it's Christmas Ale. Saint Arnold introduced Christmas Ale back in 1995 as their first ever seasonal brew. The style, according to the brewer, is Old Ale. However, other sources list it as a Winter Warmer. As Christmas Ale, to me at least, more closely resembles the profile of a Winter Warmer than an Old Ale (it isn't aged for one), that's what I'm listing it as. If you think I might be mistaken, please weigh in with a comment.

Saint Arnold describes the beer as a "rich, hearty ale perfect for the holiday season with a malty sweetness and spicy hop character." They use five different types of malted barley in Christmas Ale, making it a very sweet and alcohol-filled proposition. It must be working, because the beer has won two gold medals at the Real Ale Festival, a bronze at the World Beer Cup and silver at the World Beer Championship.

Appearance: Perfectly clear rust-red body you could read a newspaper through. With a regular pour, the head can be disappointing, but with just a little more aggression you can easily get a solid finger's width worth. The head rapidly recedes into a simple ring around the edge of the glass, and leaves minimal lacing.

Aroma: Spice and sweet dark fruit over a rich, boozey malt backbone. Reminds me of a Scottish Ale in some ways (though with much more banana).

Taste: It's much the same in the mouth: a solid, sweet malt character with lots of spices to match. Anything besides spiciness from the hops is subdued here, in keeping with the style. The alcohol is certainly noticeable, but complements the other flavors, rather than clashing with them. It's snowing tonight in Texas as I write this, and the booze is certainly welcome.

Mouthfeel: Chewey and medium-bodied with alcohol warmth throughout. As you'd from a Winter Warmer (especially with the somewhat lackluster head here), carbonation is on the moderate side.

Drinkability: With the 7% ABV, the buzz will catch you well before you get sick of the taste. On a cold Texas night like tonight, Christmas Ale makes a welcome friend throughout the evening.

Verdict: Whenever I check the beer aisle, I always check to see if it's time for the next Saint Arnold seasonal to come out. Christmas Ale is just another great reason to be on the lookout. Nicely balanced malt and spice, with a good splash of booze, it's a proper winter warmer. Well worth picking up, especially at the bargain prices you see here in the Houston area.

Grade: B+

Monday, December 8, 2008

My First Batch of Homebrew: Phase Two (Bottling)

You can read Phase One (Brewing) here

Over a week has passed since my wife and I put our first batch of homebrew, Young At Heart Stout, into the hall closet for its fermentation. Within 24 hours, the airlock was merrily bubbling away every five seconds or so. After six days, the bubbles had slowed to a frequency of around 45 seconds. Now, instead of doing what I was supposed to and taking gravity reading each day to see when fermentation bottoms out, I just waited three more days and prepared for bottling. Mistake.

Homebrew Bottling EquipmentHere's the equipment we used for bottling:

  • Five-gallon glass carboy
  • Large plastic brewer's spoon
  • Bottle washer
  • 640 oz. of bottles
  • Bottle-caps to match
  • Capper
  • Hydrometer
  • Sampler for hydrometer
  • Probe thermometer
  • Bottling wand with tubing
  • Racking cane with tubing
  • Small saucepan
  • Corn sugar (measured amount for 5 gallons of beer)
  • Unscented bleach
  • Whiskey
To get ready to bottle, the first step was the same as phase one: sanitation. Using our handy bottle washer, we rinsed out all of our bottles. I didn't end up drinking as much New Belgium beer as I had planned to, so we supplemented the 48 NB bottles we had with eight big 16 oz. Grolsch pop-top bottles my dad gave me for homebrewing a while back. After rinsing out all of the bottles, we submerged them in the sink (12 or so at a time) with hot water and a splash of bleach. Once the bottles had soaked for around five minutes, we thoroughly rinsed them with the bottle washer again. With all that rinsing, our showers that night, regrettably, were somewhat cold.

Our next step was to sanitize (once again, with a bleach and water mix) everything else that was going to touch the beer: the carboy, the spoon, the tubing, the wand, the racking cane, the sampler, the hydrometer and the thermometer probe. To sanitize the bottle caps, we simply boiled them for around five minutes.

Looking back, we shouldn't have used bleach to sanitize at all, and if we were going to use bleach we should have precisely measured it. Unbeknownst to us, the chlorine in bleach, if not rinsed completely off of equipment, can make the beer taste like band-aids. When siphoning later, I could taste that the beer coming from the tubing was substantially off. I could taste a solid malt background behind the off taste, but it certainly didn't taste like beer.

Homebrew Beer In FermenterOnce everything had been sanitized and rinsed off thoroughly (or so we thought at least), we boiled the corn sugar in one pint of water for five minutes. After the five minutes was up, we opened the fermentation bucket, took quick hydrometer and temperature readings (1.021 at 61°F) and, without thinking, dumped the corn sugar in. After a minute or so, it dawned on us that we had been expecting the final gravity to drop much more. The starting gravity was 1.043 and, based on what we had read, we were hoping for it to drop about 30 points to around 1.013 or so.

At this point, we started to worry that the fermentation was incomplete or that something else was very wrong. We don't know what happened. Maybe it wasn't done fermenting. As we didn't take consecutive gravity readings, we'll never know now. Maybe the temperature was too cold for the yeast. The packet said 59°F to 75°F and we were probably in that zone, but definitely on the low side. Maybe we stirred the yeast too vigorously. Maybe we didn't add enough malt or sugar. Maybe we added too much water. Maybe the wort got infected somehow. Maybe we didn't boil the mash long enough. Or maybe our hydrometer readings were inaccurate. It is a mystery.

Homebrew Filling CarboyAnyway, the priming sugar was already in the wort, so we decided it was do-or-die. We put the fermenter on the kitchen counter, put the clean carboy on the floor beneath the fermenter, and inserted the racking cane with tubing attached. After washing my mouth with some fine whiskey (my local homebrew shop recommended this step), I started the siphon and let the beer flow into the carboy. We left the last inch or so in the bucket, to keep as much of the sludge out of the carboy as possible. Once the siphoning was complete, we stirred the mix gently to distribute all of the priming sugar evenly and moved the carboy to the counter for bottling.

After getting all of our bottles in position we inserted the tubing attached to the bottling wand and started another siphon, noticing that (unexpectedly) there seemed to be some level of carbonation already in the beer. Using the wand, we filled twelve bottles at a time to about one inch from the top giving plenty of room, fearing to much pressure due to the weird gravity reading. Once filled, we capped and boxed the bottles. We're not really all that happy with our capper, as I managed to break the top off of two bottles. While that's not a big percentage, it still seems like enough of a waste to invest in a better capper.

Homebrew BottlingWith many hours of work behind us, we put the now boxed bottles back in the closet and crossed our fingers. We still have (at least some) hope, so we're going to just walk away for the next two or three weeks and let the bottles condition. Maybe we'll experience a Christmas miracle and Young At Heart will be brilliant. The operating rule in the world of homebrewing is that you always see the process through and only ever throw a batch away if you're sure it's infected. While it's quite possible that it's infected, we have no reason to believe so, so we're seeing this thing all the way through. After all, we certainly didn't expect great beer our first time. This was supposed to be a learning experience, and it certainly turned out to be one (although a somewhat expensive one).

Here's everything I can think of that we did wrong this time:
  • Not checking gravity before bottling
  • Using bleach for sanitation
  • The bottling wand we used was old and somewhat discolored
  • Not cleaning, sanitizing, and rinsing lines correctly
  • Siphoning by mouth
  • Breaking two bottles with the capper
  • Too much time cleaning bottles
  • Not measuring ingredients as precisely as we should have
  • Not as careful with sanitation as we could have been
And here's what we plan to do differently next time:
  • Make sure to take gravity readings until they stabilize
  • Use Idophor to sanitize everything
  • Buy a new bottling wand with tubing
  • Rinse the lines thoroughly (maybe buy a new bottle washer with tube attachment)
  • Buy spouted buckets to use gravity for siphoning
  • Find a better capper
  • Buy a tub for bottle sanitation and clean bottles in the dishwasher afterwards
  • Finding a recipe and following it to the letter
  • Make more of an effort to make sure everything that comes in contact with the beer is sanitized
And now, once again, we wait... but this time also hope not to be awoken to shattering bottles, Homer "Beer-Baron" Simpson style.

You can read the review of the finished product here

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Oskar Blues Old Chub Review

Brewery: Oskar Blues Brewery | Beer: Old Chub
Strong Scotch Ale/Wee Heavy | ABV: 8.0%
Serving Method: 12 oz. can poured into pint glass

Oskar Blues Old ChubAfter reviewing Doggie Style a couple of posts ago, I figured it would be appropriate to review another beer with a sexually suggestive name. After searching my fridge, I decided that Oskar Blues' Old Chub certainly fit the bill. Like all Oskar Blues brews, Old Chub is sold in a traditional twelve-ounce aluminum can. I don't see why more craft-brewers don't utilize the humble can. With today's cans, there are no undesired effects on the beer itself and they offer the advantage of blocking all light (light is what skunks beer). On a couple of practical notes, cans can be brought into public areas where bottles are outlawed and fit much better in your fridge. Thus allowing you to keep more beer chilled without pissing off your wife (any further, at least).

Old Chub is a Scottish Ale, a style characterized by long boil times (leading to caramelization), a sparing use hops (they don't grow well in Scotland), and generous amounts of malt. There are four different grades of Scottish Ale, based on alcohol content: Light (under 3.5% ABV), Heavy (3.5 to 4% ABV), Export (4.0 to 5.5% ABV) & Wee Heavy (anything above Export). At a stout eight percent alcohol by volume, this beer safely clocks in as a Wee Heavy. It sounds just like something from a Mike Meyers movie. Appropriate considering that underneath the canned on date on the bottom of the can, the phrase "Head! Pants! Now!" appears. Major bonus points.

Oskar Blues describes this beer as being "brewed with hearty amounts of seven different malts, including crystal and chocolate malts, and a smidge of US and UK hops. Old Chub also gets a dash of beechwood-smoked grains imported from Bamburg, Germany, home of the world's greatest smoked beers." I have to say, I'm quite intrigued.

Appearance: Dark mahogany-brown with brilliant ruby highlights. On top, a finger-high, toffee-colored head that disappears quickly that leaves moderate lacing that looks great while it lasts.

Aroma: Right off the bat, Old Chub is all about malt. Complex, sweet, and smokey with rich booze on the edges. Appetizing, to say the least.

Taste: Peaty, smokey, and nutty malt with lots of alcohol is what this beer is all about. There are also juicy and sweet fruit notes that poke through every so often. Hops are all but silent, while the aftertaste is of dry and boozy caramelized sugar. I have to say, Old Chub reminds me more of a good Single Malt Scotch than anything I've come across in the beer world yet.

Mouthfeel: Thick and chewy, yet slick with a very dry aftertaste. Alcohol makes its presence known in the mouth with a pleasant warmth. Carbonation is moderate, as it should be.

Drinkability: Like Scotch, this definitely something worth savoring. If you're putting down a six-pack of this in an evening, you're a better man than I.

Verdict: Old Chub is a complex beer that really showcases the Scottish style of brewing while demanding your full attention. If you've never tried a Scottish Ale and are looking for somewhere to start, you could do a lot worse than choosing this. Please don't be thrown off by the can, this is world class beer.

Grade: A

New Belgium Fat Tire Review

Brewery: New Belgium Brewing | Beer: Fat Tire
Style: American Amber Ale | ABV: 5.2%
Serving Method: 12 oz. bottle poured into pint glass

New Belgium Fat TireFat Tire, an American Amber Ale, is the flagship brew of Colorado's New Belgium Brewery. New Belgium's founder, Jeff Lebesch, took a bicycle trip through Belgium back in 1989. As he made his way through the villages, he fell in love with the Belgian style of brewing. Upon arriving home to Fort Collins, be took to the basement and came up with two beers: Fat Tire and Abbey Belgian Ale. Fat Tire was named after his steed during the bicycle trip, and became his new brewery's best-known creation.

One of New Belgium's key philosophies is making their beer as sustainable as possible. The company used green design ideas while designing the brewery, treats their own waste-water on-site, is powered exclusively by either methane derived from waste-water treatment or wind power, and donates one percent of its revenues to help fund environmental non-profits. These guys really walk-the-walk when it comes to being green and they should be congratulated for it. If only more breweries and companies were as committed to the future as New Belgium, the world would be a better place.

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel it fair to inform you that Fat Tire was one of the biggest "gateway beers" during my journey into the world of craft-brewing and I have quite a soft spot for it. On a somewhat less relevant note, my absolute favorite neon beer sign of all time is the classic Fat Tire bicycle. I was lucky enough to be able to buy one from a local swap meet when I graduated from college way back in 2007. All of that being said, I'm confident that I can deliver a fair assessment of the beer. I hope.

Appearance: Clear, copper-orange body with a two-finger, off-white head that easily rises above the edge of the glass. Lacing is brilliant and really lasts.

Aroma: Fat Tire has always been a bit thin on the nose. What you can detect is sweet, biscuity malt and a whiff of citrus.

Taste: Lightly-roasted, sweet, biscuity malt is the center-piece of Fat tire. A subdued, earthly hop-bitterness helps to balance the malt. Occasional shades of booze at the finish. The biscuity malt endures in the aftertaste.

Mouthfeel: Smooth, somewhat creamy, and medium-bodied. Carbonation is moderate, in keeping with the style.

Drinkability: I know for a fact that one can drink a twelve pack in the course of an evening. I guess that says it all really.

Verdict: Fat tire is a nicely balanced, biscuity Amber Ale. Securely above average, but certainly not the most exciting beer in the New Belgium stable. A terrific "gateway beer," If there's ever been one. I owe this beer a lot.

Grade: A-