Thursday, March 28, 2013

New Belgium Brewing - Lips of Faith-Cascara Quad

Remember the infamous San Diego 4th of July firework show last year? In case you somehow didn't hear about San Diego's "Big Bay Boom," here's the video. Basically, instead of a 20 minute firework spectacle, San Diegans got an ear-shattering 15 seconds of thousands of fireworks exploding at the same time. When it was over, everyone looked around dumbfounded and asked: "Is that it?" Yesterday, the exact same thing happened...but in my mouth.

Within the last few weeks, New Belgium has released four Lips of Faith beers. In general, I'm a big fan of this series, so I usually try to give them all a shot. But four? Not to mention that one of those was the annual release of their awesome sour, La Folie. Heaven help me (and my wallet). I decided to kick things off with a new one that sounded interesting: Cascara Quad.

Cascara Quad is a new take on the Belgian Quadrupel style. It uses something I had never heard of before- coffee cherries. In South America (Bolivia in particular), there's a tea made from the dried berries (or cherries) of coffee plants. This tea is called cascara and was New Belgium's inspiration for this beer. In addition to the cascara, dates are added to a Belgian Quad base beer. Sounds pretty good, no? That's what I thought too.

Cascara pours a murky, almost dulled-looking brownish color. A huge and foamy tan-colored head forms immediately and left a ton of lace down the glass. Not only did the head look great, it released some really unique aromas. I got a pretty nice blend of sweet dark cherries and Belgian yeast. Some mild tobacco, clove and dark fruit aromas were present as well.

I really enjoyed the look and smell of this beer, so the taste really caught me off guard. As soon as it passes your lips, there's absolute chaos in your mouth. It's like none of the flavors in this beer could wait to impress your palate, so they all decided to gang tackle it at once. There's a sticky mass of Belgian yeast, tobacco, brown sugar, molasses, date and fig in here, but they all hit your taste buds at once, and then disappear as fast as they showed up. So what you get is a beer that hits you with all the flavor it has in the beginning, but leaves nothing for the middle or finish. After the initial tongue pummeling, all that was left was an unpleasant sourness that reminded me of grain husk and faded earthy hops. What a bummer.

For me, this beer was a miss. It showed a lot of promise, but sometimes crazy ingredients just don't work out. That said, I give major props to New Belgium for finding out about cascara and wanting to give this beer a shot. I may not buy this beer again, but I'm far from being turned off from the Lips of Faith series. Keep it up, New Belgium. But no more "Big Bay Booms" in my mouth, please.

Final Grade: C

Top 250 Beers Tasted: 116

Friday, March 22, 2013

Green FLash Brewing Company - Sleepin' With Shaggy

 I don't know how your bracket is looking, but (as I write this) we're barely halfway through the second day of the NCAA tournament and my bracket has already taken a hit of young Mike Tyson-like proportions. Harvard beating New Mexico? Ole Miss taking out Wisconsin? Marquette, Gonzaga AND Duke getting stiff first round tests? Did NOT see any of those coming. I guess that's why they call it "madness." You know what else is madness? Sticking a barleywine in a brandy barrel for 4 years like Green Flash did with their beer "Sleepin' With Shaggy."

Sleepin' With Shaggy (named so because Green Flash's CEO apparently enjoys "pairing" this beer with a shaggy stuffed dog he got from a fair. How you go about pairing a beer with a stuffed animal is unknown to me.) pours a deep cola color with a nice two-finger tan head. The smell is redolent of brandy soaked dark fruits. I picked up plum skins, prunes, dates and a really nice aroma of powdery brown sugar. There's just a hint of oak lurking in there are well.

The taste opens on a big, boozy brandy note. The brandy is a little harsh, and would probably settle nicely with a bit of age. Luckily, the flavor doesn't linger on the brandy too long and moved on to notes of plum, raisin and just a hint of tobacco. There's a sweet buttery toffee note before a drying, almost tannic-like finish. Enjoy this now or let it sit for a while. I can definitely seeing this beer getting a lot better with a little time under it. So cheers, my friends. And enjoy the madness.

Final Grade: A-

Top 250 Beers Tasted: 116

Monday, March 18, 2013

J.W. Lees & Co. (Brewers) Ltd. - J.W. Lees Vintage Harvest Ale (2001)

A few months back, a blogger I follow did a write up of a 2002 J.W. Lees Harvest Ale that he found in a bar in Kentucky. I'd heard of the beer, but had never seen one up to that point. Lucky bastard, I thought, How the hell did he find a 2002 bottle? From that moment on, I started looking a little harder for the beer. Finally, Bottlecraft got a few different vintages in and I snatched up the oldest one they had- 2009. It was no 2002, but what were the odds of me ever finding a beer that old?

Today I went down to Toronados with my friend, Kevin. While we were there, I took a look at the bottle list and noticed that they had J.W. Lees Harvest bottles available for sale. And one of them was from 2001. You know what's better than a 2009 J.W. Lees Harvest Ale bottle? A 2001 J.W. Lees Harvest Ale bottle! Sold! At #169, J.W. Lees Vintage Harvest Ale.

J.W. Lees Vintage Harvest Ale pours a murky dark brown color with no real head whatsoever. When swirled, the beer left some modest tracks of lace, but for the most part, there wasn't much of a hint of carbonation. While the beer may not have been much of a looker (though I don't know that much beers are after 11 years in a bottle), the smell blew me away. I caught huge, rich notes of dark fruit right away. A rich raisin aroma was immediately present, along with some concord grape, fig, fruitcake and some fermented barley notes. The intensity of the dark fruit smell was right on par with the best smelling Belgian quads I've come across, if not better. I really can't do the smell of this beer justice with words. Let's just say I spent a really long time smelling this one and move on.

The taste opens with a dense, rich note of raw honey. The honey note continues through the entire taste, but woven into it throughout are notes of fig jam and grape jelly. Caramel and plum make an appearance as well. The mouthfeel is full and honey-like, almost to the point of feeling like a port, without ever endangering all of the nuances in the flavor.

The more sips I took, the more I realized that this beer really is meant to be enjoyed more like a liquor than a normal beer. It's so full bodied and so complex, that it really makes you want to sit down with it for an hour or so and get to know it better. And the closer to room temperature this beer gets, the better. This really was one of the best beers I've ever had. So if you find a bottle of this, don't be afraid to cellar it for a while. It is definitely worth the wait.

Final Grade: A+

Top 250 Beers Tasted: 116

Sunday, March 17, 2013

AleSmith Brewing Company - Speedway Stout

What, you really thought I wasn't going to do a stout for St. Patrick's Day? Come on now.. But we're not just tackling any stout today. We're going for perhaps the mother of all stouts in San Diego- AleSmith's Speedway Stout. Speedway has been around for quite a while now, but (in my opinion at least) it's yet to be surpassed by any stout I've had from San Diego. Somehow, in my infinite wisdom, I've been forgetting to review this beer for far too long. It's been a staple on the Top 100 (and now on the Top 250) List for a long, long time and it's time to give this beer it's well deserved time to shine. At #45- Speedway Stout.

Speedway Stout pours a jet black color with a monster, three-finger mocha colored head. It's not the thickest beer I've come across, but it still manages to leave some tracks of lace soaring high up the glass. When I first poured the beer, it had just come from the fridge and the smell seemed to be lacking a bit. But as it warmed up, it began to really intensify, bringing rich notes of dark roasted coffee mixed with the slightest trace of booze. When the beer warmed even more, I got a sweeter aroma that reminded me of milk chocolate, Whoppers, caramel, wet earth and toffee. This beer smells incredible.

The taste is a luscious blend of dark roasted coffee and rich dark chocolate. The middle shows just a hint of brownie/fudge and toffee sweetness before a big hit of espresso. The finish is pure dark roasted coffee bean deliciousness. At 12%, you would think this would be a challenge to drink, but it shows little trace of it's weight. The only hint is a slight warmness and dryness on the finish, but the beer is far from tasting harsh.

As far as coffee beers go, this is up there with the best of them. The coffee (brewed in San Diego by Ryan Brothers Coffee) isn't as intense in the smell or the taste as a beer like KBS, but it's so well melded into the other flavors here that it just might give KBS a run for its money. And while warming some stouts might bring out some off flavors you don't really want, warming this beer up only enhances the experience. If you haven't tried this beer, get on it. It's fairly easy to find and well worth the price. Happy St. Patrick's Day to all (or what's left of it).

Final Grade: A

Top 250 Beers Tasted: 115

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Epic Brewing Company - Sour Apple Saison

When breweries try new ingredients, the results can be mixed. Some breweries try new ideas that some like they should work but don't (see: Voodoo Donut Maple Bacon Ale). And some breweries try new ideas that sound like they shouldn't work, but do (see: Campfire Stout). So when you spot a beer with a new ingredient, you can never really be sure of what you're getting.

A few weeks ago, a wave of Epic Brewing Company's beers hit the shelves at a local store, Texas Wine and Spirits. I've had some good experiences with Epic beers in the past, so I decided I'd give one of them a try. The one that caught my eye right away was their Sour Apple Saison. Sour apples are a new ingredient for me, and the combination of the apples and the light body and spice of a saison seemed like a match made in heaven. It was a no brainer for me. Or so I thought.

Sour Apple Saison pours an intensely hazy golden color with a thin white head. The head may have been small (easy, dirty thinkers...) but it coated the glass with thick tracks of lace after every sip. Swirling the beer a bit brought dense aromas of Belgian yeast, a TON of coriander, sage, and a big, tart wheat aroma. The apple aroma was there, but it had almost a candied, Laffy-Taffy like scent, rather than the natural sour apple smell I was hoping for.

The Belgian yeast is the first taste to hit as well, and it really takes this beer over in a hurry. The sweetness is a bit overwhelming and there's really nothing else in the flavor to stand up to it. Some faint green apple skin, chardonnay, white grape juice, lemon hard candy and ginger notes do creep through the yeast a bit, but they don't have nearly enough muscle to stand up to the sweetness of the Belgian yeast. I think the bigger problem in this beer is that it's too big. It checks in at 8%, which isn't outrageous, but is pretty high for a beer with flavors that should be delicate. This isn't a bad beer by any means, but, for me at least, it didn't live up to the promise or potential of the name. I'll file this away in the "Great idea. Poor execution." folder.

Final Grade: C

Top 250 Beers Tasted: 114

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Clown Shoes - Chocolate Sombrero

If there are two words that beer geeks love more than the words "new brewery," it has to be the words "new distributor." A new brewery is awesome, but a new distributor means the potential for a LOT of breweries. Recently, a new distributor hit San Diego and brought with it some tasty east coast beer. So far, I've noticed a wave of Brash and Clown Shoes hitting the shelves, and I can only hope that there will be more east coast breweries hitting the shelves in the near future. Clown Shoes has some of the most entertaining names (Tramp Stamp, Muffin Top and Flight of the Pimp, anyone?) out there, so I decided to grab a bottle of their Mexican Chocolate Stout, Chocolate Sombrero.

Chocolate Sombrero pours a slightly thin looking black color with a really nice one finger khaki-colored head. The beer may not have looked thick coming out of the bottle, but the head left some intense sticky lace around the glass. Mexican chocolate was evident in the smell as soon as I began to pour this beer. As I got closer, I began to pick up layers of dried ancho chiles, cinnamon, roasted malt, vanilla, a bit of chocolate covered banana, some marshmallow and a fantastic powdery cocoa note. The smell wasn't as strong as I was hoping for, but it had a ton going on.

The taste opens with a light roasted malt note. Slowly, this progresses to a drying note of ancho chile and bittersweet chocolate. The finish brings a touch of milk chocolate, cinnamon and some more of the dried chile flavor. This beer was a little thinner than I probably would have liked, but it's a really well put together stout. I'm really glad Clown Shoes could join San Diego beer party.

Final Grade: B+

Top 250 Beers Tasted: 114

Monday, March 11, 2013

Samuel Smith Old Brewery (Tadcaster) - Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout

Craft beer is awesome and you will never hear me say otherwise. But if there is a downside to all of the new breweries that are jumping into the market on a weekly basis, it's that some of the breweries that have been making great beer for a long time get lost in the hubbub. One of these breweries that gets overlooked a lot is Samuel Smith.

Samuel Smith is a brewery that was opened in Tadcaster, England (about 200 miles north of London) in 1758. They are as old school as breweries get and still use the traditional brewing methods that have been used for centuries at the brewery, including the use of "stone Yorkshire squares," giant stone fermentation vessels that look more than a little crazy. You can check out pictures on the website here. Samuel Smith has been making good beer for a long, long time. One of their flagship beers is their Oatmeal Stout, which is currently sitting at #172 on the Top 250 list.

Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout pours a deep brown color with a fluffy light brown head that recedes down to a light film over the beer. The smell was pretty impressive, with big notes of molasses and dark chocolate pouring out of the glass. I also picked up a strong dark fruit aroma, with notes of fig and raisin. Still deeper were notes of cola, wet earth, chocolate covered banana and rich, dark bread. What a smell!

The taste brings a rich, roasted bread and grain flavor throughout. There's also some faint roasted malt, along with notes of cola, chocolate malt, some molasses and just a hint of dark fruit. For 5%, this beer feels beefy as hell. The oats really bring the mouthfeel up and give the beer a velvety texture. I've never had a beer this low in alcohol that tasted this rich. It's a fantastic oatmeal stout and a real lesson in old school brewing. This stuff is pretty much everywhere, so there's no excuse not to try it. If you're a fan of stouts, this is a must have.

Final Grade: A

Top 250 Beers Tasted: 114

Monday, March 4, 2013

Hillcrest Brewing Company - Perle Necklace Pale Ale

You're not going to believe this, but there's another new brewery in San Diego! Hillcrest Brewing Company is the first "Out and Proud LGBT Brewery" in the world, and is located in the heart of one of the most colorful, crazy, and downright fun parts of San Diego- Hillcrest. And with beer names like "Banana Hammock," "Crotch Rocket," and "Long and Stout," it's pretty obvious that the people over at HBC aren't taking things too seriously. Hillcrest Brewing Company opened last year, but bottles just started hitting shelves recently. A few days ago, I tried their Perle Necklace Pale Ale.

Perle Necklace Pale Ale is an American Style Pale Ale brewed with Perle and Hallertau hops. I'm familiar with Hallertau, but Perle is a new one for me. The beer pours a light copper color with a thin white head that disappears maybe a little too quickly. I really wanted to like this beer going in, but the smell instantly had me worried. I got a strange wet cloth-like aroma with a load of toasted grain husks, a touch of honey, some burnt rye bread and some bready malt. None of these smells really screamed "This beer is going to be awesome!" to me.

I wish I could say the taste was better, but the fun in this beer really ended with the label. The first thing I tasted was what I can only describe as the corpses of earthy hops. Soggy wheat thins and bran flakes came up next, followed by a finish of toasted grain, lemon rind and regret. I really did want to like this beer, but this was a very, very big miss. That said, I'm not writing this brewery off just yet. I will definitely be going down to Hillcrest Brewing Company and trying more of their beers in the future. One bad beer does not a bad brewery make and I don't know if I can go much longer, knowing there's a beer called "Banana Hammock" that I haven't tried.

Final Grade: C-

Top 250 Beers Tasted: 112