Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane
When I have a beer, I go for quality over quantity. This was not always the case. While presently I’d rather just have a single beer that’s memorable, I used to have enough beers to not remember anything, let alone what I drank.
Now, after one heavy and strong beer, I’m ready to call it a night. Sometimes, however, quantity is important. If I find myself at a party or out on the town, chances are I’m going to have more than one beer. This presents unique problems. The beers I usually enjoy are rich and full of character. Sometimes they are incredibly dark, other times incredibly hoppy. While delicious in their own right, they aren’t made for the long haul. The days where I could pound down multiple stouts is long gone. If I’m in it for the duration, I need something drinkable.
Enter the idea of the session beer. While not a distinct style in and of itself, the session beer does have certain characteristics. They generally are not too strong and value drinkability over complexity. While it is possible for a beer to score high in both of those areas, its not necessary for a session beer. Ultimately, you just need to be able to swallow a lot of them and not feel bad about it.
This week, I’m drinking Red Hook’s Audible Ale, produced in collaboration with sportscaster Dan Patrick.. I’ve had a few other Red Hook brews, all of which I would consider session worthy. I’m especially fond of their ESB. This one in particular claims to be crushable and easy to drink. I was willing to put that to the test.
The beer poured a hazy copper color. There was minimal head that dissipated with little proof that it was there. A big thick robust beer isn’t something I look for in a session brew so this was okay with me. A thick head generally points toward a great mouth feel but is also generally accompanied by a lot more heavy. With its slow rising bubbles, this one looked easy enough to put down.
The scent was predominately sweet malt with some citrus hints. There was some toastiness there that boded well. Some mild hop presence appears in the nose too, but it was the malts I noticed most of all.
There isn’t much taste at all when it first hits the tongue. There is a slight metallic flavor, but that’s it. As it swallows, it releases a little lemon sensation followed by light bittering hops. All of this was rather unimpressive. In its wake, however, there is some magic. Seconds after you’ve finished swallowing and are ready to write this brew off, the sweet biscuit cookie malt taste sets in. Its grainy and savory and sweet. The brew leaves a pleasant sensation in the mouth.
If a session beer can be qualified by its lack of offensiveness, this one certainly makes the cut. At 4.7% ABV, its not overly strong and goes down rather easy. The carbonation feels good in the stomach while the brew itself is pleasant and incredibly easy going. Audible Ale won’t blow your mind and nor was it meant to. Its a good beer to drink and share, however, beer is always better with friends anyway.
Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane
The Big, Bad DirtWolf
Somewhere along the way, IPA’s became kind of a big deal. First brewed in England, these beers were generally well hopped. They were also meant to age for a while. Even before they were drank domestically, they were meant to be cellared for a year or more for the flavor to mature. This made them perfect to ship from England to India, the sea voyage taking around six months. Brewed with pale malt and popular on the Indian continent, they were termed IPAs, also known as Indian Pale Ales. From these humble beginnings, a monster was born.
No longer content to be just another type of Pale Ale, IPA’s have become ever stronger, the concentration of alcohol always rising. At some point, it became necessary to coin the term Double IPA or Imperial IPA to refer to beers that boasted an ABV of 7.5% or larger. This was paired with an ever increasing amount of bittering hops. It suddenly seemed that the stronger and more bitter a beer was, the higher regard in which it was held.
Don’t get me wrong. I love me some big bold bitter brews. I enjoy a beer that kicks ass and takes names. On the down side, the trend has managed to remove some of the variety of the style. Hops come in many kinds, each contributing different flavors. Where bittering hops are certainly important, there are hops with much more floral and fruity characters. There can be more to IPA’s than just bitter, right?
On occasion, I have managed to come across an IPA that celebrates the other side of the hop. The pale malt flavors are chased with citrus and varying other tastes, including the bitterness most associate with the style. These beers generally rely on combinations of different strains of hops to provide their flavor profile as well as assertive yeasts. This is just what I’ve run into today.
Enter Victory Brewing’s DirtWolf double IPA. From the moment it poured, it seemed I was holding onto something special. It was a beautiful shade of translucent amber with only a little bit of head. The scent was completely unexpected. It smelled grassy and spicy with plenty of citrus floating throughout. There was something reminiscent of a pine tree as well and perhaps clove, though I imagine it was the yeast coming through.
The taste was amazing. In opposition to most IPAs, this one wasn’t heavy in the least. It was a bit like drinking a cup full of flowers mixed with grapefruit. There was a large grassy presence that rose above the malt. This was followed by a slight bitterness that accentuated its nice crisp end. It’s a taste that manages to be big and complex without being overwhelming.
This was not your standard IPA. It has a great depth of flavor. It’s spice and very present yeast flavors are reminiscent of an Belgian style brew, yet it is certainly an IPA at heart. This is one I’d suggest to people who aren’t fans of the style as it really shows a different side of it. Its got a great hop presence, full of more character than bitterness. I don’t know if Victory is shipping any of these from their Downingtown, Pa. brewery to India, but this one would make the trip.
Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane
For me, there is something special about barrel-aged beers. The wood imparts certain qualities on the brew that are incredibly distinctive and generally pleasing. They’re almost like a whole other monster, the end result sharing the qualities of the original beer and that of whatever was in the barrel before it.
Various types of barrels have been used in this process. There have been beers aged in wine, gin, and even used tabasco barrels. The type of wood in the barrel also plays greatly into the flavors it imparts. A brew that sits around in an oak barrel for a few months will certainly pick up different characteristics than one that sits in birch. The options barrel aging provides are staggering.
This being said, there is one barrel I prefer. When it comes to spirits, whiskey is my king. This is why I was excited to pick up Boulevard Brewing’s Smokestack Series Imperial Stout 2013. This is one of my favorite beer styles essentially being paired with one of my favorite spirits. If Boulevard’s past offerings were any indication, I was in for a robust beer that would hit the mark perfectly.
The pour was dark. So dark, the word dark doesn’t do it justice. It was dark like midnight on a moonless eve. It was dark like thick old coffee with the lights off. It was dark like Requiem for a Dream. It was down right pitch black.
Its head was slight but nice. The liquid itself was thick coming out of the bottle, so much so that I almost expected it to start bubbling like a pot of cooked-down tomato sauce. The beer looked gorgeous.
The scent was mostly that of sweet and roasty malt. There was some smoke and alcohol in the nose as well, but the predominant feel of it was that of a sweet and savory cup of coffee. The smell wasn’t anything overly complex, but it was rather gratifying.
The taste was incredibly full and robust. It came across like a stout on steroids. It was more “stout” than most any stout I’ve had. That is not to say it was more creamy or bitter. I don’t know that I can describe that concept any more than to say it was more “stout.”
There is a lot of grain in this one, the oats and rye adding incredible depth of flavor to the numerous malts inside. There is a beautiful sweetness thats cut by the smoky wood. This leads to a slight alcoholic burn that is exquisitely accentuated by the whiskey flavors. There is a lot happening in each sip, but it’s not abundantly clear at first as its blended so well. This is not a beer that makes you pause to think. It’s incredibly complex and full of big flavors, but it’s been put together so skillfully that you don’t even notice.
Whiskey, cigars, coffee, chocolate and rye … these are all things I associate with this brew. I broke out my bottle when I had some friends over and poured us each a small glass. Throughout the time that followed, we would all pause occasionally in our conversation to remark on what a good drink it was. If you grab one for yourself, I’m pretty sure you’ll be doing the same.
soaking up the suds with james crane
The holidays are most certainly over. It seems a little unfair that all the celebration ends when we still have so much winter left. There are plenty of cold dark nights ahead with plenty of snow to curse. All the lights are put away and the trees have been carted off. All that’s left are dreams of spring and the waiting game.
Thankfully, winter still has plenty of awesome beer to drink. When January rolls around, my thoughts turn to the mythic Barleywine. These beers are as big as they get — packing obscene amounts of alcohol into their thick wondrous liquid. True to their name, they ABV generally is comparable to that of grape wines. Often times, wine yeasts are use in lieu of ale yeasts, as many ale yeasts just won’t survive when the alcohol content gets that high. When it comes to strong beer, Barley Wines certainly lead the pack.
This week, I am drinking Dogfish Head’s Olde School Barleywine, which I believe to be the strongest American Barleywine out there. How strong? It packs a whopping 15 percent ABV into every bottle. That means it’s more than three times the strength of your standard American lager, or 1/3 the strength of your standard run of the mill whiskey. This isn’t one you’re going to drink a lot of. As a matter of fact — you may want to share.
I set out to drink a twelve ounce bottle. This one poured out thick and syrupy, being a translucent amber color. A thin head formed and quickly dissipated. Barleywines are generally pretty hearty — they’re more likely to quench a hunger than a thirst. Carbonation isn’t really what they go for.
It smelled dark and alcoholic. If someone made a fig sandwich on rye bread and dipped it in beer, this is what it would smell like. There is certainly some sweetness with a toffee-like vanilla character to it as well. The complexity of the brews certainly came across nicely, the scent being quite pleasing to the nose.
The flavor itself was huge. This beer was every bit as big and hearty as it looked and smelled like. It wasn’t long before I was feeling warm and relaxed, the contentment of a good beer being heightened by the extra alcoholic punch it carried. It was thick and a little syrupy, but it still went down nice and smooth, each swallow being quite satisfying. It was just a bit like drinking bread, which I certainly don’t count as a bad thing.
The dark fruits and alcohol held center stage. The flavor of the dates and figs were greatly enhanced by the brewing, imparting a deep savoriness that their sweetness usually covers up when they’re eaten. There is plenty of bread and barely tastes as well as a nice vanilla accent. There is a great depth to this one that ends in a peppery and spicy little hop kick which is also greatly accentuated by the alcohol. This kept it from getting too sweet, adding a great balance to the brew.
This is a great tasting beer for those that are a fan of big heavy brews. Its also a great way to warm up those cold January nights. If you like them strong, find yourself a bottle — one will be all you need.
Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane
The beer I’m drinking this week is a collaboration ale from 10 Barrel, Blue Jacket and Stone breweries. Its name is simple, yet somehow sexy. Suede Imperial Porter promised an ale brewed with avocado honey, jasmine and calendula flowers. Normally, I’d be a bit dubious that such subtle flavors could blend together properly in a beer as robust as an Imperial porter. Honey and flowers seemed as though they would be over powered by alcohol and intense roasted malt flavor. These are breweries that excel in creating subtleties and complexities in bold, strong beers, however. I had a bit of faith they could do it.
The pour was typical of an imperial porter. The liquid was dark brown to black with a beautiful, albeit slight, head to it. It quickly dissipated, but left lacing down the side of the glass. It looked syrupy and thick, a hearty beer appropriate for a winter’s eve. Upon closer inspection, tiny bubbles continued to rise through the brew, hinting at more carbonation than I would have expected in a porter.
I thought I’d be overwhelmed by roasted malts and alcohol when I sniffed the brew. While absolutely present, it was not the first thing that hit my nose. The beer was certainly floral, the scent of the jasmine and calendula racing to the forefront. This gave it a sort of exotic quality that was exciting and intriguing. Backing this up was the nutty roasted malts and sweetness I expected. The alcoholic burn of this 9.6% ABV beer lingered in the back ground. It added a certain spiciness to it as well as another layer of depth.
Oddly, the first thing I noticed when it hit my tongue was not the taste — it was how incredibly smooth it was. Swallowing this beer was like drinking liquid velvet. Despite the higher alcohol content, it went down incredibly easy. I would not have wanted to drink it in any great quantity, as thick as it was, but the amount I had after sharing the bottle went down really well.
I had to take a few more swallows before I could really get a bead on the taste. There were a lot of flavors here vying for supremacy. On top of that, it was a big and bold beer. The tongue had to acclimate to some of the stronger flavors before it could really shine. There was certainly no shortage of chocolate and roasted notes, which both paired exceedingly well with its full body. The floral qualities of it were ever present, however. The honey also added a delicate flavor that paired so well with the sweetness that was present in the brew. It was a little bit like a chocolate stout and a nicely floral-hopped IPA had a baby that was more attractive than either of the parents. The alcohol lingered in the back ground, letting you know it was doing its job but wasn’t about to get in the way of some serious complexities of taste.
I was glad I shared this one. It became quite a conversation piece as we sipped our glasses, each swallow bringing about more nuances. We paired it with a delightful assortment of Christmas cookies. Good company, good booze and good food; if I need more in life than that, I’m not sure what it is.
Soaking Up the Suds with James Crane
Each December, a few things usually happen. First, the holiday season kicks into full swing. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but things tend to start getting down right jolly. There is a lot of merry making. Lights hang from most anything within reach of an extension cord and people start looking for any excuse to party. The other two, being long nights and a lot of cold, tend to make the previous activities necessary.
There are all kinds of seasonal treats that happen now that you don’t generally see any other time of the year. While the abundance of cookies is cool and all, we can’t forget about liquid refreshment. The dark and heavy beers really shine this time of year. Stouts and porters or anything with the word “imperial” in its name gets its fair due. There is another option for beer drinkers, however. Usually lighter in color and spiced, the winter warmer offers a unique taste for the season.
What is a winter warmer? Well, that is hard to say. Its not exactly one of those styles that is well defined. Any definition of a winter warmer, other than that its meant to drink in winter, will be quickly disproved by one example or another. To me, it generally means a spiced ale that is, at times, accompanied by a decent ABV and a bit of an alcoholic burn. They are tasty and festive. Its like a Christmas tree sweated booze into your mouth.
Well, minus the gross part.
This week, I picked up Victory Brewing’s Winter Cheers. Billed as a “celebratory wheat ale,” it promised to lift the spirits on the darkest of nights. I’m sure the 6.7% ABV had something to do with the claim. As cold and dark as it’s been getting, a little lifting might just have been in order.
It poured a very pale yellow color. This was an incredibly light looking brew. There was about a finger and a half worth of head with tons of bubbles rising through it. This promised lots of carbonation and a thin body. These aren’t generally characteristics I look for in a beer in the cold months, but Victory had never steered me wrong before.
The scent was largely that of spice. It was alcohol mixed in with cloves and coriander. It certainly gave it the sensation of being warm. Underneath that was sweet fruit, like bananas and yeast. There was also notes of citrus and, if you looked for it amongst all the heavier scents, wheat. There was certainly a lot going on here.
It tasted a lot like a common witbier, though perhaps more spiced. The first thing to hit the tongue were the malts, but only for a moment. After that, its all sweetness, spice and citrus. It certainly carries with it a good amount of warmth. The tastes do not linger long, however. It has a very dry and crisp finish that leaves the palette refreshed. Only the savory pretzel like wheat remains to remind you of each swallow.
Winter Cheers is a good beer, though I wouldn’t say its overly distinct. It would make a good session beer, especially for those who gravitate toward Belgium brews. It certainly has warmed me up and lifted my spirits. As far as seasonal treats go, I’d say this one certainly passes the test.